Welcome to our interview series, where we introduce you to developers of all levels from all walks of life. Prepare to be inspired!
Today we are hearing from our friend, Olena Gomozova. Olena is a developer who has taken on more of a management role. She is also a mom of two and she works for a non-profit! Keep reading to find out how she found her way to code!
What’s your current position and company?
I’m a Director of IT at the Association of Executive Search and Leadership Consultants (AESC). AESC is a global non-profit representing leading executive search and leadership consulting firms and professionals around the world.
What’s your day-to-day like?
I used to do a lot of the development work for my organization. Basically, a lot of front-end work for various platforms and CMSs, Drupal theming and module development, collaborating with other teams on migrations and integrations, A/B testing, various optimizations for website performance, SEO, mobile, etc.
Starting this year, we’re outsourcing most of the development work to vendors due to the more aggressive development schedule and limited capacity. Now I focus mostly on management.
My day at work usually consists of meetings (internal at various levels, external with vendors), email/phone calls, PM work on planning releases, creating project plans and monitoring progress, coordinating new upgrades, configurations, implementation and maintenance of business applications, Jira and then more Jira, some QA, and learning new things (if/when I have time).
If you had a different career before, what was it? What skills from that career have been helpful in being a developer?
It took some time for me to realize that web development is what I like the most. There were so many things I enjoyed doing, and I was going from one extreme to the other for a long time. I was trying to find a balance between the science/tech and creative sides of my personality.
My degrees are in international relations and in science. I don’t have a CS degree, but I took programming classes in both universities I attended. Those classes covered basic programming concepts, mathematical foundations, common problems, and database design. I also learned a bit of BASIC, Fortran, and some HTML there.
I think, eventually, all the skills and experiences I got from working in non-tech fields made me better at my current job. Soft skills, experience working with people from different professional and cultural backgrounds, empathy, and ability to see problems from different angles are rare among programmers. I’ve always considered those to be my strengths.
Can you tell us about how you got into code, and why you chose this career path?
I made a few WordPress websites right after I had my first child in an attempt to keep myself busy, as being a stay-at-home mom was pretty hard and exhausting mentally and emotionally. It was something fun to do using the basic web development skills I learned earlier.
Gradually, I’ve deepened my knowledge of both front- and back-end technologies and started taking on freelance and contract work. That way I got familiar with various platforms, services, and frameworks. Each project was different with its own challenges and things to learn. With time I also got comfortable with servers, databases, front-end libraries and frameworks and other more advanced stuff.
You work for a non-profit. Can you tell us how that makes your role different than it would be at a start-up or a big tech company?
Culture – our company is a small but well-established organization with strong work ethics and integrity. There are also fewer hierarchies and more open communication compared to large firms.
Work-life balance – being a mother of 2 children, I can honestly say that this is one of the main reasons I value this job a lot. From maternity leave to the number of PTO days, to the work from home option – this is all super important to me. Not all tech firms and start-ups are as family-friendly.
Inclusion – despite being a small team, we’re proud to have diversity in gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation across our staff. IT teams are still dominated by men, but organization-wise it’s a pretty awesome balance.
Flexibility – we work quickly, closely, and effectively. But, most importantly, we are very agile and we’re always encouraged to suggest new ideas – and we bring them to life quickly. Just like start-ups, we do have big workloads sometimes, but most of the processes are well planned and streamlined, so things don’t get out of control and don’t become too hectic.
However, I should say that developers in many nonprofits have somewhat limited professional growth opportunities compared to start-ups and large tech firms. IT teams are usually relatively small, tech stacks are oftentimes outdated and projects are not too big and/or complex. So you have to be prepared to find ways to learn and grow on your own like taking courses, going to meetups, working on side/pet/opensource projects, etc.
Prior to working at your current company, you were self-employed. Can you tell us about that? Why did you decide to pursue the employee route and leave the contract work behind?
I switched to a full-time job after relocating to New York for my husband’s new job, as I felt that being around people every day was helping me with socialization and adaptation in the new place. Also, I wanted to have a long-term project I could work on improving it over time as I grow my skills.
I still do some freelancing in my free time taking on like 2-3 small to medium size projects a year. Mostly, I do it to get some experience with new technologies and keep up with the industry developments.
You mentioned the importance of finding your passion. How did you find yours?
I finally listened to my inner voice, which I just didn’t realize I was hearing for so many years:
- Those programming classes at school were always my favorites and I was one of the best students.
- Often times I find myself building something and fixing bugs till morning while learning something or working on side projects.
- I never stop till I get it right, unfinished work and coding problems keep bugging me, and I feel bad when things don’t work as expected. But in my normal life, I’m definitely not a perfectionist.
I think these are all signals that I found my passion and I should pursue it.
What is your favorite part of your work?
Variety of challenges and learning opportunities – I can spend all day coding, or brainstorm new ideas on how to generate more revenue or increase operational efficiency, or work on visuals and UI/UX. There are dozens of other things, too. On the flip side, there are times when balancing so many things and staying focused on the priorities can get pretty challenging.
You said you are moving more into a management/leadership role. How do you feel about that? What advice do you have for women who are in the same position or women who aspire to get there?
I was a bit unsure whether I was going to like it when I got this chance to take on more management and leadership responsibilities. I was also worried that I was going to lose the opportunity to become a better coder. But eventually, it all worked out well. I really enjoy getting this higher-level understanding of the problems we’re solving as a team, and I’m learning a lot beyond just web development now – from contract negotiation and vendor management to strategic planning and cloud technologies.
My main advice is not to be afraid of change. You can always get back to the development if you feel like doing so. For those who want to transition into a managerial or leadership role, my recommendation would be building your reputation as a competent and skilled “team player” and widen your area of expertise. Focus on strategic thinking and driving measurable results to your company, vocalizing your aspirations with your manager and/or your leadership team.
But also be prepared that this job may not work out well for you, since juggling many projects and priorities at the same time is pretty challenging. Overall team dynamics and the number of calls, meetings, and negotiations can be draining for someone who’s not too competitive and/or extroverted.
What do you think is the biggest challenge for women in code? What do you think women can do to advance in such a male-dominated industry?
I’ve been lucky enough to work with great teams and great people, and I can’t think of a situation where I felt discriminated against. But I grew up being in male-dominated teams in high school and university and most of my friends and my husband are all men who work in IT. So maybe I’m just immune to those things now.
In general, I’d say our biggest issues are impostor syndrome and taking things too personally. Staying cool, being confident, trusting yourself when you know your stuff, being ready to debate without getting overly emotional, and being ready to admit when you are wrong and learn from others are very important qualities that can help women in this industry.
What advice would you give to a woman who’s deciding between the technical and the management career path?
Honestly speaking, I’m still debating about this too. I really enjoy what I do now, but I sometimes miss long quiet coding hours, and I compensate that by working on side/pet projects when I have time.
But I truly believe that the only way to know if you like something for sure is by taking risks and trying things out, knowing that these opportunities won’t be there for long. And such change doesn’t usually happen overnight, so you can experience what it’s like when you start taking on more management responsibilities and see for yourself if you like it or not.
Quick fire round
When I can’t solve a bug, I…
My favorite programming language is…
Dream company to work for…
something futuristic and/or mission-driven like SpaceX
If I had unlimited resources, I would develop…
ideas generator for my paintings and/or blog posts. A smart app that can suggest ideas based on my personality traits, interests and goals.
In 5 years time, I want to…
be ready to face whatever life sends my way
Your favorite quote…
“Do what you must and come what may.”