Welcome back to Women of DevOps, Episode Nine! We’re back after a little break.
Today’s guest is Kristin Smith, a DevOps Lead from Campspot. Kristin came from a non-traditional background, initially studying archival sciences/historical preservation. So how did she end up in tech?! Listen – or read on – below!
‘Til next time,
The Women of DevOps, Ep. 9
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. After a short hiatus, we’re back, and we’re bringing you more awesome women to learn about. And today, we’re joined by Kristin Smith.
Kristin: Hi! Thank you for having me.
Rox: Thank you so much for being on. To start, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Kristin: Yeah, my name is Kristin Smith. I’m currently based in Virginia in the United States. I work for a company called Campspot. We’re a fully distributed team at this point, thanks to the pandemic. But we serve campgrounds and campers all across North America.
Rox: Just to expand on that a little bit, were you guys always distributed or because of the pandemic, and then you decided, “Hey, let’s just can the office forever?”
Kristin: That second one, yeah. We still have offices that people can go to if they are feeling that, but for the most part, we’ve moved to a more distributed model.
Rox: Same thing that happened with us. I believe I got hired because we started letting remote people in. It’s been a pretty good boon to work from home. Have you preferred that, generally speaking?
Kristin: Yeah. And it’s meant that we’ve really gotten to expand our talent pool. We brought on a couple of really cool people that I don’t think would have been in our search before that are now, and they’ve been complete assets to the team. I’m really excited about it.
Rox: That’s awesome. So how long have you been in tech? What’s your career progression been like?
Kristin: I would say I transitioned in about seven years ago. I have a non-traditional background. I had an archival sciences/historical preservation background in college and didn’t see myself moving into a technical field. I thought that maybe archival sciences might be the next step forward for me. From there, I made a little bit of a left turn into falling in love with metadata as part of that historic preservation field.
That’s kind of how I snuck in. I like to say that I snuck in through the side door. But it’s worked out really well for me. I started as a bookkeeper, actually, at a web development firm, which is not a normal first step. But it worked out really well for me. I started taking database backups for people and helping set up websites and doing a little bit of CSS when our developers were out.
From there, I moved into Frontend web development, and then just worked my way downstack. Moved into automated operations at a federal data center working particularly on their monitoring and alerting stack. And then I ended up as a DevOps engineer at Campspot.
Rox: Would you say that at this point you’ve fallen in love with DevOps?
Kristin: I think this is where I’m going to be for a while, yeah.
Rox: So what’s your area of expertise in DevOps? I’m gonna guess it’s infrastructure as code since you’re certified in Terraform? [laughs]
Kristin: Yes, although everyone on our team gets certified in Terraform. That’s a useful skill. So Cloud engineering, and infrastructure as code is a core competency of mine. I love it. I think the less time you have to spend manually provisioning your infrastructure, the more time you can spend doing really interesting things, the less developer friction there is, and overall, the smoother your operation runs. Moving from the development environment to your production environments, there are so many interesting problems to solve that I don’t want to spend time solving repetitive problems.
There’s not always a smooth path to automation, but infrastructure as code is one of those very clear answers. I’d say that’s an area of focus at this point.
Rox: Nice. My partner’s actually a DevOps engineer and Terraform is the love of his life. He loves Terraform. Same as you – it’s simplified his life so much. Not having to repeat yourself so much, you know?
Rox: Is there an area in DevOps that you haven’t touched much of yet, but you’re super stoked to get into?
Kristin: Definitely. A couple of key areas. We are really fortunate at Campspot to have a couple of really badass test automation engineers on board, but I have not actually done a lot of integrated work with that team. We reorganized a little bit to help bridge that gap. That’s an area that I’m excited about being more involved in, being able to integrate that testing into our pipelines a little bit better. With the end goal of making all of our deployments faster and reducing the amount of time you have to hold your code in your head before it makes it to production.
The second area is just security. That’s been in the news a lot the last couple of weeks. Obviously the log4j issue, and other things coming up. That never makes mainstream news, but that actually did! So relevant, topical for everybody. Testing and security being areas that I’ll be spending a little bit more time in over the next year.
Rox: Nice. I’m glad you mentioned that too. It’s so it’s such an integral part of DevOps – security.
Kristin: It is. It’s been one of those things historically that’s the last thing you think about. To be able to start shifting that a little bit further left will feel really good for everybody.
Rox: For real. So, tough question. DevOps: a set of practices and tools, or a culture?
Kristin: [laughs] I’m going to skirt this one a little bit. I think it’s a culture, and I think one of the ways that you build and maintain culture is through ritual and practice. So in a lot of ways, the processes that we put in place, the artifacts that we maintain and publicize and hold up to honor those processes are part of how we make culture. Intertwined.
Rox: Nice, very nice. Very good answer. So I want to get your take on education, because you came from a different path, which, honestly, a lot of the women I’ve interviewed so far have been that way. Patricia, I believe, was a psych major. Leigh was a biochemistry major. So what’s your thought on education? Do you feel like 4-year degrees are the way? Do you feel like bootcamps are good? Do you feel like starting a career as a junior dev and making your way organically into DevOps is best? What’s your take on that?
Kristin: I’ve been thinking about this question a lot in the last year in particular, as I’ve started hiring, as several friends of mine have gone through bootcamps, and I have family that work in academia, right? In a world in which anybody could do a 4-year degree and come out without debt, that would be a more viable option.
I have a really hard time recommending 4-year degrees if people are unclear about what they want to do. Tech is so broad, and a lot of those jobs don’t need 4-year degrees. So if I were to make a general statement, I’d say bootcamps and organic experience is probably what I would recommend to people – with the caveat that if there’s something that you want to do, that requires a degree – if you want to do research in computer science, you want to do research in a specific field, the odds of you getting published are so low without a degree. To say, “Oh, you could just teach yourself and get published,” that’s kind of a long shot.
But the thing is, most of the women that I know that got into tech, we did it because we taught ourselves, because there’s a wealth of online courses, because bootcamps are more accessible. I think those are lower-risk ways to experiment with being in tech without accidentally saddling yourself with a life-changing amount of debt.
Rox: Right? I was 17 when I started buying books on HTML and CSS.
Rox: Yeah. That’s just how you did it back then. So if you could go back and do it all over again, is there anything that you would change? What advice would you have for your younger self?
Kristin: Great question. I did have a sort of weird meandering career path. I don’t think I advanced as quickly as I might have if I had gone to a bootcamp and started as a junior dev and worked my way up that way. But I also don’t know that I would have gotten into DevOps through that route and I’m really happy with where I ended up. I don’t know that I would have changed anything about the overall trajectory.
But the thing that I would go back and change – and the thing that I still have to pep talk myself about today – is I would have started networking with humans earlier. I don’t like to play into the imposter syndrome stuff, but I think I felt so unqualified, particularly because I came in from a non-traditional background, that I couldn’t walk into a room and say, “Hi, I’m a developer,” or “Hi, I’m an operations person” or “Hi, I’m a Linux admin” confidently enough to network earlier in my career. It’s only been in the last couple of years that I’ve been able to start doing that. I missed out on a couple of years where I could have been meeting people who are going through the same things as I was doing, and probably accelerated my learning in that way. That’s the one thing I would go back and change.
Rox: Out of all things, that’s a fairly good one, you know?
Kristin: Yeah, it’s okay to talk to people, even if you don’t know everything. Nobody knows everything.
Rox: Nobody expects you to be an expert. So what’s your favorite part about working for Campspot?
Kristin: Two things – yes, I love camping – but also, we have a lot of glamping on the platform. So even if you’re not a hardcore – especially if you’re not a hardcore backpacker and you’re really into not having to haul your own stuff and you like twinkly lights, great platform for that. Those are nice perks.
From a professional standpoint, what I like about working for Campspot is it’s a growing company. We’ve doubled in size since I came onboard two years ago. There are really cool problems that come with scaling that I had no idea about. I’d worked at a – we’re gonna call it a stable startup that wasn’t growing, and I’ve worked at really traditional, entrenched institutions. I worked in higher education, and I worked for the federal government. This is the first time that I’ve worked at a growing company.
When you quintuple your traffic in six months, you run into problems that you don’t run into when you’re running a stable platform. Being able to see and participate in solving those problems is super fun. That’s probably my favorite part about it right now.
Rox: I would assume there’s kind of been a marked increase in the pandemic, right?
Kristin: There was some organic growth – Campspot’s been around since 2015. We were kind of getting the ball rolling when the pandemic started. We launched our business to consumers, the “Airbnb for camping” side of things, in February of 2020. Weeks before the lockdown.
All through the last year and a half, people have been trying to socially distance. People who were planning trips abroad who couldn’t go because of travel restrictions, all of those people turned around and funneled their vacation energy into high-end camping trips, booking cabins, etc. So yeah, there’s been a huge increase. It’s been pretty exciting to be part of.
Rox: Nice. So this one is – this is where it can get a little bit rough. What’s your experience been like, as a woman in tech?
Kristin: Mixed Bag. Mostly good. I think this is the area of my life where I feel I have seen the most women upholding women. There is something really beautiful about that. There’s also been a little bit – I also got into HTML when I was around 17 and I had a terrible experience with somebody who was an open-source maintainer. It was so bad that I dropped the idea of doing anything with tech for a decade.
Rox: Oh my God.
Kristin: That was a thing that happened that could have derailed my potential career, but I wouldn’t have changed anything about that decade. I did really cool stuff. I’m happy that all of that happened. However, I wouldn’t have chosen that for anybody. I think you should be able to walk in when you’re 17 and not have to worry about, “Oh, am I going to deal with gender discrimination?” It would be great if the playing field were more equal for everybody coming in.
Rox: I think that’s why stuff like Girls Who Code and whatnot is so important because it gives them that safe space not to have to worry about that kind of stuff and be able to develop those skills.
Kristin: Right?! Yeah.
Rox: Is there advice you could give to men to help women feel welcome and comfortable going into tech?
Kristin: I have been mulling on this question because I want to say that this advice might be helpful for all sorts of people.
The thing that keeps coming up is being open to more leadership styles. I got really lucky in my career to work with a whole variety of managers. Some of them were very aggressive and forward, and some of them were more sympathetic and emotionally responsive. They’ve all been good in their own way, and I would be a different person and a different manager now, if I had not had that experience of being exposed to these different leadership styles.
That’s not necessarily a men versus women thing. That can cross cultures, that can cross all sorts of different divides. Being open to and receptive to different styles of leadership and not expecting your leadership to always follow the same model, and then that, in turn, gives you a different way to build your own leadership style and support and mentor women who might be coming in under you. It’s not necessarily about hiring for skills or any of those hard things. It’s just acknowledging that expertise and leadership come in a whole variety of styles and being open to that.
Rox: Yeah, and I think that draws a parallel to the fact that EQ is just as important.
Kristin: Absolutely. People are the hardest part of any technical process. So having emotional intelligence will serve all of us well. Absolutely.
Rox: So in your career, what’s been your favorite project you’ve ever gotten to work on? It doesn’t have to be tech related. If it’s something historic, that’s completely fine. [laughs]
Kristin: I’ll stick with the tech one for now. I think my favorite project that I’m working on right now is actually a project that I started about a year ago. We set up our first data warehouse. I’ve never worked with data warehousing, and I got a chance to set up the initial prototype in AWS Redshift.
About six months later, we hired this super fantastic data engineer. She also has a non-traditional background. She’s taken the initial prototype that I worked on and really fleshed it out, and is turning it into something that is much more ready to hit end users. That’s been a really fun process, because I’ve learned a lot. It’s humbling, and it’s also the best collaborative experience that I’ve had in a technical field to this point about emotional intelligence, and acknowledging where your strengths and your weaknesses are.
There are bits and pieces of this project that I’ve been stronger in that I’ve been able to help her out with, and there’s bits and pieces where she could have come in and been like, “I cannot believe you set this up this way. Why would you ever do that?” She’s just like, “I get why you made that decision with the information that you had. This is the information I have, and we’re gonna make such and such change.”
It’s been this really fun back and forth. And at the end of that, our customers are going to be able to benefit from that interchange of ideas. That has been a really rewarding process for me.
Rox: It’s what you were saying, women propping women up!
Rox: That’s so cool. That’s awesome. Data sounds so much fun to work with. So with the world not being as crazy, is there anything exciting coming down the pipe for you? Any speaking engagements coming up, or conferences, or anything of the like?
Kristin: So I’ve never done a live talk. I get to do my first live talk in March at the SREcon North America.
I feel like I’m a little bit late to the Kubernetes game, but I think that is a development that’s happening in my life, so I’m hoping to get certified this year.
I also got promoted last year. I’m a lead on a team that’s been going through a lot of changes, and so continuing to work on all of your standard new manager problems. How do I go from being an IC to a manager? What does that look like? How do you stay relevant? How do you stay sharp and technical? All of that.
Rox: Always a fun spot to be in. [laughs]
Kristin: Yes. [laughs] Good to know other people have walked this path before, though.
Rox: Oh, yeah. My partner had to deal with that recently changing from IC to manager. It’s a transition. [laughs]
Rox: So before we close off, is there anything else you’d like to share? Maybe a word of encouragement for women looking into tech?
Kristin: I think one thing that comes to mind is, there’s always skills that you’re already using that are going to serve you in a technical field. If you’re really good at writing, technical writing is always required. Everybody needs better documentation. If you’re really good at analyzing numbers and spreadsheets, that’s an easy transition. If you’re really good at talking to people, that’s a really good way to transition into parsing out what people’s technical requirements actually are, because hint: it’s not what they say it is the first time.
You already have some skill that’s going to translate over and the more time you can think about different ways you can take the strengths you already have and apply them, the easier that transition will be because then all you have to worry about is actually learning the tech pieces – and those are all learnable.
Rox: Awesome. Well, that’s all I got for you! [laughs] Thank you so much for your time today.
Kristin: Yeah, thank you. This was fun!
Rox: Thank you, everyone – listeners and readers – we appreciate you!