You’re reading an interview with Kara Payne, straight from The Ironhack Podcast. Every week our hosts, Tim and Dan, catch up with Ironhack alumni, teachers, and other tech professionals for industry deep dives and personal success stories.
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Kara Payne joins us once again to tell us about her career in Tech after participating in an Ironhack bootcamp in late 2020. In this episode, she tells us about her experiences as Engineering Manager at Wikimedia Deutschland, giving a clear account of her transition from developer to Engineering Manager, her thoughts on different ways of learning about coding, and the important open-source mission the Wikimedia Foundation carries out.
Early Career: Wikimedia Engineering Manager
Q: So are you working as a dev on Wikimedia Deutschland?
A: I am their Engineering Manager, which is one of these new fancy titles that have come out in what like the last three years. I feel like Engineering Manager is one of those titles that changes depending on where you're at, in the same way Product/Project Manager doesn't mean the same thing at every single company. But for me, the origins of the Engineering Manager role come from the fact that you have a Product Manager that takes care of the product, a Scrum Master or Project Manager that takes care of the execution of the project, and then the Technical Lead, taking care of the technical development. And then you have the developers that just don't actually have any kind of support in terms of professional or personal growth. So the Engineering Manager is a position that appears to kind of tie all of these roles together with a focus on taking care of the team and making sure that they are supplied and unblocked in every possible way.
Q: There's been this emergence of middle roles, connecting roles similar to Product Management, which has always been this in-between, facilitating role of connecting teams.
A: On the day to day, I'm working directly with a Product Manager with a view our current project or focus and taking that and checking in with the team to make sure that they have all of the things that they need, from making sure their laptop is currently up to date, to facilitating the interaction with the Product Manager if they currently don't understand the direction the product is going in. So basically unblocking the team, but more with the focus on the engineers themselves and their professional development.
Q: Very supportive. Is it very common for dev teams to have that kind of support?
A: This is a position that is going to gain more and more traction, because it really is a function that doesn't exist with the other titles. Before I was working as an engineering manager, I was working as the head of operational delivery at a company, where I was taking care of the operational delivery of all the servers, but also focusing a lot on making sure that the people were prepared and that they knew what was coming up, that they had the information and that they were as organized or had everything that they could need in order to meet our goals.*
Q: So for your role now, is it very people-focused or is there like a technical element skill set that you use day to day?
A: The majority of what I'm doing is people focused, but if I didn't have the technical background, I would not be able to be an effective people leader for them.
Q: Shout out to Ironhack for giving you your technical background! When exactly did you graduate from the bootcamp?
A: I graduated in December 2020. So a year and a half ago now. It was interrupted by the second lockdown. I think we had two weeks in the classroom and then straight back to home study, which has been fantastic preparation for remote working.
Q: Are you going to the office at all? Are you fully remote or hybrid?
A: Right now we are remote first, but this is slowly changing. There’s still quite some rules in place, like wearing masks or limits on the number of people in a room. I can say that Wikimedia Deutschland is the most people-forward organization that I've worked for. They really put an emphasis on making sure that the environment is good, that people are developed and supported and that they don't put unneeded stress onto people.
Q: Are there any other examples of your role within other teams? Do you have sister roles like in the design team or people who are looking after them in the same technical way, or are you focused on other skill based work within the company as well?
A: I care for everybody that is in the software department at the very least, which is the largest, and their team leads are the Engineering Managers, and this is a little bit different as everybody else has sort of like the standard lead. This is sort of a unique position.
Being responsible for only people and not a product is an interesting situation to be in. If I'm a team lead, I also have some sort of product responsibility, and because I am used to affecting the product in a very strong way, now I need to take a step back, so it's an interesting dynamic.
Q: So is there any kind of conflict between the Product Leads?
A: I would say most of the conflict actually happens between the Engineering Managers and people like the Tech Leads. So this is an interesting dynamic as well, because the Engineering Managers are definitely people that have a technical background. They understand tech, they often are previous developers themselves, but at some point, when you switch away from being a developer to being in a manager position, you have diminishing skills. There is a choice in everyone's career, if they're a software developer to either stick and become a senior and stay on the technical development side, or move into a management role of some sort, and the minute you do, your knowledge becomes outdated.
But I have noticed, and I've talked to other engineering managers, that there is a tension between being an engineering manager and wanting to implement something in a certain way, but then also supporting the team and letting them make their own decision and being okay with them choosing a solution which is not the one that you chose. The transition from being a driving force to a supporting force can be really, really hard, and that creates tensions.
Life at Ironhack: Benefits of Bootcamps vs Self-Teaching
Q: Do you work with a lot of people who also graduated from bootcamps, or are they self-taught developers or people who went to technical university?
A: My staff engineer is completely self-taught. He's one of those people that basically just logged into YouTube one day I taught himself and then continued on from there. And he's fantastic. He's probably one of the best developers I've ever worked with.
Q: That must be so hard.
A: Yeah. I can also say for myself that I don't do well with self-teaching, so Ironhack was actually much better. It gave me that solid technical base so that when I learn new things it no longer feels like I'm teaching myself, it's more that I'm exploring a hobby, and that's really useful.
For the other people in my team, most of them come from a more traditional background where they studied computer science in school. I think I have two that did a short course, like two year programs as opposed to a bootcamp; they retrained themselves and rejoined as software developers. At Wikimedia, we do try to make sure that we are hiring all sorts of people. My boss, the Head of Engineering, is a woman. I've never had a technical lead that was a woman, so that's quite nice. And then out of the nine team leads that we have, three of them are men, which is also unusual.
Q: Nice. When you say unique compared to your previous experience, you mean your previous job, or just generally in tech?
A: At my previous job, I was one of three women in the IT department and I was one of three women at the management level. I should also add I was working in the video game industry, which is particularly bad for the gender dynamics situation.
Working on Wikimedia: Recording History
Q: But on that topic, actually, when we were talking about this kind of gender bias and other biases in Wikidata, you mentioned the term “notable” and what is defined as notable. Maybe you could dive into it a little bit.
A: Wikipedia is completely maintained by volunteers and the community itself, same with Wikidata, and we who work on the software behind it are enabling these people to do their job better. We give them spam filters, and we just made a mismatch finder, which finds inconsistencies. We do not affect the content of Wiki data or Wikipedia at all. There are communities that have been around for a long time and have their own rules and regulations, including very strict things about what it means to be a notable person. I think you have to have two publications reference you, like a newspaper.
Q: To become a person of note. That's an interesting metric I didn't know existed.
A: There's a whole set of requirements for what it means to be notable and you need to make the requirements and prove this when you make the list, and when new pages are created in Wikipedia, they go through a review process. But, for quite a long time, the rules were more strongly applied when a page about a woman was being created, so you would have people that would meet the base requirements yet not considered notable enough to be on Wikipedia. A statistically significant number of pages for women or about women were being taken offline.
At the Wikimedia Foundation we’re trying to figure out ways that we can encourage the community to fix this, but you have to consider that Wikipedia is a repository of knowledge that is being curated by the world. But how we curate knowledge around the world is also very different. So in the western world we have this tradition of academics in university and we write things down and we have publications, but other places rely on things like oral tradition. These ways of recording history can have legitimacy conflicts with each other.
Q: So the concept of who's writing the history is important. But Wikipedia does have a mission statement that values history based on the culture in question, right?
A: The Wikimedia foundation's tagline is “Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge”. It’s very important to us to make sure that people can access knowledge without having to pay for it, but also that the knowledge is free from bias and free from knowledge gaps.
Q: And that's a very modern concept, isn't it? Because usually history is written in a very skewed way. “History is written by victors”. We use the sources of information we get now and put them in Wikipedia, and once it’s peer reviewed and remains there, it becomes our arguable source of truth. So the weight of responsibility for an organization like that is profound.
A: It definitely is. And Wikimedia Foundation and Wikimedia Deutschland are two separate organizations and we interact all the time. At the Wikimedia Foundation they have an entire department devoted to how to handle news in conflict areas, which they have to handle constantly. I mean, it is a repository of all the knowledge around the world.
In the interest of free knowledge, because not only is it accessible to everybody, but it also aims to be without biases and gaps, we do everything open source. All of Wikipedia, Wikidata and their associated projects are open source. So if you're looking to help and don’t want to just edit Wikipedia, you can go and check out our GitHub, or Gerrit, which is an open source version of GitHub. You can check out our ticketing history, which is on Phabricator, an open source version of Jira, essentially. It's all open source and open knowledge.
If you want to know more about Kara’s journey into tech, you can listen to the full Ironhack Podcast episode here.