Episode 123 – Learn Why Teaching and Sharing Your Knowledge is a Good Way to Boost Your Tech Career with Brian Okken

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My guest on today’s show is Brian Okken. He is currently the lead software engineer for Rohde & Schwarz. His background is in R&D, testing and measurement.

When it comes to programming languages, he is something of a Python expert. Brian is the author of “Python Testing with pytest” and the host of the very popular “Test & Code” podcast, he also co-hosts “Python Bytes”.

Brian is passionate about sharing his knowledge. So, he teaches and regularly speaks publicly at conferences like PyCon and PNSQC.


(1.00) – So Brian, can you expand on that brief introduction and tell us a little bit more about yourself? Brian explains that he still describes himself as a software engineer. But, in reality, for the past 10 to 15 years, he has been mostly involved with automated testing.

(1.21) – How did you get into automated testing? Brian explains that it was not a planned transition. It was a requirement within the test equipment industry. Those that work in that field spend a lot of time carrying out automated and regression testing on the code and instruments.

(2.10) – Can you please share a unique career tip with the I.T. career audience? Brian’s key piece of advice is to align yourself with the goals of whoever you are working for.

He also advises developers to know their value and understand what it is that they contribute to the companies they work for. Once you know that, you are in a position to make sure that you more than cover the cost of your salary. Periodically asking yourself – If this was my money, would I be happy to continue to pay my salary? is a good habit to get into.

(3.21) – Can you tell us about your worst career moment? And what you learned from that experience. Brian explains that one of the things he enjoys doing is honing processes, so that he can streamline the work, as much as possible.

On one project he realized that if he could automate the byte and the register settings from an FPGA to the software he would save the team a lot of time and hassle. So, he set about working out how to do this.

However, he did not tell anyone, including his manager, that he had taken on this extra task. Unfortunately, he got sucked in and ended up spending too much time on this side project. Naturally, his output fell, which made it look like he was not contributing to the team, as he should.

Naturally, his manager was not happy. He felt that Brian was not doing the work he had been asked to do. On the other hand, Brian was disappointed and frustrated because nobody seemed to appreciate the importance of what he was trying to achieve. All in all it ended up being quite a negative situation.

Brian’s advice is not to forget about process improvement completely, because t is important. But, he said that once it starts to take up more than 10% of your time, you need to let your manager knows what you are trying to achieve and how much time it is taking up.

(5.11) – Phil asks Brian what his best career moment was. The highlight of Brian’s career, so far, has been his involvement in pytest and publishing his book.

It was really cool getting it published. But, Brian also found that writing the book honed and deepened his skills.

(5.24) – So, has that been beneficial for your career? Brian agrees that it has. While writing the book he found himself consulting and working with the core contributors. The writing process made him network more.

(6.58) – Can you tell us what excites you about the future of the IT industry and career? Brian says there are so many things that excite him that it is hard to pick one thing. But, it is probably the way in which the industry is changing how it is teaching the next generation of engineers.

(7.43) – Is there a particular area that interests you, technologies you feel have a real future? Brian thinks the way in which schools are finding ways to teach programming at an earlier age is exciting.

However, Brian would like to see the question – How do you know it will work and continue to work? being asked and answered more in educational settings. Developers need to have a better understanding of how things work to be able to design and build more robust applications and systems.

(8.44) Phil comments that, in the UK, that is certainly still an issue. Many of the degree courses leave the subject of testing right to the end of the course and the subject is rarely covered in much depth.

(9.33) – What first attracted you to a career in IT, Brian? As a child, Brian had a combination games system. It had built-in games but you could also type in some simple programs to create new games like Lunar Lander. Of course, it did not work right away, so you had to figure out where you had gone wrong. When he got it working, he went back and tweaked it, for example by trying to increase acceleration. That is when he got the programming bug.

It was an experience that stayed with him. He entered college as a fine art major, but switched to computer science at university.

(10.50) Phil asks Brian to clarify why he made the decision to switch. Brian explains that there was a financial element to doing so. He realized that he would have less difficulty in paying back his student loan if he were able to find work in the IT field.

(11.10 ) – What is the best career advice you have ever received? Brian uncovered a great piece of career advice while reading a book called Team Geek: A Software Developer’s Guide to Working Well with Others. After reading that book, Brian understood that he needed to be spending at least 80% of his time creating value for the company he was working for.

(12.02) – If you were to begin your IT career again, right now, what would you do? Brian says that he would not dismiss the idea of a career in web design and building, which is what he did when he first started out. He learned HTML and how to work with Perl, but veered away from building sites.

At the time, he just assumed that most websites would end up being auto-built. Today, he understands that he may have missed out a bit as a result of that decision. So, now, he is learning PHP and getting into building the Python version of websites.

(13.14 ) – What are you currently focusing on in your career? Right now, Brian is focusing on broadening his reach. He likes to teach and has got a lot to share with the community.

(13.46) – OK, but do you have any thoughts on writing and conference speaking? Brian, says yes. He loves speaking, despite the fact he still finds doing it at conferences terrifying. But, he is a bit of a homebody and very much a family person, so he is not that keen on travelling. Despite this, he thinks he will end up travelling and speaking more in the near future.

(14.25) – What is the number one non-technical skill that has helped you the most in your IT career? Brian says that is listening to people and being able to empathize with them. Phil agrees with this. He has noticed that many of us are too busy thinking about what we are going to say to be able to really listen to the other person.

Brian says it is all too easy not to listen properly. He knows it is something he still needs to work on, something he discovered while listening to his own podcasts. He picked up on the fact that sometimes he was asking questions that his interviewee had already answered, which was a sure sign that he was not listening properly.

(15.19) – Phil asks Brian to share a final piece of career advice with the audience. Brian says he wants to encourage people to teach. The act of writing things down or trying to explain them to someone else makes everything clearer in your own mind.

Plus, it ensures that you get feedback from others, which enables you to recognize when you are wrong and learn from it. He is particularly keen to see more IT professionals writing personal blogs.


(2.34 ) BRIAN – “Align yourself with the goals of whoever you’re working for.”

(2.46 ) BRIAN – “Always try to be more valuable than the sticker price of your salary. ”

(5.49 ) BRIAN – “The process of writing the book made me an expert. ”

(14.30) BRIAN – “Learn how to listen to people. Really listen to their answers and empathize.”

( 15.51) PHIL – “I think getting your message out there and telling people what you do and what you’ve learned is valuable ”


Twitter: https://twitter.com/brianokken @brianokken

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/okken

Blog: https://pythontesting.net/

Book: https://amzn.to/2QnzvUv

Podcast: https://pythonbytes.fm/

Podcast: https://testandcode.com/

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