Into the Unknown

By Julia Ferraioli
Julia is a Developer Advocate working on Google Cloud Platform. She helps developers harness the power of Google’s infrastructure to develop quickly, intelligently, and at scale. She comes from an industrial background in software engineering, and an academic background in machine learning and assistive technology.

Julia Ferraioli

Julia Ferraioli

I sat in my shared office, staring blankly at the screen of my laptop. I had just made the call to leave my PhD program. It wasn’t a good fit for me: I didn’t love the coursework, I felt socially isolated, and I missed the home I had made for myself in Seattle. Leaving was the right call, but I was suddenly faced with the bleak prospect of finding a job in a depressed economy when I wasn’t even sure what I wanted to do.

Sure, I thought about teaching. I liked explaining concepts, loved seeing eyes light up as comprehension dawned, and took a great deal of pleasure from the success of others. I knew that in K-12 education, I could have a real impact encouraging girls to get into STEM, which is still a passion of mine. I did my research about certification and crafted resumes and cover letters, but it turned out that teaching positions had been among the hardest hit in the economic downturn. Teachers were being laid off, not hired.

I encountered a dead end.

I had come to graduate school after working as a software engineer, and realized that I didn’t want writing code to be my only job. I wanted to engage with people, teach, architect, and write code. I wanted to give back to the community and make technology an awesome way to turn ideas into reality. My dream job was a unicorn.

There I sat, in front of job search sites, drawing a complete blank. It had come time for something drastic, something outside of my comfort zone, something terrifying. It was time to take a chance.

Clearly, companies weren’t posting for the type of job I wanted on the usual sites. Where were tech companies advertising their open positions? Well, it turns out that quite a few of them posted their listings on Craigslist, of all places. I found one that was almost too good to be true: one that was described as part coding, part design, and part outreach. I had found my unicorn, and it was under the job title of Technical Program Manager.

The idea that my dream job actually existed floored me. It also raised the stakes quite a bit — what if I couldn’t land the job? Or even worse, what if I did, and completely failed at it? That thought alone almost prevented me from applying.

There were so many reasons not to pursue it. I didn’t fit all of their criteria, my open source involvement had been minimal at that point, and I wasn’t very well known in the community. In the end, the pursuit of the dream outweighed the risks. I took the chance, sent in my resume, and went through a day of intense interviews that tested everything from coding proficiency to communication abilities. Two weeks later, the job was mine — except with the title of Technical Evangelist, a title I didn’t even know existed!

It’s been nearly four years now, and during that time I’ve changed companies and am now working as a Developer Advocate for Google Cloud Platform. There, I help developers build scalable applications on top of Google’s infrastructure. It truly is the job that I envisioned years ago as being a wonderful blend of the technical and non-technical.

Taking a chance and changing careers paid off in ways I could never have anticipated. I’ve met some of my computer science heros, engaged with so many amazing developers, and seized the opportunity to develop a wide variety of technical skills. It doesn’t stop here though; the dream is constantly evolving.

My winding path has also provided me with experiences to share with women early in their careers. I try to shoot down the “one true way” mentality that seems to pervade tech culture. Detours and changes in direction are neither inherently good or bad; they simply add to a person’s valuable experiences and perspectives.

Think of when you’ve seized an opportunity that seemed risky. What came out of it, and how has it changed your path through life? When life presents you with your next chance, how will you respond?

Will taking a chance in the future be any less scary, now that I have a success story under my belt? Absolutely not! Would I do it again? Certainly.

6 thoughts on “Into the Unknown

  1. Julia, thanks for sharing your story! I hope it encourages others to look for their dream work situation, even if they don’t know whether it exists or not.

    I’m not sure how relevant you think this is, but did a liberal arts background help you become the unicorn the employer was looking for? I am biased, but the skills you listed — coding ability + communication proficiency — are easily developed when one studies CS at a liberal arts college (and puts in the work of developing problem solving and communication skills).

    There are other ways to develop those skills, but STEM and liberal arts can create awesome people (to work with).

    I’m really glad you took that chance, and I’m really REALLY glad to see you continue integrating your passions and skills.

    • Disclaimer: An and I are friends and used to work together.

      Great question An! I think that a liberal arts education (I attended Bryn Mawr College for undergrad) did help be gain the breadth of skills necessary to pursue a job that went outside strict engineering. I had the opportunity to collaborate with people who had no experience with computer science or engineering, and work towards the same goal. Bringing together a variety of disparate skill sets in a way to solve one problem is not an easy task, but we had the practice early on in our education.

      That isn’t to say that the only way to gain that experience is through a liberal arts education, but it was a fantastic way for me to gain the skills I use every day in my “unicorn” job.

  2. Julia, thank you for sharing your stories with us. I think the idea of combining liberal arts and STEM ed seems appeling to me. As a matter of fact, I’m thinking of pursuing a dual degree in MBA and MS. My MS coursework will mainly focus on coding. I have UT Dallas in mind.

    Based on your experience, what can I do to prep these courses? What was your experience like in college when you were pursuing your educational goals? Are women welcomed and encouraged in the classroom? How can I expand my Network so that after I graduate I land the dream job?

    Women like you are working very hard in leveling the playing field, and for that, thank you from the bottom of my heart.

    Thanks,

    Samia Ahmed

    • Hi Samia!

      Liberal Arts + STEM seems like a natural pairing, doesn’t it? The LA side gives you perspective, inspiration, and communication skills while the CS side gives you the ability to turn your ideas into reality.

      I actually did my undergraduate coursework at a women’s college (Bryn Mawr College), so I didn’t have the uphill battle against culture that so many women in tech had early on in their education. Additionally, in graduate school it seemed to be a non-issue, as the administration had done a fantastic job accepting a balanced incoming cohort. Hopefully it will be the same for your program(s).

      Expanding your network is critical early on in your career, and you can start right in your graduate program! Make sure to connect with your cohort, find a mentor in the faculty, and don’t be afraid to reach out to those you haven’t yet met. Undoubtedly, you’ll head out to a conference during your tenure, and those are great places to meet friends, collaborators, and yes, potential employers.

      You’ll find allies in unexpected places, so a key component of expanding your network is to follow your interests and engage with people who interest you!

      Hope that helps!

  3. W. Durica says:

    You are truly a teacher and an inspiration. I am going through a similar path to re-invent myself. I know I have to try, not just because of what you wrote, but I have a daughter who is a freshman at Bryn Mawr College. I want her to see it is a battle worth fighting.

    To answer your last line, yes, this does help.

    Best Regards,
    Wendy

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