Tim Heuer really wanted to be a police officer, so he started down that track and became a police recruit. But after facing the reality that police recruits don't get paid much and wanting to settle down with a lady he was seeing, he decided to look for other ways to make money. He got a temp job doing basic data entry, and that kicked off his long winding path to the world of coding. He tells us how he eventually became a principal at Microsoft, and what helped him navigate his career.
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[00:00:29] (Music) Welcome to the CodeNewbie Podcast where we talk to people on their coding journey in hopes of helping you on yours. I’m your host, Saron, and today, we’re talking about going from police recruit to Principal Developer Advocate. Tim’s been at Microsoft for almost 14 years. He’s been in tech for even longer.
[00:00:49] TH: Hi, my name is Tim Heuer. I’m a Developer Advocate for Microsoft and I help developers learn how to write code for the cloud.
[00:00:57] SY: Though when he was growing up, he actually wanted to be a police officer. In fact, he only went to college because his parents made him. The whole time, he took criminal justice courses and applied to be an officer, but being a cop didn’t quite pay the bills. So he took the first step job he could and stumbled into the world of tech. He tells us how he went from doing temp data entry to being a principal at Microsoft after this.
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[00:04:05] SY: What I love about you, Tim, and what you do is the fact that you’ve been at Microsoft for 12 years, as I understand, that you’ve been in the tech game for even longer than that, but you were actually studying law at some point. So I’m really interested to hear how you went from criminal justice to the cloud. Those seem very disconnected.
[00:04:29] TH: Yeah, pretty disconnected, yeah.
[00:04:30] SY: Yeah. So let’s start like all the way at the beginning before you even knew about tech and coding and stuff, what were you up to? What were you doing?
[00:04:36] TH: Yeah. My aspirations ever since I was in high school and everything was I just really wanted to be a police officer. That’s all I ever wanted to be and that’s what excited me. I don’t know if it was TV shows or what, but that’s what fascinated me and so my parents had a requirement that I would go to college. And at the end at the time, you didn’t need a college degree to be a police officer in most places in the country. So I thought it was a waste for me and my aspirations and I chose, well, I want to get out of here as soon as possible. So, as a freshman, I’m taking all these law classes. I took English 101 as a senior in college. It was the worst decision I ever made.
[00:05:13] SY: That was actually backwards. That was literally backwards.
[00:05:15] TH: It was totally backwards, so I went in and I had a desire to be a police officer. My parents made me go to college, which ended up being a good decision. There’s no real police officer classes. It’s all justice and law classes. So that’s what I ended up pursuing and the funny twist of that also is that while I was in college, I ended up getting more involved in leadership development and worked at residents life and stuff. And so, my interest changed over time and everything, but yeah, I ended up getting a degree in criminal justice and started pursuing some postgraduate education stuff, but never really went further and then randomly got into tech.
[00:05:56] SY: How does the police thing… I’m realizing now, I don’t actually know how you become a police officer. How does that work? There is like police academy, right? That’s not just a movie?
[00:06:03] TH: Yeah, but yeah, exactly.
[00:06:06] SY: It’s a real thing?
[00:06:06] TH: Most police recruit processes, it’s a job application, right? You work for a city or a municipality and you literally fill out a paper application and it’s a several step process. So you go through some background checks. You go through a physical, so you actually do some obstacle things, and then most of them usually end with an oral board review. And that was the final step that I was in the municipality where I lived and then after that, you would technically be a police recruit for a year.
[00:06:34] SY: What do you do as a recruit?
[00:06:36] TH: I mean, you’re a full-fledged police officer, but I guess you can think of it as a probationary period.
[00:06:41] SY: Make sure you don’t mess up.
[00:06:43] TH: Yeah, and here’s the reality, it’s like, it’s less pay. That’s what it really translates to.
[00:06:48] SY: Okay, yeah.
[00:06:49] TH: Keep in mind, this was in 1996. The starting pay would have been $19,000 and I would have had to pay for my own uniform and my own protection and my own weapons.
[00:07:02] SY: Wow!
[00:07:03] TH: So really, 19,000 goes a lot down from there.
[00:07:08] SY: Yeah, that doesn’t really take you very far. You have to buy your own weapons?
[00:07:13] TH: Yeah. I hope it’s different. It’s really a sad state that the people that protect and educate us are the least paid. It’s a sad state.
[00:07:21] SY: So at the point when you were a recruit, did you finish college yet or was this while you were in school?
[00:07:26] TH: I did.
[00:07:27] SY: Okay.
[00:07:28] TH: No, I did. Yes, so I finished. I had my Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice and my minor was in Psychology so it works pretty well for any type of law enforcement or law degree. I was in the application process and everything. About on the cusp of some significant dot com days and everything like that, but honestly, the main reason why I didn’t pursue that ended up being the finance. I was kind of homeless and unemployed, and there was a lady in my life and so I wanted to get married. And before I asked her parents for her hand in marriage, I probably needed a better story than making no money and living out of my parents’ house.
[00:08:09] SY: Interesting. Okay. So at what point did you decide, “Okay, this policing is probably not it. I need to go find something else”?
[00:08:18] TH: Pretty quick. I mean, when I started doing the math, it was really an unfortunate decision, I think, for me because I was passionate about the law but trying to balance life and long-term ambitions and getting married, and those types of things, so pretty quick. Growing up, my father’s a programmer so it was always kind of in the background. I always remember my dad bringing home his “modem”, which was this giant terminal that he plugged in and we couldn’t call our friends because he was using the modem line.
[00:08:47] SY: So you probably hated it growing up.
[00:08:48] TH: Oh, yeah, I hated it, but I grew up around it and I kind of understood what he did and I appreciated that. I felt he was on the cusp of things. I had understood computers, I guess, not really programming or anything like that. So I took some temporary services. So there’s a company Kelly Temp Service. I just signed up with them. I was like, I just need money. That’s what I needed and then ended up doing data entry for a healthcare company during open enrollment. So, again, keep in mind, 1996, people are not going online to sign up for healthcare. These are triplicate forms and they’re being mailed in, and there are stacks of them, and they get entered into some system. I was the guy that entered them into the system. So this was a big company at the time. I showed up for my first day and my supervisor came and she said, “Look, you’re the third temp that I’ve had this week.” This is Wednesday. She’s like, “You’re already on the third.” I’m like, “Oh my gosh.” Already off to a bad start with this lady and she said, “I don’t have time for incompetence. Here’s the form. Here’s the screen. This field goes here.” I’m looking at it going and like, these are standard forms, name, address, like checkbox, checkbox. Two hours later, I had finished data entry of somewhere between 800 and 1,000 forms. So I went to her and I said, “Hey, I’m done.” And she didn’t believe me because she’s had two failed attempts before and so then she was mad and felt like, “Well, now I got to verify all your work,” and it turns out, I did it correctly. So instantly, her manager was like, “Okay, this guy is maybe more valuable than just a data entry.” Probably I think it was within maybe like 60 days of temp work, I ended up working there full time.
[00:10:33] SY: Oh, wow!
[00:10:33] TH: I was basically in charge of reports.
[00:10:35] SY: So when you were doing the data entry, were you doing that hoping maybe this will turn into a career?
[00:10:43] TH: No, and that’s the really weird thing. The irony is that temp job was going to yield a significant amount more pay than this police officer. So I almost was forcing myself into this and I really wasn’t into it was. I mean, it was monotonous. It was data entry. It was reports. It wasn’t terribly exciting. What really got me interested was this guy, he was the developer, I say the developer. There was no development team in this group. He was trying to get out. He was like, “I don’t want to be in this job anymore.” And so he also saw something in me and he’s like, “Do you have interest in knowing how this stuff works?” And so he really took me in as an apprentice almost and said, “I’m going to teach you.” It wasn’t “I’m going to teach you programming.” It was like, “I’m going to teach you this program.” And so he got me started and that’s when I got interested. To me, it was like the second the veil was kind of pulled back behind these like battleship grey screens that I was using, that’s when I started getting hooked. I was like, “Okay, this is interesting.” That that first moment I think everybody has when you… For me, it wasn’t like successfully compiling anything. It was, like, when you click the button and it actually did what you told the computer to tell what to do. So that, for me, was like, “I think I’m interested in this now.” That was the moment for me.
[00:12:10] SY: At that moment, did it matter what the buttons actually did it? Did it matter that it was for a healthcare company or it was still the same data that you had been entering, it’s just now you’re at a different part of the system? Did the context, the application matter to you at all?
[00:12:27] TH: No, it didn’t. To this day, I’ve never been a gamer or anything like that. The genre of other things that were going on in tech weren’t really interesting to me. At that point, I was probably three months into this role and I was surrounded by professionals and I was, like, maybe there is something around to this business thing.
[00:12:48] SY: So how long did you end up in that role for?
[00:12:51] TH: I was in that role for about three years.
[00:12:57] SY: Nice.
[00:12:57] TH: The healthcare company got bought out by a big California company and so when they were coming migrate all the systems to the same corporate systems, they had sent a checklist to all the subsidiaries and said, “Okay, make sure you have these, make sure the data is in this format. It’s clean,” blah, blah, blah. So when they got to our location, we had everything ready and, again, it was one of those situations where they didn’t believe us. The corporate team comes in and they’re like, “We just got done going to twelve other offices and nobody’s ready. There’s no way you guys could possibly be ready,” but we were. That week, the main guy who was in charge of that migration team, sat me down and he’s like, “I want you to come to corporate and work on this migration team.”
[00:13:38] SY: Nice. Oh, wow!
[00:13:39] TH: It was cool, yeah. In those rapid three years, I really benefited from three key people just taking a chance on someone who showed ambition. It wasn’t about my education. It was like, can I do it? Am I willing to try to do it? About ‘97 and ‘99, I worked for the corporate offices. So ‘99, now we’re talking pretty significant dot com days and stuff like that. That’s when I got back into consulting. The same manager that hired me from that data entry experience reached out and said, “Hey, we’re doing a lot of consulting work. I’d love to have you come and work for me again.” That’s what I did and so I ended up ding programming consulting for a bunch of different industries at that time, mostly dot com stuff.
[00:14:24] SY: So it’s really interesting because I think so far, you have yet to call yourself a developer because you were a data entry person, and then you were an analyst, and then you were part of the migration team. I’m not sure what the exact title was there.
[00:14:40] TH: Yeah, still an analyst, yeah.
[00:14:41] SY: Still an analyst, yeah. When you think about yourself and also just the people who were hiring you when they saw you, did they see you as a developer, just under a different name or were you categorized in something different?
[00:14:56] TH: Yeah, I never really thought of myself still as a programmer in the work I was doing. My specialty still even with the healthcare was the output of the systems. I was kind of the anointed reporting person. So my title was still systems analyst. That’s what my role was. And yeah, I never thought of myself as a programmer until this new venture, until I went into this consulting role.
[00:15:18] SY: So tell me about that. What did you do?
[00:15:20] TH: So this was I moved back to Arizona and worked for one of the local big five consulting firms. Our specialty was e-commerce and on top of that, the company specialty was taking classic brick-and-mortar companies and bringing them on the web. So these are companies like Dillard’s. You know J. C. Penney, these big department store retailers that are running on mainframes and that are hearing these things of like, “Oh that what’s this dot com thing like? How can I sell stuff online? That’s the answer everyone wanted to know during that time frame. Like, “How do I sell stuff online?” And so our specialty became how do we translate these really archaic AS400 systems to web platforms? How do we put up a website that interfaces with this catalog? I was on one of the initial teams, the product ended up being called Commercialware and it was in partnership actually with a really, really early on Microsoft product that we helped develop. We created this turnkey system that we could go to anyone that was running this back-end mainframe system and say, “Oh, you want to be on the web and sell your stuff? We have the solution for you and you can be up and running quickly.” We launched a significant number of the early large e-commerce sites on the system and it was a lot of long nights, a lot of pizza and Mountain Dew, for sure, but it was fun. At that point, I was surrounded with developers. It definitely was at that point where I thought of myself as like, “Okay, I’m actually doing something of significant programming experience. I’m actually doing computer science now.”
[00:17:01] SY: Yeah, that’s so interesting because I hear that quite a bit where folks will technically be doing coding for a while and will be developing things and programming things, but the title of developer doesn’t quite sink in. They don’t quite claim it until a little bit after. For you, was there a moment? Was there a turning point where you said, “Oh, wait, I am actually a developer”?
[00:17:27] TH: It probably was a moment where my program lead or my lead for this particular account was promising a lot of things and then we walk out of the meeting and he looked at me and my counterpart and said, “We can do all this. Right?” And it’s like, “Oh, crap, you’re asking me to figure this out.” I thought you were the Yes Man for a reason. I remember leaving that meeting and going home to my wife and she said, “How was your day?” I said, “I am in way over my head.” I drove to the nearest Barnes & Noble. I went to the computer programming section. I probably bought must have been like 20 books. The term people use for that in modern day right is impostor syndrome. Now, reflecting back, that’s exactly what I had. I’m like, “I’m not supposed to be here. I pulled the wool over somebody’s eyes, but I better step up.”
[00:18:19] SY: Yeah, I appreciate a good toss in the deep end. I think that’s where you get to really show your stuff and really grow a lot of times more than even you think that you can so
kudos to you for excelling in that.
[00:18:31] TH: Yeah, thanks.
[00:18:33] SY: It’s interesting because when you talked about the first program that you learn, you said you didn’t learn programming. You learned how to program this one thing and at that point, when you’re learning to program that one thing and now you have to program or you have to be able to build in all kinds of things and build all kinds of solutions, what was your process like in building up your own knowledge and teaching yourself all these other tools and technologies that you had to learn?
[00:19:03] TH: It was really twofold for me. I alluded to the books. I think there was no stack overflow at the time.
[00:19:09] SY: Oh, man, now I’m really impressed.
[00:19:12] TH: Yeah, there was nothing like that. It was very challenging. I relied a lot on books and like I said, I was fortunate at that time to now be surrounded by a lot of passionate people in a culture that was very eager to have everybody succeed and there were no elites. And so it was an environment of everybody’s learning and let’s help each other and “Oh, you don’t know that advanced topic?” Maybe even “Let me take that piece and here’s something easier you can work on,” or, “Let me take you under my wing and do that.” So it was a combination of books and mentorship, was really the key thing. The other thing that really helped catapult me was, this was also during the time of Palm Pilot, if you remember.
[00:19:57] SY: Yeah.
[00:19:59] TH: There was a company called Handspring. They had a better Palm Pilot and I really wanted one. I had no money and I told my boss, I said, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if I didn’t have to come back to the office to enter my time? I could do it on this handheld thing and I could just come back and synchronize.” And he’s like, “Okay, I’m going to buy this device for you, but you’re committing to create this application.” And I did. It was like a one-man show and I ended up being one of the very few only users because nobody else had a Palm Pilot but it was cool.
[00:20:33] SY: But you did.
[00:20:35] TH: Yeah, yeah, exactly. And I learned something new. So when you sign up to do something that you are uncomfortable with, there’s no greater way to learn.
[00:20:45] SY: Absolutely. How did you deal with the emotional rollercoaster of that? Because it seems like every year, every few years, you found yourself in a position where you’re like, “Oh, man, I don’t know if I can do this,” and you’ve pushed through, and you’ve learned and grown into the different roles, but it feels like you’re in that place of discomfort quite a bit. How do you deal with the stress of that?
[00:21:11] TH: The good thing, again, was being surrounded by a supporting culture. The stress was really in the timelines of projects and less about my own learning. It was coming along quickly and the culture allowed me to continue to learn while we were being successful. Something that I live by today as well is I’ll call it fast fail. You have to fast fail. If you linger too long on challenges and you take too long on your failures, that doesn’t help you and it doesn’t help the project you’re on. And so we kind of lived by this mantra of like, “It’s okay to fail. You just have to fast fail, so you can figure out what to do next.” Eventually, there was this hill that you just kind of roll over where I’m like, “Okay. I got this now. I understand it. This is my domain. This is going to be my expertise and I’m going to start really building up that expertise.”
[00:22:04] SY: Okay, so you were a consultant. How long were you doing that for?
[00:22:08] TH: Gosh, until 2005, I think. 2004, 2005. I didn’t enjoy the consultant hours, but I did enjoy the diversity of projects. It was fun.
[00:22:21] SY: What did you do next? What happened?
[00:22:23] TH: That’s when I joined Microsoft. So when I was at the consulting firm, as a part of recruitment during that time, you get involved with user groups. We established this user group in Arizona that was focused on Microsoft Technologies, and we kind of partnered with the Microsoft Office and everything. The company I work for actually allowed one of their facilities to be used to host user groups and that’s when I learned about like, “Oh, these Microsoft people have these jobs they call Evangelists.” I’m like, “This seems pretty cool. You get to talk to people about tagging.” So that that became kind of my mission, like, I want to work for Microsoft. That became my goal. And in 2005, I had the opportunity to do that and got an offer and worked for Microsoft so I started working for Microsoft.
[00:23:11] SY: That entire industry, I don’t know if it’s fair to call it an industry, but that entire world is relatively new, right, this idea of being an evangelist and advocate. How did you understand what that job was before you actually got the job?
[00:23:26] TH: People will say that the father of tech evangelism is Guy Kawasaki at Apple right? He convinced Apple, like, “You want you want people to use your products? You got to go to these user groups.” So effectively, the developer evangelist role at the time was probably less technical and more relationship building. When you’re involved deeply in community, you kind of are doing that job. I think if you’re a user group leader, you’re super passionate about a tech community, you’re doing podcasts, you’re helping each other learn, you’re bringing commonalities together, you are an evangelist. I know that a lot of people don’t actually like that word because of the connotations it may bring, but once you are passionate about something so much that you are involved in the community, I think you’re doing that job. So for me, that’s what I ended up doing and this just kind of became a natural progression of like someone was actually going to pay me to do it rather than me using my nights and weekends.
[00:24:22] SY: And what made you so passionate about it?
[00:24:24] TH: Really, my job was my hobby. I didn’t really have a lot of outside work hobbies. I just really wanted to know how things worked and it was this constant… Maybe it was born out of some subtle imposter syndrome, but I really wanted to continue to learn, learn, learn. I saw people that I looked up to and said, “Wow! That person’s smart. They’re progressing. How can I do that? How can I establish myself as a leader?” Some of it before I joined Microsoft also, some of it was like, “How can I be seen as the cool guy from Microsoft?” I wanted the Microsoft rep to look at me as someone that they could use as a resource and count on.
[00:25:01] SY: When you started the job itself, how did it go? What kinds of stuff did you end up doing?
[00:25:05] TH: So the role I was specifically in was geographic base. I had the southwest of the United States and I saw my job as starting to change perception with non-Microsoft people. So me and a couple of the other guys on my team, we decided that we were going to specialize in the Microsoft haters really.
[00:25:27] SY: Did you call them that, by the way, internally?
[00:25:29] TH: Yeah, I mean, internally, yeah sure. But this was then the open source community, which at the time, again, 2005, you could see Microsoft was not friendly in that role. This was the Linux’s cancer time frame for Microsoft, but we decided we were going to take on that charge and go where people didn’t like us or didn’t know about Microsoft tech. There were hit and misses there for sure, but it was fun. It was a lot of fun. It was very challenging to go into the lion’s den, so to speak.
[00:25:59] SY: Yeah, it sounds intense.
[00:26:01] TH: Yeah, it was. It was good. It was very rewarding, very, very rewarding.
[00:26:06] SY: What’s the worst thing, I guess, that someone has either said or done when you were encountering these Microsoft haters?
[00:26:15] TH: Within the first month, we decided we were going to create this thing called the Microsoft Tech Summit because, usually, when you talked with Microsoft during this time, it was all NDA base, right? Non-disclosure base.
[00:26:27] SY: Yeah.
[00:26:28] TH: And we hated that. We knew that when you went to someone who is deeply rooted in like Linux or open source, that they were not going to be willing to sign an NDA to talk to you. So we convinced our leadership, we said, “Hey, let’s identify some of the top open source influencers,” at the time. “Let’s bring them to Redmond campus. Let’s also get actual senior leaders at the company. And let’s have a dialogue and no NDAs will be signed. So anything that our executives say, they can write about.” There’s no Twitter yet so nobody was tweeting.
[00:27:00] SY: Didn’t have to worry about that, yeah.
[00:27:02] TH: Yeah, but people had websites and stuff like that. So we were like, “Hey, everything’s fair game.” And we convinced our leadership to do it. We convinced senior executives to do it. And it was good. And so the scariest moment was we had Eric Rudder, he’s still at the company, but he was a senior leader in Windows at the time and he sat at the front of the desk. He rolls in, jeans, t-shirt, comes up to the front of the desk, sits on the table and he just says, “What do you want to talk about?” I’m sweating bullets in the back of the room. I can’t remember who it was, but someone stood up and said, “I have a question.” He said, “Sure, what’s your question?” The question this guy says, “Why don’t you open source Windows?” And Eric’s immediate response was, “That is the dumbest question I’ve ever heard. Why on earth would you want us to do that? This is how we make money. Why do you think that’s good for us?” My jaw dropped. I thought that everyone was going to be… This is a colossal failure at this point, but the opposite happened in that the whole room erupted in laughter. They agreed. They were like, “We get it. You’re in the business of making money, but we had to ask the question anyway.”
[00:28:10] SY: Wow!
[00:28:10] TH: Again, that was one of those rewarding experiences that immediately broke down walls that you can have like actual conversations.
[00:28:16] SY: Wow! The power of a good conversation.
[00:28:19] TH: Yeah, yeah. It was awesome.
[00:28:21] SY: Coming up next, we dig into what a developer advocate actually does, how Tim has navigated his own career and what his advice is for folks who might one day be advocates themselves after this.
[00:28:37] We’ve talked about open source a bunch of times on this podcast, but frankly, open source is so big and complex and fascinating that it needs its own show, and it has one. It’s called Command Line Heroes. It’s produced by Red Hat and it’s hosted by me. That’s right. I’ve got another tech podcast talking to incredible people about all things open source. We talk about the history of open source, the introduction of DevOps and then DevSecOps, and we even do an interview with the CTO of NASA. And that’s just the beginning. We also dig into cloud and serverless and big data, and all those important tech terms you’ve heard of, and we get to explore. If you’re looking for more tech stories to listen to, check it out at redhat.com/commandlineheroes. Link is in your show notes.
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[00:31:07] (Music) Tales from the Command Line featuring Scott McCarty.
[00:31:10] SM: My name is Scott McCarty and I am a Principal Technology Product Manager at Red Hat.
[00:31:15] SY: Okay, so for this episode of Tales from the Command Line, I wanted to dig into something Tim touched on, this issue of titles. When you’re first starting out, what do you call yourself? Are you a coder, an engineer, a computer scientist or something else entirely? So I talked to Scott about the history of titles in the tech world and how your confidence, your perception of yourself, are affected by what you call yourself. Here’s that conversation.
[00:31:43] So I want to talk to you a little bit about the history of titles in the tech industry. Back when you started learning to code and you were getting into technology, what were some of the prestigious titles?
[00:31:56] SM: Yeah, when I first started, I was in computer science at the University of Akron and the mid-90s, like ‘95, ‘96, something like that, ‘97, somewhere in that range. Essentially, at that time mechanical engineering was a very prestigious title and computer science hadn’t taken off like it has now. The internet was barely there. I mean, it was around for sure, but Google wasn’t this huge organization it is. There was no Facebook. There was no Amazon. There wasn’t this huge prestigious group of software engineers that were telling the world how the future is going to be and blah, blah, blah. Jobs hadn’t created the iPhone yet or any of that. None of that stuff had happened. We were just nerds. We were just these nerdy kids that weren’t good enough at math to maybe be electrical engineers or applied math majors, but we are pretty good at it.
[00:32:46] Honestly, we were mostly hackers. We were kind of lazy, pretty smart people that were all kind of lazy. That was computer science when I was in it, but, yeah, we would do cool stuff that was fun. So engineer was a very prestigious title, like you were an electrical engineer or you’re a mechanical engineer, those were prestigious. Even being a sysadmin, you were like, “Whoa!” You were super technical. You wrote drivers for a Unix operating system because you were the operating system driver writer and then you wrote all this crazy scripting that nobody understood. Software engineers, they were perceived as more like hackers, I think. I mean, there were definitely computer scientists. If you had a doctorate in computer science, you were respected, but I think just having an undergraduate was not nearly as respected at the time.
[00:33:27] SY: When did that start to shift?
[00:33:30] SM: Mid-2000s, by the mid-2000s when I think Silicon Valley had already been producing really cool technology like Hewlett and Packard and things like that, and some of the older generation that a lot of people now don’t really remember, but I think it finally caught up with the internet, right? I think the internet allowed us to be our own anthropologists and capture our own history and start to write our own history. We have an oversized voice and so now I would say, yeah, being a software engineer is a very prestigious thing. Even on the sysadmin side, I would say it’s funny with this move towards cloud. I call it a pendulum swing because I’ve been seeing this for too long, but a lot of people think it’s like this new thing and I’m like, “Well, back in the day, sysadmins wrote a ton of code. That’s what they did.” And then there came this time where there was a bunch of Windows admins that just pointed and clicked stuff and configured things. But that was like a hiatus and now we’re back to, like, sysadmins are very technical people that understand the cloud API and how to provision infrastructure through code and things like that. So we’re kind of back to where we were at when I started.
[00:34:31] SY: So when did you decide to call yourself an engineer?
[00:34:36] SM: Yeah, so it’s a kind of a hard question because I never probably use the word engineer itself to describe myself because in the context of the history I told you, I would have definitely not called myself an engineer when I started because those were only mechanical and electrical engineers, but software engineers, we didn’t really call ourselves that at the time. You either want to be a programmer or a sysadmin, those were the two paths. When I started the path, the path of coding seemed like all of this stuff was getting offshored and so we were all worried about being programmers. That’s how I kind of got onto the sysadmin side of things early on because Unix was this cool thing and Linux was getting super cool. So I called myself a sysadmin at the time, but I remember I was really scared to call myself that because if you walked in the room with other sysadmins, and you said you were a sysadmin, and you weren’t really a sysadmin, you definitely would be called out.
[00:35:26] SY: You’re in trouble.
[00:35:27] SM: Yeah, you’re in trouble.
[00:35:30] SY: So when was the point that you decided to own that title of sysadmin?
[00:35:34] SM: Probably four to five, maybe even six years into my career. I was working at NASA Glenn Research Center and I had been there for a while and I had done a bunch of different things. I had written a lot of code. I had program databases and normalized data, and helped set up HPC clusters, high performance computing clusters, again, mechanical engineers that were doing real engineering at least we called it real engineering at the time and then even helped set up video conferencing labs and virtual 3D labs that we did data analysis and all kinds of things. And so you just got pulled in and doing a ton of testing around that. Finally, at one point, you realize you’re at a bar sitting there after work, talking to one of your friends and you kind of see somebody over here what you’re talking about and they have no idea what you’re talking about and you look at them and you see the look of confusion on anonymous people’s faces as you’re having this really deep conversation. You realize like, “I guess I am an engineer.”
[00:36:33] SY: So basically, when you confused the people around you that’s when you know.
[00:36:37] SM: But not on purpose. Yeah, like you’re trying to explain it to them in a way that they understand, but they’re just like, “Dude, I’m not getting this.” I’m like, “All right, that’s cool.”
[00:36:44] SY: So when you finally decided to think of yourself as an engineer and start to call yourself that, how did that affect your confidence?
[00:36:51] SM: Yeah, it definitely helped a lot because, again, being a sysadmin, when I came up or if you will like being a sysadmin was a very prestigious thing. You would meet these very like... They were sage-like, wizard-like people that you’re like, “I don’t know how these people know all this stuff.” I just couldn’t even conceptualize how they knew as much stuff as they knew and so, yeah, once I finally realized, I was like, “Wait a minute. I have a little bit of that.” Maybe I’ve moved on from in the old days of the guilds, there was the apprentice, the journeyman, then master. I felt like maybe I was a journeyman finally, like I could do things without Googling them. I could just figure it out. I can dig into code figure out what was going on. I could port code from one platform to another. I could get things to work and I could do things that you couldn’t Google in a nutshell and I felt good about that. So yeah, I think that helped my ego a lot or at least my confidence level.
[00:37:51] SY: I think there are a lot of people listening who struggle with figuring out how to describe themselves, how to own the title that they’re given at the job and even just how to how to think of themselves. What advice do you have for folks who are trying to figure out whether or not they should start calling themselves an engineer?
[00:38:10] SM: Yeah, that’s a really good question. I had an epiphany last week that documentation is engineering and that was one that sounds strange because I know docs people struggle with that themselves, but they’re the first point, like technical writers, people that come in and write documentation for very technical stuff. We’re working through a big launch now and I was working with one of our docs people and they’re literally figuring out stuff that nobody’s figured out yet, new stuff that even none of the engineers that work on the code have figured out yet all the way. You realize docs forces people to tread into a new water. And so they’re kind of engineers. They’re basically systems engineers. They integrate all these different things together and then write how to do it.
[00:38:55] When you look at it from the other side, the people that consume it, so I work at Red Hat and we have very technical users, but our technical users just want a solution to a problem, right? They’re like, “How do I XYZ?” And the answer to XYZ may be to fire up these bits. It may be run this command with these options or it may be, well, there is no command that does exactly what you’re trying to do, but if you run this command, then take the output of that command, run it into this command, and then take that and then submit it to this API, and then get this output, you realize that’s documentation, but it’s still engineering. So I think we get hung up on titles, but I would say don’t get hung up on the title. Just focus on being really good at what you’re doing.
[00:39:41] It sounds so cliché, but enjoy what you’re doing. If you’re in a special place where you’re doing something that pushes your boundaries, enjoy that and then at some point, you’ll wake up and you’ll go, “Okay, yeah. Definitely, I can teach people around me things that I didn’t realize that.” You’ll wake up and you’ll be kind of senior at one point.
[00:40:01] (Music) And now back to the interview.
[00:40:05] SY: So you’ve been at Microsoft for a total of over 12 years. Is that right?
[00:40:08] TH: Yeah, I’ll be going on 14 years.
[00:40:10] SY: 14 years, okay. In your time at Microsoft, have you been mostly in this developer advocate type space?
[00:40:18] TH: No. After a couple of years in the developer relations kind of role, generally, I moved to headquarters to join a product team. I had the desire to really get back into shipping, that button that did something and so I joined a team that was focused on UI Frameworks. At Microsoft and Windows technology specifically, we have a technology called Windows Presentation Foundation and Silverlight at the time, which was a web-based flash competitor in the early 2000s. And so I moved up here to join that team and work on that product as a program manager. A program manager at Microsoft is not necessarily the engineers that are writing the code that’s being checked in all the time, although it can be.
[00:41:08] It’s more about the design. So you’re the one that’s interfacing with the users in the communities and the developers who are using the technology, designing the features, designing the actual developer experience and stuff like that. And at times, you could own some features and stuff, but at a company the size of Microsoft and now I’m surrounded by development teams, it wasn’t just me and one other guy, it’s a group of people.
[00:41:32] SY: Is it similar to a product developer or product manager?
[00:41:35] TH: At Microsoft, the distinction between a program manager and a product manager, a program manager is in the engineering organization and usually a product manager is more market research and marketing.
[00:41:49] SY: Oh interesting. Okay.
[00:41:50] TH: That’s the distinction at Microsoft usually.
[00:41:52] SY: Okay, cool. So you were a program manager. What did it feel like to kind of get back in the tech stack, as a way to put it, to go from advocating and getting people together to getting right back into the technology, in the thick of it? How did that feel?
[00:42:09] TH: It felt great. Actually, I think my developer advocate experience really helped me be a great PM or I like to think it did because I was pretty customer obsessed. I maintain a connection with my customer bases and communities. I think it’s very valuable to be a customer before you are developing things for customers, but it was really great to get back into that, in the weeds of the toaster, an analogy that I use. At the time, I was working on visual studio. I was doing some tools for our new technology and it was a fun environment. Every morning, my tester and I, we’d get in the office early and we’d grab the daily builds and run through new scenarios, log a bunch of bugs, have our standup and how are we going to attack these critical things? And then the next day we do it all over again.
[00:42:57] It was very fun. At the time, for Microsoft, it was a hot technology. Silverlight was taking off. The rich internet application timeframe was huge and Flash and Flex were big. It was an exciting time in the industry, which led to exciting times in the hallways.
[00:43:18] SY: At Microsoft, you’ve held a number of different positions. You started off as the Advocate evangelist type of program manager. You were also a program manager lead if I understand that correctly.
[00:43:31] TH: Correct, yeah.
[00:43:31] SY: I know you’re not big into titles, but you are principal in terms of level. I’m wondering when you think about how you moved up in the organization, because 14 years is, frankly, a long time to stay at one company for a tech person.
[00:43:47] TH: It really is, yeah.
[00:43:49] SY: I kind of want to ask like, “Why are you still there?” When you think about building a career within the same organization and moving up, making sure that you’re still growing and you’re still being challenged. How do you navigate that? How do you manage that for yourself?
[00:44:03] TH: As I alluded to earlier, the younger part of my career where I was like I never really thought of myself as a programmer and I didn’t really. From data entry just as a job to peeling back the veil and feeling like, “Oh, this might be interesting to me,” as you spend time in growing your career, those moments continue to happen. So when you’re a program manager and you’re designing a feature and maybe your feature gets cut and you’re like, “Well, that wasn’t fun. I spent a lot of time on that and now we’re not going to do it. Why aren’t we going to do it?” So then you start thinking like, “I want to be a part of that decision-making process.” If you are passionate about that, then you say, “Well, okay, the next feature I have, I’m going to do that. I’m going to fight for my feature,” or, “That’s the room I want to be in.”
[00:44:48] That was it for me. It was just each one of those next things, that I wanted to understand the process and it just kind of leads to “Well, that sounds interesting. How can I do that?” Managing people, that’s a challenge. That’s a different technical challenge and non-technical challenge. “Maybe I want to go do that.” For me, it was just each one of these incremental moments of growing my career. I think you do get to a point where you say, “All right, which path I am I going to take? Am I on a leadership path or not?” To present, I’ve chosen a leadership path and luckily, I’ve stayed technical and I’m still leading a technical team and doing technical work. So I’m not purely overhead, but pretty close.
[00:45:30] SY: How do you feel about that? Do you miss being more of an individual contributor type even though you’ve held on to those technical skills? Is there a part of you that maybe wishes they were a little bit more on the ground, so to speak?
[00:46:51] SY: Nice.
[00:46:51] TH: It wasn’t because of the tech. It was like I was trying to solve a problem for me.
[00:46:55] SY: Yeah. So what kind of projects and problems are you working on currently at Microsoft?
[00:47:02] TH: At Microsoft, I work in the Azure organization and our challenge is twofold really, to kind of help grow Azure awareness and usage. Ideally, that’s the business we’re in, but the best part of my job is actually being the empathetic ear to all developers who are using our technology. We kind of become that champion behind the firewall here and really try to change and influence product, whether that’s actual features, prioritization of work, messaging at times.
Sometimes, it’s literally just like this website shouldn’t use these words. They should use these words because that’s how developers expect. That’s the most rewarding part, I think, of my current role, is when we can affect change in the product that in turn turns around and developers say, “That’s cool. That’s helpful for me,” or, “That’s unexpected and that’s what I want.”
[00:47:57] There are moments where we’re able to pat ourselves on the back and say, “Hey, we did that because the developer community asked us to do that and we champion them. It wasn’t something that we wanted, we championed the community to make our products better.”
[00:48:10] SY: When you are doing this community work and listening and taking the requests and the pain points and sometimes maybe even the tears of the developers and bringing them internally into the organization, that is potentially a lot of emotional stuff that you’re dealing with. I can imagine that being a little burdensome at times or at least maybe just a little tiring. Do you ever feel that way? Does it ever feel like you’re kind of just managing this long list of complaints?
[00:48:42] TH: Definitely. The biggest challenge there is the walls that you’ll hit because there’s a lot of feedback that we process. Sometimes, the emotional strain is that it’s feedback that you’re going to say, “I’m not willing to champion that because maybe it’s not significant.” The other times the emotional toll is when you really believe in something, but you’re fighting against resources. It’s managing that expectation and either the letdown or the excitement of the community.
[00:49:13] SY: Yes.
[00:49:13] TH: That’s what causes the toll, some of the unknown where you may not have direct control over that feedback that you’re championing and you’re really counting on others to suddenly attach onto your passion for the developers.
[00:49:28] SY: Yeah. Do you ever miss the idea of being a police officer, going into criminal justice?
[00:49:35] TH: Not necessarily a police officer these days, but I do think that the intersection of technology and law would be interesting. I remember during those dot com days, the unfortunate timeframe of 9/11 and that was a moment for me where I said, “I don’t know. Maybe I can add some value here.” The FBI and the CIA were hiring significantly for cryptographers. So there was a moment where tech and law really could have intersected with me. I still had to make an expectation of a living and it’s still, like, the government jobs just didn’t pay as well. So that ultimately was a motive. At that time, that was a motivating factor for me. I was still building my career so money mattered.
[00:50:24] SY: Yeah. Money usually does. Money’s a big deal, a very important thing. So, yeah, absolutely. What advice do you have for folks listening who might hopefully want to end up at Microsoft one day or do some evangelism work, do some advocate work? What advice do you have for them?
[00:50:41] TH: I think the biggest piece of advice I could give is to be involved. If you like community, you need to be a part of the community. And that’s not just showing up and sitting in the chair and eating the pizza. You have to be a part of it. You have to raise your hand and say, “I will help do this,” whatever that is. Sometimes, that’s setting up the chairs. The more you can get involved and just building your personal network, the more you will become comfortable with the different people in the community. You’ll meet more people. You’ll find different opportunities. Natural networking happens when you aren’t even trying.
[00:51:17] SY: That was great. Next, let’s do some fill in the blanks. Are you ready?
[00:51:21] TH: I’m ready.
[00:51:22] SY: Number one, worst advice I’ve ever received is?
[00:51:25] TH: To assume that you don’t know anything.
[00:51:28] SY: Oh, interesting. Tell me about that.
[00:51:30] TH: I think when you’re surrounded by people who are way smarter than you, there’s a tendency to feel like you don’t know anything and feel pressure that you’re less than those that are around you. It’s okay to say you don’t know. It’s okay to say, “I’m not sure, I want to learn,” or things like that. Don’t hide your inadequacies because you’re fearful of them. At times, people gave me the advice of like, “Don’t say you don’t know,” and I think that’s wrong.
[00:51:59] SY: Yeah, I agree. Number two, my first coding project was about?
[00:52:03] TH: I’d say my first actual coding project was for a donor network where I was responsible for creating a system, a web-based system at this time that was used for harvesting and matching DNA for organ donation.
[00:52:20] SY: Holy crap, that’s real.
[00:52:58] SY: Wow!
[00:52:59] TH: Yeah.
[00:52:59] SY: Oh, wow! That’s very cool. Number three, one thing I wish I knew when I first started to code is?
[00:53:06] TH: That everybody’s learning as well.
[00:53:08] SY: Interesting, yeah.
[00:53:10] TH: Just because someone has a CS degree, it doesn’t mean that they know everything. It’s the farthest from the truth. I think when you first start to code, you can be very fearful of experts and elites. I wish I would have just known that everyone really is on some level of learning. It’s just a different part of the curve that you’re on.
[00:53:32] SY: Yeah, it was one of those things where I would hear senior developers, more experienced people brag about how little they knew and it always confused me. I would think, “Why are you telling everyone that you don’t know anything? That seems like not what you should do.” And then I realize it’s because the value of them being senior developers isn’t so much what they know. It’s the fact that they can figure it out.
[00:53:56] TH: Exactly.
[00:53:57] SY: They are recognizing that they’re always on some part of the learning curve and it might be a different one than I’m on, but what matters is that they can go up the curve. I’m like losing my analogy here, but you know what I mean. They can make progress on that and they could figure it out even if they don’t know it right now. So yeah, I like that.
[00:54:15] TH: One of the more interesting things is you may have heard stories about these weird interview questions of how many gas stations are in Phoenix or weird questions like that. Of course, there’s never any right answer, but the ideal for these type of questioning is to identify how you solve problems. I think that’s the aspect, what you just referred to as, yes, you may know how to concatenate a string in a certain language. That’s a task. That’s not a problem and understanding when you get presented with a challenge, how are you going to attack that problem? Everyone is always learning. There’s a lot of commonality and a lot of problems presented, but at the same time, software is an art. And so each time you start a new project, it’s a blank canvas and everyone’s got an opinion, but everyone’s learning all the time, all the time.
[00:55:04] SY: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much, Tim, for coming on the show and telling us your story. Super inspirational, really, really incredible journey. Thank you so much. You want to say goodbye?
[00:55:13] TH: Yes. Thank you so much. I really enjoyed it and appreciate it.
[00:55:16] SY: And that’s the end of the episode. Let me know what you think. Tweet me at CodeNewbies or send me an email, firstname.lastname@example.org. For more info on the podcast, check out www.codenewbie.org/podcast and join us for our weekly Twitter chats. We’ve got our Wednesday chats at 9 P.M. Eastern Time and our weekly coding check-in every Sunday at 2 P.M. Eastern Time. Thanks for listening. See you next week.
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