Nina Zakharenko is a cloud developer advocate at Microsoft focusing on Python. We talk about her experience with mentoring, both being a mentor, and utilizing mentors.
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Welcome to Test and Code, a podcast about software development, software testing, and Python.
On today’s episode we have Nina Zacharynko. Nina is a Cloud Developer advocate at Mike’s Microsoft, focusing on Python. She’s also an excellent public speaker. We talked to her about her experience with mentoring, both being a mentor and utilizing mentors.
We also talk about public speaking, her move to Microsoft, and quite a few more things. This episode is sponsored by JetBrains and PyCharm. I wanted to try PyCharm after I watched the Python 2017 talk by Elizabeth Cheshkova about how changes to Python 3.6 allowed the Python on team to develop a debugger that runs almost as fast as not using a debugger. That’s actually incredible. I learned more about the team and about the tool and found out that the team is very much focused on improving developers day to day workflow in so many ways. My team has now switched to Pie, PyCharm and her a few of the features that save us time, virtual environment support highlighting Pepa violations, code completion, code coverage, the Get integration that is incredible and just built in. You don’t have to turn it on or anything, it just works.
Vim or November Most of my team uses PyCharm as is, but for me and a couple of others, the Vim emulation is there to save the day. The easy to modify keyboard shortcuts made the transition from Vim to Pi Churn panels PYT support that keeps getting better and better. This is actually the reason we switched to PyCharm for the pipe test support. I don’t know which of these features or a long list of others are going to be the features that save you and your team time, but if you value your time, you owe it to yourself to try PyCharm.
The team has set up a link just for test and code listeners. If you use the link, testandcode.com/pycharm, you can try Privatearm Professional for free for three months. This offer is good until September 1, so don’t forget.
Plus using the link, I’ll have it in the show. Notes also let the Python team know that supporting Test and code a good thing. Now on with the show.
Hey, how’s it going?
It’s great. It’s good to be able to talk with you finally.
I know we’ve been planning this for such a long time.
I am not going to try to pronounce your last name is first name, just Nina. Is that right?
Nina? Yeah, that’s right. And my last name is Zacarenko. The H silent Zacarenko. Yeah, you got it.
Okay. And you do a lot. Quite a bit. So how do you normally introduce yourself to new people?
That’s a tough one because my role has changed so much over the past few months. I used to just be introduced myself as a developer and a conference speaker, but these days I tend to introduce myself as a developer advocate and then I get the standard question of what does that mean?
Well, at least your Twitter profile says a cloud developer advocate at Microsoft.
So do you advocate clouds for developers or developers for clouds or what does that mean?
Yeah, you nailed it on the head.
So I just started three months ago and I’m still kind of sorting out my role, but I’m the first cloud developer advocate at Microsoft who’s focusing specifically on Python.
Yeah. My goal is to make the user experience on Azure a lot better for developers. We support a ton of languages now.
Python is kind of up and coming, and there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done to make the user experience awesome. And that’s my role is to get feedback, work on documentation, and share the love.
So you’ve only been there for a few months so far, so I know it’s probably going to be in flux, but what does a typical day look like then or is there a typical day?
There is no typical day at all.
It really depends. I’ve been doing a lot more travel lately. I’ve been speaking at conferences a lot more. So that’s something that I used to do as a developer, but now it’s part of your goal.
Yeah, that was my question was going to be one of my questions. You’ve spoken a lot at different conferences for quite a while.
When you got started into doing that, was that part of your job or just something you wanted to do?
Not at all. Yeah. It was just something that I found really interesting and inspiring. When I was first learning Python, I went to a few conference talks that really kind of blew my mind and accelerated my learning.
I think Raymond headinger’s beyond Pepi was the first conference talk I went to that I was just like, wow, this is amazing.
And I wanted to provide that experience for other people with the things that I was learning and I found interesting and things that had kind of cropped up from my many years of experience in the industry and things that I had seen.
There’s tons of stuff I want to ask you. So I want to ask you kind of how you got into Python. How did you end up at Microsoft? Why Portland? Because I know you’ve lived lots of places, and then specifically in April, I noticed that you are trying to reach out to try to open up some of your time for office hours and mentoring. And that’s really what I’d love to talk about. So let’s start with the mentoring thing. Why are you mentoring? Are you mentoring and how’s the office hours things worked out.
So the reason that I decided to open up my DMs and reach out to the community at large to accept office hours and find people who are interested in mentoring was because I’ve been lucky enough to have mentorship myself.
They’re really kind of one key person who really inspired me to do this. And her name is Jen Brown.
She runs a company called The Engaging Educator, and she does a lot more kind of life coach stuff, public speaking training.
She has a background in improv, and she put out a call on Twitter a few months ago, just saying, if you’re a woman, please send me a message and set up a session with myself. I’ll give you an hour of my time for free.
And I took advantage of her offer, and she was just amazing and inspiring. She helped me work through a really tough life decision at the time, which was, should I take this job at Microsoft or not? Because it was a really big change for me. I was afraid of walking away from development full time. I was afraid it would make me less technical or make my technical skills less valuable. All those concerns are unfounded, but her experience and her perspective really helped push me through this tough decision, and I was so incredibly grateful.
There are also people in the Python community who made themselves available for mentorship, like Kenneth Love, who is another Portland local. Yeah, I’ve taken advantage of mentoring sessions with him where he’s helped me review talk slides or just kind of talk through problems that I’m having.
And after my experiences with them, I realized that I also had a lot to contribute. I had a wealth of experience and advice and just kind of knowledge that I had built up. So I put the call out there and I had quite a few people reach out to me, and I loved I absolutely loved speaking with them. They were just so young and bright eyed and bushy tailed and enthusiastic, and they all came to me with really good questions.
So in general, it’s been a positive experience to try to do that.
Mostly positive. Yeah.
I specifically made my call for mentorship open to people who are underrepresented in tech because those are people who may not have always had the same opportunities.
And I do have limited time. So I wanted to make sure that I was focusing it in the best direction.
But I did get a few jokes or some prods from people who did not qualify, asking what underrepresented in tech really means. And if you don’t know, then that’s probably not you.
Well, I’m a middle aged white guy. Does that qualify?
Not at all.
You are fully representative.
And I think it’s perfectly fine to focus it’s your time. You can do whatever you want with it.
I would ask your listeners if they’re in a position to do it and if they have the time and the experience and the knowledge to make themselves available for mentorship for other people.
How much time are you opening for people? Was our slots? Half hour, 15 minutes.
It was half hour slots, two to three times a week. Okay.
It’s dropped off a little bit since I’ve been traveling. But one of the top items on my to do list is to reach back out to everyone and see if there are follow up questions or things that they wanted to talk about again.
Oh, follow up with the people that you’ve already talked to. That’s a neat idea. Yeah.
So do you think this is an experience you’re going to continue with? Do you get enough out of it that you want to keep doing it?
One of my favorite conversations was with a junior developer.
I believe he was based in Nigeria and he was just starting out in the industry, and he was telling me about his imposter syndrome and how he felt like he wasn’t good enough and how there’s just so much to learn and to be able to share with him that I’ve been in tech for, I want to say twelve years now, but that feeling never goes away.
And to just see that anxiety melt off of him, I love doing it. I will 100% continue to do it.
It’s neat. And one of the things my fascination with people reaching out to be a mentor is because that idea of like, I’m going to be somebody’s mentor, it seems like a scary thing, but it’s not. It’s just like I’m willing to talk with you for a half hour. It’s not I’m going to shape your career or anything like that. It’s just a half an hour of time.
I want our entire community to have more of this. I think it’s cool that you’re going to continue it’s. Awesome. So Microsoft, that was a big shift. So you were a full time developer before that?
So did you approach Microsoft? Did Microsoft approach you? How did that happen? How did you get there?
I approached Microsoft, a coworker of mine. And let’s see, I am not trying to pronounce her last name out loud yet. So we’ll see how I do. Her name is Ashley Macnamarama.
She’s big in the Go community. She does a lot of the artwork for Gophers.
If you’ve seen those cute little stuffed Gophers on the Internet.
But she joined Microsoft a few months ago on my team as a cloud developer advocate. And she wrote an amazing blog post about why she did it and her reasons and what her interview was like and the things that she learned. And I was really impressed by it. And so I decided to reach out to her directly via DM. And that led to an interview. And then I got to see all the things that she mentioned from her blog post in person at my own interview.
So you said she wrote a blog post about that.
After we get done, if you could send me a link to that so we can include it for people to read, that’d be cool.
And has your experience interviewing and the transition seemed to drive with what she’s said also.
Yeah, it’s been really great so far. My main concerns, as I kind of touched on earlier, about developer advocacy in general, was just not being an engineer anymore.
And so the organization that I work with within Microsoft, the Cloud Developer Advocates, we’re an engineering organization. We’re not in sales, we’re not in marketing. There’s a very clear line. So I get to keep my focus on the Python community and do a lot of the things that I was doing for fun before, things like conference talks or taking time to work on open source software, except now I get paid for it and it’s part of my job.
That’s nice, right? I’d love to do that.
You didn’t start out on Python. How did you get to Python?
Did you start out in Java or something like that?
I did, yeah. I spent the first few years of my career writing enterprise Java for financial institutions. So really just as boring as it gets cut and dry. And I didn’t know a lot about communities that had organized around programming languages or about open source software, how it related to me or why I should care in the slightest, really. And while I was still doing Java, I was at a job that luckily sent me to a conference. I could pick any technology conference. And I had heard rumblings that Python was a really good one.
And so I went to my first Python six years ago, and my mind was just totally blown.
I was so impressed with the talks. I was so impressed with the community and how welcoming people were.
I was afraid that I would show up. At the time, I had written maybe a few hundred lines of Python for small internal scripts, and I was afraid that I would show up and I would be a Python newbie, and people would make fun of me and reject me. And you know that feeling you get when you’re approaching something new, and it just couldn’t have been more opposite.
People were just so welcoming to me, and it really kind of changed my thinking and made me realize that there was a whole other side of programming that I didn’t know about, and I wanted to become more engaged with and more involved with.
Did you shift some of your work towards Python then?
At that point I did a little bit. At the time, the organization that I was working with, their external API was in Python. So I kind of tried to wedge my way into working on that more and more. But I found it a little bit challenging learning Python on the side when I was doing Java full time, because to me, the paradigms are just so different.
And I ended up leaving my job to go to the Recursive Center for three months.
For people like me not familiar with what that is. Is that like a boot camp type place?
It’s more of a writer’s retreat for programmers.
Oh, nice. That sounds neat.
So people come of all sorts of different experience levels.
And I took the time I took three months to teach myself Python and buff up on some other programming languages and dig back into some of the math that I had forgotten after College and learn about machine learning. And, yeah, it was a really great experience.
Okay. Where is the Recourse Center?
Is that New York?
Yes, it’s located in New York, and it’s an experience that I would recommend to anyone. It was so much fun. You’re just in a room with a bunch of really smart people, and you’re sharing ideas and you’re open to collaborate on projects, and it’s just a really welcoming environment for learning new things.
How did you end up in Portland?
That’s kind of a funny story, I want to say. I’ve been Portland adjacent for quite a few years.
I have a lot of friends from College who live out here, and so I’ve been visiting for maybe eight years now, and I’ve always really loved it.
But I grew up in New York City. I grew up in Brooklyn, and I always considered myself kind of a big city person.
I never imagined myself living anywhere else. But as I got older and realized that I enjoyed spending time outside and liked nature and hiking and snowboarding, I realized that New York was not the place to do any of those things.
Yeah. I’ve never actually been to New York, but, yeah, I’m a Northwest kind of kid, middle aged man, but grew up here. And although I’ve lived other places, I just love Portland, but everybody listening. You don’t move to Portland, you’ll hate it. It rains all the time.
There’s been an influx of people moving to Portland, so everyone has to say about who lives here. Just a side note.
Just a side note.
One of your profiles somewhere says you live somewhere else. So I was surprised to find out that you were in Portland.
I spent four years in Salt Lake after I left New York for a good Salt Lake City.
Oh, wow. That’s a big difference. Did you like Salt Lake?
I did. It’s probably some of the best skiing in the US, and I love snowboarding. I love it a ton. And so I got to go skiing all the time and rock climb and mountain bike and roll around in the dirt. So it was just the perfect contrast to New York City.
Okay. Do you have an opinion on the get merge with Microsoft? You being a new Microsoft employee.
Yeah. So GitHub not Git, right?
I don’t think we could buy Git as a project, but I personally am really excited about it.
I know there’s been a big kind of Pitchfork mob on the Internet who are not as excited about the news as I am, but I think Microsoft I think it’s going to do a great job with the acquisition.
We’re pretty committed to, I don’t want to say pretty committed. We are committed to letting GitHub run independently and do their own thing and keep serving the developer community as they’ve been doing. So now they just don’t have to worry about money.
Yeah, that’s the good part, right?
And actually just I have no opinion on it.
It is what it is. It’s not like it’s going away. So if they mess it up, we’ll switch to use something else.
But I don’t think they’ll mess it up.
I don’t think so either.
I wouldn’t work for Microsoft if I didn’t believe in their commitment to open source.
Actually, that’s turned around quite a bit because some of the people I respect the most in the Python community are Microsoft people. And it’s surprising to say that I didn’t know that that was going to be a thing, especially when I started. I mean, it didn’t associate Microsoft with Python when I started programming Python, like in early 2000s, I’m going to go backwards in our interview a little bit and talk about public speaking again.
For me, when I’m thinking about what to talk about, it’s, whatever technically I’m working on at the time, that’s the sort of thing I want to talk about. But you’ve talked about lots of other things like technical debt and just generally the language like this last year was about elegant language features to solve problems.
So how do you pick your topics to talk about?
Do you have a process?
I won’t lie. It’s really challenging.
People think that getting a CFP accepted to a conference is easy, and it’s absolutely not. I go through more rejections than I do acceptances, and that’s just kind of effective life for community based conferences.
And what I can say is that as I’ve been writing CFPs, I’ve gotten more CFP stands for what does it stand for?
Call for proposal.
Call for proposal. Right. I was thinking of an RFP, but that’s request for proposal, right. Call for proposal.
The more of them I do, the better I get.
So, like for the Python, for instance, you gave one talk. Did you submit one proposal or did you submit, like, more than one?
I think I usually try to submit at least three.
Okay. Yeah, that’s what I did.
And I’m pretty sure that doesn’t happen, that very many people get more than one accepted.
Have you ever given two talks at a conference?
I did my very first real conference talk, Djangokan. I gave two in a row, and I believe they’re on the same day. And it was a little bit rough. That’s definitely off more than I could chew, but it ended up going great and it was a great learning experience.
Okay, you did. Django, do you have a particular favorite web framework that you use?
It’s really hard to play favorites because it 100% depends on what you’re doing and what you’re trying to get out of the web framework.
So there’s pyramid, Django flask, there’s new contenders coming out like Falcon, and it just depends on how many features you need baked in and whether you need CMS functionality, something like an admin portal, which Django does very well, or if you just want something lightweight. Yeah. Got to pick the best tool for the job.
Are the coding style and how you work with them. Different. So different. Is it shocking to switch back and forth or is that pretty easy to do?
It can be.
Some of the things are harder for me to Grock than others. I don’t do much front end stuff, and so Django templating was always tough for me.
Django has its own templating language that you can use to kind of interface with the framework.
Okay. So the thing I’m trying to learn right now is the ginger one that goes with flask. Is Django different then uses something else?
I think it’s pretty similar, but not a one to one.
All right. Yeah. I’ve realized that if I ever get a project that’s so popular that it needs a nice front end, I’ll just have to hire somebody because I’m the typical front end of full stack developer that’s just mostly back end with a pencil sketch of a head for the front end.
Have you seen that image?
I have not.
It’s a drawing of a horse, and the back end is like photo realistic, and then the front end is like a crayon drawing by a six year old or something.
And that’s like a description of a typical full stack developer.
Yeah, I’m 100% in the same boat. I think I used to consider myself more full stack, and now I’ve kind of given up on that and I’m all back end from here on out.
If you do want to pretend to be a full stack developer without having front end skills, have you used bootstrap?
Yeah, it’s a front end framework. That’s kind of it’s not quite drag and drop. It’s not that easy, but it gives you a lot of really professional looking components that are easy to put together. Check out bootstrap. I think you’ll really like it.
Okay. Thanks a ton for coming on the show. This has been fun.
Thank you so much. This is the first podcast that I’ve been on, and it was so much fun. I really appreciate you having me on.
That was a really fun interview. Thanks, Nina, for coming on the show. And also thank you for coming on Python bytes.
It was fun having you on there, too. And thank you to PyCharm for supporting the show and for sponsoring this episode. Please go to testandcode.com PyCharm to try PyCharm for three months.
Shownuts are at testandcode.com. Thanks for listening.