Everyone’s career journey, especially in software development is different. These days, you don’t necessarily need a masters, or even a 4-year degree in computer science to get into technology. As new tools emerge — seemingly a new one every few weeks or month — the most important thing is your willingness to learn and take on new challenges in this evergreen industry.
Rona Kilmer, director of engineering at Kenzan will be joining General Assembly in Denver on January 29 to moderate a panel on careers in web development. But before she does that, our People and Culture team sat down with Rona to learn about her career evolution in hopes that it will inspire many more to embark on a career in development.
How did you get into computer science/development?
During my senior year of high school I found out I could leave early if I took some classes at a nearby community college. I, like many at that age, was so over the whole high school thing (insert eyeroll). So I thought why not get a jump on college courses? I was really into art all through school and there was a multimedia class that grabbed my attention. In that class I learned how to use software like Adobe Premier and Macromedia Director. I saw the merging of art with technology and loved it.
That’s how I decided on my major in college, Media Arts and Design. It was a nice blend of graphic design and computer science. At the time, I didn’t know that I wanted to be a developer. My studies started with design and “dev” with GUIs like Netscape Composer and Dreamweaver. It wasn’t long before I realized the limitations of those tools and started looking behind the curtain at the code. That’s when I really started to get engaged. I loved the challenge of it.
My first job out of school was as a web designer for a small company in Arlington, Virginia. My very first project was to build out a small website for Exxon Mobil. I nearly had a heart attack when I got the assignment. I was just out of school and building a site for a huge corporation! To make it even more challenging, I had to use software I wasn’t familiar with, Adobe GoLive. It was even worse at generating HTML than Dreamweaver so I was forced to learn more and more code.
How did you get into leadership roles?
Over the years, I often found myself leading projects in both official and unofficial capacities. At one point I had to make a decision on where my career would go. At the time I was a designer, developer, and a team lead. I couldn’t take on all three roles effectively. I decided to stick with development and leadership. I was always a natural leader so I couldn’t walk away from that and I loved the challenge of development so I put the design role on a shelf. Occasionally, I get the opportunity to do design work and I always love it when I do but leading technical teams is where I belong.
At Kenzan I started as a technical architect which is a development team lead. I then moved up to the director position. Though I come from a front-end background, I now manage both front-end and back-end teams. I’m not in the code nearly as much anymore but I love seeing what our teams produce and helping them do it. As a director, I think my experience with the full spectrum of development has been invaluable. The UI/UX principles I learned as a designer still help inform the decisions I make today and my time spent as a front-end developer helps inform how we design APIs for our microservices today.
What kind of projects do you work on at Kenzan?
Large scale corporate microservices mostly. As far as technologies go, we use Kubernetes for deploying and managing our containerized services. We use Java and Node on the back-end. Front-end is typically React but we also use Angular. We work with Drupal and WordPress on a few projects but usually only in a headless fashion (we don’t use their theming engines).
What’s been your favorite project? Why?
We are currently building a tech radar and badge board as an internal project. It’s helping to drive how we make technology decisions on our projects. It is also a really cool tool for ensuring our teams are always in the know on where our technology stack is headed and how to get up to speed on the latest.
What tools and tech are you excited about right now?
There is so much happening right now to get excited about. I think everyone should be paying attention to IoT (Internet of Things), machine learning, and voice technologies (Alexa skills, etc). I find blockchain and it’s uses outside of cryptocurrency very interesting as well. Progressive web apps where you optimize your app for offline use is a biggie and I’m also seeing GraphQL pop up more and more. I haven’t used it yet but I can see it being very useful.
What qualities do you think make you a good Director of Engineering?
Ultimately, you have to get stuff done. So it’s important to be able to make decisions and keep people moving. You have to shield your teams from the political cruft that sometimes leaks into projects. You also have to be okay not knowing all the nitty gritty details about things. You have to know what questions to ask and who to ask and then you need to act on that information. Lastly and probably most importantly, you have to have empathy. You cannot effectively lead teams of humans if you don’t have it.
Follow up: How do you manage shielding people while still allowing them to see big picture?
It’s totally fine to share information about what’s going on. I certainly don’t want to paint a rosy picture if things are not rosy. But you can’t let fear creep in. It is not a good way to motivate. I want my teams to be aware of what’s going on but to know and trust that we (leadership) are dealing with it. For the most part, that’s all it takes.
Where did you learn your skills?
I am surrounded by incredibly smart people that I get to learn from everyday. That is definitely my number one source. I also read a lot. We have a book club at Kenzan and we just finished reading Clean Code. That is great book every developer should read. I follow very smart people on Twitter and Medium. If I want to get my hands dirty, I’ll start with a tutorial on Pluralsight (or similar) and just dive in. Conferences are also a great way to learn about the cool things people are doing with technology. I went to AWS Re:Invent this year and learned a ton.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
Don’t be afraid of failure. Failing isn’t always a bad thing as long as you learn something from it. Push past your comfort zone. Make the leap. Try something new. You might succeed, you might not. But the one guarantee is that you’ll never know if you don’t try.
Want to work with people like Rona? We’re hiring!