Conferences, CTO Life, and Open Source
North Studio’s CTO, Dr. Shallon Brown, has been around the block – with over 15 years of experience in the Open Source web world, there isn’t much Dr. Brown hasn’t seen.
Now, she’ll be sharing that experience at the All Things Open conference this coming Tuesday, October 20th, where she’ll be giving a talk entitled “Beyond Coding: The Hallmarks of a Great Open Source Engineer.”
We recently sat down with Dr. Brown to discuss her own background in development, what a day in the life of a CTO is like, and to get a sneak peek of her upcoming talk.
Q: So firstly, can you tell us a little bit about why you chose a career in Web Development?
First and foremost, my dad was one of the first Black computer systems analysts at Dulles Airport, so we always had terminal style machines and early Windows machines at the house. I tell people that it’s similar to if you grow up in a family of fishermen – you’re going to learn to fish, even if it’s not your talent. However, I also had a strong natural aptitude for math and science, so I just naturally gravitated toward it.
Later on during my years in high school, I was placed on the Computer Science track – that curriculum gave me a really good basis for a Computer Science degree in college. I was fortunate enough to be in a public school that had that kind of technology available – this was back when there wasn’t even really CSS; it was just basic HTML templating.
Once I got to college, I found that when I was coding/programming and solving really complex problems, it was the happiest thing I could be doing. There was nothing more I wanted to do, and I just knew. It’s kind of like when a sheep dog knows by instinct to herd sheep – after a little bit of nudging and prodding, you realize you’re built/made to do something, so to speak.
Q: So you’ve always been interested in the digital world, but you weren’t always a CTO – a job that comes with its own set of obstacles. What are some everyday challenges you face in your profession as a CTO?
My biggest challenge is the balancing act of trying to make as many people in the equation as happy as I can. There is always a push and pull going on between budget, resource allocation, skill sets, and long-term career paths for your employees. You’re also balancing the clients’ needs and your management team’s needs as well. All of that combined makes it a really hard job, because inevitably somebody is going to be unhappy at some point in time.
The other thing I would say is really challenging is I am now at a place in my career where I can’t be as “in the weeds” as I used to be – my role has shifted from those complex problems of a website, to complex problems of the company’s business model as a whole. While I really enjoy that change, you have to make time to stay on top of industry trends that you didn’t before, so it can make a work-life balance hard. As a C-level executive, there’s always 100 things you could be doing, but the question is what is going to be most beneficial to your organization in both the short and long-term.
Q: And of course as a CTO, you’ve seen a lot of developers come and go. Was that the inspiration for your talk “The Hallmarks of a Great Open Source Engineer?” Or did you draw your insight from somewhere else?
This was all personal experience of mine. Over the years, I’ve worked for 28 different web-related companies, including the time when I owned my own business. As a contractor in particular, I got a lot of experience at various industry models, including government, non-profit, private sector, etc. All of these places had different team sizes and open-source projects going on. Based on that experience, I wanted to talk about the trends I had seen, and particularly on the more large-scale projects I’d been on – what makes them go haywire? What are the patterns that make them go off the rails?
Engineers are really good pattern-finders by design – we’re always looking for patterns to solve a problem, so that’s what I’ve always done as I’ve reviewed the summation of my career. I identify the patterns, and draw insight from there.
Q: Lastly for us: What is one practical piece of advice you’d give to an engineer starting out in their career?
My best advice for an engineer that is just starting out is to network with your peers! It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Finding ways to network that allow you to learn from their experiences is indispensable – I highly recommend MeetUp or other meeting apps that include socials to discuss your experiences. It’s not only a way to get further into your own specialization, but also connects you to other engineers in your space. They’ll be the easiest way for you to get into jobs that you want to take – you’ll find people who are into the same flavor as jobs as you are, and it’s vital to find a way to get your foot in the door in an industry with such a high turnover rate. Without it, you’re at the mercy of job boards or recruiters, which can be a lot less predictable as a model.