Human Skills 031: Taking Control of Yourself and Your Career
with Michelle Brenner
Michelle Brenner, Senior Software Engineer at Netflix, has a fascinating and different background from many software developers. For one things, she started out in art school, and then while working in a support engineer role in VFX self taught python and gradually moved into development.
For another, after determining she didn't like Leet Code style interviews but still wanting to work at top tier tech companies, she found a different path, becoming a public speaker and using that as an alternate way to prove her abilities.
In this conversation, we covered a lot of ground, but the big theme that stood out to me was one around control. Figuring out what things in your career and job are in your control to influence, which are outside your control but worth fighting for, and which things to let go.
Note: As regular readers may have noticed, there was a substantial gap between the last interview and this one. Since starting a new job in the second half of next year, I have been struggling to keep up the weekly pace. For 2024, I will be dropping the pace of Human Skills interviews to once a month.
What is something you brought from art school into working in tech?
The biggest thing is how to take feedback.
I was one of those kids that like always did really well in school and didn't have a lot to like challenge me. And then when I got to art school, it turned out I was very bad at art. The only art that I was good at was watching cartoons. So I wasn't very good.
And then they had these things called art critiques where you would put your art at the front of the room and then everyone, the teachers and the students could say whatever they want. And they did.
So I got a lot of feedback that way. And at first it's very difficult, but I could see that they were right. So every week I would do it and then slowly, you know, after a year, I was pretty good. And after four years, I was pretty good as an artist. But it really helped me understand how to take constructive feedback and meaningful feedback and incorporate that into my work.
So then, when I decided to go into engineering, it was really important for me to find mentors to always seek out other people, always look at other people's code and see what they're doing. And that really helped me grow and not be precious about my work. Like the best work is what's best for the consumer, not for whatever you think the best is, right? So it's a lot of that I got from art school.
Are there particular things that go into being good at getting or handling feedback?
It's all about making sure that you get meaningful feedback. A lot of people give bad feedback, whether it's negative or positive.
They can say things like, "this is wrong", or "you're not working hard enough", which doesn't mean anything. Or they could say, "you're doing great, keep going."
Both of those things I've gotten from bosses and they don't really mean anything, and you can't take action on them. So I would always follow up and be like, "What exactly do you mean? Like, what do you think I'm not doing well here?"
I had one boss who was like, "you're just not getting these projects done fast enough. You're slowing everyone down." And what I did was I wrote down every single piece of the workflow and where the gaps were like, I was waiting for this person, I was doing this part. And he was like, oh, I didn't realize all these pieces were involved in what you were doing. Okay, carry on. Like there was no fixing what I was doing.
But it could have been that I was doing the wrong thing, I wasn't doing the priority thing. So it's all about the follow-up questions and not just accepting when someone gives you feedback that you just move on, right?
Because you always want to get good feedback that's actionable and then you can do better. Some of the best feedback I've got was like, "hey, you should try working on distributed systems. That's the future of technology. You should try that." And I was like, great. That's extremely actionable. I'll try that right now.
Or like "in your pull request, do only one thing at a time." That's what a mentor told me early on. And to illustrate that, he actually made me take my pull request and write in plain English every single thing that I was doing. And then when it got to a full page, he was like, "you see, you see how much you did in that pull request? I can't review this." And I was like, oh, okay, well now it's gonna be 10 pull requests. You know, things like that where it's very actionable.
On managing up
I think managing up has happened in every single job that I've been in. Where you don't always get stuff from your manager because they don't know what you want. So you have to ask for everything. You ask for the right projects, you see something coming, you volunteer to do things.
The number one thing I always think about for my manager is how can I solve problems for him? It's not about what I want, it's about what will make life easier for them and then tie it into what I want.
So you always phrase it as like, "hey, can I take this project off your shoulders? I really want the experience doing more machine learning, or I really want more experience doing project management, or I want experience doing a leadership thing." But you phrase it as, "I saw this is a lot of work, can I take it from you?" So that's always how I focus on getting what I want from my bosses. What can I do to make their life easier?
Do you have particular things you do to develop professional relationships?
Over time, I've kind of developed scripts that help me introduce myself to people and have conversations with people.
Because I know how difficult it is for people to just like go up to someone and start talking, right, it's a very dangerous scenario. I think for years, I was always like, I don't know what to say, I don't know what to say. And then I realized there's like five questions, you can just keep it in the back of your head, and then always talk about that.
There's the weather, there's the most recent holiday, there's the most recent weird thing your company did and you want to talk about it. There's what's on TV. There's like so many little things you can go to people and be like, "oh man, have you seen this? This is so cool." And then you can talk about or like ask about what they're doing.
And I think, you know, it'd be different for other people. I mean, I love TV and movies, so it's very easy for me to relate to people on that. But if there's other things that you love, like sports or video games, just have a question in your head to just talk to people and don't feel bad about being a robot that has a bunch of pre-programmed questions, because after you break the ice, you can just start talking to people about that.
And then later, you just remind them about that. Be like, "oh, remember when we talked about this movie? I watched the sequel. Did you watch the sequel?" And just try to remember. And if you have trouble remembering, use technology. Write things down. Remember, oh, that person, I met them there. And this is their name and their pronoun. And they like watching Love Island. So that's something I can talk to them about.
So it's just a way, you know, to just connect with people as humans and make friends really. And even if you don't have a ton in common and they would never be your best friend and you never invite them to dinner, you can still find at least like one thing you both like, even if it's like sunshiny days.
On using scripts for getting out of bad conversations
I've had really bad conversations that have taught me what not to do, I think. Like I've had conversations where someone starts asking me very personal questions very quickly and it turns into like this interview and then that's where I bring out my other set of scripted answers which is how to leave a conversation.
So I always carry a cup with me and I'm always like, "oh I gotta refill this"... that's really good or like, "oh, I gotta go to the restroom" and then you can get out of those conversations. In case you're in a really bad conversation, that's always good to have. I've seen people at events who are just like stuck and I'm like, no, get out. There's more people to talk to.
How do you change the topic when you're stuck in a conversation about something you don't want to talk about?
That definitely happens when I give talks about working at Netflix. So like when I give a presentation on my own work on the side, I can say whatever I want. When I talk about my job, I absolutely have to run it through our team at work to make sure I'm not saying anything bad and then the hardest part is the Q and A.
People ask me questions that I can't answer. I think that's a similar situation to what you're talking about. Like someone's saying things and you're like, I can't answer this, whether it's that situation or you're stuck in line and someone's saying something that you don't want to respond to, you just change a subject very abruptly and it's fine.
Or you just don't answer it and just say something completely different. It's something that politicians do all the time. I think it's very valuable to become a very observational person and watch other people to get those skills out of it.
A great example is I'm trying to be a better speaker and one thing that I coached on was to watch comedians and watch how they talk and watch how they move.
Use your physicality well, which is what really good comedians do. And then if you watch politicians answer questions, they just like say whatever they want.
Another scenario that works really well is in job interviews. So in job interviews, I have like five skills I want this person to know about, right? I know my audience. Whether it's a recruiter or a technical manager or someone else, I can see in my brain, they have like a checklist for the job and they want to know I'm a problem solver. They want to know I'm good at learning. They want to know I'm good at Java or whatever it is.
And then when they ask questions, I just answer what I want to answer. It doesn't matter what they just said. I'm going to give them my answer. And usually I talk long enough and it's the answer they want it anyway. So even if it wasn't the right question, you just give what you want to do. You can watch politicians do it all time.
And it's a great skill for interviews. Make sure they know all the things you want them to know. And then at the end, you still get the job. Well, at least you told them everything you wanted them to hear.
What other professions or specialties have you found particularly helpful to watch for skills?
I think marketing skills have helped me a lot the past couple of years. This is more of what I talk about in my keynote. It's all about branding and marketing and telling stories.
So like going back to my example of talking to my boss, I'm telling him a story. The story is "I'm gonna help you," but secretly it also helps me. It's the way you explain it. And people sometimes think that like their work will speak for themselves, but that's not true.
Everything you do is a story somehow. And if you're not controlling the narrative, it's controlling you and people are just gonna make assumptions about you or make assumptions about your work and like not understand how it works. So every time I work on something, I think about what's the story of this project? Who am I helping? What is the improvement that I'm making? What is the money I'm making for my company?
Because that's, unless you work for a nonprofit, and then you have those other goals. In the end, you have to draw the line between what you do and how it affects your company and how it's making them money. Because if you're not doing that, then why are you working there? What is your point of your job? And if you can't say that, then you're in trouble. Maybe not like today, but at some point, you will have that.
So learning a lot of marketing skills, I think it's been really helpful about storytelling and knowing your audience and things like that I think is beneficial to anyone in any career trying to make the best of themselves.
And I think it's even more important when you're not in the majority. Like being a woman in tech, I'm in the minority, right? So it's a, I have to put out my story about how great I am even more so, right? Sometimes it seems like I'm just like over the top, but that's what has to be done to make it happen. I've talked to a lot of people and it's more likely that someone in the minority is doing a lot of these branding efforts because they just want to shine really bright so that they're seen a little more.
On changing your communication styles to be better heard
I'm from Philadelphia, I'm from the East Coast. And when I moved to Los Angeles, people often said to me, "oh, you're very direct." Which I... you don't realize your dominant culture until you leave that culture, I think. And you experience other cultures. I always recommend people like move somewhere else, at least for like a little bit, just to like understand yourself a little better.
And when I heard that, I was like, "great, I get to the point, let's just talk about the projects." I just wanna get to the point and get back to work or get to the point and go take a nap. I don't wanna goof around with this. And that did not create positive relationships.
People took that in a way that I didn't expect. I thought people would like that I just talked about work and got things done. But people found me, I would say phrases like brash and abrasive.
And sometimes of course I wonder, is that me? Is that me being a woman? Is it like how society is? But I can't change that. The important thing is that I communicate to people in a way that they do the things or they hear me, they hear what I have to say. I want them to absorb what I'm saying. And if I could add an emoji after every sentence to get people to think I'm friendly, that's what I'm gonna do.
And I'm not gonna stress too much about it, you know? There's only so many stands you can take. And I think about what's important to me, and what's important to me is have a great job where I have a lot of freedom. And my coworkers respect me, and I respect them, and we get things done. And sometimes you just have to change the way you communicate with people.
I mean, people are human. People are gonna take things good ways and bad ways. And once you learn that, like, "oh, if I communicate a little differently, if I have a little softer touch, I can get what I want."
Some great advice that I got was, it applies to I think everything, "do you wanna be right or you wanna get stuff done?" And I think early career, I wanted to be great all the time because I'm right. But now I'm like, I wanna get things done because I want us to make money and then I make money. So then I can enjoy my life.
On ways to take control of your own career
One way I controlled my career is I hate leet code questions. I just can't wrap my brain around them because they're so theoretical. I love real world questions. You tell me you have a problem, I'll build an app in 20 minutes and I'll be like, oh, this will solve all your problems. That's great.
As a junior, mid-level engineer, people were like, "oh, you have to learn this, you have to learn this." And then I would go to these interviews, and I'd be like, I just don't understand this question. It just doesn't make any sense to me. And I was like, how do I get past this? How do I get past this barrier in my career where they expect something that I can't give? And then that was part of the motivation to become a public speaker, which other people would think is insane. They're like, why would you go to that much work to be a public speaker?
And it's because I can show my work in a different way and get the job that I want. I got the job I am now because someone came up to me after a talk and said, hey, can we have a conversation? So it was a way to build my brand in a way where I didn't have to do something I didn't want to do. I don't think it's less work. I think it's a different type of work. And it's work that I wanted to do versus work that I really, really did never want to understand. Every time I open cracking the code interview, I would fall asleep. I just couldn't. So I'd rather be a public speaker.
On other ways someone can take control of their career
I actually went to a workshop about this like 10 years ago and I like blew my mind with it like "oh my gosh I can become a public speaker instead of doing leet code. This is amazing."
And at that workshop They offered a couple different paths that weren't my path, but could be for others.
One of them is uh being a writer - documenting everything you do. So you like to learn code just write down all your notes and then you turn into a blog post or video or something that's like just online, and that's a way of showing your work.
Another way to show your work that is desperately needed is open source contributions. I never got into that, but I can see how it'd be very well taken. So if I was interviewing someone and they said, "hey, instead of doing a leet code question, can we just walk through a project that I worked on?" I would much rather do that. That sounds great.
I've done that before with someone where I said, tell me about the project. And then I was like, okay, if you had five engineers in 10 years, how would you make it better? And that was a great conversation.
And that's the type of thing where it's off the beaten path, but it shows your quality. And just being very proactive when you're trying to get what you want to not just accept "this is how you do it." I talk about this all the time that I never go through the door. I always walk around and go through the window because the door doesn't work for me. It's not, the door knob is too high. I'm only five feet tall. I can't reach it. So I always go around.
There's other ways to do things that can fit your personality and your brand. It's not going to be easy, and there's lots of different ways that this can be approached. Things like just like making friends and networking has been really huge for me in terms of getting the jobs I want without going through all the hoops of things that I don't want to do.
And also just something to note is like, when you are looking for jobs, you can ask. You can say, can I show you a project? Can we pair a program? Can we do something different?
There are a lot of times people are just interviewing you in the ways that are easy for them. But if you give them options and say, hey, I will really shine if I can show this to you, I think it will help you understand that I'm going to be great at this job. If they're cool, they'll say yes. If they're not cool and they don't say yes, you probably don't want to work there anyway.
I think the overall theme here is just ask. Don't say no to yourself before someone else says no to you. Just try things. And if they don't work, I don't know, try something else. I tried blogging. And then I was like, this isn't fun. No one's clapping for me. And then I realized, oh, if I speak more, then people will clap for me. That's all I want is clapping. So let's do that instead.
Links to Michelle
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