Q&A with Sarah Smith, Software Engineering from Silicon Valley to Fortitude Valley

Sarah Smith is one of Brisbane’s preeminent Software leaders. With experience working at Google, Expedia, Nokia and more Sarah has a wealth of experience that she currently shares with a range of software development students and clients through her contracting brand Smithsoft Pty Ltd.

We were thrilled to sit  down with Sarah and ask her more about her experience with remote work, managing productivity, and growing the diversity of software teams. 

Sarah you have achieved so much in your career, but tell us, who is Sarah the person?

I’ve lived through to see & feel the results of my own mistakes. I’m a lot more humble, and kinder as a result now, than I used to be

What is something that not many people know about you?

I love skateboarding, tho’ I’m not very good at it.

What’s the most random talent you have?

Sketching. Maybe not so random, but folks don’t always understand why I do it – it’s not to record but to see. When you draw something, you actually see it. With photos that is not always true.

What are you currently watching / reading / listening to?

Blowout, by Rachel Maddow and Accelerate by Nicole Forsgren & Jez Humble

What is on repeat with your wok playlist right now?

This playlist is getting a good workout at the moment!

Given the current climate, everyone is talking about remote work. You’ve worked a significant proportion of your career with employers that embrace remote work. Tell us about the highlights and lowlights you’ve noticed about remote work?

I’ve had some great collaborations with folks who worked with me as team lead or on one of my projects. A coder based in St Petersburg, an artist based in Punjab both who did great work, on time and collaborated with me to get stuff to spec. A couple of times I’ve had issues with folks I relied on just disappearing & becoming uncontactable – but that is kind of the nature of at-will contracting. It goes both ways.

What we understand is that one of the greatest challenges for employers is understanding an employees’ output. How do you recommend employers and employees record and track their work?

People in chairs in offices, between 9am and 5pm is a terrible proxy metric for actual productive output. If you’re mandating & checking up on filled chairs instead of productive output you’re not doing your job.  Measure delivered customer value, in the smallest pieces you can slice those deliveries into. Replace asking when “it” will be done, by recording how many slices got done, and join the dots. 

A coding workshop run by Sarah for the Women in Digital community

What tips do you have for employees, and employers that are currently forced to allow for remote work?

For the workers: Take breaks, be a human, find ways to keep in touch, demand respect. For leaders: relinquish control, replace it with communication; dial down your motivational broadcasts; instead listen actively & measure effectively.

Okay, a bit of a topic change but what’s your favourite language to code in and why?

Swift. It’s the modern workhorse language that so many others are busy trying to emulate. Also I’m biased toward clang based languages rather than JVM hosted ones. Kotlin is OK, C++ is still going strong.

Let’s talk about up-skilling. Technology is constantly changing, new languages and frameworks are coming out faster than ever before. How do you keep your skills current?

Argh. It’s hard. A failure mode of mine is being drawn too deeply into new technology. Usually  I read blogs, sometimes buy books, and often work on projects in my own time. This is exhausting though.

I’d switch this one around and suggest that authoring code especially in novel languages or technology ought to heavily involve literate coding, tests and great documentation so those new to it can learn what they need as they work with it. 

Requiring folks to have mastery of some new technology before starting at a new job is not realistic in my view: too often you hire someone for skill X only to switch them to a different tech 3 months after they start.

Where do you go for your professional development? (i.e. Online learning platforms, industry professionals, formal education)? And how do you filter out all the noise?

Some things it is incredibly hard to filter out the noise. Artificial intelligence had a big boom and there was in 2017 when I started looking deeply at it a huge slew of courses, groups, books and websites to teach you. I looked for reviews of those and chose the ones with great reviews. I also relied on peers who’d done courses.

You are a massive advocate for diversity in digital – organising both ‘LGBT & Allies in Tech’ and ‘Women Who Code’. What advice do you have for businesses wanting to improve their diversity?

Really commit to it. Actually do it. We can tell when you’re just paying lip service or “pink-washing”.  We’re not asking for special treatment.  Women & LGBT folks just need the tech industry bro’s to just take their boot off our throat long enough for us to fly.  Just fix your locker room cube-farms, hire us equally & let us shine.

A huge thank you to Sarah for chatting with us. If you’d love to read more Q&A’s head over to our blog, we will be sharing further business success stories so stay updated with our Facebook and Instagram.

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