Dagna Bieda is an engineer, career coach, and founder of theMindfulDev.com. She talks with Chad about being a software engineer first and then becoming a career coach who has helped a big range of clients with communication and marketing themselves successfully.
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CHAD: This is the Giant Robots Smashing Into Other Giant Robots Podcast, where we explore the design, development, and business of great products. I'm your host, Chad Pytel. And with me today is Dagna Bieda, engineer, career coach, and founder of theMindfulDev.com. Dagna, thanks for joining me.
DAGNA: Absolutely. It's a blast being here. So thanks for having me over, Chad.
CHAD: So what you do is a little bit unique in that you provide career coaching to engineers. But you yourself are an engineer and have a background in engineering. So how did you arrive at what you're doing today?
DAGNA: Yeah, you're exactly on point there. I was a software engineer and then turned into career coaching. So essentially, I've been coding for over ten years and coaching for the past 3. And I'm the tough love, “I've been in your shoes” kind of coach because I have that engineering experience.
And a little bit about what it is that I did as a software engineer is I essentially moved from programming in microcontrollers in C through cell phone towers, providing LTE networks in C++. I also did behaviors of social robots in C++. I wrote a distributed web app in Ruby on Rails. And I also wrote some mobile apps for parking and transit in Swift and Java.
Having that range of experience, I really get to help a big range of clients. My former clients have worked for LinkedIn, Amazon, Google, Disney, as well as much smaller businesses. And their own experience was ranging anywhere from 2 to 20 years of experience. And I had clients who are self-taught, who are career-changing bootcamp grads, who are college grads. And my goal as a coach is to really help them reach for their potential.
CHAD: Now, did you arrive at this because you yourself struggled with some of these things? Or did you have it easy and you said, "Oh, I don't understand why these other people..." [laughs]
DAGNA: So both of these questions are exactly on point. I feel like I had it very easy at the very beginning of my career. I essentially got promoted to a senior engineer very quickly. It took about two years or something, so like superfast. But then, as a senior engineer, there was a moment where I felt that I've just plateaued in my career, and I was stuck, and I was frustrated. And I wanted to learn all the technologies out there. And what was missing was some people skills.
So once I finally was able to figure out okay, this is what I'm missing...and in hindsight, it was so obvious. I decided to move into career coaching because I realized that we're kind of brainwashed, so to speak, to put the technology on a pedestal and ignore everything else, right?
DAGNA: But if you don't work on your soft skills and don't realize that at the end, it's all humans because you're working with humans...you're creating products for humans. So it's not something you can really escape from. That was like a huge aha moment. I was like, people don't even know this is important. Like, I got to change that. [laughs] That was a mission for me to change that, to help discover what are those roadblocks? What are those limiting beliefs that software engineers often have that keep them stuck in their career and frustrated and stopping them from really fulfilling their potential?
CHAD: I often say that almost all problems are actually communication problems at their heart.
DAGNA: Ooh, yes.
CHAD: And in consulting, we have clients who come to us with what they think is a technical problem. And we have to sometimes tell them like, "We can fix this problem. But if you don't address the underlying communication problem that caused it in the first place, it's just going to happen again."
DAGNA: Absolutely, yeah.
CHAD: So I think that's a problem engineers have is that they try to apply technical problems or think code is the solution to every problem.
DAGNA: Well, it's not just that. Let's think about how software engineers are trained into their careers. If you have a class and you need to deliver a piece of code that compiles and does whatever it was meant to do for your assignment, even if you had incredible communications with your teammate and partner, even if you negotiated changes in the scope of features, it's all not going to matter for you passing your class if the code doesn't compile and if it doesn't do what it's supposed to do.
So early on, whenever we're creating software, we're taught how to create software. We're being taught to put technology on a pedestal. And I've worked with multiple senior engineers that feel really frustrated because they're so knowledgeable but aren't able to communicate all this knowledge that they have in their own mind.
They might be having brilliant ideas that might be helping their businesses grow and get past helping the businesses they work for grow. And they're not able to pitch those ideas and not able to really be heard and seen for the value that they bring to the table. And this is where I come in, and this is what I help with, getting past that frustration and that feeling of being stuck.
CHAD: And just to clarify if I'm following right, and what I'm advocating is this isn't just if you're a developer and want to move into management. This is for just moving up in your career as a developer, right?
DAGNA: Absolutely. Here's the thing, even if you're going to become the principal architect in the company, what are the skills that you need to have? It's not just technical expertise. If you have technical expertise and you're not able to talk about it with the business stakeholders that don't have the same amount of knowledge that you do, then you're not going to get to that point. Principal engineers create direction in the company, make decisions, have to be mindful about the business value that they're creating, not just the underlying tech stack.
So as we grow in our careers as software engineers, it is really critical to, once you have, I'd say, five years of experience as a software engineer, to start working on the soft skills. And to be honest, someone who has gone through a coding bootcamp because they had less of that brainwashing about putting the technology on the pedestal often tend to advance in their careers much faster because they bring that previous experience with them to the table, so they can communicate better. They have different types of ideas, different perceptions. They don't have those limiting beliefs that a lot of developers have.
The number one limiting belief that I see my clients have is believing that the work they do speaks for itself, and it doesn't unless someone literally dives into the code that you wrote. So for you to be able to advocate for your career, you need to be able to say, "Hey, I wrote this feature," and not expect people to dive into the code and look through the feature and all the lines of code you wrote. It’s to be able to emphasize the business impact that the feature you wrote had on the business, and how it helped, how you contributed to the business side. And that's something that I work with developers on.
Now, you did mention, Chad, that you work with a lot of developers, right?
CHAD: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
DAGNA: Would you say that marketing what developers do is a huge thing holding people back in their career?
CHAD: Yes, not only because of what I said earlier about a lot of the root causes of problems are around actual communication. But you're right; when it comes to who you can rely on in your company, who you can communicate with, who gets their ideas across more, it comes down to being able to communicate those ideas and that value. Even little things like when the code you've been working on is ready on staging, don't just say, "It's on staging. Check it out," and moving the ticket forward.
CHAD: But actually being able to communicate what you've done either through words or screenshots. I think we've all been in scenarios where you're working on a complicated ticket, and you are making decisions along the way about how to do that. And you make all those decisions, and they're the best decisions in the world. But if you just put that ticket up for a review and say, "It's on staging," it's either not going to be accepted, or you're going to get tons of questions around why you did this. What did you consider when you were doing this? It's like a lack of trust and understanding there.
But if instead, you say, "Here are all the things I'm considering along the way." And you say, "I've balanced all of these priorities, and here's the decision I've made, and it's on staging, and it works like this. And here's where you go to view it. And click on this. And here's a movie that shows how it works". People are going to be like, "Oh, sounds great. Accepted."
DAGNA: Yeah, absolutely. But here's the thing. As developers, we're not taught to do all these things that you just described. We're taught to write code that compiles, boom, done. [laughs]
CHAD: So when working with people who have this sort of mindset o the skill gap, what are some things that you have people do to level up?
DAGNA: Yeah, there are certain things that we specifically work on, and that is negotiation, setting expectations and boundaries, being able to respectfully either decline a change in scope of work or try to negotiate the change of a deadline whenever there's an impossible feature request. Or things like being able to set expectations that if you're working on your focus time, that you shouldn't be disrupted.
And it's something that's very hard because developers usually really want to be helpful. So when a product manager comes to them and says, "Hey, I really need this. It's for a critical client," what happens is most often than not, they're going to drop everything they were doing just to finish that one thing and be helpful. And so being able to create a boundary saying, "Hey, I'll get back to you after I'm done working on what it is that I'm working," is a skill.
Being able to market what you did and being able to show the business value, how your work contributed to the business side is also a skill. And even having communication with your manager telling them, "Hey, I realize that I need to work on XYZ. Would you be willing to give me feedback? Because we go to the meetings together, you see how I communicate; you see how I think, you see how I act. Give me more feedback. What can I do to grow in my career?" So asking for that feedback is a skill. So there are a lot of moving elements, and these are the skills that I work with on my clients.
But there's a big thing that I want to address here too is that with technology changing and being at such a fast pace, it is very important to give yourself grace, especially when you're starting out. Be patient with yourself to give yourself that time to actually master the tech part. And it's really important to see and understand how you think about your career growth. Do you beat yourself up in your mind, or do you actually see the opportunities for growth?
With developers, since we're not being taught how to communicate effectively with other people, oftentimes, when someone wants to give us feedback that might help us in our career, we get defensive because it feels like an attack on our character. And I see it with juniors all the time. "Why did you say I was messy?" "No, no, I said your code was messy." Taking that kind of feedback on the code very personal and getting agitated instead of seeing opportunity for growth in the career.
CHAD: Would you say that most of the people that work with you are doing it while they're going through a transition or in between looking for their next thing? Or are they doing it while they're in a position hoping to improve within that existing company?
DAGNA: So all three paths that you mentioned are very valid. It depends on what people are doing, what their goals are. When I work with my clients, we work one on one. So it's very tailored to their specific and unique situation and their needs. But I can tell you that from last year, my absolute best example was one client who came to me because he felt that he was being an undervalued senior engineer.
And he wanted to promote himself and maybe move on from the job that he was in at the time that he didn't see much opportunity for growth. And he was just stagnant. "Help me market myself. I need to get out of this current situation. I know I have the potential. And I want to find something more exciting to work on." As we worked together, within three and a half months, he became a startup CTO, which was a dream come true for him. But he didn't believe at the time before we worked together that he could actually make that happen for himself.
Then I had another client who, within two months of us working together, was preparing to land a team lead position. But he actually was able to jump two levels up, and he became a VP of innovation at his own company.
DAGNA: It so happened that as we worked together, his company was going through a massive spurt of growth. And because he was the right person working on the right skills at the right time, he became the VP which is incredible.
And I had another client just recently who felt that he was overworking himself. He was coming also from a military background. So he had certain beliefs that they served him in the military, but they were not really helpful for progressing in the tech industry. And as we worked together, he was able to not only stop overworking himself and have a better relationship with his wife; he also landed a new job where he doubled his salary. He went from 109,000 a year to 220,000. That actually made even my jaw drop a little. [laughter]
But it shows you how powerful the process is that I follow with my clients. It's really about the engineering mindset. It's about how to think about career growth and how to prioritize certain things depending on which stage of your career you're in.
CHAD: Are there other common pitfalls or mistakes that developers make that hold them back?
DAGNA: So absolutely the limiting belief that I mentioned earlier, believing that your work speaks for itself. I feel like 80% of people that I work with have that limiting belief, and we work to get past that.
Another thing that is pretty common is not understanding how you come across. That's a problem that I had in my career. When I mentioned that I was a senior engineer for a few years and I felt stuck, I wanted to advance, but it wasn't happening for me. It wasn't clear why it wasn't happening until I started working with someone who was open enough to provide me some tough love type of feedback. One time he told me, "Dagna, why are you calling these people idiots?" And I'm like, "I never said that."
DAGNA: My intention was really pure, good, coming from my heart and my soul, from really good intentions. But my intentions were completely different from the message that got across, right?
CHAD: Was it your tone, what you were saying? What was it that made that come across?
DAGNA: Part of it is not being assertive enough. And I should probably mention here that I am an immigrant to the United States. I originally grew up and got educated back in Poland, my home country. And the way we communicate in Poland is completely different than how we communicate here in the United States. And at the very beginning, I didn't really understand how my communication impacts my career.
So essentially, as a senior engineer, I was way too direct. And I was using words that were triggering for some people. So I had to learn how to be more assertive, how to communicate to people that I get where they're coming from, what is their perspective, what it is that they're trying to accomplish in the conversation. Once I started doing that, I actually got the offer to get promoted to the engineering manager that I was working towards.
But the funny thing is that was the day that I actually came into the office and put my notice in because I was so sad of being a coach by then. I was like; I figured this communication thing out. I need to spread the word.
DAGNA: It's way too important for me to now be a manager, nah, nah, nah. I have more lives to impact here than just the team that I might be working with.
I wanted to tell you all about something I've been working on quietly for the past year or so, and that's AgencyU. AgencyU is a membership-based program where I work one-on-one with a small group of agency founders and leaders toward their business goals.
We do one-on-one coaching sessions and also monthly group meetings. We start with goal setting, advice, and problem-solving based on my experiences over the last 18 years of running thoughtbot. As we progress as a group, we all get to know each other more. And many of the AgencyU members are now working on client projects together and even referring work to each other.
Whether you're struggling to grow an agency, taking it to the next level and having growing pains, or a solo founder who just needs someone to talk to, in my 18 years of leading and growing thoughtbot, I've seen and learned from a lot of different situations, and I'd be happy to work with you. Learn more and sign up today at thoughtbot.com/agencyu. That's A-G-E-N-C-Y, the letter U.
CHAD: That's great. And it segues really nicely into the next question I was going to ask you, which is your experience with the cultural differences. There's a general trend in the market that we're seeing now in more companies hiring remotely, opening up the candidate pool to people who live all over the place. And not only does that expose more people to be hired by different companies, but it broadens the candidate pool. So you're competing against even more people. So is that something that you're seeing as well? And how do people position themselves within the global market now, particularly if they're not in the U.S.?
DAGNA: Well, if we're talking about global market, we got to be mindful that for a company that's located in the United States or any other country for that matter, there are tax implications. So it really depends on the company and how they are set up to be able to pay out salaries offshore or hire contractors offshore. Because the reality is that a lot of clients of mine that are from the European Union, for example, a lot of clients of mine that are in the EU, if they wanted to apply for companies in the United States, they wouldn't really be considered because of those tax implications.
So even though a lot of companies open up and want to hire people from abroad, not every company does that. And even if companies say that they are open for remote workers, it really depends on how they're paying their taxes and how all that is set up. So the way I see it is there is a movement towards opening up for remote work. But it's definitely not about competing across the globe, not yet at least.
CHAD: I think maybe my perspective is a little bit skewed on it just because of where we're at. So are you saying that developers should do their due diligence about what companies they actually want to work for?
DAGNA: Absolutely, yeah. I mean, applying for a company that is not set up in a way that can support paying salaries outside or even having those international agreements in place, you're just wasting your time applying there and setting yourself up for frustration because they're not going to reach back to you.
CHAD: Yeah, that's good advice.
DAGNA: Now, in terms of your work with remote positions, who do you usually work with, Chad?
CHAD: Are you asking from developers that we typically work with or who do we --
DAGNA: Yes. I was curious, like, what's the amount of people that you work with that are actually remote and worldwide? What is your experience there?
CHAD: So last year at thoughtbot, we got rid of all of our offices, and we went fully remote. And when we did that, it took us a little while to get everything organized. But when we did, our goal was to open it up based on time zone, not based on country that you live in. And so we organized into two teams, all of the Americas and Europe, Middle East and Africa is the second team.
DAGNA: So I'm curious, what are the tax implications of you guys paying out those salaries?
CHAD: So we use a company called remote.com along with a few other partners that provide employer record in the country that you live in. So there's an actual entity. You're fully paid according to local rules with actual salary benefits, paid time off, all that stuff. And you are a real employee of that entity in that country. And then what they do is they invoice us for that total amount.
DAGNA: Ah, that's awesome.
CHAD: And they handle all the local employment, which is great because up until that point, we previously had to have entities of our own in every country in order to do it right because we really want to do it right. We're not that big, and so it's a lot of overhead for us to be able to do that. So working with partner companies, companies that provide that local entity is the direction we've gone in, and it's worked really well overall.
DAGNA: Awesome. Glad to hear that.
CHAD: And I think in general, I'm trying to spread the word about that because I do think it is important. There are a lot of companies out there. This is building on what you said before. There are a lot of companies out there that are, on one hand, doing things incorrectly or, on the other, they might not have good intentions; they're sort of purposely taking advantage by having people work as contractors when they probably really shouldn't be.
DAGNA: Oh yeah, I hear you.
CHAD: I'm curious, in your role now, do you still code at all?
DAGNA: So I gave up coding for now. I essentially left my last engineering job in March of last year, and I've been fully focused on coaching. Coaching as it is is a skill as well. And I realized that if I really want to make an impact, I have to have my attention fully devoted to that business. And part of it too is business growth.
A skill that I'm learning right now is writing, writing a newsletter, writing posts on social media, and just sharing what I think is very important and what is not really being talked about enough like the communication, like the human side of software, like career growth, and the fact that we are set up to overvalue the technical skillset in terms of career growth. And all this really takes up my time and my effort.
CHAD: One of the things that resonated with me when I looked at your website was this idea of being clear on your personal definition of fulfillment. Fulfillment is one of the things we talk a lot about at thoughtbot. It's one of our core values. And so, how has it been for you to transition away from coding? And do you think you're going to be fulfilled by that over the long term?
DAGNA: Oh, absolutely, yeah. It's been a blast. Here's the thing, as I help my clients achieve spectacular results, that's what really puts me on fire. And I wake up every day thinking, damn, I can help people in very critical moments in their life.
I had a client who, as we were coaching together, unfortunately, his father passed away. And he told me that thanks to the coaching that we did together and the mindset training that we did, he was able to cope with this difficult situation in his life so much better, not to mention how that impacted his career.
So I get to really help, really have a huge impact on people's lives, and that's something that really is incredible for me. That is my personal definition of fulfillment. And I like to say that I used to be programming, and now I'm re-programming human minds.
CHAD: So this idea of personal definition of fulfillment, first, why is it important to be clear on that?
DAGNA: It affects your energy levels, your motivation. If you're working in a place that might be giving you an incredible benefits package, but every day you wake up, and you just don't want to go to work, that is something that I like to call golden handcuffs because you're essentially in hell, in prison. And it feels horrible to be in a situation like that. And I have experienced it myself where I felt like I have so much potential within me. Why am I wasting my time here? Even though the money was great, the benefits were good, but I knew I had so much more within me.
And figuring out the personal definition of fulfillment is really what helped me open my eyes that; hey, my job was great, but it wasn't something that I really wanted to do. It's kind of like being in a relationship that just doesn't work, but you're in it just because. [laughs] Isn't it so much better to work in a place that is meaningful to you, that supports your values, that fits your desired lifestyle, someplace that every day that you wake up, you're really excited about going to work? Isn't that a much better way to live?
CHAD: Yeah. What if someone finds themselves understanding that these are the skills that they should have to be a really great developer and advance in their career and maybe even making progress on that? Are there other things...you used the term earlier about marketing yourself. Does that mean having a great personal website? What does it mean when you say that?
DAGNA: Well, I really mean being able to talk about your accomplishments, depending on which stakeholders you're talking to. So if you're trying to pitch an idea to your product manager, then talking at the product manager level, being able to show how what you do or the idea that you have contributes to the business. If you're in an interview setting, how to discuss what you have accomplished with the people that might want to potentially hire you.
It also is related to having your LinkedIn in a way that attracts attention and brings people in that you actually wanted to work with. I've had some people come to me and say, "You know what? I get seven; eight offers every single day on LinkedIn." And I'm like, that's great. But are these the offers that you actually want to work on? Is it something that you actually want to pursue, or you just want to keep getting those notifications?"
And oftentimes, whenever we have our LinkedIn profiles set up, what happens is we put the keywords there. I know this tech stack; I know this framework. I've worked with this language, blah, blah, blah. And what's missing is who you are as a person, what you value. What do you expect from a workplace? What kind of change do you want to make in the world? What is really important to you? What are your expectations?
And I think that the pandemic, in a way, showed that, that as we got to work from home, we got to re-evaluate what is really important in our lives. Back when you used to go to the office, you would have that disconnect between the work and the life. And you could strive for some work-life balance but keep them kind of separate.
Now, with everything being super entangled, it kind of forces you to reevaluate okay, what is really important for me? Is it important for me to eat breakfast with my kids and drop them off at school, and pushing that meeting to a little bit later during the day? Or is it important to me to clock out after 6:00 so I can be with my kids after they get back from school? Or do I really care about maybe doing all my work after 6:00 p.m. because that's when my brain lights on fire? Have you found yourself going back to re-thinking what is important in life after the remote work started?
CHAD: [laughs] Well, yes, and no. Yes, but I also have made a habit of doing that.
DAGNA: Oh, perfect.
CHAD: As a result, I often dramatically either change my schedule or my focus or something about every two years. And that has been critical to me to be able to do this for so long. I haven't really worked...I've been doing this for more than 18 years now, but I haven't really worked in the same job more than two or three years. Even though it might be the same title, the job has dramatically changed. And that's through my own personal initiative of realizing what I need to do to be fulfilled now. And I'm fortunately in a position where I can make those changes happen.
DAGNA: That's great. But I kind of want to share that I believe everybody's in a position to actually do that.
CHAD: Yeah, I agree.
DAGNA: Especially in engineering. There are so many opportunities for growth. It's kind of ridiculous. You can be an embedded engineer and become a front-end engineer. You can go into the backend, and then you can do DevOps, and then you can become an engineering manager. And then you can go back to being an individual contributor if you wanted to.
I mean, you could just move up, down, left, right, check things out, see what's fun, what's not, change industries. So there's just so much opportunity for growth. And I think it's also very human wanting to grow, wanting to learn more, trying to kind of push the boundaries and check what's out there outside of your comfort zone. I think that's very human.
CHAD: Yeah. Well, if people want to get in touch with you or find out more, where are the best places for them to do that?
DAGNA: The absolute best place is going to my website, theMindfulDev.com/podcast. And that link will actually redirect you to a case study of a client of mine that explains how I work with clients. So if you're interested for us to get to work together, you can just go there and watch the case study video, and let's go from there.
CHAD: Awesome. You can subscribe to the show and find notes for this episode along with transcripts at giantrobots.fm. If you have questions or comments, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can find me on Twitter @cpytel. This podcast is brought to you by thoughtbot and produced and edited by Mandy Moore. Thanks for listening and see you next time.
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