Highlights from Tech Talks
Over the last few weeks, the CATLab has hosted many wonderful speakers who have offered some great insights. While there’s no way that everything we’ve learned could fit into a single blog post, we thought we’d highlight a few key lessons applicable to people both in and outside the tech world. It was especially cool to realize that many of them shared some of the CATLab’s core values—in particular, curiosity and authenticity.
1. A love of learning can land you a job
A theme that emerged in several talks—from recent CATLab alumni to software engineers at Google—was the idea that a willingness to learn can make up for, or even outshine, a chock-full resume. Frank, an analyst at the CATLab, said that he was reassured by the thought that “No one expects you to know everything.” Whether you’re starting an internship or a veteran at your position, it’s important to maintain a learning mindset. “Once you start to act as if you know [everything] and you don’t ask questions,” said Frank, “then it’s going to be very, very hard for you.” Speaker after speaker emphasized the importance of soft skills. Mike Magnusen, VP of Technology at Landmark Global, told us, “When I’m looking to hire people, I’m looking for a person, not a robot.”
Jonathan Lee, a former CATLab member who graduated from Wesmont this last May and is already employed full-time as an associate software engineer with Apeel, offered this daring advice:
“Apply for positions you’re not qualified for. If you meet some of the requirements, go ahead and apply for it. In the technical world, everyone feels incompetent. Your value is greater than your ability to do the hard skills—it’s also the ability to communicate. Even if you’re still learning, you can still make a really great impact.”
2. Conversations are crucial
Speaking of the ability to communicate, another motif from the Tech Talks was just how important it is to prioritize talking to people. David Grant, the Security and Compliance Software Engineering Leader for Intuit, shared that although he’d initially thought that computer science meant being “stuck in a corner, not interacting with other people,” throughout his career he realized that “a lot of it is conversations that happen between people.”
Sometimes those people are your teammates: Jim Semick, the co-founder Product Plan, claimed that when it comes to making sure your team stays on track, “the secret to making it all work is having a conversation about it.” And sometimes those people are your customers or stakeholders. AppFolio Product Manager Justin Davis said that the only way for a company to improve its product is by “gaining an intimate knowledge of your customer.” Often, some of the greatest insights come from listening to someone express their “pain and anguish.” Not only does providing a sympathetic ear build trust, but it can also help you identify critical unmet needs and figure out how to move forward.
Having now worked one summer remotely and one summer in person, Frank testified to the difference: “When you actually get to meet someone who’s going to be using [a system]... and you see the excitement, it’s really good. I feel like I’ve been able to find a connection between what I was doing and what impact it was going to have.” This summer is especially interesting for the CATLab because our main project is student-facing. Our developer Tommy said that a lot of his research involved thinking back over his own experience and talking to his peers. Citing our Tech Talk by Anupama Vaid, he also shared that he’d been thinking about the fact that the customer (Westmont) could sometimes be different from the end user (individual students).
A short caveat: As in any conversation, it’s important to pay attention to the context. As Kevin Kishiyama told us, “Don’t give the customer what they ask for; give them what they need.” He went on to explain that customers don’t always understand the technology or systems behind a product or service, and so sometimes they don’t actually know what solutions should look like or even what the underlying problem is.
3. Openness to new perspectives pays off
An important aspect of having these conversations and cultivating your learning is the willingness to change your perspective. Time and time again, different speakers brought up the value of market validation—going out and pitching your idea to potential customers before sinking time into a project. No matter how brilliant, beautiful, or well-designed a product is, it fails if no one actually uses it. Jim Semick told us that he kept a running list of ideas—if the one he was excited about didn’t have a market, he would simply move onto the next one.
This step requires a level of humility: At times, you’ll have to put aside what you want to do in order to better meet the needs of others. You must seek out other people’s perspectives, and you must be willing to be changed by those perspectives. CATLab programmer Sam appreciated that the Tech Talks provided the chance to hear from people all across the tech industry. Even though he himself hopes to work at a mid-sized company, he feels like he’s been able to learn from everyone who’s spoken, whether they work at a giant like Google or a three-person start-up.
As enlightening as all this listening can be, however, we can’t stop short at hearing about others’ experiences. We must seek out our own discoveries. Anupama Vaid encouraged us not to scorn tasks that seem mundane like manual data entry. “You should be willing to do all kinds of jobs,” she told us. “Everything has something to teach.” If we cultivate our curiosity, invest in conversations, and make changes based on what we learn, we will constantly become better to others—and to ourselves. And as we gain these new insights, we should look around for others to share them with so we can set in motion the cycle of learning once more.
Keep learning with us!