What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learnt as a professional Software Engineer?” Marcus asked shyly.
“And here I was, thinking that I’m the one asking the tough questions” I replied, smiling at him encouragingly.
I was taking a sabbatical from Software Engineering at Google and spending the Fall teaching at the University of Puerto Rico.
Marcus was one of the quietest students in my class and he’d never volunteered to ask a question before. Sometimes, after I’d cracked a joke in class, my eyes would meet his, and he would smile fleetingly before looking away shyly, as if embarrassed that I’d caught him smiling. So I was both surprised and pleased when he walked over after class, patiently waited for me to gather my notes and markers and asked me this question.
I wasn’t a stranger to having students walk up to me to ask questions about being a professional Software Engineer, or about working at Google, or both. Often I’d never even met the students before, but I enjoyed these interactions. I appreciated the warm candor of these questions- the raw inquisitiveness. They likely didn’t have many opportunities to interact with Software Engineers, and were curious about the career they themselves might embark on one day.
Their questions ranged from the frivolous: “Does Google really have a rule about food being within 200 feet from employees at all times?” (no), “Can you really have someone do your laundry at work?” (yes) to the more pragmatic- “Should I join the industry or stay in Academia?” (it depends).
I’d been asked the same questions so many times that I always had an answer or quip ready. But this wasn’t a question I’d been asked before. I paused, contemplating how I could condense my decade long experience into a few pearls of wisdom.
“How about we set up some time to chat about that?” I offered, and Marcus nodded.
Later that night, I opened my laptop and tried to put down my thoughts into words. Not only do I find writing to be cathartic, but anchoring my thoughts into words usually help me build clarity.
Marcus’s question prompted a lot of reflection on my life as a Software Engineer. I’ve worked at a Technology Incubator in Ghana, as a Software Engineer at Microsoft & Google and as an ad hoc Professor at the University of Puerto Rico. I’ve flip-flopped between optimism and pessimism. I’ve been an anti-establishment…