Episode 154 – Learn to Explore and Not be Afraid to Ask the Dumb Questions with Ryan Levick
Phil’s guest on today’s show is Ryan Levick. He came late to programming, having worked in marketing, communications, and business.
Despite this, after just a few years of programming, Microsoft asked them to join them as a senior engineer. They did so when they acquired 6Wunderkinder, which included Wunderlist, which Ryan was working as a backend engineer. Today, he is a Principal Cloud Developer Advocate.
(1.11) – So Ryan, can I ask you to expand on that brief intro and tell us a little bit more about yourself? Ryan explains that he studied marketing, so that is the sector he began working in, when he left university. Around that time, he moved to Berlin and joined a start-up called 6Wunderkinder. That was when he first started to learn to programme. In time, he became a full-time programmer for them working on their Wunderlist project.
(1.41) – I don’t know anything about 6Wunderkinder or Wunderlist, can you give us an overview of what they’re about? It is a small company that focuses on building productivity software. In 2015, it was acquired by Microsoft, which is when Ryan secured the first of the 3 jobs he has had with Microsoft.
(2.02) – Can you please share a unique career tip with the I.T. career audience? Learn as much as you can and spread out in weird and strange directions. Even if what you are learning is not immediately useful, it may be one day. This will push you to explore areas of computer science and programming you would not have otherwise looked at.
(2.45) – Is this something you do yourself? Yes, all the time.
(3.04) – Do you focus on the strange and unusual? If yes, how do you do that? Ryan explains that he picks up on new trends all sorts of people are talking about, then explores as many of them as possible. Usually, even if something is not ready for real-time use there are still lessons to be learned from that technology.
The trick is to learn about something, then generalize that knowledge. Doing this enables you to apply it elsewhere. He always stops and asks himself how he can apply what he has learned to real-time applications and his job.
(4.31) – Can you tell us about your worst career moment? And what you learned from that experience. Ryan says he hesitates to say worst because his worst career moment actually turned out to be an amazing experience.
Recently, he became the manager of a small team. A role he really enjoyed, but the problem was that running his team did not leave him enough time to be hands-on and continue to learn. As a result, he feels he can categorize this experience as his worst career moment.
(5.29) – So, stepping away and being more managerial is not necessarily something you want in the future? Ryan explains that he was continuing to learn new skills. About people management, career growth and things like that. But, he found that he was not waking up in the morning wanting to rush to the office like he used to. Ryan thinks it is important to find things that make you feel enthusiastic and stick to doing them.
(6.08) – What was your best career moment? Ryan says he has been lucky enough to have had quite a few career highlights. For example, it felt great when Microsoft took over 6Wunderkinder and offered him a job straight away. He had only been programming for a few years, yet was still asked to become a senior engineer for Microsoft. It proves that, in this industry, if you work hard you do not necessarily need a computer science degree to be able to succeed.
(7.04) – So presumably, you were able to demonstrate your value to Microsoft? Ryan explains that he was able to do exactly that primarily by showing them that he looked for and recognized new angles. He did this primarily by not being afraid to ask the so-called dumb questions, the ones nobody else wanted to ask. It turns out that, most of the time, dumb questions are the right questions,
(7.51) – Can you tell us what excites you about the future of the IT industry and careers? The fact that things can change almost literally overnight is something that Ryan finds exciting about working in the IT industry.
A few months ago he started a new job as a Developer Advocate. Even in that short period of time, the role has already evolved and changed significantly. The pace of change is amazingly fast. So, you never stop learning, which is exciting.
(8.40) – Is there any technology or direction that particularly interests you? At the moment, Ryan is fascinated by a technology called web assembly. It enables you to run programs in a very controlled way.
Web Assembly has the potential to drastically change the world of IT. Including how things are done on servers, in web browsers, and on people’s computers. It is such a young technology that it is hard to tell what direction it will go in.
(9.36) – A lot of companies now have Developer Advocates. How do you see that influencing the way in which people develop their careers? It is very important for companies that offer products and services to developers to build a strong and close relationship with them.
One of Microsoft’s aims is to provide value to developers and other IT professionals. To give them the tools they need to succeed and change things for the better.
In order to do that, Microsoft has developed the Azure platform, Visual Studio and Visual Studio Code. But, it is not enough to simply deliver these tools. You need to be sure that they are what IT professionals actually need.
If you do not have a constant dialogue with these people, there is no way that you can serve them well. So, Ryan feels that one of his key roles is to have an honest dialogue with them. To figure out what is working for them and what is not and take that feedback back to Microsoft.
Phil finds that interesting because, to date, developer advocacy has not been explained to him in that way. Others who fulfill this role have described it more as an evangelical role. To Phil it sounded like it was all about sharing a company’s latest products and ideas with IT professionals, rather than acting as a two-way feedback channel.
Ryan explains that he does both. He showcases their products and helps IT professionals to recognize and unlock their true potential. But, if something is not up to standard, he also wants to hear about it. So, that he can make sure that the product is updated and improved.
(12.05) – What drew you to a career in IT? Ryan says it was curiosity that led him into the IT sector. He remembers looking over his colleague’s shoulder at Wunderlist, realizing he did not understand what they were typing on the screen and started wondering how everything works. So, decided to find out.
When he peeled the first layer back he just ended up with even more questions. His curiosity drew him in deeper and deeper. Now he realizes you can never know everything about computers and technology. It is impossible to hold it all in your head. Something that excites and drives him on.
(12.53) – What is the best career advice you have ever received? Constantly put yourself in a position to learn the right skills. The skills that you think will be applicable to your future career.
Don’t get into the position where you spend all of your time maintaining a legacy system or working on something that will only ever be used inside the company you work for. If you do that, finding and moving on to a new role will become very difficult. Make sure that you are always learning new transferable skills.
(14.06) – If you were to begin your IT career again, right now, what would you do? Ryan says he would definitely get involved in what he is doing now – developer relations. He really enjoys working in this field. In particular, having a legitimate excuse to spend all day speaking to people about things he feels passionate about. Things they are passionate about too.
It is the perfect opportunity to be continually learning. Ryan prefers being out talking to people to just sitting in front of a screen in a dark room. That kind of IT career is not the one he wants.
(15.18) – What are you currently focusing on in your career? Right now, Ryan is focusing on growing his presence in the communities he cares most about. He is trying to become more t-shaped.
That means continuing to maintain a wide breadth of knowledge while diving deep on one, maybe two, particular subjects. Right now, for Ryan, that means learning everything he can about cloud technology. That includes Azure of course. But, also his competitor’s technologies like AWS and Google’s cloud platform. He wants to make sure that when he needs to do so, he will have the right type of knowledge to easily switch to another job.
Ryan is also working to grow his presence in the IT communities he is most interested in. That includes the Rust programming language community. He has been using this new language since late last year.
(16.24) – What is the number one non-technical skill that has helped you the most in your IT career? For Ryan, the ability to listen has been critical to his success. He has noticed that a lot of developers talk too much. They forget to take a step back and just listen.
Even if you are an expert in your choosen field that does not mean that you cannot learn from other people. The technology sector is so big and varied that you will rarely be the smartest person in the room. There are always subjects about which others are more knowledgeable than you. It pays to take a step back and just listen and ask questions and grow your understanding.
(17.48) – Phil asks Ryan to share a final piece of career advice with the audience. Without wishing to sound like a broken record – don’t be afraid to explore. Find something you feel passionate about and dive deep into it. But, be sure to learn other things too.
There is no harm in being a scatterbrain. If you believe you have covered a subject enough, don’t feel you have to stick with it forever. Instead, move on and learn something else. You will find that one set of knowledge feeds into your new subject.
Ryan’s advice is to do as much as you can. Don’t worry about catching it all the first time around. Just explore, have fun and revisit it at a later date.
(2.15) RYAN – “Try to learn as much as you possibly can and expand out into weird and strange directions.”
(5.23) RYAN – “If I’m not having fun at work, then I’m just not going to do as good of a job as I possibly can.”
(7.39) RYAN – “It turns out that most of the time the dumb questions are the right ones.”
(13.06) RYAN – “Constantly put yourself in the position to learn the right skills.”
(17.22) RYAN – “When you do talk, instead of talking at people, try to ask questions.”