The most difficult interview I’ve ever had was with a cybersecurity start-up. I sat in a small room in a small office all day. After completing a long list of programming exercises, I had to present my answers, alongside the dreaded whiteboard session, to a group of seasoned engineers. It was hard. I was nervous. I looked around the table, convinced there was no way I would get the job.
That night, I was surprised to get a call with a job offer. The hiring manager said the thing that sold it for the team was the fact that every time I didn’t know the answer or got something wrong, I took a note in my trusty green notebook. It showed I had the desire to learn and wasn’t ashamed that I didn’t know something.
I wish I could go back and tell my younger self that she’d find a place where she is not only encouraged to fill up her trusty green notebook with questions, but she is surrounded by others doing the same.
Fast forward to the end of my first year. I was one of two front end-focused engineers and the only woman on a team of a dozen engineers. I was sitting in a cool open-concept office right next to my mentor and digging in to learn not only React and Redux but also the business concepts of the cybersecurity product. There were times when I had a backlog of double-digit PRs to review because I couldn’t keep up with learning, my assigned tasks, and the responsibility of code review.
As I realized I wasn’t keeping up, I started to feel less confident in my ability to sit with this esteemed group of engineers. My green notebook filled up too fast and I had to move on to a new one. I was asking more questions than I could keep up with and wasn’t actually understanding the answers.
But what really started to get to me was the fact that I was becoming afraid of asking a question. I felt like my teammates were getting tired of answering my questions and were shocked that I didn’t know the answer already. How could you be a software engineer and not know this thing already? Wow, you don’t know how to do that?
When the start-up was purchased by a global security firm that introduced me to yet another entirely new technology stack, I decided to start looking for another opportunity. But if I’m honest with myself, the acquisition was just a cover for leaving. What I truly wanted was a different engineering culture.
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At this point you might be thinking, wow this woman just didn’t want to learn new things, and went crying when it got too hard. And to be fair, a year into my current role at Arcadia, I found myself in a similar situation — I didn’t know a thing about the energy industry and there were a ton of business questions and stack considerations I had to wrap my head around. The difference? No one feigned surprise when I didn’t know something or asked for further explanation. In fact, it was the norm for team members to respond to questions thoughtfully and enthusiastically.
“Not feigning surprise” was eventually codified into our Engineering Values and Strategy document, but that wasn’t the first place I learned about it. When the Arcadia Engineering team was small enough to have a single standup in the same space (and actually stand UP!), another engineer noticed someone giving me a somewhat hard time about a question I had asked. He sent me a message on Slack and asked if it would be OK if he shared this quote to the engineering channel:
Just a reminder — the universe of things to know in the world of software is impossibly large and none of us know all of it, and we shouldn’t feign surprise if people don’t know something. — Julia Evans
In this moment, I felt reassured knowing I was in a place that encouraged learning not just for the individual, but together. That we all had each other’s backs.
My path at Arcadia has gone from individual contributor to engineering manager. The nature of my questions has changed, but the number and frequency haven’t. I’ve found I’m asking more questions and learning more from non-engineers (product managers, designers, and data analysts) than before. But now that I’m an engineering manager, people come to me with questions, too. I have to embody this sentiment from the other side to mentor engineers and continue to build this value — and all our values — into our team as we grow.
I wish I could go back and tell my younger self that she’d find a place where she is not only encouraged to fill up her trusty green notebook with questions, but she is surrounded by others doing the same. And even though our engineering team has grown dramatically, we still have the same Engineering Values. It’s a living document that we revisit a few times a year to make sure it’s still up to par and to remind ourselves of who we strive to be. There are a lot of good values in that document, but the one that means the most to me is: We don’t feign surprise.