00:16 – Welcome to Episode 111010 of the Greater Than Code Podcast!
02:09 – Tara’s Superpower and Origin Story: Patience
04:56 – Conflating Patience with Kindness
07:39 – Is writing code making us less thoughtful? AKA Patience in the Workplace
The Economic Value of Rapid Response Time (The Doherty Threshold)
16:22 – Warning Signs that a Company’s Culture is Not a Good One; Also, is it the company or is it individuals within a company?
22:59 – Looking for and Interviewing for a Job at a Less Toxic Environment
33:20 – What does it mean to be a developer?
36:33 – Interviewing and Privilege
39:35 – Advice for Early Career Developers
44:10 – Remote Work Culture
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Coraline: Being patient and kind.
Astrid: Software development is always something you can continue to improve at.
Tara: People don’t have to be exactly like us to be a person that we want to work with. Being different can be an asset.
Sam: Interviewing somebody should be able finding out how they think and not about what they necessary know at the moment.
CORALINE: Hello and welcome to Episode 111010 of the Greater Than Code Podcast. I am Coraline Ada Ehmke and I am joined by the lovely and talented Astrid Countee.
ASTRID: Thank you, Coraline. And I am also here with my great friend Sam Livingston-Grey.
SAM: Hello, thank you. And I’m here to introduce our guest today. Our guest, Tara Scherner de la Fuente is a Ruby and Rails developer at Allovue. She’s had other careers in academia, human resources, and private investigation. And she has an expensive t-shirt collection and masquerades as a goat for the Twitter account @GoatUserStories, which if you’re not following it, you really should be. Tara pair-programs with her cat Lulu via a remote/distributed/caffeinated living room office in sunny Portland, Oregon. Welcome to the show, Tara.
TARA: Thank you. It’s really nice to be here, especially since it’s not sunny. I’m really not a fan of the sun.
CORALINE: I’m not either.
TARA: Is that okay to admit here? [Laughs]
CORALINE: I was in South Africa in February and, very sunny. We were on African savanna. I had to wear a cardigan everywhere I went to keep the sun off of me. One day in a cab I forgot my cardigan and I was sitting on the side of the car and the sun was shining through the window onto my arm. And I ended up breaking out in hives. And when I got back from South Africa, I had an appointment to get a tattoo on my right arm. And luckily because of my sleeve length or the way the car was designed, the hives stopped just below where my tattoo was going to go, which was very fortuitous.
CORALINE: And my tattoo artist was like, “Coraline, what’s up with the skin on your arm?” And I was like, “Oh, I’m allergic to the sun.” And he just looks at me and says, “You are so fucking goth.”
SAM: Took the words right out of my mouth.
TARA: You really don’t like the sun. [Laughs]
SAM: It burns.
CORALINE: So Tara, we like to start off every episode asking our guest what their superpower is and how they discovered it. So, what do you think?
TARA: Honestly, I think my superpower is probably patience. It sounds awful actually, in some ways, to talk about having a superpower. But I think that superpower is mine. I can appreciate standing in a long line because it gives me an opportunity to think. I need a ton of patience with myself and with code when I’m working on it. And so yeah, I think patience is my superpower.
CORALINE: Were you always a patient person? Or is that something you developed as you grew up?
TARA: Except with the sun, I think I am [Laughs] very patient. Sun, traffic, and bad internet connections are the only things that really throw me off. But I think even as a child I was a patient person, other than that first trip to Disneyland, which then I actually don’t really like Disneyland anymore. Man, I’m talking about a lot of things I don’t like today. But [Laughs]
SAM: Well, just go with it. Just go with it.
TARA: [Laughs] I’m just going with it.
CORALINE: It’s my negative influence. I’m sorry.
TARA: [Laughs] I’m getting more goth as I sit here.
ASTRID: I actually think that is a really great superpower. I was listening to a podcast the other day and it was talking about crime as a disease. And it was describing a program that they were trying to do some sort of intervention with kids who were growing up in areas where there’s a lot of violence. And one of the things that they described was how important it is to take a moment. So, something happens, take a moment before you respond. Because the people who do are way less likely to do something that’s going to cause violence, that’s going to cause them to do something that’s going to change their life in a negative way. So, I think patience is kind of not really talked about that much but it’s actually a huge superpower that I don’t think most of us have, honestly. Because we’re not really socialized to care.
TARA: I remember thinking that when smartphones were really popular, it took a long time for me to even get a cellphone, and then a long time for me to get a smartphone. And I remember thinking that I didn’t want a smartphone because I thought it would take away from my ability to be patient while standing in lines [Laughs] because I would no longer have to rely on my own thinking and my own ideas about what was going on in the world. And I knew that that would probably disappear. And it’s true that sometimes even when I’m waiting in a line and I pull out the cellphone, I think, “You really didn’t want to be doing this [Laughs] back in the day. And now here you are. Oh well.”
CORALINE: Tara, I tend to conflate patience with a sense of kindness toward the world and kindness toward yourself. Do you feel like there’s something to that in your own life?
TARA: I think that patience does provide a sense of quietness and thoughtfulness about the world at times. And I think that those two ideas can be conflated and they can work in tandem with one another. I’m not sure that I’m as kind as I’d like to be. [Laughs] So, maybe I hope that patience will help build that into me. But kindness, I wish that was my superpower. It’s certainly one I strive for.
CORALINE: And it’s really difficult I think as a software developer. We’re often placed in situations where patience is not expected and in fact is not rewarded. And really, neither is kindness.
TARA: That’s a good point. I’ve certainly experienced that in my coding life, both simply internal [Chuckles] when I’m sitting there with just me and the code. But also, in some of the environments that I’m in. You know, kindness and patience can do wonders for a working environment and also even just a personal environment.
SAM: Yeah, that’s kind of sad though, because patience is a trait that we often have to have if we’re going to become programmers because we have to be willing to sit there and struggle with the computer for hours at a stretch and try to figure out what the heck is going on. And kindness is one of those things that if you can summon a reserve of kindness when you’re reviewing some code that you can’t figure out what the heck it’s doing, that really helps you figure it out and have some patience to be able to deal with it and to be able to essentially forgive the person who wrote it, especially if that person is yourself.
TARA: That’s a good point. I do actually, I live alone and I only work remotely. Well, I live with Lulu the cat. But I live alone and work remotely so I do find myself talking to the code. And I would say that I’m rather kind with the code…
TARA: When I speak with it. And I do ask it questions about what it’s doing and what it thinks it’s doing or where it’s hiding its secrets. But that patience is truly important as you mentioned, Sam. You’ve always got to try that one more thing, right? And you have to have the patience to think of the next 43 one -more-thing’s and keep trying those as well. So, it’s important to be kind with yourself too, when you realize it takes into the 40 tries to get the thing working.
CORALINE: I recently was reading about the Doherty Threshold which I learned about by watching this amazing show called Halt and Catch Fire which I highly recommend.
ASTRID: I love that show.
CORALINE: Yeah. So, the Doherty Threshold came out of this paper by a couple of IBM engineers. And the prevalent thinking before their research was that the time it took for a computer to respond to a typed command which back in the 80s was between two and three seconds, the prevailing wisdom was that that gave you time to think about the next thing that you would tell the computer to do. And this paper dispelled that myth and said that the faster the computer responds, the more productive you would actually become as a programmer. And there was like a 130% increase in developer productivity when they got the response time down to 0.3 seconds. But I really wonder if we lost something by having this immediacy to the way we write code. Is that making us less thoughtful?
SAM: Well, my own personal experience in dealing with unit testing is that when the tests take a couple of seconds, I’ll sit there and deal with it. But if they give me immediate, instant feedback as soon as I hit enter, I can keep my state of flow much more easily
CORALINE: That’s true.
TARA: Yeah. I think there are trade-offs. I really like narrowing down my test to that one test I can run locally that’ll pop right up. But on the other hand, Sam introduced me, as a Ruby on Rails developer, I am now a Ruby, Rails and Ember developer theoretically. I think I have now written two things in Ember and it has been with assistance. But I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but restarting the Rails Server happens pretty quickly. Restarting the Ember server, I can make some coffee and I can go and I can pick out a snack. And I have time to think about things.
So, I think there are a couple of things happening. I can stay in that flow when I am working in Rails, especially since I know it well. And maybe it’s because I don’t know Ember well that I appreciate how long it takes for the Ember server to come back up [Laughs] because I have that time to think to myself, “Okay. There are about 50 things I don’t know how to do. How am I going to do those [Laughs] when this server pops back up? And do I even know what I’m checking next? I’m not sure.” So, I can appreciate the different levels that technology has changed.
You did make me think that I’ve heard a similar story about typewriters and about how that’s why they made the keyboards like they did for typewriters because back in the olden days I guess when the keys would hit the paper they’d get all tangled up if they were say, laid out alphabetically, if people were going in the right order. I’m not sure if that’s true or not, but I love that we keep retelling stories and they change with time.
SAM: I have heard this particular apocryphal story as well. So, it must be true.
TARA: There you go. That’s it. Abe Lincoln said it was true on the internet and there we have it.
CORALINE: So, the thing I was alluding to before is that patience isn’t always rewarded in the workplace. I think a lot of people work in so-called Agile shops where you’re expected to deliver a certain number of points every sprint and the pressure is kind of on and you might have a Scrum master who’s tracking your velocity and saying, “Tara, we expect you to deliver 12 points this sprint. And so far, the burn-down looks like you’re only on track to deliver 8.” How do you communicate that sometimes these things take time and that estimation is a lie and that you need other people to be patient with you too?
TARA: The wild guess form of estimation. Yeah, you know it’s interesting that you ask that question because I did recently leave my former employer. And we didn’t have a problem so much with the “guesstimation” of the work that needed to be done or the drive, but there was a serious drive often driven by one particular client. And it drove some folks so hard. We had two different employees be hospitalized as a result of the stress. And some people might argue that it wasn’t just as a result of the stress, but I think it was pretty clear that that was a large contributing factor. And to be in an environment like that is incredibly stressful.
It does require… honestly if you’re going to do your best work for an employer, and I honestly believe that if I have accepted a job and said that I’ll do it, that I want to give that my best effort, my best work. And if I’m in, then I’m in. And if I’m not in emotionally or mentally, then I’ll get out. And I think that that requires patience with the employer and the environment that you’re in when you come across situations like that where there is an immense amount of stress. And to be patient with the environment and just to be able to accept your limitations and just do your best work and filter out what is happening there is a very difficult skill. And it’s not even just a skill. Sometimes, we simply don’t have the resources to be able to manage that kind of stress. But I think patience and kindness come into play quite a bit.
And I will say, I am so pleased with the coworkers that I had at that last position. Because everyone was so supportive of the people who needed to step away and take care of themselves physically and mentally and emotionally. And everyone was really rallied around those folks. And that was wonderful to experience.
CORALINE: Anyone who knows my story knows that I had the opposite experience with a big company recently where I too was hospitalized and I did not get that kind of support. So, it’s amazing and wonderful that you did feel supported like that. But at what point are you punished for that patience? At what point do you need to decide, “This is not a good environment for me,” and what do you do?
TARA: You know, that’s absolutely an important question and I think it definitely varies with the individual. I’ve now left that particular company and one person who was in that situation chose to leave and one person has chosen to stay. And so, it’s definitely a very personal experience and a personal decision to make. And I don’t think there’s one right or wrong answer. As you spoke, I began to think that what I felt was support from the individuals that I worked with. But of course, individuals make up that collective company experience, right? And where is that boundary between, “Here are the people that I work with who I feel supported by,” and at what point is that the company where I’m not feeling the support? And I think some of that probably comes into play as well.
SAM: I really like that you’re trying to find that distinction between the people and the company because it is absolutely okay to have loyalty to people. But a company, a corporation, cannot have loyalty towards you. And so, it shouldn’t be reciprocated because it can’t be. And yeah, I struggle sometimes to figure out where to draw that line as well. Although sometimes, I draw it along hierarchical boundaries. Like, the people who are my peers, they can be my friends, but the people who are one or two levels of management up, I need to treat with a little bit more care.
TARA: I think that’s an important distinction. And it’s difficult, at least I’ve found it difficult, to figure out where to draw that line and where that loyalty lies, especially in a smaller company where you know the “sea-level employees” as it were. You’ve maybe sat next to them at dinner or traded, I don’t know, goat noises with them.
TARA: Hypothetically, that could have happened, and compared your best bleats with somebody at that level. It’s hard at that point to really say, “You know what? I like this individual person and this is a person that I feel some affection towards,” and then these people make up this company that is maybe doing some things I’m uncomfortable with. And that is difficult to navigate.
SAM: So, one thing that I was thinking about when we were talking about possible topics for this show is, are there warning signs that people should look for that may indicate that the company’s culture is crossing a threshold from healthy into something that you need an extraordinary amount of patience to deal with?
TARA: There are certainly warning signs. I would say in the last experience that I had, it was a struggle to see those warning signs until things were changing. But it wasn’t completely clear. And then as I described it to someone at the time, suddenly I was Bambi in the forest and all the animals seem to be running past me, fleeing from the forest fire. At which point I thought, “You know, I should probably look around a little closer.” And so, that was beyond a warning sign.
But really, most of the people and the women had left, especially the women leaders in the company. We had had a really strong woman leadership and we had had really strong people of color leadership and they were fleeing the company. And if that isn’t a warning sign, I don’t know what is. I think if your strong leaders who are not in say, the majority vision of the company, if you’re non-white male colleagues, that’s probably a sign. And of course, it’s not just them. But that is probably a clear warning sign that the folks who maybe feel marginalized in different ways in the world begin to leave the company and they are leaving in droves, there’s no better warning sign that you can get, that the people who get the shaft on a regular basis in life are suddenly leaving the environment that you’ve been working in and striving towards, that is probably a clear warning sign.
ASTRID: So, I have struggled with this in some of my own experiences of trying to understand, “Is it the company? Is it certain individuals?” Because it could be really hard to tell. And I was wondering Tara, what you thought about when there are certain people who may raise a flag and say, “I have a problem,” or, “Something is going on that I think is wrong,” that are not necessarily the most reputable, then how much should you really take that into account? Because I wonder sometimes. Like, I’ve had that experience where everything was good until it was really, really bad. And then I was trying to understand, did I just miss all the signs or did it really change that quickly? And one of the things that I realized was that part of the problem was some of the people who were saying that there’s a problem are people who were not very reputable employees themselves. So, it’s hard to tell. Are you complaining because you complain or are you complaining because there’s something real going on? So, if you have any ways to try to suss out the difference?
TARA: It’s interesting that you bring that up because I was just having a conversation this morning with a former colleague of mine. Well, there are a couple of things going on there. First of all, I think there’s one thing when say, someone brings up some issues and it’s someone I haven’t necessarily bonded with or I don’t necessarily view them as a reputable source. And then there’s also the person who’s bringing up issues who isn’t seen necessarily as valuable or important, it would seem, to the employer and doesn’t have the reputation or just the perceived value from the employer. And I think there can be a couple of different things going on there.
So certainly, if it’s someone who is raising concerns where I’m not really sure what to believe, I would say right now we’re seeing a whole lot of assaults on women being reported in the media right now from really well-known people. And I think it’s incredibly important to believe what we’re hearing when we first hear it. And I think it’s certainly important that just like a lot of these things aren’t look into when they happen, that we do look into them. But I think believing when somebody says, “I’ve been hurt,” or, “I’m experiencing something that isn’t right,” I think it’s important that we step into that with the belief that there’s somebody who needs protection or there’s somebody who needs an ally or there’s somebody who needs support. And I do think if we can do that, that that’s best.
Now, in terms of when action really takes place, it probably takes at least two people in either of those scenarios to say, “You know what? There’s something that isn’t right that’s happening.” And it can be somebody who you’re not sure you believe but you want to be open to that at the beginning. But I do think it’s human nature maybe to want some backup or you want somebody else to say, “Well heck, the #MeToo hashtag.” Maybe if one woman says it then it’s one woman and you want to support that person and you want to believe that person. But it does help just because we’re human beings to hear it from more than one source. And so, that is a big thing.
But I do think it’s really important especially as I think about my colleague who didn’t have the reputation as a solid, say, a tech leader. She reported some things and it wasn’t taken seriously by her supervisor, by human resources, by anyone. And I think it’s so important that as colleagues we at least try to support one another. We don’t need to require all of the forest animals to run past us.
TARA: That we should be able to reach out a hand and say, “I don’t know what you’re experiencing. I haven’t experienced it. But let’s figure this out.” And at least to be able to listen at the very beginning [Chuckles], to be able to listen. And certainly as more and more people left my company for example, each one was at least a yellow flag, if not a red flag. So, I think in some ways you start that way. There’s one person or there are two people, or there’s more talk about a thing and your eyes get wider and wider. And hopefully, you know something is going on before the forest fire whips you in the ass.
CORALINE: So Tara, we talked about work environments and warning signs and when it’s time to get out. I’m curious about the natural consequence of finding yourself in a toxic environment and that is looking for a new, hopefully less toxic environment. So, when I’m interviewing, one of the things I’m definitely trying to figure out is, “Does this company value the things that I value?” and “Are we aligned in our values?” And that’s a very difficult thing to suss out during the interview process.
TARA: I think you’re absolutely right that it is difficult. I’m not sure I had the best approach to looking for a new job while working in a toxic environment, which is to say I never reached the point where I began looking for new work. And I know plenty of people did and they got out. And plenty of people have done so since I left, and they have gotten out. But I sort of go from, “I am here and I am giving you my best work,” to “If a position comes across my plate, I am going to look at it. And I’m going to see what it is that you’re offering.” And it could be a technical recruiter reaching out or in my most recent case, it was former colleagues that I had worked with at a previous position.
And what happened is apparently I really like animals rushing past me, because I had a former colleague reach out to me about a potential position and wanted to meet up with me and I made that arrangement. And within the same week, three different former colleagues in addition to that person reached out to me about positions, all from the same company. So, let me tell you, networking is important. [Chuckles] It is important, too.
SAM: [Chuckles] Yes.
TARA: To bond with your colleagues in at least natural ways, in being yourself, because four different colleagues, four different companies reached out to me, all in the same week. Which is again, I was not looking for a position. So for me, this happened very naturally. And I talk with inanimate objects and I also believe that the universe was talking to me. there’s no clear sign that the universe is saying, “You don’t seem to be actively looking for a job so here are four people who would like to work with you again. Why don’t you speak with them?” And so, that is exactly what I did.
And I do think for me, the experience of interviewing again was thank goodness not as stressful as the first time I was looking for jobs and not as stressful as the second time I was looking for jobs. And it certainly helped that I had been referred by somebody at each of these positions. That was a big thing. But I was still looking for the same thing I think all of us look for when we are going through the daunting technical interviewing process, which is just often torment. And I think it’s easier when you’re less stressed and you can’t regulate that necessarily.
But it’s easier to spot some of the things, some of the warning signs in the interview process about, “Here I’m with, this is the type of person that I’ll be working with.” And this person maybe asks questions that aren’t necessarily relevant to what I’ve been doing or even what I’ll do at the next company.” And that’s a big warning sign to me. Someone who cares about those technical questions more than they care about what I’m like to work with is a warning sign for me.
I actually was invited to reinterview with a company that I had interviewed with before about a year and a half earlier. And I actually remembered one of the interviewers’ questions before I went into that interview. And I thought it would be really interesting if that person interviewed me again and asked the same sort of gotcha question. And I’m going to look up the answer. And I looked up the answer so that I was ready for it. And sure enough, there he was, and there was his gotcha question. And I came off looking awesome. And I thought, “I don’t want to work with this person.”
TARA: Is what happened.
SAM: Was it a gotcha that was relevant in any way to the work? Or was it one of those invert a linked list in linear time kind of a thing?
TARA: It was minorly relevant to the work…
TARA: In that it asked basically about the difference between include and extend in Ruby.
TARA: Which, I mean, it’s in Ruby. So, that is the programming language that I use. But do I ever necessarily need to think about that or can I ever not just look that up if I need to know that know? [Chuckles] And…
TARA: Is the difference really important to discuss? Not really. And somebody else had me, somebody else in that same interview session because of course I met with, I don’t know, 50… no, I didn’t meet with 50 people. I think I met with four or five. And I was asked a lot of questions about things I don’t necessarily do or haven’t done, things like in the Inspector in Chrome and where to find different things. And you know, I mean I can figure that shit out if I [Laughs] Find something out in the Inspector, in the Developer Tools. I mean, I can figure that out if I need to find out where the Console is or need to find out how fast something is loading on the page. That just isn’t the key things that I’ve been doing. If I’m a Ruby on Rails programmer, that isn’t the key thing. It is something that I might check later. I might say, “Oh, is this faster than this?” But that isn’t a key element of my work. And so, even some of those clues like the things that are being asked of you, do they know what you do day-to-day? Do they have questions that are going to be relevant with what working with you is like? Those are the things I care about.
And I was very fortunate the company that I did end up accepting a position with, I think part of it was their warm, relevant, technical interview style. I did also meet with four different people with that experience. But some of it was, “Bring us some code that you have worked on and talk to us about why you made the decisions that you made. And walk us through the code.” So, some of it, they got to see some of the technical things that I’d done. But it was also very relevant to what I’d done, including my decision-making process, which is really important. They had me pair with a junior developer to see what my patience is like with a junior developer. And as we know, that’s my superpower. So, it went really well. But [Laughs] But also, what pairing with me is like. And so, that was a great experience. And I think one or two of the other conversations were conversations, not necessarily, “Do you know the difference between include and extend?” And so honestly, that interviewing style, they were selling themselves on me, because they cared about what was relevant to me and to my life. And one of them said the word “guys” and corrected himself.
TARA: Without me prompting him. And I have found that after joining the company, that I see similar senses of awareness of things that have happened among more than just the one awesome person. But there are many awesome people within the company. And that interviewing style really reflected what I’ve found now that I’ve joined the company.
So, I do think that even if you don’t get somebody who’s like a total A-hole during an interview, you can pick up on how they’ve thought about their interviewing process. Maybe it’s that private investigator background that I’ve got, but those are the clues I’m looking for. there’s nobody who’s going to say straight-up, “I hate cats,” or something. But they’re going to give you clues as to who they are and what that environment is going to be like. So, I’m sorry. I kind of went on there for a while. But that interviewing experience, it is daunting. And you have to look for those clues and not rely on just the animals fleeing the forest. [Laughs]
CORALINE: Yeah. My most recent interview experience, I work at [Stitch Fix] now. And [Stitch Fix] has what they call their OS. And it’s based on kindness, being bright, and being a leader. And I found that that was really reflected in the interview process. And I always felt really well-treated. And those were the criteria they were evaluating me on. So of course, there was a technical exercise and did have to walk through code because that’s a core skill set. But that wasn’t the majority of the interview experience.
And I got an interesting reminder of that as I started taking part in the interview process for new candidates. There was a pairing exercise that we did. And I was shadowing the main person doing the interview to be able to huddle after the interview. And this person was like, “Well Coraline, what did you think?” and I said that I was alarmed at some of the mistakes that the person had made and I had questions about the depth of their technical knowledge. And the other interviewer was like, “Yeah, but did they seem bright? Programming can be improved really easily and they’ll learn from their peers and there will be code reviews and they will learn and grow on the job. But did they meet our criteria for kindness and brightness and having leadership qualities?” And that was a great reminder to me that that’s what we value, that’s what we interview for.
TARA: That’s a great response.
TARA: For an interviewer to have. So, I’m thankful Sam was one of my first interviewers for my very first engineering position. And I’m [Laughs] I’m really grateful that he leaned on appreciating my person and potential more than my ability to code.
SAM: Aw, shucks. Yeah, it’s interesting. Yeah Tara, you were talking about people who ask just little detailed questions about the Chrome Inspector or include versus extend. And I feel like that belies an understanding of what it is to be a developer. Is a developer somebody who has a vast collection of tricks and individual bits of trivia or is a developer somebody who has a mindset that they can use whatever tools are at their disposal to build something useful for another human being? And it sounds like Coraline, at [Stitch Fix] you’re aiming towards the latter as well. So, that’s really cool to hear.
ASTRID: I would agree with what you said Tara, about it being about the conversation. Because when I think back on some of the best job experiences I’ve had, the interview was getting to know me in some sort of way and not just a ticking off of, “Do you have this, this, this, this, and this?” And then having had other experiences and also helped with hiring, what I think about now is if you’re calling me in for an interview, how are you spending our time? From the interviewee perspective, I think about that, because I feel like there are some things that you can determine prior to asking me to come in for an interview.
So, if we’re going to spend an hour together and you’re going to spend 45 minutes of that going over things that are something that’s not really relevant or something that’s just about trying to assess me, then it makes me question as a manager, “Are you going to do that too?” Because I don’t really want to have a manager who can’t see the forest for the trees. I’ve been in those experiences where you’re really a good team player, you’re working hard, you’re helping other people, and then when it comes time for evaluation it’s like, “Well, you needed to do this many. You didn’t do this many.” And it seems like that’s not the big picture. And although I do understand having to meet certain things, you should think about, you should weigh that against the impact somebody has on the team.
And I think one of the things that I’ve started to do which has also been helpful is in the interview process I try to ask them a question about something that would be related to their management style that would help me understand how they think about assessing people. So, it’s usually something like, “What would success look like?” because their version of that answer varies a lot depending upon how they think. Usually, I think people don’t get to ask these questions because they usually sit back and like, “Whoa.” But it helps me try to figure out how you think about me, like how you spend the time. And then how you answer questions that are qualitative, not just a yes or no or a specific answer.
It matters to me because then it tells me something about what you’ll probably do when I’m working there. Like, if I have a question, are you going to spend time to actually give me a thoughtful answer or are you going to push me off and tell me to just not worry about it? Because I think those types of things contribute over time to that toxic culture that you try to get out of and you can’t always see when you first get there.
TARA: I love how you framed that. And that’s such a specific piece of advice that’s work taking, asking that open-ended question like “What does success mean to you?” You can get so much information just from that question, not only the content but how they communicate with you. And that’s a great tip right there.
CORALINE: One of the things that I struggle with in working with early-career developers and mentoring them is I became very aware that I have quite a bit of privilege when it comes to interviewing because as someone who is highly experienced, who’s been in this industry for over 20 years, I am easily valued, that I’m in demand and I can pick the company I work for. But early-career developers, they’re looking for companies that are willing to take a chance on someone who doesn’t have that experience and they’re much more limited in the companies that are willing to do that, willing to hire someone who’s early-career and develop them and provide a fostering environment. So I’m really torn about telling them questions they should ask to evaluate the environment when I know that their choices are going to be so limited.
TARA: That’s a really important awareness to have, because it’s true. I would consider myself still in those early years and person who has to look up the difference between include and extend before getting that anticipated question. So, I definitely don’t have my pick of places. But it is important to have an awareness of things that should be red flags and things you can work with, and things that you can actually maybe improve and/or it can be a really great experience, even if there might be… it’s not the ideal interviewing scenario, for example. Not everyone can work for a warm company where people are aware of all the things. But can you thrive there? Can you learn? These are important things to consider, depending on what it is you’re looking for.
Certainly, you still don’t want to work with A-holes. And I have… I don’t know why I’ll say ‘fuck’ but I won’t say ‘asshole’. That makes no sense. [Laughs] But I did have an interview way back in the beginning, looking for my first job, and I had an interview with somebody who just went on for about 20 or 30 minutes before he passed me off to the coders who would actually evaluate my skill. But he just went on this monologue for about 20 to 30 minutes. And so at the end, he literally sat back in his chair and went, “So, why should I hire you?” And I just thought, “Oh please, don’t.”
TARA: Do not hire me.
TARA: Do not.
SAM: Can I go now?
TARA: [Laughs] Yeah. And then I did have to go do some Fibonacci in the next room. But I just thought, “Please, do not like me. I want to leave. Now.” Sometimes even when you’re looking for your very first job, there are places you [Laughs] should not go.
SAM: [Chuckles] Yeah.
TARA: And that would be one. I went back to my coding bootcamp and reported that no one should go for an interview there. [Laughs]
ASTRID: Coraline, what kind of advice do you give right now?
CORALINE: I think it’s really critical, especially for your first or second job, that you’re in a nurturing environment. And I don’t believe we have a pipeline problem so much as we have a retention problem. And people who have taken a chance, people who have invested in learning and getting themselves in the position where they’re ready to be a developer, I hate it when I see those people saying, “This is not for me,” and it’s the result of a toxic workplace. So, I do share tips for trying to figure out if it’s going to be a nurturing environment for you. I tell them, you don’t want to be the first early-career developer at a company if you can help it. You want to talk to other people who are in a similar situation and find out what they’re experience has been like.
And use the whisper network. Early-career developers don’t have access to that whisper network necessarily because they haven’t had the networking experience and they haven’t built up that collection of trusted people in their professional lives. So, one of the things that I try to do is get them connected as quickly as possible so that they do have people they can ask those questions of. Like, “Has anyone here worked at X company and what was it like and would you recommend that I work there?” Those personal experiences that their peers have had I think are the most critical questions that they should be asking even before they get themselves into an interview situation.
TARA: I think that’s really great advice. you’re absolutely right. It’s so hard to establish that network of people who can give you that key advice. And it’s also sometimes hard to discern whether they’ve had experience with a newer developer. And it’s important to be able to ask those questions. That’s probably a good question to ask in an interview for a newer developer, is whether or not the company has had experience developing developers. [Laughs]
SAM: Or have they even thought about what it’s going to take for them to be able to support a new developer?
TARA: Yeah. I’ve heard some rough stories out there. I was very fortunate to come into that first position. Thank you Sam, again, for hiring me. [Laughs]
SAM: Happy to do it.
TARA: Or speaking up for me. And you know, I think that was a really unique situation also to join a company that had developed its own internal bootcamp and so had had some experience with bringing on junior developers, some of whom they raised from infancy development, as it were. And so, that was a very unique experience. And I really hope that more experiences, not necessarily an internal bootcamp, but more companies do think hard about what it will be like to bring on a junior developer and what do we need to do to build that infrastructure to make that a successful experience for a developer.
CORALINE: On the other side of that, I find that injecting early-career developers into a development culture, those are the people who are going to make the biggest changes. Those are the people who can see their culture for what it really is even before day one, even during that interview process. And it’s really important to listen to them and ask them questions about, “How is it here?” and “How are you being supported here?” and “What do you like about it here?” and “What should change?” Because those are the people who have the perspective that as a more seasoned employee or someone who’s been there for a couple of years, you don’t see these things. You need that fresh perspective. And early-career developers bring that perspective to you. They’re such a valuable resource on so many different levels.
TARA: Yeah, I would agree with that. Even though as I was thinking about it, in some ways your junior developers are going to be the canary in your company, right? And hopefully, they…
TARA: Hopefully they thrive. We don’t want to go around… oh dear, I’ve stumbled into a metaphor about killing junior developers.
TARA: But hopefully the canary thrives. Let’s just focus on that. We want the canary to thrive at the company. And if your canary is not thriving, there are changes that need to be made, absolutely.
CORALINE: Tara, are there things that we did not cover yet that you’d like to have us talk about?
TARA: There are so many different things. You know, I will say that we touched a little bit on the fact that I work remotely. And that is another thing that can be revealed in a technical interview about what technology is set up for that interview experience. How thoughtful are the people interviewing you about timezones, if timezones are going to play a part in the role. And how well does the company work asynchronously? Those are some good questions to ask in a tech interview if you are in a position like I am where you’re going to be working remotely, and how does the company thrive like that? I think we’ve come up with some good questions both to ask and be asked and some not-so-great questions about that.
But some of those good questions to ask, if being a remote employee is important to you, is going to be, how do you work asynchronously with your colleagues? How is that supported? For example, in my current place of business there’s a strong focus on working asynchronously and stand-ups are done via a Slack bot sort of an experience. And they fly all of the remote employees or whatever means of travel, horse I suppose if you wanted to travel by horse, that could happen. But everybody comes to the headquarters in Baltimore quarterly. And I think having some awareness of the importance of bringing people together is also an important thing to ask. So, I suppose I’d just throw that in, since we did talk about tech interviews. For me, how the company is going to work with remote employees is a really important factor.
CORALINE: That’s such an amazing point, because the interview experience itself can tell you. Like, do they expect you to interview at 8am Eastern Time?
CORALINE: Is it ironic when you’re interviewing for a remote position and they want all the interviews to happen at headquarters?
TARA: Yeah. And you know what? You bring up a very specific example. When I did accept the position that I am currently in, I had made it through the on-camera and phone interview experience and they wanted me to fly out to New York. And part of me really wanted to not fly to headquarters. And in fact, I’ve actually never gotten a job after an in-person headquarters experience. I’ve certainly gotten in-person interviews, but not flying to a headquarters that isn’t in my city. And part of me just thought, “You know, if we can’t make this decision without me flying across the country, then maybe that isn’t a good fit for a remote employee.”
SAM: Yeah. Another really, like this is really basic one, but one conversation that I have had in the past is if I’m interviewing for a company that happens to be located in my hometown and I ask them how they feel about working from home, that’s going to give you some information, too. It’s like, “Oh yeah, we work from home whenever it suits us and however it works and we’ve set ourselves up in such a way that it doesn’t really matter that much where you are because we have a remote-first approach,” versus, “Well, you know some people work from home one day a week. And we could see about maybe getting that to two.” Even that will tell you something about how they approach remote work and to some degree what their level of trust is in you as a potential employee.
ASTRID: Yeah, I never understand why it’s such a big deal. I always feel like if I come to work and I put my headphones on and I sit here all day and work, then why do I have to be here to do that? Especially if I have to commute to do it and now I’m taking time to get there, and then because the commute is bad I have to take time to get into the mode of working. And then I have to gear up for the commute later. I mean, why would you… I guess it’s just hard for me to understand why there is this resistance to having employees work remotely. Like, what is it that you think is happening that you can’t see? Because the way I feel about it is, if you have employees who aren’t working, they can not work in your office. That happens all the time.
ASTRID: But you should deal with those employees, as opposed to make some sort of big company-wide rule as though it’s kindergarten and we want to make sure everyone plays inside the fence. I really hate that kind of mentality.
CORALINE: But Astrid, how can they look over your shoulder and see what website you’re browsing if you’re at home?
CORALINE: I know, spyware.
SAM: Corporate spyware.
ASTRID: I need to browse those websites. They’re important for my process.
TARA: You know, I need to check in on social media before I dig into the next big project. That’s just how it works. But I will say, actually that experience is how I got into tech. My last position where I worked for somebody else before I got into tech, I was an Assistant Dean for a university PhD program. And we were not allowed to wear jeans to work. And there was one day that just stands out into my mind where I got dressed in the… there was a skirt involved and there was I think, I don’t know if it was a blouse, but it was a shirt of some sort. And I got…
SAM: Battle gear.
TARA: [Laughs] Battle gear is what I got into. And I parked my car. I walked up the back stairs into my office, which it happened that nobody else in my particular large room was working that day. They were off-site or something like that. So I went into my cubicle and I sat there and I did my job all day long. And then I departed in my skirt. And nobody saw me even once. No one saw me at all. And I thought, “Why did I show up here? Why couldn’t I wear jeans here?” And I made it like a career goal. I wanted to wear jeans and t-shirt every day for the rest of my life. And I thought, where can I do that? And I thought, tech. Those tech folks know what’s going on. They are wearing…
TARA: Jeans and t-shirts. And then it sort of built up on that that I became a remote employee as well. But I still wear jeans and t-shirts every day. And I have made that a career goal and a career achievement. So, I’m pretty excited about that. But honestly, that remote, I don’t know why people want to drive into a place, especially if there’s no one there to see you and what websites you’re surfing. I don’t know why people want to do that.
SAM: And for all you listeners who can’t actually see this, Tara is in fact wearing her Greater Than Code t-shirt today. Thank you, Tara.
TARA: I am happy to do so. I’m also wearing jeans. I realize they’re off-camera. But trust me, it’s happening.
SAM: I believe you.
CORALINE: Sam, for those listeners who want a Greater Than Code t-shirt, what are their options?
SAM: Well, one of their options would be to go back in time to last week and catch up with me at RubyConf. Mandy shipped me literally 22 pounds of t-shirts to give away and I’ve spent two days of RubyConf dragging my carry-on around full of t-shirts and giving them away to anybody I could find. But perhaps a more reliable and non-causality-violating way to do that would be to join us and sponsor us on Patreon. If you go to Patreon.com/GreaterThanCode you can sign up at any level and we’ll get you into your Slack community. But I believe $25 a month is the level at which we will send you your very own t-shirt. Somewhere in there, there’s a level that will get you stickers as well.
CORALINE: Awesome. Tara, it’s been a great conversation. We always end our conversations with our guests with taking time to reflect on the conversation that we’ve had and think about what stood out for us and things that maybe we want to turn over in our brains a little while after the conversation is over. And I think one of the topics we opened up with really touched me, and that’s talking about patience and kindness. And I worry that I’m not as patient as I should be. I’m definitely not very patient with myself. I get frustrated with myself very, very easily. I’m definitely kinder to other people than I am to myself. And you immediately focused on being kind to yourself when we were talking about that, and being patient with yourself, and being comfortable being still with yourself. That’s something I really want to work on and that’s something I really want to reflect on. So, thank you for bringing that to the conversation.
TARA: I have been thinking about that quite a bit. And because I think I also mentioned at the beginning of the conversation that I do sometimes have trouble with kindness or I struggle with things that I don’t necessarily like. And I’ve come to realize that especially with people, that the things that I don’t necessarily like in another people is something that I don’t like in myself. And so, I’ve found that if I’m kinder to myself, I can be kinder to other people who reflect those qualities that I struggle with in my own world. So, what you’ve just said and our conversation that we had earlier has made me really think about that a little more. And I too am going to work on my own kindness.
ASTRID: So, mine is actually something that you said, Coraline, when you were relaying the experience that you had for the person who you were interviewing. And what I like about that conversation you had with the other interviewer regarding that junior developer is that it’s a great reminder that software development is something you can always continue to improve at. But being a certain type of person who is easy to work with, someone who is open to learning, that’s something that you really need to put as a priority number one. Especially as someone like me who’s newer to this whole environment, there’s a lot of emphasis on specific skills and wanting to master those skills and less emphasis on being, I guess having a certain mindset about what it means to be a software developer. And I think it’s good to have a reminder that being a certain type of person can be in a lot of ways more valuable than just a specific skill. Because being a certain type of person will allow you to gain those skills in a meaningful way that can be used and then also be useful on a team.
CORALINE: One point of clarification. This was not an early-career developer that we were interviewing.
ASTRID: Oh, okay.
CORALINE: Which is why… I would definitely be more patient with someone who is earlier on, but I was like…
ASTRID: No shade, Coraline. No shade.
CORALINE: “This person is going for a mid-level role. Shouldn’t they know this already?”
CORALINE: And I was happy to be corrected on that point. But, thank you.
TARA: I do want to hear Sam’s reflections, but before we do, I want to say that you did make me think about how important it is. We do need to build up our skills that make us the kind of person that we want to work with. We want to be the right person for the right company. But at the same time, I do think having that awareness that especially when we’re interviewing people, that they don’t need to necessarily be like us to be a person that we want to work with, and that even being different from us can be an asset to the company as a whole, just having those many different perspectives and those many different assets and strengths. I want somebody obviously who I can get along with and work well with, but I am trying to be more cognizant of the fact that someone who isn’t like me is still bringing strong, important strengths to the company, or could if we hire them.
CORALINE: Yeah, definitely.
SAM: Well, after all that mine may be a little disappointing. But let’s go ahead anyway. So, one of the things that I took away from this is that apparently I really need to watch the show Halt and Catch Fire.
ASTRID: It’s an awesome show.
SAM: So, I have added it to my Netflix list and will sit down and try to watch it sometime soon. I also really liked, really to echo what we were just talking about, this idea that interviewing somebody should be about finding out how they think and not necessarily which set of facts they happen to know at the moment, or even which set of facts they can retrieve at the moment. And I have a lot of experience on one side of the interviewing table. But as I spend more time interviewing other people, that’s something that I really could stand to remember. So, thank you for highlighting that again.
CORALINE: This has been a really great conversation. Tara, I want to thank you for coming on the show and for being so open and being so honest and sharing your experiences and your thoughts. And just, thank you.
TARA: Thank you so much for having me. It’s not often that I get to talk with people who aren’t Lulu the cat [Laughs] during the day. So, this has been a delight.
CORALINE: And thank you to all our listeners and we will talk to you again very soon.
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