Episode 156 – Learn How to Push Through Your Fears to Become a Better IT Professional with Charity Majors
Phil’s guest on today’s show is Charity Majors. Charity started her career working as a systems engineer and manager for Linden Lab then Shopkick and Cloudmark Inc. Charity was the Infrastructure Tech Lead at Parse when they were taken over by Facebook. At that point, she became a Production Engineering Manager at Facebook.
In 2016, she co-founded honeycomb.io. Today, she is CEO of this multi-node debugging tool provider.
Charity is also the co-author of O’Reilly’s Database Reliability Engineering. She is also a prolific and well-known conference speaker.
(1.02) – So Charity, can I ask you to expand on that brief intro and tell us a little bit more about yourself? Charity explains that she is a classical piano performance major dropout. She grew up without a computer. But, she ended up spending a lot of time in the computer lab while at university because she had a crush on a boy. It was then that she realized that an IT career was well paid while most music majors did not make a lot of money.
Charity has worked in Silicon Valley since she was 17. She built her career primarily by building the first incarnation of infrastructure for systems that are just gaining traction. When she gets bored she moves on and finds something else that is fresh and new to get to grips with.
(2.07) – It sounds to me like your passion is to be at the beginning of the start-up. Charity describes herself as the person who comes in and makes everything regular and boring. She enjoys having some chaos to tame, which is why she likes being an early adopter.
(2.36) – Can you please share a unique career tip with the I.T. career audience? Charity’s advice is not to get fixated on following a traditional hierarchical career climbing path. Becoming a manager is not the only way to be successful in the IT field.
If you want to simply carry on building things and progressively working on bigger and more complex projects, do that. Not everyone enjoys management. If you are one of those people, don’t let yourself be forced along that career path. Progressing along a technical route is just as valid as climbing the management ladder.
(4.22) Phil agrees and comments that, in the past, climbing the management ladder was the only way to be seen as successful. But, that is starting to change with the technical path being recognized, as well. Charity agrees, but she thinks everyone needs to play a role in making sure both paths are valued. For example, when someone becomes a manager congratulate them on their career change instead of their promotion. Over the years, Charity has noticed that the most successful managers are those that see themselves as being in a supportive position rather than a dominating one.
(5.24) – Phil says that is interesting given that you are now a CEO yourself. But, it sounds like you prefer to be hands on. Charity agrees that is true, up to a point. But, she does not spend as much time as she would like sat at a terminal doing stuff. This is because Charity deliberately took a step back to make sure she fulfils her role in full.
When she was managing engineers, she was close enough to the code to be able to work productively alongside them. Now she is at the point where she is managing the managers she is just too far removed to carry on coding as well as managing. If she were to carry on doing that it would just be too disruptive for everyone. At the point she is at, straddling two different worlds rarely works.
(6.49) – Can you share with us your worst career moment? And what you learned from that experience. Charity’s worst moment came when Parse was acquired by Facebook. The announcement was made at an all-hands meeting where she burst into tears. Other members of the team did the same or greeted the news with stony silence. Everyone was in shock, nobody had seen it coming.
Charity realized immediately that working for Facebook would change her life drastically. For example, her walk to work was about to become a 3 to 4-hour commute some days. Plus, at the time, she was not a big fan of Facebook and the way they worked. She nearly quit straightaway, but stuck it out and was able to buy herself a house.
(8.44) – In terms of what you learned from that, is there anything you would do differently, now? Or do you have a different perspective on things? That situation did have a big effect on her. For example, she and Christina now run honeycomb with a lot more transparency. What happened at Parse came as a huge shock to everyone. There was no time to adjust to or prepare for this massive change.
After that experience here and Christina decided to take the opposite approach. They are as open as possible. To date, they have twice considered acquisitions. On both occasions they told everyone what was going on. However, taking that approach does make things a little harder for their workforce. It means they are fully aware of the companies up and downs.
(10.37) – What has been your best career moment? Charity is quite shy and introverted. So, public speaking is not something that comes naturally to her. In fact, she made a complete hash of her first important talk. She was really disgusted with herself and could not wait to get out of there.
However, at the same time, she was determined to conquer her fear and become a good speaker. So, she accepted every single invitation she got and actively sought out opportunities.
In addition, she went to her doctor and got a beta blocker prescription, so she could control the shaking. The fear was still there, but the prescription meant that she could physically deliver the speech. Within a couple of years, she did not need the pills. A couple of years later, she was able to improvise, deliver an ad hoc speech and feel fairly comfortable while doing so. She is, understandably, very proud of that fact.
Conquering this fear and learning to have the confidence to speak in an ad hoc way has helped her career in several ways. Having more confidence and better communication and presentation skills is especially helpful in her current role as CEO.
(14.02) – How often do you speak publicly now? Charity says more or less every week. When Honeycomb was first founded, she spent nearly 2 years giving talks and promoting the firm. Basically, she was the marketing team.
(14.24) – Can you tell us what excites you about the future of the IT industry and careers? Charity is excited that when it comes to treating employees as people the industry is starting to get things together.
For the tech sector, this is a golden age of opportunity. There are more jobs than people. So, there is no need to suffer and stay somewhere that does not reward their people. If you do not respect your employer or like the culture, you don’t have to stay in that job.
Finally, the industry is waking up to the fact that they need to be better at management and learning what makes people thrive in the workplace. For example, the days of the whiteboard coding interview are pretty much over. This high-pressure interview technique that has always been despised, so getting rid of it is a good thing. This is just one sign that the IT industry is moving in the right direction, management wise. Making these changes is far more important than the technical transformation we are also going through.
The distributed team culture is great too. It is enabling people from anywhere to work together. This change means that parents, carers and people who are neurologically A-typical can all now access the workplace.
(16.42) – What drew you to a career in IT? Charity explains that the money was a big draw, in part, because she grew up dirt poor. But, she also loved spending time at the university, so was motivated to study hard. She spent night after night scripting things and reading people’s bash history, teaching herself how to do Unix and loved it.
(17.16) – What is the best career advice you have ever received? Charity was once told to “save money”. It was excellent advice because it means she has the security to be able to walk away from something, at any moment if she needs to.
(17.37) – If you were to begin your IT career again, right now, what would you do? Charity says she would go back and get a CS degree. She would have also focused on here software engineering skills a lot more, from the beginning of her career. She thinks if she had been lucky enough to have a good manager she would have been encouraged to develop those skills early on.
In fact, you could add finding a good manager to the list of things she would have done differently. She wishes she had worked for someone who has a track record for shepherding junior engineers to a senior level.
(18.39) – What are you currently focusing on in your career? Right now Charity’s main focus is making sure honeycomb survives. She is working at ensuring that customers get the right product, so the money keeps coming in. As well as making sure that they gather feedback and act on it.
(19.01) – What is the number one non-technical skill that has helped you the most in your IT career? Definitely public speaking, but, before that, it was writing. She relied on that skill heavily to ensure that she could communicate effectively.
(19.35) – Phil asks Charity to share a final piece of career advice with the audience. If you come across something that is difficult, lean into the pain and learn how to get past it. But, be careful not to carry on pushing yourself for too long. If things are not changing and you are not making progress, you need to stop leaning into the pain. Carrying on pushing will wear you down and could lead to burn-out.
(2.36) CHARITY– “I need a certain amount of chaos to tame.”
(6.26) CHARITY– “You need your full creative brain to be engaged in learning what is hard and new”
(14.48) CHARITY– “For people who work in, or adjacent to IT, there’s no excuse for suffering. There’s so much opportunity out there.”
(15.09) CHARITY– “If you don’t respect your employer, and don’t think they’re investing in the right, cultural changes and choices, don’t stay,”
(19.20) CHARITY– “Just be good at communicating in some form”