Skip to main content.

Sara McCombs - Learning to leverage your past experience and embrace your whole self

Season 2, Episode 8 | May 24, 2021

In this episode of the podcast we talk to Sara McCombs, a software engineer, team lead, and Community Maintainer at Virtual Coffee, about how to leverage your past experience, talk about transferable skills, and owning your wins as an early career developer.


Sara McCombs profile photo
Sara McCombs

Sara is a published former research director turned software engineer and team lead at Aiera, as well as a community engagement leader at Project Alloy. She is also one of the original organizers, and a current community maintainer, at Virtual Coffee. Sara is passionate about diversity and inclusion, and has written frequently about her journey into tech. She has an M.Ag and a B.S.Ag from West Virginia University, and is a 2020 graduate of Flatiron School.

Show Notes:

In this episode of the podcast, Dan and Bekah talk with Sara McCombs. Sara is a software engineer and team lead at Aiera, and also one of the original organizers, and a current Community Maintainer, at Virtual Coffee. Sara shared her thoughts on how to think and talk about transferable skills, leveraging past experience to differentiate yourself, and the importance of embracing that past experience as part of your journey and strengths. She also talked about the impact of career changes, promotions, and overcoming self-doubt.

Links:


Sponsor Virtual Coffee!

Your support is incredibly valuable to us. Direct financial support will help us to continue serving the Virtual Coffee community.

Please visit our sponsorship page on GitHub for more information - you can even sponsor an episode of the podcast!

Virtual Coffee:

Transcript:

Bekah:

Hello, and welcome to season two, episode eight of the virtual coffee podcast. I'm Bekah. And this is a podcast that features members of the Virtual Coffee community. Virtual Coffee is an intimate group of developers at all stages of their coding journey. And they're here on this podcast, sharing their stories and what they've learned. And we're here to share it with you. Here with me today, is my cohost Dan.

Dan:

Thanks Bekah. We have a fantastic episode today. We got the chance to sit down with Sarah McCombs. Sara is a software engineer and a team lead at Aiera. But more importantly to us, at least, Sara is one of the original organizers and current Community Maintainer at a little online community you may have heard of called Virtual Coffee. We talked about Sara's unique career arc, how she was able to leverage past experiences to differentiate herself and how she has found some success by embracing her history and her own unique skills and strengths.

Bekah:

We start every episode of the podcast. Like we start every Virtual Coffee. We introduce ourselves with our name where we're from, what we do and a random check-in question. Today's question is: If you could have a theme song, what would it be? We hope you enjoy this episode. Hey, I'm Bekah. I'm a front end developer from a small town in Ohio. And if I could have a theme song, this is a little bit hard because I, my music is based on mood. And so I like to listen to a lot of sad music. Um, but I would probably want something that gives me energy and. I guess we'll go with, We Will Rock You by Queen. Cause that sounds good.

Sara:

that's a good one.

Bekah:

Or Rocky soundtrack, you know?

Dan:

Um, hi, my name is Dan. I'm a front end developer from Lakewood, Ohio. Yeah. If I could have a theme song. So is this like an aspirational theme song or a, um, accurate theme song? Um, the first thing, the first song that popped into my mind was a song. By a band called The Head and the Heart called Lost in my Mind. Um, it's a pretty good song and that's, that's what I'm going to go with. It's probably accurate. And you know, it's not actually really sad or anything. It's, it's pretty good. But anyway, that's it.

Sara:

Hi, I'm Sara. I'm a software engineer from Boston, Massachusetts. If I had a theme song, um, I would have to pick something that I a always sing to because that's what a theme song should be, um, be sing horribly too, because you're just, you don't care. Um, and I kinda, I don't know, I feel weird admitting this it's a Post Malone song. Um, is it sunflower? Um, that just makes me so happy and I don't care what I'm doing, what I'm in the middle of. I will stop and turn that up. And that just feels like that that should be my theme song.

Bekah:

I love it.

Dan:

Yeah, that's

Bekah:

I love sunflowers. I, when I was a community organizer, I used to drive to this small community in rural Pennsylvania, and there was this huge field of sunflowers and it was like, it was fun to watch it through the stages because it grows up and then they're all happy. And then like when sunflower flowers die, they get really sad. It's a full moon.

Sara:

they look depressed. They're like depressed flowers, they're flowers with anxiety or something. I don't know. I love it.

Bekah:

I enjoy it. I think I wrote a poem about it once. Um, thanks so much for being here with us today, Sara, we are very happy to have you on the podcast. Um, and we'll just, we'll just kick it off. Uh, we like to start with the origin story and you've got a very interesting one. So we love to hear how you got from where you were into software engineering.

Sara:

Absolutely. Um, yeah, I do have an interesting story. Um, I never know where to begin. Uh, really, uh, so this may be all over the place, but that's kind of the point of a podcast, right? You just, you just talk and you end up wherever you end up. Um, so. I did actually intend to go into computer science many, many, many years ago. I had a love of computers since I was very little. I have memories of my mom's saving money to buy a Tandy computer. I wish I could remember the model, but I don't. That's like, I always want to pick the 1000, but I don't think that was it. Um, but sitting next to her while she was learning DOS and I'm learning letters from a book that is like three inches thick. And I would just read the commands off to her and it was great because it was like, ah, changing directory. Okay. There's a C there's a D you know, um, so she learned that I learned that way. Fast forward many, many, many years graduated high school with a full scholarship for computer science to WVU Was not exactly welcomed there, unfortunately, uh, I have, uh, lots of things to be said about that, but it discouraged me greatly. And I left, I, uh, rescinded my, or gave up my full scholarship and decided to pursue other interests of mine, which were agriculture. Obviously my interest in tech being what they were. I ended up working in a nice niche of ag and technology. Um, I worked, Oh my gosh. I, I loved what I did. Um, working with ag tech tools to identify, feed efficiency in livestock. I could have a whole podcast episode on that. But that really, really showed me, like I was not done with this. I was not over it. I ended up actually had to learn rails. Working as a research director, because the communications team wouldn't spend time to build the templates, to display my data properly. And it was just like, I can do this. It's fine. Um, and that was really when I realized I wanted to do that. Um, instead try to get back into it. Did some freelance stuff. Um, really didn't gain traction living in West Virginia, it was just really hard. Uh, the local market industry is, um, I guess pretty small, pretty close remote, really. Wasn't a thing, um, that I had my daughter and, you know, there's that moment when you have a baby and you're holding them and you're looking down and you're just like, What do I want to teach them? You know, I want to teach them not to have any regrets. And then you start thinking about, you know, regrets that you have. And it was like, I have unfinished business, you know, I have unfinished business in the tech industry. Um, so I decided to fix that. And I went into Flatiron, I did the Flatiron online program for software engineering. Um, graduated with that met great people in the Virtual Coffee community and. Ended up with the job where I am now, um, through some great networking and, and I could not be here.

Bekah:

So awesome. Um, so for those of you who are joining us and haven't been around for an entire year, uh, Sara is one of our original organizers of Virtual Coffee and she and I met in person almost two years ago at a conference in Pittsburgh. Um, and I'm Flatiron in grad, too. We had like the little Flatiron group going on and, um, Sara is much taller than I am.

Dan:

it's funny. You guys look the same height here on my screen.

Sara:

well on zoom, nobody has legs. So

Dan:

We're all just the same height, right?

Bekah:

Yeah. So it's been really great to, you know, pair with Sara and both of us, like kind of growing at similar times, right? Like I was learning and you were learning. And at some point I think I was a little bit ahead of you, but it just was really nice to, you know, have that relationship with someone who was going through these things and understood all of the challenges that we were facing. And to have someone like jump in and say like, Hey, let's do this, you know,

Sara:

Yeah. Yeah. And it was, it was really your learning in public, um, on Twitter. I mean, that was, that was how you and I connected, even with as close as we were geographically. Like there was nothing that forced us to meet other than you posting on Twitter learning and public being vulnerable saying, Hey, I'm learning to try and make a tutorial on how to create an SVG in Figma. I'm just like, I don't know anything about Figma. I'm the perfect subject matter expert on if this tutorial is great or not. Um, and I watched it and gave you feedback and then you're like, Hey, we should talk your, your, your semi-local to me, uh, found out we're both going to this conference. So we, we made it, we made a point to grab coffee of all things,

Bekah:

And that is where it started.

Sara:

and that's where it started.

Bekah:

Yeah. So you're, I, I feel like you just have so much history that you're right. We could have spent like four hours on just like how you got here. And Sara is the, um, the head of random agricultural facts at

Sara:

I think, yeah, I think it's called Cow Facts. Uh, they all have a tendency to be cows, but it's really livestock related facts. Yeah. That's me.

Bekah:

And so you've, you like made this really big transition, right? And like, I love how you've bridged your past experience with your experience now, like even like in conversations, but what you're doing. And I know that talking about transferable skills is really hard and that's something that, like, we hear a lot about that. So, you know, like how have you been able to leverage that experience to support where you are now? Or like, what does that process look like?

Sara:

um, Transferable skills is a soap box that I willingly jump on. I think every opportunity I get, um, if you've ever been in and been in a breakout room with me at Virtual Coffee, you will know I go there. Um, it, it was kind of a multifaceted process. I mean, I don't think there was ever like an intentional, like, I must do this process to see these things, but. We all have imposter syndrome. Like you hear it. W I'm glad that people talk about it. I'm glad that it's a public thing. I mean, let's talk about imposter syndrome as much as we talk about mental health, you know, because for me, they're, they're one in the same believing that you can do something and recognizing that you are already skilled for something before you begin is a huge weight lifted off of anyone's shoulders. Um, but it's also sometimes hard for us to recognize that. There are skillsets that we have from other industries, other jobs, other aspects of life, um, that empowers to do our job, you know, in the, in the tech industry. Well, um, the biggest one that, you know, I always think about is, uh, one that I can relate to is, is becoming a mom. I mean, there's no like. Aspiring moms, like, you know, I used to say I was aspiring, you know, software engineers, just like, well, what is an aspiring software engineer? Like what, when does an aspiring software engineer stop being an aspiring software engineer? Like what, what's that threshold? What's the success metric for it? And I realized, you know, with being a mom, it was like, I had a baby. So now I'm a mom and I'm going to do mom things. I have no idea about how to be a mom. I'm a first time mom, but I'm going to reach out to other individuals who are more experienced to me. So my senior developers, I'm going to read any documentation. I can find AKA every book that is free from the library on what to do when your baby does X or what to expect when you're expecting that's documentation for motherhood. There's going to be support groups. You know, there's gonna be a local mom's group. That's going to help you navigate things that you've never dealt with before, or, um, processes that you don't know how to deal with. Like, I'm still running into things, you know, with my daughter in preschool, it's like this week's teacher appreciation week. I don't know how we do this. Like, how do you, this is my first time, but I'm doing it and I'm doing it because I recognize that I can find the answers myself or find somebody who can help me find the answers. I know I can ask the questions. I know I can. Research enough on the internet to try to find some semblance of an answer and then take that research to someone more experienced than myself. My mom, you know, anyone else with parents that have more than one child and you know, than I do, um, and say, Hey, am I close? Is this right? Um, to ask those vulnerable questions of just like. I don't know how to change a baby. How do you change a baby? Nobody. There's no YouTube video on how to change a diaper. So you reach out and the nurse at the hospital will show you because she did. She looked at me a little, a little strangely and laughed, and I'm just like, I don't know how to do this, but I was never an aspiring mom. I was just a mom. You know, nobody made me less than because I was completely inexperienced, but I had the drive and the desire and. I guess, I don't know the pluckiness to just figure it out because honestly, I feel like that's what software engineering is. It's just figuring out one thing after another, you know, things change things evolve so quickly. Same with children, you know, how things work, how school systems work. Um, especially now since we're virtual, like we were all learning how to be parents of virtual school children, now. It's just recognizing that. We're not dictionaries. We don't just sit here and, and, you know, vomit out code for something that we've remembered in our head. We're recognizing patterns. We're recognizing when we don't know something to ask somebody else. It's just, you figure it out. You know, you engineer it, you find the solution. And it's hard to recognize, especially for a career changer like myself. That you already have skill sets and you already have abilities that you have harnessed for years because you've been a parent for X years, or you've been a manager in another industry for X years, or you've been in customer service for other years or you've been a customer in other years. Like it's sometimes it's just having your eyes open to like, Oh, I am, you know, empowered to do this. I do have skillsets. It's just a different. Industry. It's just a different problem, but the solution steps are potentially still the same. And I like, I like to have conversations about that because when I had that realization that I was not an aspiring engineer, I was just an engineer because I was doing the thing and it was dedicated to learning. And I was dedicating to doing it to the best of my ability and dedicated to taking feedback for when I could've been doing it better. I was just an engineer. And I want everyone else to kind of have that, that comfort, that satisfaction. So, yes, that's a soap box. I will willingly jump on.

Bekah:

I think it's great. And you've done such a good job supporting the members and telling them exactly these things that they need to hear. And I think last night I think it was last night. Somebody had been listening to the podcast from Virtual Coffee and they referenced a previous episode and said, Bekah, you said you never had any manager experience, but you're a mom of four kids. Like, what do you think you're doing? Yeah. It was hard to think about it in those different ways, but it is, you're always learning. You're always pivoting and making new decisions. And, you know, a lot of people will say like, well, you have four kids, you know, I don't know how you do it. And it's the same way that you do it in a job. Like if you have to do it, you will do it. You know?

Sara:

you just do the thing. Because you have to do the thing and that's no different than whenever at work. If I get, you know, um, assigned, you know, particular features that I have to implement, there's a lot of, a lot of the product that I don't even understand the finer details, the finer inner workings of how it works and that's okay because I figured it out. I know who to ask these questions of and you break apart the problem into achievable steps and you just do it, you just do the thing. And then when you're done, you sit there and you look at it, you're like, yeah. You know, pat yourself on the back, you, you achieved something. Awesome. And then you're going to get another task. And that process is going to start over and you're going to panic and you're going to be like, I don't know how to do this. Oh my gosh. Where do I start? Just like the previous problem. You start again.

Dan:

yeah. I love that. And like the idea of leaning back on those experiences like diaper changing, right. Is I had never changed a diaper before my first kid was born. Um, I don't think, uh, and definitely didn't know how to do it. Right. And definitely asked the I'm like, what is the right way to do, like do this? I'd read books, I'd read, read the docs, whatever, little different when you're there, but it, and it seemed. Hard and stressful, I suppose, thinking about it ahead of time. I mean, I know it did right. And now I've changed like 7 billion, billion trillion diapers, and it's like not a big deal. Right. And, you know, so it, so the idea of like leaning back on previous experiences from different fields and transferring skills, even if they're not like I don't have to change any diapers here at the office. But, but I have just like you were saying, I've been through that experience of like a thing seems scary and unknown. And I was like, and then I learned how to do it. And then I did it a bunch of times and now I'm like good at it. And that's something it's it's I love how you said that. It's, it's like very important and cool to be able to like, I don't know when you're feeling like that. Just to think back on other things that you have, you have done, you know, cause everybody's any, even if you, I mean, not even if, but if you don't have kids, you're still like a person who has moved through life. So, uh, th there's, there's lots of things to lean on in that way,

Bekah:

Yeah, I'm just kind of like going down this path of, I, you know, I wonder why it seems like such a struggle for so many people, um, to be moving into careers as software engineers. And I don't know if. It's, we don't learn a ton of new stuff as adults in the same way that we do as when we're kids, right? Like you're constantly learning something new and everything feels like a risk, but in adult life, there are, I feel like almost fewer of those risks, because you've kind of like built that up to this point. And I don't know if that's what makes it seem scary to move forward, but it is like, you know, essentially that idea of, you know, Being afraid, or I don't know if it's being afraid of failure. It's probably different for everyone. I guess it's being afraid of failure for me. So

Sara:

I would say it's probably different for everyone. I mean, I think that's a very valid comparison as well too. And one that I hadn't even thought of yet, but as children, every new day, every new life moment is something new. We potentially have never encountered it before. Or, you know, we've played on a playground before we fell off the slide, you know? And now we're just like, Oh, slides are scary. Yeah. But then we go to a new park and it's like, Oh, there's another slide, but maybe that slide's not scary. And that's like a natural as children. We don't think about that is, you know, learning and leaning on previous experiences to like navigate current experiences. Um, but we're trained to do that as children and as we get to adulthood, we may not do that as much anymore. And is that because we may stay in careers longer. I don't, I don't know is that because things are rapidly changing in this industry that it's like, I blink and there's new framework and there's, here's a new tool that I need to learn. Um, or you have individuals like, you know, us we're we're career changers, you know, we're, we're going from one industry to another, and now we're navigating a completely different set of construct rules, everything. Um, yeah,

Bekah:

I feel like I love that the whole, uh, the playground just makes a lot of sense to me, I think because you know, part of that playground, I think if you fall off that slide and you're the only kid on the playground, it's much harder to get back up on that side. Right. But like you see all these other kids and they're doing it and that just kind of gives you a little bit of confidence. And for a lot of us and a lot of people that we talk to they're navigating the transition into tech Oh alone, whether they're self-taught or in an online bootcamp. And there's, you know, a lack of value placed on community. But when you see other people around you doing it, like it does something, it gives you the energy sometimes that you need in those moments where you feel like, wow, I, you know, like fell off the slide and I need to get back on.

Sara:

it's also important when you have community, because I have never. I've never succeeded at a hard thing alone. Um, I've always needed community in some aspect, whether that was like a micro circle of friends that I leaned upon that just, I w I was vulnerable to, or like Virtual Coffee, a much larger community. Um, using the playground as an analogy, you know, as an example, when you fall off that side, you sometimes also need a person that says, Hey, I'm scared to do the slide again. Can you help me? And you need to have a great community and empathetic understanding compassionate community that doesn't laugh at you because you're saying the side is easy and the person you're telling that to, it's just like, Oh, this slide's not a big deal. It's just, you know, it's only two feet long. It's like, no, we don't need that. You know, we need someone that grabs your hand says, Hey let's do it together. And that's, that's something that I've needed to reach where I am and something I will always need and will always provide to other people.

Bekah:

Yeah. And, you know, I think that, you know, capturing that idea of self doubt, being such a big obstacle for career changers and for new developers and, you know, people who have been in the industry for a long time, but maybe are going up for promotion or didn't get that promotion. That's really hard to navigate when, when you're by yourself, you know,

Sara:

Yes. Uh, even if you wanted to potentially go ask somebody, is this right? Can I get advice? Can, can I have some mentorship or can you just hold my hand when I go get on this new slide? Um, Nobody needs to do anything alone and nobody needs to feel that sense of isolation. we're all learning. We're all doing this together.

Bekah:

Yeah. And I think too, you know, this idea of like leveraging your past, all this stuff that you were saying about that, that clicks for me here in a lot of ways too, because I know that sometimes when I'm afraid to try something new, then I it's important for me to lean on the things that I know really well. And it's leveraging that experience or, you know, I, I spent a while thinking like, I taught English for 10 years and I was a community organizer for a little while. Like I want to run from that. I don't want to do that anymore. This is why I'm making this transition. And within the last, I don't know, even a couple of months, I felt like, you know what, leaning on those things and, and remembering what I've learned from that can really benefit me from this, from it in this moment. So it's not like a rejection of that past. It's like, let's embrace these two things together.

Sara:

Yeah. Yeah. And for me personally, in those moments, it's when I reflected on it after the fact, it's helped me to understand how far I've come as well of just like, Oh, okay. Even though this the situation, you know, I, you know, in my job, current job was, was new for me, that thing in the past, you know, my, my previous career helped me. Like I've grown. Like it's a, it's a metric to really say, like, I I've, I've grown up, I'm achieving things. Like I recognized how much personal growth I've had that I hadn't really been aware of until I hit a moment when I would have paused a little bit more, I would have had a little bit more self doubt and, everything in my past is helped me get to where I am now and recognizing that I can use it is very comforting.

Bekah:

Yeah, for sure. And I think, you know, sometimes it takes a minute to get to that. I think in a lot of circumstances and that's hard. I don't know how to teach that. Like, is there a way to teach that? I think that maybe you just have to discover that for yourself, but I wish that I could help more people discover that

Sara:

That's why there's community it's to have people around you that are your personal cheerleaders that care, that will remind you why you're awesome. And remind you that you can do the thing because you've done X other hard thing. It's I think community. It's there's no, nothing really to teach. It's a feeling it's a sense of belonging. It's a sense of being supported. It's a sense of, um, being a powered as who you are not because you need to learn X or you need to learn Y. Like we all need to learn X and we all need to learn Y. We just have different experiences that we can leverage to find a solution. So leverage them because. If you learn X and you learn Y and you're just like everybody else, you're going to achieve the same answer, potentially just as everybody else, it takes diverse backgrounds. It takes leaning upon diverse previous experiences and those transferable skills to find new solutions to things, new processes, you know, new features for a product that potentially an existing team had not thought of before. It's these transferable skills that bring diversity to a team, you know, in regards to how an individual approaches a problem and finds the solution.

Bekah:

Yeah. And so I feel like there's a twofold problem here or not a problem, but situation. I don't know. So it's. In your own mind thinking like I can leverage this and then like the second part of that is now, how do I leverage that and get other people to see

Sara:

Yes. Right,

Bekah:

I don't know. Do you have any tips there that would

Sara:

Uh be your authentic self. Um, it has always worked for me. I, I find embracing my past and sharing what I've learned, hence the random cow facts, uh, happened Virtual Coffee. Um, As a safe way to show everyone else in the community, and those that I interact with that, like my past is still relevant. It's still part of who I am. Um, and embracing that and having conversations around that demonstrate some of these skills to individuals. That's what sets you apart from everybody else right now? And that's you, that's not something you can learn. That's not, not a certificate that you can achieve and then put on a resume. It's it's, you know, the fact that, you know, for an ag tech company, I'm an extremely, you know, good looking candidate because I have. Agricultural background. I have knowledge that I can lean upon, you know, and I have skillsets to potentially better understand how a farmer might use a particular product, because, well, I worked with that farmer and I, you know, I supported that farmer and, um, it's those points that we need to not hide and showcase. Um, I, I'm struggling to remember a quote that I saw on Twitter this morning, but it was spot on, but it was talking about leaning into what makes you unique because if you don't lean into it, somebody else will. And that person will be who gets set apart from others. and I, I find that to always be very true a for the fact that it highlights my transferable skills, it highlights these additional knowledge sets that could be very beneficial to an employer, but it also. Reminds me of who I am. And why I'm, you know, I don't want to say off, cause that sounds so unhumble, but like, you know why I am awesome. It's like, and it makes me feel comfortable to be myself more in communities that it, it helps me to overcome the negative feedback that I've heard in the past of like, well, How can you be a software engineer? If you have a degree in dirt, which is literally been what I've been told, um, what can we now, um, you can, you know?

Bekah:

Do you go back and like find those people and just send them your resume. Is that, is that what we're supposed to do?

Sara:

isn't that what LinkedIn's for mean? I don't know. Um, no, I haven't, trust me the want's there, um, But I did get to turn down a job offer to an employer, but I didn't quite, I wasn't rude. Um, I, as much as I wanted to say it just like, yeah, you undervalued me and you gave me stress for the fact that I didn't have a CS degree. And, um, I'm so sorry that I only have a bachelor's and a master's degree in another, you know, uh, technical field. Apparently not enough and not relevant for my ability to somehow tell you that I can learn a lot. But yeah, I just said, no, I would like to

Dan:

Seems like a good call, maybe.

Sara:

Tik Toks for that, you know, where you just flex, like overcoming those things,

Dan:

I was thinking more like, um, like mailing them a box of dirt or something, you know?

Bekah:

Okay.

Sara:

wouldn't be dirt. It wouldn't be

Dan:

Well, sure. Right. Yeah. Cow products.

Bekah:

Bye. Oh, can we just get a shade button on LinkedIn? Like I would,

Sara:

I know, right?

Bekah:

that feature. Okay.

Dan:

Yeah. Flex, flex button. that. Okay.

Bekah:

yeah, and I think, you know, this idea of transferable skills and really showing what makes you unique and awesome. It really. A good way to figure out how to, I think, leverage that maybe is really through networking, right? Because you can walk into a room full of people. And if everybody is talking about the same thing, Oh, I made this to do app or whatever, like that's great, but who are they gonna remember? They're gonna remember the cow lady, right? Like.

Sara:

Yeah. Yeah, I would, I would agree with that. And, um, that, that kind of is a little bit of how I got my job now. I reached out to Bryan Healey in our Virtual Coffee community, um, trying to get into the ag tech, uh, side of things. Um, see if he had any connections. Um, he didn't really, um, but. You know, it, it eventually turned into, okay. Let's, let's talk about the jobs that you're applying to. Let's, let's, let's look at your resume a little bit. Let's, let's talk about these things. And the conversation started to unfolding more and more and more, as I talked about what I've done and things I built, um, both personally professionally processes I've, you know, made and improved and it turned into like, wow, okay. You, you might, you know, not have two to five years, you know, software engineering experience, like most, most jobs required. But I, I recognize that you're a person that I literally can throw into the deep end and you're going to swim. And I've done that. And I'm happy as a clam that I get to wear five hats at work. And I, um, to have this, uh, what, what was the phrase like to use the fire hose of information to my face constantly of just like what is going on at work? What needs to change? What needs to happen? Things are moving so fast, but I'm absorbing it all and I'm loving it. And, um, it was that networking that genuinely showing up as my authentic self, talking about my past, um, that really helped me to showcase. I mean, I'm not going to say that like doing that, it's just going to, you know, get you job offers to everybody that you do that too, but people will talk and you'll get known as the cow lady. In communities and they'll be like, Hey, you know, I think she could probably handle whatever you're going to throw at her. So like maybe go talk to her. and that's what happens, you know?

Bekah:

Yeah. When, like, since you've been there, it's just been, I feel like you've been sprinting the entire time. Right. Because I would love to like dive a little bit into that timeline because it was like, Oh, we're going to hire Sara. Oh, she's awesome. We're going to hire her more. Oh, she's awesome. We're gonna.

Sara:

Yeah,

Bekah:

not yet, but that's like, you know,

Sara:

I threatened that. Um,

Bekah:

but like walk through that because that process is intense. Right? You have accomplished so much in a very short amount of time there.

Sara:

Yes. So I was originally hired as a contractor, um, and that was supposed to be for, cause obviously hiring during COVID it was, you know, strange times and, um, there was a need, but with the way things were going, hiring was frozen in a lot of places. And I was, I was happy to just have an opportunity. I was happy to like basically say, Hey, you know? Yep. I'll prove myself. You know, I'll work as a, as a part-time contractor. That's great. You know, that'll a, it ultimately helps me, um, Add something to my resume, get some experience, uh, learn how to work with a large, large team of much more senior engineers. But it also gave me a chance to prove myself to the company. And if it didn't end up transitioning into a full-time job, which was the ultimate goal, great, no harm, no foul, you know, I still come out of it with experience. Um, I think that lasted a month. Um, things went so well. Uh, there was a need, they recognized that I could fill the need. Um, there was a conversation of like, okay, we're immediately going to be doubling your work hours. You will responsible for X, Y, Z, and one, two, three. And that was fine. It was a little intimidating, but what's the worst thing I could do. Like get some experience and like learn how not to do a thing. Um, you know, that was, that was how I approached it. And. I ended up transitioning to a full-time employee and yeah. Um, startup life is, is rapidly evolving. Every day is chaos. I love it. Some days are more chaos than others. But I got comfortable with my team really fast. Like I, for a while, quite a while was the most junior individual there. Everybody knew each other. Everybody had worked together for years. But I just decided to just have a one-on-one with everyone. Talk to them, recognize they're human recognize of who I could go to, for what reason, for questions. I specifically made that a point in my one-on-ones with everyone to say, if I have a problem, what can you help me with? Um, and I just started, I just started doing things and I just slightly leaned into I guess, a phrase that I was taught when I worked for the university of was it's better to ask forgiveness than permission. So I would just start writing documentation of just like, well, this is lacking, this is missing, you know, write this down because I'm doing it. And it was the perfect time. Um, and then I started recognizing that, Oh, Oh, this is somewhere that I can really contribute because documentation's kind of out of date because everyone here has already got their environment set up. And like, you know, this is a place that I can contribute. Um, And then I started as I'm learning and going through other parts of our product and our process, seeing things that just need tweaked. And it started just being a lot of tweaking and then a lot of tweaking turned into, okay, well, we're going to, we're going to give you this part of the product now. And you're gonna own this and you're gonna learn it and you're gonna be responsible for it. And. Again, process improvement, tweaking, seeing what I could do or asking questions, um, asking for examples in, in the existing code base, whenever I would need to do a feature that I was just like, I don't know. I don't know how you want me to do this. Like never done this before, but I'll figure it out. Um, yeah. And now I'm in charge of a team of people and hiring, unfortunately, firing. Um, that's not fun part by the way. Doing a lot of documentation, a lot of process improvement. Yeah, I love it. And it's, it's been nonstop and it's really started with kind of leaning back on my agricultural experience of like, when you show up on a farm, the cows are not going to tell you what's wrong. You just stand there, look at it, make a lot of observations, do a little bit research, you know? And then just start trying stuff, see what works. Um, you might have to MacGyver it. You might have to get the baling twine out. You might have to get the duct tape out. You might have to like, make it look ugly. So it works. That's fine. You just might need to fix the fence for five minutes. Like, so the cows stay in tomorrow. You're going to refactor your code base and it will be pretty efficient and performance. And that's kind of how I started. And. That's worked very well for me. Um, I will say there's no cows in our code base. Um, but the process still works. You know, I can do a thing that achieves the feature and then thankfully with the help of my more senior team, over time, I've, I've gotten better at developing the proper style for how I do things. So my naming, my variables, uh, separating things properly apart with how we're currently doing it for code base, all of these things. And it's because I just dove in, because I recognize that I've done this before with farm animals when they can't tell you what hurts,

Dan:

a little bit of structured YOLO

Sara:

I've Structured YOLO. Oh my gosh. Yes. I yes, it is always structured YOLO.

Dan:

Um, so Yeah, so I mean, that was a lot, I mean,

Sara:

Yeah.

Dan:

you know, no, that was, that's not what I meant, but I just mean, like Bekah said, you have accomplished so much, you know, in, in what is it? Less than a year? Something I,

Sara:

yeah. Like seven months.

Dan:

So one of the jumps in there that you

Bekah:

I just want to highlight that Sara said seven months. So all of that stuff that she said she's done has been in the past seven months.

Sara:

I like

Bekah:

deserved a moment.

Dan:

That's what I meant by. That was a lot. And, and, Yeah. so, I mean, one of the, you kind of like jumped over a little bit. Um, but the going from like just solely individual contributor role to managing a team, um, for me, it seems like a pretty big step, And so I kinda remember you talking about it when it happened a little bit, but I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about like, what, what that was like, how your job changed, how you approached it, you know, that kind of thing.

Sara:

Yeah, absolutely. Um, it was terrifying, um, because now I recognize that, I'm responsible for, uh, people, their livelihood, you know, their jobs. Um, and I think helping to hire someone for our support team was really how my company recognized that, Oh, she can do this. Um, cause I was the one that led the interview. Um, I led all the interviews for that particular hire

Dan:

So that was a hire. I'm sorry to interrupt, but that was a real, that was for a role that was not your ma like that you wouldn't be like, this is just a separate role that,

Sara:

yes, It was a separate support role for our product and they let me do the interview, um, because I was learning this part of the process product I was going to be, um, being primarily the person that they reported to, even though I wasn't at that point in time, uh, I guess I don't see it designate their supervisor or their manager. Um, but I was just like the first point of contact. So at that time I probably would have been, you know, a lead of some sort, I guess, if you had to put a, really a term on it, but, um, just the person that they went to before I went to the next level. Um, but yeah, it, I did an interview. It, it went very well. Um, I started, you know, touching base with all of them. And it was terrifying because now I have seven people that look at me of like, Hey, I need help with X or, um, my time sheets messed up or, um, any, any other access issue. Um, but I. I just kind of approached it like I would anybody else in the community that I'm in of just like, Hey, I have a problem. Um, but I, I also kind of took note of who they were, you know, I networked with them a little bit. I, I wanted to know what their interests were, um, what their overarching goals were, uh, with, with the job here, with their career, so that I can understand is there, are there opportunities internal that I can. See them grow into and that's happened quite a few. She got quite a few times with our agents. Um, can I help them grow internally with their career? And that's, that's terrifying. Um, but it feels great because, um, again, I structured YOLO. I just did it and I, I remembered what it was like to be an employee somewhere of what I would like a manager to do. And I recognize that, you know, I might be restricted in certain situations. I can't make everybody have a thousand dollars an hour, you know, wage, even if I would like them to. Um, but I can advocate on their behalf to make sure that they're, they're not, you know, making less than they should. Uh, I will always do that. Um, but it was. I don't know, it was terrifying at first. Um, but I've, I've grown into it and I've, I'm enjoying it and I'm enjoying seeing them grow. And I'm enjoying seeing them slide into, you know, different roles that they're, they're excelling in and I'm enjoying that relationship, um, that I have with all of them. I feel like I'm, I'm, I'm meandering now on the, on the topic. So

Dan:

No, no, no. This is exactly what I

Sara:

wrangle me back on topic.

Dan:

no, no, this is, this is exactly what I want to talk about. I like the. This transition from individual contributor to manager is always a interesting thing, you know? Um, and, and so every, every time we have somebody that has gone through that, I, I ended up just trying to dig in a little bit because I liked to learn about it. You know, I like hearing about it. And, um, it's one of those interesting things in our industry where it's like, Lots of times, it seems like there's just a ceiling, you know, um, on how far you can go as an individual contributor and then like the only choices management after that, you know, um, which I w I would say is not always true, but, um, but I do like, right. And, well, absolutely. And, um, but I like hearing about like, and sharing what that transition is like, like what the difference is,

Sara:

yeah.

Dan:

between, you know, between the two, the two roles, um,

Sara:

I definitely reached out a lot. Um, either the individuals, um, within the company of just like, how do I navigate X situation? You know? How often should I have one-on-ones, how often should I do this process with my team? Um, which was incredibly helpful, but I also. Looked to other individuals, especially in that Virtual Coffee community, um, who are managers who onboard people, who, who, uh, support new hires to just say what is going well for you? Um, and seeing if I can take that and implement it internally, um, just to be the best that I can at my role, but also to support my employees the best that we can. Um, so being willing to. Take advice from everywhere was, was definitely helpful.

Dan:

Yeah, I love that. Do you find yourself writing like a lot less code, like doing a lot less, you know, IC kind of work.

Sara:

Oh yes. Um, just by the very nature, I'm now busy with process improvement process, you know, well creating there's some processes that don't exist, um, that we are creating now. Um, but I actually. I focus more on internal tooling, um, and just ensuring that our tooling is built, uh, and in a fashion that can support our current processes as well as any upcoming processes, which is nice. Um, I occasionally still implement features within our product that enable our current processes or new processes to happen properly. Um, so like I have minor changes in our, in our existing code bases now, but. Yeah, I do do less coding and that's okay. Because I recognize that my strengths are potentially a little bit more of, um, process design, overseeing things, product roadmaps, um, while still being a technical individual. So that's, that's where I see my career going and I, I'm not sure. Seven months ago, even a year ago. That I would have said that that's where I wanted it to be. Um, I would have been like, no, I want to code all day long. Just put me in a corner. Let me to closet. Let me code the thing, leave me alone. Give me coffee. Um, yeah. So yay for growth all around.

Dan:

that's awesome.

Bekah:

I mean, they're so important because I think there are so they're undervalued and having someone who's new to the process, who's new to a company. I think that you can really see those pain points like you were talking about of like, okay, well, you don't have this or this is outdated. And then that allows you to, you know, See things differently than people who have been doing it for a long time and to create those things and understand the needs of other people. And I feel like how fortunate people are, if they are being managed by you, because you have a real sense of like what people need and a really great pro approach to supporting those people. And that's also something that we just don't see nearly enough of, um, from the community, from the tech industry. And I really feel like in general, Um, what you were talking about preschool earlier. And I was thinking, you know, schools just don't do a good job of onboarding new families.

Sara:

no, they don't

Bekah:

It never occurred to me until

Sara:

be a product for that.

Bekah:

exactly. Um, but like parents will reach out to me and be like, they're talking about this thing. And I have no idea what this thing means, but nobody has explained it to me. Right. And it is that. Understanding and taking note of and grabbing that feedback and like being willing to ask questions that, you know, you might be afraid to ask, but that creates those processes that allow for a really, um, great and successful work environment.

Sara:

Yeah, I think something that's always really served me well, and it's something I always try to keep in mind is recognizing that. All processes have a human element to them. So there's human processes in this. And when you think about, you know, designing, uh, you know, even a job description or designing processes for current employees, like you have to take into account that there's a human doing this, and you need to support the human side through this because you can write amazing documentation, but it's written from a place of understanding. And then we bring somebody new through the documentation. They're going to have a lot of questions and you need to make sure that you address the fact that they're going to feel confused, that they're going to need to have questions. You need to identify, you know, who to go to for questions and, and recognizing that there's a human element to this and supporting the human element. Um, I think really creates a great cohesiveness and teams to a have good communication because we recognize that. We're all humans. Um, and that we have human feelings about things when they change. Um, but it just creates more compassion and empathy in regards to like, if someone has a bad day of like, you know, Hey, I recognize I've changed this process on you. I recognize it's new. You, you were doing it. You know, the old way, potentially as an example, like there's nothing to be upset about. Like. That's fine. We're human. Like I have bad days. I forget what the new process is. I, I forget things. Always having that human centered approach to everything you do, whether it's product development, whether it's engineering, whether it's process development, whether it's management, having the human centered approach is so important. And. Can easily be forgotten because we just get our heads. So in the weeds and we get blinders on and we're just like just process oriented and I just need to do the thing. And we're not robots. There's a human element to it. We always have to respect that.

Bekah:

Yeah, absolutely. I love that. The what a great way to end this podcast, the human centered approach and why that's so important. Um, I want to thank you so much for being here with us. This is really great. I know I was like taking notes as we were going through the podcast and, um, so. Uh, it's been really great to hear you talk about all of these things and see how far you've come and just like really be an inspiration for, I know so many people in the community, but anybody who listens to this, because there's just so much growth that you went over in this episode, and it's like a great source of energy and empowerment, I think coming here today.

Sara:

Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

Bekah:

All

Dan:

I just also say, thanks. I mean, this was, this was great. I knew it was going to be great, you know, but like, I don't know, it was, it was very, very fun and always. Just a pleasure. I feel like I miss you in breakout rooms every time. So, you know, I'm going to have to force my way into one of your breakout rooms. One of these days,

Sara:

See me get on a soapbox. That'd be great.

Dan:

energy. I almost interrupted before you, you were saying about soapboxes. I'm like, I love when Sara gets on her soapbox. It's one of my favorite things. So thank you for, uh, thanks for coming

Sara:

Always glad to be here.

Bekah:

All right, we'll talk to you soon. Bye.

Sara:

Bye.

Dan:

Bye.

Bekah:

Thank you for listening to this episode of the Virtual Coffee Podcast. This episode was produced by Dan Ott and Bekah Hawrot Weigel and edited by Dan Ott. If you have questions or comments, you can hit us up on Twitter at VirtualCoffeeIO, or you can email us at podcast@virtualcoffee.io. You can find the show notes, plus you can sign up for our newsletter to find out what Virtual Coffee's been up to on our website at virtualcoffee.io.

Dan:

Please subscribe to our podcast and be sure to leave us a review. Thanks for listening. And we'll see you next week.


The Virtual Coffee Podcast is produced by Dan Ott and Bekah Hawrot Weigel and edited by Andy Bonjour at GoodDay Communications.