A discussion with Stephanie Hurburt about how she mentors people new in the field through open DMs and open office hours.

Transcript for episode 36 of the Test & Code Podcast

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Welcome to Test and Code, a podcast about software testing and development.

On today’s episode, we have a discussion with Stephanie Hurlbert. Stephanie is a co founder and graphics engineer at Binomial.

Stephanie has been encouraging experienced engineers to open up their Twitter DMs to questions from anyone to help mentor people not only in technical questions, but in career questions as well. She also sets aside some time to mentor people through Skype. When written form just doesn’t cut it. That’s the primary reason I have Stephanie on today to talk about mentoring and open office hours.

We also talk about Binomial and also image compression and texture mapping and the use of both manual and automated tests for complex systems and same working hours and work life balance and how her long hours early in her career letter to have the opinion she holds today.

There are links in the show notes to many mentor lists. I’d also like to find out if there are mentor lists in Python related fields. If not, maybe we should put them together.

This episode is brought to you by Patreon supporters. Thank you to everyone who supports the show.

For the people that don’t know who you are, could you introduce yourself?

Sure. So I run a small company called Binomial and we make image compression software. So basically Sync, Jpg or PNG, we make an alternative, we make a different image compressor, and we typically sell to video games.

Netflix is one of our customers, video streaming services, anything that deals with lots of images. So mapping too is a big one.

Okay. So like when I’m zooming in on a Google map or something, not necessarily Google, but one of those type things that all the different pieces are images that might need compression.


Now, I know that in a lot of the times you’re talking with games, it’s texture mapping for people, not in the game space. What does that mean?

Right. So in games, texture mapping is a specific thing that happens in the game. In games, you have 3D models, but images are 2D.

So you need a way for the artist to generate 2D images, but have them wrap around these 3D models in a way that looks natural, that looks like they were just painted on. And often an artist will paint on the 3D model, and then that 3D modeling software will generate that 2D image for you. But that 2D image is called the texture map.


But what I really wanted to get you on the show about was this thing that you do. You’re just calling it office hours.

I guess so.

I occasionally do that. And I encourage engineers to mentor others in general.

So how long have you been doing office hours?

So I have started mentorship programs since going on over a couple of years now, just actively doing mentorship. And it started out by realizing that a lot of the engineers I sell were kind of very exclusive. Now I was calling with them or they followed my work and it was really hard for me to break into the industry. So I was just talking with some of them who are now my friends. And I said, hey, can you open up your Twitter DMs and just say that publicly that they’re open and that anyone can ask you questions? And they were like, sure, they didn’t even think about it. So I made a list of engineers that were explicitly open to help other people.

And then it kind of started from there. People started using the list newbies who wanted to break into the industry. And I’ve just been trying various methods to help new people out.

So just to reiterate, I guess trying to encourage people to open up their Twitter DMs and people can ask them questions and stuff.

Yeah, exactly. And so the office hours idea that you saw was I realized that I wanted to do an experiment where with Twitter DMs, people sometimes feel a little nervous to message you. They’re not sure what to say. They’re not sure if you’ll really be open to helping them. And with office hours, I created kind of just a Google sheets and people could just take a slot. And I explicitly said, I’ll talk to anybody. It doesn’t matter what stage you are. I’ll talk to you about anything you want.

And it just removed another barrier. And so I was doing that experiment. I think open Twitter DMs are still great, but I wanted to see how can we remove even more barriers and have people taking you up on that?

Have you talked with people?

Yes. So in my case, I have the problem, which is a good problem to have. I actually have a lot of people message me through Twitter ATMs and ask for help. So I do at least a couple of hours of mentoring on Twitter every week, just like over Skype calls, but started through those Twitter DMs. Okay.

And the open office hours allowed people who are too nervous to message me. And so I try to do that every now and then too.

Okay, let me get that straight. Somebody messages you a question over Skype DM and you think that maybe it would be easier just to talk about it?

You just arrange a Skype conversation at that point?

Absolutely. So usually someone will say, oh, I’m looking for career advice. I’m really struggling. My resume is not good. I haven’t been getting offers. And as you know, that kind of problem could be caused by so many things. And it’s just usually easier to talk about it over Skype and faster too.

I think that’s awesome.

That’s so cool. And it makes total sense. My DMs are open to anybody. And then also we’ve set up associated with this podcast.

We’ve got a Slack channel that there are people all over the country, all over the world. Really? That answer questions related to testing, which is nice, but things like career stuff and other things, I don’t think anybody would think to ask on that. So I like the idea of just having it be open and just ask wherever you want.

Yeah. And career stuff is usually the number one question. And just because it’s such a mystery to some people, they’re not really sure how to get in.

At least in my portion of the industry, networking is really important. A lot of jobs aren’t even posted, which is frustrating, but also the reality. So just learning tips on how to apply, that involves talking to people, too.

Sometimes I go and listen to some of the advice that people are being given when they’re applying for jobs. Some of the advice is geared towards people trying to get their resume past the automatic filters.


It’s at certain bigger companies, it’s much harder to get your resume in. And that’s part of why networking is important is that even when you submit your resume through the system, it could get filtered out at any step. But if an engineer on the team likes you, they’ll find a way to get it through. So, yeah, it’s not great.

You’ve had at least months of helping people out with career advice?

Oh, I’ve been helping people out with career advice for years recently. The past few months I’ve tried this idea of I’ve always had open Twitter, DMs and really encourage people to reach out to me. But this idea of the spreadsheet that people can just put their name in as well, I’ve been trying that for the past few months.

Do you think the one way works better than the other? Are they complementary?

I think they’re complementary. I think it’s great to do both and see what works for you and works for the people in your network. And one thing I would say is that if you find that the people reaching out to you aren’t very diverse, like maybe they’re just students from the College you went to or they’re all guys reaching out to you. If you find a lack of diversity, it means that you’re not reaching out to people outside your network.

And it’s really easy to expand that all you have to do is just reach out to, say, a local organization, like a black girl’s code or a local school or something that is diverse and just let them know about what you’re doing and that you’re open to questions.

Okay. I think this is great. I didn’t think of it as also career advice.

Well, when I release this episode, I’m going to, I guess, announce that I’m going to try a similar experiment. And I think I’m going to just follow your model of both encouraging people, if they want to start with text form to either email me or direct message me. That’d be cool.

So you said you think you reserve like a couple of hours a week for this at least.

And that is a really interesting question because at first when I started this, I would do lots of hours every week. I would basically finish work and then do several hours of mentoring. And what I realized is that mentoring staff similar kind of energy as work does, which is a little surprising to me. So these days it just depends on my workload that week.

If there’s a lot of work to do, I do less mentoring, and if I’m light on my workload, I do more. But either way, I find that mentoring others is energizing.

It feels really nice, so it’s good to incorporate.

Okay, well, how do you deal with questions that you don’t know the answer to?

Those are the most fun questions.

One of my favorite things to do is to refer them to other people who can mentor them who maybe didn’t think of this idea or don’t have open DMs or don’t do office hours, but I know them.

So I’ll purposely make that introduction and say, hey, for instance, I don’t know much about Python, but I know this guy who does. I’ll make an introduction. And I think that a big part of mentoring that people don’t realize is that it’s so much deeper than just answering technical questions. It’s also about getting them a network and getting them people who actually know them as people in the industry.

That’s nice. It’s also cool to have that was one of my big fears when I put together the Slack Channel for this is I was afraid people were going to ask me a bunch of questions that I didn’t know the answer to, and sometimes I don’t even know who knows the answer. But having a forum to be able to push it out to other people is great. They’re great at answering questions that I can’t answer.

And then I learned stuff about my own network that I didn’t know, that some of my colleagues were experts in different areas. So that’s kind of fun, too.


It’s fun because it brings you closer to your colleagues. You can say, hey, how did the chat go with Shirley and kind of bond with them over that as well?

Do you have any really surprising questions that you remember that you can share with us?

Sure. I can tell some stories.

One of the most powerful stories recently was actually this happened a couple of times, but this woman had messaged me, and she was basically like, I have terrible experience.

My resume is horrible.

I’m not even working a programming job right now, and I can’t get any interviews. And I said, oh, boy, this is going to be hard. And I said, let’s talk about it. And we talked. And what really was happening was that she just had really low selfesteem. Like, she went to a good College and she did all right. And she was in kind of a QA. Role in her current company, which is very common for junior developers. She was doing fine, but she had just been beat up so much with bad interview experiences. And I find that a lot of people just need that confidence boost. And it was so funny. At the end of the interview, she kind of got to realize how awesome she was, which made me happy.

So that was one example of a story. We’re just having that conversation with someone and telling them your perspective on their career can really change things for them.

That’s neat. The confidence is a big part of it.

One of the things that a lot of people interviewing for jobs don’t realize is that the people they’re interviewing with, many of them don’t know how to do interviews either.

Oh, my gosh. I just want to spread the word that you said that because it’s so true or interviews are done badly or they’re given just really bad feedback. Yes.

So that was one story. Can you share any others with us?

Oh, yeah. I love sharing stories. Okay, let me think. I didn’t come with stories prepared, so I’m kind of thinking of them off the top of my head.

Recently I’ve been doing a lot of mentoring around starting businesses, which is a problem that I find really interesting to solve. Just helping people bootstrap companies.

And it’s been really fun because a lot of people have this idea that if you want to start a company, you have to quit your job and risk everything, and your kids are going to starve and you have to search for invest your money and this whole kind of narrative around it. And I’m really passionate about, no, don’t quit your job. And you can start a business just at any time. All you need to do is fill out some paperwork, and then you can start just talking to potential customers and do business building while staying safe and not taking investor money.

It’s just been really fun. And with building a business, networking is everything.

It’s been really fun to tap this network that I’ve built up and kind of use that to help budding entrepreneurs build up their networks as well.

So are we going to see, like, how to Start a business book coming out from you anytime soon?

I write a lot of blogs on it.

One thing is that there’s a lot of writing on business out there, and there’s a lot of writing about taking the investor out and becoming the next Facebook or Google or whatever. But I feel like those of us who don’t go that route in tech, it’s not very publicized.

It’s not talked about a lot.

Is Binomial a bootstrap company?

Yeah, it’s a bootstrap company. We haven’t taken any investor money.

Okay. How big is the company?

It’s just the two of us.

So it’s just me and my business partner, and we’ve managed to stay small and still take on big customers.

Is it okay if I jump into Binomial stuff a bit?

Yeah, of course.

There’s two of you. Are there roles separated, or do you both do a little bit of everything?

So we have an LLC, which means that there’s no role at the technical, like at the paperwork level. We’re just both partners, 50 50 and the LLC.

It’s kind of interesting. Our roles shift over time.

We both have engineering backgrounds.

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of business work, and my partner has been taking care of some of the engineering to do list that needs to get done. But it just shifts as time goes on.

Okay. It shifts by week or even by month or something. On a larger scale, how much time you end up spending in the code.

Right. So typically what we do is we don’t work on code all the time. Neither of us do with our product. It’s built right now, and it’s sellable and production ready. And in the world of image compression, stability is everything. Well, it’s so fun. I’m talking to a testing expert, so you understand some people are like, move fast and break everything.

Stability is everything in our product. And so we’re very careful about adding features. And anytime we do, we make sure to research and test and be very thoughtful about it. So we go on coding sprints for a few months at a time, and we’re very careful about when to start those and planning it very wisely. So a lot of the year we just spend on business and don’t spend heavily coding.

Okay. New features have to work, of course, but the old features must work.

I’m assuming you’ve got a lot of regression tests in place to make sure that everything that used to work still works.

Oh, yeah. And it’s fascinating with images, too, because there is no metric like just computer metric that can test image quality. Well, which is everything to our business.

So you can’t just run a test and say, computer, tell me if this image quality is still good. It’ll tell you an approximation. That’s okay. But you have to actually look at the image yourself because the human visual system is so complex that we haven’t found an algorithm that can simulate it well enough yet.

So do you have quite a big set of example images that you run through and then just kind of have a checklist to look at and make sure they still look good afterwards?

Exactly. Finding test images is tough. And we also ask our customers for images. And anytime we add anything to the compressor, we have to manually look at thousands and thousands of images just to be sure. Like, okay, this is still looking good, or this is off because we also run automated tests and testing on all the images, too, with the metrics that are the best we have. But we have to do both.

Yeah. Okay.


That’s why it’s a lot of painful work to look at all those images and scrutinize them. So we’re very careful not to mess it up.

Really interesting problems are really hard to completely automate.

So there’s a lot of human stuff that it’s easier just to say, hey, look at these and make sure they look good. Still, we try to automate as much as we can, but there’s a few places where, like, for instance, just the layout of a screen or something. It’s a lot easier just to say, let’s dog food it. We use it a lot. If something looks weird, we’ll be able to see it.

Oh, that’s fascinating.

That’s a really good example, actually. Sometimes I get in this thought pattern of this testing problem is unique to images and video, but it’s so true.

It’s a lot easier to test things manually with humans in other areas as well.

People out there that are listening. If you haven’t at least spent some time watching Stephanie’s Twitter feed, it’s refreshingly nice.

Maybe if everybody on my timeline was happy go lucky and ignoring all the world’s problems, I would be a little more like, hey, guys, there are issues going on and little a more angry. But I feel like we need a dose of Positivity on Twitter right now.

You’re also somebody that’s pushing back against the idea that to succeed, you have to work 70 or 80 hours a week.

You’re opposed to overworking, right?


For me, when I started this, it was pure necessity.

I was burnt out because in my industry jobs, I wasn’t sleeping. I was literally working all the time, every hour I could. I would often be at the office until midnight and I couldn’t even work 40 hours.

When I left those jobs, I was burnt out, and I never want to go back to that. I feel very passionate that people should have work life balance.

Yeah, definitely.

I think it’s great that you’re very vocal about it. I remember one headhunter for a company that was talking with me once and I asked them about their work life balance policies.

And they said, oh, we’re all for work life balance. In fact, there are many employees that only work 40 hours a week, and that’s okay.

Not everybody, but there are some.

And we tolerate it.


No, I’m of the mindset of if your company expects you to work more than 40 hours a week, they’re not paying attention to reality. And you should try to find another job.

I think.

And I don’t know how it is in testing and in that field, but in graphics engineering, where I was even, I think I had a maximum of 5 hours of good work in me. And so what I would do is I would just try to look busy the other hours or take meetings or whatever.

But in graphics, it’s a lot of hard work.

It’s like the work I do now where you have to be very careful and your mind kind of has to be on all the time. It’s not a lot of manual tasks, so I don’t think people have even 40 hours of coding work in them.

There are other things that take up some of that time, like meetings and things like that.

Yeah, that’s very true.

I try my best to stick to a 20 hours week schedule, but one of the things that makes that possible is that I don’t program all the time so I’ll have 2 hours of meetings and then 2 hours of really focused business work, like answering emails, updating our website, things like that, and do that a few days a week.

So as having a company with a partner, did you guys talk about that beforehand that you didn’t expect each other to be working 40 hours a week?

No. It kind of evolved over time. That’s a really interesting question. You would think that we should have that conversation.

But no, we started as a typical small company, a typical startup of like we are going to work hard and make this work. And there wasn’t even a thought of let’s work part time, but it evolved that way.

I was very burnt out and I would say like, Rich, I’m too tired this week. I can’t work. And he would understand and he’d be like, it’s fine. And he would have weeks like that too. And eventually we realized that we both just needed balance and we were both kind of in similar mindset of knowing how it’s like to work 100 hours a week and realizing the value of resting and healing.

That’s great.

It takes, I guess, a special kind of people to make sure that’s cool with both of you.

It’s interesting. I think the fact that both of us had experienced over work made it less glorified.

I feel like when I was a student, for instance, I thought working very hard was cool and I would look and say, Look, Steve Jobs and all these successful people work all the time and they’re cool. And I’m going to be like that too. It was kind of a glorified thing and we both, after being through it, we’re like, no, it’s not cool actually. It’s horrible.

We know.

So is Binomial something you’re going to run with for quite a while? Do you know what the end game is?

I think about that a lot and it’s something that it’s one of those things where we are prepared for things like acquisition offers.

So we’re like a typical startup in that sense and that we might get acquired, but I’m also really preparing to try to make it work for the long run and I don’t want to grow the team.

So we’re setting up things like Reseller agreements so that companies with huge sales teams that have all that infrastructure can handle selling our product for us and they take a cut and we take a cut. And it’s kind of fair in that way. And it allows us to reach a lot more customers without growing our team. And I’ve been exploring creative reps like that to scale instead of just hire a bunch of people.

And so the name Binomial, is that just an intent to scare high school math students?

Yes. That is one of the goals in my business. No. Yeah.

We sat down with a physical huge dictionary one day and Googled Justice source. And we’re like, okay, what are we going to do? And then thought of a bunch of words and we liked Binomial because we both really like math. And two, there’s two of us, and it kind of solidified that we wanted to stay small.

I like it. That’s good.

Well, actually, I’m going to take you up on your ability to answer advice, and I’m going to try this whole reaching out to try to help more people with career advice and stuff, with trying to set up both direct message for people wanting career stuff and within my field of expertise as well, and then also trying to do some Open Office Hours and reach out. Just say that I don’t know if it’s non expert advice, but you can ask me if you want.

And then if I run into roadblocks with that, I’ll probably send questions to you and say, Stephanie, this happened. What should I do?

Feel free. And I encourage you to post about the fact that you’re doing this on Twitter. And I have a lot of junior programmers that follow me, and I’d be happy. And this applies to all the listeners as well.

If you ever post to your timeline that you’re willing to mentor others, please let me know. And I’m happy to spread the word. I’m always happy to do that.

Awesome. Well, thanks so much for coming on. And yeah, it’s just been a great conversation.

It’s been a great chat. Thank you so much, Brian.

As I said during the episode, my Twitter DMs are open. Feel free to ask me anything if I don’t know the answer, but I know someone who does. I’ll try to point you in the right direction.

If I really just don’t know, I’ll tell you that, too.

I was going to announce Open Office Hours for myself during this episode. However, I got accepted to speak at Python in May, and I’m preparing for lots of presentations between now and then to get ready. So perhaps when the Python dust settles, I’ll try to open up some Office Hours. Until then, feel free to reach out to me via Twitter DMs or just through Twitter at Brian Hawken, or through the contract form on either of my sites.

If you’re open to mentoring yourself, not mentoring yourself, but you yourself are open to mentoring other people. Open up your DMs, announce it on Twitter and let Stephanie and I know about it. She’s at Sewelberg.

If there’s already a list of mentors out there in Python or for software testing, let me know if I don’t hear about any I’ll start a list of everyone contacts me.

That’s all for now. Thanks for listening.