In this episode, Tech Evangelist at Autodesk Aliza Carpio discusses her incredible career, pivoting from engineer to marketer to product specialist, why communication is one of the most underrated skills, mentors who have influenced her, and what she loves about hackathons. This interview is full of practical career advice for up-and-coming developers, and she outlines simple hacks to speed up your career development and upgrade your skill set.
About our Guest
Aliza Carpio is a technologist, open-source leader, inventor, and blogger. She has a unique skill set in various disciplines, including backend development, marketing, product management, and evangelism. She is a sought-after guest speaker featured in publications like CNN and San Diego Magazine.
Jon Gottfried: Hi, everyone. I’m Jon Gottfried, co-founder of Major League Hacking, and I am so excited because today we have Aliza Carpio on the podcast. To give Aliza a quick introduction, she is a tech evangelist and principal product manager, and thought leader. She creates strategies and implements with her team and partners solutions that enable engineers across the globe to work in communities of practice, collaborate in the code as code stewards, and work with speed and build with a platform mindset.
In addition, this influences Intuit, which is a company you’ve all heard of, influences their brand within the tech industry and attracts top tech talent. She is an awesome developer evangelist and I’m so excited to hear from her today. Aliza, welcome. Thank you for being here.
Aliza Carpio: Thank you so much, Jon. Hello. Nice to see you, I guess on this podcast. I have met you before, but I’m humbled and also honored to be a part of this experience with you. Wow. It always is weird. I’m sure you can relate when you hear someone else talk about you and you’re like, “What? Is that really?”
Jon: I’m always so embarrassed.
Aliza: You always look like, “Don’t look at me while he’s saying that.” [laughs] Thank you. Thanks for that great intro.
Jon: Of course, you have a lot of accomplishments to be proud of, so it’s amazing to be able to share them with everyone.
Aliza: Thank you. To be honest, just as you believe this, I’m sure none of us arrive on our own. All of us are here because of the teams and the people that have influenced us and support us. I am very grateful to be a part of this podcast, but also very grateful to represent the teams and the leaders, and the groups that I have partnered with. Thank you.
Jon: Awesome. I would love to start with the overall scope of your career. As I was doing research for this podcast and based on some of our previous conversations, I saw that you had this really interesting combination of skills and disciplines that you had merged together into what you do today. You’re an engineer, right? You mentioned to me you’re a backend engineer, which I am too. You’ve expanded far beyond just writing code and architecting systems into product management, marketing, evangelism, hosting your own podcasts, all of these really incredible things.
I’d love to hear from you how engineering, as a core foundation of your career, set you up for a lot of these other opportunities.
Aliza: Wow. Huge. Thank you for all that. First, I would have to say that in engineering, we all choose that path because we want to make a difference, because we want to solve problems, because we want to change lives, make things easier, and make things better. The core of everything in that in engineering is the tech. Whenever people ask me, “Gosh, Aliza, what have you done with your career?” I’m like, I know it’s not a ladder. It looks like a Rorschach drawing. I get it. The inkblot, I get it. It’s not straight.
To be honest, all of the work that I’ve done and all of the experiences I’ve had have allowed me to actually create my own role. In fact, the position I have today at Intuit, I got to write my own job description because of that. Now, when other engineers come to me or other technologists come to me and ask me about how can I do that, the first thing I said is the core of it is engineering at the end, at the core. If you are someone from University or in college and still studying, my advice to you is to start there. Get two or three years under your belt minimum, and then start thinking about how do I want to learn. Where do I want to go next in terms of where do I want to make an impact?
I am huge in the belief that you need to actually have that love of lifelong learning, right? People go, “Oh my gosh, that’s another freaking corporate speak.” I’m like, actually, no. For me, it has been what I am passionate about. I still remember, oh my gosh, one of my mentors was the GM was the SVP, the GM of QuickBooks, and the GM of TurboTax, Kiran Patel.
Jon: I use them both.
Aliza: Yes. I still remember how upset he was when I was like, I was group manager, group dev manager, and I said, “Kiran, I think my next step is I want to go into marketing.” He definitely not only took a pause, but I felt like it was my dad who was upset at me, going, “What are you doing? That’s suicide. “Why are you,” he goes, “You know what your next level is, right? It’s director.” I’m like, “Yes, but I really want to learn what it’s like to and understand conversion, abandonment. I want to understand how you run a business from that side of things.”
It was not supported. I will tell you that, it wasn’t supported. I was actually the first social media manager for TurboTax on the Facebook and Twitter platforms. I also dabbled on Pinterest, as well as in YouTube. What I learned from that is tech is still at the heart of it, right? I can actually debug. I debugged quite a few things but what allowed me is to actually understand and have even deeper empathy for my customer and who we’re solving for. It actually also allowed me to partner. That role allowed me to partner with customer success or what people call customer service, customer success arm of Intuit to create, the framework for supporting our customers on social media platforms.
Now, that role, along with being a product manager, being a dev manager, and vegan engineer, that was actually the reason why the chief architect of TurboTax, who’s now the Intuit chief architect, Alex Balazs, and the then SVP of engineering, that’s actually why they reached out to me and said, “You’ve had all of these things and at the crux of it, you understand tech, and you are well connected in the community of technologists, we think you can do this job well.”
It was hilarious. Jon, if I could have shown you what it was. I thought I was going to look at the job description. I looked at three weeks’ worth of an email exchange. I’m like, “What do you think?” I’m like, “It’s great, but here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to take what y’all wrote and I’m going to write a job description.” They go, “That’s a good move. That’s a good move.” I write a job description, I send it back to both of them. Remember, I’ve never worked for either one, right? This is all full trust of, “Okay, this is going to be great. Let me write this.” I wrote it and they said, “That’s great. Let’s get started.”
I looked around, sometimes you get those moments where you’re like, “There’s like that camera that’s like [unintelligible 00:07:24]”
Jon: About trains like that.
Aliza: You realize this is real. I started off as a tech evangelist for TurboTax focused on really changing the culture, the tech culture for our engineers to enable them to be amazing technologists, but really to give them a voice as well. Then when my boss became the Intuit chief architect, I then rolled up under him, followed him to that, and now make that same impact globally. In addition to that, I also found passion and open source because I found that at Intuit, we actually had it, but it was really on life support. That actually became something that was a rallying cry for me.
I was able to convince one of my other colleagues whose staff software engineer, Rocio Montes, to join me in this movement to create a natural open-source office, a program. We went from zero female engineers maintaining projects to 15% of our projects being maintained by female engineers. We went from all projects being about infrastructure to now projects having– we have data scientists open sourcing, product managers open sourcing, and then our projects range from front end to data, to AI, to backend, to testing. I’m very proud of some of that work, but it came from a lot of empowerment.
I would say for those of you out there that are like, “Oh, I don’t know if I want to be an engineer forever,” you might not want to be an engineer forever, but it all starts there. If you could just fall in love with that core, you can do so many other amazing things that you probably didn’t realize. To be honest, the technology industry keeps evolving. My role would never have existed years ago. There are roles that– what are you talking about? I was around before Facebook was created. There wouldn’t have been a social media manager if there were no social media platforms, right?
Jon: You don’t have the MySpace social media manager, so.
Aliza: Don’t bring back MySpace. All of us had one of those, right? We thought, “That’s going to be it. That’s going to be forever.” Then Facebook killed it. [laughs] Good question,
Jon: No, it’s interesting, like you mentioned that engineering is what allowed you to get a lot of these other opportunities, and when I think back on a lot of the stuff I’ve done, evangelism is like this really interesting intersection between business and technology. You have to be able to speak both languages and translate between the two groups. I think certainly there’s a lot of stereotypes about engineers not being able to communicate, which I think are generally unfounded. I’m curious how you learned the business side of things, because you came in knowing the engineering, but business as a whole discipline on its own. How did that process actually go?
Aliza: When I was in grad school, I was working for HP Barcelona in a, at that time they were making these little startups, and so I was one of six people. Did some development work, some program management work, some all sorts of work but I would say– wait, can you rephrase that question again? I just want to make sure that I capture it properly.
Aliza: That communication, how do I?
Jon: Really, I want to know how you rounded out your skillset, you new engineering, how did you learn the ins and outs of marketing, and business, and all of those things?
Aliza: It takes courage. No. Let me tell you where it started. I think it started when I was at HP before joining Intuit, when I was in grad school and I worked for HP Barcelona. At the time, all of the developers had to wear many hats. I got to actually not only learn how to code, whatever it was, it was called HP posters and not only was I helping with that, but I really fell in love with connecting with customers. Our customers, it was a B2B platform actually, and my customers were the resellers, the people who bought the wide format printers from HP.
What we were doing was creating an online service that connects these resellers, these mom-n-pop shops with companies like Warner Brothers that had content that could be printed. For example, for Warner Brothers, it was movie posters. Even because of that work, I got invited to actually be part of the red carpet for the Red Planet movie. I started loving the impact on customers and that love of customers actually didn’t go away. Then when I went to Intuit, it was more of a traditional role, but I ended up getting a role where it’s more B2B, where I started working with TurboTax, I was at the center. It was an infrastructure side.
Again, that love for our customers kept coming. On my third year as an engineer, I reached out to the recruiting group, and I said, ”I don’t know if this sounds crazy, I put my resume together, but I think I want to learn.” It was really that, it was the crux from– I always say, but I think I really want to learn this, and I said, ”I really want to learn what it’s like to be on the business side to make decisions about experiences and solutions for customers.” I was very lucky at the time, that recruiter basically connected me with the VP of product management for TurboTax.
It was Rick Jensen, and Rick did become, continue to become my one of my mentors for a while. He gave me 46pokFKiNH52ZK1W64wsWVH1Z2t2gueuTcj2xWWp3QCtAWGhC4m6WsQ7Sou6AtzEzrfTkoPy2ibAyA9vWsdsnRscRcX7bVyend of it, he told me what the role, what product management was about, and it was very exciting. He’s like, well, he said, ”There’s no role right now, but it’s cool that you came out.” I’m like, “Sure.” I’m just doing my research.” Three months later, he reached out to me on email and so did the recruiter and said, ”There’s two jobs. Do you want to try out for it?” I’m like, “Sure.”
It was interesting because I was one, at the time, one of five product managers in TurboTax and the only one that came from engineering. Yes, I was a fish out of water, I’ll be honest. Everyone else had an MBA, I had a master’s in something else. I came from engineering, and the first thing that I actually was doing, I’ll be honest with you, I don’t think it’s imposter syndrome. It really came to I went into a very quiet space where I was thinking like, “Okay, I’ve never done this role. I’m just going to learn.” What I ended up getting was, “Aliza, you have this role not to be quiet, but actually to play a role at the seat at the table. I need you to actually help make decisions, help move teams.”
It was that nudge and push that really started it for me. Now, you talked about communication, Jon, and I will tell you right now, communication is the most– or having that skill written and verbal is the most underrated skill at university but it is the number one skill that you need as a technologist to grow in your role or to even take another role somewhere else. I am grateful for mentors and teachers along the way who basically pushed me to focus on writing, to focus on actually being able to speak simply and with purpose, and with intent.
Communication, dude, I wish today that I can go back to UCSD and ask every one of my professors to like, ”Hey, can you please tell people– I get it we have to do our projects and whatever, but please tell them. Tell them to pick up that, what is it? What is that? The elements of style book and what is that?”
Jon: Style guide or something.
Aliza: You remember that, was that shrunk and whatever.
Aliza: Then there was another book on that I was recently introduced to around writing as well, about the joy of writing, and I have to tell you, I wish people learned that more because I see that as the thing that gets in the way for many, many technologists. They could be amazing but then if you can’t actually get past the tech and explain it to non-tech people, and if you can’t actually start bridging business– the reason why you create the tech you do with business results, it’s actually going to be an issue for growth. It’s a lesson I’ve had to learn the hard way. I’m still learning it.
I still remember, Jon, the first time I was asked as an engineer to create a set of slides, and it was for the work I was doing, in some testing work I was doing, and I had never created slides. I did not know what it meant. I knew who I was talking to, going to be talking to, but I created a 50-page slide deck, and they’re like– my boss looked at me like, “You’re going in front of our CIO. I just needed one slide that showed your test results.” “But don’t you want to know all the stuff I did?” They’re like, “No, we know.” I’m like, “But I want you to know that I did the work.” “No, we know, Aliza.”
Again, and this is a skill that was really hard for me [laughs] because I really wanted you to know I did the work, and so let me give you my dissertation. Again, that was not the right thing to do. Good question. I do think if you’re listening out there, please do think about watching different or listening to different podcasts, but watching keynotes because a lot of them are on YouTube, watch how people actually present ideas. Even TED talks are great.
I’d love for you to check out on GitHub, check out some of the really well written repos and what you need to actually present the idea, and guide people to actually using your tech. Huge lesson learned, Jon, but man, big one. A big one for all technologists.
Jon: It’s interesting that you mentioned that. I got a history degree in undergrad and I definitely feel I’m weaker on a lot of the computer science fundamentals, but being able to write and speak, and craft ideas has been enormously beneficial. I think I completely agree with you, that I think it needs to be part of all curriculum. You can’t just write code or learn algorithms all the time. I like that you bring up the Git example because that’s probably the representation of what you’re talking about that most people are exposed to in the tech industry.
It’s like when you see well written documentation or tutorials, it’s a beautiful thing. It simplifies all of these complex ideas.
Aliza: The elegance of a well written document, of a well written repo. I was just going to say a well written repo is, again, so underrated, and yet it’s the thing that’s actually going to get adoption in opensource. It’s the thing that’s actually going to get you to be recognized as a technologist. Yes, the tech might be great, but man, if you can’t get past describing it, bridging it and communicating it, it’s pretty dead. I see the frustration, and I get it.
I’ll be honest, I even sometimes help technologists write emails when I know it’s going to go to the CTO, because I know what it’s like to write as Peters, but even understanding the different ways that you communicate to different audiences is its own nuance. As a technologist, no one teaches you that. I call it earning your stripes. You do need to earn your stripes and you do need to practice it. It is a practice just like coding. It is a practice. I’m speaking to you now, my gosh, Jon, if this was when I started off as an engineer, they would be no way that I would be like, “Are you kidding me? Do you want me to say what? Are you going to ask me what?”
It’s definitely a practice but you have to take baby steps. I would say, for engineers out there or technologists out there, start with your repo. Start with your Git repo and think about how are you introducing this tech. How are you gaining the adoption via your sample code or the guidance you’re giving on that documentation?
Jon: Yes. I know that you work with a lot of different teams within Intuit to help them opensource their own code. I would imagine there’s a teaching process as part of that to get things up to I guess the standards that a public developer community expects versus internal. There’s different styles and standards that people are looking for there. I’d certainly love to hear about that, but I also think on a more basic level, what do you tell engineers to learn communication skills?
I know a lot of the students we work with, they’re overwhelmed with CS coursework. They’re doing all of these crazy projects and algorithm-like proofs, and whatever it is, that they may not have the time or the mental space to explore those other areas. Whether they’re students or experienced engineers, how can someone actually get started there? What should they do?
Aliza: Let me just reframe it or reflect it back to you. You’re asking about how can students start to really practice communication skills, if you will?
Aliza: I actually have been inspired by technologists like Ann Catherine Jose, she’s actually at Intuit. She’s the director in Mobile. One of the things that I loved about something that she taught me, she and I used to do these talks at UC, Berkeley for engineering students. There were two things that she said. One is, “An easy way is to actually think about 15 minutes, think about 15 minutes a day. Sometimes that’s shorter than you eating a sandwich. If you can say, for that 15 minutes, I am going to write for 15 minutes something I learned today or last week on my blog, or I’m going to write something on my LinkedIn profile, a post about something I read. You’re just going to give yourself 15 minutes. Not only are you practicing communication skills, but you’re actually reinforcing what you learned.”
I have to tell you since doing that, our first ever workshop on this, because I even created a slide template and basically, we made a slide template that was like a table, Week 1, Week 2, 15 minutes a day. You had to actually fill it in and commit to it. What are you going to write about? I actually practice it because of her, 15 minutes, whether it’s updating my LinkedIn or looking at someone’s repo and helping edit stuff. It’s 15 minutes. I would say, can you commit to that? I love that she said it’s probably shorter than eating lunch really or preparing your lunch.
The second is don’t underestimate the power of editing. When you go to someone’s opensource repo or go onto your friend’s project repo, or even your team’s project repo, don’t underestimate the power of editing the content there because it actually will help you be more cognizant of how not only are sentences formed, but how are those thoughts formed and ideas formed. Those are the easiest things, editing repos and in writing something for 15 minutes. I think it’s something– Then just do it even if it’s not a day in a day, each day, like 15 minutes.
Start it in a week. Okay, I have 15 minutes on a Saturday or a Tuesday, or whatever. That’s what I’m going to do. Create a blog. It’s pretty easy, it’s free. Just spin up a medium profile. It really just was eye-opening to me because I’m like, “Gosh, I’ve been doing it the fricking hard way and this 15-minute thing is pretty cool.” I would say and what I’m sharing with you, Jon, I also mentor other engineers internally at Intuit, and it was one of the things I always also say, is to consider that 15 minutes and start it off in baby steps. Always baby steps.
People are always like, it’s when you work out, “Oh my gosh, I’m going to do this. I’m going to start working out for like an hour each day.” I’m like, “Are you kidding me? Try for 10 minutes.”
Jon: Yes. You got to build the habit.
Aliza: Right? Exactly. Like, “Dude, take a walk around the block. I don’t know, but this one-hour bit. That’s too much.” Anyways, you’re right, it’s a habit. In any habit, it’s about developing discipline. Discipline does not come by just like sheer talent. It’s a practice, it’s a habit. It’s not necessarily an obsession. It’s definitely something you have to practice.
Jon: Yes. I love that. I think everyone I know who’s a great writer says just write every day. One of the pieces of advice I was given early on is a lot of people really worry that someone’s going to look at what they wrote and think it’s bad, and judge them for it. The truth is when you’re starting out, no one’s reading it. Right? It’s for yourself. If you ever get to a point where you’re like a super popular blogger, if you’re that embarrassed, go back and delete the old post. You just get into the habit and do it. I found that really reassuring, right?
Aliza: That’s awesome, Jon. I’m like, stop setting it so high. Stop putting that cross to bear, man. Freaking just start it. You’re right. No, no, it’s going to go, “Did you see what Jon wrote? Can you believe that?” I’m like, “No.” The discoverability of a blog in its infancy is not there.
Jon: Very low.
Aliza: It’s super low. Maybe on page 12 of an SEO search on Google. Please, I love that. I’m going to have to use that, Jon, I’m going to use that next time when someone goes, “I don’t know, someone might read it and make a judgment, and make comments.” I’m like, “Do you really think people are going to like in the beginning? I mean, let’s be honest. I want your success, but, but everything starts with that one step.” I would say even if it’s dipping just a toe, do it every day. At some point, you will get to the deep end. You’ll be able to swim there, and do all sorts of things.
Great advice. I love it. I love it. I want to use it and I promise to give you credit.
Jon: I have to remember who told it to me so I can pass the credit along.
Aliza: Oh my God.
Jon: Well, one of the things I love about how you talk about your career and all of the work that you’ve done, is through this lens of mentorship, right? No one succeeds alone. I’d love to hear from you about who some of your greatest mentors have been and how they actually influenced your career.
Aliza: Yes. This is deep. [laughs]
Jon: We’re going right through it.
Aliza: I know. it’s definitely mentorship is something I practice both as a mentor and as a mentee. There are many, so I’m just going to start with my family. I would say one of my uncles, well, he’s the father of Filipino philosophy. Wow. I actually have a YouTube channel with him called Wisdom for My Elders.
Jon: Oh wow.
Aliza: There are two things that I learned from him. He wrote a book called The Meaning of Life in two Languages. I asked him, after reading, it’s a very short book and I’ll have to– I think it’s still on Amazon. One of the things he said to me was, “Aliza, the reason, you have today and the reason why you have today is you have an opportunity to solve problems and make a difference in people’s lives. The moment you don’t have a today, that means you’re done. You’re pretty much gone. Consider that each day is that opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life”.
Then the second thing that he taught me was that everything that you do is through an intention and that you choose what that intention is. Choose wisely. If you want to put something out there about being inclusive, choose actually to have that mindset so that you communicate in that way.” To me, learning where I’m taking and then teaching where I’m giving back, it’s one and the same.
I have a love of learning. I’m a voracious reader. I mean everything and anything. There’s always this joke at Intuit like, “I don’t know what she’s doing, but she’s doing a million things.” It’s partly because of my love of learning. Again, as I mentioned to you, we do not arrive on our own. Today, I still do– I have four engineers internally that I mentor and three engineers externally that I still mentor. Internally, I have been mentored by some of amazing leaders at Intuit and outside.
I’m going to call out Krithika Swaminathan. She is the VP of AI at Intuit. One of the things that she always preaches and I take to heart, is take every opportunity that comes your way because you never know where it’s going to lead. Even if it doesn’t lead to exactly what you think it should be, amazing things are going to happen. I would say it’s true but it takes courage to do that and to be open to that. If you can just take that in, there’s so much wisdom in that.
The second is Kiran Patel, who I mentioned to you, who was a little bit upset when I left, but the thing that I got from him was when he said, “Aliza, every risk has its reward. The greater the risk, the greater that reward, but just take calculated risks.” He said, “Unless you take that risk, you won’t be able to see what it could be and you could shape that.” I always share that also with the folks I mentor. “Oh, Aliza, that’s a new role. I don’t know. That’s a new team.” I’m like, “Yes, but it’s a new text doc and you’re going to learn, and you’re going to be better at being an engineer than you were before because you’ve got this other thing.”
Then the last I would say is Rick Jensen, who I mentioned earlier, where he basically said, seek to gain skills to add to your portfolio. I never was someone who was seeking titles because I feel that that is an empty promise. What I always tell people, and I believe in this, and this is how I live my life, is I seek to learn. I seek to actually gain fulfillment not only in learning, but in the impact I can make. I think that makes up, and of course, I have some that I just think are fierce people. Like Michelle Obama, who I like, “Yes.” Everything she’s, I’m always like, “Yes. Yes.”
Then Maya Angelou, who’s no longer obviously with us, of how you think about challenging situations and how you can change your mindset but all of that, whether it’s personal or professional, all of that actually does help you. I would say to all the technologists, whether you’re a budding technologist still at uni or a technologist out there already practicing your discipline, is to constantly be open. What I mean by that is both in the mind and the heart, and that none of us know everything. Yes, you might be fricking brilliant, but the thing is all of us have our shadows and all of us have our blind spots, and no one knows it all and has it all.
Being open is just as important as being brilliant because I’ve worked with some people that were brilliant but couldn’t take feedback, and they just really, really struggled. I no longer work with them, but man, they were brilliant in their own sense.
Jon: Yes, I mean it definitely takes some amount bravery to grow.
Aliza: I love what Jenny– What’s her name? Jenny Romney? Is that her name? She used to be the CEO of IBM. I still remember a recent Grace Hopper where she basically said that growth and comfort never coexist. For some people, that’s a scary thing, but really, as you grow, that circle of comfort grows with it, then you’re more comfortable with things. If you don’t grow, there’s going to be a lot more panic zones for you. I never want to live my life. I never regretted anything I did. I regretted all the things I didn’t do.
I would say, yes, take the calculated risk. I would say but you can find mentors in anyone and everyone. I am constantly inspired by people much younger than me, with much less experience. I’m constantly freaking inspired. I’m always like, “Oh, I didn’t even think about it that way.” It becomes a funny moment because I have these faces, and I know I’m very animated. I also think dancing about people that just came from university to learn from them. I think we all get amazing because everyone else has helped us learn something new and discover something about ourselves.
Jon: Definitely. That’s one of the things I love most about the hackathons in our community. It’s just like feeling that you can enter a place and start interacting with complete strangers who actually want to support you and help you. There are these moments where you’re in a room of 1,000 people, maybe not in the last year, but you’re in a room of 1,000 people and someone just raises their hand and stands up and says, “Hey, can anyone help me with Arduino?” People help.
Aliza: I love the energy of hackathons and I know I partnered with MLH before hackathon at RIT for Women in Tech, but there are– I love that you just said that because I know I miss it. I wish sometimes that I could bottle that energy because I think I could sell it. [laughs] Just the energy of everyone coming together, it’s like we are really tapping into our social beings as human beings. The socialness of our beings because we’re there, we’re together. We’re where there to not only innovate together but to seek partners, to seek connections, and to make things happen.
We don’t go into the hackathon just to freaking hang out. It’s actually a lot of work, I’ll be honest. People go, “Oh, this is so much fun.” I’m like, “You know it’s work,” but there’s so much fun in that, in knowing that you’re not alone in knowing that you’re in a ship with everyone else and that we’re all going to do our parts to maybe change the world. Not only make a difference maybe for one group, but influence so many more. I absolutely love that. I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to share a couple of things that I’ve actually leveraged from MLH.
Aliza: One of the things that I leveraged is I got to teach workshops with you all at the one at RIT. We at Intuit have a couple of things. One is when I was the tech evangelist for Consumer Group for TurboTax and Mint, I actually invented and led Dream Hackathon. The reason why we called it Dream was because we actually exist to help people achieve their dreams. In that hackathon, I brought in Wild Card that came from you all. Yes, we have these topics, but you know what, let’s give you some autonomy. Let’s empower you and provide Wild Card.
The second is, and I still also have– I still use this actually, is for this other thing called Global Engineering Days that my team and I used to lead and also invented, which is a one-week hackathon also across the globe. We adopted, it’s every six months, by the way, the Cup Tower challenge. Obviously it’s a little different now.
Jon: Cup stacking.
Aliza: Cup stacking. We have that, but you should see before COVID, I am freaking amazed. I’m laughing at this, I’m like, “Hey, everyone, because I know y’all can’t use the table, can’t use a ladder.” I have seen movements of people back on top of each other. I have seen pulley systems created. Leave it up to engineers to invent all these ways. Then the last thing that I also have adopted is workshops. It’s actually giving people the tools so that they could be part of it.
Especially those may not know something about– They want to create an app on iOS but don’t know iOS. We call those Global Engineering Days workshops or GED workshops. That actually all of these components came from MLH because I truly believe in the energy created, I truly believe in the connectedness it created and the helpfulness. I think that’s the thing with any hackathon or any innovation movement, is you’ve got to be there for people. It’s like the last little hierarchy.
You’ve got to, first, as someone who provides the platform or the event, or the movement, is be there to help so that people can then go on top of that and innovate, and then inspire others to be a part of it. It’s just like this triangle. It all starts with let’s give them the tools, let’s inspire them. Don’t forget, it’s got to have fun. I think many times we forget that play it was how we all learned. I see it like, what is it? On all those freaking shows with the animal kingdom like, “Oh my God, check out the cougars, they’re playing but they’re really learning how to stalk a prey.” It’s like that and I think we can’t forget that fun is a big part of not only hackathons, but a big part of what we call software engineering, because it is a team sport.
You’ve got to build that in and you’ve got to celebrate and that’s the other thing I’ve taken from MLA just celebrating every once in a while how you all would go in the hackathons at least. I’ve been in with you all, have been like every so often, you all will announce something, “Oh, the raffle blah, blah, blah.” I’m like, “Oh my God, we got to do that. We got to do raffles.”
We even did– I think one time there was like a scavenger hunt that you all did. We do that too. Let me tell you, the number one thing that people want, at least before COVID was the unicorn onesie. Our CTO was like, “No one’s going to want that.” Actually, most company paying, I know you don’t believe that but it’s true and I remember her saying, “Oh my gosh.” I’m like, “I know. It’s for real. It’s for real, that unicorn onesie.”
Jonathan Gottfried: You know, it’s funny. I feel like there’s a lot that companies can learn about engineering culture from community events like hackathons, conferences, all those things. I don’t know. Engineering is social, it’s fun, it’s creative. It’s like almost artistic in a lot of ways and community events really reflect that and a lot of work culture doesn’t as much.
I love that you’re adopting things from MLH but I know that you have also been super involved in a lot of other communities, like girl develop [unintelligible 00:41:54] and Grace Hopper, Anita Borg all of these amazing groups. Frankly, we’re inspired by when we look at them. I’m curious what other things you’ve taken from the community to bring back to Intuit to help improve the culture and experience there?
Aliza: Oh my gosh. [laughs] Almost all of it. It’s funny because I’m co-chair for the open source track at Grace Hopper and I also obviously speak at Grace Hopper. The things that I have taken back, and this is something that I think all tech companies should actually have is we build tech to automate, to get rid of the mundane. Many times, for our internal customers who are engineers and other technologists and Zoom has allowed us to connect even during COVID or other tools whether it’s MURAL or whatever to collaborate.
The thing that you cannot remove and you cannot forget is the need to connect to sit side by side programs to actually have candid conversations about tech decisions. That is actually still something you cannot automate.
I’ve, just so you know, even brought some stuff that I’ve learned from other groups actually back to Grace Hopper and my colleague so Rocio Montes, who is the tech leader for inner source and open source with me at Intuit. She has taken even some of the elements from MLH to the open source day at Grace Hopper. I know she’s hoping to partner with MLH directly for Grace Hopper’s open source day. I think it’s about the connections that we can’t forget and the celebrations.
I think that’s what I love about GHC of Grace Hopper Celebration that that term celebration is something that I know that my boss, the Intuit chief architect and I always talk about. We make it a point that even at my biweekly meetings that there’s even like with all of the senior technologists at Intuit is that we have a moment of celebrating.
We did a couple of things. One is like we’re always highlighting two technologists what they talk about themselves but we also do celebrate small and big wins and that’s a big deal. We don’t always take that time. Because I think when we do that, when we actually start connecting, celebrating, providing people with the path to innovate. I do think we just become code monkeys, to be honest. That’s not what we are. We’re technologists and we’re here to make a difference.
Even though back at university, sorry to my professors where they’re like, “Are you sure you did this algorithm all by yourself?” Then you realize when you get out of university you will never work alone. You will always be with a team that we cannot forget, team. I think that’s what has really made it hard during COVID is because, yes, we have these ways of connecting but what we are missing is the true connections. What we’re missing is– I’ll be honest, I have problems still reading the room. The virtual room.
I have no idea especially if 90% of people just show their pictures. Do you all hate it? Do you love it? I can’t even tell, but when we’re in a room–
Jon: like what’s going on?
Aliza: I don’t know, because usually we’re on the whiteboard and I’m looking at you and you’re looking at me and sometimes you call me crazy, sometimes whatever. At least we’re having that candid exchange. I think that’s the thing that so many places, unfortunately, it’s such a different world now, Jon. Grace Hopper is so magical and last year going– I was a speaker and a co-chair, but going virtual it still had its moments, but man, I miss just like–
I remember Rocio and I one time after our talk in 2019 we just ended up getting lunch and then we just found two seats beside these– some other engineers and we sat down, got to meet people from Salesforce and Amazon and Microsoft we were all sharing our background and, “Hey, we should do a talk together. Hey, let’s follow each other.” I think that’s the thing that I miss. There is no impromptu. Not rehearsed, but it’s all like, “You got to put on the calendar.” How to spin up Zoom or whatever. It just missed that magic.
I’d love to be able to talk with you again and tell you after COVID, “Oh my gosh, I forgot to tell you about this.” Our lives are so different now but I hope that tech companies don’t lose sight of the importance of celebrating of fun, of mentoring, of teaching and of connecting.
Jon: Yes. No, I completely agree. You hit the nail on the head. One of the things I really love about what you’ve been doing at Grace Hopper is exposing so many new people to open source. We’ve touched on this a little bit throughout our conversation, but open source is this. I think a fairly unique thing in tech, like when you’re in, I don’t know, if you’re making cars, there’s no open mechanical engineering plans for your cars. Everyone is competing. It’s all IP that you own.
Your tech is unique where you share a lot of this [unintelligible 00:47:50] and a lot of the volunteer labor to create it. I’m curious to hear from you how you think people should be introduced to open source. I phrase it that way because there are many different initiatives out there to introduce people but I don’t know that all of them do it right. I’d love to hear your perspective on that.
Aliza: Of how I introduce people to it?
Jon: Yes. How do you get a developer who’s never contributed code before to get involved with open source?
Aliza: I’ll be honest with you, I get this question a lot. Because in terms of Elisa, you say this is important but how do we get started, whether it’s a small company or a group? The first thing I actually say is, open source is about community but it’s really about the essence of what it means to be a software engineer. Software engineering is a team sport and the more diversity that you have in that team. I played soccer for a while and I’ve played field hockey but I even was in intramural soccer.
You need every position filled whether it’s in defense, midfield or offensive. The thing is, is that what open source does is it actually allows you to continue to play in a team, but in even a global arena. The reason why open source is so important to me is because it’s at the crux of what I believe in. Which is one, to enable people to innovate without being judged of, “Hey, what is the ROI of that solution?” Or, “Hey, how many customers do you think are going to buy that app?”
No, it’s actually me as an engineer determining with maybe one other, or maybe by myself or a small group. What do we want to put out there in the community that could be helpful for others or that could be made better because people are extending our code?
If you think about that it’s at the essence of what it means to be an engineer, then it’s not foreign, but it’s a mindset shift, because a lot of people don’t think of it that way. They think of it as, “Oh, Aliza, there’s this thing, were it’s internal, and then there’s this thing that’s external and you want people to contribute to that?” I’m like, “You don’t seem to understand.” We talk about InnerSource at work. Those are just taking open source principles and bringing them internally, and that’s how we work.
It actually goes hand in hand. It’s the left to the right hand. It’s the right hand to the left hand, but what it does is it promotes community. One of the first things, just so you know, if you go to our website called firstname.lastname@example.org, the first thing that I actually establish there was the code of conduct, and it wasn’t because like, “Oh, he only cares about that.” No, I needed to make sure that everyone understood that community is at the heart of open source.
If you’re asking me as like, “Hey, Aliza, I’m a dev manager. Why is it important for my team member to get started in this?” Actually, one, if they do contribute to a repo where the tech is new, they’re learning, one, so you’re growing. Two is if you’re contributing, you’re now a part of a bigger community and who can support you, be there for you, and also give you kudos and celebrate that with you as you give them stars.
People usually comment back when you fix something and they thank you. It’s a very reciprocal thing. If I was to tell people today, how do I get started? First is I want you to shift your mindset that you actually, by doing open source, you’re just practicing what it’s like to be an engineer within a bigger community, within a bigger team.
Two, I would say the first thing to do is to start looking at GitHub in general. Look for things that are of interest to you, and start by just learning what people are putting out there. Then the next thing after you learn, and maybe you’ll find one or two projects, contribute, fix something, do something, extend it.
Then the third thing I would do as you are actually contributing is start thinking about what it is that you’re learning and seeing how can you bring that back to your every day and share that with your team, because then you’re also growing in terms of leadership skills or bringing external inspiration in. There is no downside to open source. There really isn’t. There’s only an upside. As an individual engineer, you’re only going to get better as an engineer because of it. There’s no cost. It’s freaking free compared to conferences and anywhere else that you’re going to go.
Then lastly, I would say is that don’t forget to actually teach people. If you’ve ever read the book by the Heath brothers, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, provide them with a path. The first thing that we did, Rocio and I realized was that not only had to be a man set shift, but we actually had to teach people what it means, and so we set out to create targeted workshops. Then from those targeted workshops, we looked at, “Who are our potential influencers,” which by the way, we took inspiration from Instagram.
Who are potential influencers that can go, “Hey, this stuff is cool, go join me on this,” and because of that, we even have a Slack channel that’s called Open Source Servers, where we answer questions about open source and we get people to share their ideas and then get feedback about it, but man, it is not separate. I think that’s the big thing that I always tell people, “Don’t think about it as a separate initiative, think about it as part and parcel of what it means to be a software engineer and to be part of this team sport called software engineering.”
John: We actually had our graduation for the MLH Fellowship yesterday, where we had hundreds of students learning real world engineering skills, primarily through contributing to open source. It’s so interesting when they come out of this program, because, like you mentioned earlier, a lot of class projects are solo, and in the real world everything is collaborative and open source is a perfect representation of that.
All of these students come out and they’re like, “Wow, I got to talk to an engineer who lives on the other side of the world, is way more experienced than I am, has a totally different perspective, and figure out how to add value to their project and to get feedback on it and iterate. That is such a novel experience for a lot of people who are early in their careers. It’s so valuable.
I think certainly a lot of people could learn from the work that you’ve been doing, to create more open source contributors and also more open source projects and extending that philosophy to internal code.
Aliza: I think, John, you and MLH group have definitely tapped into with your fellowship program something that’s unique, that a lot of people, I think you are demystifying it, open source that is, as a way to actually learn and grow and invest in yourself. I really commend you all for finding that niche because I think it’s pretty cool a lot of our engineers that are not from uni are learning that now.
I know some of them said, “Man, I wish I could have contributed to this because I probably could have been faster at some of the things that I was doing before.” I’m like, “Probably. I know I could’ve. I know I could have learned some things.” I think so many people don’t think about it as when they go in, “Oh my gosh, I have to start a new one? I’ll have to do my own project?” I’m like, “No, we can do baby steps, contribute, edit, do comment, and then figure out what would you want to do on your own.”
Actually, I have a Grace Hopper talk all about this that we just submitted with me and another engineer and it’s all about the realization of being empowered to be part of open source so that you can grow. The benefits, again, for the company are great. One is that for the company, they get their name out there and their brand out there, because it’s one of the first two or three things that engineers looking for a job do. “Hey, how active is that company in open source.”
It’s a benefit for them. It’s a benefit for the engineer because they’re learning and growing in their craft and they can contribute more. It’s a benefit for dev managers. Because actually, their team is up-leveling those skills and they’re learning as they’re going and they’re contributing back to their team or back to the company as a whole. I commend you all.
John: Thank you. It’s a program that we’re incredibly proud of, honestly.
Aliza: I might actually, because of this, write a blog article because of it.
John: There you go.
Aliza: I’m serious. Now we’re writing each other’s blogs. I’m like, “Let me write a blog article about this,” because I think it’s pretty cool. It’s such a cool nuance and it’s interesting because I’ve shared it recently with some team members at Intuit and unfortunately, I’m having to explain it, which means get it factor. I’m having to explain it to non-technical people, and so I think I have to explain it a little bit differently.
John: This has been incredible. We only have a couple of minutes left here, but I’ve learned a ton from you and I hope that everyone who’s listening has too. I always like to end these conversations on a totally non-technical note because every engineer I know has so many passions and inspirations outside of just writing code. I’m curious, what are your hobbies or passions outside of coding?
Aliza: Oh my gosh. Outside of coding, I have for the last 10 years been doing pro bono consulting work for micro-owned businesses that are owned by women. The reason for that, and it’s all pro bono, is that 40% of small businesses in the country, in the United State, are owned by women. Did you that only 2.2% of startups led and owned by women are actually funded by VCs? Then less than 20% of small businesses that are owned by women who ask for a small business loan actually get a loan.
To me, that is so backwards and so upside down that I want to do my best to help. That’s what I do outside. You had a second question. Was it around–
John: What are your passions and hobbies? What are you excited about outside of tech? I mean, that’s incredible by the way, I think.
Aliza: I am very happy about it because I actually have been consulting even in Mexico, for small companies or small businesses in Mexico and in the US. It’s been really, I’ll be honest with you it’s more about feeding my soul but I’m also doing it because the number one thing that I believe the most priceless thing that you can share in this world is your time. It’s the one thing that has no price, but it’s the most valuable thing and it’s partly why I believe in mentoring.
I think it’s been more so heightened because I am a three-time cancer survivor and so for me, this is the way I’m going to give back but it’s also I believe, the thing that is going to continue to fulfill me as well. This has been an amazing talk. Thank you.
Jon: Thank you so much. I mean, honestly, I am so inspired by everything you’ve done. This has been incredible. Thank you for sharing it with all of us.
Aliza: Thank you and I’m serious about writing my blog. I’m actually right after this going to write on my two dues, because I think I need to write about it, about this talk that we just had and about fellowship program but thank you so much.
Jon: I hope many of our community members get to meet you at future events.
Aliza: Yes, one day. One day, we will all be together.
Jon: One day when we’re all back.
Aliza: I know right, one day. Thank you so much, Jon, and take it easy.
Jon: Thank you, Aliza, and happy hacking everyone.
Aliza: Okay, bye. Thank you.