Software Developers Journey Podcast

#77 Dave Smith swings the individual contributor, manager pendulum


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Dave Smith 0:00
At the time when I was going to college, I thought there is no way I want to spend all day sitting in front of a computer. That is just not an option for me. And so I studied mechanical engineering instead for my first year of college. And it was terrible. I absolutely hated it. Many of my roommates and friends studied computer science, and I just thought they were crazy. Because I thought, there's no way I'm gonna sit in front of a computer. And as a mechanical engineer, I definitely won't have to sit in front of a computer all day, which is, which is just complete garbage. Now, as we know.

Tim Bourguignon 0:39
Hello, everyone, and welcome to developer's journey. The podcast shining a light on developers lives from all over the world. My name is Tim Bourguignon, and today I received Dave Smith. Dave has 15 years of experience as a software developer, he led hundreds of engineers as a director, a tech lead and a mentor. He's grown teams from three engineers to 50, and then 50, to 100. And even had a few frontrow C's four legs as hypergrowth from a few hundred to a few thousands. Last but not least, Dave is the co host of the soft skills engineering podcast. I'm sure we're going to talk about that today. Dave, welcome to Dave journey.

Dave Smith 1:22
Thank you. Great to be here.

Tim Bourguignon 1:24
So Dave, we have to start there. Be serious, since when to developers need soft skills?

Dave Smith 1:33
I'll tell you since since the first time, the first developer had to write code with another developer, or the first time the first developer had to read their own code A few months later.

Tim Bourguignon 1:47
Is that your personal story?

Dave Smith 1:49
No, no. Well, I mean, maybe, to a certain degree, for sure.

Tim Bourguignon 1:54
Where did the idea from the for the soft skills engineering podcast

Dave Smith 1:58
came from? Oh, that's a great question. So rewinding about four years ago, my co host, Jamison dance and I who have known each other for a number of years, but neither of us can remember how we met. He came to me at one point with us, he wanted some advice on something and he had some tricky situation at work. He's also a developer. And he just said, Hey, I want to get your advice. And I, you know, we chatted for a while about the problem. And then I shared my advice. And he said, I wonder if more people have advice questions they want to ask, but they don't really have a place to go. And of course, both of us had been co hosts on a podcast before. And so of course, the immediate tool on your bookshelf that you reach for is the podcast. So, so we decided, you know what, this is probably a terrible idea. And it will probably no one will listen. And probably we will utterly fail. But why don't we try recording a podcast together where we give our advice to people who asked us questions. And so we sat down one day, recorded ourselves bantering for 30 minutes about a couple of topics, throw it out there, and it's just been a wild journey ever since we've done over 180 episodes. Since we started in 2016.

Tim Bourguignon 3:10
Wow, congratulations on this. It's a it's a very interesting mix between real life and useful advice and a whole bunch of nonsense.

Dave Smith 3:24
You put it Yeah, that's exactly right. It is I think sometimes the big challenge when you're listening to us, is determining what is actual advice, and what is just a joke.

Tim Bourguignon 3:34
Absolutely. And also trying to imagine the jilted could come and see, well, what could I make a joke with this topic? And then you throw something in there it was, where did that come from? Yeah, but it's very fun. It's very fun. Okay, let's let's rewind all the way to the beginning. Since we don't want just to talk about soft skills. We also want to talk about engineering, software engineering. Where did your story start? Oh, man,

Dave Smith 4:03
I've been trying to think like, where does it actually start? And I think for me, it starts with learning how to type. And I know that's kind of a weird, maybe a weird start point for a software developer. But back in the 90s, we had Well, in the US, we had this service called America Online. And it was a dial up internet provide Internet service provider. But it was kind of before the internet was really big. And so you could dial up and you could participate little online activities in the AOL universe. And one of these activities was a multiplayer, text based game, where you had to type commands to do actions in the game, and there were probably a few hundred people playing at any given time all dialing up through their modems. And this is where I really got interested in computers because I learned how to type by navigating my character through this universe, and I learned how to type really fast, and then I found out that I could save these, I could prevent myself from having to type by recording these little macros that were a little programs that ran in windows that could actually send keystrokes for me. And so I didn't have to do them. And that really is what got me interested in learning how to program and basically learning how computers work and taking advantage of computers for my own gain in you know, in these dumb little text based games. And that's really where it started. And I think that's probably a pretty weird place for it to start over. There's no weird place to start

Tim Bourguignon 5:37
this Don't worry. When When did you transition from a user of a computer to a creator on that platform?

Dave Smith 5:49
I think that you'd have to go forward a couple more years in high school, when, in my school, we were all required to buy these overpriced underpowered graphing calculators from a company called Texas Instruments. And American public school students still have to buy these ridiculous, ridiculous calculators today at the same price that we paid for them in 1992. And they and they all the one redeeming factor of these things is that they come with a flavor of basic on the calculator. And you can sit there with your thumbs if you're very patient. And you can type in basic commands and save these little programs. And you can do things like manipulate the pixels on the screen, take input from the user display text and things like that. And that's when I really started creating programs was on this dumb little TI calculator laying in my bed, staring at it like, like we stare at smartphones today, except it was much bigger and did not have a backlit screen and use double A batteries. And just for hours and hours, putting in these functions and things that you know, because it was like you had this whole menu where you could just scroll through this little LCD black and white screen and you could put little commands in and see what they did. And just hours and hours. And I didn't have YouTube to show me how to do it. I didn't have Google to search for these commands that we just had to try it out. And so I created dumb little games, you know, we're a little airplane would fly across the screen. And you would have to pick the height of the airplane and the velocity and it would drop a bomb and you try to hit a target you know. And it was just it was so much fun. And it was so ridiculous. But that's really where I fell in love with programming where I could just program for hours without realizing that the time had passed.

Tim Bourguignon 7:27
I can relate to that 100% that's where I started as well with I think a ti 83 the back then. And the first program I think it rolled was something like a time ticking time with us some some loop some delay in with the loop and trying to match exactly the time of the classroom wall and wall watch. And just trying to get it to the second match to the second so that my time says that the classes ended exactly at the time when it when it Bell when the road the road the the bell rings. And the delay, I don't think there was there was a delay function. So I had to make some some some mascot calculation to to just keep the computer busy.

Dave Smith 8:19
Add numbers, it usually takes a few milliseconds to add 5000 numbers.

Tim Bourguignon 8:25
I remember making some trigonometry computations the whole time just just to calculate,

Dave Smith 8:31
you're trying to find the most time consuming, consuming mathematical operations you could find. Absolutely. That's fantastic.

Tim Bourguignon 8:38
That was so fun. But I remember there was there was this urban legend that I think a street fighter game was available for a full ti pocket calculators really that nobody could find it, it was just it was an urban legend. I'll have to look at that again.

Dave Smith 8:57
If that exists, I would be very very impressed.

Tim Bourguignon 9:02
There the urban legend say that there was a way to to program with assembler and to sideloaders from something okay, and that's okay, done that. But we'll never know I guess. Yeah. Okay, and how did you go from from putting your finger into this, this basic environment and starting programming into Well, now you're all arm is gone, and and you start the

Dave Smith 9:25
program for real?

Dave Smith 9:29
So, you know, it's interesting. At that point, I did not consider myself a computer person. And in fact, you know, this would these were the days before. People like Bill Gates were super famous and well Beloved. And you know, people like Steve Jobs were heroes. You know, I was frankly, I was ashamed of the amount of time I spent on the computer tinkering with these little macros that I had recorded for these games and tinkering on my TI calculator. It was embarrassing to me just socially. And so I really didn't talk much about And there were a few other kids in school that I would talk to about their programs and get excited with. But But boy, if you asked me if anyone else asked me in public, I'd be like, No, no, not interested in that nerdy computer stuff. And so as a result, when the time came to go to college, studying computer science was not on my mind at all, it was not an option. And there's a bit of historical context here that I just forgot about until recently, I watched a talk that was recorded in 1992, by Steve Jobs, where he's talking to MIT students, and he talks about the Mac computer and how people who graphic designers love the Mac at the time 1992. And he said this, this just blew me away, he said, Look, these people might spend two to three hours per day on the computer, that's a lot of time. That's what he said. And I thought, My gosh, we we all probably everyone listening to this podcast spends a minimum of eight hours a day on their computer now. And at the time, when I was going to college, I thought there is no way I want to spend all day sitting in front of a computer, that is just not an option for me. And so I studied mechanical engineering instead, for my first year of college. And it was terrible. I absolutely hated it. Many of my roommates and friends studied computer science, and I just thought they were crazy. Because I thought, there's no way I'm gonna sit in front of a computer. And as a mechanical engineer, I definitely won't have to sit in front of a computer all day, which is, which is just complete garbage. Now, as we know, everyone sits in front of a computer all day, who is you know, anyone in any kind of field like engineering of any kind. So anyway, at that point in my life, I served a church mission for two years in South America. And while I was serving one of my assignments was to work on the missions information system had to keep track of like a bunch of finances and stuff. And I got into Microsoft Access there. And I got exposed to Visual Basic, and it looked a lot like the basic Well, it looked a little bit like the basic that I had written on my TI calculator. And I thought, Oh, I know, I know how to do this. And I just spent hours poring over the documentation from Microsoft that I had printed on the printer, because, again, you know, the stuff wasn't on the internet. And I just again, I fell in love with it. And so when I came back to the US, I realized I need to be a computer science major. And that's when I switched. And I just, and that is when, you know, my I went from dipping my finger in to just throwing myself headfirst into the deep end of computer science. And it's just been a absolute joy ever since that point. So that was 2000 that I started the computer science program in 2003. I finished. And I've been working as a full time software developer ever since

Tim Bourguignon 12:45
but 2002 was socially acceptable to be in front of a computer.

Dave Smith 12:50
That's right.

Dave Smith 12:52

Tim Bourguignon 12:53
Well, one of the the key lemons that that's stuck in your mind of this study time,

Dave Smith 12:57
you know, for me, I love I just loved creating things that that I could, you know, I could make changes in the computer, and it would do what I said, or at least, it wouldn't always do what I want it but it would always do what I said. And I just I loved like poking the computer and then seeing it do different things, instead of just consuming what was already on the computer and using it in ways that it was already designed to do. One of my favorite things ever was a class I took called introduction to networking. And we had to actually build a complete TCP IP stack from the ground up where it would actually interact with other computers over a network. Having implemented the TCP protocol, it was so fun. And then on top of that, we built our own little web server. And you could actually point a browser at your own web server and have the web server serve up content into the browser. And I mean, that was just fantastic. So in a lot of ways that started my journey, really, of where I ended up today, which is, you know, I've done over the last seven or eight years, I've spent a lot of time on the web, building web applications, and building internet enabled services. And this

Tim Bourguignon 14:05
leads back all the way to university. That is cool. Did you did you know what you wanted to do by the time you graduated?

Dave Smith 14:13
Well, that you know, that's an interesting story, because I graduated in 2003. And for listeners who have studied a little bit of recent tech history, that was a very bad time to be a software developer. I think people coming into the industry now think, well, there's never been a bad time to be a software developer. It's just been this great ride upward up into the right, you know, in terms of employment and salary and demand for developers. But that was absolutely not the case in the years, the first few years of the 2000s because what had happened was, you know, in 9899, The internet just really started to boom. And this is this time period is called the.com bubble. And many many companies were created on speculation they had very little product and but the investors came out with tons of money. Many of these companies went public. And around, I guess, 2000 2001, the bottom fell out of this market. And these companies all went out of business, tons of developers were laid off. Companies like I remember, specifically, companies like Intel had made offers to dozens or hundreds of prospective software developer candidates to join them. And they had told them, Look, you can keep your signing bonus, just don't show up for work, you don't have a job here. And, you know, that was the environment that I found myself in in 2003, when I graduated, and it was a real scary time, and I actually considered going to graduate school to avoid even going into work at all, going into the industry, I thought, yeah, I'll give it a couple of years for the industry to recover. And in the end, you know, I applied for about seven different companies that I could find, I only got calls back from two of them. And from one of them, I was one of 200 applicants. And there were three positions that were given. And I just got so lucky to get one of those three positions. And I just felt so good to be able to have a job, I felt so lucky. And that was the time. And really, within a couple of years, that industry had rebuilt itself. The problems of the.com bubble and bust had been largely resolved. And hiring was back on and that was, you know, from about 2005 forward. It's just been a train running at full speed, hiring as many developers every company as they can. And it's just that trend has never reversed itself.

Dave Smith 16:30

Tim Bourguignon 16:31
Knock on wood.

Dave Smith 16:33
I know, I know, you look, the end is coming in just nobody knows when but this golden age of software development, high demand high salaries, it can't last forever.

Tim Bourguignon 16:43
If it's if it's the recession coming, or if it's the no code. movement. Something is coming. Definitely, yes. Okay. So you didn't have really a chance to, to be picky for your first job. But that's right. Where did you land? And what do you do?

Dave Smith 17:01
I landed at a small defense contractor in Utah in the US. And which is actually why I still live here. Now, because that was the only place I could find work at the time. And it was a tiny company that ultimately got purchased by Lockheed Martin. And we built some just utterly useless Java based software at the time, it was terrible. I called a shelf where because we would build it, the customer would take it and they would put it on the shelf and never use it. So I only I could only stay there for about a year and a half before I just completely lost it. And I just got lucky enough to find another job in the same domain, doing defense contracting for a different company. And that company turned out to be fantastic. We built just some amazing signal processing systems, built some really great software that had some great outcomes used by a lot of people and I worked ended up working there for about seven years. Well, that's a long time. It is

Tim Bourguignon 17:56
before we go into this new job, what do you think, was the key element that made you be the one between 200 something candidates to be in the in the top three in the end? And one of the one of the higher?

Dave Smith 18:11
Oh, man that I have no idea. I attribute it to luck? I really do. I mean, I'll tell you, then, and now one of my skills is I show pretty well on interviews. You know, I'm, I'm, I'm a little bit outspoken and gregarious. And I'm unintimidated in social contexts. And I think that helps me to show well, even if my skills aren't as strong as the other candidates, in an interview context, one of the jokes that i i tell that's becoming less funny, actually, as the industry changes, but, you know, back then, it was pretty funny. And I'll just tell it now, even though probably most people won't think it's funny, but the joke goes, how can you tell the difference between an extroverted software engineer and an introverted software engineer? And the answer is that the extroverted software engineer looks at your shoes instead of their own shoes, when they talk to you.

Dave Smith 19:04
It's still find it funny.

Dave Smith 19:07
And so that was me, right? Like I was the engineer that could look at your shoes, and so just barely above the bar for the norm. And so I think I attribute most of that job to being able to show up in an interview, be comfortable, be confident, and I had reasonably good skills to match. But you know, looking back at my 2003 self, I knew virtually nothing. But whatever it was, they were willing to take a chance on me and and i still attribute most of that to dumb luck.

Tim Bourguignon 19:35
Well worked out. Okay. So Well, lucky. Luck is good. So you went to this, this company producing signal processing software, and you stayed there for seven years, but you didn't stick in the same position or same role for seven years?

Dave Smith 19:52
That's right. Yeah. I, one of the things that was great about this company was there were a lot of different teams within the company. So When I joined, it was a small office of about, I think there were about 50 engineers, about half of them were electrical engineers, and half were software engineers like me. And over the course of the seven years, we grew that office to about 100. Engineers, still about a 5050 split between electrical engineering and software engineering, with that growth came opportunities to lead small teams and eventually to lead large teams. And that was really fun, although very scary, to say, okay, Dave, here's your team. There's one other engineer, I want you to be the the point engineer who's responsible for the team's output, which means you're going to have to not do all the work yourself and actually learn how to communicate and share and take risks and let other people produce some of the products. So it's not just you. But yeah, that that was a great, that was great fun.

Tim Bourguignon 20:46
Let's unpack that a little bit. If you if you if you make did you want to do this?

Dave Smith 20:52
Not exactly. At this point in my career, I was really not interested in leadership. And what I found, I actually, you know, the for the first one, I didn't know if I wanted to do it. And then after doing it for a little while, I realized No, I definitely don't want to do this at the time. And the reason was that there was a lot of overhead involved, that took me away from writing code, solving technical problems, and doing what I considered to be the fun things at the time. And so I actually found myself pretty frustrated with it, but then you know, an opportunity would present itself to move on to something else. And so I considered my career for the first few years to be like this sawtooth function where it's this gradual pole towards leadership. And then of course, a sharp course correction downward, and then a ramp back up a gradual ramp back up to leadership, and then a sharp course correction downward. And I found that I had to do these course corrections, to avoid being sucked into just a completely non technical, you know, program management style, leadership style role, where I couldn't write code, and I couldn't have time to do the things that I really wanted to do. And boy, I really resisted that for the first 10 years of my career. So and that all changed for me, which we can talk about later. But that all changed for me. So no, at the time, I didn't really know if I wanted to do it. I didn't really know what I was getting into. But I think after I did it for a little while, I realized I don't want really want to do this at this point.

Tim Bourguignon 22:15
See, you don't want to be full dementor. You mean?

Dave Smith 22:18
Yeah, at the time?

Tim Bourguignon 22:20
So did you did you go? Like, like a pendulum going going at it? And then and then coming back? Or are you really fighting against it?

Dave Smith 22:29
You know, it was probably more like a pendulum. Because, you know, what would happen is, I would do it for a while, and then I would get frustrated. And then I would find some other opportunity to pursue within the company, and jump on that for a while. But then, you know, leadership would push me again, back over in that direction. So yeah, I guess you could say I actively push the pendulum back a few times.

Tim Bourguignon 22:52
That's very interesting. This is exactly what I've been with lift as well. And I've quit job just to be able to do coding only. And only recently, only five years ago, I decided to say well, okay, screw it. Either I cannot code and that's been a sign of, of the gods to tell me We'll stop coding and take care of people. Or it's because I can do something else. And it really took a long time to accept that that this pendulum might be actually a good thing. Yeah, I'm in the same boat. And when when did you give in and say, Okay, this is the way it has to be? Or did you know,

Dave Smith 23:31
I did? Well, I did. And then I also swung the pendulum back again. I What a crazy career. So fast forward to about, I think it was 2014. So about 10 years, 11 years after I'd been in software. And what I started to notice was that I was solving the same engineering problems over and over again. And, you know, they had new names, and they had new technologies, and they were in new industries, but they were at their very heart, the same problems. And so I was getting a little bit bored with that. And, at the same time, the company I was working at, which is now we're on to a new company. We had lost a one of our engineering leaders, and there was no one who was an obvious candidate to fill the hole. But we desperately needed that leadership. And I love this team. This is the team that I had built from three engineers, it was me and two other engineers sitting in this little crappy office that leaked water, and our office had a garage door that would slide up and down to take shipments and stuff. It was terrible. But I love this company, cuz we built that from three engineers up to like 40. And so you know, almost every one of those engineers I had interviewed and helped select I wasn't in management, per se. But I love the team so much. I said, Look, I will take the hit. And I will volunteer to do the management that this team now needs. And so my CTO said, All right, you're right. You're now the director. of engineering. I was like, whoa, whoa, I didn't, I didn't mean that much responsibility. He's like, well, that's what we need. So will you do it? And I said, Yes. So that's when I gave in. And really, I just did it because I felt like the team needed someone who understood them who had been on the journey. So far with them at this point, I've been at this company for about three years. And I just did it out of a need to fill this, this hole that had been left in our company.

Tim Bourguignon 25:27
So what did that look like this jump into this, this neuro?

Dave Smith 25:32
And well, I went from being a very technical, providing a lot of technical leadership and guidance, but zero people management, to now being responsible for hiring and firing, for performance reviews for salary negotiation, for, you know, annual compensation reviews, to roadmap planning, to resource allocation to budget management, you know, it was just a completely different world. And frankly, that's what I was hoping for, I was hoping for just a huge reboot of my day to day work, to do something completely new that would open my eyes to a whole new new universe, and boy did it. It really taught me that there is so much more going on in your company than you even realize as an individual contributor engineer. Did you have a

Tim Bourguignon 26:20
timeframe where you were just frozen and didn't know where to start? Or did you have an idea right away and started? i? I'm trying to picture how I would react? And I think it would freak out?

Dave Smith 26:33
No, absolutely. And in fact, I sat down with the CEO about two or three months into my new role. And he asked me, you know, how are you doing? And I said, I have no idea. I have no idea. I don't know, if I'm doing a good job. I don't know if I'm doing a terrible job. Half the days I show up to work, and I'm just dealing with some surprise that I had no idea, you know, someone confides in me that there's this serious personal problem that they're working through, and we need to come up with a work arrangement that will work for them. And, you know, and, and I just stopped being surprised by the fires that would show up every day when I came to work that had just not been part of my day to day life at all, prior to this. But yeah, it was it was paralyzing. And I didn't know what to do. Fortunately, my company paid for a management and leadership coach to do consultation sessions with me and several other leaders in the company. And that coach did a lot to help me really come up with concrete actions I could take and really give me goals, you know, so I could be more intentional about management instead of just reacting to the fires of the day.

Tim Bourguignon 27:34
So I hadn't pictured the the firefighting mode, that would definitely keep you busy at the beginning. That's a nice point. And then a coach. How long did you? Did you work with this? COACH?

Dave Smith 27:48
I think I did a bi weekly sessions for 10 or 12 weeks. Do you remember?

Tim Bourguignon 27:54
key moments of this coaching that really brought you forward?

Dave Smith 27:57
Yeah, absolutely, that the coaching turned me around, or not really turned me around, the coaching opened my eyes to one super important aspect of engineering management, which is how to grow people so that they have a path to professional satisfaction, and to producing more for your team, and really unlocking the potential of your people. And we would talk about individuals and what they were doing and working on, and what, you know, what plans I had for them to grow. And of course, I had none, you know, I was just completely clueless to this whole concept. But you know, as we sat down and discussed individuals, I, you know, the coach would ask me, you know, does so and so have aspirations to do this or that thing? And I'd be like, I don't know. And I would talk, then I would go talk to that person and say, you know, what do you want, and I would get all these great information. And then I would come up with ways for them to actually do the things that they wanted to do professionally. And that just created a whole new universe of things that I could pursue that were really satisfying. And how

Tim Bourguignon 29:00
did you go from this reactive mode to this proactive mode of getting toward the the non problems and getting away from the problems?

Dave Smith 29:09

Dave Smith 29:11
I don't think I ever really, fully removed myself from reactive mode. And I think really the the secret to success in management is learning how to balance the stuff you have to react to against the proactive things that you also must do and deliver on strategically. And one of the things that I set up eventually was there were only two managers to manage all the 40 or I think we had about 50 engineers at that point. And so one of the things I did is I set up a layer of for new managers, who would be directly responsible for all of the individual engineers, and I said you are the frontline management you are responsible for growing these people for taking care of their careers for advising them and helping them be successful. And then what would happen is the only the more serious issues would bubble up to me and I could draw addressed those things that needed special attention, while relying on these trustworthy, competent and capable managers to take care of all of the daily fires, so that I wouldn't have to be completely consumed by those things. That helped a lot. That freed me up to do things like just intentional thinking about the team and, and planning and actually being strategic about where we were going to go next.

Tim Bourguignon 30:22
How long did you last? Without root for managers? What before you installed those four managers in the frontlines? As you said,

Dave Smith 30:30
I think I did about a year that way.

Tim Bourguignon 30:32
Wow. That's a very long time to be fighting fires.

Dave Smith 30:36
Well, the question is, Why was I so stupid to not realize that I needed I needed support? You know,

Tim Bourguignon 30:42
what do you think?

Dave Smith 30:45
I think, Well, I'll tell you why. I love fighting fires. That's why and I think, I think many people get sucked in to this hero idea where you're like, I can solve this, I can solve that. Because I had this unique skill for a manager, which was, I had direct technical experience on the software system that we were building. And so I could swoop in and be a hero anytime I want it. But that was a huge mistake. You know, and but I loved it, right? Like he was a big mistake that I love to do. It's like a drug. You know, ultimately, it doesn't really serve you. And so I had to really step away from that and become more intentional about what the team needed from me. And it certainly wasn't a hero to swoop in and fix little technical fires are little interpersonal issues like that. The team needed strategic direction. They needed career growth, development, they needed goals, and aligned, clear vision, they needed excitement. And that's what I needed to be able to focus on. But it took me a while to see that. But

Tim Bourguignon 31:46
what took you from this company? And this actually pretty awesome role and kind of interesting system to going working for Amazon.

Dave Smith 31:56
Yeah, that's a great question. Because I was so happy there. I love the company. I love the customers we had I love it, the team, everything about it was really great. And then through a series of really accidents, Amazon came and approached me about working on Alexa. And this was, this was before Alexa had even been out for two years, less than two years at this point. And I thought, huh, what an interesting opportunity to go work on this product that everybody's heard of. Not everyone has won at this point. You know, there weren't too many echo devices out in the world. But it seems like it's gonna be at the forefront of a new wave of computing and human computer interaction. So I just couldn't resist it. And it was an opportunity to move across the country and live in a new city. And so I just felt like it was an important thing for me to do. And so I walked away from a fantastic job with a team that I loved to go into this completely unknown, a new space and work for Alexa, which I'm still working on just had my third anniversary, their

Tim Bourguignon 33:01
green revolution. Are you a manager again? Or? there?

Dave Smith 33:06
Yeah, see? Okay. So here's where things went weird again. So you know, the pendulum, right. So I went from being manager of managers to being an individual contributor. And at Amazon, my title is senior software development engineer, which at Amazon basically equates to tech lead. I think at many other companies, they would probably use the title principal engineer to describe what a senior engineer does at Amazon. So I'm responsible for a few, a few different teams within Alexa have, you know, anywhere from four engineers to 10. And I provide technical direction for those teams, I advise management, and, you know, both in mostly in terms of technical architecture direction and things like that, but also, you know, occasionally in terms of performance and career growth for other folks, and I provide a lot of mentorship for other engineers too.

Tim Bourguignon 33:54
And you contribute as a as an individual contributor as well,

Dave Smith 33:57
yes, I write a fair bit of code on Alexa to day to day.

Tim Bourguignon 34:02
How does this move or this pendulum move, not backward, but in the other direction.

Dave Smith 34:12
You know, being a manager is, it's a heavy burden, especially if you really care about the people that report to you. And I will say that being an individual contributor is lighter for me. I don't lay awake at night thinking about the people on my team as deeply because I'm just not as aware of the kinds of problems or career development or or, you know, mentorship or guidance that every engineer needs in my organization like I was when I was serving as a director. And so it, it feels it's just a little bit lighter. And it's actually really fun, to be an individual contributor for a while. But quite frankly, I do miss being in management and providing, you know, big picture strategic vision and leadership and helping people directly with their career growth and things like that. Now I act more as a mentorship in a mentorship capacity for folks. And I do mentor a handful of engineers, and I've helped them grow and overcome obstacles and move on to the next level and whatnot. But it is, it is not as heavy of a responsibility. And having said that, though, I will say that having served in a management capacity for a number of years, helps me a lot to to work more productively with management and leadership. Because I know what they are feeling firsthand, you know, and I know what the burden feels like. And I can help them carry the torch in ways that I never understood how to do. Before I was in management, I absolutely understand this.

Tim Bourguignon 35:51
This is very true, this is very true. The thing has realized for me is that I actually cannot help it. I'm trying to be an individual contributor, but in a matter of weeks a month, I will just step in back into this, this different profile of filling the gaps where I see them and and usually it's the in between human beings gifts. And so yes, in a matter of weeks, I'll be in a different role again. It's just the pendulum swings hard. It was really hard, really hard. Um, you said you spoke about mentorship? This is one of my favorite topics. And how do you pick your men, your mentees?

Dave Smith 36:33
Oh, great question. I have never picked a mentee, they have always approached me. And in fact, before I joined Amazon, I never I thought mentorship was I'll just say it, I thought it was dumb. Thought it was a waste of time. Just having a formal mentor relationship with someone I felt like was it was too formal, not interesting, not valuable. And Amazon has completely changed my mindset on this because I realized that I have always been in a mentorship relationship with multiple engineers over my entire career. I just never called it mentorship. And I think it's because I had only ever heard that term associated with like stodgy business Corporation talk, you know, and corporate culture and things like that. And so I just dismissed the term mentor, as being part of that system that I was not interested in. But in reality, you know, I have been a mentor, you know, and I've, I people come to me for advice often, and I love sharing and people's challenges and helping them, you know, find unique solutions to their problems. It's fantastic. It's one of my favorite things to do. I had just never called it mentorship. So now at Amazon, we actually have a very formal process of mentorship, where you actually engage in this relationship, you, you know, you invite someone to be your mentor, and you come to them with specific problems. And we have a very, very specific and clear career growth progression for different roles. And your mentor, his job is to help you walk that ladder upward and grow to the next level. And it has just been so much fun to help people go through that, having been a manager now in the past, I can bring unique perspectives to people like, you know, I'll give you an example. Someone was asking me for advice on how to negotiate a salary with a new company. This isn't one of my Amazon mentees, but someone else and, and I and I can talk to them firsthand. And I could say, well, this is what your manager is doing right now. Or this is what you know, the hiring manager is doing right now. And I can say, you know, if you do what you're about to propose, they're gonna have to go and do X, Y, and Z. So keep that in mind. Right? Or, you know, in terms of timing, like, when do I talk about salary? Or when do I ask for more vacation time? Or, you know, what, how do I manage all this stuff? And now I can tell them, Look, I've been on the other side of that table. And if you had done this, I would have done x, and they're like, Oh, thank you. That's very specific, you know, because it's hard to know, right? Like, it's hard to know what's on the other side of that table having not been there.

Tim Bourguignon 39:05
It says bridging two worlds. For people that don't know, both sides.

Dave Smith 39:09
Yeah, like, for example, um, I was talking to someone about salary negotiation. And then they were saying, Well, you know, I got offered x, but I want to ask for 5000 extra dollars. And I said, Okay, well, if you have an offer in your hand, what that means is that the manager went, wrote the offer, got an approved by HR got approval from their management. And now if you come back and ask for this much more money, they're going to have to go and go through that whole process again, so it better be worth it. You better give them a really compelling reason to do that. Or else they're going to push back because they don't want to go spend a few hours, it's going to take an hour to revise that offer. And they're like, Oh, I never it never occurred to me that they have to go do a bunch of work and get approvals and stuff, huh.

Tim Bourguignon 39:49
Very true. Um, let's go back full circle and come back to the very beginning of our talk. And you've been doing this podcast, soft skills engineering. For now, three years, is it?

Dave Smith 40:02
Yeah, to some degree,

Tim Bourguignon 40:05
which is exactly the bridge from this mentorship and being any in guiding role. But doing this on a weekly basis isn't?

Dave Smith 40:15
Yeah, I like to think of the soft skills engineering podcast as mentorship at scale. So instead of just having one on one conversations, we broadcast these conversations out for anyone who could benefit. So instead of just one person getting specific advice for them, it's, you know, a few thousand people getting advice that may or may not apply to them, but still scales very well.

Tim Bourguignon 40:34
And what's in there for you? Ah,

Dave Smith 40:38
well, it's really nice when we go out in public and there's just hundreds of people waiting outside my door to take my picture. And, you know, there's a limousine that picks me up for work every day, and that's nice. Okay,

Tim Bourguignon 40:49
that's it. I leave.

Dave Smith 40:52
The limo rides are great. I mean, it's so fun.

Tim Bourguignon 40:55
I'm sure I'm sure they are. Okay, okay. Okay. Let's look at the time the time box is closing on us. Let's make it a weird question. If you were to travel back in time and meet you're 20 years old self. And you had one advice to give? What would that be?

Dave Smith 41:13
Ah, boy. Oh, uh, participate in the Google IPO?

Tim Bourguignon 41:24
Not the apple one.

Dave Smith 41:26
I don't know. Any, any of them would be fine.

Tim Bourguignon 41:29
Just before your 2000? Yeah. I'll just have to say Yes, that's true. That's, that's as valuable as an answer that gets. Thank you very much.

Dave Smith 41:38
It's a problem. No, I didn't have any money when 20 years ago. So I don't know. 100 bucks.

Tim Bourguignon 41:45
100 bucks will go far. That's true. That's true. Well, fair enough. Fair enough. Thank you for that. Um, okay. Um, Where can the listeners continue this discussion with you? If they want to go around or get some advices from you? Or maybe start a mentoring relationship? Or just as your question?

Dave Smith 42:06
Yeah, well, I think, if you want to ask a question, I think a really good way to do that would be to go ahead and submit a question on our podcast website. And we have a lot of people that do that every week, and we read every single one. Sometimes we reach out to the individual to answer their question directly. And sometimes we put it right on the air and it becomes a part of one of our episodes. So if you'd like to do that, a good way to do it is go to soft skills dot audio, and click the Ask a Question button. And you fill out a little form there. You can even remain anonymous, if you want. And that'll go right to a Google form where we look at every question every week. And if you want to talk to me directly, that's a good way to reach reach me. I can't promise it will respond to you, necessarily, because we do get quite a few questions each week. Which by the way, when we started this podcast, I thought, there's maybe three or four episodes worth of material here that we can ever provide. And now we've done 180 episodes. So anyway, that's a good way to reach me soft skills dot audio. You can find me on Twitter as well. And DJ Smith 42. That's my Twitter handle. And those are probably the two best way to get in touch

Tim Bourguignon 43:19
anything coming up in the next month that you want to plug in? Let's see.

Dave Smith 43:25
No, I don't think so. Just go check out the podcast that's always coming. You know, every week we do a show. So

Tim Bourguignon 43:31
is there a way to see you in real life and at a conference or something like this?

Dave Smith 43:35
Ah, good question. For you. I actually have not been to a lot of conferences. In the last year or two. I do emcee the Utah JS conference every year. We had that in September of this last year. And I did meet several folks there from podcast listeners, which is great. But yeah, I don't know. I don't have any specific plans for conferences this year for 2020.

Tim Bourguignon 43:59
Then you should

Dave Smith 44:00
I know I should. Maybe you should. Maybe your listeners should write in and tell me what I should be going to because I just I always struggled to pick one.

Tim Bourguignon 44:07
You heard it listeners to please do that. We need to get Dave out of Utah. Yeah. Well, Dave, thank you very much. It's been fantastic.

Dave Smith 44:17
Likewise, it's been great talking to you.

Tim Bourguignon 44:19
And this has been another episode of developer's journey. We'll see each other next week. Bye bye. Dear listener, if you haven't subscribed yet, you can find this podcast in iTunes, Google music, Stitcher, Spotify, and much more. Head over to www dot journey dot info. To read the show notes. find all the links mentioned during the episode. And of course links to the podcast on all these platforms. Don't miss The next developer's journey story by subscribing to the podcast with the app of your choice right now. And if you like what we do, please rate the podcast, write a comment on those platforms, and promote the podcast and social media. This really helps fellow developers discover the podcast and those fantastic journeys.

Dave Smith 45:19
Thank you