Episode 158 – Always Be Willing to Try Something New to Become a Better IT Professional with Sarah Withee
Phil’s guest on today’s show is Sarah Withee. She has been programming all of her life, which has turned her into an accomplished polyglot software engineer. Sarah is a well-known conference speaker, mentor and teacher who is also a volunteer Girls Who Code instructor.
(1.01) – So, Sarah can I ask you to expand on that intro and tell us a little bit more about yourself? Sarah explains that she got into programming at a very early age. It was a passion that she pursued throughout her entire education, so it is not surprising that she ended up becoming a developer.
Over the years, she has had many jobs, which has given her the chance to learn numerous programming languages. She loves learning new things, and working with a language she has never used does not faze her.
(2.17) – How did you get into teaching and mentoring? and why did you choose to go down that path? Sarah did not plan to start teaching or mentoring. It kind of happened by accident.
When she was an undergraduate in college, they split the C++ class into a lab and asked if she would act as a lab assistant. Sarah said yes, thinking she would be working alongside a teacher. Only to discover, too late, that she had to stand up there alone and deliver the class. At the time, she was very nervous and struggled with talking in front of people.
But, she knew the language, had passed the classes and was actively using it. So, once she got past her initial nerves, things went well. Sarah found that she actually enjoyed sharing what she knew. In fact, she turned out to be a good teacher. If someone could not understand the book or the lecture, usually, she could come up with a way of explaining things. She ended up with some of the highest evaluations in the department.
Her success in the classroom is what ultimately turned her into a conference speaker. Now speaking in public comes naturally to her.
(4.30) – So, is your mentoring always one on one? A lot of the time it is, but, she also engages with people via social media platforms, like Twitter. She is especially keen to help others to develop the necessary confidence to be able to speak at conferences, to overcome their nerves, as she has.
(5.14) – Can you please share a unique career tip with the I.T. career audience? Sarah’s advice is to always be ready to try something new. Taking this approach is the main reason Sarah has been able to achieve so much.
For example, she joined the robotics team at college without knowing anything about the subject. Pretty quickly, she figured things out and was able to start to contribute.
(6.20) – Can you tell us about your worst career moment? That happened when Sarah was still an intern. She wrote a piece of code and sent it up to her teammate to be checked. By then, she had been programming for a while, so it looked good and he told her to send it up. Sarah did that, but inadvertently pushed up a clip that her manager had not actually looked over. Unfortunately, one of the files was not attached, an oversight that ended up breaking the build.
Whenever something failed, all 200+ developers were automatically sent an email to explain what had happened and whose code was involved. So, when the build Sarah was working on broke, naturally, one of these emails went out. Understandably, Sarah was deeply embarrassed, when this happened.
Her teammates told her that it was something to be proud of. But, Sarah could not look at things in that way. It really sapped her confidence and she was not sure if a career in IT was for her. She felt even worse when the build broke again while she was in the process of fixing her original issue.
(8.31) – What did you learn from that experience? It helped her to understand how important code reviews are. She goes through everything with a fine toothcomb, asking herself if anything is missing and making sure she has not left any redundant code in, by accident. Sarah also likes to get other people to review her code too.
(9.12) – What was your best career moment? Sarah has had quite a few highlights. For example, this year, she spoke at an international conference for the first time, sharing how to work with the open source home assistant Mycroft.
Sarah has already built up a reputation for learning new tech really quickly. So, today, she regularly gets approached to try out all kinds of interesting and new stuff.
(10.31) How much of your success do you put down to the contribution you have made to the industry in terms of teaching, mentoring and sharing what you have learned? Sarah says that putting herself out there and being willing to help other people has definitely helped.
(10.58) – Can you tell us what excites you about the future of the IT industry and careers? The fact that technology can now be used to quickly solve increasingly complex issues is something Sarah finds exciting. It is especially interesting to see the way big data is improving our understanding of the world.
The fact that it is never difficult to find a new challenge is also very exciting. It is becoming easier to do work that you feel passionate about and make a real difference.
(12.45) – What drew you to a career in IT? For Sarah, it was definitely programming as a kid. She loved the problem solving and the idea of making a rather dumb machine do really smart things. As a kid, she loved brain teasers. For her, programming was the ultimate brain teaser.
(13.18) – What is the best career advice you have ever received? Sarah says that was – take care of yourself. You need to learn to take a break, to switch off for a while. It is important to rest your mind as well as your body.
(13.45) – If you were to begin your IT career again, right now, what would you do? Sarah says that she would spend a bit more time searching for her first job. She would make sure it was something that actually interested her even if that meant moving cities.
The fact that she did not do this meant that her career had a rather slow start.
(14.45) – What are you currently focusing on in your career? Right now, Sarah is in between jobs. So, her main aim is to find an interesting and challenging job. She really enjoyed her last role, so is looking for something that measures up to that. The team she was working with was close-knit, empathetic and effective. So, she is looking to work in a similar environment.
(16.07) – What is the number one non-technical skill that has helped you the most in your IT career? Having empathy for others and understanding what they need has helped her to become a better programmer.
(17.14) – Phil asks Sarah to share a final piece of career advice with the audience. Sarah’s advice is to seek out others that work in your field that are really good at what they do. That could be software development, management or other skill. If you do this when you are not sure about something you will always have someone knowledgeable to turn to. It will also give you the opportunity to help them too.
(3.45) Sarah – “It came pretty naturally to share all the things I’ve loved about programming and about software development.”
(5.23) Sarah – “Always be willing to try new things.”
(12.59) Sarah – “I love problem-solving. I love saying like, how do you make this do that.”
(16.28) Sarah – “It’s not about the tech …you make software to help people.”