Episode 176 – Learn to Prioritize Your Happiness to Become More Productive and Succeed in the IT Industry with Jen Tong
Phil’s guest on today episode of the IT Career Energizer podcast is Jen Tong. She is currently working as a Developer Advocate for Google Cloud Platform. But, she started her career working on software. She has worked for NASA in the robotics field before working on Google Glass. Today, Jen works as a security advocate for Google
Jen is passionate about astronomy. She has spent time coding for Project PANOPTES. That community project enables anyone to build a low-cost robotic telescope. She also enjoys sharing her knowledge with others.
(1.12) – So Jen, just looking at your career history be very interesting to hear a little bit about the work you did with NASA with robotics and obviously more, more recently with Google Glass. Sadly, Jen was only with NASA for one summer. They were working on a robot that was to be part of the space station’s escape system. But, the project got canceled when NASA decided to take a different approach to the escape pod docking system.
For the Google Glass project, Jen was mainly involved in building out the developer platforms. Her team’s aim was to make it as easy as possible for people to build applications for Glass.
(2.32) – Can you give us a couple of examples? Some of the most interesting applications involved helping people with accessibility issues to find their way around the world. Developers with hearing and vision impairments were particularly active. They could see all sorts of possibilities for Google Glass.
(3.04) – Do you feel that Google Glass has a bit of ahead of its time when it first came out? With emerging technology, it can take a while for it to find its place in the ecosystem. Jen is not involved in Google Glass, at the moment, but says that it appears to have found its place.
(3.39) – Can you please share a unique career tip with the I.T. career audience? For years, Jen heard people saying that taking risks leads to great rewards and adventures. So she pushed herself and took risks. Sometimes things worked out well, other times, not so much. Initially, when things looked like they were moving in the wrong direction, Jen would hang in there. Now, she is not scared to quit.
Her recommendation when going into something new is to review how things are going after a pre-set period of time. Then pause and ask yourself if the role really is for you.
If it does not feel quite right, don’t be afraid to quit. Resist the temptation to give it one more month or another year.
(6.03) – Can you tell us about your worst career moment? And what you learned from that experience. Jen’s first IT related job was working for a semiconductor company as a process engineer. Her role was to split out the data for serial memory chips into a sequence of events.
The job was not exciting, but she was learning a lot. More importantly, she was working with a fantastic team of people. She was only about 20 at the time, so their support was particularly important for Jen.
But, when NASA offered a job it was too much to resist. She took the job. Unfortunately, it turned out not to be the dream job she thought it would be. She was no longer happy in her work life.
That situation taught her the importance of periodically pausing and evaluating her career choices. Now, if she is not happy she moves on quickly.
(8.10) – What was your best career moment? Working on Developer Relations of Google Glass was something Jen really enjoyed. At one hackathon they investigated how the glasses could be used by a team member who was completely blind. They came up with all sorts of viable applications.
For example, placing QR codes on objects to warn of hazards. The glasses could pick up those codes and use the bone conducting speaker to discreetly notify the wearer of the danger.
The visually impaired colleague they were working with could already see (feel) a lot of things using his cane. But, would occasionally walk into a low sign or something similar, because he had no way of knowing the objects were at his head height. The QR codes solved that problem.
(10.18) – Can you tell us what excites you about the future of the IT industry and careers? The fact that more people than ever before are learning to code is exciting. As people from different backgrounds get more involved in IT, a whole new ecosystem is opening up.
(11.33) – What drew you to a career in IT? Jen got sucked into the world of IT partly because she wanted to be able to cheat on video games. A task that was not easy in the 80s and 90s. Without realizing it, her quest to complete more game levels lead to her reverse engineering the code. She did not have the source code but was able to make changes using the hex editor.
(12.20) – What is the best career advice you have ever received? Jen says the best advice she has received cannot really be summed up in one line. You need to recognize the two main styles of IT career and decide which one is right for you.
Some people are suited to digging deep into a subject and becoming a specialist. That approach usually turns out to be very lucrative. In particular when you become one of the go-to people for that technology. But, it is not for everyone. Luckily, the other approach the journalist route also works. It is easier to find more opportunities and working in that way is enriching.
(12.59) – On the flip side, what is the worst career advice you’ve ever received? Again, Jen does not have a specific one-liner to share. But, comments that the idea that women are not good at tech is definitely not true. So, you should definitely not listen to that argument and let it hold you back.
(13.30) – If you were to begin your IT career again, right now, what would you do? Jen would take an emerging platform and find, new and innovative ways to apply it to business.
(13.54) – So you like the idea of using innovation for disruption? Jen likes the idea of using tech to do something new and unusual. Sometimes the emerging platform you choose will not become widely used. If that happens there is no need to be too concerned. Using new tech to solve real-life challenges is the best way to learn and make a difference.
(14.40) – What are you currently focusing on in your career? Jen is pivoting towards working on making software safer and more secure. As software touches more areas of our lives security becomes an increasingly important issue.
(15.30) – What is the number one non-technical skill that has helped you the most in your IT career? Learning to express her ideas clearly, is a skill that has proved to be invaluable for Jen.
(15.54) – So communicating your ideas? How do you do that? Is it verbal, visual or a combination of all those things? Usually, it is a combination of the two. Jen is careful to empathize with the person or audience she is presenting or speaking to. This drives the format she uses.
Sometimes a verbal presentation combined with a few slides will work best. Other times, designing a small game to demonstrate the issue and her solution works. It can be a good way to tease out more information about the problem from the customer or audience.
(16.58) – What do you do to keep your own IT career energized? Jen finds teaching keeps her energized. She is lucky enough to be able to do this in both formal and informal settings. Jen particularly enjoys working with artists on installation art projects. They are always coming up with new ways to use technology.
(17.39) – What do you do in your spare time away from technology? Jen is very aware of the fact that working in tech is hard on the body. So, she is careful to take time out to do something fun and physical. For Jen, at the moment, that means ice hockey and aerial silks. She also enjoys wandering around cities exploring.
(18.12) – Phil asks Jen to share a final piece of career advice with the audience. Should you find yourself in a bad situation where you feel miserable change things. Don’t waste energy worrying about whose fault it is or how you got there. Instead, focus on getting out of that situation and learning from it.
(4.29) JEN – “It is OK to quit.”
(10.18) JEN – “I always love it when people use tech in ways I didn’t anticipate.”
(13.30) JEN – “Find an emerging platform and apply it to business areas that people aren’t normally using it for.”
(15.47) JEN – “I can have the greatest ideas, but if I can’t present them clearly they will stay stuck in my mind and not help anyone.”
(17.50) JEN – “I try to optimize my time away from technology by doing fun things that helped me stay fit.”