"Reducing Operational Noise by Diving into a Legacy System"
Below is an article originally written by Elizabeth Giles at PowerToFly Partner PagerDuty, and published on January 8, 2020. Go to PagerDuty's page on PowerToFly to see their open positions and learn more.
In a story that will sound all too familiar to many developers, in early 2019, I picked up a Kanban ticket to update a legacy system's documentation—a microservice so old that no one on my team really knew much about it. In this blog, I'll share the lessons I learned from familiarizing myself with a legacy system and the positive outcomes of doing so. Additionally, I'll share some steps you can take to look at some of your own legacy systems—if you dare.
When I picked up the ticket, my team was preparing to pass on ownership of the service—one of our oldest and most neglected—to a team that had plans to give it some attention. There were just two things standing between us and changing the PagerDuty escalation policy associated with that service: ensuring that its documentation was up-to-date and having a knowledge transfer session with the new owners.
These were actually bigger hurdles than they sound due to the general lack of knowledge about the legacy service. Nevertheless, I was the developer who ended up with the Kanban ticket to update the service's documentation.
How Did We Get Here?
But how did our team even get to this point to begin with? The service in question was roughly 15,000 lines of Scala code built around 2015 by a completely different team. Over time, the developers who had originally built the service moved on from PagerDuty to new opportunities. Once my team inherited it, we rarely had to touch it for tasks larger than updating some of our tooling.
You see, my team owned a fairly long list of services, many of which we were doing active development on as part of building new features and scaling existing ones. It wasn't a priority for us to devote attention to a service that wasn't involved in any of our new features, rarely caused us operational pain, and wasn't anywhere near the top of our list of scaling bottlenecks.
And then, those from my team who had been around for the original ownership transfer and had done any feature development on the service also moved on. Eventually, we were left with developers who had touched the service a handful of times at best and weren't particularly comfortable with Scala since PagerDuty uses mostly Elixir now. We knew the basics of the service, sure, and we were more familiar with it than folks on other teams, but no one was particularly confident in their knowledge of the details.
(If you're worried after this post that we never go back and improve our legacy systems here at PagerDuty, check out our posts about centralizing scattered business logic in our Elixir webhook service and revisiting our Android architecture.)
Steps to Dive Into an Unfamiliar System
In order to make sure that the documentation was up-to-date and accurate, I did a deep dive to try to resolve some of the gaps in my knowledge.
There are many tips for understanding large, unfamiliar codebases out there (I find Michael Feathers' book, Working Effectively with Legacy Code, particularly helpful), and everyone develops their own techniques, but the steps below are the ones I took to tackle this challenge and could be applied if you're in a similar situation.
Step 1: Reading the Feature Documentation
As developers at PagerDuty, we're fortunate to be in a position to use our own product on a regular basis; however, that doesn't always mean that I'm an expert in all of our feature sets. Because of this, I started by reading the public documentation available for the features this service was powering. This pre-work reading helped me understand the intent and possible edge cases that led to the creation of the code I would end up reading.
Step 2: Tracing Requests
When I was ready to start diving into the codebase, I began by giving myself logical paths to follow by identifying where HTTP requests and other inputs entered the system and tracing through what happened with them from there. I then created a flow diagram so that I didn't have to rely on memory to keep track of everything.
Step 3: Examining the Data Lifecycles
Many services accept multiple types of requests that all interact in different ways with data that the service is storing. In these cases, it can be difficult to get a good view of how the entire system works when tracing one type of request at a time. To address that, after tracing individual requests, I took a step back and focused on the pieces of data being stored to understand their lifecycles—how they were created, updated, accessed, and deleted.
Step 4: Refactoring
Once I gained a better understanding of the system, I checked those assumptions by trying to make changes to the code, usually some refactoring, to try to make it more comprehensible. If the changes seemed to work, and didn't cause compiler errors, break tests, or cause the system to behave in a way that didn't match its feature documentation, I could be fairly confident that my assumptions were valid.
Often throughout this process, I was making changes purely for learning purposes with the full intention of reverting them afterwards. This meant that I could move faster and focus on understanding the service rather than following all conventions or what level of risk I was willing to take with the new changes.
Step 5: Explaining the Service
Once I felt fairly confident in my understanding, the last thing I did was to try and explain how the service worked—sometimes to another person and sometimes to a rubber duck. Either way, questions or gaps would come up that made me realize there were still parts of the service I needed to investigate further.
When You Learn More Than You Expect
By the end of the above process, I had a much better understanding of how the service actually worked as well as a good start on the documentation that I needed to write.
The service in question was used to enable some of PagerDuty's many integrations. Essentially, it stored information about different actions to be taken for each integration and provided interfaces for accessing and updating those actions.
This simplifies the real service quite a bit, but as an illustration, I ended up with some notes like this to describe how it handled requests:
- Fetch the metadata for the current version of the integration from the database.
- Insert a new entry into the database with metadata for the new version, with an incremental version number.
- Store the full set of actions for the new version of the integration in the object store system under the path included in the database entry.
- Mark the new database entry as "active."
- Mark the database entry for the previous version as "not active."
- Fetch the metadata for the current version of the given integration from the database.
- Use the path included in the metadata to fetch the full set of actions for the integration from the object store system.
And thus, I ended up with notes like this to describe the lifecycle of a row of the integration metadata table being stored in the database:
- INSERT: Row 55 is inserted into the database as a result of a request to update integration #3.
- UPDATE: The
activecolumn of row 55 is updated to
true, after the full actions set from the request has been stored in the object store system.
GET /3/actions (any number of times)
- SELECT: The data in row 55 is returned as a result of a query to the database for the most recently created entry with
- SELECT: Row 55 is returned as the current integration version as a result of a query to the database to find an entry with
- UPDATE: After the new version of the integration is completely deployed, the
activecolumn of row 55 is updated to
This wasn't a substitute for having built the service or done substantial work on it myself, but it was a fairly quick process that enabled me to come to a stronger understanding of the service and opened my eyes to a few unexpected realizations.
A Bug Appears!
Let's go back to the lifecycle of a database row for a minute.
You may have noticed, as I did, that the service had two different ways of fetching the "current" version of an integration from the database, based on two similar sounding columns,
active. This came as a result of gradual additions of features to the service and gradual evolutions of the data model to support them. I promise that it's much easier to see in the simplified version of the service that I've described here than it was in reality.
When I did notice this, I realized that I had inadvertently identified the source of a long-running annoyance for my team.
We had been aware for some time that this service would briefly return error responses to
GET requests for a specific integration while a new version of that integration was being created. If we were ever notified about an incident on the service during an integration deploy, we knew that it would most likely be transient and nothing to worry about.
However, it had never been worth our time to investigate the issue due to our lack of familiarity with the service, the fact that errors were retried so there was no customer impact, and the general rarity of new integration deploys that only ever happened during business hours anyway. So we just treated it like one of the unavoidable quirks that you tend to find in legacy systems.
In my dive into the service, I discovered that those errors were occuring because of its multi-step process for responding to
POST requests, where a new row containing integration metadata was first inserted into the database and then the full set of actions corresponding to the new integration version was persisted in our object store system. When
GET requests were received by the service between the database insertion and the persistence of the actions, the service wouldn't be able to find actions in the object store system under the
path specified in the database for the "current" version of the integration.
This meant that the operational noise we had been seeing was actually very easily avoidable and wasn't some complex issue inherent in the design of the service. We were already setting the
active column for a row in the database to
true only when the actions associated with that row were fully persisted, and were using that column elsewhere as our method for identifying the "current" integration version. So if we adjusted GET requests to also query the database only for rows with
active=true, the errors during deploys would be eliminated.
I took a couple of hours to do just that during our next Hackday, and we haven't had problems since!
What Learning a Legacy System Can Do for You
The experience of diving deeper into this particular legacy system has helped me recondition how I think about legacy systems in general.
I'm certainly not going to argue that it's vital for developers to always be equally familiar with all of the services that they own, including legacy ones, to the point of getting into a cycle of rewrites every couple of years. But I feel more strongly now about a middle ground, where if a team has a general lack of confidence in their understanding of a system, it could be valuable to take a day or two to try to fix that.
When learning about your legacy systems:
- You can often identify quick improvement wins when you're looking at a system with fresh eyes from a holistic perspective (like I did in this example). Even if you can't make the improvements right away, it can be nice to have a shortlist of them sitting around to work on when you have gaps between larger projects.
- You can gain a better understanding of which parts of the system are most likely to break and how soon those failures might happen, which can be useful when planning for the future. Even if you have no immediate plans to make changes, no system fulfills its purpose and scales forever without some form of attention.
- If you've decided that you're going to be completely replacing your legacy system, you can get a head start on figuring out the challenges of the problem space and identifying edge cases in behavior that you will want to take into account in your replacement system.
Understanding how a legacy system works isn't likely to be the biggest challenge involved in owning it. But making a small investment in that area will help you with any of the other challenges that you end up facing.
Do you have opinions and/or horror stories about dealing with legacy systems? Or perhaps a favorite process for understanding how an unfamiliar system works? We'd love to hear from you in our Community forums.
According to a recent study, anti-Asian hate crimes have risen 150% since the pandemic started. But these acts of violence are not new — they are part of a much larger history of anti-Asian racism and violence in the U.S.
That makes celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (which was named a month-long celebration in May by Congress in 1992 "to coincide with two important milestones in Asian/Pacific American history: the arrival in the United States of the first Japanese immigrants on May 7, 1843 and contributions of Chinese workers to the building of the transcontinental railroad, completed May 10, 1869") this year all the more important.
As we reflect on recent events and how they fit into a much larger history of discrimination, we're also taking time to celebrate and acknowledge the many achievements of the AAPI community.
We asked several of our partner companies what they're doing to honor AAPI Heritage Month at work, and we were inspired by the range of responses, covering everything from campaigns to #StopAsianHate to educational events on AAPI history.
Here's what they're doing, in their own words:
Empowering authenticity - LogMeIn
"Our theme this year is AIM to Be Real. We are embracing our new company values and celebrating those who bring their authentic selves to work, who help create space to celebrate diversity of thought, and who give back to the API community. Our Asian ERG, Asians in Motion (AIM), is hosting several events: a discussion about bringing your authentic self to work with Jerry Won (Dear Asian Americans podcast); a refugee-led virtual cooking class; ERG Movie Club discussions featuring Bollywood films, and a virtual volunteer event where we will offer career development mentoring for young women across Asia."
Learn more about LogMeIn here.
Educating on current events — Raytheon Technologies
"Raytheon Technologies is honoring Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month with an enterprise-wide global town hall event – Real Talk: Building CommUNITY Together. Organized by the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) employee resource groups across the company, employees will share their personal experiences and discuss ways to support Asian American Pacific Islander communities. The event will also feature prominent leading advocates from renowned civil rights organizations to provide insight into the national context surrounding recent events. We will also feature AAPI employees internally and on our social media channels."
Learn more about Raytheon Technologies here.
Encouraging awareness, growth, and learning — Moody's
"Moody's is encouraging awareness, growth, and learning during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month with the following activities, led by our Multicultural Business Resource Group and DE&I team:
- Weekly newsletters featuring AAPI employee profiles and cultural resources
- Video screening and small-group discussions supporting #StopAsianHate
- Cultural panel discussion featuring employee stories
- Professional development activities
- External speakers speaking about Asian leadership"
Supporting professional development — Freddie Mac
"Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month at Freddie Mac – Together, We Are Stronger
Freddie Mac supports the professional development of Asian and Pacific Islander employees while promoting an increased awareness of the value they bring to the organization and our local communities. Our InspirASIAN Business Resource Group is hosting various activities throughout the month such as:
- Personal development session on empowerment led by a coach from our Employee Assistance Program.
- "Stop Asian Hate" lunch and learn geared toward discussing the hurdles facing the AAPI community.
- Fireside chat about racial injustice with leaders from our InspirASIAN and ARISE (employees of the African diaspora) BRGs."
Fostering inclusion, learning, and belonging – Nestlé USA
"At Nestlé USA, the Pan Asian Network (PAN), one of our many employee resource groups that support our Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion initiatives, will host a variety of events to honor and acknowledge Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. These activities will foster greater inclusion, enhanced learning, and belonging for the AAPI community. PAN will highlight women's development in Asian cultures, Asian leadership and what their culture means to them, culinary innovation of Asian cuisine, intersectionality of LGBTQ+ and Pan Asian community, as well as an enhanced learning watch party of the PBS movie 'Asian American.'"
Learn more about Nestlé USA here.
Promoting cultural literacy – Relativity
The Community Resource Group at Relativity
"For Relativity, Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month is an opportune time to not only celebrate the rich AAPI cultures represented within our company, but to also foster awareness and allyship amidst the current rise of AAPI hate. RelAsians, our internal community resource group, has organized a few activities for May: a book club focused on AAPI heritage—because we feel it's never too early to gain cultural literacy, a weekly spotlight on AAPI Relativians, and a virtual event that takes attendees on a tour through an Asian grocery store, introducing native vegetables and staple ingredients for traditional home-cooked Asian recipes."
- Contribution from Neha Pant, Sr. Performance Engineer & Angie Ocasek, Sr. Specialist, Partner Enablement – Co-Chairs of the RelAsians Community Resource Group at Relativity
Learn more about Relativity here.
Creating transformative experiences – Facebook
"At Facebook, our APIs employee resource group's mission is to create transformative experiences for all APIs at Facebook, Inc through key cultural awareness and engagement highlighting the API community. To kick off APIHM, we will host a series of events and conversations for the community and its allies designed to support the API community around the theme, The SUM of Us, including:
- Letting Others In: a mindful discussion series that privileges intersectional voices, storytelling, feedback, and vulnerability as tools for building empathy and inclusion amongst organizations.
- Racial Healing Learning Session: specific to the API Experience focused on naming of experiences and emotional responses, understanding the body's responses to racial trauma, what the audience can do in the moment for self-care, and long-term strategies to overcome the effect of the traumatic experience.
- Bystander Training/self Defense Workshop"
Learn more about Facebook here.
Extensive and exciting programming — 2U
"At 2U, Inc. we'll be honoring Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month with extensive and exciting programming coordinated by our employee-led Asian Pacific Islander Network (APIN). In a year marred by exceptional challenges APIN has centered activities around the ameliorating themes of joy, culture and wellness. Be it delighting in a ukulele mini concert, reading an interview highlighting an API coworker, winding down after too much screen time with a somatic healing session or engaging in a panel discussion with API tattoo artists, we have a packed month ahead with opportunities to support oneself and the API culture! Follow along @Lifeat2U on Instagram for more!"
Learn more about 2U here.
Amplifying voices and educating others – Smartsheet
"During APAHM, the API at Smartsheet community will be hosting several events and activities to educate others, amplify AAPI voices, and celebrate the AAPI community! We plan to kick off the month with a documentary viewing and discussion to learn about AAPI history, and hope to share personal stories from our AAPI employees throughout the month. We'll end with an opportunity for the community to celebrate itself by gathering together for fun and games, while eating food from local Asian-owned restaurants."
Learn more about Smartsheet here.
Rising together in sports and culture – NBA
"For Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, APEX is proud to present a multitude of celebratory activities, headlined by an NBA Family Virtual Town Hall and, with the NFL and MLB, an Asians in Sports & Culture Symposium themed "Together We Rise" featuring prominent Asian personalities from the sports world. We are also launching a PSA with an NBA star, honoring Eid-al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan, offering a bystander intervention training led by AAJC, and – because the celebration wouldn't be complete without food – hosting a sushi making class for our members."
Learn more about the NBA here.
Creating courageous conversations – Commvault
"This May, we are celebrating all our Asian/Pacific Islander employees, not just Asian Americans. We will spend the month learning about and celebrating the diverse cultures of Asia through weekly events and activities led by our Multi-Culture ERG. Vaulters and external guests will teach us the history of practices such as yoga, origami, and Asian cuisines. We will also discuss topics like the rise of hate crimes against Asian people and the recent spike in COVID-19 in India. These activities and courageous conversations will engage our workforce and create support for our Asian and Pacific Islander communities around the world."
Learn more about Commvault here.
Honoring history through virtual events – Collins Aerospace
"Collins Aerospace supports our AAPI colleagues not only in May, but all year. Our parent company Raytheon Technologies hosted a virtual Town Hall last month to provide a safe space for open dialogue about recent events targeting Asian Americans in the U.S. In addition to this entity-wide event, our Asia Pacific ERG at Collins is hosting events that educate and honor the importance of Asian Pacific American history such as virtual Lunch & Tours spotlighting South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, and India; and Thoughts & Support sessions. Site-specific events include virtual cooking class, and viewing PBS docuseries Asian Americans."
Learn more about Collins Aerospace here.
Highlighting new perspectives – MongoDB
"MongoDB will share daily historical facts, highlights of Asian American pioneers, and perspectives from our AAPI employees in a dedicated Slack channel. We will also be providing access to an Asian Pacific American Heritage Month webinar, organizing a trivia night, and holding Processing Together sessions for our internal AAPI community due to recent hate crimes happening across the globe. These sessions are a safe space for employees to share their stories and sentiments of what it is like as an Asian American in America today. (Read MongoDB employee Monica Lu's story about being an Asian American woman in tech here.)"
Learn more about MongoDB here.
Spotlighting diverse communities – Bumble
"At Bumble, moments like heritage month celebrations are often our anchor to ensure we are spotlighting diverse communities. In alignment with AAPI Heritage Month in May, Bumble is rolling out a series of thoughtful programming to encourage internal education and around how to support the Stop Asian Hate movement and better serve the Asian community globally. The lineup of initiatives include:
- BuzzWord DEI Discussion Series with featured guest speakers: This conversation will focus on the Asian community within the context of larger cultural issues such as dating app experiences, fetishization, masculinity, and representation.
- Bumble will be inviting employees to join a virtual Vietnamese coffee-making class. Created in partnership with Phin Bar, an urban brew-bar that offers Vietnamese-style steeped coffee combined with house-made ingredients, Bumble hopes to facilitate a deeper cultural learning and community bonding experience for the team.
- Bumble will also be activating channels across social media and our product to educate our community about bystander intervention and raise awareness around the importance of supporting the Stop Asian Hate movement."
Engaging in daring conversations – Procore
"In celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month in May, Procore recently organized an internal event to recognize and support the AAPI community. The event was hosted as part of our ongoing internal speaker series, 'Daring Conversations & Allyship,' to create space for an open dialogue around diversity, inclusion, and belonging. All employees were invited to tune in as employees from our AAPI communities shared their unique experiences, addressed anti-Asian hate, and discussed actionable ways to support our AAPI community."
Learn more about Procore here.
Taking action to foster change – SeatGeek
"This month the POC ERG will be meeting and hosting different activities to celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. This includes creating a safe space to discuss current events, and what actions our communities can take to foster change, sending out a newsletter which will highlight the Asian community in every aspect, and lastly, we will be hosting a guest speaker.
We hope with these planned activities and meetings, we can highlight, and uplift the Asian/Pacific American community, as well as bring awareness to the horrible ongoing attacks they are facing."
Learn more about SeatGeek here.
Uplifting and inspiring the community – Okta
"Okta's People of Color (POC@Okta) ERG is planning to commemorate AAPI Month with a series of fireside chats and iconographical facts posted internally in the #poc and #all diversity Slack channels! These chats will feature Dion Lim of ABC7 News and Comedian/Actor, Ronny Chieng. We will conclude the series with a partnership with Pride@Okta featuring supermodel, TED speaker, and transgender advocate Geena Rocero. The goal of this series is to educate, uplift, support, and inspire! The Okta leadership supports its AAPI employees, customers, and community."
Learn more about Okta here.
Empowering cultural diversity and leadership – Quip
"Salesforce will be celebrating through multiple virtual events, such as a leadership panel on the power of cultural diversity, a tea tasting, a tai chi class, a haka workshop, and more! Members of the Quip team have also compiled an extensive list of resources to support AAPI communities, including ways to donate, take action, and learn more."
Learn more about Quip here.
Focusing on lived experiences – Mindbody
"The Mindbody United ERG focuses on a different heritage or history each month, with May devoted to Asian & Pacific Islander Heritage Month. This ERG seeks to provide a platform to both celebrate and learn together. This will manifest in two ways: As a newsletter and a Zoom meeting. The newsletter will feature contributions directly from team members, while the meeting will feature Assembly member Evan Low as our speaker. It is our goal to focus on the lived experiences of the AAPI community, address discrimination, and how to chase after the part of the world we can make better."
Learn more about Mindbody here.
Promoting harmony and unity – T. Rowe Price
"T. Rowe Price is aware and appalled at the recent spike in hate crimes against the Asian community. In response, the firm will center Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month efforts around harmony and unity, in alignment with the Hawaiian value, Lōkahi – Forward as One. To share best practices, successes and areas of opportunities, T. Rowe Price will co-host a Leadership Panel on Asian Leadership Challenges with Baltimore Asian Connect, a consortium of Asian business resource group leaders at local corporations. The firm will also host a book club and restorative listening circles for Asian American associates and their allies."
Learn more about T. Rowe Price here.
Celebrating Asians globally
"May is Asian Pacific American (APA) Heritage Month. Although traditionally a US celebration, at Autodesk we are celebrating Asians globally. The Autodesk Asian Network is hosting Innovative Leaders, including Lori Mukoyama and Jonathan Zee. Lori Mukoyama is redefining experience-driven design globally at Gensler. Jonathan Zee has an extensive portfolio of buildings that are helping to shape cities around the world at Goettsch Partners. Lori and her husband Jonathan combine design, architecture and engineering in their work while simultaneously manage a family together during this pandemic. This event is hosted by AAN, as part of a monthlong series of APA Heritage Month events."
Learn more about AutoDesk here.
If you told Paula Manchester that you weren't good at math, she wouldn't believe you.
"That's a global indictment," she says. "'I'm not good at math' implies that you don't have the ability to nurture that muscle. And then I'd ask what kind of math? There's a lot to math."
Instead, she'd introduce you to a growth mindset perspective: "Try 'I have not yet been exposed to differential equations. Let me open the book and start studying, let me get access to teachers and tutors who can help me understand this, let me begin to practice,'" she says.
"A growth mindset says, 'There's nothing that I can't do. It's just that I need to learn how to do it, I need to practice doing it, I need to have the right circumstances in order to achieve this goal.'"
Throughout her long career as a leader in healthcare and pharmaceuticals, Paula has leaned on her growth mindset when approaching new challenges, expanding into new responsibilities, and understanding her mistakes. (Because yes, even an expert leader still makes mistakes, and cultivating a growth mindset means there's endless opportunity to learn from them!)
We sat down with the Senior Director of Global Commercial Development at global biotech firm CSL to learn more about how Paula's growth mindset shows up in her life and her work.
Determining her path towards growth
When Paula entered Stanford as an undergraduate, she thought her next academic stop would be medical school. She started down that path, taking psychology classes where she first learned about concepts like the growth mindset.
Instead, she got an MBA at Northwestern.
In between those two educational experiences, Paula determined what kind of life and career she wanted to have.
It was during an internship at a historically Black college's medical school that made her realize that she didn't need to be in the room with patients in order to positively impact their experience. "My eyes were opened to the ecosystem of healthcare," she says, "and I realized it would probably be a tighter match between some of my interests in terms of how people make decisions. I knew I could make meaningful contributions without necessarily going to medical school."
Following her interest in how patients were informed about their health, Paula pursued a career in marketing and communications, working at Merck and GSK before taking on her role at CSL Behring. Now she leads the marketing strategy in the transplant space, partnering with the company's R&D team to bring potential new therapies for those patients into the world as regulatory-approved products.
"It's exciting because it means that patients who have been through so much might not have to worry about losing their kidney, going back on dialysis, and maybe even having to go through years and years of waiting for yet another kidney transplant," she says of an investigational treatment in development that aims to address antibody mediated rejection of transplanted organs like kidneys. "The work that we do every day means that somebody can hold on to that very precious gift of life that they've been given. That brings me energy every day. It gives me inspiration. It also allows us to be very clear...there's no question—we know we're impacting patient lives."
Growing with others
Business school was the first time Paula really had to learn to be effective through others. "You learn how to drive performance under very tight circumstances in order to produce a high quality deliverable as a team," she says.
Those skills served her well in her post-MBA roles, and have been especially useful now that she's at CSL Behring.
She accepted her current role for two reasons: first, she believed in the company. "When I got a chance to come to CSL a couple of years ago, I was thrilled because of what this company stands for. A lot of companies talk about being patient-focused, but this company lives it; it's woven throughout our DNA," says Paula.
Second, she was intrigued because the role came with a whole new set of responsibilities—and a new group of people to work with and through. "I was attracted not only because of the work, but also the challenge of a larger remit," says Paula. "I knew that I could work across boundaries, not just in my particular swim lane of marketing expertise, but to be accountable for leading a cross-functional team."
She was immediately proven right: her new responsibilities were significant. "People will laugh and say, 'What you wish for, you get,'" says Paula, smiling. "I wanted a larger remit, and that came to me in spades. There's just so much to do, which has taught me a lot about prioritization and flexibility."
Paula credits her ability to stay calm in the face of so much change with her growth-focused outlook. "Every experience I have is an opportunity to learn," she says. "As opposed to setting up a particular decision or opportunity as 'either I will fail or I will be successful,' every event is an opportunity for success because it's framed as an opportunity to learn."
4 ways to incorporate a growth framework into your own life as a leader
Paula has specific tips for anyone interested in becoming more effective by approaching opportunities with a growth mindset:
- Learn to listen well. From being able to pick up on subtle cues in meetings to unlocking coworkers' participation by making them feel heard, Paula says much of her success in seeing challenges as opportunities—and helping others do the same—comes from listening. "Quite frankly, given some of the issues that we're dealing with in contemporary America, I think that there's probably plenty of room for increased listening skills, right?" says Paula.
- Get comfortable reflecting in the moment. "Part of the growth mindset is the notion of not being perfect," says Paula. "There's always an opportunity to get better and better. By reflecting, you can ask, 'How specifically can I get better?'" Paula often will do a quick debrief with herself after conversations and meetings to reflect on how she conducted the conversation, how she listened, how flexible she was, and what her outcomes were. "Reflecting can be very, very powerful," she adds. "As a Black woman in corporate America, it's especially important because of the pressure to be excellent in everything we do. But for everyone, especially in 2021, with what we've been through this last year—COVID, disparate access to healthcare, social distancing, working remotely, the global nature of all this disruption. There's an opportunity to think about what we just went through as a society and to ponder what the lessons are."
- Practice long-term reflection, too. Paula leads after-action reviews for her team each quarter where she asks four questions: what happened, what worked, what didn't work, and why. "It's not a complex tool, but it enables you to remove the emotion, and reveal more of the concrete data. You can leverage the observations of others to provide that perspective that you may not be able to see as a team member," she says.
- Read, learn, and share. If you consistently seek out opportunities to learn something new, whether in the pages of a book or in a classroom or just from a peer, and then you go out of your way to help others based on those new insights, you're well on your way to practicing a growth mindset, says Paula. "Open your eyes and look around—there's somebody who needs [what you have to offer]."
Interested in growing alongside Paula and her team? Learn more about CSL's open roles here or click here to join an upcoming virtual event with Paula and other women leaders at CSL this Thursday, May 27th!
Get an inside look at the interview process for sales roles at LogMeIn, one of the largest SaaS companies providing remote work technology, from Michael Gagnon, Senior Manager of Corporate Account Executive Sales.
Listen in for actionable tips that will help you ace your interviews. Spoiler: one of the most important characteristics the sales team hopes to see is someone who brings their authentic self to the interview! They also look for motivation and, of course, sales skills.
Don't miss Michael's take on the importance of encouraging allyship from a leadership position and his efforts to do so as a leader within LogMeIn's Pride employee resource group.
Are you interested in joining LogMeIn? They have open roles! To learn more about them, click here.
How Being an Open Member of the LGBTQIA+ Community Has Helped Procore’s Alex Zinik Overcome Imposter Syndrome at Work
Alex Zinik wasn't surprised that she started her career in education—she decided she would become a teacher when she was just in third grade.
She was surprised while working as a paraeducator in the school system and preparing to become a special education teacher, she discovered that it didn't feel quite right. "I didn't know if that's what I really wanted to do," she recalls.
So a friend suggested she take a job during her off summers at construction software company Procore. She thought this would be the perfect opportunity to try out this new challenge, and if she needed to, she could go back to the school district once the summer was over.
"Five summers later, I'm still here!" she says, smiling. "And I see myself here for many more years. I just fell in love with the company, the culture, and with the career growth opportunities I was presented with."
As part of our Pride month celebrations, Alex, currently the Senior Executive Assistant to the CEO at Procore, sat down with us to share how a common fear—the fear of being found out—underlay the imposter syndrome she felt when pivoting to an industry in which she lacked experience, and the anxiety she often felt before coming out to her friends and family about her sexuality.
Read on for her insight on overcoming negative thought patterns, being yourself, and paying it forward.
Recognizing patterns when working to fit in
Alex first learned about imposter syndrome—an internal experience of believing that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be—a few years ago. She was immediately struck with a sensation of feeling less alone—of recognizing that there was a name for what she'd been experiencing on the job.
"Imagine being part of a group where you're told your whole life that you're not good enough, or that you don't fit in, because of your skin color or your sexuality," she says. "It's so important to understand that we're not suffering through this alone. Imposter syndrome is way more common than we think it is, and it's so important to be open about it."
As she read more about it, Alex recognized signs of imposter syndrome in her day-to-day work: feeling shy presenting her work to stakeholders or avoiding using technical terms for fear someone would think she didn't know what they meant.
"I realized I would try to shove the thoughts down and avoid putting myself in certain situations at work," she says. "That was actually a lot like how I used to treat my sexuality before I was open about it. And I realized that I was putting so much brain power into not being found out—and that I could put that brainpower elsewhere. That's what's helped me get where I am in my career today. Because if pushing down those thoughts and ignoring them didn't work with my sexuality, why would it work now with my career?"
Leaning in to opportunities to be herself
Two mentors have played a big role in guiding Alex's career thus far.. First is Suzanne Mayeur, Procore's VP of Special Projects. She hired Alex, gave her her first stretch project (collecting data on improving the company's shuttle and parking services), and guided her through her first promotion into a travel role. Michael Denari, Procore's Director of Procurement, also supported her career growth at Procore. He taught her how to run Excel reports, gave her opportunities to present to executives, and supported her pursuit of project management certification.
"When I was a kid in high school and college, I didn't really ever have that passion for what I wanted to do," says Alex. "I never studied harder for anything in my life than I did for that project management test!"
She passed on her first try, and enjoyed working in program and project management within Procore's procurement team until Suzanne reached back out with an opportunity to support Tooey Courtemanche, Procore's CEO.
"It was so scary to think about," says Alex. "I was really comfortable in my position in procurement and I felt like I was in a really good place in my career." The imposter syndrome she'd dealt with earlier in her career almost kept her from taking the job. "I spent a lot of time asking, 'Am I good enough? Do I have the right qualifications? Will everybody find out that I only have teaching experience under my belt?'"
But Alex remembered what she had learned: that she had power over her own thought patterns, and that she could redirect them. "I said, 'I am good enough. In fact, I am going to use what I've learned to accomplish more and continue to grow in my career.'"
She took the job, and now loves all aspects of managing the office of the CEO—especially the opportunity to study Tooey's leadership style.
"I spend day in and day out with him. And one thing I admire is that he never changes based on his audience," says Alex. "He's the same Tooey we all know whether he's talking to a new hire he runs into in the parking lot or whether he's talking to investors on Wall Street. He's himself, he's proud of who he is, he's open about his story. He embraces who he is and he's authentic, and that's a good reminder."
Creating opportunities for others
In Alex's past jobs, she didn't feel comfortable being out as her authentic self. "My coworkers would assume I was straight...I would try to blend in and stay under the radar. I used to get extreme anxiety whenever one of my coworkers would ask me personal questions. Because how could I tell them about the awesome weekend I just had with my girlfriend?" she says.
That's not the case at Procore. She's been out since she joined the company. "As soon as I stepped foot in Procore, I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I can be out here; I can say 'my girlfriend and I'; I don't have to hide who I am.' Everyone was so welcoming and so supportive," says Alex.
Now, Alex is working to make sure that Procore stays a safe and supportive place for everyone. She's spoken about Pride on Procore's All Company Update calls and currently serves as the co-chair for Procore's PRISM (Pride Raising Awareness, Involvement, Support, and Mentoring) employee resource group for LGBTQIA+ employees and allies. With PRISM, she helps host events and create volunteer opportunities, and partners with other ERGs, including Procore's African (Descent) Council, to support allyship across identities.
As part of Procore's June Pride month celebrations, Alex is hosting a Daring Conversations episode about the never-ending process of coming out, and celebrating with virtual events across Procore campuses. Personally, she's celebrating her first Pride with her now-fiancé (Alex's girlfriend recently proposed to her!).
"I want my fellow LGBTQIA+ employees to know that not only am I part of this community, but I'm an ally to them. If I can do my part by being out and open, I want to; I want to promote psychological safety as much as I can, and make a positive impact where I can," she says.
When Emma Woods decided to take her children out of school for six months and homeschool them while traveling around Australia in a caravan, it wasn't the first time she found a way to balance personal and professional growth. It was just a more extreme version of the types of choices she had been making throughout her career.
Emma started her career in the world of telecommunications, moving from IC to team manager, then to contract positions when she had her children and needed flexible scheduling. Now in her current role as an Engineering Manager at payment platform Afterpay, Emma continues to find ways to manage her personal and professional growth, and her family's well-being.
Along with a successful career in engineering management, she's backpacked Europe, spent two months in Southeast Asia, done a post-grad degree in IT, and had three children.
Now, as a manager of a team of platform engineers at Afterpay, Emma helps her team work through their own unique sets of goals. We Zoomed into the Melbourne Afterpay Hub to hear more about how she accomplishes that, and how she stays focused on growth for herself and her team while working at the fast-growing BNPL fintech.
Defining what's important
Taking that six-month holiday was a calculated risk. While it meant Emma would be out of the job market and would have to find something new when she came back, it also would allow Emma impossible-to-replace quality time with her family. "You only have those opportunities when your kids are young," she says. "I've got teenage kids now, and they would not be interested in living in a caravan with their parents for six months!"
At the end of the day, Emma knew it was an opportunity she couldn't pass up—and that solid career opportunities would likely still be there for her upon her return. "I've never seen it as you cannot pursue things in parallel," she explains. "You can raise a family and still develop your career, you can take some time out and get a decent job afterwards. I think it's healthy to not be a hundred percent focused on any one thing and to have a balance, and that's always what I've wanted for myself. I make decisions around what's important to me at the time."
Having both a career and a family life has always been important to Emma. Even when she went down to two days a week at work, she was still happy to have it as part of her week: "By the time I'd paid for all the childcare, it wasn't even really worth it—but for me, it was, because I was keeping an interest in my career, keeping current in terms of what I was working on," she says.
To set herself up for a solid transition back into work after the caravan trip, Emma decided to document her experience traveling with her family and homeschooling her children, creating a website that highlighted their adventure and showcased some of her technical skills.
It also helped that she'd just finished a 12-month contract role at Afterpay before leaving, and had a strong relationship with her manager. When she came back, he offered her a role. "I was really interested in a leadership role in engineering management, and that opportunity had come up, so it was perfect," she explains.
Now, she works four days a week, leaving her an extra day to manage her family. "It lets me spend some time with them, but also not feel that I'm missing out on moving forward with my career," says Emma. "I have been lucky that Afterpay supports me working a four day week."
Four ways a manager can support their team's growth
Emma's career at Afterpay started when the company was gearing up to launch in the UK and the U.S., and ever since then, it's been a period of serious growth and momentum. Now, as an engineering manager, her favorite part of her job is the people she works with. "It's really satisfying to work with a team of really smart people to solve problems," she explains.
Here are some of the tips she has for how to set your team up for success:
- Back your team. "That's the most important thing I do in a day," explains Emma. "I see it as championing their projects, promoting their work, and raising the visibility of the projects they're working on, using my networks at the company to get that stakeholder buy-in."
- Evolve the way you communicate. Afterpay's workforce is expanding quickly, which means the practices that worked well when there were dozens of engineers don't necessarily work well with hundreds. Emma is careful about when she uses showcases, virtual or face-to-face meetings, and asynchronous communication to keep her team informed, motivated, and connected to their stakeholders.
- Focus on your core customer. As a manager, Emma's core customer base is her engineers—and their customers are the internal product engineers that build features on the platform that her engineers provide. Keeping those customers front and center helps when it comes to prioritizing growth goals. "You can't please everybody," says Emma. "You've got to learn how to prioritize, and that will mean sometimes saying no."
- Work to reduce silos. Emma is always looking for opportunities to combine succession planning with personal growth goals. When she sees that one person is siloed with a particular type of work, she makes sure to spread assignments of that type around to deepen her bench of talent and to keep each individual's plate of projects interesting and diverse.
3 tips for pursuing your own growth as an individual
Maybe you're not a manager of people. You still have your own career and personal goals to take charge of, though. Emma recommends:
- Set big goals. "Apply for jobs that you might think you're not a hundred percent qualified for," says Emma. "And when you get them, work hard. The networks I've established through my jobs have really helped me to keep growing my career."
- Stay competitive in what interests you. Emma went back to school when she realized she wanted to work in technology and needed a different background to support it. "I made a whole lot of new contacts from that," she reflects.
- Put your personal goals at the same level as your career goals. If Emma was laser-focused on her next promotion, she might've never taken that caravan trip—and she would have regretted it. "I've never been afraid of taking time out," she says. You can have that fear of missing out, that everybody else is building their careers. But when the trip was over, I was really excited to be heading back to work."