Wednesday, November 12, 2014

[-4 to #TCO14] - An evening chat with Gayle Laakmann McDowell

6 Days to Top Coder Open and 6 blog post for each day!

The following is a blog post I wrote for the Top Code Open 2014 blog. Enjoy!

When I first was invited to TCO13 I was both afraid and excited about competing with worldwide champions.
Moreover with such a BIG sponsor like Google it seemed to me incredible to have a chance to be part of it as a main character in this awesome event.

I have to admit I also became shy when I spent 2 words with the Google guys at the event: this is not because I thought of them as the most important developers in the world (and I suppose they actually were not developers at all) but because they had a big "G" on their shirts (but also cool gadgets...I barely managed to travel with my luggage back to Italy).
Thinking back to those 2 shy words I said to them, I smile, but I understand that this was caused by the fact I think of Google (and Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon...) as an unreachable nerd heaven where only the choosen ones can be allowed to enter.
Gayle Laakmann McDowell, speaker at TCO14, embodies what I thought was not really possible in life, that is to say working with the most known and desired tech companies.

And besides this she tries constantly to help people to focus their skills to reach what she has managed to do.

In her book Cracking the Tech Career Gayle presents the good and evil of big (new & old) tech companies, stating which is their recruiting model and how you can thus focus on their model to possibly get a chance to be a choosen one, or how you can understand if you simply could be that chosen one.

The original interview has a slightly different set of questions: I wanted to ask smart questions but I overestimated my English skills; thus Gayle helped me to re-organize them (thank you very much!).

Hi Gayle and thanks for this chance to chat with you.
Do you feel like you chose your career, or that it chose you?

I think luck and choice/skill play together. Luck opens doors a crack. Choice/skill is what enables you to walk through it and actually leverage the luck.

Many of the major turning points in my life were preceded by luck. For example, a friend from college introducing me to someone at Microsoft. However, it's only because I had done a lot of coding projects that I was able to land a job there, despite being only a freshman. We all have a lot of doors opening, but sometimes it's so small that we don't even notice it. We have to be observant, confident, and skilled to walk through it though and actually capture the opportunity.

You've spent a lot of time both writing books and writing software. Do you feel that those are related skills or independent skills?
They overlap. Writing books isn't a skill by itself. It's a thing you do because you possess multiple skills. Same thing with writing software. Some of those sub skills overlap. Writing books and writing software both require focus, logical thinking, hard work, and initiative. And in my case, both require coding skills.

Do you think the perception of programming as a man's field discourages women from pursuing the field?
It's not the only thing, but it's certainly an important factor. Both men and women are influenced by society. Just as people often follow in their parents' footsteps, they often follow in the footsteps of other people around them.

When a man doesn't see many men in nursing, it doesn't really occur to him as a good fit for him. This doesn't mean it's not though. Likewise, when a woman doesn't see many women in engineering, this doesn't really jump out as a great career option. There are so many options and this one doesn't seem especially ideal.

Role models and society influence people.

Unfortunately, the causality also operates in the opposite direction: when few women enter engineering, it continues to be perceived as man's field. This is part of why efforts to encourage more women to enter engineering are important. Society subtly influences women not to. These efforts exist to counteract those.

Is there something in your career that you regret (bad choices, lost opportunities)? On the other side which have been your "luckiest" circumstances?
Regret is difficult for me. I love what I'm doing and where I am in life. What if changing some part of my background would set off a chain reaction and radically change where my life is?
However, if I could give myself career advice, unaware of the future would hold, I'd say this: Go check out a startup while you're in college. You've had several summers at big companies. Go get some diversity in your experience.

For luckiest, I think becoming a teaching assistant (TA) in college. I was asked to be a TA for one of the most challenging computer science classes. My grades were okay in the class, but not great. One of the current TAs recommended me because she observed me teaching some concepts to a friend. She was confident that I could learn the material well enough and would be a great teacher. (I could and I was.)
This gave me a ton of experience with both explaining concepts and with public speaking. Developing those skills have been incredibly valuable for what I'm doing now.

In the hiring process, can love and passion overcome real and quantifiable knowledge?
They won't necessarily overcome large knowledge gaps, but they will eliminate them over time. Developers who are passionate about programmer aggressively learn what they need to know. They take on the challenging projects and, pretty soon, the knowledge gap goes away.

With new technologies coming out all the time, how do you keep up to date on them when at a big company who might not adopt them?
The best thing to do is to make programming your hobby too. You should spend at least a bit of time outside of work coding. Use that to stay up to date with technologies.

You don't need to know all of the latest technologies - that's too much. You should know at least some of the modern tools though.

Do you have some final advice for all TCO14 participants?
Recognize the opportunities in front of you and seize them. Know when that door has opened just a little bit for you. Don't let that little voice that says "I'm not good enough for this" get in the way. Almost everyone has that little voice. If you do too, remember that having that voice doesn't mean the voice is right.

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