Voices of Gatsby: Navigating a Personal Path to Engineering Happiness

Nicole Tibaldi
October 23rd, 2020

Do you remember the moment when you first understood what you really want out of your career? When I started working in tech, as a frontend engineer, I had no intention of becoming an Engineering Manager. Little did I realize that some of the most complex engineering problems I’d ever solve would have nothing to do with writing code, or that enabling others to do their best work is actually my true passion.

Looking back now I can see that my path was always heading toward leadership, though it took some time, and a number of different jobs, for me to realize it was the right track all along.

First steps

I come from a “non-traditional” background, tech-wise: I studied classical music in college. After struggling to find a place in the music world I ended up working in the banking industry. It was while working in banking that I discovered software engineering, and decided to attend a web development bootcamp (you can read more about that here).  As students, we were laser-focused on the goal of learning engineering concepts and finding our first engineering job. I can’t speak for others, but I never gave a single thought to the other critical roles that exist on engineering teams…much less how being a software engineer could be a first step on the path toward those roles.

After graduating from App Academy, I landed a job as a frontend engineer at an NYC-based travel company. I couldn’t have found a better place for my first role in the industry; my company  provided me with support and experience that was impactful in a way I wouldn’t truly appreciate until years later. Our frontend lead was someone who truly believed in hiring “junior” engineers, and was ready to do the work to help them succeed. The rest of the team was equally supportive. My teammates frequently praised me for a job well done, paired with me to teach me about the codebase, and worked with me in a way that was not overbearing.

Perhaps the most important thing about my first role, though, was that I was welcome to have input at various stages of the development process. After I cleared the initial hurdles of becoming comfortable at the company and familiarizing myself with the complex business logic involved in hotel booking sites, I found myself spending a good amount of my time working with our co-founder and head of design. He was very welcoming and collaborative, and our work together was productive: he sought out my feedback about engineering tradeoffs, and I tried my best to understand the user problems he was solving. Without knowing it, I had stepped outside of the boundaries of engineering, and was doing work that is often expected from a tech lead. My team didn’t hold me back because I had limited experience, or because I came from a non-engineering background, and that’s something I’ll always be grateful for.

While I’d started to develop a rhythm and was thriving in my role, things in the engineering team were changing, and I was unsure about the future. Around the same time, I was offered a job at another company. I was excited about the opportunity, and decided to pursue it. I quickly discovered that the “not-just-engineering” work I’d come to enjoy was, unfortunately, not valued at my new company. Whenever I spent time helping the product team determine scope for an MVP,  or working with design, or giving demos and collecting feedback, my work seemed to be invisible — at best. At worst, it  could be regarded as a distraction from my “real job” as an engineer. Needless to say, I became unhappy pretty quickly. While the tightly defined role I was expected to fill might have been a good fit for someone else, it left me feeling like I couldn’t really make an impact. It didn’t take me long to realize that I needed to move on.

Next steps

It was at this point in my career that I started to piece together what, to me, are the essentials for true job satisfaction. Some things were obvious: for example, I had a long commute, and remote work seemed appealing. I’d definitely be more productive if I wasn’t exhausted from traveling for hours back and forth to work each day. Other factors were a bit more nuanced and harder to pin down. One thing was clear, though: I needed a collaborative culture to feel like my work was part of a bigger picture. During the job search that followed I was very particular. After my experience with a bad job fit I now knew enough to find a good fit. I was determined not to settle.

Thankfully, being particular worked in my favor. During the interview process at my soon-to-be next employer, Manifold, I tried to be as descriptive as I could about what I wanted from my ideal role, and what I felt my strengths were. I remember answering specific questions from the product and design teams about how I’d worked with non-engineers. This was a good sign, signaling that the company valued collaboration and a willingness to “wear many hats.” Additionally, I’ll probably never forget when the hiring manager said  “We’re interviewing other candidates who have more years of experience, but I think you are the one who will  really impress the team.” At that moment I knew that, just like at my first role, my impact at Manifold would not be limited by my seniority.

This new role was a true turning point in my career path. One of my first projects involved taking the lead on a testing initiative that ultimately helped us ship faster and with more confidence. The project wasn’t purely technical, either. While I spent a good amount of time writing tests and establishing best practices, I put equal time and effort toward creating processes ensuring we’d stick to our new standards. 

After a few months at Manifold I was offered the opportunity to act as an “agile coach” for my team. In addition to my frontend work, I spent time breaking projects into tickets with the help of design, product, and other engineers, coordinating planning meetings, and running retrospectives. I loved how this work made the team move faster. Even better, I felt supported by both my teammates and leadership. Everyone seemed to appreciate that what I was doing was just as important as fixing a bug or shipping the last piece of a new feature. 

Eventually, my manager offered me a role in our engineering organization known as “product engineer.” This was a part-time responsibility that encompassed many of the activities you’d expect from an Engineering Manager. I worked with our product team to help prioritize engineering projects, identify technical roadblocks, surface possible tradeoffs, and scope out the phases of development. I collaborated with design to collect feedback and inform how we iterated on work in progress. I gave feedback to the team about their progress, and listened to their concerns about our work. It was a hard, time-consuming role, but I got a lot of satisfaction out of solving problems with the help of other leaders in different parts of the organization. I felt better about my work than I ever had before, and I became confident that Engineering Management was a job I truly enjoyed and could do well.

Final destination

After many months enjoying my job as product engineer, I found an intriguing role at another company — one that came with the “formal” leadership title I knew I wanted. I successfully navigated a series of tough interviews and was rewarded with a job offer. I could write many more blog posts about the experiences I’ve had since then, and what I’ve learned working with different engineering teams. But it all rises from the same source: I get to spend the majority of my time doing what I love, which is finding the best possible solutions to unblock engineers and help teams collaborate. I’m grateful for all the companies I’ve worked for, and the leaders I’ve worked with along the way, that helped me to discover that passion.

If my story has started you wondering about finding your own ideal career path,  I’d like to challenge you to think about the questions that were critical for me along the way:

  • What are you passionate about? 
  • Who can you count on for support and guidance? 
  • How can you explore your interests as part of your current role?

The answers will help point you down a path that feels right for you. And, of course, If I can help in any way, feel free to reach out to me on Twitter or via email (nicole@gatsbyjs.com).

Nicole Tibaldi
Written by
Nicole Tibaldi

Engineering manager, frontend developer, conference speaker. Dogs and baseball have my heart, not necessarily always in that order.

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