Laura Thorson From GitHub: This Is How You Master the Mindset of a Programmer
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🎙 About the episode
Meet Laura Thorson 🇺🇸! Laura is a Program Manager at GitHub and has previously worked at Facebook, Twitter, and Salesforce. She broke into tech after attending the first-ever coding bootcamp in history and has only ever gotten jobs through LinkedIn. So... there's a lot we can learn from her!
In this episode, Laura talks about her career path and how he went from not knowing what coding was to working in high-profile tech companies. You will hear how she approaches LinkedIn and what was the one piece of advice she got from a recruiter that enabled her to get back into tech after a four-year hiatus. You'll also hear how she got a second chance at Facebook after bombing a job interview - and it only took sending a single email!
Laura and Alex also talk about best practices for job interviews, why you should stalk your interviewers, and what to do about impostor syndrome at a new job. Ultimately, Laura reveals how, no matter how you learn to code, the technologies you know come and go - and what you should focus on instead.
🔗 Connect with Laura
- Laura studied oboe, then English, and then enrolled in the first bootcamp in history! (02:05)
- How Laura knew made sure she wanted to code before paying for the bootcamp (05:26)
- On bootcamps vs. learning on your own (06:35)
- What was the first ever bootcamp like? (07:55)
- Community break: We got some new reviews on Apple Podcast! Plus, your tweets from last week. (10:06)
- Laura’s career in tech: it all started when Salesforce reached out to her on LinkedIn (12:44)
- Laura’s role at Twitter (14:07)
- How Laura bombed her interview at Facebook but got another chance after sending an email to the hiring manager (15:08)
- At Facebook, Laura worked on the Live Video API (18:32)
- How Laura approaches LinkedIn (19:49)
- Why Laura’s LinkedIn bio is written in the third person (21:37)
- How to use your LinkedIn about section (23:19)
- Why you should send follow-up emails and research your interviewers so you can ask them better questions (25:21)
- If you’re going to ask a question, be prepared, BUT LISTEN (27:42)
- When you interview, every touchpoint is an opportunity for them to assess whether you’re the right culture fit (29:22)
- The killer LinkedIn advice Laura learned the hard way (30:18)
- What to do with your LinkedIn (and portfolio) if you don’t have relevant coding experience (32:05)
- Interviewers will do homework on you (33:33)
- Quick-fire questions: Ruby, Taylor Swift, water, and AI (35:11)
- Laura’s career journey at GitHub (38:47)
- Why your most valuable asset is not the coding language you’ve learned (41:29)
- Imposter syndrome? Don’t overcompensate but talk to a peer or mentor (44:28)
🧰 Resources Mentioned
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Laura Thorson (00:00):
The most valuable asset is not the language itself. Those things always change. You could be thrown into a code base you're not familiar with. You could be thrown into a language you're not familiar with. You could be thrown into a section of technology that you're not familiar with. It's more about being open-minded, and being really curious about it.
Alex Booker (00:18):
Hello, and welcome to The Scrimba Podcast. This is a weekly show, where one week I interview a recently hired junior developer, and then the next week an expert, like a senior dev, or recruiter, so that you can learn how to break into tack from both sides. I'm your host Alex Booker, and today, I'm joined by Laura Thorson from GitHub. Laura took a chance on the first coding bootcamp ever, back in 2013. Since then, she's gone on to make an impact at companies we all know and respect, like Salesforce, Meta, Twitter, and now GitHub. She's also been interviewed briefly about her story learning to code by NPR, and Forbes magazine. Needless to say, I'm very excited to bring you this episode, where we go in depth about Laura's career so far, and her best advice for new developers. It's fascinating, by the way, how Fortune favors the bold.
Laura took a chance on a bootcamp all of those years ago, and without revealing too much, she also bombed a coding interview at a FAANG company, but sent a follow-up email asking for another chance which they gave her, that ultimately resulted in the job. I love these stories by Laura, because, yes, career advice is important, and there's plenty of good stuff here for you today. But it's these stories about taking a chance, and that chance paying off, that inspire us to take that leap ourselves. Sometimes, that's the only way. We'll get into it in just a second, but first I want to remind you to please share the episode with a friend, a group, or on social media. Word of mouth is the only way this free podcast with no ads reaches new listeners, so thank you in advance. You are listening to The Scrimba Podcast. Let's get into it.
Laura Thorson (02:05):
I don't even think I knew what coding was. I'm a kid of the nineties, and so we weren't really aware of what the internet was back then. I went to college at UCLA. I got started at UCLA, actually, as a music major. I got a full-ride scholarship to play the oboe, and was the only person that was actually accepted to play the oboe, in my graduating class in the whole country, so it was a lot of pressure. I love playing the oboe, and it was really fun, but I was also really struggling with wanting to be a college student, going to football games, and being a part of sororities. I really wanted to be in an acapella group, because I also sing, and so I was just feeling a lot of the pressure of being paid literally to be the primary oboist at the university.
I ended up switching, a couple of times, my major and it finally ended with English. I didn't really know what I was going to do with an English degree. I thought about becoming a teacher, but that hadn't really felt like a good fit. I thought about going to law school, and there were all these different things I was thinking about in my final semester at UCLA, and then actually it was my mom who found an article in, I think, it was Time Magazine about these coding bootcamps. There was this coding bootcamp in San Francisco, was the first one of its kind, and it was championing that it would be able to teach you how to code in 12 weeks or so, and get you a engineering opportunity. I had never really thought about that as an option, but as I learned a little bit more about it, I was like, "Coding is kind of just learning another language, right?"
There's syntax, and there are rules about how it works, and so I was like, maybe play around a little bit with coding. What's actually really funny is that I decided to take a class, like an Intro to C class at UCLA, and I actually failed it, so I was like, "There's no way I'm going to do coding. This is not for me." But then I applied for this coding bootcamp, it was dev bootcamp at the time, and they were teaching Ruby, and Ruby on Rails. That was the hot new language at the time. I applied, and I got in, and I was actually looking at Ruby, and Ruby is a lot more forgiving, obviously, than C.
Alex Booker (04:20):
Laura Thorson (04:21):
It really was writing English, and writing in a language that made a lot more sense, and so even just playing around on Code Academy with Ruby, I was already falling in love with the experience. I was just blown away that I could write something in code, and then I would click enter, and the computer would compile something for me, and I could see a result. Now, I know that a lot was stripped away from that process, but if anything, I was really grateful that a lot was stripped away, so that I could come to fall in love with Ruby as a language, with coding as an experience, and the high that you get from writing even a brief program and seeing it work, the experience of trying to navigate, solving a problem and figuring out where the bug is, and then getting an answer.
It just was such a satisfying experience that I fell in love with it. I graduated from UCLA in 2013, and then in September, I moved up to San Francisco and started the program. Yeah. It was like a total whirlwind of an experience, but it was really, really fun.
Alex Booker (05:26):
Was it a hard decision to enroll in that boot camp? I mean, you just finished Uni and obviously, boot camps cost a lot of money. You must have had pretty high conviction that coding was something you wanted to do.
Laura Thorson (05:37):
Yeah. I mean, I had already talked to one of my mom's very good family friends who had actually studied engineering, and computer programming at the same university 30, 40 years prior. She was telling me stories of walking to class, and carrying all of her cards with her literal coding program on them, and how you had to make sure that you filed each individual card into the computer properly. Otherwise, your program would break, and if you dropped your cards, your whole program was in trouble, and just the concept that you had to have these on physical cards was just wild to me. I had ended up having that conversation, and then I started to play around with it. Harvard has classes, their CS101 classes are available for free, and Stanford has a program available for free too. I started playing around with that, but that wasn't quite as easy of a jump in as starting with something like Code Academy, or even Scrimba.
I think Scrimba is a lot more approachable. These Harvard, and Stanford CS courses are, you're literally getting into setting up a Linux machine on your computer, and if you have no idea what you're looking at, you won't even be writing a program at all. You're just too busy trying to get your machine set up, and that I think can be really discouraging. I had played with that, and I was enjoying the feeling of trying to do something. Looking back, I hadn't really done anything, but I was curious about it, and I think that curiosity really sparked the desire to want to be in this bootcamp. And then I think also the bootcamp was very approachable. They made it seem very much like, "It's okay if you don't really know what you're doing. That's what we're here for." I felt very confident that I had tested enough to see if I was even remotely interested. I was, and then I felt very supported by the bootcamp. They were very supportive.
All of the other students in the cohorts were supportive, and willing to teach. I loved peer programming. I just thought that to be the most fun thing, to be solving a problem together, and coming up with new ideas, it was so invigorating.
Alex Booker (07:40):
Brilliant, isn't it?
Laura Thorson (07:43):
Yeah. It feels really good.
Alex Booker (07:44):
This was back in 2013, I think, so definitely one of the original bootcamps.
Laura Thorson (07:49):
It was the first. Yeah.
Alex Booker (07:50):
Laura Thorson (07:51):
Yes. It was a risk, for sure.
Alex Booker (07:54):
Laura Thorson (07:55):
They just had finished their third cohort, by the time I joined, and this was pre... Dev bootcamp got acquired by Kaplan, so this was pre-acquisition. We were in a tiny little one level building in Chinatown of San Francisco. It was scrappy, and it was honestly a really special time. It is one of those things where looking back you realize, oh, wow, this was very special, and unique, and we were at the beginning of the whole bootcamp phase. Now, they're very popular. A lot of people do bootcamps to get into tech, which is great. But I know that certain companies were willing to talk to me in an interview, simply because they had never heard of this as an option. They were just like, "What did you do, again? Tell me why? How do you know how to code?" That was a funny thing at the time.
Alex Booker (08:42):
Funny, but also impressive. I mean, even today, people wonder if graduating a bootcamp is enough of a credential to get a job. Fairly accepted that it is now for many types of developer jobs, but back then, it was totally unfounded territory. Can I ask you, Laura, because it was the first one ever, did you get a hairline discount, or something like that?
Laura Thorson (09:04):
Actually, they did provide a discount for under-represented minorities, and gender identities in tech. That was something that appealed to me, because we just finished paying for my university, and after I left being a music major, I was no longer getting a full-ride scholarship. That was definitely helpful, having a little bit of a discount. I am a woman, obviously, I identify as a woman, and I also am a minority, am half-Chinese. Being able to take advantage of that was definitely something that I appreciated, and it's something I continue to champion as a participant in technology now. We've done a good job, but I think we still have much further to go, in terms of increasing gender and ethnic minorities in technology.
Alex Booker (09:50):
That's really cool. Laura, I really respect that. I'm sure it was still quite expensive.
Laura Thorson (09:54):
Yeah, it was not inexpensive at the time. It's cheaper than going to college, which I don't feel is necessary to become an engineer, but it still was not the cheapest experience. That's for sure.
Alex Booker (10:06):
Coming up on The Scrimba Podcast, why you should keep your LinkedIn up to date?
Laura Thorson (10:10):
Hey, I saw your profile. I wasn't sure if you were even alive. I was like, "Oh."
Alex Booker (10:16):
I will be right back with Laura. But first, Jan, the producer and I wanted to read some of your comments about the podcast from Twitter, and LinkedIn.
Jan Arsenovic (10:24):
We got a couple of new reviews on Apple Podcasts, and I'm going to read one of them today. It was left two months ago by somebody from the United States, and its title is Epic Host. "Alex Booker is such an incredible host. He adds so much value to the conversation with his unique questions and thoughtful responses. Scrimba is lucky to have him, and so are we as listeners." All right, Alex, print this one out, and just paste it on your computer screen, and if you ever feel down, you know what to look at. Over on Twitter, Roxanne Rabach at Rocks Learns Code says, "I'm still catching up on The Scrimba Podcast, and I reached the one titled Be a Librarian, not an Encyclopedia. Guess what? I am a librarian, and Resourceful is my middle name. I love it. Thanks for the awesome advice, Gil Hernandez, and Booker Codes."
Yeah, that was a really great episode, actually. I'm really happy that people are still discovering it, and getting value from it. Rick Farran says, "At this point, listening to The Scrimba Podcast is going to be a new routine for me. Just listened to the latest episode with Gabriel on how he got an internship at Meta and it's amazing, filled with details, and very helpful." Speaking of that episode, Vanessa at Vanessa Ru says, "Just listen to The Scrimba Podcast with Gabriel, and I need to call out what he said about ATS. ATSs are not robots that eliminate resumes, unless it's from a knockout question. It's a myth. Recruiters do the reviewing using ATS, which is basically a filing cabinet." Okay, we did have an entire podcast episode about this. It's the one where we interviewed Shannon Brown. Its title is, There's a human side of recruiting and here's how to get onto it, and I'm going to link it in the show notes.
Shannon Brown (12:15):
It all goes into our infamous ATS system.
Alex Booker (12:18):
Dun, dun, dun.
Shannon Brown (12:19):
Yeah. It's literally, it's just like a fancy spreadsheet.
Jan Arsenovic (12:22):
If you want to learn more about ATSs, and knockout questions, and a whole the things, listen to that one, when you finish this one. If you want to support the show, leave us a review on Apple Podcasts, rate us on Spotify, or tweet about us. If you're learning something from the podcast, share it with others, and join the conversation. Now, we are back to the interview with Laura.
Alex Booker (12:44):
Well, you've gone on to work at some really awesome companies that many people listening know about already and respect, like Salesforce, Twitter, Meta, and most recently GitHub, where you're a program manager. Can you maybe give us a bit of a whirlwind tour of your career, and explain, and teach how you've gone on to work at these awesome companies?
Laura Thorson (13:02):
I was in my last two weeks of dev bootcamp, and I received a message on LinkedIn from a recruiter at Salesforce. I had literally just updated my profile on LinkedIn with my experience at dev bootcamp, and my projects that we had worked on at the bootcamp, and this hiring manager invited me to come to Salesforce, to their conference, their large conference. I attended the conference with a couple of my bootcamp grad friends, and began the hiring process at Salesforce, and was accepted. I started out as a demo engineer there. I built custom desktop, and mobile demo applications on the Salesforce platform, which we would then give to our sales engineers, and they would use those to pitch to potential customers, or to existing customers, we would pitch new features and things like that. Honestly, it was crazy. I ended up building a lot of applications. I was the first to complete over 100 demo applications across all of the teams in our demo app and engineering teams across the world.
Alex Booker (14:06):
Laura Thorson (14:07):
Yeah, it was pretty cool. I was working there for a year, and then I got another LinkedIn message from Twitter, and I'll already tell you that pretty much all of my jobs I've gotten from LinkedIn, I've applied to many jobs, but I've only actually gotten jobs through LinkedIn, which is funny to me. But I began the interview process at Twitter, and this was back, before Twitter is what it is today. I was very thrilled to participate, and to maybe be accepted there. I got hired as a solutions engineer at Twitter working on our ad tech platform, and so Twitter had acquired a small little ad tech company called MoPub. I was the primary technical contact for some of those premier advertisers on the platform.
I built custom SDK solutions on Android, and iOS, and just helped work with all of our ad networks, Google AdMob, and Mobi, and some of those folks. A year later from that, I was actually, I was really happy at Twitter, I was having a really good time, I loved my team. And then somebody, again, a hiring manager at Facebook reached out to me, and asked if I'd be interested in joining the media solutions team as a developer, a support engineer. I was like, "Yeah, I'd love to work at Facebook. This was pre-Meta. I was like, "I'd love to work at Facebook." It's so interesting, because I remember, I had my first interview, it went great, and then I meet up with the hiring manager, and then he surprises me with a technical interview right there, and I was not prepared. I was very nervous. I totally bombed it.
I emailed the hiring manager and I just said, "Hey, thank you again for the time. I apologize, because I wasn't prepared, and I don't feel like that experience really indicates my abilities, and what I'm capable of. I hope I can get another chance. I understand if I can't. But again, I'm just really grateful to you for taking the time and I really appreciated getting to know you, and learning more about the opportunity, and I'm still very interested." I didn't hear from him for three months. He never responded to my email, and I was just like, "Okay, that's the end. I blew it. I should get more prepared, in case I want to do this again." And then out of nowhere, well, it felt like out of nowhere, but just three months later, I got another email from the hiring manager, and he was like, "Thank you so much for your email," and that was it, I think.
And then a few hours later, I got an email from the recruiter and they were like, "We'd love to welcome you to the final round interview on campus down in Menlo Park." I was like, "Oh, okay."
Alex Booker (17:27):
You must have been absolutely shocked of that, right?
Laura Thorson (17:30):
Totally shocked. I wouldn't have hired me, given my performance.
Alex Booker (17:34):
No. Even but three months later, and all you were asking for, I think, was another chance to maybe give a set equivalent, and they've moved you onto the next round.
Laura Thorson (17:42):
It was crazy. I honestly was shocked. I did a three-hour interview down on campus. I met a lot of other people I was going to work with on the team. I had another technical interview, but it was more of a conceptual one, just whiteboarding some ideas, and that one I felt a lot more prepared for, did a lot better. Then they hired me and honestly, I really love my work at GitHub right now, but to date, I happen to join Facebook at a very unique time in the company's history, a very special time. I got to participate in being one of the main team members launching the Live Video API. I was working with a very tight-knit group of people on the launch. We actually are still friends, to this day. I follow these people on Instagram, and Facebook, and we send each other Christmas cards, so it was a really special time.
We got to launch the Live Video API. I even got to build a couple of features to add to the Live Video API. I added a feature that age gates any videos that might have disturbing content from users under 18, it adds a graphic overlay and pauses autoplaying. This was a feature that was being requested by a lot of our news partners, because it was at the time when there was a man who was scaling the Trump Tower, and they wanted to live stream it to Facebook, but we didn't really know how he was going to make it down safely, and if anything might happen. That was a feature that became really pertinent for news folks, and so I actually got to contribute real live code to that API. I worked at Facebook almost two years, and then I took a brief hiatus, and worked at a non-profit that works with high school students.
Alex Booker (19:19):
It must be amazing, and so fulfilling to work on something that is still in production, and getting used today. Anytime you see a feed like that, you know that some of your code is running, for example. I'm sure that's a really special feeling. There's so much to unpack there. I want to take a quick pause in the career history. I mean, the first thing that you mentioned, that I'm sure people listening will be very interested in is, how you've managed to leverage LinkedIn to get so much success, being reached out to you by companies, and finding work there. You said even though you had applied to other companies, you've only ever got jobs through LinkedIn. What was the story? Were you very good at optimizing your profile?
Laura Thorson (19:56):
I think that has to be it. The thing that turned me onto it, which happened after I'd already gotten three jobs was, when I went to Facebook for my in-person interview, they actually had a printout of my LinkedIn profile. I never ended up sending in a resume, or anything like that. The people who were interviewing me were holding my LinkedIn profile in front of them, and so I think I just realized that recruiters are on LinkedIn all day, all the time. They're putting in all sorts of different buzzwords, and keywords, and all these things to help narrow down the competition. I've been on a lot of people's LinkedIns, where they come and approach me, and my messages and they say, "Hey, I've been trying to find a job for a year, or for six months, and I can't find anything. What do you suggest?"
I take a look at their LinkedIn, they have no words in there at all. They've just put in that they were a teacher at X school, but they don't say anything about what they did as a teacher, or they don't say anything about what they did as whatever their previous role was, and they don't have any indication that they're interested in looking for new jobs in a new industry. It might say very briefly at the top that they are open to work, but it's not enough just to put that open to work badge on your profile image. You need to have some information in the actual profile itself to help people discover you. Writing a well-thought-out about section, a little bio about what you're doing, putting in your little tag underneath your name about what you're looking for, if you haven't yet broken into the industry, or what you used to do, or companies you used to work for, that stuff I think all really helps.
Alex Booker (21:37):
I noticed your bio on LinkedIn is in the third person. What was your thinking behind that?
Laura Thorson (21:41):
I'm actually looking at it right now, and realized it's out of date, so go update your LinkedIn's everybody. I think I just decided that it felt more professional. Authors write the third person in the back of their books, and when you're reading about someone who's going to give a talk at a conference, it's usually a bio in the third person. Referring to myself in the third person felt less like a dating profile, frankly. I mean it is, it's what it is. It's like a professional dating profile, but instead of dating, it's like I'm trying to also appear like I'm more professional. I think that just communicates a little bit more of that professional look versus like, hi, a program manager, and I like long walks on the beach, which is I do. But that might not get me interviews the same way as telling you what my greatest strengths are. Hey, some people do that, and it totally works for them and that's awesome. I admire people who can be so colloquial in that way. I don't feel as confident being that colloquial, so this feels more comfortable for me.
Alex Booker (22:44):
It's a very good bit of advice, because you do want to celebrate yourself a little bit in your bio, and explain all the reasons why you're awesome, and a company should get in touch potentially. That could just be your potential way to do, of your dedication to the subject, when you're new. But some people feel a bit sheepish writing about themselves in the first person that way. Writing in the third person gives you permission to do it. I think it's really cool. I think either could work. You tend to see more established folks, I think, writing in the third person, exactly for the reason you described, I think, which is that they might be cited, they might give a talk, or write in a book or something like that, but either is totally valid. I think that's really cool.
Laura Thorson (23:19):
Yeah. Thanks. Yeah. I think too, a thing to note is, like applying to university, you want to use that about section to say something that's not already being said in your resume section. I don't use that section to say, I delivered X number of features on this product, or I've worked on this number of teams. I actually use it to be more of a opportunity to communicate how I work, what I value. Use that section to communicate more about who you are as a person, and what it would be like to have you on someone's team, so you're giving people the opportunity to imagine what it would be like working with you. For example, I say that some of my greatest strengths are developing high performing systems, and delivering well-researched, and clear strategies. I also mentioned that I am an enthusiastic teammate, and I'm a quick learner, and a diligent worker, and that I value empathy,, and self-awareness as a means of communication.
If you are a hiring manager and you're somebody who is looking for a good culture fit as well as someone who's able to deliver high-performing systems, I'm your person, right? I've given you literally all of the words that you need to be like, "Oh, this is someone who I'd like to maybe have a conversation with." If you can summarize in just, say, two to four sentences, what makes you great and how is it like to work with you, that's a compelling beginning and opening. I think it grabs people's attention enough to start looking further down the page to be like, "Okay. Well, what's your experience and what projects have you worked on? At least begin a conversation.
Alex Booker (24:53):
It's just there to start the conversation. It's not there to explain every single nitty-gritty detail. That's where the individual work experience sections on your LinkedIn, and resume profile can come into things. By the way, just while you were talking in the background, I was remembering what you said about writing to the recruiter, essentially thanking them for their time, and explaining that you'd like another opportunity to demonstrate your abilities. Is sending a follow-up email like that a standard practice, or is it something that you would do judiciously?
Laura Thorson (25:21):
I've actually done that with every opportunity that I've been excited about. I personally email each person that I speak with in an interview cycle, with the exception of the recruiter. I don't email the recruiter usually, because you're in communication with them pretty frequently, and they're letting you know about things, so you're already emailing back and forth with them. But I do send a follow-up email to all of the interviewers, the people that have taken the time out of their workday to talk to me. I also try to do a little bit of homework about the people that are going to interview me. I ask, when I come into an interview, I ask the recruiter, "Who am I going to be speaking with? Can you tell me a little bit more about their role?" I definitely look them up on LinkedIn, or if they have a website, and try to get a little bit more information about them.
The reason why I do that is not to be creepy, but really to show them I'm invested, and so that I can ask a question during the interview that is thoughtful, and that indicates that I care. For example, if I'm talking to a product manager who has shipped a feature recently, and I see that they shipped it, I'll try to think of a question, and I'll have it prepared ahead of time. I'll try to think of a question that makes sense to ask them about their experience. What did you learn from shipping X feature, or something that I really would like to know about their experience at X company, or something like that. I've had people who have wanted to talk to me, as someone who works at GitHub, who have clearly come prepared with some questions. But what's actually been really interesting is, there are people who come prepared with questions where you can tell that they are curious, and they want to genuinely know your answer.
And then there's some people who ask you questions, and then when you're watching them on Zoom, they almost look like they've zoned out, or they're just like they're asking you the question, because that's the right thing to do. But then they don't actually seem like they are actually listening. And then when you finish speaking, they're like, "Hmm, that sounds interesting. I have another question for you." And then they just keep going and it's like, oh, I see you've prepared three questions that you feel you need to ask me, but you're not actually... We're not having a dialogue about them. You're not asking any follow-up questions, and so I think that actually doesn't show very much awareness or curiosity.
Alex Booker (27:41):
Or even just listening, right?
Laura Thorson (27:42):
Frankly. Yeah, just listening. I think that's something I advise. I see it mostly in younger developers, and not just developers, but people who are interested in getting into technology. My biggest advice really is, if you're going to ask a question, if you're taking the time of somebody who's interviewing you, I strongly recommend that you do come prepared with maybe three questions, but also be comfortable with not asking all those questions. It's not about getting the right number of questions in. It's about starting a question, and then allowing it to unfold into a conversation. A conversation requires listening, and actually, maybe you change your question, because that person interviewing you says something that piques your interest. You're like, "Oh, wait, that sounds so interesting. Can you tell me more about how that happened?" If they tell a story about something, "What did you do when that happened?" That's a better follow-up question than like, "Oh, thanks for sharing. I have another question." And then just moving on to the next one, because that's on your list.
Alex Booker (28:38):
It seems very transactional, doesn't it, when you do that?
Laura Thorson (28:42):
Yes. It communicates that almost right off the bat, and it's very off-putting. I think, yes, coming prepared, knowing a little bit about the work that the person who's interviewing you has done is great, but then being willing to relax a little bit, and be curious, and ask follow-up questions that are thoughtful, that actually relate to what that person shared with you. That's more communicative of your ability to be a good listener, as a teammate, and to be a good partner, and someone who's going to ask good questions, who's able to be resilient, and not too stringent on something, you're able to go with the flow. I think that's actually a really great characteristic to have, as well as communicates that to the interviewer.
Alex Booker (29:22):
You're absolutely right. I think when a lot of people interview, they focus a lot on the technical part like, "Yes. I can code. Yes, I know the answer," maybe thinking there'll be a separate interview phase where it's more about culture add, and culture fit, and all these kind of things. But the truth is, when you're interviewing, every touchpoint is part of the interview, whether it's that initial screening call of the recruiter, your email coordination, your punctuation, grammar, responsiveness, attention to detail, whether they ask you a question, do you actually answer it, or do you pussyfoot around it? I like the idea to come to an interview of a series of questions, hopefully about the product and the work, not going too personal, but that's obvious.
Laura Thorson (29:58):
Right. Of course, yeah. I guess, I thought that would be obvious, but we should maybe be explicit. Yeah.
Alex Booker (30:04):
I saw on your Facebook profile, you have a dog, how are they?
Laura Thorson (30:08):
Alex Booker (30:09):
I know you're selling a bike on Facebook Marketplace, I cannot interest you anymore. No, but there's plenty on LinkedIn, to be honest, to work with. But are there any other tips you can share?
Laura Thorson (30:18):
I don't know, if this will resonate with anyone in this community. But I actually took time off from the tech industry, partially to work for a nonprofit that works with high school students, completely unrelated to tech, but also I was a stay-at-home mom for two years. Getting back into technology after taking really four years away from tech, I was very nervous about how it would look to get back into the industry. Some advice that a recruiter gave to me that was really helpful was, at the time, when I was a stay-at-home parent, my last work experience was in end of 2019, and then I didn't say anything else on my LinkedIn. It was like, that was it. This recruiter actually reached out to me from GitHub and was like, "Hey, I saw your profile, and I just wanted to talk, and see if you're around, and if you wanted to have an interview." I was like, "Yes, I do."
When I finally got on the phone with him, I was like, "How did you find me? Why did you reach out to me?" He's like, "Well, to be honest, I didn't actually know, because I hadn't seen any updates since 2019." It's a little morbid, but he's like, "I wasn't sure if you were even alive." I was like, "Oh, wow. I wasn't expecting that." He advised to put in my bio that I was a homemaker, or a stay-at-home mom, or whatever the case may be, but that that was a job that I had in the present. Something I didn't realize is that, sometimes, recruiters will filter people out on LinkedIn based on who is actually currently employed, or if you have an open job right now, and you can say it from this date to the present. I didn't know that, and so I didn't have anything, because I was like, "Well, I'm just a stay-at-home parent. I don't have an actual job right now."
Alex Booker (32:01):
Proving that age-old adage that to get a job, you should have a job.
Laura Thorson (32:05):
I know, it's not even fair, right? I know, for a lot of the community listening here that you're looking to break into the tech industry, so it's not fair, right? How can I say I have this job when I don't yet? My advice is to put that you're a freelancer, and then just put freelance as your current job, and then list some of the projects you're working on. My other advice, usually for people who are trying to get started in the industry, I always advise people to start a project, either your own personal website, and you can have a tab for this project, or you can create a website for the project itself, and you walk through the project and the app, or whatever you're building as if it is a real thing that you're working on for a company. If you're creating a dog walking service app or whatever, even if you don't know how to use wire framing or any like that, just sketch it out on a piece of paper what your app is going to look like.
You can upload some photos and talk about the process, share your process and your thinking around this app you're building. I decided I wanted to build a dog walking app, because I needed help finding someone who would walk my dog while I was at work. These were the three things that I thought I really needed for my MVP. Here's some sketches of what I think this app should look like. Here's the GitHub repository where my code lives. If you're interested in taking a look, and you want to contribute to it, an open source thing. Just keep working on that project as if it is your real full-time job, as you continue to interview, because the thing that was most interesting was just how many interviews I had, where people I was talking to had done the homework on me too.
They had looked at my LinkedIn, they had seen my projects, they had clicked on my projects, and the websites for them, and had played around with some of the stuff and were like, "This is really cool. Tell me more about this project you made." I know, it's discouraging at first, feeling like there's a lot of competition in the tech industry, especially right now. Yet, I think being able to show that you are proactive, that you're self-motivated, have direction, and explain your thought process on how you're working on something, and tell me more about the way that you're thinking about building this. Why did you make the design decisions you did? Why did you avoid certain things? That is showing people how you work. It's showing people how you think, and that's what I think interviewers, and teams want to see. The actual technical skills are like anybody can learn those skills, frankly.
I really believe anyone can learn how to code, but what makes you an excellent engineer is actually what makes you, and an excellent teammate is your humanity. It is your paying attention to how people think, what's useful to people, what's not useful to people, what's a bad user experience, and what's a great user experience? All of those things you have to consider when you're building technology, and that's something that I think is a really valuable asset to any team. If you can show that, and communicate that in your LinkedIn profile, and projects you're working in, that actually is more valuable than just finding someone who knows a coding language.
Alex Booker (35:11):
Laura, I'm really excited to learn a bit more about your journey at GitHub, but first, what do you say we do around the quickfire questions?
Laura Thorson (35:18):
Hit me with them, Alex.
Alex Booker (35:19):
I'll go easy on you, maybe.
Laura Thorson (35:20):
Alex Booker (35:24):
What was your first coding language?
Laura Thorson (35:26):
Alex Booker (35:26):
Interesting. You still play Ruby at the starting of C? Yes.
Laura Thorson (35:28):
Yes. I don't know. I don't want to count C, because that one was a... Yeah. The one that I first fell in love with was Ruby. How about that?
Alex Booker (35:37):
What about when you're coding, do you listen to some music, and if so, what's your go-to?
Laura Thorson (35:41):
I generally like a lofi beats playlist on Spotify, because then you can get into that groovy beat, frankly. But I have also coded to pop music, and I admit that I love country music, so sometimes I also listen to country music when I code.
Alex Booker (35:58):
Yeah. I find lofi is great when you're working on a hard task. You don't want something too distracting.
Laura Thorson (36:04):
Alex Booker (36:04):
You feel confident, you know what you're doing. Crank up the Taylor Swift.
Laura Thorson (36:07):
Alex Booker (36:08):
What do you drink to fuel your coding sessions? Tea, coffee or water?
Laura Thorson (36:11):
Usually, water with electrolytes inside. If it's in the morning, I drink one cup of coffee, so I will drink that too.
Alex Booker (36:18):
Is there anyone you look up to or follow in the tech community that we should know about, and can maybe follow, and check out after this episode?
Laura Thorson (36:26):
I'd say that the person that had a really big impact on me, and means a lot to me is actually GitHub's former COO, Erica Brescia. She's now an investor with Red Point Ventures, but she has been a mentor to me. She gives a lot of great advice, especially to people who are just getting started with their startup, and they have app ideas, and founders. She gives a ton of great advice on her Twitter feed there, and on her LinkedIn. Maybe a lesser known name compared to some of the big names in tech, but she's meant a lot to me. She was my VP, when I got hired back into technology at GitHub, so I am very grateful to her.
Alex Booker (37:04):
What do you think about AI taking over coding, seeing that you work on GitHub who are known for GitHub Copilot as well?
Laura Thorson (37:11):
What's so interesting to me is, I feel AI has tried to have a moment for the last 20 years, but it actually feels like AI is going to actually have its moment now. It feels like it's not just the techies that are talking about it, we're getting just regular people in any old industry talking about it too. What's crazy is that my friend's father-in-law is one of the fathers of AI back in the seventies, and so I was talking to him about this just last week, and I asked him the same question, and he... I don't want to take credit for his answer, which I'm about to give. But I do think that AI will change the industry, and I do think it will change the way our world works, very much like the internet, and Apple, and iPhones changed our world.
Change is scary, right? We don't know what to expect, and we're afraid that it'll take over our jobs, and all these things. I think there are going to be some industries that are significantly impacted, and revolutionized by AI. With that being said, I also think that it's easy to see what you might lose. It's not always so easy to see what you might gain. I think that with AI, sure, there might be some things that might be lost, because it's faster and easier to have a computer do it. But there are going to be many things that computers can't do that I think only humans can do. I do believe there will be more opportunities available in AI, or as a result of AI entering the chat, so to say, than we can maybe even see now.
Alex Booker (38:47):
We're running out time here today, but I did want to make sure we come back to your experience at GitHub. I interrupted you earlier, when you were telling us about your work experience, because I just had this huge list of tangential questions. But I'm really curious to know how you got started at GitHub, what you're up to, and what you're excited about in the future.
Laura Thorson (39:04):
I've been in GitHub over two years now. I was hired as a partner engineer, and I really helped, developed our secret scanning partner program. While I was a partner engineer, we added over 50 new tokens to GitHub's private and public repo scanning product, which ended up driving nearly 4 million in revenue. It was a really fun project to be a part of. I actually decided to take a little bit of time to be a product manager, so I had two opportunities to join two different product teams, and I really wanted to see what that would be like. I became a product manager for a team called special projects at GitHub. We were a team that was focused on shipping these byte-sized features that would bring delight to customers, and to our developer community, so feature requests that had long been requested as far back as 2015, and yet feature teams had not had time yet to deliver on them.
We would try to ship things in a two to four-week time span, and turn things around, and surprise customers, and deliver on feedback, and features that had been requested for a long time. I loved doing that. It was a great experience, I learned so much. As we continued to do it, we actually ended up doing such a good job that feature teams were like, "Wait, we want to be able to ship some of these things too." Feature teams started taking on some of those, we called them tiny wins, that some of these quick released the little bits of joy to customers and developers, and we started running out of things we could do.
So then the team was disbanded, and I was absorbed into our developer relations team, and I now manage our third-party global community event strategy and presence. I also just launched, about a month ago, GitHub's first Speaker Bureau. It's a program for hubbers of all experience levels to share their knowledge of GitHub, and our products in a diversity of customer-facing situations, so conferences, workshops, seminars, executive briefing calls, et cetera. It's a program that includes mentorship, and public speaking training, and training resources, presentation resources. It's been a really fun thing to be working on, very different than what I thought I'd be doing, but I'm having a really good time.
Alex Booker (41:17):
Isn't that amazing? That's such an exciting role, and it all started with learning to code all those years ago at bootcamp. I sure, it's been really difficult too, in a role like this, to get started there, if you didn't have that coding background?
Laura Thorson (41:29):
Yeah. I think the thing to take away from my experience, and just from participating in coding bootcamps, or participating in a program like Scrimba is just the most valuable asset that I think you get from participating in something like this is not the language itself. It's not whatever coding language you're picking up, or framework, or all of that. Those things always change. Ruby was the hot ticket language in 2013, and now, it's definitely not. It's less about the language, it's less about the frameworks that you're learning, and it's more about the experience of being open-minded, thrown into something you don't know, and being really curious about it. You could be thrown into a code base you're not familiar with, you could be thrown into a language you're not familiar with, you could be thrown into a section of technology that you're not familiar with, but coming and approaching it with a curious mindset, with an open mindset, and then also with a confident mindset, not confident in the sense that you're arrogant and you're like, oh, I can figure this out.
But confident in the sense like, woo, I'm feeling a little nervous, I've never looked at this code base before. I've never worked with this language before, but I know I can do it. I know I can do it. I know I can ask questions of people, whether on my team, people in my cohort, mentors, folks like that to help me. You can always use pair programming as a way to learn something new. I learned so much, when I worked with other engineers on a project. If someone is to look through my resume, I literally jumped around into all different sides of tech. I had no experience in Salesforce, and I had to learn a whole new language like Salesforce Apex, compute, or programming language I only ever used there. And then I got hired at Twitter, and I'd never been in the ad tech industry before, and so I was learning everything about ad tech, and what is a publisher versus a network, and I was learning Java, and objective C on the fly as I was building these SDKs.
And then I got hired at Facebook, and I had no experience with live video. I'd never done live video before. I'd never really built it, or been part of supporting an API to that extent, and launching video partners. Now at GitHub, I've already, in my two years at GitHub, I was working in secret scanning. I'd never done cybersecurity before, and then I'm in product, and I'm shipping all sorts of developer tool features in product, and now I'm managing third-party global community events, and learning about how to do that, and manage budgets, and manage speaker bureaus, and connect people to executive briefing calls, and all these different things. The only through line in my whole journey is curiosity, being open to learn, and being committed to knowing that no matter what you throw at me, I'm going to be able to learn it quickly.
I'm going to do everything I can to be responsible. I'm going to ask good questions. I'm going to ask for help when I need it, and not be afraid to admit when I don't know something. I really feel that has been the most valuable thing I could have learned from a bootcamp, or from anything, or these wonderful programs like Scrimba. It's just, it's not about the language, it's not about the frameworks, it's not about the actual technology skills. It's about being curious and open, and doing your very best, and asking for help and getting, supporting, or surrounding yourself with support to really be successful. I really think that anybody can have a beautiful, and flourishing career in technology, when you keep those concepts in mind.
Alex Booker (44:48):
Oh, that's such a powerful key takeaway to end on. But I just have to ask, you described something clearly that you didn't call out by name, I think, which was this humility to be new at something, and I hear that. I think, when you join a company, that's the hardest place to demonstrate that humility, because if you've been hired, you know that they know your strengths, they should probably know some of your weaknesses too, but you want to make a good impression. How do you combat that eagerness, and ability to learn, with feeling like an imposter? Maybe you're learning too much, right? Maybe you should know more before you start the job. I think this is a common anxiety.
Laura Thorson (45:22):
I mean, I've experienced imposter syndrome on every job I've ever had, and so I don't know if it ever goes away. From what I've talked to other engineers, principal engineers even, they have told me that they experienced the same. I think what's actually really beautiful about hearing that from other engineers, and experiencing it myself is that imposter syndrome is a universal experience, so if you're experiencing it, you're not alone. Everyone, even the most senior people, CEOs, I believe have all experienced imposter syndrome at one point or another in their career, and it can be really devastating. It can be debilitating, for sure. I think if you're experiencing that, if you can talk to somebody and just be honest with a mentor, a friend, an engineer in a similar position, maybe in your cohort or something like that, who you can be transparent with, I think that's really beautiful, and hopefully can bring some relief.
At the same time, I think that, sometimes, people try to handle imposter syndrome by overcompensating in confidence, and saying, "Well, I got this," or they don't want to ask any questions because they're too nervous. I actually think that's worse. You're not fooling anybody, when you don't know something, especially if you're new to the industry. Somebody hired you knowing that you didn't know everything, but they saw something in you that was good raw materials, so have confidence that somebody saw something in you.
If you really need to know, I think, if you have a manager or something you've just been hired, you can ask, you can say, "Hey, thank you for hiring me. I'd love to know what it is you saw about me either in my interview, or in this first month of working here that made you think that I would be a good hire. I'd like to capitalize on that, and I'm worried I'm going to be a little bit new to this code base. Do you have any suggestions? Do you know someone I could maybe be connected to who could maybe give me an overview of what I'm looking at, or someone who I could ask some questions to if I get stuck or something?"
Get help. We all have been here. We know what it feels like. The worst thing, I think, is to be someone who's new at something, and feeling that imposter syndrome, and to experience it alone, and to be paralyzed from asking for help. There are a lot of really wonderful, very talented, very incredible people in this industry, I'm just amazed, who are so excited to mentor, and to help, and to guide, and to support. There's some very empathetic people in this industry, and so I believe you'll find them here. But you have to ask for them, and be mindful of their time, but they're there to help you.
Alex Booker (47:48):
Yeah. Just showing that vulnerability can reward you in some very surprising ways. Laura, there is so much insight in this episode. I really appreciate your time today. I know everybody listening does as well. Thank you so much for joining me on The Scrimba Podcast. It's been a pleasure.
Laura Thorson (48:02):
Thank you so much. I had a really great time talking with you too.
Jan Arsenovic (48:06):
That was The Scrimba Podcast, episode 114. Subscribe for more, because we are a weekly show, and there's a new episode every Tuesday. Check out the show notes for the resources for this episode, as well as the ways you can connect with Laura, and Alex's Twitter handle, if you want to tweet at him directly, and with Jan. We'll see you next week.