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[E17] Alternative Paths to IT Engineering Careers

Culture and Human Skills, Upskilling

By Jayne Groll  June 22, 2020

Jayne sits down with Kat Cosgrove, Developer Advocate at JFrog, to discuss her path to JFrog, how to optimize your time at home, the role human skills play in developer jobs, and JFrog’s support during the pandemic.

The lightly edited transcript can be found below.

Intro:

You’re listening to the Humans of DevOps Podcast, a podcast focused on advancing the humans of DevOps through skills, knowledge, ideas, and learning, or the S-K-I-L framework. Here’s your host, DevOps Institute CEO, Jane Groll.

Jayne Groll:

Hi everyone. This is Jane Groll, CEO of the DevOps Institute, and welcome to another episode of the Humans of DevOps Podcast. I’m really excited today to talk to Kat Cosgrove of JFrog. We’re going to talk a little bit about different paths leading to a career in tech. I think Kat and I both have unique stories and hopefully if you’re listening and you’re either on the road to a tech career, or you’re thinking about a tech career, maybe some of this will give you some inspiration.

So, welcome Kat, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself, what your current role is, and then share what your path has been to your career today?

Kat Cosgrove:

Sure. So again, my name is Kat Cosgrove and I’m a developer advocate at JFrog. What that means is I’m basically a bard for tech, if you’re a nerd and you know what a bard is. So I advocate internally and externally for engineers at JFrog and for our customers to help people understand better why DevOps is useful, why that can improve your workflow, improve efficiency, and specifically how our tools help you do that.

I am still an engineer, I spend about half of my time at conferences talking, but I spend the other half of my time actually with writing code and building hands-on demos and proofs of concept that make my point for me so other people can play with it.

Before that I was an engineer on the IOT team at JFrog. So I was doing embedded Linux development, but I got there from a bootcamp. I don’t have a college degree. In fact, most of my work experience before this is in tech support or I was a bartender for a long time. One day I got tired of hating my job and I rage quit, which was satisfying but I wouldn’t actually recommend rage quitting a job. You can’t always afford to burn that bridge. I signed up for a coding boot camp. I went to Code Fellows in Seattle and I picked it because it had the reputation for having the most difficult curriculum of any of the many boot camps in Seattle. I went through the Python 401 program, learned to be a web developer, and spent a couple of months after graduating working as a TA there, which was super valuable to me.

I like web development because I like building stuff, but what I like more is throwing a ton of time into making sure that I don’t have to do manual tasks anymore. I like automation, so liking automation, it was pretty natural for me to get into DevOps from there. I also do a lot of tinkering at home, so getting into embedded Linux development was also pretty natural from there.

I am still not sure how I managed to convince JFrog that I was a competent engineer. It’s still blows my mind, but I got the job and I killed it. We built a really cool proof of concept proving that it doesn’t have to be difficult to update the firmware or the applications running on cars over the air. It was a very flashy demo that resulted in a lot of speaking requests and requests for more information about the demo. I was the most gregarious, I guess I’ll put it, person on the engineering team for that proof of concept. So I was giving all the presentations about it, aside from one series that were done by our technical lead Vernon. I guess JFrog liked what they saw when I was on stage, because they offered me a different job as a developer advocate. I’m pretty happy doing that, it’s fun.

Jayne Groll:

That’s an amazing journey. I mean, if you think about it from rage quitting, to being on stage, to moving into a developer advocate role, which is certainly a trending role, right? These days where devrel is taking on a whole life of its own. Starting with just a little seed of interest, right? So, some people… And again, not to dismiss academic programs, not to be dismissive of traditional learning, but many of us learn different ways, right? We learn, and I think that’s an important human characteristic, that learning happens on a very individual basis, right? You can’t force somebody to learn-

Kat Cosgrove:

For sure.

Jayne Groll:

… and how they learn. For example, I recently figured out I’m an audio learner, right? I can read book after book, after book, and for some reason I have a problem synthesizing it, but if you explain it to me, I get it right away. Right? Some people are kinesthetic, they have to touch things in order to be able to synthesize their learning, but it’s all good. Right? It’s all good.

As I shared with you Kat before we started recording, I’m also an accidental technologist. I just ended up in the right place at the right time with a bachelor’s degree in music that I didn’t know what I was going to do with. Right? At a time when a commercial environment took on Unix and I just happened to find something that I really liked and I was good at. Then grew a career up from there.

So I think part of the message here is that particularly, we would be remiss to not acknowledge that while we’re recording this, the world is locked down because of COVID-19.

Kat Cosgrove:

For sure.

Jayne Groll:

People are in different situations. They’re working from home, stress is higher than usual, leadership is in many ways, sometimes confused in terms of, how do you lead remote teams if you’ve never done that before. So I think the underlying message in your journey, and thank you for sharing that, is that now is a good time to learn, to just keep growing despite a lockdown. To not feel so repressed in either your job, or your future, or even in your work from home circumstances. That that’s a very positive step to take in a time when there isn’t a lot of positive news out there. Right?

Kat Cosgrove:

Yeah, definitely. If you’ve got the emotional bandwidth to learn something right now, now is a great time to teach yourself a new skill.

Jayne Groll:

Yeah, teach yourself a new skill. See, I love that, right? I mean yes, at DevOps Institute, we have eight certifications, we have partners all around the world that are doing virtual instructor led training. We’ve just also opened up our testing programs so that if somebody-

Kat Cosgrove:

Oh, cool.

Jayne Groll:

… wants to take a certification, we’ve removed the prerequisite. All of that’s good, but how you learn, right? How you learn, whether you learn through the dynamic of being around other people. Right? That’s formal. Whether you learn because you go into a sandbox and you just experiment. Right? Whether you learn through micro learning. Right? You learn by going to a bootcamp. I think the message is, keep on learning.

So let’s fast forward to today. Right? So today we have people that are in unique situations, which truthfully, we’re having to invent things to do outside of our normal work-

Kat Cosgrove:

Definitely.

Jayne Groll:

… because there’s too much to do. Right? Today’s Friday, just as we’re recording it. So I’m like well, what are we going to do this weekend? Well, there’s much to do. Right?

So what would be your advice, if you were going to advise somebody in terms of how they could optimize this time, right? What would be some of your suggestions? I mean, obviously you self motivated, how can we motivate other people?

Kat Cosgrove:

So my friends and I are, we’re playing a MMO RPG together, that’s how we’re maintaining social interaction. But I have a lot of friends that are both in and out of tech. Some of them with formal educations. Some of them aren’t in tech at all, but every one of your friends probably has a valuable skill that you don’t have. So you can, if you’re both starving for knowledge and starving for social interaction, and I am. You can do a knowledge share with your friends, teach each other something. So, you would be surprised what your friends know how to do that you have no idea that they knew how to do that.

I knit and I don’t look like the kind of person who knits. I know you all can’t see me on the podcasts, but I’m very easy to find pictures of. Long neon orange Mohawk, and a lot of tattoos, and I don’t look like a nerd, but I knit. That’s surprising for some people, and it’s a useful thing that I could teach somebody. If you don’t know how to bake, that’s also a useful thing, or you’re really bad at taking care of plants. You probably have a friend who’s super into plants, who can help you keep something alive. I can’t keep plants alive. So that’s not me, don’t talk to me about that.

But I also have friends who know programming languages that I don’t. I know Python and JavaScript and Go, but I really want to learn Rust. I’m thinking about learning Scala, and I have two friends who are aggressively passionate about how great Scala is. I don’t know, Java, so that excites them. I guess there’s some conflicts between people who are fans of Java and people who are fans of Scala, but I’m going to get them to help me learn Scala because I do need to be very hands on when I’m learning a new programming language. I have to build stuff, but there’s just one thing that I build over and over again. I just build a cred-app, some kind of rest API and some database interaction, but that’s not enough to really master a language. So I need them to give me projects. That’s a useful thing you can be doing with your time, but also gets you social interaction and a skill that might be valuable or at least fun, once things start returning to normal. It’s just it’s good to have intellectual enrichment, whether it’s going to be beneficial to you in a money way or not.

Jayne Groll:

But it’s funny you say that because my running joke about the kitchen is since this started, I’ve become a mad scientist. Right? It’s like an episode of Chopped, right? What do I have? What can I make, right? It is even on the tech side, what have I got? What can I make? But I love that. I love the peer to peer spirit that you’re sharing because for a couple of things. First of all, learn something new and learn it from somebody that’s got that expertise, I think is a very human connection. Right? When you share your knowledge with somebody else, whether it’s… And you’re right, it doesn’t matter whether it’s knowledge about baking, knitting. I was at a conference once where the conference that came after us, by the way, was a knitting conference. So you walked into the lobby of the hotel and there were 50 people knitting.

Kat Cosgrove:

Amazing.

Jayne Groll:

A different conversation, right? But so when you said that, it just brought me back to that, but I do think peer to peer, right? Peer to peer creates a different human relationship, a different human connection where you’re saying, “You have a skill that I would love to learn a little bit more about, and I have a skill that you would probably like to know more about. We can share that really comfortably.” Right? Which is, if you take that by extension, is actually very DevOps principle, right? Where we’ve said, sharing knowledge, experimentation, continuous learning, peer to peer, really the core values that sit under DevOps that have really nothing to do with technology and nothing to do with what the outcome would be. It’s a very human centric opportunity to cross-skill. Right? And to do it comfortably in a trusting relationship where I share with you some of the things that I’m good at, and you share with me some of the things that you’re good at. So whether in this environment, that’s a great opportunity to practice that.

Kat Cosgrove:

It really is, and everybody has blind spots. There’s for sure a ton of things that I don’t know that maybe most people know, and it’s good to fill those gaps.

Jayne Groll:

It also puts you in a different human relationship. We do an up-skilling report every year, and one of the key categories is what used to be called soft skills. We’ve reframed it as human skills. Right?

Kat Cosgrove:

Oh, that’s nice.

Jayne Groll:

So empathy, right? Empathy, being able to put yourself in the shoes of somebody else. Right? Being able to be vulnerable to say, “I don’t know that.” Right? Instead of some people like to pretend they know everything, right? I don’t know that, show me.

Kat Cosgrove:

Yeah, emotional intelligence I think is a really, really underrated skill. It’s something that boot camps actually push really hard on, at least the one I went to, there’s a whole learning module on empathy and emotional intelligence and how to interact with other people organically and make them really feel like you care about the conversation you’re having, because it does matter. You can’t just be a knowledge sponge and know everything, if you can’t interact with another human organically. You’re not going to have a great time.

Jayne Groll:

You’re not going to be successful. Right? Because at the end of the day, a lot of what helps us move forward, I would suspect that that one of the reasons JFrog identified you as a great developer advocate is as much about your technical skills, but also about your human skills. Right?

Kat Cosgrove:

Yeah, I think so. I would credit my ability to interact with other engineers and other people, as well as I do in an engineering role with the fact that I was a bartender and worked in food service, it was my job to make people happy. People skills was literally part of my job. So, that’s something that you aren’t necessarily taught in college. Obviously, there is a lot of social reasons to go to a four year university, but I think that’s something people maybe overlook sometimes about people who come from nontraditional backgrounds. My previous work experience in not tech is still very relevant to the way I do my job in tech.

Jayne Groll:

Yeah, and it’s funny, going back to the different paths to a tech career. I think unfortunately, we’ve seen just a massive amount of unemployment over the last few weeks, and with no end in sight, right? With no end in sight. I think there’s the economic toll on those individuals who are, when this is done, and it will be done. We just don’t know when, right? Will be to emerge hopefully on a path that gives them satisfaction, gives them economic stability. So again, if you’re listening and you’re one of those people that have been furloughed or you’re unemployed, it is also a great opportunity to learn something.

So Kat, tell us a little bit about the bootcamp experience. I mean you piqued my interest where when I think bootcamp, it’s like, okay, heads down code, code, code, code. But it sounds like it’s much more than that.

Kat Cosgrove:

It was a really heavy workload for sure. There was a lot of like, code, code, code, code. Code Fellows works in, they have a 101, a 102, 201, 301, and 401 classes. You can test out of those. I skipped 101 and 102, and went straight to 201, but then 201 is a month long, and you learn the basics of HTML and CSS and Vanilla Java script. You have lab assignments every day, you have three or four hours of lecture every day, then lunch. This is an on-campus thing. Then in the afternoons, you have four or five hours of labs. Some labs are done alone where you have to actually build something. Some are done with a partner. So you can also learn how to pair program. You also occasionally have group projects. There is a group project at the end of every course, 201, 301, and 401. 401 also has a midterm where you’re building something much larger with anywhere between three and five people on your team. 301 is where they introduce jQuery to you. That’s also where they start introducing things like SQL databases.

In 401, you choose a language. Their current options I think are Java script, C-sharp, Java, and Python. I took Python, but 401 is a little bit more intense. That’s 10 weeks long and 401 is also where they start doing what they call career development days. That’s the day where you start learning, not just practical skills, like how to go to a job interview, how to write a resume, how to network, but also just how to interact with other humans. How to get people to like you, how to be vulnerable, how to be aware of other people’s emotions, how to deal with imposter syndrome, which is something that I struggle with a lot, even though I am acutely aware when something is imposter syndrome, I still struggle with it.

But, because the tech industry can be emotionally very difficult. Everybody around you is smart, and it can be easy to fall into a trap where you feel like you’re stupid, even though you’re not. So they spend it a lot of time making sure that you can handle that emotionally and be aware that the people around you are probably struggling with that too.

So while I was spending a ton of time writing code, it was not unusual for me to be on campus still at 9:00 PM. I was also spending a lot of time learning how to transfer my skills from being a bartender and working in food service, to being emotionally intelligent in the tech industry. It was overall, it was very difficult, it was a rough, long, long couple of months, but it was very much worthwhile.

I think most boot camps right now have transitioned to fully online for this. Code Fellows is still running fully online. A bunch of boot camps are also doing really, really, really steep discounts for people who have been laid off or furloughed, just outright fired. I think Code Fellows is offering something like 50% off or something. Also the state of Washington is offering additional assistance with tuition to help cover it, because it’s a really staggering number of people that are unemployed right now.

Jayne Groll:

Yeah, and you know what? Thank you for that because I mean first of all, it sounds very much like a structured academic program, right? Regardless of whether it’s a degree or diploma or certificate. Who cares, right?

Kat Cosgrove:

It is, it is structured.

Jayne Groll:

But more importantly, thank you for also sharing the fact that again, if you’re listening and you’re in lockdown, whether you’re fully employed, unemployed, furloughed, or whatever, again, really, really great opportunity. Before the pandemic hit, I read some statistics that said at the rate of technology acceleration just in society, that 40,000 software engineers will be needed over the next five years.

Kat Cosgrove:

Oh, it’s nuts. The unemployment rate before this-

Jayne Groll:

Crazy.

Kat Cosgrove:

The unemployment rate for engineers in Seattle was like 1% or something?

Jayne Groll:

Yeah.

Kat Cosgrove:

There are way more jobs than there are engineers.

Jayne Groll:

It’s, yeah, it’s crazy. So again, if you’re listening and you’re thinking about your future, and you’re thinking about again, regardless of your situation, but I think everybody is looking to move their career forward. It sounds like a good plan.

So we’re going to run out of time and I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that JFrog is really taking some steps to help in this horrible situation of pandemic. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Kat Cosgrove:

Yeah, so as of yesterday or the day before, I think, JFrog is providing access to all of our cloud tools, Artifactory, Xray, and Pipelines, for free to any team or organization that’s actively researching and fighting COVID-19. So you get 250 gigabytes of free storage space a month, 500 gigabytes of free data transfer, 5,000 build minutes. If you start approaching one of those quotas, we’re not going to just cut you off, we’ll get in touch with you and we will work something out. There’s no time limit on this, you have access to all of it for as long as you need it. You also have access to our technical support for free, all of it.

So if you are an organization or a team that’s actively working to fight this, please get in touch with us. You can just Google JFrog, FrogCare, and that’ll get you the press release from our website, the blog article for it where you can sign up, or you can reach out directly to me and I’ll get you in touch with somebody to help you get set up because we want to do what we can, and if what we can do to help is give you access to tools that make it easier and more efficient for you to do the work, it’s yours.

Jayne Groll:

That’s fantastic. I mean, there’s so much. We’re a global work that’s being done to fight this horrible disease. And I think JFrog and other members of the tech community coming together and offering support and platforms and research capabilities, is really our way of showing that we’re all in this together. Right? It is as I said, a health crisis, it’s a human crisis. There’s nothing more human than supporting those that are trying to help us overcome it. So, that’s fantastic.

Kat, thank you. I said, I think hearing somebody’s journey, which may not have been the, I graduated high school and I went to university and I came out… And again, no disrespect for that. I think that for many that is a proven path. I think for many that is an expected path, right? But I also think there are other paths, as I said, I fell into it completely by accident. I have no formal education in this. I learned it on the streets.

You took the path of going to a boot camp at sounds like it was fantastic, and there are boot camps now that are offering their services to help equip the humans with new skills, particularly as we move forward, on the technological scene. So thank you for your transparency. I think you’re an inspiration-

Kat Cosgrove:

Thank you.

Jayne Groll:

… for those that are thinking that just because I didn’t go to college, I’m excluded from this.

Kat Cosgrove:

Thank you for having me. I’m always, always happy to be honest and vulnerable about where I came from and all I want out of it is for somebody else to finally feel like okay, I can do this.

Jayne Groll:

Fantastic, and I want to see some of your knitting creations because-

Kat Cosgrove:

Happy to.

Jayne Groll:

Because as I said before, I’m not a knitter. I have no dexterity whatsoever. Music degree can’t, play the piano, but I did go to that conference a couple of years ago, it was in Santa Clara and the conference after us was called Stitches and it was a knitting conference. There were 50 people sitting in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency in Santa Clara knitting. So now I have to picture you sitting among that group because we’ve met in person, right? So I have a visual, so I’m just going to picture you sitting in that group. So you’ll have to share with us.

We will put up Kat’s social contact, so when the podcast publishes, if you do want to reach out to Kat or JFrog, we’ll make sure that information is available.

Kat Cosgrove:

Awesome.

Jayne Groll:

So thanks again, really. So appreciate your openness and your willingness to share your journey with us. For those of us that are going through a lockdown, I hope this finds you wealth. We had somebody yesterday who recorded, who is in the middle of New York, right? We don’t want this podcast to only be the pandemic podcast, but hopefully as you’re listening to the Humans of DevOps, you’re just getting a little bit of inspiration, a little bit of positivity that when we come out of this, everybody has set off on a new path.

So, Kat Cosgrove of JFrog was my guest today. Thanks again Kat.

Kat Cosgrove:

Thanks for having me.

Jayne Groll:

This is Jayne Groll of DevOps Institute, and you’ve been listening to another episode of the Humans of DevOps podcast. Stay well.

Outro:

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