In this week’s blog post one of our a DevOps Consultants here at Burns Sheehan sat down with Nicola Heald to find out a bit more about life as a Woman in DevOps.
Please tell me a bit about your current role?
I'm designing, expanding, and running the Continuous Integration infrastructure for IBM's BlueBox OpenStack product. Every time the developers propose a change, the CI systems fire up and test it, and mark the change as good or bad. There are an immense number of moving parts in this, and it's tricky to keep running smoothly, so I've got to be on top of things because it's essential to the process of testing, building, and releasing the software.
I work mainly with Linux, Python, Ansible, Jenkins, and of course, OpenStack.
How did you get into a DevOps career? Were you always interested in tech?
I was into technology from a young age, but certainly not because my friends were into it, they weren't! My earliest memory of wanting my own computer is of me watching Inspector Gadget and seeing Penny's computer book. I thought it was so cool that she could make things happen with her tech, and wanted to do it too. I doubt that show would have inspired me so much if Penny had been a boy, so it's really impressed on me how important female role models are to young girls, especially when the clichéd image of "computer geeks" is the socially awkward, arrogant, male stereotype that really, girls don't want to be around when they're younger.
I got into DevOps by accident, really. My first tech job was web design for a small domain name registration company. As well as making new sites to bump up our rankings in search engines, I was shown some basic Linux administration so I could cover for the sysadmin when he was away. At the same time, my boss wanted me to learn PHP so our sites could have more interesting features, so that job gave me my first development and operations experience. Like I say, totally by accident, I started just thinking it was going to be HTML and Photoshop! From there, I was able to say I'd done Apache and Linux configuration, and PHP development, and was able to debug both quite well. I guess today we'd call that a Junior DevOps role.
So really, it's all down to Penny in Inspector Gadget! Now I have a daughter, she loves Inspector Gadget too, and named our parrot Penny.
What do you like about your job?
The thing I love most is the thing that exhausts me the most - that I might have to look at any part of the technology stack at any time to diagnose and fix problems. That seems to come with running Continuous Integration, and it's the reason that the "skills" section on my CV is so long. One day I could be figuring out why Apache is sending requests to the wrong vhost, the next I could be backporting a patch to an authentication library in ubuntu because it's making Jenkins crash. It's satisfying when the solution comes together and everything works, especially when I've had to learn something to make it work. It feels like completing a piece in a traditionally "creative" role such as design, but my materials are software and my brush strokes are configuration files, and I frequently have to mix my own paint!
What advice would you give to women who are looking for a career in DevOps?
Don't be put off by how much there is to learn. Cheat sheets are your friends! There's a certain amount of posturing by certain types of male personality who want to show off how much they know, but in reality if you refer to cheat sheets to look up commands, or have to google for the right solution, and you still get the results in the end, it's fine. Those loud, posturing guys do that more than they admit.
It's ok to not know something. Everything can be learned.
Impostor syndrome - that feeling that you've got to where you are by bluffing and you shouldn't really be there - is a killer sometimes. The only time you shouldn't be in a community, or really don't deserve the progress you've made is when you give up on it. At all other times, you're just at a different stage of learning.
Especially in open source communities, there will be incredibly talented women who might have time to mentor you. Get to know everyone you can in the community! This is the bit of advice I hadn't followed for a long time, and only just recently acted on myself. I wish I'd done it a lot sooner.
Oh, also, learn the following phrases: "No, I cannot fix your printer." and "Sorry, we don't use windows, I wouldn't have a clue." They'll save you a lot of time with family and friends!
What are the challenges faced by women already working in the DevOps space?
Depending on what area you're working in, DevOps can be extremely complicated, requiring knowledge of many systems, and if you're in a meeting trying to explain something, as a woman, my vocal style, my communication style is different to what people are used to hearing. This style is, unfortunately, a little easier to shut down, though, It's difficult to change my communication style so that this is less likely to happen. It’s sometimes a problem and one women should prepare for.
Next, I think that when you start doing interesting things and want to write about them on the internet, you start to attract the small but very vocal minority of people who want to bring you down. My advice for this is, "don't read the comments." In fact, this goes for so many things, especially YouTube videos and twitter.
Almost finally, we need to push for culture change, because diverse teams are better teams.
Homogeneous teams stagnate.
Actually finally, we should be recognising the people who are helping us to make tech a better place for women and minorities. PyCon has a great reputation for creating an atmosphere where all are welcome, and companies like IBM are leading the way with their diversity policies, in some cases actually campaigning for change to help excluded groups.
Thank you Nicola!
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