Auna Walton designed her first website in high school.
She later built on that skill set while studying computer science in college.
But it wasn’t until her first Silicon Valley internship where she learned what it really meant to be a software engineer, which is her current job title at data platform company Splunk, Inc. It was less of neat assignments and more of pushing out features, and Auna rose to the occasion.
“In the classroom, all the parameters are set up nicely for you. In the real world, things aren’t set up perfectly. You may not have this, or that, and projects are undefined. You have to figure out both the problem and the solution,” she says.
But Auna is comfortable tackling problems and speaking up about how she solves them, which has been a boon to her work. We sat down with Auna to hear more about how she’s built a satisfying career, and why she’s excited to keep growing at Splunk.
Tip 1: Ask for what you need
Auna was sitting through a presentation in college about an alum’s startup when she realized that she had a lot to learn from him.
She went up to the founder, Michael, after the presentation, showed him the website she’d built for a local nonprofit during her senior year of high school and asked if she could work with him on his company’s site.
Michael said yes, and Auna credits that early professional experience with setting her up for success with future internships.
“It’s hard to go to someone and say, ‘Give me this,’ if you don’t have anything to offer,” says Auna. “So put in the time first. I know it’s not easy—you have schoolwork and you’re a human being and you need to rest—but spend time working on side projects, because it shows people what you can do.”
Having that experience on her resume prepared Auna well to do her school’s semester in Silicon Valley program, structured like a co-op model, where she worked at a startup and took classes in the area.
“It was stressful in that it was a lot of work with only six engineers. They actually used their interns. The training wheels were off, and Michael was no longer there for mentorship. But it helped me move at a faster pace and figure things out on my own,” says Auna.
Tip 2: Work to understand, even if it’s uncomfortable
Auna’s first exposure to Splunk was at the Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC), a global women in tech conference, where her school sponsored her to attend. Splunk had reached out to meet with Auna before the conference began, and upon arrival, Auna says she was immediately impressed with the company's witty t-shirt taglines and warm energy.
She got an offer to become an intern, and was placed on the company’s engineering productivity team. She helped build a tool that measured productivity, identified roadblocks and bottlenecks, and showed which stage each feature was at so that teams could make improvements based on real data insights.
When she was first assigned the project, though, Auna didn’t quite see the value in it—and she decided to tell her manager that.
“I remember thinking, ‘Okay, there’s a lot of ways this can go wrong, because I’m an intern, I’m a Black woman, and I don’t want to come off aggressive; I don’t want to step on any toes,’” says Auna. “But the culture at Splunk is truly collaborative. I knew my manager was an open-minded person and a really nice guy. I felt like I could go and give him my perspective.”
The conversation with her manager went well; he appreciated her questions and shared some of his own doubts about the project. “It was interesting to hear that managers don’t always know everything, either, and that they’re looking for their team members to contribute ideas,” says Auna.
She shifted her mindset into how she could improve the project, and ended up working with other engineers to make a tool that was more useful to them.
Tip 3: Do your best on all your work, even what seems small
After finishing her internship, Auna accepted a full-time offer at Splunk and moved to the Bay Area to start work. While she’s been mostly remote because of the pandemic, she’s happy to have made the move and to have stuck with Splunk. (Though she is now on an external-facing team—a move that her management fully supported.)
Auna says she feels taken care of by Splunk, citing benefits like extra time off called “pandemic days” that employees can take to deal with health concerns or family responsibilities and a “power hour” each day in which employees are encouraged to spend 60 minutes of each workday focused on their mental or physical wellbeing.
“Sometimes I tell my parents about these benefits and they’re like, ‘Are you guys working over there?’” says Auna, laughing. “It truly feels like we’re all a team. If we have the mentality that we can take breaks, we can keep working towards our goals. And it’s about all of us. If I’m successful on my project, we’re all successful as a company.”
With her renewed energy, Auna is able to dedicate herself fully to her work, and encourages budding engineers to find ways to do the same. As an example, she cites a collaborative side project she built with two engineering productivity interns during a Splunk hackathon—and put her all into—that has grown into something that the company uses every day.
“Try to do things that you may not think will bring value, but very well might,” she says. “Even if it looks small, it could really blossom into something huge.”
To Emily Bersin, pre-pandemic life and pre-babies life exist in the same hazy set of Before Times memories, and she's fully accepted that neither one is ever coming back.
The new mom had twins 18 months ago, right as the COVID-19 pandemic was starting. It was (and still is) tough to balance motherhood with work and surviving a pandemic.
But Emily has been working remotely for 13 years, four of which she has spent at all-remote media streaming company Plex, where she's currently an Engineering Manager. So she didn't have to learn how to switch her day-to-day work into a remote setting. She just had to figure out how to manage it alongside new obligations—like breastfeeding.
"It's very challenging with twins," explains Emily. "I hated pumping. It was really nice to work for a company that didn't care if I was like, 'Okay, every three hours, I'm going to be gone for 20 minutes to feed my babies.' I never would've been able to do that if I worked in an office."
We sat down with Emily to hear more about her career journey, what she loves about Plex's remote culture, and what advice she has for others who have made a permanent switch to remote-first work and want to make sure they are set up for success.
Exploring the Software Lifecycle
Emily's career in software engineering may have been fated. Her parents are both engineers, and she loved math, science, and programming classes in high school. It wasn't until she got on-the-job experience, though, that she realized the kind of role she most preferred.
She started out in a tech support function, and while she was only there for about six months, she credits it with several important lessons for her development. "It taught me that we make software to improve someone's life somehow, even if it's just making their job a little easier. It taught me how to think from the user's perspective," she explains.
When that first company was acquired, she moved into a development role—and also moved to Austin, Texas. She thought she'd stay in Austin for a year, but a decade and a half later, it seems like a more permanent decision.
She learned relatively early on that while she liked being an engineer deployed to solve problems, she liked figuring out what those problems were even more—so she moved into a product architect role at her next company.
"I like making sure that we're developing the right thing for the user," explains Emily. And now, as an Engineering Manager at Plex, she's able to continue doing that work. "I have even more of an ability to shape what features we're going to work on and the direction of the product."
When Emily was ready for her next challenge, she started by looking for roles on PowerToFly.
"I took my time to look around for something I really wanted, at a company I wanted to work for, with a product that I found interesting," says Emily. "I found a posting for Plex on PowerToFly and applied."
Emily liked Plex's product, and how user-focused it was. "We allow people to access their media how and where they want, and that makes their day a little bit better. If it works properly and it has the features they want, then that is something that makes them happy, makes their life better," she explains.
And getting to know the company behind the product, Emily was inspired. "The company culture I saw in interviews was really amazing. Once I was offered the position, it was an easy decision to accept it."
Emily loved Plex's commitment to being kind, helpful, and humble, and their remote-first approach to work was the cherry on top.
"I'd been working from home since 2008, but with coworkers who were in the office," explains Emily, who originally went remote to enjoy more freedom and not be stuck squeezing vacations into limited holiday time. "You're kind of isolated that way. At Plex, everyone has the same challenges and the company works really hard to solve them and make us all feel like we're a team."
This influences everything the company does, from meeting structure to communication. "Rather than having emails that are private or having little discussions in offices that no one else is privy to, most of the channels [on Slack] are open for anyone to join, [so you] can read what they're discussing and get up to speed," Emily says, highlighting the importance of transparency when working remotely.
5 Keys for Success in a Remote Work Environment
Over the years, Emily has developed her own best-practices guide for successful remote work. Here's what she suggests:
- Separate your workspace. Emily is originally from Cape Cod, and she goes back every summer to see her family. During that trip and others like it, she works from wherever she can set up a temporary office. But the rest of the time, she's got a set workspace that lets her really focus on her work. "It's easy to be interrupted by people otherwise. It's harder to switch your brain back between regular life and work if you're doing it from your living room," she says.
- Go outside every day. "When I first started working from home, there were days I would go out at 6 p.m. to check the mail and be like, 'Oh, the door is locked, I haven't left the house yet today,'" says Emily. Now, even if it's just to go for a walk or to sit on the porch in the sunshine for a few minutes, she makes sure she gets outside.
- Get the equipment you need. In her engineering manager role, Emily is still responsible for code, and having the tech she needs to troubleshoot and test things is key. "I have a big, beefy development system I keep in my house," says Emily. "When I'm here, I work on it directly, but I'm also able to remote into it so I can go work from wherever on my laptop, as long as I have good internet."
- Be thoughtful about communication. "Maybe technically I'm a millennial, but I didn't really grow up with sharing myself online. And I'm not naturally extroverted. So it can be hard to make connections with people when you're working remotely," says Emily. She consciously tries to over-communicate—and to use emojis whenever possible—to address that.
- Set boundaries. Having kids helped with this one, says Emily. Before she had the twins, she would sometimes find herself checking email at dinner, or doing work in the evenings while watching TV. Now, the nanny leaves at five, so Emily and her husband have to stop working and switch into childcare and family time.
And a bonus one: take advantage of the work-life balance opportunities that remote work provides. "I can go have lunch with my babies if I want!" says Emily, smiling. "I never would have been able to do that if I worked in an office."
Insights and Interview Advice from Amie Greenwald
If you ask Amie Greenwald, Software Development Engineer III at Audible, what her favorite listen is, she'll be quick to say A Life Without Limits.
The story of Chrissie Wellington's 2007 victory at the Ironman World Championships inspires Amie because she loves to chase goals and adventures of her own: she spends much of her free time in the great outdoors with her family and training for long-distance races.
"Most of the time I can get someone in my family to adventure with me, however, I mostly run alone," Amie explains. "Work from home has definitely allowed me to run more than previous years. I've run 750 miles so far this year." She is all set to run her tenth half-marathon in October 2021.
This go-getter mentality has set Amie up for success in her career at Audible, but she's also learned that not all adventures are best pursued alone. The last year and a half reminded her of her favorite piece of career advice: ask for help when you need it.
"The idea that you can't do it all alone is so true; having people to help makes all the difference," Amie explains.
Read on to hear about how Amie's career path ultimately led her to finding this sense of support and camaraderie with her team at Audible, the challenges they're tackling together, and how you can join them!
From Academia to Audible
Amie graduated with her PhD in computer science and immediately started her career as an Assistant Professor at Drexel University. But after a few years in academia, Amie decided to explore other career options. "I had been a student my whole life and then jumped into the academic professional world," says Amie. "Reflecting now, it would have made more sense to get exposed to a larger set of career options before choosing the only one I knew about."
Her first venture into the corporate world involved developing geo-location related as a senior software engineer. Six years and two children later, Amie decided it was time for a shift to a company that would allow her to work with a customer-facing application. Over the last nine years working at Audible, Amie has learned the ins and outs of the company, having worked on the Content Management Systems team, the Consumption team, and the company's very first Innovation team.
In the end, Amie came back to the CMS team as a Senior Software Engineer III, working within the Content and Royalties domain. "The last two years have been some of my best years at Audible," she says. "I love the impact our team has and the problems that we are solving."
Driving Impact at Audible
As a Senior Software Engineer III at Audible, Amie's main focus is developing scalable metadata processing systems for audiobooks that support the business and customers' needs. She finds ways to summarize and simplify data, ensuring a seamless and personalized product experience. "The best part of working at Audible is finding innovative solutions," Amie shares. "I love that I get to tackle a new challenge every day."
Finding solutions with the customer at the forefront of her mind and creating major impact is an integral part of Amie's job. Recently, she and her team worked on a project where they designed and developed new services that enabled podcasts to be processed and delivered at an unprecedented level. "We had a 100X increase in the number of products we processed each day," explains Amie. "Our team did a great job of working together and overcoming several obstacles along the way."
For Amie, driving impact isn't just about the value she and her team can provide to customers, but her community at large. She's deeply motivated by one of Audible's key People Principles: Activate Caring.
"[I work] on community projects like the Greater Newark Conservancy Foodbank to Girls Who Code," she elaborates. "And then within Audible mentoring and Interview Bar Raising. This has been an important part of my career at Audible and I look forward to continued opportunities to give back to both Newark and Audible."
If you're interested in joining Amie in making an impact for Audible customers and the community at large, she has three key pieces of advice: "Prepare. Be yourself. Ask questions."
Preparing for a technical interview at Audible isn't very different from preparing for a technical interview anywhere else, says Amie, but she does recommend that you "listen to the advice of our great recruiters," when deciding how to prepare. That means that you, "Prepare before your interview, practice coding, and practice answering behavioral interview questions."
But the real secret, says Amie, is to "be yourself and be honest."
"If you are stuck on a problem, ask for help, ask questions, and learn from the people interviewing you."
Because as Amie knows all too well, you can't do it all by yourself.Want to solve complex problems alongside Amie? Check out Audible's open roles here!
Abena Saulka is obsessed with obscure apocalyptic movies. Especially ones that feature a zombie apocalypse.
"I wonder how I would survive in the world in an apocalyptic state. Would I survive? Do I have what it takes?" asks Abena.
She thinks about her career similarly. Abena wants to be a CTO or CIO one day. When asked where that goal comes from, she responds, "It was the highest, most impossible goal I could set, and like with apocalyptic movies, I want to know what my limit is," she says.
"I don't think I have found [my limits] yet. I have to keep pushing," she says, smiling.
We sat down with Abena to hear more about where her drive to test herself comes from, how she found her way to Pluralsight, and what she's looking forward to next.
Finding the Right Environments for Success
Abena grew up in Kumasi, Ghana, where she experienced the British education system.
"You don't question the teachers, you just listen to what the teachers have to say," she says.
It was that experience that made Abena interested in going to the United States for college.
"The US has a very good advertising campaign outside of the US about its educational system. I felt that in an American liberal arts education, you get to have an argument and conversation with the teacher. You get to have your opinion," she says.
Once at Goshen College in the U.S., she studied business, with an eventual goal of being an entrepreneur, inspired by her restaurateur mom. But after an early ecommerce venture went belly-up, Abena realized that she needed to understand how the web worked if she wanted to run a business.
"I had to understand web development to understand what had happened, what we did wrong," she says. "The person we'd hired, I couldn't make sense of whether [what they said] was the truth or not. I was lost, and I decided I had to learn it."
So she headed to Barnes and Noble to buy a copy of HTML for Dummies—"At the time, there was no online place you could go to learn!" she says—and started teaching herself, a few hours a day.
Her self-taught approach worked, and Abena was hired as a webmaster at an insurance company. "I was just very thrilled that I had learned something on my own and I got a job on that," she says. "And once I started working as a software engineer, it incorporated all the elements of business I liked. It had entrepreneurship, you could be a self-starter, you could be a director, and you could take ownership of the work you were doing."
But while that was true for the first decade or so of her career, Abena hit a ceiling.
She'd been continuously training herself through the Pluralsight subscription that her company offered. She'd take a new concept, like C#, and study for a certain amount of time each day, developing her own private projects to test her understanding of the concepts.
She had also been networking with her fellow software engineers. But when Abena wanted to try her hand at applying all her hard-won experience in a leadership role that went beyond having three direct reports, she couldn't get her managers to give her a shot.
"I hit a ceiling. I wanted to be able to drive the business decisions, but no one thought my opinion would matter. I was always told what to do, and that became stifling for me," explains Abena.
Driving Forward, With Belief
Abena decided to supplement her self-directed education with a Master of Science in Technology Management from Columbia University. When even those credentials didn't sway her managers' opinions, she decided to leave, and to find a company that would trust her to take on a leadership role.
It took three years.
Three long years of interviews, research, and more self-studying. In early interviews, Abena realized she wasn't showing enough of the soft skills a leader would need, from empathetic communication to managing at the right level. She read books, practiced, and cemented a new approach: instead of talking about everything she didn't have or hadn't done, she would focus on what the company needed, and talk about how she could meet those needs.
"When I did that, people overlooked the Ghanaian accent, the nervousness. They think, 'This person can actually contribute something to my company,'" she says.
She finally got the job she was looking for, and Abena chalks that success up to her never-wavering belief in herself. Despite the anxiety, the imposter syndrome, and the doubt, she kept coming back to her one belief: keep knocking.
"You have to be an advocate for yourself, and believe that it can happen. I'm an example that if you keep knocking on the door, somebody will open it. Somebody will see you," she says.
Three months into her new job, Abena's boss called her in.
"I said, 'Oh my god, I'm in trouble,'" she says. But her boss wasn't there to reprimand, but rather to commend: he'd heard reports from her team that they felt empowered, supported, and cared for.
The approach inspired by her liberal arts education—one that focused on helping her team help themselves, equipping them with critical thinking skills and always being an accessible sounding board—was succeeding.
Then Pluralsight came calling.
Coming Full Circle
It was actually a PowerToFly email that reached Abena, letting her know that her favorite training tool was looking to hire someone just like her.
"I had such a high respect for Pluralsight that initially I thought, 'I don't think they would want me,'" she says, remembering. A follow-up email from PowerToFly a week later made her feel the need to be brave: "I decided to go through the interview process as a test to defeat that self-doubt."
It ended up being another test that Abena crushed. When she got the job offer, she didn't quite believe it. "I was thinking in my head it was surreal. It was a much bigger role, with more people to manage and more responsibilities, and they thought I could do it. It didn't even cross my mind to turn them down."
She accepted, and now as Director of Software Engineering, Abena's role is to advocate for her developers and to help set and execute the company's future roadmap. It's giving her a chance to apply all of the leadership skills she learned at Columbia.
She's currently working on a project to integrate a new acquisition. "This is the kind of work I wanted to do. I get to see my ideas, and influence the decision-making; it's what I've been striving to do from day one," she says.
"Now I'm part of the company on the inside. I know what it feels like to be a Pluralsight customer. I'm here to advocate for the customer," she says. "Learning is revolutionary. It's such a barrier to so many things."
"To be part of a company that values that, sees that, is very inspiring. It's the difference between being at a company that's just giving you a paycheck and being at a company that really is doing something substantial," says Abena. "It's really satisfying."