Welcome to Women of DevOps, Episode Five! Today’s guest is Kat Cosgrove. I’m really happy with our conversation – it was a very honest look into life as a woman in tech, warts and all. Plus I got to learn about self-driving Donkey Cars, so that’s a win in my books!

Kat was referred to me by my esteemed colleague Ravi, and I’m so glad he introduced us. 

Listen – or read on – below!

‘Til next time,

Roxanne

The Women of DevOps, Ep. 5

Can’t listen to the audio? Read on below for a transcript of our conversation. 

Rox: Hey everyone, thank you all so much for joining us for another episode of Women of DevOps! Today, we are joined by Kat Cosgrove. 

Kat: Hey there. 

Rox: Welcome to Women of DevOps! To start, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Kat: Yeah, my name is Kat Cosgrove. I’m a Developer Advocate, working largely in the DevOps space. I live in Seattle, Washington though I didn’t grow up here. I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee. I have a husband and two extremely cute Munchkin cats, who actually – Espresso writes most of my tweets, you see her a lot on my Twitter account.

Rox: What actually brought you to Seattle, if you don’t mind my asking? Because I’ve been and it’s beautiful. I don’t blame you. [laughs]

Kat: It is beautiful! I wanted to move here for a long time. I moved here like six or seven years ago. But what actually brought me here was my husband. We were living together in Atlanta. I moved from Memphis to Atlanta. He’s a fencing coach – the sport. He teaches kids to stab each other competitively. 

He got an offer from a fencing club up here, a full-time offer. He was coaching part-time then. We just said, “You know what, let’s get out of here.” We didn’t really like living in Atlanta. We weren’t particularly attached to it. So we packed up all of our stuff and drove across the country two weeks later.

Rox: Nice!

Kat: Short notice. 

Rox: If I ever get the opportunity to move… PNW, that’s probably where I’m going.

Kat: Oh, it’s gorgeous here. Expensive, but igorgeous.

Rox: I’m in Florida right now and the weather just keeps getting warmer and warmer. 

Kat: It doesn’t get any better. 

Kat Cosgrove, Women of DevOps, with Espresso the cat!
Kat Cosgrove with her cat, Espresso

Rox: So how long have you been in tech? And what was your career progression like?

Kat: I did not get here the normal way. I did go to college, but I went to college for not computer science, and also I dropped out. I spent a long time as a bartender, I worked at an independent video rental store for a long time, which I actually super miss, but it did not pay the bills. 

My dad’s a software engineer, so I grew up around it and I had taught myself some things. To make ends meet, I started freelancing as a web developer. I was building a lot of WordPress and Joomla sites for people. From there, I went to a coding bootcamp in Seattle because I wanted to learn something other than JavaScript, HTML, CSS, PHP. I learned Python there. 

I got a job at JFrog as, at first, an Embedded Linux Engineer. So I haven’t formally been in tech for all that long. It’s been, I don’t know, five years total? But it was always there. It was always a hobby. It was always something I did. I just didn’t do it for my job for quite a long time.

Rox: You’re actually my first bootcamper and I am so happy because bootcamps have a very soft spot for me. That is really cool. I’m gonna ask you more about that. But – when it comes to DevOps, what’s your area of expertise? Just because it’s so overarching, there’s so many facets to it, what do you really hone in on?

Kat: Yeah, it is really, really broad. I focus pretty heavily – since I’m a developer advocate, I do a lot of teaching people things. That’s my job. But I focus really heavily on very basic, 101 entry level content. There is a lot of that stuff, but a lot of it is frankly not very good. It makes a lot of assumptions about what the reader understands. I don’t like that – I don’t find it useful. So I write a lot of 101-level content on broad concepts, things like “What is CI/CD?” and “Explain package management to me,” that kind of stuff. But I also do a lot of work with the CNCF (Cloud Native Computing Foundation). I’m a CNCF Ambassador, this year I was a track chair for Kubecon, and on and on and on. So a lot of Kubernetes as well.

Rox: Nice. Is there a specific area of DevOps that maybe you haven’t dipped your feet in yet that you’re stoked to get involved in?

Kat: Yeah, I don’t have a ton of experience with infrastructure as code other than using Terraform. I would like to get into that more now because it seems like a good tool to use to teach people about some adjacent DevOps concepts like cloud computing. It also seems like a shortcut to introducing people to things like Kubernetes. I like to use tools like that that are something you see in the wild – in real, actual practice that serve as an abstraction for something that’s otherwise very difficult to explain. It makes it easier to give people a practical, functional example of some other tool in use. You don’t have to worry as much about the intricacies of standing something up if you’re using some IaC tool. So I’m looking forward to learning more about those kinds of things and seeing if I can turn that into some 101 cloud content too. 

Rox: Nice. Okay, back to education, just because I’m so excited about this one. Do you believe that four-year degrees are the way, or do you encourage joining bootcamps – start as a Junior Dev, and then make your way up to DevOps? There’s not really much in terms of DevOps for bootcamps, it’s just too much to learn. What do you think would be the best path?

Kat: I do not think that a computer science degree is necessary, by any stretch of the imagination, and frankly, fresh computer science grads are, in my experience so far, not as useful right after graduation as bootcamp grads are. They have a much better theory of understanding, but they don’t have a practical applications understanding. They can’t hit the ground running, right? Their foundation can be stronger, but they can’t start writing code on day one. It depends on what you want, really, in specifically a DevOps sort of framing. A lot of bootcamps do teach you some DevOps tools and concepts now. The bootcamp I went to, we did learn how to use Ansible, which was pretty neat. And the bootcamp I went to also now does have an actual Ops 401. They just have this course, which is pretty cool. I don’t know of any others that do, but the one I went to does now. It’s new, they’ve only had it for six months or so. 

If you just want to be useful fast, then yes, I think a bootcamp is a better way to do that. If you want a super strong foundation of theory and fundamentals, a computer science degree is the better way to go. I think this comes down to the individual. I didn’t do well in college. That is because I don’t learn well in an environment like that. It’s also pretty hard for me – this is gonna be a very US-centric answer, the next bit – it is extremely hard for me to justify going potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt for an education. I can’t personally justify it. I think that’s absurd. 

Kat Cosgrove with self-driving car
Kat driving the Donkey Car

Rox: I would agree there. 

Kat: Yeah,  if you don’t have scholarships that are getting you a free ride, I can’t say it’s worth it. I got a scholarship for my bootcamp. 

Rox: The DevOps one you were talking about –  is it still three months?

Kat: So the one I went to, there’s a 201-level course that is a month long and a 301-level course that is also a month long. Everybody goes through the same 201 and 301 regardless of which 401-level course they’re going into. The 401-level course is 10 weeks. Last I checked, they had Ops, Cybersecurity, Python, Java, C#, and JavaScript as options for the 401.

Rox: So I’m sucky at math, but that’s about 4.5 months total?

Kat: Yeah. 

Rox: Okay. That’s not bad. 

Kat: That’s not bad at all. No. You can grind straight through them. I didn’t, I took a break between 301 and 401 to work as a TA there for about two months, because, you know, I needed money. [laughs]

Rox: Money’s nice. [laughs]

Kat: They paid us, so that’s good. And also, I think teaching people something is a really good way to make sure that you understand it yourself. It was valuable as a learning experience. And also, you know, for being able to pay my bills.

Rox: We like food, we like not starving.

Kat: Yeah, we like paying the rent.

Rox: If you could go back and do it all over again, what would you change, if anything? Is there some advice you’d give your younger self in regards to your career?

Kat: I wouldn’t change anything. But I would like to have a conversation with myself about two weeks into my first job after a bootcamp. This was absolutely imposter syndrome coming to get me, and also, it was not having a good understanding of what an actual office job in tech can be like, especially at a startup. But about two weeks in, I had a full scale hiding-in-the-bathroom-crying meltdown at work.

Rox: Gosh!

Kat: I know! Because I wasn’t immediately writing production code. I’d gotten hired, and they were like, “Cool, we don’t actually want you to write Python. We need you to write Go.” I was like, “I don’t know Go.” And they were like, “That’s fine. Learn it.” 

I didn’t have a good concept of how long it’s acceptable to go without being productive. At a tech job, I thought that I needed to be able to write Go within a week or something. That’s not true. They didn’t actually expect that for me because that’s unreasonable and it’s absurd. But nobody told me that. Nobody told me that. So I freaked out and had a meltdown over it. 

I think I would go talk to myself about setting expectations with respect to productivity timelines. Everybody, when they start a new tech job – regardless of how long they’ve been in the industry – there is a ramp-up period, right? You have to learn new tools, you have to learn new technologies, you have to learn new processes, you maybe have to learn a new programming language. Nobody expects you to actually contribute for weeks or months. And nobody told me that. So I would like other people to know that.

Rox: Yeah, that is some good advice. My partner just hired another Senior DevOps Engineer at his company. The guy’s first day, he’s like, “Okay, what do you want me to do?” Bro, take some time, learn stuff. It’s okay. But he’s just ready to go. 

Kat: I envy that gumption. But there’s internal documentation you have to read. You don’t know how things work at this specific company. Even if you know how all of the tools work, you don’t know how they’re set up. You don’t know how they’re talking to each other. You don’t know what the actual team or org or company-specific practices and processes are. You gotta learn that stuff. Every time.

Rox: Yeah, absolutely. Take your time. It’s okay. What has your experience been like so far as a woman in tech?

Kat: Ooh. I spend a lot of time at conferences and I get hit on a lot at conferences and my male coworkers don’t. The other day after giving a webinar, I got an email at my work account from somebody who wanted to ask me out. 

Rox: Bold.

Kat: Very bold, very bold. When I told him it was unprofessional and inappropriate, he argued with me about whether or not it was unprofessional and inappropriate. That’s not something my male coworkers experience or have to deal with. 

Somebody tried to get me fired. He messaged me through a conferencing platform trying to hire me because he was looking for, quote, “females” for a team. That’s just – you know, don’t call me that. Don’t don’t call women that. It’s clinical. It’s dehumanizing. It’s weird. Don’t do that. And when I had a problem with it, he said some unpleasant things and then filed a COC (code of conduct) violation about me to the conference, which didn’t go anywhere. He got COCed in return, and then he contacted my employer’s HR department, and tried to get me fired. 

Rox: Wow. 

Kat: That kind of stuff does not happen to my male coworkers. It doesn’t. My teammates don’t have to deal with that. But fortunately, since I’m heavily involved in the cloud native community, I have never seen a corner of tech or DevOps this aggressively intolerant of that kind of behavior. If that kind of thing happens at a cloud native event or in the cloud native community, I don’t even have to deal with it. Somebody else deals with it for me, and I may not even see it happen, which is incredible. But I think it’s unfortunate that this is where we still are, it does feel like it’s kind of getting better. You see more and more conferences and more places having robust codes of conduct that are actually enforced, which is super helpful. But in other ways, we are still where we are. Don’t hit on people at conferences. I’m not here for that.

Rox: We’re there to learn. We’re there to network.

Kat: Yeah. This is not Bumble or Tinder or whatever. This is a conference.

Rox: Mhm! On that note, what’s something that you could tell men out there to help women feel more welcomed and comfortable going into tech?

Kat: We can’t tell who the “good guys” are, unless you show us. You can’t just tell us that. Stand up for people who have less privilege or less power than you. Don’t make me defend myself. Don’t do that. If one of your buddies or one of your coworkers or just a stranger at a conference says or does something that you think might make a woman uncomfortable or make her feel objectified or isolated, you deal with it. You shut it down. Don’t make us do it. Because first of all, it’s exhausting having to shut that stuff down yourself. Second of all, they often don’t listen to us, like the guy who argued with me when I told him that trying to ask me out on my work email after a presentation was unprofessional. They really don’t listen to us, but they do listen to you. So lend us your power. That’s helpful. It shows us that you’re safe and it takes some pressure off of us.

Rox: It’s kind of that whole silence is acceptance, right? 

Kat: Yeah. If you’re quietly letting it happen, you’re complicit. 

Rox: Yep. I’m so grateful for your honesty right now. 

Kat: Oh thank you!

Rox: So what are some common misconceptions, keeping women away from DevOps?

Kat: I don’t think there’s anything that keeps women away from DevOps specifically. I don’t think DevOps is unique in that. If anything, because DevOps is so young as a cohesive whole, it’s maybe less of a problem in DevOps than it is in, say, Linux kernel development, or whatever. I don’t think DevOps is unique in having specifically gendered barriers to entry. If anything, if you’re getting into the cloud native space, it’s pretty openly more friendly towards women than a lot of other corners of tech. So, you know, come on! It still sucks in some ways, in the same ways that a lot of the rest of tech sucks, but we are extremely loud, extremely mean, and extremely outspoken when somebody tries to do something awful. We will stand up for you.

Rox: Love that. In your career – it doesn’t have to be at your current position – what’s your favorite project you’ve ever gotten to work on, and why?

Kat: So this was when I was a software engineer at JFrog on the IoT team. We built a self-driving car, a miniature self-driving car. 

Rox: Whaaaat!

Kat: Yeah. You can build one of these yourself. It’s called a donkey car. They’re very cool. Very fun. They cost about $300-$350 in parts to build. This is very, very rudimentary machine learning. Within three or four hours, you can have the thing built and driving itself. But we took it a step further. We were building a proof of concept to try to resolve an issue with the way software updates work in cars. 

Cars have lots of computers in them. Some of you are probably thinking, “Oh no, not my car, because I am allergic to that and I drive a 2004 Toyota Camry.” I have bad news for you: that has computers in it too, because brakes have been fly-by-wire since the 90s. But software updates in cars suck. They can’t happen remotely in the overwhelming majority of cases. Teslas are an exception. It’s no longer as bad as it used to be. More cars can do this now. 

Famously, the Jaguar I-PACE, had a problem with the computer that handled the brakes. A bug in the software caused a regenerative braking systems failure and because there was no way to remotely update the software, they had to issue a recall for the car – for a $75,000 luxury SUV. That sucks. The only way to update it was to take the thing to a service center and physically flash the computer. It had to be flashed. There’s no way to update it. So we built a system using this little remote controlled self-driving car to fix that. We glued together Artifactory, which is one of JFrog’s products, K3s, which is from Rancher – it’s Kubernetes meant for embedded Linux devices, Mender and Yocto to build a system that would allow the car to update over the air while it was being driven. An application-level update could happen in about 35 seconds without interrupting the driver at all. A full firmware update took about 5 to 10 minutes and it happened in the background while the driver was doing whatever – you’re going to the grocery store, it doesn’t matter – and then it flips to the new partition the next time the car restarts. That was the coolest thing I have built. It was very difficult. It was very complicated. But it was very fun. 

It’s actually what led to me being a Developer Advocate, because it got a lot of press. People wanted to talk about it. There were only three engineers on the team. It was me and a guy named Brennan Ashton and Ben Harosh. They didn’t really want to speak about it publicly. They didn’t want to go on stage. I didn’t care, so I went on stage and talked about it and the devrel team liked what they saw, I guess. And poached me. 

A close-up of Kat Cosgrove's Donkey Car
A closeup of the Donkey Car!

Rox: Wow. Did anything ever happen with that?

Kat: Our tech lead Brennan did go and talk directly to some car manufacturers about it. I don’t know what came of it. I wasn’t really privy to that level of detail, but I know that more cars are starting to roll out over the air updates. I think some BMWs can do it now, which is pretty cool. This is an inevitability. This is going to happen. They’re not using any of our code for sure, this was just a proof of concept. It never became a product, the code never ended up anywhere. But it’s an inevitability. This will happen. We just proved that it’s doable with off-the-shelf tools and parts. 

Rox: Yeah, that is really cool. I guarantee you my Mazda does not do that.

Kat: It doesn’t. My Volkswagen doesn’t do it. My Mini Cooper doesn’t do it.

Rox: That’s really awesome. Is there anything exciting coming down the pipeline for you? Examples would be like a new certification, mentorship program, speaking engagements, anything cool to further your mark in tech.

Kat: So I speak a lot. That is my job. Hopefully I’ll be speaking at Kubecon LA which will be a hybrid event. They’re going to try to do it partially in person in October which is going to be rad, but I will be there either way whether I’m speaking or not. So if you see me out there you are welcome to come say hi and talk to me. 

Rox: But not hit on you. [laughs]

Kat: Other exciting things – I’m trying to get some certifications. I’m taking some break time from public speaking to go get some certs. I need to go get my CKA and CKAD Kubernetes certifications from the CNCF. So probably those next just to tell people that a piece of paper says that I’m an expert.

Rox: [laughs] Can’t do without those pieces of paper, man!

Kat: Need ‘em.

Rox: Yeah. My partner has a bunch of the AWS ones. Just the time it takes to study and prep for, oof…

Kat: Yeah, they’re – I don’t know if I would pay for them personally, but they are free for me because I’m a CNCF Ambassador. We’re allowed access to the training materials and certification courses for free. 

Rox: Yeah, that’s not a bad deal.

Kat: We’ll get them. I’m not paying for it, so.

Rox: Alright, final question. Is there anything else you would like to share? Perhaps a word of encouragement for fellow women in tech?

Kat: We hear a lot of bad things about what it’s like to be a woman in tech. We are surrounded by it, it comes up regularly on Tech Twitter. And I know that it sounds terrible. I’m not gonna lie to you, sometimes it really is. It super sucks. But there are a lot of very supportive people in tech – in all corners of tech, whether you’re in DevOps or not. And if you find us, we’re very friendly and we’re also very willing to aggressively protect you. Just talk to us. Don’t let the fact that it sounds terrible keep you out if this is what you want to do, because it is fulfilling. If you like solving puzzles, if you like fixing things, if you like helping people, if you like building stuff, if you like breaking stuff, and also it pays super well. So if this is what you want to do, come talk to us and we will help you make it happen. We’ll do everything we can to keep you safe and happy while we’re doing it.

Rox: Thank you so much for your time today.

Kat: Thank you!

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Want to be our next Women of DevOps? Email me and we’ll talk!