Career Advice, with Kelsey Hightower

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Kelsey is a Staff Developer Advocate at Google. Kelsey has worn every hat possible throughout his career in tech, and enjoys leadership roles focused on making things happen and shipping software. Kelsey is a strong open source advocate focused on building simple tools that make people smile. When he is not slinging Go code, you can catch him giving technical workshops covering everything from programming to system administration.


ES: This is 5 Minute Mentor, a podcast where you’ll get advice from prominent engineers, authors, artists, and more in 5 minutes or less.

KH: Hello, I’m Kelsey Hightower. I’ve been in the tech industry for about 15 years. And I want to give you some advice that I wish I had when I was first starting out.

Number 1: I think when you first get into tech it doesn’t really matter where you work as long as you actually get some hands on skills. What I mean by that, lots of people want to work at Amazon, Google, Facebook, and they put all their eggs in that basket. But the truth is, any experience is good experience when you’re starting out. So go work at a company where you can get your hands dirty, learn new things and push yourself, and work with some great people. And most people don’t work at the same job for the rest of their life. So starting somewhere where you can actually grow your skills, you can always move on to the next job as long as you have somewhere to grow first.

Number 2: Decouple your identity from the actual technology. So, when new people get into the industry, sometimes be aligned with their programming language I’m a Python developer, or I’m a Go developer, or I write Javascript. While those technologies are great, you are more important than those technologies, and, most likely you’ll also evolve over time. Your interest will change. And when that happens, it’s ok to switch technologies. You are not tied to your technologies, so if a technology were to fade away, it doesn’t mean that you also fade away. You can always learn new skills, so be sure to decouple your identity from the technology.

Number 3: I think we have to remind ourselves of why we are doing what we’re doing. So, who is the customer? So when you’re working on something, always keep in mind who the target customer is. I’ll give you a story. When I was in finance, I used to work for a company that processed credit cards, and loyalty reward cards, and also the EBT cards, so these are like the food stamps that people get from the government to buy food, and they put them on these plastic cards, so they look and feel like a Visa Card. So we were in a war room, everything is broken, lots of people in this war room, so this is where we go to fix a system that’s down. And, lots of people may not have been taking it super serious, like why are we trying to bring the system up, why are we looking at all these graphs? It’s just another system outage. It will be up sooner or later. And the CTO walks in and says: Hey, when you’re all working on this problem I want you to think about, there’s a person somewhere in a checkout line, and this person has their kids with them. And, right now, at this very moment, they’re trying to buy their groceries. And, today, as they swipe their card, they’re not able to buy food, because the system that you’re working on right now, is down. And whenever you get it back up, they’ll be able to buy it. Now, unlike the majority of our customers, this person does not have another credit card in their wallet or the cash to pay for this food. They’re on government assistance. So not only are they now embarrassed because people behind them in the checkout line are looking at them, and they can’t pay for their food. You can imagine what their children and maybe their spouse is thinking as well. So the faster we get the system up, the faster that they can buy their groceries, and move on.

KH: And I would say the last thing is, don’t worry about being an expert at everything, but make sure you put a little skin in the game, and learn the technologies that you’re working on. And with that, that’s my advice, and hopefully that helps.

Kelsey Hightower, Staff Developer Advocate at Google

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