Interview with Anh Thuc Tran, Software Engineer @ Twitter

In this session of Gydable Talks, we connected with Anh Thuc Tran to discuss her career path and job search/interview experience as a college graduate. Anh views her journey to becoming a Software Engineer at Twitter as rather unconventional in that she was undecided in her career path until her Junior year in college. We also touched briefly on her experience at the Grace Hopper Conference(GHC).

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your career path.

I am a Computer Science graduate from Dickinson College with a minor in sociology. Actually, my background in Computer science was exploratory until my junior year of college when I realized that I needed to figure out a career path after my study abroad semesters in Australia and Denmark. This experience helped me figure out that I wanted to go into the technical route to become a software engineer. However, compared to my peers, I was late to apply to internships. It was already in the Spring semester of my junior year so I figured that I had to increase my technical and internship experiences to land interviews and improve my resume. I tried to find internships that summer in the US but couldn’t, so I worked at startups in Vietnam. I was also able to land an internship in Carlisle close to Dickinson College with another startup. Both my internship experiences were in software engineering where I learned technical frameworks for software development and built end-to-end forms and portals for the companies. That is how I improved my technical skills and resume.

I also attended the Grace Hopper Conference in my senior year of college as a GHC Scholar. I got into the pipeline with Twitter, and that was how I got my job with Twitter as a software engineer.  I’ve been working as a software engineer at Twitter for 2 years and almost 5 months.

Can you share a little bit about what it is that you do and what a typical workday for you is like?

Yes of course. I am under the Platform team on Twitter. We have the Client Team which is the client-side of Twitter, the Ads Team, which is how we generate profits, and the Platform Team which supports all the infrastructure and backend servers for Twitter. So our team runs a tool that helps other developers manage their services, and microservices.

Now that we work remotely, I am more focused late in the afternoon and early mornings. So on a typical day, the first thing I do in the morning is working on coding, trying to submit code reviews, and trying to publish code for other team members to review. Then as a team, we go through daily stand-ups to discuss technical problems, blockers, anything that we need to address so that we can progress in our work as a team. Then, the day is scattered with meetings either with external teams to assess what they need from our team technically or from any of our internal teams facing any technical blockers. We also have technical design discussions where we talk about the type of technology and approaches we could use to implement the solution at hand.

Is there a part of your day that you really look forward to?

I really enjoy my focused time. This is because in school, you have an assignment, a very clear set of questions and requirements and you are asked to come up with the solution. In the work field, when you are given a task, you actually have to define the problems yourself, ask the right questions to understand exactly what kind of problem you are solving, and choose different approaches for that problem. I enjoy that brainstorming aspect of coding where I bring the problem and find solutions. 

I also enjoy the full cycle of software development where I need to figure out the solution, implement it, publish code for my teammates to review, and then test the code fully from end to end. 

I also like collaborating with my teammates because this is where I learn the most. Most of them are seniors who have more experience than me, so they give me feedback, tell me where I can improve and point out various things that I might have missed.

You bring up a good point about how in college we have a defined problem and then we just need to think about a solution but then in the workplace, we have to see what is going on and then create a problem definition, and then come up with some sort of solution. What kind of advice do you wish you knew as a college student that would have better prepared you for the industry and your role now?

Looking back, I wish I had more time to prepare and learn about how I would have to tackle different ambiguous problems and also understand that there are always multiple solutions and approaches to a problem. For example, if you want to be a software engineer and start late, you don’t need to follow the same path as someone that started computer science in high school. You can come up with a strategy of your own. For example, if you do not like Hackathons, you can look at open source projects in GitHub so that you don’t have to put yourself out there physically but you still improve your technical skills. 

Another example is instead of doing competitive programming competitions which usually is very rigorous, you can form a friend group to solve leetcode or technical problems together. The key thing to understand is that you can always get creative in building your path to become a software engineer. There is no one perfect path. 

Diversity is a big focus in tech. What advice would you give to people from diverse backgrounds looking to break into the field of software engineering?

I am very passionate about activism, social work and am a firm believer that everyone belongs in tech. If you want to become a software engineer, you CAN do it. The tech industry really needs diverse backgrounds and perspectives – to push perspectives, to push the standards and to push the principles of why companies should support minority groups. That’s a point that I really wanted to get across.

I think you are the first person to say that. That people’s voices are needed and that they actually belong in tech. I say this because of the imposter syndrome, so a lot of people even though their grades are well off, still somehow don’t believe in themselves to be in these spaces. What kind of advice or words of encouragement would you give to students who are in that place where they are doing really great work but then go home or go to bed thinking, “maybe it’s not for me or maybe I’m not cut out for this?”

I personally experienced imposter syndrome too. For example, when I sent out resumes to other software engineering mentors, most of them would be male software engineers so they would have a very fixed mindset of how someone can succeed as a software engineer. They asked questions like, “are you sure you want to be in tech? Your resume is not technical enough.” So I would heed their advice and take action but not let the unconstructive feedback deter me. In my mind I would say, “okay what can I improve?” and I know that I could push through those presuppositions placed upon me. 

Another thing I would say is to find mentors and sponsors who believe in you. Throughout my application process as a software engineer student, I had people with fixed mindset but I also had those that really believed in me even when I doubted myself. For example, I have a mentor who would keep saying “I believe in you, I see the potential in you. When we did the mock interview together, you were able to solve this problem in time. So you have the potential, keep pushing.” And that’s what pushed me to move forward. Finding mentorship is super important. 

I experienced the syndrome even when I started working because the tech industry demands that you keep learning new things and expand your knowledge. However, I figured out that you have to create a strong mental mindset to remind yourself that your voice matters and that you should advocate for your own ideas. So having both external (mentorship) and internal supports (growth mindset) are essential to thriving in this field.

As I look back to when I was a student and think about managing those social and academic pressures, what worked for me might not work for everyone- but what did work for me was to determine my priorities. I knew that I wanted to land a software engineering role or internship/job offer so I sacrificed some of my school work to focus on learning, practicing mock interviews, and doing technical coding problems. My grades did suffer but I think it was an important step in my career to get to where I am now. I am not saying that students should give up on classes – they shouldn’t do that. But they should figure out what their priorities are now and focus on what is important.

Any tips or advice you would like to share with students looking for jobs or internships?

I think it is important to break down every goal that you want to attain into actionable tasks and items every day even though it might feel intimidating and very ambitious. So let’s say your goal is to become a software engineer at Google. It might seem unattainable but if you say, “okay, i’ll do 5 easy Leetcode problems every day this week, and the next week I will increase that to 10 medium Leetcode problems”  and so on. You might start incorporating new things like mock interviews and slowly push forward with these small goals that are very attainable.

Another thing is that applying online is very hard if you want to get interviews into these big companies so building a network, and getting referrals through platforms like Gydable is a huge factor- this is actually more than 70% of the work.

In terms of the interview process, it is completely normal to get nervous and fail the interview process. What you can do is learn from those failures and keep pushing.  At Twitter, we push for a growth mindset where even after our failures and mistakes, we believe people can grow a lot from it and that is how you become better. So that is another thing that I try to do during my interviews.

In terms of Diversity and diverse backgrounds and things to participate in, a lot of companies have programs like hackathons for students from different backgrounds to participate in. Don’t only look for general conferences like Grace Hopper or Hack for Her. Look at specific companies because they too have hackathons for students. For example, Twitter just had Codechella, and I was one of the final judges and students were from all over the world. So apply for those. These are great opportunities for students to work with the technology that the company is working on and the students even get return offers right away from the projects that they present. For example, one of the winners at Hackathon that I judged was able to talk to Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter to pitch their idea. So look for these targeted and specific opportunities like hackathons and various scholarships that these big companies have.

And for students who did not major in computer science and want to enter tech, they can look at apprenticeship programs which are for people that come from technical boot camps to enter tech. So there is a personalized path for everyone.

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this post are solely my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer.

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