In Career Advice, Thoughts

MEET VIOLA PIRRI – SENIOR ENGINEERING MANAGER @ JUSTWORKS

We sat down to have a chat with Viola about her career path as a software engineer, transition to management, and what she’s been up to lately.

What were some of the first things you built as a software engineer?

In high school, I took a computer class that ended up being a programming class. I built a game in BASIC and an app that would tell the user when Easter would fall on any given year. Though I enjoyed the class, I didn’t have a computer at home so I didn’t get the opportunity to do anything more with programming after the class ended, until I went to college.

In college, I decided to take one programming class to see if I still enjoyed it. I did, and decided to major in computer science. One of the most interesting assignments we did in school involved going to a company, identifying an issue they were having internally that could be automated using technology, and building something to improve their process. I went to a security company (my sister was working there at a time), found out that they were using handwritten notes for a specific process, and worked with my team to work on a database and a front end for it. It was a great, practical exercise!

Also during college, I had an internship with Pitney Bowes, a postage stamp company that built machines to weigh mail, assign appropriate postage, and send it out. The major piece of equipment at the time in my department was a big machine that would take a piece of paper fold it, stuff an envelope, address it and put postage on it. During my internship, I wrote C++ code that allowed people on the assembly line to scan different parts of the machine to ensure that each step was accurately executed. It was very cool to write code at the intersection of hardware and software and see my work having an impact.

Wow, without a computer at home, you still ended up in the engineering field. What drew you to the field?

From the first high school class I took in programming, I was hooked. I was fascinated by what technology could do. I didn’t have anyone who was in software or computer science in my family. I was actually discouraged by a high school guidance counselor who told me that I couldn’t be a software engineer.

When I went to college, I didn’t know what else to major in, so I decided to just go for it. In college, I also had male teachers who told me that maybe I should switch my career. I was the only female in my class, and my tests were graded differently from males in the class. I would ask my classmates to look at their graded exams and it was clear upon comparison that my exams were looked at differently.

It hasn’t been easy! I’ve thought about changing  my career, but programming is something I really feel satisfaction with. I love the feeling of finding creative ways to solve problems. Even though I’ve doubted myself, I kept going. Now I feel so happy that I stuck with it!

Given everything, I now definitely want to help other women and minorities feel comfortable in the field. I want them to feel like they have a place in it. I want to be one of those people they can talk to so that they know there are ways to deal with obstacles. I want to be that resources for kids, girls, minorities…

That’s great that you’re passionate about helping other women and minorities. You’ve done quite a bit of impressive volunteer work as well. Can you tell us about some of the groups you’re involved with?

I help organize with NY Women in Tech. I’ve done hackathons with Girls Who Code and Technovation. I’m now looking into doing some work with Write Speak Code and get back to volunteering with NYCares. 2018 goals!

You recently stepped into an Engineering Manager role at Justworks. What do you find exciting about managing a team for a startup?

The most exciting thing is just getting to know the members of my team, and how they work / what keeps them motivated – it’s SO important to me. I currently have five direct reports on my team, and I want to be sure I’m giving them a lot of energy so I can help them with their career.

Everyone is different, so finding out about their differences, and helping them figure out what they want to do career-wise is the best part of my job. I love to see people grow in their careers and stay in touch with them. I’m still in touch with some people I’ve mentored from an entry level, and it’s rewarding to see them now doing so well.

Previously, I’d switched from being a manager to being an individual contributor because I wanted to learn mobile and web technologies. Before, I was working in OpenVMS, .NET, and C++ for financial software which was a good experience but I knew long term that I wanted to learn tech that I could take somewhere and grow. As an IC, I learned C#, JavaScript, and iOS in order to be able to manage engineers coming from different backgrounds.

I think it’s important for managers to not focus on just one thing, but be familiar with a lot of different technologies in order to have the versatility to deal with engineers from different backgrounds. I enjoy being the manager who is able to help everyone and answer questions. In my past management role, I was often referred to as the One Stop Shop because I always knew the answers. I really liked that!

What advice do you have for new managers?

You won’t  be able to focus specifically on one technology. The hard part will be letting go of some of your work and being able to delegate it.

The most important thing though is that you have to care about people. You have to care about their careers. Right now as a manager, it’s not about me and my career. It’s about their careers. You can always tell when a manager only cares about their own advancement and not their team’s.

Some specific things you can do for your team:

  • Do 1:1s and ask the right questions:
    • How are you doing?
    • How’s it going with the group? How’s the team dynamic?
    • Are you comfortable going to your teammates and asking questions?
    • Do you have feedback for me? What can I do to help you?
  • Find out what they like and don’t like as far as the work they are doing. That way, in the back of their mind, they’re evaluating where they want to go in their career. You might not be able to give them only the tasks they enjoy doing, but it helps them understand their path.
  • Let them know that they can come to you for anything.
  • Provide an environment where it is safe to fail. “We’ll figure it out; we’ll learn from it”
  • Avoid favoring one person over others. Try to point out strengths in everyone – make sure that everyone feels like they have a place and an important role to play in the group, whatever it is.

What do you like about where you are now?

I love the diversity and inclusiveness at Justworks. On our team of ~30, there are 7 female engineers and good ethnic diversity. And, during the conversations about diversity and inclusion – it’s not just myself and the other women involved. There are guys involved at every level as well. It feels amazing!

It’s just such an open, supportive culture company-wide. Our CEO talks about it, saying we can go to him for anything. It’s really the style of management I like – having those conversations, being able to ask for and receive constructive criticism.

And we have dogs in the office!

Anything specific you read, watch, listen to that helps you keep up with rapid changes in engineering?

I read Software Leader Weekly, which is a newsletter about management and leadership.

When I was working in iOS, I was listening to Inside iOS Dev and reading Ray Wanderlich’s iOS/Swift tutorials.

I also find YouTube tutorials and perusing online code samples helpful.

Do you have any hobbies, or other interests? What do you do when you’re not coding?

Improv! I’ve been doing improv for over a year and have taken 4 classes with Improvolution. It’s useful for improving public speaking, communication and learning more about yourself. At first I was so nervous about doing it, especially participating in the showcase at the end of my first series of classes, but I talked myself into it and decided to just take it one week at a time. Finally, when I did get to the showcase at the end, it felt amazing!! It’s still hard for me now to go up on stage, in an environment where everyone is watching me, but now I look forward to it and love it.

I’m also into weightlifting and fitness competitions. I’m a big self-improvement person and spend a lot of free time reading articles on nutrition, fitness and health.

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