Part 3: A Product Specialist is (re)born

It’s been eight weeks since Julia Miller finished the Coding Bootcamp at Iron Hack Berlin. Now back at work as a Product Specialist at Zalando, she shares some of her reflections on the course, the challenges of being back in the ‘real world’ and how learning to code helped her become a better leader for her team. This is part three of a series that followed her journey throughout the course. (see part 1 & part 2) 

When Julia decided to enroll in the Ironhack Bootcamp about a year ago, with the support of Zalando, she may have slightly underestimated her return. Focused at the time on the challenges the course, she admits that she is surprised at “how much can change in three months”. 

However, as certainly proven during her time at Ironhack, Julia has never been one to be scared off by challenges. Her life is busy at the moment, (which she kind of likes), but her team at Zalando has also been extremely supportive in reintegrating her into the workflows. Besides, Julia has advanced as well and seeing her newfound knowledge applied ‘in the real world’ has given her a lot of energy. She can finally bear the fruits of her labour back at Zalando and see the positive outcome of her hard work and learnings, now put into practice. 

It’s all about alignment

One of the main outcomes from the course that, according to Julia, has made her a stronger informal lead, is a better understanding of the general engineering workflow. One of the things she points out here, is the importance of discussions and coordination within the engineering team, something that she – and many product managers most likely – had vastly underestimated prior to learning how to code herself.  

A crucial insight here was that building software is not necessarily as straightforward a process as one might think. Julia tells how “learning to code myself made me realize that there is not one, but always at least three different ways of doing things.” For this reason, she explains, these initial discussions are an essential part of the building process and as Product Manager, this is something she now appreciates highly and takes into account when planning projects. “There is a lot of value in discussing things first. It’s a necessary step and extremely helpful for good implementation”, she says.  

Julia also notes that she has a better grasp of how to organize and build so-called “user stories”. As the individual building blocks of any application, Julia highlights the importance to create a process in which these “stories”, similar to Lego blocks, can be built and function somewhat separately from one another. This breaks down the coding process and allows the team to work in smaller bits that can be put together, without having to constantly coordinate.

Of course, the challenge here is to ensure that, despite separate workflows, everyone remains on the same page. Julia refers to the bridge story (an incident where a Swiss/ German team were using different metrics to construct a bridge and ended up missing each other in the middle) as a classic example for the problems that can occur, if the different parts of a team are not aligned. After all, if one engineer is working on providing the data, and the other on showing it, it seems understandable why the two must work in close proximity and invest the time to make sure their parts work together. 

Knowing code also taught her that building a “story” is not something one necessarily can do alone. “What I underestimated before the camp, is that a user story can never be done by one person, but always has several people working on it”. Doing it herself showed her how  ‘pair-programming’ can not only serve as a form of quality control, but that having more than one person on a task also saves time since their accumulated knowledge can allow them to have to research less and move at a quicker pace. Besides, having people work in a team is always a good way to create a sense of accountability and commitment, and also keep up the spirits. 

Managing expectations

Being able to code has also improved the management of her expectations towards the team. “One big learning from using Stack Overflow was the realization that my engineers don’t have to have the answer to every question I ask immediately” she explains. “In many cases, you just don’t know. You have to give it a think, or go and find out, and that’s perfectly fine”. For her, being an engineer is more about having the tools and knowledge to access the necessary information and knowing how to apply whatever problem somebody already solved to your specific use case. 

Her familiarity with the terminology has also been a huge advantage. “It’s much easier to follow discussions and ask the right questions when you speak the language”, she says “It also speeds up the conversation”. From small things like knowing that POST or GET means an endpoint where you can input or extract data from a database, to simply the general concept of API’s and all their surrounding lingo, Julia now has some of the base knowledge of an engineer, something she knew little about before the camp. 

Knowing these terms not only makes it easier for Julia to follow conversations, it also lightens the burden for her team, who, she explains, have gotten used to no longer having to “dumb everything down”. Nevertheless, Julia emphasizes that it is still good to keep certain boundaries. For although technically Julia could now get involved in the coding itself  (a lot of people even asked her if she was going to start co-coding or do small tasks) she quickly chose not to do. The reasons seemed apparent to her. “I like having areas of expertise, and coding is the engineering team’s expertise”, she explains. After all, as a Product Manager who is meant to guide the process, she believes that getting too involved into the coding processes is not necessarily great for the team spirit and their role as experts, either. “Just because I can build an element in React doesn’t mean I have to”. 

And although she does not try to let on to her expertise to much, she does express some pride in her newfound skill and ability to estimate processes correctly, in terms of length and effort. “I had several moments in the last few months, where we were discussing a feature, and I was thinking silently about what they would need to do. When I found out they came up with the exact same things that I had in mind, it was a really good feeling, because I knew it was 100% in line with my estimation”. She is also thrilled to see some of her coding knowledge of the React framework being directly applied outside of a school context. “For me, this is pretty cool to see what they are doing with that, and how it is being used in the real world”. 

Where the road will take her  

While Julia has a much better “gut feeling” for the length and complexity of the processes, actual coding will instead remain a hobby for now. And so to keep her skills alive, she has decided to build a website for her parents business. This little company, based in Weimar, works together with the Russian embassy in Leipzig to help people through the immensely opaque bureaucracy and paperwork processes involved in visiting Russia. With the plan to have it done by the end of the year, this project may not be the most complex task on her ability list, but nevertheless is a great opportunity to maintain her coding skills, while helping out her family. “They are super excited”, she says. “They wanted a website for quite some time, but it’s expensive, and since they don’t earn that much money, they are really happy that I can help them on this front.” 

Indeed, it seems the course at Ironhack has left a positive mark for both her professional as well as private life. And despite some personal preoccupations she was facing during the course, Julia met many “awesome and very open” people, some good friends with whom she is still in touch. Julia also continues to benefit from the Whatsapp group that the cohort formed and to these day exchange ideas about coding and other interesting topics and events on. 

Although she was sad to have the exciting time end, Julia is happy to be back at work as well. Her time away confirmed to her, that she is on the right path at Zalando, and she feels strengthened by her new learnings, to continue what she thinks she is best at – also in her new job leading a more technical product that is linked to data governance, which she will start soon. 

For her, it seems that her time at Ironhack Bootcamp away paid off without a doubt. And despite there being work and challenges involved, when others ask her, whether she would re-do this ‘sabbatical’ – yes, she indeed referred to the Bootcamp that way- had she known the time and effort involved, her answer comes without hesitation, “Absolutely. I would totally do it again”. 

 

written by B.P. and edited by K.K.