As for many people, 2020 has been full of challenges for VMware Staff Engineer Samyuktha “Sam” Subramanian. When COVID-19 forced many people to work from home, Sam had just transitioned to working on a complex and new engineering focus. In her spotlight, Sam intimately shares how she overcame the challenges of this project and ultimately delivered some of the best work of her career to date, all while working from home.
This isn’t going to be just another blog post about the struggles of COVID-19 and working from home. While I admittedly thrive off the energy of working side-by-side with my remarkably talented team, there is another reason why I found the enforced isolation a challenge to adapt to. It was because of a decision I had made at the beginning of 2020. After working on a series of initiatives that beefed up the security posture of VMware’s virtualization platform, my Director encouraged me to branch out into new technical domains and contribute to our Multi-Cloud initiative – a strategy crucial to VMware’s success in the coming decade. Pivoting to an unfamiliar direction is always hard but made even more so when you don’t have the luxury of impromptu meetings and a ‘Can I stop by for a quick chat?’. This was also going to be the first time that I’d be squarely responsible for the success (or failure!) of an entire engineering initiative. So, I knew that I’d have to work hard – however, it soon became clear to me that this time, just putting in the hours wasn’t going to cut it. This blog post is an amalgam of months’ worth of entries from my personal diary – where I realized that I had documented almost every challenge and nervous jitter, and much to my later amusement found that it was always followed up with an entry of unabashed optimism.
True to myself, I hit the ground running – spending many evenings studying the new software stack and learning the differences between VMware’s traditional on-prem deployments versus those in our managed cloud. While drinking from a fire hose is typical of any transition at VMware, I also had to fundamentally shift my thinking for this one. The rapid cadence of the cloud software delivery pipeline meant that I needed to prioritize platform stability above all else – sometimes (to my mild irritation), at the cost of putting aside the shiny new thing I’d been building for weeks. My bruised ego would recover in a day, but a lost workload on our watch could mean a lost customer.
June: Organized Chaos
Every day, my whiteboard creaked under the strain of relentless scribbles, proceeded by even fiercer erasing. If there’s something harder than starting with a piece of blank paper, it’s getting into the mind of your architect – especially when they’re no longer seated down the corridor. Having been asked to lead an observability initiative on the cloud platform, I spent most of June converting a 30,000-foot view architecture into something tangible – I was outlining interfaces for a new service, sketching out all the data flows, figuring out the right IPC mechanisms, identifying potential bottlenecks – doing everything I could do to build out a pluggable, robust design. I also got some excellent advice from my architect at this point, “When you’re building a plan, every line-item should have a demo-able deliverable.” Doing this made carving out an MVP (minimum viable product) easy and gave me an unexpectedly solid defense against my tendency to cave in to scope creep. On a side note, this month also saw me represent the VMware Cloud Platform on a panel at the Women Who Code CONNECT conference.
July: Code Wins Arguments – Even the Ones You Have with Yourself
Following the example of the leads that I’ve worked under; I knew that a lot of questions I had from the previous month could be resolved by building out a prototype. This weeklong exercise quickly told me what questions were worth focusing on, and unsurprisingly threw up new ones – just in time for integration discussions with“Customer Zero” – the Autoscaler team – responsible for auto-remediation and maintenance of the VMware Cloud on AWS compute infrastructure.
August: There Are No Solutions, Only Trade-offs
I couldn’t have asked for a better first customer in the Autoscaler team – they knew exactly what problems they wanted to be fixed but were not prescriptive in how they wanted them fixed. The team’s experience with the production environment coupled with my platform expertise made for incredibly effective discussions – and all stakeholders got quickly aligned on the tradeoffs being made. There were also times when I didn’t have all the answers and I had to lean into relationships built over years with engineers from sister organizations – who were only too happy to jump onto a video call and help me out.
September: Full Thrust on All Engines
Not much else in life matches the mental anchoring that I get from uninterrupted sessions spent coding. Every line of code I push makes the naysaying thought-imps in my head (I find the phrase, ‘inner demons’ too dramatic) a little fainter. However, once you‘re in the flow, it’s easy to forget that you’re still making lots of decisions every day – but I am backed by a great team, who reminded me to document some of the decisions I was making (Why had I picked a particular framework library? How had I avoided a potentially nasty deadlock?). Also, every iteration of software development comes with a few decisions that you instinctively know you’re going to revisit – and I’ve noted these down. Four months in, and I finally sensed the goalposts getting closer.
October: The 80/20 Rule
With the ‘happy-path’ nearly done, it’s now time for my favorite part of life as a software engineer. Debugging. I’m looking forward to throwing the kitchen sink at my design and chasing down the bugs that I will inevitably find. As I reflect upon this year, I realize that there were times when I found myself overwhelmed by the technical unknowns, or anxious about working with an unfamiliar team or simply craving the familiar aroma of brewed coffee at the office. But growth only begins in a state of discomfort. And I have dug deep into my reserves of resilience and grit to make this a rewarding transition. And while transitions are always challenging, it’s in these moments that I remind myself that VMware has transformed itself more than once – from running in every datacenter, to seamlessly containerizing workloads and now dominating the hybrid cloud – it has been a tremendous journey and I’m proud to work on the platform that makes this all possible.
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