#TechTuesday: How I (Finally) Became an Engineer

One product manager didn't think she was a good fit for engineering, even though it's what she loved. Now, nothing's stopping her from becoming a truly badass engineer.

By Lexi Ross (Software Engineer, Facebook)

Last month, I made the decision to switch roles and become a software engineer. I had been working at Facebook for about a year as a product manager in its rotational product manager program. This may seem like a counterintuitive move, as it’s more common to switch from engineering to PM. In short, the reason is that I enjoy engineering more and always have. The more interesting question is, “Why didn’t I start out as an engineer?” Figuring out the answer was a journey in itself, expanding my own definition of talent and capability.

Lesson One: Pursue What You Want, and Ability Will Follow

When I was interviewing for tech jobs in my last year of college, I began to notice a trend. I was doing well on PM interviews, receiving offers from multiple companies. "I guess I’d better be a PM then," I thought to myself. "I must have some kind of natural talent. Better not let it go to waste." Even worse, I thought to myself, "I would love to be an engineer, but there are so many amazing, genius engineers out there. What makes me think I could fit in with them, let alone stand out? I haven’t been coding since I was 10, I haven’t won any programming competitions, I haven’t started any companies. I should stick to what I’m good at." In addition to a heavy dose of impostor syndrome, I was experiencing a mindset of doing only what I thought I was good at in order to avoid failure. But this type of thinking doesn’t allow for much growth. Without diving headfirst into our weaknesses, it’s pretty difficult to develop new strengths. Am I an amazing engineer? Not yet! But I know I can get there.

Lesson Two: Effort Trumps Brilliance

During my interviews that fall, I told myself a story: I was a naturally good fit for product management, and not so much a good fit for engineering. But when I look back on it, a different narrative emerges. I was well-prepared for my PM interviews. I had just completed a product management internship, and I studied extensively for each interview. On the other hand, I hadn’t written code all summer. I read through a few practice problems, and that was it. "If I’m good enough to be an engineer," I thought, "I don’t need practice to do well on an interview." Turns out, it’s exactly practice that helps people do well on interviews and become great engineers.

Fortunately, I did not repeat my mistakes the second time around. About a year into my job at Facebook, I admitted to myself that I might be happier as an engineer. With the incredible support of my manager and team, I pursued the opportunity to interview for an internal transfer to engineering. I worked hard. I did every practice problem I could get my hands on, studied every algorithm I’d forgotten since college, and did mock interviews with my co-workers. This time, it paid off. My interviews went well, and I joined the Pages team to work on product infrastructure, writing software to improve the experience of millions of page admins and over a billion people. I was proud of my effort. My hard work no longer felt like a shameful admission of incompetence. Instead, it felt like the only way to achieve what I wanted.

Lesson Three: Don't Run From Failure

Let’s go back to college for a second. I mentioned earlier that I wasn’t doing so well on my engineering interviews. But in fact, I only got two rejections. After that, I stopped interviewing for engineering positions altogether. Why? I was actually afraid of getting rejected again. I have friends who avoided applying for their “reach” colleges in high school for the same reason: they dreaded rejection and the pain it would bring. When you take a step back, this strategy seems pretty foolish and limiting. All too often, we religiously avoid failure, because we spend so much of our energy protecting our egos and seeking validation for our strengths, thereby confining ourselves from true growth.

We’ve all heard that failure is valuable, how it makes us stronger, how it helps us grow, but I was never able to internalize these platitudes. Sure, wildly successful people might point to failure as a necessary step on their path to success, but wasn’t it better to just not fail at all? It wasn’t until I learned about the idea that talent is achieved through practice and not natural “gifts” that I understood the importance of getting comfortable with failure. Without failure, there is no growth. And talent comes from growth. Of course, failure can have real negative consequences. But running away from the possibility of failure, as I did, can result in missed opportunities and untapped potential, the impact of which is hard to quantify.

Nothing feels better than coming to the office every day to do work that I love, that I’m excited about, and that I can feel proud of. Being able to feel this empowered has improved my life and self confidence more broadly. And the best part is that I don’t feel stuck at my current ability. With effort and a mindset primed for growth, as well as the mentorship and support I’m fortunate to have, there’s nothing limiting me from being a truly badass engineer.

What's stopping you from pursuing the job you want?

Photo via miss karen / Filckr.


About the guest blogger: Lexi Ross is a software engineer at Facebook, where she began her career as product manager in 2013. She graduated last year from Harvard with a degree in Computer Science and helped lead HackHarvard, a technology and entrepreneurship club. Lexi is a proud feminist and a passionate advocate for getting more women to realize their potential in technical fields.