Episode 161 – Explore New Tech, Help Others and Have Fun in Your Career with Fran Buontempo

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Phil’s guest on today’s show is Fran Buontempo. She is a C and C++ expert who is the editor of the ACCU’s (Association of C and C++ Users) Overload magazine. Fran also works with C# and Python.

She is a conference speaker, blogger, and author. Her first book, Genetic Algorithms and Machine Learning for Programmers (Pragmatic Programmers), has been well received. In it, she shares several ways to code your way out of a paper bag, as a fun way of providing an insight into emerging machine learning tech.


(0.53) – So firstly, I want to ask you about is your role as editor of the overload magazine? How long have you been doing that? Fran can’t remember exactly but she thinks it has been between 5 and 6 years.

Becoming the editor happened slowly, almost by accident. Fran got involved with code critiques, writing book reviews and writing or editing one or two articles. So, when the editor stepped down she volunteered.

(1.40) – In terms of the following of the magazine, what’s its reach? It reaches a worldwide audience of around a thousand people.

A magazine is produced each month. One month it is the member-only version. The next month a different version is published, which anyone can read.

(2.38) In terms of your book, how did learning to program your way out of a paper bag come about? Fran was involved in interviewing candidates for a job. One interviewee was so bad that one of their colleagues said that they couldn’t “code their way out of a paper bag.”

A throwaway comment that struck a chord with Fran and inspired her to dig deeper into machine learning and improve her skill set too. This led to her writing, her book, Genetic Algorithms and Machine Learning for Programmers (Pragmatic Programmers). In the book, she goes through several AI learning techniques using the example of escaping from a paper bag to illustrate what she was sharing. It was a great way to catch people’s attention and engage them. She was also able to include examples from some of the conference talks and articles she had written.

(3.44) – So you’re confident now that you can program your way out of a paper bag, presumably. Fran says yes, and she has the certificate to prove it. She gave her first talk at the ACCU conference on that very subject. For fun, she asked the audience to sign a certificate if they thought she had done well enough, which they did.

(4.01) – Can you please share a unique career tip with the I.T. career audience? Fran’s advice is to start seeing imposter syndrome as a positive thing. You get the feeling you are not sure what you are talking about when you put your head above the parapet and do something that stretches you. Feeling like that helps you to identify the holes in your knowledge and fill them. So, that is a positive thing. At this stage, Phil points out that imposter syndrome is simply a different way to describe self-doubt.

(5.07) – Can you tell us about your worst career moment? And what you learned from that experience. Very early in Fran’s IT career, she was in the registry at the command prompt and accidentally deleted Windows from a work laptop. She panicked, but it all worked out OK.

Not long after she was working in a team of seven that was reduced to just two, overnight. The next day everything broke. Fortunately, Fran was able to sort things out fairly quickly. But, it was a bad situation to find herself in.

(6.46) – What was your best career moment? For Fran, her career highlights have come about mainly from human interactions. Being able to mentor people is something she finds to be particularly exciting and fulfilling. It feels great to watch them grow. Being thanked by someone you have helped on somewhere like stack overflow also feels good. Positive feedback from conferences and book reviews, also give her a lift.

Of course, the comments are not always positive. Sometimes people do not agree with you or see the value of what you are offering. When that happens, it is important to handle things in a Zen way. Use it as a learning opportunity and see if there is something you could have done better.

(8.30) – Can you tell us what excites you about the future of the IT industry and careers? The pace of innovation is exciting. It is especially good to see a new wave of young programmers becoming interested in C++. Version 11 has made a huge difference to how popular the language is, at the moment.

Fran is also fascinated by what is happening with AI and machine learning. People are now achieving things that just 10 years ago would have been impossible. As new technologies emerge and advance, this is going to continue to happen, at an even faster rate

(10.01) – What drew you to a career in IT? Fran responds that it was unemployment. As a teenager, she had done a little programming, using her Dad’s computer. But, she studied maths and philosophy at university. For 3 years she taught secondary school maths but ended up becoming unemployed.

That is when she realized that she already had some of the skills she needed to work in the IT industry. So, she went to a local college and got a City and Guild qualification in C programming. It only took a few weeks to complete that course. Yet, that qualification was enough to land her an IT job. Fairly quickly, Fran learned C++. At which point, she was able to become far more productive.

(11.31) – What is the best career advice you have ever received? One of her managers suggested that she join ACCU. That turned out to be great advice for Fran. Finding a group of like-minded people who are willing to help you makes a huge difference.

(12.09) – Conversely, what is the worst career advice you’ve ever received? Fran loves coding, so wants to carry on doing that. Climbing the promotional ladder usually leads to you having less time available to actually program which is not what she wants. So, for her, the advice to move into management is bad advice. It is something she has been asked to do several times. But, it is something she is not likely to want to do.

(12.50) – If you were to begin your IT career again, right now, what would you do? From the start, Fran would find a supportive group. Joining the ACCU made a huge difference to her. So, she would definitely do something like that early on. There is now plenty of good quality support available for anyone who uses or wants to learn how to use C++.

(13.49) – What are your current career objectives? Recently, Fran has been daydreaming about retiring. But, she is currently fascinated with how AI can be used to speed up the programming process.

At the recent ACCU conference, she demonstrated how to get AI to automatically generate FizzBuzz code. The code produced was pretty awful and it took ages to come out with the right tests. But, it did inspire her to try to do more things with AI. She is currently experimenting with genetic programming.

AI has the potential to be used for all kinds of things, in particular, to create and help with test cases. Using AI you can dig deep and seek out numbers or strings that will fail the cases. Even established systems could benefit from being crash tested using AI. It could also be used for mutation testing. Fran thinks there is a lot of potential.

(15.50) – What do you do to keep your own career energized? Fran finds that editing the Overload magazine keeps her energized. It makes it easier for her to stay up to date and pushes her to explore tech she would not otherwise notice.

She also finds speaking at and attending conferences to be an energizing experience. Sitting back and listening is a much easier way to learn. Plus, you get to speak to the people delivering the talk afterward, which is a good way to learn more.

(16.19) – What do you do in your spare time away from technology? Fran has a lot of interests outside of IT. She likes to do things that ground her. For example, she used to read dystopian cyberpunk sci-fi books as a way of switching off.

These days, cooking, making bread, enjoying her garden and walking all help her to recharge her batteries

(17.00) – Phil asks Fran to share a final piece of career advice with the audience. While listening to Mike Feathers, last year, at the Software Craftsmanship Conference Fran picked up a great piece of career advice. He reminded everyone that they have an amazing set of skills. Their abilities are in high demand. So, there is absolutely no reason to be unhappy in their career.

If you are not happy, switch jobs or innovate. Coming up with a problem to solve and launching a start-up is always a possibility. It guarantees that you will be doing something that interests you


(4.35) FRAN – “Imposter syndrome is really conscious incompetence from the four stages of learning.”

(7.53) FRAN – “You need to be quite Zen about how you read feedback.”

(8.15) PHIL – “For every extreme, ardent follower of yours, you’re going to get somebody in the opposite end of the spectrum.”

(12.03) FRAN – “Finding a group of people who will help you is really important.”

(14.40) FRAN – “There’s an overlap going on between the AI machine learning community and the tech community. If we talk to each other better, we can help each other out.”

(17.19) FRAN – “You have an amazing set of skills. So, you don’t have to be unhappy in your career”


Twitter: https://twitter.com/fbuontempo

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

Personal Website: https://about.me/frances_buontempo

Website: https://www.includecpp.org/

Fran’s Book: https://pragprog.com/book/fbmach/genetic-algorithms-and-machine-learning-for-programmers

ACCU’s Overload: https://accu.org/index.php/journal/overload_by_cover

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