Being a Great Generalist and Finding Your Voice with Stephanie Wong (2/2)

Welcome to episode 178 of the Nerd Journey Podcast [@NerdJourney]! We’re John White (@vJourneyman) and Nick Korte (@NetworkNerd_), two Pre-Sales Technical Engineers who are hoping to bring you the IT career advice that we wish we’d been given earlier in our careers. In today’s episode we share part 2 of an interview with Stephanie Wong, discussing her specialty of being a generalist, her approach to content creation, the transition to joining a developer relations team and becoming head of developer engagement, thoughts on diversity and inclusion, and some advice for high school students.

Original Recording Date: 06-13-2022

Stephanie Wong works for Google Cloud as the Head of Developer Engagement. She is primarily a content creator and an engineer. Catch part 1 of our interview with Stephanie in Episode 177.

Topics – The Craftsman’s Approach to Content Creation, The Generalist Triumphs, Changing the Measurements, Coming to a Head, Finding Your Voice; Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; Advice for the High School Student and Parting Thoughts

3:33 – The Craftsman’s Approach to Content Creation

  • Nick cites the craftman’s approach to content creation which Stephanie took and the lack of concern to try and get it perfect. Many of us fight perfectionism, especially if we can re-record something.
    • For live conference talks it’s over when the time slot ends with no do-over. When it is a pre-recorded piece of content, you can always make it better or tweak it before it is finalized.
    • Stephanie says she has seen excellent speakers for live talks freeze up when they get to a studio to record something.
    • It’s about practicing. People have asked Stephanie if speaking on camera comes naturally to her, and it really does not.
    • Over the last 4 years Stephanie has improved her speaking abilities tremendously. She used to be stiff and not know what to do with her hands.
    • Now, Stephanie can speak more naturally and be more expressive. She has figured out what her voice and her style are.
    • Stephanie is also much more confident with the content she’s presenting now, which definitely helps.
  • Watch out for the John White observation (not really a question but an observation that often times produces great conversations).

5:33 – The Generalist Triumphs

  • In John’s experience at Google Cloud, there is a large portfolio of products that is continually growing. How does Stephanie stay on top of this pattern?
    • Stephanie’s opinion on this has changed. When she first joined developer relations she was surrounded by some of the world’s best engineers (i.e. software developers that made a pivot, people who were hired for their expertise in a specific domain, etc.).
    • As a generalist walking into developer relations Stephanie felt a number of shortcomings and a great deal of impostor syndrome.
    • She never felt like she was on top of everything. However, the team was different than she thought. People were hired onto it for their technical acumen and their ability to execute content for developers quickly and effectively (part of the very strong culture of the team).
    • Stephanie’s expertise is not a specific technology or topic but rather the ability to distill the complex topics across the board for technical content creation.
      • People should realize you don’t need to have a specialization in what we might call traditional methods. Your specialization does not have to fit within the box.
  • Nick says it sounds like the team needs members who can teach the content in such a way that it meets the audience where they are.
    • Stephanie says this can help in so many roles in the tech industry (not just developer relations but sales engineering and many others). If you can get good at this you can be successful in just about any role or organization.
    • Being an expert in one domain isn’t Stephanie. She can certainly do it, but she really enjoys being a great generalist (her desired direction) and will double down on it.
    • Stephanie will go deep enough in an area to make her successful and leverage the network around her if more assistance is needed. Knowing the resources around you and the network you have at hand is a powerful skill.
  • John references our discussion of the Generalist / Specialist Divide and how these terms can sometimes lose their meanings.
    • John gives a great example of various layers of generalist and specialists inside VMware from his time there (i.e. his network "specialist" might be considered a network "generalist" inside a business unit with more specialists with an even more narrow focus).
    • Stephanie says it’s important to remind yourself of what you find interesting and decide to focus on it.
    • If you want to learn more and work toward a job that requires you to learn more, do it. But don’t compare yourself to people who have more experience in that area.
      • This is something Stephanie had to fight when she was in developer relations being around so many talented engineers.
      • The ways the team was getting measured were different than it had been done historically (i.e. new metrics).
      • It took years of building credibility and showing that the content she made was valuable to a developer audience.

11:00 – Changing the Measurements

  • Stephanie thinks there was some skepticism from the team in the beginning that a Customer Engineer was coming to developer relations and the value of doing online content creation.
  • Stephanie had to push through, build partnerships with executives, and produce great work.
  • It’s important to be great at what you do not only from a craftsmanship point of view, but also build the relationships to get your work in front of the right people so they can advocate for you.
  • The director who introduced Stephanie to her manager was the one who was a true sponsor, advocating for her work and providing public recognition where it was due.
    • This convinced the rest of the organization to give Stephanie a bit more respect.
  • John can sympathize with the skepticism in changing metrics. Some of that is inertia against the way things have historically been done.
    • Stephanie says you have to be careful with vanity metrics. Maybe she gave a talk for 300 people live but colleagues had online content with thousands of views. What makes one better than the other?
    • Evaluations eventually became centered on the complexity of what the team was doing and providing value to stakeholders (product, marketing, engineering, others).
    • It took time to build the right benchmarks and standards across teams. Developer relations is broader than you might think and can be somewhat undefined.
    • This sounds like the tyranny of the metric. The metric is just one expression of value / one way to express success.
    • None of us are envious of those doing performance evaluations based on metrics.

15:33 – Coming to a Head

  • As Head of Developer Relations, Stephanie is not currently a people manager but will likely be soon.
  • Last year Stephanie was presented an opportunity by her current director. He was speaking to marketing teams, and they wanted a single, central voice for Google Cloud launches as it relates to developers.
    • They wanted consistent content production from someone who could provide an authentic take on why the launches matter to the developer community. Stephanie stepped up to the plate to take on this ambiguous role and helped build it from the ground up (building a process behind it, building relationships with various groups, etc.).
    • Stephanie now has her ear to the ground for any product launches, coming out with multi-pronged approach to the content creation and releases (videos, blog posts, social media management, etc.) so that it gets to the heart of what developers care about (i.e. moreso than just product marketing).
    • For the first 6-8 months Stephanie was writing everything to help find her voice as a thought leader in the industry.
      • This involved researching, taking in information from product teams, etc.
      • She had been in developer relations for 3 years at this point and was used to these types of tasks (i.e. taking on creating series of content to teach back to people), but this time it was a faster pace and much more context switching.
    • It was a good fit for her skills and a great way to advance Stephanie’s career to be more of a face of Google Cloud.
    • This has been a very rewarding experience, and Stephanie has formed a team to which she has been able to delegate a bit of the content writing.

18:31 – Finding Your Voice

  • Stephanie’s biggest tip is to start writing and talking about topics.
  • Two years ago Stephanie did a series called Eyes on Enterprise. She wanted to bring in experts and ask them hard-hitting questions. Stephanie remembers it being very…memorized.
    • She would ask a question, make a small comment, and then move on to the next question because she was nervous and didn’t quite know how to respond adequately.
    • After continuing to do it, adding a lot of research, and picking up the podcast in 2021 Stephanie decided to fully throw herself into the fire.
    • If she didn’t know something she would ask questions out of pure curiosity and was ok with not being the expert in the room. Eventually she would roll with whatever conversations and now feels she knows new topics at a very comfortable level of depth (i.e. networking and Kubernetes, for example).
  • Be patient is the lesson here.
    • Consider some strategies to help. When you read a book or a white paper, you will only retain a minimal percentage of information from that first consumption experience (even if you highlight).
    • When you start to retrieve the information, process it, and teach it back to others you start learning.
  • John references some discussions on deep learning we did (check out Episode 156 and Episode 157 for more on the smart notes methodology).
    • A large part of the learning process is the teaching part.
    • Often times when you’re taking notes the person you are teaching is your future self. And eventually you progress to teaching others.
    • Being able to explain a concept to someone else is a great test of your knowledge of the concept.
  • Probably 90% of what Stephanie does is distilling complex topics into an exciting and fun narrative that delights developers.
    • Stephanie uses the analogy of [database sharding](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shard_(database_architecture) as a good way to think about the strategy.
    • People have different learning styles to consider as well. You can maximize reach of the content by converting into different formats.
    • The way someone creates the shards of content is often a reflection of how their brain works and may be very different from how someone else would do it.

23:15 – Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

  • In John’s experience, Google Cloud has been very proud of their work in this area. How has it impacted Stephanie in terms of her identity and the cultural make up of the teams she has worked on?
    • Diversity of thought on the teams where Stephanie has worked has been great.
    • People may get stuck on whether they are creating a blog post correctly, for example. Audiences appreciate how you learned a concept and what the process was in your case.
    • The content they create on Stephanie’s team is very valuable (all of it). There is some guidance on how to create content quickly / get ideas down by using some proven methodologies.
    • Learning and applying the knowledge on paper to start with is great.
    • This is also related to impostor syndrome. People might feel inadequate because they have a different background (like Stephanie did) and a different way of learning concepts.
    • When you look at teams in tech you might not see someone who has the same background as you or even looks like you. To get over this you need to put more content out there from your perspective.
    • In terms of Stephanie’s identity there were some microaggressions and stereotypes in the beginning. But in the most recent years, she has realized being proud of who you are and bringing all of your external interests into the open is great. You control the narrative and leave no room for interpretation this way.
    • Stephanie showcases her pageant and dance background because it is important to show other people that they can be multi-dimensional in the tech industry (especially for women of color). This has served her well.
    • When she first joined the ranks of engineers, Stephanie felt like she had to look and dress like the other engineers, afraid that the background would not help her. For the longest time until very recently Stephanie felt she needed to change who she was to fit the role of the engineer.
  • John says in dance people often take on what they think a person dancing a certain way is supposed to look like (and maybe what they act like) when they are doing it (i.e. fit into a pre-conceived stereotype).
    • For Stephanie there were multiple angles to it. She felt she needed to learn technical skills and be proficient programming in one language, enjoy doing demos, do live talks, and ensure the level of the content was at 200 or more.
    • Stephanie did not feel like she could be super fashionable (feeling she needed to be a super serious engineer) and ended up dressing down.
    • The two aspects were looks and the job function itself.
    • It’s important to evaluate what is important to the goal you have in mind. Stephanie gives a great comparison of a ballet dancer compared to a freestylist. Listen to see if you agree.
    • At the beginning you start to imitate something. The phases would be imitation, variation, and then innovation (not so different from musical artists either).
    • Stephanie says she is in the 3rd phase now – less afraid to be who she is, dressing up when she wants to, and embracing her pageant experience.
      • There was a period where didn’t do this because of a feeling of needing to prove herself.
      • Her advice to others is always be authentic. Don’t be afraid of your passions, interests, and identity. Once you control the narrative from the beginning it leaves little room for interpretation.
      • Stephanie feels that cloud is changing and very welcoming to people of different backgrounds, non-technical backgrounds, people from all over the world, etc.
      • Stereotypes about the technology field and how to break into it are starting to change. Stephanie attributes this to all the people willing to share their career journey.
  • The industry is so young it cannot afford to be stodgy.
    • Stephanie feels fortunate to have entered the job market when it was exploding.
    • Companies cannot look for the traditional candidates of years past. They need to look at people learning the new technologies, pushing the industry forward and eager minded professionals (students, people from all parts of the world, etc.).

33:32 – Advice for the High School Student and Parting Thoughts

  • Nick has seen many Reddit threads from high school students not knowing what they want to do for a career.
  • Stephanie struggled with the concept that she had to find her passion in life and that there was only one passion.
    • Not finding it meant struggling, and finding it meant she would never work a real day in her life.
    • This is outdated. There are so many paths in life with everything being temporary.
    • Stephanie found a passion through trying a bunch of different things and increased effort in these areas.
    • You have to try different things. If you are teetering between many choices, follow your intuition (i.e. feels right, feels challenging and exciting).
    • The things Stephanie did were bridged together through her saying yes to things that gave her more visibility, let her learn new things, etc.
    • In high school she had no idea how to pick up a major. She picked up communications because she was forced to do it at the end of her sophomore year.
    • There is no requirement to figure everything out. Life is a journey. The role Stephanie is in now did not even exist 4 years ago (i.e. no way for a younger high school age Stephanie to aspire to this role).
    • To the high school student, don’t think about it too much. The next 3 years are going to look totally different than they do now.
    • You can identify things you are passionate about and good at over time and have some faith that the roles which may combine those things may not even exist today or may exist by the time you are ready to step into them.
    • In high school you haven’t experienced enough of life yet. There is a whole world out there of different paths to take. You’re barely scratching the surface of what life has to offer.
    • "How are you expected to know what your passions are if you haven’t even seen everything that the world has to offer?" – Stephanie Wong
    • Stephanie was terrified when she graduated from college, envying her peers who pursued the medical field that had a more structured path forward.
      • In hindsight she is glad it worked out the way it did (an open ended future).
      • If social media has taught her anything it is that you can be someone who does TikTok, YouTube, an entrepreneur, or someone who doesn’t even work in corporate America. You can make your own position.
  • If you want to follow up with Stephanie, you can find her
  • Check out Stephanie’s website and more of her work at Google Cloud.

Contact us if you need help on the journey.

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