Today’s guest is Dagna Bieda, a career coach who specializes in helping developers and engineers level up their careers. She shares why developers should promote the value of their contributions, how soft skills can make or break a coding career, and why a moment of burnout inspired her to start coaching.
Visit Dagna’s website, theMindfulDev.com, to learn more about her coaching process, which is built around understanding what fulfillment looks like for each client.
Dagna is on LinkedIn.
You can also connect with Ceora on Twitter or her website.
Ryan is also on Twitter, especially when there’s a good AI joke to be shared.
Gold star for Lifeboat badge winner JasonHorsleyTech for rescuing the question Installing PHP 7.3 on a new MacBook Pro with the new A1 chip (Apple silicon).
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Ryan Donovan Hello, everybody. I'm Ryan Donovan, and this is the Stack Overflow Podcast, a place to talk about all things software and technology. Today I'm joined by my co-host, Ceora Ford. Hi, Ceora.
Ceora Ford Hi, everyone! Hey, how are you?
RD Good, good. It's been a bit.
CF I know. It's been a while since we've been on the same episode.
RD I know, I feel like you're ducking me. So today we are going to be talking with an excellent guest, Dagna Bieda, who is a career coach and an engineer with theMindfulDev. Now Ceora, you're an engineer, obviously good with your soft skills. How important are they for your career?
CF I would say that the main reason why I've gotten to where I'm at at this point in time is probably because of soft skills that I've built up. I definitely think that they can be a huge booster for your career in getting where you want to go, because I think that having the technical skills is half the equation. If you really want to get far and if you have goals and if you're career driven, you're going to need the soft skills on your side. So I definitely think they're super, super important.
RD Well, with that, let's introduce Dagna. Welcome to the podcast.
Dagna Bieda Hi! Thanks for having me.
RD So at the intro of these we like to find out a little bit about the guests, where you're from, how you got into software and technology, and what you do at your current role.
DB Yeah, so I'm originally from Poland, and I wanted to create the future and that's why I became an engineer. And within my engineering career I've worked at various companies, from a big corporate office to a small startup, a small mom and pop programming sweatshop, and I have a good understanding of various businesses because I also worked back in Poland where I'm from, and then I moved to the United States. So I have a good comparison of the differences, the cultural differences, between working back home and here. Now when I moved, as an immigrant, I wasn't fully aware of what's going to happen here in my work environment so there were some obstacles that I experienced. And now as I transition to being a career coach for engineers, I help people get past obstacles. Some of them are similar to the ones that I have faced in my career as an engineer, and some of them are completely different. Wanting to build the future was really what got me started, so I found the most futuristic thing I could study, which was robotics. That's what I studied back at home. But when I moved I realized that, for where I wanted to move, because I wanted to move to this specific location where I'm at in Charlotte, North Carolina, the work marketplace was much better geared towards being a software engineer. Much more jobs were available and opportunities, so I had to kind of get back into software. If anyone listening here studies robotics, you probably know that one of the parts that you have to do is you have to build a robot. You have to program it once you build it. And programming was something that I absolutely hated when I was in college, but in my very first programming job, I fell in love with it because someone explained to me what was really important. The difference between writing code at school versus writing code for the industry– there are significant differences, and if you come into the workplace with that mindset that makes you successful back at school, you're going to fail in the industry. So I needed someone to walk me through that, and in my engineering career, the moment that I decided to switch into being a career coach was when I reached that place of being burned out, experiencing depression, and feeling like I was carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders and everything crashed. That was back in 2019, or back in 2018 actually. And so as I was able to dig myself out of that hole that I was in with third party help, I decided to pay it forward and become a coach and help people who are facing similar obstacles in their career, if that makes sense.
RD Yeah, from building robots to building people. Love it.
DB So I actually like to say that I moved from programming computers to reprogramming human minds, because that's what I do with my clients now.
CF That's really cool, that's really cool. I would like to hear more about that. I looked on your website and I saw some of the philosophies that you have. I want to hear more of the driving ideas that back how you coach people into building their careers.
DB Let me take a step back because I am writing a whole book on the topic. Because as I was coaching for the past four years, people from the tech industry, from multiple different domains, multiple different backgrounds, there were a lot of common patterns that emerged and things that a lot of engineers struggle with. Things like the imposter syndrome or being the invisible subject matter expert who gets passed on for promotions, getting stuck in the mid senior level plateau, or things like wanting to step into leadership shoes but not fully understanding how to create or spot an opportunity for yourself to step into those leadership shoes, or handling difficult conversations with other people. So as you were asking me, Ceora, about using the mindset to build your career, I also like to say that you're going to take you everywhere you go. So if you can get that part right, your own mindset, that's a huge part of your success showing up in daily life.
CF I love that. That's really cool, that's really cool. And also in the intro we talked a little bit about soft skills and my thoughts on them and how important I think they are. I want to hear from your opinion, what are the soft skills that you see that benefit people's careers so much but that might be overlooked.
DB I absolutely agree with what you said early on, Ceora, which is how soft skills are half of the equation. And what happens is, a lot of people with a traditional background going through a college degree, what they do is tend to put their technical skills on a high pedestal and ignore all the other skills, then learn soft skills kind of haphazardly. Then we have business acumen for a lot of engineers. This is one of the things that they tell me, “You know what? I'm not interested in business. I don't care. I just want to code cool features.” Well if you don't care about business, don't be upset that the business doesn't want you to be promoted if you're unable to kind of understand how your daily everyday actions are really trickling down to business’s bottom line. And then last but not least is self-marketing so that people know the value that you bring to the table and you are able to get promoted or get a raise based on what you bring. A lot of people tell me, “You know what? I don't want to be tooting my own horn. My work should speak for itself.” And that's a very common limiting belief, because unless someone directly works with you on your code base, they have no idea what you're actually working on. So it is on you to educate people around you so they know what your contributions are.
RD Right. Yeah, no one knows your work as well as you do. And I think being able to talk about your work in a way that reveals its value is valuable for yourself, even in promoting the features you're working on.
DB Exactly, but for that, you have to have the confidence that what you have contributed is actually valuable. You have to have that understanding of how it helped the business so you can then translate it to the non-technical stakeholders who are more likely to be the ones who are actually deciding on your promotions or getting a raise, not necessarily your direct manager. And the problem is, a lot of people, a lot of engineers, they rely on their manager to do all that heavy lifting for them, where their manager already has a lot of other priorities to juggle on their day-to-day. So waiting on the manager to kind of take the reins of your career and make sure you get promoted is depending on luck. It's not a bad career strategy because for a lot of people it does happen, but it's not the best when you could take ownership of your career, become the CEO and steer the ship exactly where you want to take it to.
CF When I think about myself, the self-promotion part is super hard to do, to step in and make sure I'm loud about the things that I'm contributing and the things that I'm good at and et cetera, et cetera. But the thing that I found most interesting that you mentioned, Dagna, was knowing the business acumen. That is something I didn't realize was important until just recently when all of the layoffs were happening and budget cuts were happening across the tech industry, and it suddenly became very important that everyone proves that what they're doing is not just good work, but valuable to the central function of the business. And one of the things I liked about the team I'm on is that the leadership in my team is really, really good at knowing and understanding the business side of things, which I never knew was important until then. So I really want to know how you can come to the point where you understand the business side of things and how you can strategically use that to your advantage in your career on an individual basis.
DB It could be that imposter syndrome is hurting you or low confidence levels. And with imposter syndrome, something that I'm seeing again and again is there are two specific root causes of imposter syndrome that I was able to identify. One is schooling related, because what happens when we go to school? Well, every single time we deliver a project for a programming class or assignment, the next semester what does the teacher do? Throw it away and the next class has to start completely from scratch. In the industry, that's not the case. We have to be building maintainable code, something that works well with what's already been put in place and just build upon it. And the second thing that happens with the school is that as we give in our projects, the teacher will give us a grade. So we're waiting for that external validation rather than gathering evidence for ourselves that we are good enough and the work that we are doing is valuable and is providing value to the business and to the team that we're working on. So school kind of sets us up for that way of thinking, sets the stage for the imposter syndrome. The second root cause that I keep seeing is limiting beliefs, and a lot of perfectionists will have those limiting beliefs– “I know I should have done better. I know I could have delivered sooner.” And for people who have those thoughts often again and again, they would often criticize themselves very harshly in their own mind, whereas when you ask their peers, their coworkers, they will give you a completely different account of how well that person is performing, if that makes sense. So going back to learning how to get more information on that business acumen, which, like I said, sounds simple and easy, but what's easy to do is equally easy not to do, is to talk to people. Now, how do you talk to people? You build confidence and you start from there essentially.
RD It's interesting you talk about imposter syndrome and schooling. We've done a few blog posts on imposter syndrome and in one of them somebody said that one of the things that helped him and helped other people was getting negative feedback, getting that sort of corrective feedback like you get in school to be like, “Oh, it's true. I'm not perfect. I'm not exactly as good as everybody thinks I am.” So that takes a load off. Have you encountered anything like that, or what do you think about that?
DB I would call it constructive feedback, because it's not really negative. It's not really meant to put you down. It's more about pointing out the things that you need to learn or change in order to be better and do better. So for that kind of feedback, constructive feedback, to be able to have a place in a workplace, you need to be able to create a psychological safe space within the workplace to make sure that person who is on the receiving end of that feedback, they're actually able to receive it and not get all defensive about it, which kind of trickles back to what Ceora was saying at the very beginning about how important and critical soft skills are. Because if you're not able to come into a conversation and have that conversation without getting defensive or without contributing to other people raising their defenses, then you're not able to help people grow with the feedback, or you're not able to let yourself grow because you're not open to receiving it, if that makes sense.
RD Yeah. And it seems to me that a lot of these soft skills are essentially about good communication. Not just effectively getting your point across, but doing it in a way that is sort of collaborative and kind to other people you work with.
DB Communication is a huge part, I agree. Because if you think about it, a lot of engineers, they want to hide behind their screen and just do what they're told and do fun features and maybe learn a new tech stack every now and then, because again, that's fun. But the reality is that engineers work with other people to create products for people, and so people are really at the core of what it is that we do, even though we do want to hide a lot of the times, or that's what a lot of my clients tell me that they want to do. So communication, yes, but another thing is mindset. So one of the things that I highly recommend in terms of switching the mindset to be more successful while working with other people is something that I learned from Jack Canfield. And he says that any person at any point in time, they're doing the best they can given the information, the skills, and the awareness that they have in order to meet their needs. And if that's a belief that you can truly ingrain within yourself, refactor the programming that you have about other people at this point in time and put that belief in there, you're going to be able to be at ease in even the most difficult conversations. Because if someone, for example, in a conversation is being rude or difficult, well, perhaps they don't have the skills to communicate better, or they don't have the awareness that that's how they're coming across. I know that's happened to me at one point in my career when I was this rude and angry subject matter expert. Or, maybe their needs are not being met, and the fact that they're being impolite in a conversation has absolutely nothing to do with you or the topic of the conversation that is taking place. And that's really the way that we think about other people, rather than just saying, “Oh yeah, if you improve your communication skills, that's going to fix everything.” It's not a cure for all. It is a very important skill, yes, but how we think about other people and how we interpret what is happening around us is another huge key element.
CF Earlier you mentioned layoff-proofing your career. I want to hear more about your insights as far as how we can actually do that– layoff-proof our careers.
DB So whenever you invest in those soft skills that we mentioned earlier: clear communication, collaboration, proactivity and ownership, business acumen, self-marketing, that's what helps you layoff-proof. And even if you get let go, you are the kind of sought after professional that can land a job relatively quickly. Because as you're going through an interview and you're able to tell the value that you bring in and you're able to market yourself, package the skills and the accomplishments that you have done in the past, that's when it's easier for you to land your future job. I can say that the shakedown has happened and I'm not really surprised, because if you think about the engineering and tech industry, like work for an engineer, once you got your foot in the door, it was relatively easy to get to this comfortable floating space where you could be quiet quitting before it was even popular and just do what you're told and not really stress too much and get a six figure paycheck. So I think what happened was the industry kind of realized, “Oh, we don't want these ‘coding monkeys’ anymore. We want people who are really actually contributing to the business’s bottom line, and the ones who are able to present and have that understanding and communicate it to people who have different levels of detail, these are the ones who are best prepared and are most layoff-proof at this point in time.”
RD You mentioned earlier that you were a sort of angry subject matter expert at one point. Was there a particular moment that got you to shift your mindset? Was there somebody who called you out or some reaction you saw that changed you?
DB Exactly. Exactly, Ryan. What happened was, there was this meeting. My company was in a place where they unfortunately had to let go of some people, and it directly affected my team. So after the layoff happened in the morning, people were let go, we had a company-wide meeting later in the day where the executive leadership team was addressing all the concerns and I raised my hand, I asked a question. I thought I was coming from a place of care and from a place of ‘maybe they don't know how this affects me so I need to tell them’ kind of place. Really, really good intent was there. And what happened was, the next day, my manager's manager comes to me and he says, “Dagna, why did you call our executive leadership team a bunch of idiots in a company-wide meeting?” And my jaw dropped. I would have never, ever imagined that this is how I came across. But part of it was my immigrant background. The way we communicate in Poland is completely different from how Americans communicate, and that's something that hit me smack in the face right then and there because I wasn't aware. Another thing I can tell is, being a minority in tech, a woman in tech, I thought that maybe there was a bias against me and how I communicated that I was coming off too strong and too aggressive because I was a woman so I had to elbow my way amongst men. But the fact is, now in hindsight, I can see that my communication was really, really poor and what I needed to work on was assertive communication. And that comment telling me that I called everybody idiots, which was not my intent, was the turning point and something that got me thinking, “Oh, maybe it is me. Maybe it is in my control to change how I communicate.” And it did work because the moment I started working on my communication, I did get an offer to get promoted. So there was a way. I did fix the problem. It was within my control.
CF Yeah, I think that's a good example of how beneficial having that communication and other self skills can be.
DB One thing if I may add, the things that I work with my clients on, they work on people across multiple different backgrounds, because I've had clients that came to me from small startups, also from FANG companies and anywhere in between. Some of them were college grads, some of them were coding bootcamp grads. In terms of domains– anywhere, backend, front end, embedded, data, AI, ML, DevOps, QA. So whatever type of engineer you are, investing in those people skills can make a huge difference. But again, we're not really trained to focus on these and zero in on these because we are being taught, “No, it's just the technical,” and we tend to put the technical skills on that pedestal. And incidentally, it's interesting, but I see a lot of my bootcamp grad clients achieve much better results because that kind of bias towards heavy valuation of technical skills isn't there. After coming out from a different career, going through a coding bootcamp, what happens is a lot of people already have a great foundation of the soft skills, and then what holds them back is their mindset, maybe not believing in themselves as much, maybe not being going after a promotion because they believe on the other hand, “Oh, my technical skills are not as good, so why would I try to become a team lead? I don't have that experience yet.” So that's part of the internal mental programming and their beliefs that are stopping them, not really their skills, if that makes sense.
CF I agree. I think I relate to that more than anything, yeah.
RD Change your mindset, change your life.
CF Yes, yes, absolutely.
RD Well, we are at the end of the show. As we do, I'm going to shout out a Lifeboat Badge winner: somebody who came to a question with a score of -3, posted a great answer that got 20 or more points, and then brought the question up to 3 or more. Today's Lifeboat Badge goes to JasonHorsleyTech for answering the question, “Installing PHP 7.3 on a new MacBook Pro with the new A1 chip (Apple silicon.) So that has helped out a bunch of people. If you are interested in reading about it, we'll drop it in the show notes. I'm Ryan Donovan. I edit the blog here at Stack Overflow. You can find it at stackoverflow.com. You can find me on Twitter @RThorDonovan. And if you liked the show today, please leave us a rating and review. It really helps.
CF And my name is Ceora Ford. I'm a Developer Advocate at Auth0 by Okta. And you can find me on Twitter, my username there is @Ceeoreo_. And I also have a blog. You can find me there at ceora.dev.
DB And my name is Dagna Bieda. I am your tough love style career coach that has been in your shoes as an engineer, and you can find me at themindfuldev.com as well as LinkedIn. Just search my name, Dagna Bieda, and I hope to talk to you soon.
RD All right, everybody. We'll talk to you next time.
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