This week we talk to Tanya Reilly, Senior Principal Engineer at Squarespace, about having a growth mindset. Having a growth mindset includes recognizing our limitations and challenging ourselves to learn at any stage of our coding journey. We also talked about interviewing and advocating for ourselves.
[00:00:05] SY: 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 having a growth mindset with Tanya Reilly, Senior Principal Engineer at Squarespace.
[00:00:19] TR: Pick a role where the people are growth people. You’re interviewing the team as much as they’re interviewing you. You’re interviewing the manager as much as they’re interviewing you. Look for a role where you will learn something kind of by default. Don’t pick a job you’re good at. Pick a job you want to be good at.
[00:00:35] SY: Tanya talks about her journey into code, recognizing limitations and challenging ourselves to learn at any stage of our coding journey after this.
[00:00:51] SY: Thank you so much for being here.
[00:00:52] TR: Thank you so much for having me.
[00:00:53] SY: So what got you into learning to code?
[00:00:55] TR: So this is a ridiculous story, but when I was a teenager, I read this thriller by Michael Crichton called Disclosure and it’s about corporate nonsense and harassment in the workplace and so on. But there was one character in that book who was a programmer. And I read about this one character, probably not even a main character, but they had written something that at the time was super futuristic. Like it was a virtual reality file system. It was very metaverse.
[00:01:20] SY: Okay.
[00:01:21] TR: And it was the coolest thing I had ever read in my entire life. This one character because he had these Easter eggs in it where if someone said his name it would say he was cool or something. And I was like, “That’s what I want to do, virtual reality file systems.” [00:01:36] SY: Interesting.
[00:01:37] TR: Whatever that is. I just thought it would be cool. And I didn’t know anything about programming, but I just knew that, “Oh yeah, that’s what I want to do.” Well, my high school didn’t really… like there was one semester of BASIC you could take near the end of high school. And so I took that and didn’t look back.
[00:01:54] SY: Okay. So you took that in high school and then you went on to study it in college. Or what happened after that?
[00:02:00] TR: Yeah, that’s right. When I filled in my college applications, I put down not entirely CS classes, but largely. I put in a few other things like electrical engineering in there as well. I studied computer applications, which is kind of, I guess looking back, applied computer science a little more towards industry and a little less towards sort of the math. I don’t think we ever did a lot of proofs, for example, that I think a lot of CS people would spend more time on. And then, yeah. I studied that for four years.
[00:02:29] SY: Very interesting. So tell me a little bit more about your college experience. What was that like setting computer science in that context, in that environment?
[00:02:37] TR: It was pretty bad actually.
[00:02:38] SY: Yeah? Oh no. What happened?
[00:02:41] TR: So I arrived with my one semester of BASIC programming, no computer in the house. I’m not sure I had ever used a mouse. It was the era of MS DOS Windows 3.11. I thought everybody else who was coming into the class would also be new. So I thought we’re all going to learn together. And so I’m showing up like, “Oh, computer.” Okay. I see.” I move the mouse. Got it. And I click on icons. “Oh, double click. Interesting.” But everyone else, or maybe not everybody else, but it sure seemed like it. They all knew what they were doing. So there I am in these classes and they’re teaching us, “Well, this is a compiled language.” I feel like I was starting five years behind a lot of people in my class. And I probably wasn’t. There were probably a ton of other new people there as well. Do you know this feeling where we compare ourselves against the people who are really confident? We don’t look around for the other people who are scared.
[00:03:34] SY: Yeah. Yeah.
[00:03:35] TR: So I was just like kind of after 10 minutes, like, “Oh, wait, maybe I don’t belong here.” Like, “Maybe this isn’t for me.” It was kind of weird. I was passing my exams. I kind of did fine. I completed all the projects I would get for a little while like, “Maybe I do understand something.” And then one of my friends would say, “Oh, I installed Linux on the second hard drive on the Solaris boxes in the lab.” And I would be like, “What’s Linux? What’s Solaris? What’s a hard drive?” [00:04:01] SY: Yeah. What do these words mean? Yeah. Yeah.
[00:04:02] TR: Yeah. Does boxes mean computers? I don’t know what I’m doing here. It was a four-year chorus. I graduated in four years, but by the end I was like, “Oh, I don’t belong here.” When I got to my internship, I think I didn’t even apply for programming jobs, which is wild because I was like, “I’m not a good programmer, so I shouldn’t apply for programming jobs.” That’s upside down, right?
[00:04:26] SY: Yeah.
[00:04:26] TR: It should have been, “Oh, I don’t feel like a good programmer, so I should apply for programming jobs.”
[00:04:31] SY: Let me get some practice. Yeah.
[00:04:32] TR: But I applied for technical writing and for things I felt confident in. And by then I had spent a lot of time on the college, Linux servers. By then, I knew what that meant. And so I applied for kind of IT systems administration because I felt confident doing that and I loved it. I mean, it was really fun, but I steered away from programming because I thought I couldn’t do it.
[00:04:53] SY: Interesting. So that feeling really got to you, that feeling really impacted the decisions you made after the program was over.
[00:05:00] TR: Yeah, completely. And it was actually maybe the next seven or eight years of my career, I steered away from programming. And if you had asked me, I would’ve said, “I’m not really good at it.” But with no real evidence, like this job I took in IT, there was a programming interview as part of it, and the folks that interviewed me, they said afterwards, “Oh, you got a really great score on this programming test or in programming interview. You got the best of the candidates we’d interviewed.” And I was like, “Oh, that’s so funny. It must not be a good test.” [00:05:33] SY: Oh my goodness!
[00:05:34] TR: Like now we would call that imposter syndrome, right? But I think even back then, if I had known imposter syndrome existed, I would’ve been like, “Oh, yeah, that must really suck for those people.” [00:05:44] SY: So tell me about what needed to happen for you to not feel that way because I’ve heard similar stories from other people who did not have a good college experience for different reasons. Sometimes it’s a gender balance reason. Sometimes it’s just a self-confidence issue. It’s an experience issue. In a situation like yours where it seems like it stemmed from the fact that you just didn’t have exposure the way that other kids had that exposure, what could have happened that would’ve given you some self-confidence or at least made you not feel so othered in that situation?
[00:06:21] TR: Partly, I wish I had been a little more self-aware and mature and able to look around and find people in the same situation and try to solve my own problems, say, “Oh, actually what’s happening here is that I’m insecure. What can I do about that?” I wish I had had a mentor or literally anybody in my family who had ever used a computer before.
[00:06:45] SY: Right, literally anybody. Yeah.
[00:06:47] TR: Yeah. Literally a single person who was not the sense of being five years ahead of me, but somebody who was one year ahead of me in programming who could be like, “Oh yeah, I learned that,” because there’s the thing, I didn’t think it was learnable. Literally everything is learnable. And I thought it was just this like an aptitude. We always say this like, “Oh, people who are good at math will be good at programming,” as opposed to, “Oh yeah, this is a set of skills that anyone can learn. It just takes a whole lot of time.” [00:07:16] SY: Yes, I completely can relate to that. I’ve had similar feelings myself of just thinking like, “Oh, this is an aptitude thing,” and having to break myself out of that mindset because that is not a productive mindset to be in. But clearly you came back to coding. You came back to engineering because you’re an engineer now. What happens to get you back in the game?
[00:07:35] TR: So I went into IT. I was a Unix systems administrator. I learned a lot about operating systems and networking and really cool stuff, stuff that is still kind of a nifty engineering discipline. But I was missing this one coding piece. And there was one year I was working for an ISP in Ireland as a systems administrator. Suddenly, Google came to town and Amazon came to town and I think PayPal came. It really felt like one summer they all turned up. The game changed for tech in the city I was in. I interviewed for Amazon. They said, “No, no, no, no.” And then I interviewed for Google and got hired there, came in as a systems administrator at the level, which now is below the new grad level, and this is with six years of experience. But I came in as an SA2 in Google way back then. It was a role where coding was sort of gently encouraged but not actually required. And you could get away without it. And so at intervals, I would probably do a little bit here and there. In the ISP, I had written some Perl. I had done some, but it was always like this kind of side gig. So I came in and I was a sysadmin at Google for a bit, moved into the Site Reliability Engineering, which has a much stronger coding culture. And so to some extent, it was a bit of exposure therapy, it was like, but then there was this one project. So I’d been working on a little bit of Python. I’m not going to say when I couldn’t avoid it. But it was never the first thing I would reach for.
[00:09:01] SY: Right.
[00:09:01] TR: It was like, “Can I do this in a different way?” And I would kind of be editing other people’s code rather than writing my own. But then I had a team lead who was like, “You keep saying you want to be coding more. What steps are you taking towards that?” [00:09:16] SY: Ooh, I like this person.
[00:09:17] TR: And I was like, “I don’t know. Maybe I will do something.” And he’s like, “No, you have to actually choose to do it.” Here is a project and it was in C++, a language I did not know, and you know I’m-not-kidding-around language. It’s got a learning curve. And he was like, “Here, take this project. It’s not urgent. It’s not due tomorrow, but work through this, work on it.” Even better, we had the culture of you’d send the pull request or the CL, it’s called, inside the Goog. You would send this very publicly, CCing your team. But he was okay with me just sending it to him quietly and he would review it quietly. And so I didn’t have this like, “Oh, I’m learning in full view of everybody.” You know?
[00:09:57] SY: Right. Right. Yeah.
[00:09:58] TR: Which now I try, I really try hard to learn in full view of everybody. I’m like, “My job is to ask the potentially dumb questions and be like, ‘But I don’t understand that.’” But back then I was very a little insecure about that. So he reviewed my code and he would say things like, “Oh, the thing you don’t know about here is called closures and callbacks. This is a really good way to learn about them. I would recommend this course.” And then he pointed me at a couple of these Stanford courses, which actually I think are still online, the Stanford Education Everywhere.
[00:10:28] SY: Yeah.
[00:10:28] TR: CS106A, CS106B. And they’re really, really good. And they really start from scratch. And he said, “If you have time, I would really recommend working through these courses. Do the exercises. Enjoy them.” And I did. And I did like kind of an hour every morning for the next like five years.
[00:10:47] SY: Wow!
[00:10:47] TR: I mean, not these courses, but I did these courses. And along the way, I did all the exercises, filled in all of the gaps, like all of the stuff I’d been glossing over and just not feeling like really confident about. Learned everything kind of from scratch. Again, going very fast through the stuff I already knew. I finished that and I was like, “Oh, okay, so I know this.” So then I did a data structures and algorithms free course online, and then I think I did like an advanced algorithms and then I did a compiler’s class. And so I just sort of bootstrapped back up to where I think I could’ve been honestly leaving college if I had felt confident in the fundamentals.
[00:11:22] SY: That confidence, yeah. And now you are at Squarespace, which is very exciting, as a Senior Principal Engineer. How are things going now?
[00:11:32] TR: Ah, it’s pretty great. I’m working on platforms, which I’m really interested in right now. I mean, platform engineering is the cool thing we’re talking about this year apparently. So I’m accidentally where it’s cool. But yeah, I’ve been at Squarespace five years. I was at Google for 12.
[00:11:47] SY: Nice. When you were going through those Stanford CS courses online and kind of doing that on your own time, what was your timeline like? You mentioned that kind of some years had passed since you had graduated and where you probably would have been. What was the timeline like when you finally re-entered programming in the coding aspect back where you could have been years ago?
[00:12:12] TR: So by the time I got to the point where I really felt like, “Oh, I’m a competent programmer. I can solve any problem that’s thrown at me.” I would say I was eight or nine years out of college. But I wouldn’t say I ended up back at the same place, if you see what I mean. It’s kind of like I had built all of these skills on these kind of other axes. Like if you think about the other parts of engineering, like what’s going to go wrong here? What will people misunderstand here? How will this break? Cyber liability people are all about how will this break. How will the network behave here? What should our user interface be? Or like how can this confuse people? So like all of that, I felt like I’d been building that up as I went along, but it was just this like one weird gap. And so yeah, I would say by the time I was, I don’t know, like 30 or something, I’m not going to say like back to where I would’ve been leaving college because I had nine or ten years of software experience.
[00:13:03] SY: You’ve grown so much. Yeah.
[00:13:06] TR: But just from a confidence in programming, yeah, probably about then. And it was cool, like it unlocked this world for me. I started doing things like… there’s a programming site, Project Euler.
[00:13:18] SY: Yeah.
[00:13:18] TR: And I did a hundred of those Project Euler problems and it was so cool to like learn about, I mean, I guess probably stuff we had discussed in college that I just didn’t remember, like solving a problem and being like, “Oh, this is too slow. I better learn about graph traversal. Okay, it’s still too slow. I got to learn about memorization.” It was super fun. That was the big thing I remember from it. Just like I’ve unlocked this whole other world of enjoyable things.
[00:13:44] SY: Yeah. That’s wonderful. And at what point did you start to feel your confidence coming back?
[00:13:51] TR: So probably to some extent, by the time I have done this second Stanford course and I was like, “Oh, I’ve solved all of these problems and I’ve learned all this stuff.” And I started noticing, I would be in conversations at work and suddenly I would know a few more of the words. And then I realized that the words I didn’t know, this is shocking, I could look up like. Do we teach people this in college now? I don’t know. I wish I’d known that. You know?
[00:14:17] SY: Yeah.
[00:14:17] TR: When people say something and you don’t understand, you can choose to feel bad about it or you can go understand it. This really feels like not rocket science now.
[00:14:25] SY: No. I love that. Yeah. I mean, it sounds so obvious, but I think a lot of people could benefit from that reminder. It’s hard to remember, especially when you’re in the depths of feeling down about yourself or things just aren’t working out or things aren’t making sense. It’s easy to forget that, “Hey, I can look it up. That other person who know it probably looked it up as well.” It’s hard to remember that. Yeah.
[00:14:46] TR: And I mean, software is such a huge domain. There’s just so much to know. There are so many technical domains. There are so many business domains. There’s always going to be something new to learn.
[00:14:55] SY: Yes, absolutely. So we want to dive into always having a learning and growth mindset. What does having a growth mindset mean to you?
[00:15:04] TR: To me, it’s about always believing that if you want to, you can get to somewhere. You can get to something you want to do. It doesn’t mean that, I don’t know, you look at somebody else doing a job and you say, “Oh, I could do that job tomorrow. That looks easy.” Why don’t I just do that thing they’re doing? For me, it’s a belief that there is a path from you to where they are or to anywhere you want to be, even if you can’t see it now. Growth is often… we often say it’s like, “Oh, getting promoted and going up the corporate ladder or whatever.” That’s one option. But there’s a lot of ways to grow. So it’s like really anything you want to do in your life or anything you want to learn or the kind of person you want to be. It’s like, “Oh yeah, let me figure out, maybe I can’t see the whole path through there, but I can see a step or I can find a person that’s closer to there than I am, and I can chart a path to what they’re doing and see where I get from there.” So that’s how I think about it. It’s just like this belief that you can do it. It might be scary if you do it.
[00:16:11] SY: Yeah. How do you feel like we limit ourselves from having a growth mindset? Where does that come from?
[00:16:18] TR: You know, I think it’s this thing what I said at the start about comparing yourself to the people who are the best. There was always this idea that would come up again and again where people would tell me I don’t think I should be a senior software engineer or I don’t think I should be a staff software engineer because I’m not Jeff Dean. Jeff Dean is this famous computer scientist. He’s got a Wikipedia page. He’s a super famous person. And I would see these kind of Software Engineer III people who’ve been doing this work for a few years and they would say, “Oh yeah, I just don’t really see myself as a staff engineer or a principal engineer because I’m not this guy.” I mean, this is a lot later when I had found my confidence and realized that all roads can be opened or can be learnable. So I would ask like, “You don’t think you are one of the most famous computer scientists in the world? Does that mean you shouldn’t do it? Is that the bar we’re aiming] for?” [00:17:11] SY: Yeah. It’s a pretty high bar.
[00:17:15] TR: Could you find somebody a little closer to be like? But I think there’s this whole representation thing there as well where like you have to be able to see somebody you can imagine being like.
[00:17:25] SY: Yeah. How do we spot our own limitations? Because I found it really interesting when you said to me earlier, even if I had known about imposter syndrome, I would’ve heard that and gone, “Oh, sucks for those people.” Right? you wouldn’t have even identified yourself as being one of those people who’s affected by it. So how do we recognize when we are the ones limiting ourselves?
[00:17:49] TR: I think if we had an answer to this, we could write all the think pieces on LinkedIn or whatever. Maybe there’s some amount of, well, can you see part of the way? We always will limit ourselves a little. Probably we’re not all able to imagine this path to whatever we think absolute greatness is, like absolute rock star, best on the planet, but can we do something about like normalize, just looking at the next thing?
[00:18:33] SY: Yeah. Absolutely. So you talked about how those Stanford courses really leveled you up and got you kind of back into the coding side of things, but it also helped your confidence. Tell me about what it was about those courses that made you feel like, “Man, I can do anything. I can do those things that seem scary and those things that seem scary are actually learnable.” What was it that kind of changed your personal mindset on those topics?
[00:19:00] TR: This is going to sound really weird, but I think it was seeing words and ideas that I had thought of as in some way magical without really articulating that to myself and seeing them written down and defined. And so it was this kind of exposure to the big abstract ideas in concrete bite-size chunks, even putting a name to a concept can stop it being so scary, almost like you’re drawing a box around it, and you’re saying, “Oh, this is a thing. It’s a thing. And if it’s a thing, it’s knowable.” And so the course, I remember giving me a lot of that. The second one goes into memory management a whole lot. I don’t know if we had covered that in my college courses. Perhaps we had, but it had always been how do pointers behave? Oh, it’s magic. You just have to understand in your brain somehow. And it was like, “Oh no, they behave like this.” This is what’s happening in memory. “Look, we can draw boxes about it.” And I was like, “Oh, that makes a lot of sense. There’s no magic there.” So it’s kind of that, it’s like you are into a new world and you can see how it works. You see how the pieces move behind the scenes. For me, realizing that everything on the planet has something like that for advanced science, we probably don’t know it all yet, there are pieces that move and can be understood and reasoned about. And so now when I’m going into like a new domain that I don’t understand or I’m trying to do something I haven’t done before, I still am looking for like, “What’s happening here? What’s boring about this? What’s like learnable and mundane?” And there are just techniques that you learn and then you do it.
[00:20:39] SY: Absolutely. So being a beginner dev is super scary. There’s so many things that are new, that are changing. All the time it feels like there’s always some new, shiny thing to learn about. Besides learning through online courses, what are other ways that people can continue to learn and grow at any age or any place in their coding journey, even when it seems scary and intimidating?
[00:21:04] TR: So I always love when there is something to play with. I feel hesitant saying, “Just go play with a thing.” Also, I said the word just, which means it’s harder than it should be.
[00:21:14] SY: Yeah, for code. Yeah. I like that.
[00:21:17] TR: But like where people have time, find a thing and play with it. I got this advice, “Oh, just…” “Just”, there it is again, “Take on an open source project and throw yourself in the deep end.” That never worked for me at least. But find a thing you can try out in a safe environ. So when I’ve got new coders in my life, like I had this one person I worked with. He was absolutely terrified of code and he wasn’t admitting that to himself, but I recognized it. I was like, “Oh, I used to be like you, my friend.” And so he had this problem he had to solve with code. And he was solving it with spreadsheets and it was taking him two weeks and it really needed to take him like one hour.
[00:21:57] SY: Yeah.
[00:21:58] TR: And so I thought, “How can I help this guy work up to not being scared of the code?” And so I tried to find a way for him to play with it. So I gave him, “Hey, can you build this thing? You make sure the test pass. Here’s a document on testing and making sure the test passed.” And he was like, “Oh yeah, the test passed.” And I’m like, “Oh, okay, cool. I mean, I knew the test passed.” I was like, “Just test this for me.” And I’m like, “Well, we have a linter that will find errors in here, not bugs, but like bad variable names or white space, indentation. Could you run that and make these changes? And so like really small, take a little.” And he did that and made the changes and it’s still built and the tests still passed. And I was like, “Oh yes, sure. Send me a pull request for that.” [00:22:43] SY: Just super cache.
[00:22:44] TR: Yeah. He’s made a code change. And I was like, “Oh, I see that needs an extra monitoring line here. Would you add an extra monitoring line? Just copy the existing ones.” And it wasn’t scary. It was just like no big deal. And after that, once you’ve gotten past that kind of discomfort, you can kind of work up to it. But I think there’s a lot of things like that where it’s like, “Oh, this is impossibly scary.” And if you set up an environment, I think where it is scary, like you can’t touch this code without deploying something into production and possibly like taking down your company. I’m like, “Okay, that’s scary code.” But if there’s some way you can run it locally or play with it or just try something out, I always try to have something like that. Here’s the toy thing and you’ll be able to mess around with it and see what happens.
[00:23:33] SY: Absolutely. So one thing that I’m picking up on is how much other people have the potential of influencing how we see ourselves, what we’re able to do, what we believe we can do, and ultimately what we whether it was other people making you feel like, “Oh, maybe you were not cut out for this,” or other people encouraging you, making you feel like maybe you have a chance and you doing the same thing to other folks, right? The person you just mentioned. So I’m curious, how have others helped you to live with a growth mindset? And kind of related to that, how can we help each other live a growth mindset?
[00:24:09] TR: Oh yeah. I love this because I’ve got so many people who have given me a boost along the way, but equally like people who have just completely destroyed my self-confidence and not known they were doing it. So let me talk about the positive ones because they’re better.
[00:24:22] SY: Sure.
[00:24:23] TR: There’s a few examples. I mentioned working in an ISP as a systems networks person and one person, very casual conversation, I’m certain he doesn’t remember. He just said one day like, “Oh, there’s that problem over there and I don’t know who can handle it. He was the same level as me. And he was just like, “I don’t know. I think you and I could do it, but I don’t know if any of the others could do that. Like not in an insulting them way, just like there’s a skillset here, so it has to be me or you.” And I had thought of him as a complete badass, and I had thought of me as like some loser learning things. And I was like, “You know, I could do that.” This person thinks I’m on their level. Is that real?
[00:25:00] SY: Wow!
[00:25:01] TR: Yeah.
[00:25:01] SY: That’s cool.
[00:25:02] TR: I had a bunch of these in Google, like my first promotion at Google. I did not apply for it. Definitely it didn’t occur to me to go from level two to level three, which I think is now the new grad level, and I didn’t do that. Colleague, she put my name in for promotion. She wrote a note to my manager and said, “Tanya’s not a two. She’s a three. Sort that out.” [00:25:21] SY: I love that.
[00:25:22] TR: Yeah. The next two, in fact, somebody found me a project to prove myself with and it really brought it to me like, “This is currently a little too hard for you. By the time you’ve finished it, it won’t be too hard for you. It’s yours. I will tell everybody you’re in charge. It’s your project. You’re leading it. And I’m here with the guardrails. Ask me any questions you want. And if you’re not asking the right questions, I’ll ask you questions. But it’s a project that will take you up a level.” That was incredible. Like somebody who sees this potential in you. You can do this thing you think is too hard for you, but I don’t think it’s too hard for you. I think you’re going to learn to do it. And so I look out for that all the time. Who can I give this? Like nada, I'm like way not out of your league, you’re going to drown and be scared, but like just enough ahead that like maybe if you were doing it on your own, you wouldn’t get an A on this project, but you would not fail.
[00:26:14] SY: You’d pass. Yeah. Yeah. Exactly.
[00:26:16] TR: Pass.
[00:26:16] SY: Exactly.
[00:26:17] TR: And then your mentor person there is there to help. Maybe you end up with an A because they help you or they give you advice. So like that sort of thing has been incredible for me over my career.
[00:26:27] SY: So I want to make sure that we give you the credit as well because clearly they saw something in you from what you were doing, the way you were carrying yourself, the way you were doing the job that made them go, “You know, this person has potential. This person can do the job, is going to be great, and I want to help support her.” What is it that you think that they saw in you? What were you doing? What were you saying that made people be so supportive? Because we all would love to have that support, right? We’d all love to have people who give us these little opportunities. And so I’m wondering what is it that you think they saw, if you can kind of go back in time and remember those moments that made people go, “This person, she’s something else”?
[00:27:11] TR: I mean, I was doing projects and I was doing the projects and I was mostly bringing them in by deadline and so on. Showing up and being vaguely competent is important. I’ve often heard people like say, “But how do I get people to invest in me or how do I get opportunities?” Some of it is absolutely luck. Some of it is being visibly competent, like show up and do the work and to some extent make sure other people see you do the work. Don’t hide in the corner. So there was some amount of that, but really I’m so grateful for the people I’ve worked with over the years.
[00:27:51] SY: Coming up next, Tanya talks about interviewing and advocating for ourselves after this.
[00:28:05] SY: Let’s switch topics a bit and talk about the interview process. Because you worked at Google. You were there for a good chunk of time, and Google is notorious for their interview process. There have been blog posts, books written about it, videos, courses. I feel like there’s a little mini empire, a mini industry of how to get a job at Google content out there. What was your experience like? What was the interview process like for you when you were at Google?
[00:28:35] TR: So I interviewed originally for site reliability engineering. I mean this is a long time ago because I was 12 years at Google, I’ve been five years at Squarespace. So here’s what the interview process was like 17 years ago.
[00:28:46] SY: Okay. Fair. I’ll take it.
[00:28:49] TR: There was a mix of, do you know this tech trivia sort of deal, like it was particularly around Linux calls for things and I did like a new Linux trivia because that’s where I specialized. But then I think somebody asked me to design Gmail on a whiteboard, something like that.
[00:29:04] SY: Oh, interesting. That sounds like fun. It sounds like a fun problem.
[00:29:08] TR: Yeah. I mean, now it is, but at the time, I had not seen anything big. And I remember years later someone saying, “Do you remember I interviewed you?” And I was like, “No.” He said, “I asked you to design Gmail.” And I was like, “I don’t really remember that, but I don’t think I would’ve known how to approach it.” And he was like, “No, you didn’t.” [00:29:31] SY: But you got the job anyway.
[00:29:32] TR: I didn’t get the site reliability job.
[00:29:34] SY: Oh, okay, okay.
[00:29:34] TR: So this is a message to your listeners. It is okay to not get roles. I interviewed for a sysadmin role in the same place and then sort of work my way back into the site reliability team where I would’ve been. I think I did some coding interviews that probably didn’t go very well. What I remember was it was just stuff I hadn’t encountered before and there were questions that, I mean, now you’re right, there’s this whole industry around how do you do a systems design interview, which like everything is very learnable. I think it’s not the worst interview question because learning how to do a systems designer interview actually teaches you skills as opposed to I think kind of a lot of the HackerRank stuff teaches you how to solve unlikely trivia problems. It’s not very natural, but system design interviews actually do I think probably teach you something, but it was all stuff I hadn’t encountered before.
[00:30:23] SY: What was the interview process like at Squarespace?
[00:30:26] TR: It was cool. So I was coming in as the first principal engineer.
[00:30:29] SY: Oh, okay. Cool.
[00:30:30] TR: You know, job titles mean different things in different places. With us, principal is a kind of a director level role. But an individual contributor, I mean, individual contributor is also a misnomer. It’s still an engineer job. You have no reports but your director level. So I was coming in as the first one of those. And I think everyone honestly was trying to figure out like, “What do we interview one of these people on?” But I remember doing a really fun system design interview and loving it. And I remember at one point I was like sitting on the table beside the whiteboard, just hanging out, Kevin was interviewing me. I was having so much fun whiteboarding this stuff with Kevin. And I was like, “Oh, this is great. I’m going to like this.” I’m glad that he also liked my solution, I guess. One of the things I really quite liked from that set of interviews was that someone was interviewing me on code and they said, “You know what? I looked at your GitHub. You can clearly code. I want to do a small coding. Not sure how much code you will end up writing in your day-to-day job, but then there’s something you mentioned that I think is really interesting. I had talked about DNS. Let’s do an interview about this thing you find interesting instead, just this topic, and let’s talk about like how you think about technical changes like this sort of thing.” So I really respected that the interviewer, he did a sort of a token coding interview, but he was like, “I’m not going to waste your time with this. Let’s talk about something cool.” I really appreciated that.
[00:31:51] SY: That is nice. I like that. So I know that we talked a lot about how people advocating for you made a big difference in your career, but I’m curious, how can we be advocates for ourselves? We can show up, we can do the work, and hopefully people notice and hopefully people take a moment to support us and encourage us. But as you said, that is a luck factor to a large extent. So how can we advocate for ourselves? How can we be our own sponsors?
[00:32:18] TR: That’s a great question. I think you’re completely right that just doing the work, just doing a good job tends to not be enough a lot of the time. So I would say we could start by being as much as is possible in the current market, blah, blah, macroeconomic, blah, blah. Pick a role where the people are kind of growth people. You’re interviewing the team as much as they’re interviewing you. You’re interviewing the manager as much as they’re interviewing you look for a role where you will learn something kind of by default. So I always say like, “Don’t pick a job you’re good at. Pick a job you want to be good at.” [00:32:54] SY: Ooh, I like that.
[00:32:54] TR: And you get it for free. Because whatever you’re doing all day, you inevitably get better at.
[00:32:58] SY: You’ll be good at it. Yeah.
[00:33:00] TR: Sort of start there if you can. If there’s something you want to be good at, try to get that. Not always possible. I would say communicate. Learn to communicate. There is nothing that makes someone look like a competent adult more than writing an email with like three bullet points instead of a massive wall of text. So learn to concisely share information.
[00:33:20] SY: That’s fun. Yeah.
[00:33:22] TR: And I would say talk about what you’ve done. Don’t assume that people have seen it, like it feels weird, but I’ve seen people drop a line to their manager or if it’s comfortable, their manager’s manager and say, “Hey, here’s the thing we just achieved. It’s really cool.” And not like, “Oh, I upgraded this library.” Not something that the manager is just not… they don’t see the impact of, but show the impact of it. Say like, “Hey, we used to not be able to offer this feature and now we offer this feature. Isn’t that cool?” Or like this thing and now users say that they’re happy, in a form that like show the impact of the work, not just the work.
[00:33:56] SY: Showing your impact. Yes. Yes. I love that.
[00:33:59] TR: I think you can do it without being self-aggrandizing because I think we all know that people who are like, “No, look at me, look at me.” But there is a wideband between completely silent and being that person.
[00:34:09] SY: Yeah.
[00:34:10] TR: And I feel like there’s just a lot of space for success in between.
[00:34:13] SY: Absolutely. So we talked about confidence and we talked about how confidence played a pretty big role in your decisions and kind of what you decided to do, where you decided to take your career, especially in the early days, and it took a while to build that confidence. But I’m wondering, could other people tell what your confidence level was? Employers, could they tell if you were confident in yourself and in what impact that had on your career?
[00:34:39] TR: I’m pretty sure that they could. I’m thinking back to my interview with the ISP. I know this is a long time ago, but I remember apologizing in the interview like, “I hope I’m not wasting your time.” [00:34:51] SY: Oh yeah. Yeah.
[00:34:54] TR: Poor baby Tanya. And I got that job.
[00:34:58] SY: Nice.
[00:34:59] TR: Like if you go into a situation like, “Oh, hey, nice to meet you. I suck.”
[00:35:06] SY: Nice to meet you. I suck.
[00:35:08] TR: Yeah. Don’t do that.
[00:35:10] SY: Don’t think of a word to any job interview. I love it. Nice to meet you. I suck. Great.
[00:35:15] TR: I love people saying, “I don’t know,” whatever it is they don’t know. I am here to learn this. There’s a difference between pretending you know everything. I don’t like that. Like, “Oh yeah, absolutely. Oh sure, I can do everything.” But there’s a certain amount of confidence in saying, “Oh yeah, I don’t know how to do that. I’ll go learn.” And being really open about it, especially for more senior people, I want that all the time. Just show your learning because I don’t think we show people. But I’m certain people could tell. We say fake it till you make it or whatever. And I don’t quite mean as much as that. But there is a certain amount of like find a person to take your insecurities to that you trust. Or if you’ve got a peer group, like I’ve got this amazing group of people who I go talk with and say, “Oh man, I’m feeling worried about this thing.” But then I go confidently do it. Try and separate those.
[00:36:07] SY: Got you. Now at the end of every episode, we ask our guests to fill in the blanks of some very important questions. Tanya, are you ready to fill in the blanks?
[00:36:22] TR: Yeah, let’s do this.
[00:36:23] SY: Number one, worst advice I’ve ever received is?
[00:36:26] TR: Jump in the deep end.
[00:36:27] SY: Oh, interesting.
[00:36:28] TR: Anything with just in it, just get involved in open source. If you want to get involved in open source, absolutely, but that is not the first step for learning to code. I would say like if you’re someone who likes huge jumping in the deep end, do it. But for me, that was terrible advice. And better advice would’ve been take comfortable baby steps that you enjoy.
[00:36:51] SY: Right. Right. Number two, best advice I’ve ever received is?
[00:36:55] TR: Probably, honestly, those Stanford courses I mentioned earlier, but I would also say this one woman I worked with a long time ago. She said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, if you don’t have this long picture, pick somebody who is like a reasonable place to go and kind of aim towards them so you’re going somewhere until you’ve made up your mind.” [00:37:14] SY: I like that. That’s cool. Really practical too. Number three, my first coding project was about?
[00:37:20] TR: The first one I remember in the ISP was about counting the minutes for users online for broadband and adding them up so that they were getting billed correctly.
[00:37:32] SY: Nice.
[00:37:32] TR: And it was in Perl.
[00:37:34] SY: Nice.
[00:37:35] TR: And it, I think, had no tests. It’s a long time ago. It had no tests, but it did have version control. So we were feeling pretty good with that.
[00:37:43] SY: Nice! Number four, one thing I wish I knew when I first started to code is?
[00:37:49] TR: It’s all learnable. Everything is learnable. Really anything you want to do, you can take a step towards it, go try it out, and the people who know it now were not born knowing it.
[00:38:02] SY: Absolutely love that. Well, thank you again for joining us, Tanya.
[00:38:05] TR: Thank you so much for having me. This was fun.
[00:38:15] SY: You can reach out to us on Twitter at CodeNewbies or send me an email, email@example.com. For more info on the podcast, check out www.codenewbie.org/podcast. Thanks for listening. See you next week.
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