In this series, we pulled aside folks from across our engineering department to talk about confidence. From the technical executives to folks on the ground in engineering, management and site reliability, we wanted to know what “confidence” meant to them, and how it had changed over the course of their careers. You can read the other five posts in the series from Rob Zuber, Michael Stahnke, Glen Mailer, Jacque Garcia, and Mike Marquez.
In this interview, we spoke to CircleCI Staff Software Engineer, Stig Brautaset. We hope you enjoy it.
What’s your role and how long have you worked in engineering?
I’m a Staff Software Engineer. I have worked in software engineering since 2013, no 2003, a decade goes by so fast - so about 16 years now. But I was a late starter, I was about 25 when I started. I actually studied to become a TV repairman first, then realized I didn’t want to do that so I added two years of school to be able to attend university. And then I did compulsory military service (which everybody does in Norway) so I didn’t even start university until I was 22.
What does it mean to have confidence as an engineer?
I’m kind of laughing a little, because I’ve struggled a bit with imposter syndrome but I’ve hidden it well. In my last few jobs, I’ve been in a senior enough position that people are coming to me with questions and look to me for answers about many things, and I don’t always feel confident that I know all of the answers. If I know nothing, I will absolutely be open about that. When I get a question that I don’t know the answer to, I’ll do research to answer it.
But one thing I realized is that you can’t know everything. And I’ve found that with other seniors, we’re all aware that you can’t know everything. Having that shared understanding has definitely built my confidence.
I’ve found that with other seniors, we’re all aware that you can’t know everything
How did you get comfortable with the fact that you don’t always know the answer?
I think that actually started when I was hired into a more senior role at a new company, where my part of the remit was to communicate with other teams and work with multiple teams. I think part of it was through osmosis, and part of it was that right at the time, I had my first child, and that’s had quite a big impact as well.
As a parent it’s become blindingly obvious that I don’t have all the answers and that nobody really does, you know? And that kind of translates to other things as well. And I think it’s also a sense of perspective because suddenly work starts seeming a lot less top-of-the-priority list.
As a parent it’s become blindingly obvious that I don’t have all the answers and that nobody really does
Related to gaining perspective, I remember one of my friends used to work as a sysadmin for a hospital and went to interview where he said “I know you’re trying to stress me out in this interview. It’s not going to work because in the job I’m coming from, if I screwed up, people would die. In this job, people would lose their holiday pictures. It’s just not on the same scale.” And he did get the job. But that kind of perspective on the scale of challenges is important to have in mind.
How has tooling, or automation, changed your relationship to your confidence in code?
One thing that inspires confidence to me is continuous integration and continuous deployment, which this company is all about. In my previous job, we had no continuous integration or anything. We did four releases a year and only the CTO knew how to do releases (we fixed that, though). It was a small start-up but that did not inspire confidence at all. And the job before that, we also had a very big system where relatively few releases relied massively on manual testing, and I did not have much confidence at all in that release process. People were always tense around releases, and now [with CI tooling] I’m deploying multiple times a day.
[In my previous job] we did four releases a year and only the CTO knew how to do releases (we fixed that, though)… People were always tense around releases, and now [with CI tooling] I’m deploying multiple times a day.
How do you move forward when you’re stuck or not sure you can achieve the result you’re hoping for?
I’m quite happy to ask questions, and I tend to start in the [Slack] channel. I rarely ask questions in DM because I like to be public by default, and if I ask, other people in the channel might not know the answer either so they might benefit too. I’ll probably aim for our team channel first, unless I know there is a specific channel for questions of that type or I know that it’s unlikely to be my team members that will be the best to respond.
Did it take time build up the confidence to be able to easily throw a question in the Slack channel or is that something you’ve always felt comfortable doing?
I think I’ve been fairly confident. I always try to ask questions. I always try and observe a little bit first so that I can follow the patterns of asking questions. So at the very beginning of my tenure anywhere, I try and bide my time every day. It’s not that I don’t want to ask questions, but I want to try and find out what the culture is for asking questions first. I guess I tend to be more uncertain about where the particular forum I’m asking is the right forum, but it’s not bad here. We have a fairly broad engineering team, our chat is where most engineering-related things go, so I don’t really agonize over that here.
What were some pivotal experiences that changed or improved your confidence level as an engineer?
With regards to technical cases, there was a friend of mine, and colleague at the time, who encouraged me to write a virtual machine in C and that was a bit of an eye-opener.
But actually, most of those pivotal experiences have been less technical situations and more interpersonal ones. In recent years, the technical challenges feel more secondary, but I’ve learned a lot in the last few years, particularly in my previous job about dealing with people and communicating in an empathetic way. People are, in my opinion, still much, much harder to deal with than technical things.
I think this is a sign that I’m leveling up. If the tech stops being the challenge, and now humans are, it’s probably a sign that your sphere of influence has grown to the point where you get to deal with people more.
If the tech stops being the challenge, and now humans are, it’s probably a sign that your sphere of influence has grown to the point where you get to deal with people more.
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