Dev Interview: Launching a career as an enterprise developer in Austin, Chapter 3
A multi-part interview series chronicling three new enterprise developers. Follow them as they move to Austin, Texas to launch their careers and adjust to life…
Chapter 3, Welcome to corporate America
After working through IBM’s onboarding program (Chapter 2), it’s time for Da-In, Diana and Luc to get started on some internal work projects. It’s also a time to get to know people on your team and develop those soft skills as the newbie. While being a developer is considered a technical endeavor, you’re usually on a squad and working with quite a few others in the organization: colleagues, leaders and internal customers. That requires the ability to comfortably work in teams and developing your EQ (emotional intelligence). Let’s drop back in on our developer trio to see what life is like where the rubber hits the road and what life is like, after college.
Q1 – What has working at IBM been like versus academia, any surprises? And what was it like to get that first professional paycheck?
Diana Galarza – Developer Advocate: When I started settling into this new life, I realized that unlike college, I had a solid routine and a lot more free time to do things outside of just work. I no longer had to worry about classes, homework or club meetings. Now I had the chance to focus on myself and the things that mattered most to me, like seeing friends and family and finally getting to travel. As for work, I would say that it has a similar aspect to school since we’re project-focused and have tasks with deadlines. I also feel like I have the same support system as I had at school. Everyone was so friendly in the office and willing to offer their help.
What surprises me most is how we’ve already been here for over a year! I definitely feel like I’ve learned more this year on the job than in my four years at college. What I did get from college was credit card debt, which I paid off with my first paycheck. But now, whatever I’m not putting into savings, I’ll use to treat myself.
Da-In Ryoo – Developer Advocate: I was actually planning on going to grad school straight from undergrad. I’d spent my whole life in school and, as much as I hated it… I kind of liked it. Cramming and grinding, then receiving a numerical grade to measure your value as a person. I also had professors I wanted to work with and they warned me if I started working, it was going to be very very hard to go back for graduate school. They were right. I thought I enjoyed the pain of education, but the freedom of the working adult life is too delicious. Waking up after getting a healthy amount of sleep, making money, and then having the whole evening to do whatever you want. I probably spent most of my first paycheck on rent. That was another exciting part of adult life— having the money to pay for your own things.
I agree with Diana, I really can’t believe it’s been more than a year. I still feel like a new hire. People still call us three “The New Hires”. It’s like having a weird variant of imposter syndrome, like there’s the added effect of feeling like a baby in a team of grown-ups. Chronic baby imposter syndrome?
Luc Olsthoorn – Developer Advocate: School to work was a transition I long awaited. Getting a degree in Computer Science was great for fundamentals, but not for real world application of those skills. When I finally got started, the biggest difference was not the constant pressure to get a job, pass classes and succeed. I had made it and to be honest, I didn’t know what to do with this new career. I had a lot of free time and time for my hobbies like working out and driving, but had no one to do it with. It felt pointless at times but from my prior experience I knew I had to keep on trying to make friends. I also hurt my shoulder ego-lifting and got a little chunky. This was 100% a low point in my life.
My first paycheck was a glimmer at hope in an otherwise pretty abysmal experience. I spent the first paycheck on rent and some fat tacos. It felt good to be official but it still didn’t feel real. It felt almost as though I was just at another internship. It still kind of feels like that at times.
Q2 – Tell us about your team at IBM and the work environment in the Austin office? What were your initial work projects like?
Da-In: Our team (I guess simply put, the developers for IBM Developer) is extremely tight-knit. And I could tell immediately upon joining. Everyone went out to lunch together, got beers once a week, shared inside jokes and stories. If you needed help, you could just poke your head into someone’s office and soon you’d be sitting next to each other, hunched over a laptop and trying to debug together. Our managers’ office doors were always wide open, literally and figuratively. And I know they wouldn’t have cared, in fact they probably would have welcomed it, if I had randomly swung by and chatted about something dumb like the new Cheetos in the office snack room. It’s definitely been brought up a couple times that there’s almost like a start-up vibe, work and culture-wise.
The dev team itself is pretty small. Including the three of us, there’s less than twenty developers and about half of us are actually in Austin. All of our offices are neatly contained in one hallway. And yet, the first few days of meeting everyone and trying to remember everyone’s faces and names and titles was chaos. IBM is definitely hierarchical and that’s not a bad thing, just a fact. But that meant during my first days, whenever I met someone I’d have to frantically figure out where they fit in the web of people growing in my head. I think Vince, our second-line manager, sat me down one day and drew out this incredible diagram of our team and its related teams, all the way up to the CEO. And I was taking notes like my life depended on it.
But the reality of it is that my life did not in fact depend on it. Yeah the hierarchy is there, but everyone’s so comfortable and casual and familiar with each other that there isn’t any power play or need to fear authority. To be honest though, the way that our team is linked to other teams, everyone involved in what we work on, how our little team fits into this giant company, I can still barely keep track of even now.
Diana: Our team has range. There is an expert on all sides – front-end, back-end, infrastructure, security, etc. Everyone has such different personalities too, but we all get along so well. It’s surprising that there’s actually no drama. Sure there are disagreements about work sometimes, but at the end of the day, everyone respects and listens to each other. More often than not though, you’ll find us joking around with one another in our hallway. We’re all very comfortable with each other and I think that’s the best part of being on this team.
I was already pretty used to the agile process from my previous internship so that was easy to get used to again at IBM. Leadership is also pretty standard, but I definitely feel cared for by my manager and higher-ups. It’s always nice as a new hire to get recognized by leadership from time to time.
At first, I was working mostly on the front-end for both IBM Developer and internal tooling. Yet, I wanted to try to branch out and learn more about the back-end side of things. One of my first projects involved creating a dashboard to track usage of IBM Cloud services. It was part of a larger project all written in R and PostgreSQL, both of which I had never written in before. I immediately felt like I had been given a lot of trust with full-access to databases and production environments. (Always praying I don’t accidentally drop a table.) I was definitely not used to that! However, my manager did a great job pairing me with the back-end expert on the team, Megan. She’s been a great mentor to me from the start, and I’ve grown so much as a developer because of her.
Luc: First and foremost, this team puts out work. There have been many occasions where we crank it and the whole team comes together to try to get things done. It feels sometimes like in college when you would stay up until 5 am trying to get your code to work when it’s due at 7. There is something about that sleep-deprived stress scramble that hits different and this team exudes that energy fairly often. The people themselves all have very strong personalities. It is quite entertaining to see these interactions, but to also add to the office chaos.
The management on this team is interesting, but it works. I sometimes joke about having two dads, Al and Manny. Al is my formal manager, whereas Manny is our CTO. Manny drives us to work (and also drives us crazy) whereas Al balances it out with a more managerial approach. There have been many times I have gotten absolutely enraged at Manny, only to go to Al and have his soothing fatherly voice calm me down instantly.
My first project was to redo this janky docs plugin for internal usage. It was a WordPress plugin in PHP. I had never touched either of these before in my life, but being the cocky man I am I said ‘Of course I can do that’. The project ended up taking me a while, and unfortunately I did a pretty good job. I say unfortunately because that was my peak and my two dads have never quite been as proud of me again.
Da-In: My first assignments were limited to small things on pages for internal IBM eyes only (couldn’t have the baby touching the big risk, high publicity external pages, now could we?). I was doing front-end tweaks and fun UI things for the Developer Advocacy tool. Angela was to be my sort of mentor and leader during these times and she did a great job easing me slowly into working for the team. She assigned “beginner-friendly” issues, was always available for questions, reviewed all of my work carefully. So my initial projects were easy, but only because I had the support to make them so.
Q3 – What initial goals did you have when first joining the company? And when did you start feeling comfortable with work at IBM?
Luc: My initial goals with this company were to grow as a developer. As an infant programmer you often feel inadequate and feel as though you don’t have the expertise to actually deliver any value to the company. I was hoping that would change as I grew as a developer. But alas, I still feel like a child at times and not quite as much as an adult as I would like to be in both programming and existence. I started getting comfortable after a few projects were beneath my belt. I felt like I had proven my worthiness to not get fired instantly.
IBM corporate culture is kind of weird. It is very forced but at every individual level. people are usually themselves which is interesting. I think a good representation of this was the IBM Christmas party. We had almost all of IBM Austin at this party in an old IBM building. The setting was almost like a giant ‘The Office’ vibe, awkward. There was a dance floor that only a few brave souls used. And my team was mostly focused on celebrating with the free adult beverages.
Da-In: My driving force, both in the very beginning and even now, has been to contribute as best as I can to the team and make my teammates proud. My lizard-brain pack mentality holds great power over me. And I’m trying my hardest not to get kicked out of this group of people that has taken me in. But also, I’ve grown to genuinely, deeply care about and respect everyone on my team. I want to do what I can to make their lives easier, to make work enjoyable for them. Like Luc said, I’ve come to view the people above me as almost holding parental roles. If I’m struggling through an assignment or asked to work overtime, any stress or irritation dissolves the instant one of our dads rewards me with a “thank you” or “good job.”
Diana: My initial goal was to quickly learn about the work my team does and be able to contribute as much as I could. I think that’s the biggest hurdle when starting a new job. Before I felt like I could add to a project, I had to go through the code-base and familiarize myself with the way things were done. I also had to keep track of the project owners and who to ask for help with certain things. Once I figured all that out, I felt a bit more at ease with work. It definitely also helps having great co-workers to help guide you along the way! And I agree with Da-In and Luc, getting recognized for doing good work is when I finally felt like I proved I was able to add value to the team. My goal since then has just been to keep learning and improving myself as a developer.
Chapter 3, Close
Becoming a professional developer or any type of corporate professional requires an ability to navigate personalities, people, and politics. So while coding, design and technical skills will get your foot in the door, it’s often those soft skills that define how far you will go. And a willingness to envision and set a career path within a team, organization or industry. The structure and cadence of academic work is in the past so as new professionals, it’s up to Diana, Luc and Da-In to learn the corporate ropes as quickly as possible at IBM and set a course for their career. And as you can tell, there’s a lot of ups and downs that need to be managed. Next up, we’ll dive into how having work-life balance with your closest colleagues and having a support system can help young professionals in many different ways.