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An Interview with Huyen Tue Dao Written by Enrique López-Mañas

Huyen is an Android developer and Google Developer Expert for Android and Kotlin. She currently works on the Trello Android app at Atlassian and is also co-producer of the “Android Dialogs” YouTube channel. Huyen lives in Denver, CO, though is often found in the Washington D.C. metro area. When not up late programming, she is often found up late gaming (video, mobile, board, card—anything).

Huyen Tue Dao
Huyen Tue Dao

Connect with Huyen

Twitter: @queencodemonkey

Website: randomlytyping.com

Interview

What do you wish someone had told you when you started software development that you had to learn the hard way instead?

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. When I first got out of school I was so preoccupied with getting a job and looking capable. I felt pressure to know everything off the bat. Looking back, that perspective seems silly. How can anyone expect you to know everything about a new job? As a senior developer, I would never expect that of someone. A lot of people feel pressured to be the smartest person in the room and never to be wrong. That kind of pressure may cause someone not to ask questions out of fear that it will affect how others view that person. That was definitely true for me. I’d always try to figure out the answer on my own, or I faked it until I made it.

Honestly, I missed out a lot by not asking questions. Nowadays, I’d encourage people to do their best and never be afraid to ask questions. If there’s something you don’t understand, ask the question, and don’t be afraid of not knowing. Now that I’m more senior and working with other people, what really excites me is when someone asks great questions which make me think. Even better than always having the right answer is asking interesting questions. I wish I’d learned that earlier.

“I’m really disappointed at still seeing job listings looking for ‘rockstar’ engineers. To me, this just perpetuates the unfair and unrealistic pressure to be the smartest person in the room, to always be right.”

What’s a negative trend in the industry, and how would you fix it?

I’m really disappointed at still seeing job listings looking for “rockstar” engineers. To me, this just perpetuates the unfair and unrealistic pressure to be the smartest person in the room, to always be right. I think that is actually quite limiting. I would rather see the industry emphasize the ability to grow and to learn from mistakes. I would rather see the industry emphasize passion for technology and willingness to change and adapt.

You work at Trello, one of the strongest advocates for remote work. Is remote work the future of the work paradigm?

For 90% of my career, I’ve worked remotely. My experience working in an office was very much like that movie Office Space, and very uninspiring. My bosses were in another state, about 300 miles away. In fact, no one on my team worked in that office. I felt completely disconnected and eventually made the decision to just work from home. While I regret that I haven’t had a great in-person, collaborative office experience, I now prefer working remotely.

Remote work, at times, felt isolating. But eventually I learned how to work remotely better. A selling point of the second company that I went to work for was that they would hire talented engineers from anywhere. At the same time, they did the work to make sure that we engineers collaborated both with each other and with clients. There was definitely some pain in the process, because it’s not as if once you hire remote workers that you are done and everything works perfectly.

I believe that, as an industry, we need to be open to hiring brilliant and hard-working people everywhere. I believe that remote work is the future. However, it requires a lot of investment, understanding, and effort.

Certain things are more challenging for a remote worker, especially interaction with others. Remote workers need to be conscious of how much and how well they communicate in order to solve problems. You have to communicate more openly and immediately. You have to learn how to connect with your teammates and know how to bridge those gaps when you don’t see each other every day. I’ve always been shy and reserved. This was definitely a hurdle for me early in my career, especially as a remote worker. But ultimately I think remote work has forced me to get out of my shell.

How would you advise companies looking to implement a remote-work policy?

Be very pragmatic and set boundaries. Some companies might be intimidated by remote work because it feels like a world without rules. But that’s not true. For example, at Trello, we adhere to a workday based on Eastern Standard Time. Tools like video chat allow us to reach out to each other, whatever time zone we’re in.

Early on, when we didn’t have as many remote workers, we’d hold company meetings in one small room. Everyone would crowd around a small speaker, and the remote workers would dial in. It wasn’t great. The audio was awful on both sides. Remote workers calling in couldn’t hear the conversations happening in the room.

To ameliorate this problem, we had everyone, regardless of whether they were in the office or not, call in from a personal computer. That way, everyone had the same level of engagement and communication. This small change had a big effect on our work culture.

When going remote, set boundaries and enforce them. Make it possible for people to work asynchronously and synchronously. Remember that little things matter.

You have a YouTube channel, Android Dialogs, where you interview prominent personalities in the software development world, particularly in the Android ecosystem. How did you get involved in this?

At my first job out of university, I made friends with a great developer, and when we went to a conference together, he introduced me to a lot of people. I started networking a lot and discovered this entire world of blogs and public speaking. I was inspired to enter this world, and, as I did, I felt my career take off.

Separately I’ve been a big podcast fan ever since I got my first iPod. Anyone can pick up a microphone and create a show, and I have always had a desire to do the same and to connect with other people.

Around the time I got into the developer community, there was the Fragmented podcast and Android Developers Backstage (ADB). I love this kind of content, but I tend to listen or pay attention for short spans of time. I had the idea to create similar content but in smaller pieces.

There are so many celebrities in the tech world. There are also a lot of people doing amazing work that isn’t recognized or well-known. I wanted to create a platform to give a voice to people in both groups.

At this time, I had moved to Colorado and made friends with Android developer Chiu-ki Chan. This was just before Google I/O 2015. I asked Chiu-ki what she thought of a five- to seven-minute podcast based on interviewing engineers. She liked the idea, and she volunteered herself and her video camera. So instead of a podcast, we started a YouTube channel.

We interviewed several people from the Android community at the I/O meeting. I like to think about our channel as bragging on all the amazing people in our community and sharing the Android community with the broader engineering world.

Since you’re a fan of podcasts, what are some podcasts that you’d recommend?

My favorite podcasts are Android-centric. For sure, the Fragmented podcast with Donn Felker and Kaushik Gopal, and Android Developers Backstage are two of them. ADB, in particular, I love because often the Google engineers who appear as guests bring a sense of history and context. You learn so much about the bumps in the road, the cool experiences they had, and the rewrites they had to do. Hearing that people you admire have experienced challenges that are similar to yours is so helpful and inspiring.

As well, I love listening to podcasts that talk about Android from a consumer perspective. I want to see what’s out there. What are people excited about? What are people looking forward to? How do people feel about the new Samsung phone? I like to know what people that aren’t developers are excited about. Often as a developer, your perspective is shaped by your day job. It’s always good to hear what people who have a different take on technology have to say.

Do you follow any particular routines that set you up for success when doing your own work?

As engineers, it’s easy to sit in front of your computer and just work and work and work and never see the sun. I spent many years doing just this. Now, I like to start the day by doing some things for myself: exercise in the morning and then a cup of coffee. As engineers, we get so wrapped up in our programming that it’s easy to forget about ourselves. There is a stereotype of the sedentary engineer but it is easy to slip into this stereotype. It’s important to take care of our bodies and minds.

In general, I’d recommend thinking about what excites you about your day. Then sit down, catch up on emails, and most importantly catch up on what my teammates are doing before actually crunching on code. If someone has an idea, I can give some feedback. If someone is having a problem, I can try to help. It helps to get out of my own headspace. Especially as a remote worker, when you don’t have the water cooler to stand around, interacting with your team is important. It’s often these conversations, whether it’s a serious conversation or just a social one, that energize me for the day.

How do you deal with the pace of change in the industry?

As an engineer, you have to be very comfortable with changing technology. Change is a good thing, but it’s often not easy to deal with. Everybody feels behind at some point. You have to give yourself permission not to know everything. As well, I believe building a strong community and having a long-lasting career go hand in hand.

Huyen’s Recommendations

  • The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering | Frederick P. Brooks, Jr.

  • WikiWikiWeb online developer community | wiki.c2.com

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