Episode 11 - Transcript

About Being a Generalist with April Matias

00:00 // Benjamin

Welcome to CTO coffee podcast where we talk about humans and people in tech. And today I’m very, I’m very, very excited to talk to April. April here from Berlin, where she also studied humanities, arts and social thought. During her studies, she already started working in tech companies in QA roles and transitioned into working in that field full time after graduating.

And Nevertheless, the humanities never really left her. And so she published a super interesting talk on paper in 2017 titled ritualized behaviors of guilt and moral indignation in social media. However, after working as a senior QA engineer for several years, she decided to switch roles and careers and completed a developer boot camp at the end of 2019. So the end of last year and am now working as a developer in Berlin. Welcome April I’m so glad to have you!

01:22 // April

Thanks, Thank you for having me.

01:24 // Benjamin

Do you maybe want to also tell the listeners a little bit about yourself? 

01:29 // April

 I’ve been living in Berlin for 10 years now. I think I’ve actually, the seen, the changes in the tech scene, although I wouldn’t say that I have such a, deep view into how all of these investments and businesses are going, I can at least point to the trends that happened, in every, job change that I’ve had throughout the years. I think it’s quite interesting in the fact that in Berlin. When I started, it still felt like a nascent tech scene. And that there was a struggle too, prove Berlin as some sort of European Silicon Valley. I think in some ways that is still the goal for some companies, especially because a lot of people say, Oh, the scene hasn’t produced as many unicorns as Silicon Valley, which personally to me, does it make sense if it’s a unicorn?There shouldn’t be as many but of course, now there’s some sort of like standardized definition of about like something to do with valuations.

And I would just say that from my experience working in the industry, I’ve gone from different products, from ad tech to social media and social networks, market research, and now I and FinTech. So I do have quite a bit of experience just working with different products or  working in different domains. But my expertise still remains in quality assurance.

03:37 // Benjamin

Super interesting when we talked earlier. I think your experience, and what you kind of touched upon already is very interesting especially when thinking about, What is it generalist? What is a specialist? Then looking at that you started out in this field, then switched into this field and now even something totally different again. Maybe let’s start at the ending kind of still. So, what factors influenced your decision to go down like this generalists route and now, working trying to work as a software developer.

04:30 // April

At first it wasn’t so deliberate, primarily because I had training in the humanities and philosophy. I was working in a tech company, so a lot of what I’ve learned was on the job. And partially it was trying to figure out where I could… in my early years it was trying to figure out how to remain employed. And then of course, as I actually drew into my own role, it was more of trying to figure out where my efforts would make the most impact. And as a QA, I’ve faced a lot of challenges that were not even that related to the technology itself. A lot of the time it was about problems with communication. Just having the types of soft skills to manage, working in different teams or trying to figure out what’s really important for the business. And so these are the types of concerns that won’t necessarily be the focus of somebody who’s entering the industry as a software developer.

Primarily because there’s the expectation that if you’re a junior developer, you’re there to learn  good coding practices and dig deeper into the tech stack that you’re working with. I would say at least now, I have a brief experience of looking for software developer positions , and it was my concern at the time, what types of tasks and what kind of expectations are there for junior developers? I would like to be confident that the company that I would work with would invest in my growth.

And as a QA, I feel mine was like an experience of just a wild, wild West experience. Precisely because nobody really understands what to do with QA when you enter a company. They just know it’s two things, you know, they either need you on paper or they need QA and they don’t know it. And they just lucked out and said, we should probably get a person.

And a lot of the times my, my son says that it’s not just the testing parts, not software testing. We have to dig deeper and where, which actual issues or where are the issues coming from? Was it because? You know, product specifications were not that good, or people don’t feel empowered to actually voice their opinions and bouts the impact of what they’re working on.

We can go into a philosophical discussion about architecture even, and it would still not resolve the problem of quality in a company It is just one factor of that, and this is why I do feel, in many ways, I am a generalist, even though I try to learn more about a particular technology, which for now I’ve chosen as I’ve chosen the Javascript stack. And I think it’s actually a bit tougher having chosen this in the sense that I think I’ve read some, a couple of articles or people have JavaScript fatigue because they’re way too many frameworks and like, when is it enough? What, how can you call yourself a proper JavaScript developer? And it seems like a bottomless pit of things that you have to dig into.

Whereas I’m more of like this, well, let’s, like, let’s try this and then fly around and do other things. So I don’t think I actually answered your question.

08:58 // Benjamin

I think you did. You also touched upon some, so many things.

09:12 // April

I would say there’s a benefit to being a generalist. Which is that there’s plenty of opportunities to feel more engaged with your work or to be more engaged with your work. You don’t get easily fatigued. Actually it really depends on the person itself either. Either you see how the moving parts are in your organization and then you see that, well, we are in deep trouble and we have to bailout. Or you’re also a person who was like, actually let me just roll up my sleeves and see where I can help. But I would also say that this is highly dependent on how an organization values a generalist amongst their ranks. So I think it’s really when you’re interviewing or looking for a position, you need to invest a good amount of time trying to figure out if it’s a good fit or not.

10:16 // Benjamin

That’s super, super interesting like you brought up this one point now based on your training, based on your studies, in the beginning. Tell me if I’m putting words in your mouth that you didn’t say. Because of you’re not technical, background you are actually more open to actually figuring out what is your impact, where you can have the most impact instead of just assuming like, okay, of course, I am technical, by training. And so I’m doing technical work, and that’s, of course, where you can, leave the biggest impact, where make the biggest impact.

I think that’s, that’s actually very powerful because, people who’ve listened to other episodes might know that my belief is I feel very strongly about this whole thing, the nontechnical aspects, the soft skills that they may actually provide much higher leverage for success of a project or for making an impact zone. Coming from, this point of view that you just provided like sounds actually very, like I said, powerful and interesting. And raises the question of how can we empower people to actively think about how can I make the most impact instead of just assuming, yeah I’m going to read code because that’s the way to make impact.

12:01 // April

Well, I don’t think there’s necessarily something wrong about, be like, just, okay I’m this technical person. I would just say maybe it’s like coming from different ends of the spectrum. If when you’re working in the tech industry

Because eventually, you know, if you are, if she started out as a developer, what I’ve constantly seen is that senior developers are expected to develop these soft skills. They can get stuck and just be the coder. And thankfully I’ve worked with amazing,  experienced developers who demonstrated to me what it means to actually have this kind of knowledge and view that they care about the business they care about the industry their product is in and that they’re not siloed from the rest of the company.

It’s like taking interest in what operations are doing or what the sales people are doing. How the company presents itself, and what kind of, what kind of results the company can deliver to its customers. These are all outside of learning about a particular technology or a particular tool. But they’ve come to develop it in their work experience. Would I say that that’s a demand now?  I also think that it depends on the leadership of the company, but I would say that. It’s a pleasure to work with people who have this profile and this kind of experience because you know you don’t, at least for me, I have this thing where like in the, like I have my career on blinders and this is where I’m going.

Maybe because I began as QA and I’ve seen so many other QA engineers move into different roles that the path to project management was open to them. Agile coaching was open to them. Software development was open to them. It’s like, okay, I’m like this crossroads where I can choose where I want to go. And it just felt like all these roads are open to me, and, the longer, the longer I stayed in QA. I actually felt like it’s not so much that these opportunities are open that makes it enjoyable to be QA. It’s more that now I’m in the position to see the kind of contribution I could make, even as QA to all these other paths that other people are taking. I’ve had a colleague who switched from QA to product management and, though I hated losing him to another team, I really did feel like this combination of like, there’s always this need to bridge this language of business with the pains of building technology because somebody, this is probably a common story.

Somebody is going to come up to you and you’re a developer, you know, I have this brilliant idea! And then you’re like, you can’t build that, there’s no way, or at least like, I can pay 500 euros for this thing that I’m thinking about. And I’m like no, maybe give me like 5,000 we can start talking. Or is it like, the cost of building something, not just building, maintaining something, making sure that it works, and then it’s up and running like two weeks from its release is highly, highly, vague and obscured. It’s highly obscured from people who are not exposed in tech. In tech teams or a software development project. Maybe this is also why when people see AI, they start fearing for their futures. Where it’s like we really should be talking about artificial intelligence and we should fear certain things about it. But it’s not because, like, there’s going to be a Terminator type of a future ahead of us.

16:54 // Benjamin

Makes a lot of sense, so it sounds like what you’re saying is also that, because people, all, all the people that you just mentioned, like switching roles and, if they coming from QA or not. People who’ve worked in several roles, they probably can provide a lot of, a lot to their teams, their organizations, their product, because they can provide or have a higher kind of empathy for, whatever somebody else on the team, some, some of the role as doing, and then. And I think that’s also a very powerful way to think about this. Like the moment you worked in at least two different roles, you are automatically like almost, I mean, you didn’t say that time saying that, but I’m like in the position to provide more impact on whatever you’re working on or whoever you’re working with because you can bridge that understanding gap much, much easier. But that’s, that’s actually very powerful, and at the same time, I kind of assume you’ve experienced that in your recent search for a job, for a developer position.

That people don’t really understand that. Like they don’t see that, at least when interviewing. A lot of people still very much come from a specialist’s point of view, like you have to do this, you have to know that scale, or you have to have that knowledge, and if you don’t have that, then. You don’t fit into this nice, tiny, comfy box of developer or QA or product, whatever.

19:10 // April Matias

Well, it’s true. Also, just one thing to say, it’s like, I don’t, I can’t imagine that there would be a very effective team where you don’t have specialists either. So it’s like.

19:11 // Benjamin

Yeah, that’s true.

19:17 // April

It will take you a bit longer to get there if you just have generalists. So there’s just, I really do think there is, it’s just my personal preference. But the concern I think may be is that it’s the way specialists are being used. It’s the way they’re positioned in, the company where…

19:45 // Benjamin

What is expected of them?

19:46 // April

Exactly. Because it also, at the end of the day, I think maybe, it’s the way we perceive specialists. It’s like anyone who’s to be a specialist you had to put in years to be an expert. And for sure you’ll also have plenty of other things to say on other matters. It’s just that you’re being employed for one particular thing.

20:14 // Benjamin

I was in the net trying to kind of like discount that and trying to say that, there was no place for specialists far from it, of course, but rather that people have very trained in like seeing and appreciating specialists. Like, it’s easy for them to see like, okay, that kind of person can provide like these JavaScript architecture skills like doesn’t even make sense. But,you know what I mean?

00:20:45 // April

I think, actually, sorry, just to highlight this part, it’s even born out by the language used by recruiters. They started calling them rock stars or ninjas and like things like this. And I felt really uncomfortable with that, I’m like, just this glorification of like some sort of pathological, focus on just one thing. And then, you know, you hear people who would, I would say like, they’re probably like coding rockstars and ninja’s, but they are nothing like that.

They have a deep interest in a lot of other things. So I think it’s also this perception may be in some ways, It’s a good conversation to have because it’s the way we also, as employees, we or workers, we package ourselves to employers or companies. But at the end of the day, you know, like, cause the reality is a lot more nuanced.

And, and  I’ve actually never, I don’t know, I think I would say I’ve, I’ve never met. Okay I don’t know if I would be comfortable saying that. But I would, I’ve never met somebody who’s pathologically obsessed with just one thing, one technology to the point that they’re one dimensional.

But then again, I mean like, this is why I’m wavering between these two things, because you know, I go to meetups as well, and then there are people who can be really, really dogmatic and I wanted to ask like what happened? What happened in their work experience made them decide that functional programming is the right thing and everything should be like that this whole product that they’re working on has to be written in Elixir or something.

22:48 // Benjamin

That, that would be like a very interesting conversation. Like what happened. I mean, just asking this question alone probably wouldn’t really like too much, but I still like,very interesting point.

23:06 // April

I also think it connects back to what you mentioned about empathy, because, maybe so, you know, the way people commonly think about empathy and the way our knee-jerk reaction, think about it. We’d be like, how to put myself in another person’s shoes. But I think part of it is also just being aware of your own experience or your own conception of someone else’s experience cannot possibly be representative your target audience, the users out there, etc.

23:46 // Benjamin

And that whatever your experience is, there are a hundred millions of different other experiences then that people are informed and influenced by, by their experiences.

24:00 // April

So I know it was like the topic of diversity comes up a lot. I was reading this book, the trillion dollar code. Well, basically there was this one snippet there where a woman was invited to sit on the table or some other men were asked to sit at the back. And then and then the coach asks like so how does it feel like? Then they were like yeah this sucks. And then he was like yeah I know. And like, this woman has to do that every single time. And maybe because I’m a woman and that I got steeped into the topic. Because it’s like, because I am a woman. There’s this whole support network that I’m very fortunate to have access to in Berlin, of women in tech. And the challenge they’ve faced. It’s a continuous learning process that I’m very conscious about. To try and see which other issues of diversity intersect with my own concerns. Like more, more recently, I went to a tech meetup and learned that there was even a standard for web accessibility.

I did not know this existed. And then I started thinking about my own projects. Where I’m like nope. Seven years in tech. I never encountered this, and I never brought it up either. SoI think there’s always this opportunity to,   expand, your understanding of empathy and ways of applying it. So, it’s also like highly, it doesn’t even depend whether you’re employed as a specialist or as a generalist. Right? It’s more related to your own. W ell, I wouldn’t say not identity, but like the way you value your work.

26:17 // Benjamin

Yeah, and that also makes a lot of sense. I would like to get, get back to, like this whole topic of like, what is, what makes, how do you make the most impact, the biggest impact and so on. And, what we get valued for, by an organization. And , over the years I’ve, I’ve met a lot of testers, QA people, and, I know there’s an ongoing, like, decade old discussion about like, but it’s the one, what is the other? And so on. I don’t want to go there, but rather, Most of them, like where it fell to me that many told me that like, they’re, they feel like their value, and their contribution to a product or project is not, not so much valued or they feel not, not so much valued.

And, I was wondering if you share that experience too, if you also experienced that, and maybe even if you have a theory on why that is. Why might that come up. These may be generalists or testers maybe it is like the same topic again, I’m general as a specialist, but maybe it’s not. So, totally interested in your…

27:43 // April

I can, I can see how it would connectI would say yes, I’ve definitely experienced it. I probably still am experiencing it like on average, just based on years of experience. I would say that QA engineers in general in Berlin would get paid 10K less. I can’t speak of others, cause you know, I don’t know what the average is, are there, but , on average a QA engineer would, or in about 10,000 euros less than a software developer. This is based purely on anecdotes. I’m kidding. No, I’m kidding.

28:28 // Benjamin

Well, that’s fine I’m asking your opinion.

28:30 // April

Yes, there are some numbers to back it up, like looking at a pay scale, Glassdoor, like, and so obviously they’re also collected from their users. I would say, but okay, this is like, that’s the monetary part, right? And sometimes it’s highly dependent on how well you negotiate. But that also comes down to the type of values that the organization would be willing to bestow upon your work.

29:08 // Benjamin

Now that you mentioned it, just to interrupt here shortly, like I’ve never heard of a QA Rockstar or a Tester Ninja. That probably speaks volumes in itself.

29:20 // April

That’s true. Then it’d be more like the common one is the ambassador or something like you have to be a diplomat cause you’re gonna step on a lot of toes. You are just there. You’re employed to like, complain and say like piss off everyone basically.

29:42 // Benjamin

If you’re not valued yes. You’d piss off people by pointing out, errors in a way.

29:56 // April

It’s connected to that in a way, because, I think a lot. There was a drive over the years to change the perception of QA or testers themselves as actually, people who know what technology. Because before you say tester and they’re just singing in somebody who’s like a click monkey. I wouldn’t say that’s a bad way to start, it’s especially if you don’t have any technical training.

It’s one way to start. But I’ve met plenty of, QA engineers. QA professionals in general who are steeped into, very deep tech topics. Not just about architecture or, even problems in, in the engine management of engineering, but also looking into, like, being interested in the programming language that they’re working in. So, and these are all interests that connect as their work. But are not so visible because they don’t have that label of software engineer. And then at the end of the day, you might encounter a manager who asks, well yeah. What’s your contribution to the company? And you’re like, well, your product gets working, right?

It’s like but like, have you written any lines of that project? Then you’re like, What?! I mean, I wrote some tests. And then obviously it all goes into what makes the product if you decide that it’s the code, then that already gives a sort of bias.

32:05 // Benjamin

I’ve experienced that also. Like, that reminds me that operations people like, I don’t know, DevO[s, infrastructure, whatever you want to call it. They have a similar problem in that it’s changed a bit with all cloud and infrastructure as code, paradigms coming up. But still it’s like, okay, what’s your contribution to product.

They also get asked that question. And then it’s like, yeah, long as people are not complaining, you’re doing a good job. So as long as this stuff is up and running you’re doing a good job. So, and you’ll only ever get noticed, mot in all organizations of course, but in some, when stuff goes down and then you’re blamed.

So that’s also like a very unthankful role. But to, to kind of like turn, turn away a little bit from all this negative point of view and only bitching about how those things are broken. I’m, I’m wondering like, what’s your view, what’s your opinion on how can we grow, nurture, support, a team and an organization where all these different kinds of contributions are valued highly, like, or just valued. Let’s start low. Or you don’t get to ask that question, but everybody’s like we all of course work together and people have different  different kinds of contributions and design, product, user research, UX, QA, operations, development, whatever everybody is contributing to the overall goal. So, How can we make, how can we shape these organizations and move them more into this direction? What do you think?

33:59 // April

Well, I’m actually trying to figure that out myself, especially in my new position because there is still this outdated view of what QA’s do. I think I kind of comes back to being what makes a great company. And that’s really tough in the sense that very rarely would you get a unanimous answer. Other than the vague ones or, it’s great to work there. Then I think I have to think about it, what’s particular in tech? Because I would say that almost everyone who works in tech has been driven to grow and continuously learn.

And there’s also the pressure that comes with it actually to remain employable you also have to constantly learn about new things. So it kind of feeds into itself. But, I would say the big part right now of what I’ve been reading and even hearing in different organizations is this notion of psychological safety.

Because that’s when, when people are allowed to be vulnerable to face up to their own shortcomings. Not be highlighted as a personal fault or personal attributes, but somehow that the rest… I think you can improve with the rest of the organization. Then that’s when people feel the most productive. You know what one part of it is, maybe like psychologically it’s that everyone almost always likes the jobs that they’re good at. I don’t really subscribe to this idea like you’re like your passion is not work or whatever. Like sometimes, actually most of the time you tend to like what you’re good at.

And, but parts of it is that you don’t want to be limited at what you’re good at now. You also want to extend that zone or maybe it’s a comfort zone or like a zone learning zone where you’re at set boundaries of discomfort and you’re trying to learn something new but not get frustrated by it.

And a lot of these things come easier when you have an organization that just doesn’t see you as this like an overwork drone worker, this worker drone, right? That you just have to constantly churn and deliver, but that your scope for engaging the topics are around you, is much bigger and that your time is also given to you.

So, an example would be like if you are, junior developer, you know that you have a lot of things to learn. But hopefully they’re not just giving you things like HTML, CSS tasks, right? That you’re allowed to discover something about the infrastructure of the product. To raise questions about what the business is, the business logic, right?Or what’s our business impact?

So you’re not so huge and just like, Oh, I just need to learn this component library for what I’m building. Then it removes that sheen off of what makes working in tech great. That your creative tendencies are able to, I don’t know, your role actually supports your creative tendencies. Or as a QA, you’re just not like, let me just ask this or deliver this, but you’re able to ask, like hey, I’ve seen that there’s this cluster of problems that keep reappearing in this part of the system, what’s under there? Do I have the time to actually look at what’s under there? Or do we even have the time to learn about the technologies that would help debug better.

Just have a better conversation with a backend developer when they start talking about something. And all of this plays in part of how your day to day work would look like. Part of it is  you feel credible when you talk about a topic, but also that is there a lot  at some point in the future, you’re able to take on a lot more responsibilities and then that’s a kind of value that you can actually offer a company.

Not what do you have now, but what you can grow into in the future. And I think a lot of companies, especially startups, are quite shortsighted. Because they have VC capital’s the need to deliver this and they’re not, I don’t know, they’re just not the most optimal way to grow into a career. Even though I’ve been working with a lot of startups and I’ve had a career, but a lot of it is, you know, you have to, there’s. You have to fight. It’s like a tooth extraction, the resources that you need, whereas, you know, there are a lot of examples of great organizations that really do support their own workers. I would say it was, I’ve heard of Base Camp, right? There’s like a high level of worker satisfaction there.

Trying to think of an example in Berlin, but maybe I shouldn’t name any because…

40:36 // Benjamin

That’s, super, super helpful. And very very true. I might expand it a little bit on like psychological safety. Even I don’t have an official definition right now, top of my head, but what’d you said was totally true.

I’d expanded a bit in that regard. You’re also empowered or feel comfortable as an individual in a team, in an organization to point out challenges, problems, tensions where you see like, okay, there were not doing, similar to how you said too, as a QA person. You see a cluster of problems arising in that area. In some areas and then. And similar to that, that you were empowered and feel comfortable pointing out like, okay, here we always kind of like, I don’t know, fight about the LordAre you a lot about this or that system? And that really, I don’t know. It’s not, it’s not helping us move forward, even though it’s important to us. And so, I can go into or put an emphasis in a way on a part of a system or on a part of how we collaborate and that. And that kind of like can shift then, what do we value as an organization and that it’s also okay or that it can be valuable for anybody to, be in different roles, work in different roles. Even though it’s maybe not my job description or my official role.

42:30 // April

I think the way I would describe, one of the reasons why I enjoyed working in startups is flexibility but that’s also the challenge, right? Because you know that you’re going to be underpaid, but you’re going to be wearing a lot of hats. So that means you have a lot of these opportunities for learning. And there’s this whole mentality of working as a group because you’re such a small organization and you’re trying to do this to deliver this. What you presume to be a one big thing. And I think it’s, it’s when organizations tend to falter when growing from that kind of culture to a much bigger one.

You can’t really retain that small organization, like go, you know, we’re it together in the trenches kind of feeling. And it’s not necessarily, but what you have to sort of still nurture in a growing organization is this feeling that you are, that you have cue’s that you belong. That you are not this worker drone.

And I don’t know. It’s like it’s, sometimes I think it’s okay to be a worker drone. I’ve met people who are completely fine by that because they have something, they know that they have something to go home to, that sort of them.

44:23 // Benjamin

Where they feel valued.

32:05 // April

Exactly So it’s, it’s sort of, I think it was a question or the issue of being valued comes up a lot when it comes to work precisely because we spend a lot of time with at work. And because there’s also this concern of, I would say, It’s like this concern of employability.

That can, I mean, you can’t just limit it in your work hours, right? You’re hobbies, even sometimes your identity tends to form around what would be appealing to other employers. We have this joke about CV driven development and some tech teams because it doesn’t make sense to use a tool, but it’s nice on your CV for your next job and, there’s a lot of like, so there’s this other  issue that comes up that is, it’s affecting both your work life and your personal life. In so much as that you’re time for engaging in seeing that, makes you feel valued, could be limited. So say you don’t feel valued at work and you have very little time to invest in your hobbies because you’re concerned about learning that new technology.Then  it’s a lot harder, and I would imagine it’s a lot more frustrating for tech workers. Maybe this is also why there’s a higher rate of burnout in tech.

46:22 // Benjamin

I can imagine that. There are probably studies about that. That part, at least in why, why there’s such a high rate of burnout, as you say.So, so much to go intoI mean, that, that alone again, would be like at least, several hours of talking. I think we’ve touched upon a lot of very, very interesting things and we even didn’t even touch like the five other things we could have touched upon. It was very, very interesting, conversation and I thank you. Maybe we can continue the other topic in another episode.

47:13 // April

Sure, you know, me, I have a lot of things to say. I have a lot of feelings.

47:17 // Benjamin

Opinions. I can also provide that. Thank you very much again for taking the time, talking to me and yeah see you next time.

47:32 // April

Alright, thank you!