An interview with Whitney Lee, Staff Technical Advocate for the VMware Tanzu Team, who funnels her insatiable appetite for all things cloud and passion for teaching others into streaming ⚡Enlightning lightboard videos on subjects such as Kubernetes, Knative and Infrastructure as Code.
[Lisa] Howdy to you in Austin, Whitney, and in the spirit of celebrating women who are making tremendous impact in the tech community at VMware and beyond, I thank you for taking the time to talk with me today.
[Whitney] Oh my goodness, it is completely my pleasure.
[Lisa] I’m curious. You hail from Ohio and moved to Austin years ago. What keeps you there? Is it the artistic vibe or the restaurants being stuck in ramen and munchies?
[Whitney] There are definitely wonderful artists in Austin! I love the art scene here. Three of my favorites are Calder Kamin, Adrian Landon Brooks, and Adrian Armstrong. But I’d say what keeps me here is my incredible group of kind and adventurous friends, my warm and happy home, the park near my house where I walk every day, and Casa de Luz – the hippie vegan restaurant that I frequent at least a couple of times a week.
[Lisa] Sounds like a great community and friends are the family we choose, wouldn’t you agree?
[Whitney] Absolutely, and I choose friendships where we lift each other up, have fun and seek out new experiences together.
[Lisa] There’s something remarkable about your current role that I’d like to explore with you. You’re someone who possesses a good understanding of open source technologies and can break down core concepts into consumable bite-size pieces on your lightboard. And you’re a new learner! It’s difficult to believe you wrote your first line of code in 2019 while preparing for coding bootcamp. What were you doing before then?
[Whitney] Oh wow, so many things. Well, my degree is in fine art, in photography specifically. I owned and operated a wedding photography business for over a decade. I once calculated that I’ve personally been to over 500 weddings! So many! However, eventually I felt like the business was running me, instead of the other way around. I was burnt out. So when my brother Jordan’s musical project Mutual Benefit gained some notoriety in 2014, and he asked me to tour with him playing in the band, I said YES! I dissolved my business, spent my savings refunding couples’ wedding photography deposits, broke up with my unsupportive partner, put all of my belongings into a storage unit, and toured the country for a year! It was an exciting time full of amazing experiences, and once I left that old life behind I never looked back. After the tour, when I came back to Austin, I wasn’t sure what to do next professionally. I worked as a server in restaurants for a few years until my son (then majoring in software engineering in college) convinced me that I would enjoy working in tech. Then, as you said, I wrote my first lines of code in January 2019, and I found it to be fun and engaging. So I started preparing for coding bootcamp, which I started in earnest in July of the same year.
[Lisa] Hallmarks of a professional photographer and a musician are creativity and imagination and the ability to tell a story through one’s craft. How did you make the leap from an artistic mindset to a technical one?
[Whitney] I disagree with the basic assumption here that one is inherently technical (or not), or inherently artistic (or not). I think one’s life is a manifestation of where they choose to put their time and attention. In the past, I have focused more on so-called “artistic” pursuits, though I’d like to point out here that both photography and music can be very technical. And now I’m working in software – a subject considered to be technical. But in the software realm, there are also a lot of opportunities for creativity. I personally do this with lighthearted drawings and silly stories to make a technical concept more engaging. And there are many other amazing folks who use visual storytelling to communicate technical concepts, such as Kaslin Fields, Julia Evans, Nitya Narasimhan, and the talented humans behind Phippy and Friends. And less overtly, software problems can be solved artfully – with elegance and creativity – purely with code.
[Lisa] I wholeheartedly agree that one’s life is a manifestation of where they focus their time and attention and now from your examples, understand how creativity has a strong place in simplifying complexity in tech. Could you elaborate on your latter statement: how software problems can be solved creatively with code?
[Whitney] Let’s take for example, the open source project Crossplane, which is pretty new. Crossplane applies an infrastructure as code methodology on top of Kubernetes, allowing people to manage cloud resources, such as databases, storage, SaaS offerings or even Kubernetes clusters themselves, in a declarative way. And because Crossplane is Kubernetes-native, Crossplane users can additionally leverage the entire Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF) ecosystem of tools and integrations. That’s creative! Additionally, tools like Crossplane can be used in combination with GitOps tools like ArgoCD or Flux CD. These GitOps tools promote the idea that application definitions should be declarative, versioned, immutable and stored in a place like Git – and then continuously reconciled against a live cluster. Now by combining these tools (Crossplane with ArgoCD or Flux CD), you can use GitOps to not only manage your applications, but to manage the entire infrastructure that your applications need. And, again, you can do this in a declarative and Kubernetes-native way. It is really cool! Currently the Crossplane community is creating shareable “compositions” – bundled sets of abstractions – so that people can more easily make instances of common system building blocks. I fully expect that there will be a ton of additional creativity in the way these compositions are used by Crossplane end users.
And that is one small example. The notoriously large CNCF landscape is chock full of creative and exciting projects, ideas and people.
[Lisa] That certainly is one brilliant example, thank you. I want to go back for a minute and ask you about your commitment to your new objectives. A month after graduating from bootcamp, you landed a job as a cloud developer in presales at IBM, putting together proofs of concept for clients. Sometimes you had downtime in between projects and that’s when your colleagues asked you to stream videos for the IBM Cloud Channel, explaining concepts like Apache Kafka and RabbitMQ from behind the lightboard.
While you embarked on this journey of learning and putting yourself in front of thousands upon thousands in cyberspace, how did you feel about your decision to pursue this new path? Were you cool and confident or scared out of your mind?
[Whitney] When I first started making lightboard videos I didn’t see it as a new path, I just saw it as a fun stretch project. I had no idea how much it would come to shape my career. So I was not feeling any particular way about it. I was simply staying curious and exploring new opportunities.
On the spectrum between “cool and confident” and “scared out of my mind” I was definitely much more toward the latter. When I made the first IBM Cloud video I had less than a year in tech under my belt, and I felt wildly underqualified. In the first takes of my first video, my handwriting was shaky from nervousness.
[Lisa] Did you have a source of inspiration or practice you abided to keep you moving forward?
My son and I like to go to the bouldering gym together. The goal is to climb a route to the finish, and the gym walls are covered in many different routes of varying difficulty. And my son and I have a rule: If a route piques your interest, you have to try it, even if it is way above your skill level. Failing miserably is perfectly respectable. There is no shame in failure. In fact, failing sometimes if how you know you are pressing your boundaries and growing.
At the climbing gym, sometimes we started routes thinking we’d fail, and then we surprised ourselves by being able to make it to the finish. Or we walked away having learned something. Or we had fun trying! I do my best to keep this attitude in life generally. New opportunities are not pass/fail situations. No need to put that much pressure on it. New experiences are opportunities to learn, and we actually learn more from failure than we do from success.
If a route piques your interest, you have to try it, even if it is way above your skill level. Failing miserably is perfectly respectable. There is no shame in failure. In fact, failing sometimes if how you know you are pressing your boundaries and growing.
[Lisa] One of your IBM colleagues Rick Osowski has said of you, “Whitney’s enthusiasm and drive to learn coincides with her aptitude and desire for the next challenge. Most of my work in mentoring her has been simply placing guardrails around our discussions and her journey, as she has all the momentum to make it to the finish line on her own!”
As glorious as this feedback is, you were experiencing sexism in your work and in response, that same mentor advised you to find a “bad-ass female mentor” to help further navigate your way. Could you share some of her insights that helped you to inspire others who are experiencing the same hardship?
New opportunities are not pass/fail situations. New experiences are opportunities to learn, and we actually learn more from failure than we do from success.
[Whitney] Yes, through Rick I met Erin Schnabel, an excellent role model and stellar human. Her advice was like, you’re being asked to do a soft skills project when you want to stay technical? Just say no. Refuse to do it. Tell your manager what you want to be doing. Who cares whether you are well-liked in the short term, or ever. Keep your career on track. You have more power than you may think you do. You have the power of saying NO. Don’t be afraid to rock the boat in the name of standing up for yourself and your career.
It is good advice, though it does take some bravery to follow it.
[Lisa] Do you find women are more timid than men in the workplace?
[Whitney] That definitely has been my personal experience. A stat that backs up my observation is that women will apply for a job only if they meet 100% of the qualifications, and men will apply if they meet 60%. I do have a mental model that helps me find the bravery to apply for things that I feel like I don’t deserve (which happens often): Pick someone in your life who you feel has a lot of unearned confidence. Perhaps this trait about them even gets under your skin. But don’t judge them. In fact, do the opposite: channel that energy. When life presents you with an opportunity that you don’t feel you’re qualified for or you don’t feel like you deserve, think of this person. What would they do? They would jump on the opportunity without a second thought, and if it goes well, they would own that success outright. Think of them, and do what they would do. Borrow some of their confidence.
[My mentor’s] advice was like, you’re being asked to do a soft skills project when you want to stay technical? Just say no. Refuse to do it. Tell your manager what you want to be doing. Who cares whether you are well-liked in the short term, or ever. Keep your career on track. You have more power than you may think you do. You have the power of saying NO. Don’t be afraid to rock the boat in the name of standing up for yourself and your career.
[Lisa] At IBM, you created seven videos, amassing a half-million views and in the process discovered teaching is what you wanted to do. You were hired on the VMware Tanzu team by Tasha Isenberg in June 2021 who created a role for you, seeing your potential when your knowledge in Kubernetes was not yet deep enough for the job you applied for. Since then, it’s evident how much your confidence has grown, and you’ve truly come into your own behind the lightboard. Practice makes perfect? Or does practice make it fun?
[Whitney] I think perfection is boring. The human-ness and relatability is in the imperfections. I strive for progress over perfection. Looking back to past chapters of my life, I can see that my wanting the things I create to be perfect has really slowed me down in terms of what I can accomplish.
These days I focus on “The Four Agreements”: always do my best (noting that my best varies from moment to moment), be impeccable with my word (be kind to myself, don’t pretend to know something or be someone I am not), don’t make assumptions (about people or about tech), and don’t take anything personally (feedback is a gift – even negative feedback).
If a resource that I create is pretty good and it adheres to these principles, out into the world it goes.
I strive for progress over perfection. Looking back to past chapters of my life, I can see that my wanting the things I create to be perfect has really slowed me down in terms of what I can accomplish.
[Lisa] In your ⚡️Enlightning episodes, you engage with a guest SME who teaches you about a specific cloud concept as you draw out the concepts on your lightboard. I recently watched “How Do You Structure Learning for Technical Concepts,” a collaboration with Jessica Rose, a strategist focused on how people work in the tech industry. The two of you ensued on a humorous banter as Rose discussed 10 straightforward ways to tackle learning a new technology, and you listed them on the lightboard.
How do you source your co-collaborators and do you have a checklist of criteria they must meet in order to participate in the session? You know, like, must have a sense of humor, personable, can answer questions on the fly.
[Whitney] Oh goodness, I don’t judge my potential guests that harshly. The show is young so many of my guests so far have been people who I know personally and who I already vibe with. In the cases where I don’t know them, they often come recommended from someone who I know and trust. I’m just now getting to the point where I am reaching out to open source communities and asking them for a guest to teach me about their technology, and trusting them to send someone who will represent their community well. So far so good! Knock on wood.
[Lisa] So I have to say, once you’ve introduced your guest and pick up your laptop in your home office and move to your lightboard in an adjacent room, I always feel like you’re taking me on a magical excursion. Your dark hair and black top blends in with the lightboard, quite clever. Did you come up with this setup? It’s the photographer in you, right?
[Whitney] In recent episodes I still move the laptop, but only from one side of the room to the other. New viewers of the show are often intrigued by the lightboard setup, so I like to give that behind-the-scenes experience as part of the show format. Wearing dark clothing is a necessity because the viewer needs to be able to see the writing even when I’m standing behind it. Lighter clothes would mean I have less lightboard space to work with, because the writing in front of me (below my head) would get obscured. I do think my photography skills come into play, I added some additional lighting behind the board for example. And I also leverage my years of experience behind the camera, directing other people about how best to pose in dynamic and flattering ways. Now I use those skills to pose myself when I make the episode graphics.
[Lisa] You’re on the road a lot, traveling for business. I can’t imagine your lightboard is portable. Are you giving talks at conferences, attending events as a participant, meeting with your VMware colleagues or something else?
[Whitney] I regularly speak at conferences! It is fun! I recently spoke at Deserted Island DevOps, which took place virtually in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and I’m looking forward to KubeCon NA where I am still flabbergasted that they chose my talk proposal to be a keynote! It is a joint presentation with Mauricio Salatino called “What a RUSH! Let’s Deploy Straight to Production!”
[Lisa] Congratulations are certainly in order. Your hard work and insatiable appetite to consume knowledge is paying off. I understand you stick to a regimen of studying every morning. Are you studying tech you’d like to learn and teach? Or subjects you’re personally interested in?
[Whitney] Sometimes I have a clear goal and sometimes I am simply following my curiosity. I think the important part is to be consistent with the daily learning routine, less about the subject itself.
That said, lately I tend to focus on learning the basics of a technology that is coming up on an ⚡️Enlightning episode or key takeaways that I want to remember from a previous episode.
Years ago I read the book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World and since then I have blocked off my morning hours for deep thinking – this includes study time and resource creation. I can’t always honor that routine, but I do my best to put off email and meetings until the afternoon.
[Lisa] What’s a great day at work for you look like?
[Whitney] I enjoy all aspects of my job, although they can’t all happen on the same day. I am a developer advocate, which falls under the developer relations umbrella. At a high level, my job is to learn modern technologies and techniques, to create educational material, and to engage with users and potential users. For me personally, so far in my career, this has taken the form of creating and producing ⚡️Enlightning, and crafting talks that I present in-person at conferences and meetups. But generally speaking, developer advocates can focus on all sorts of things, such as writing blog posts, creating code samples, running a YouTube channel, organizing events – anything that excites, educates and engages the community. During a typical day working from home, I will use morning time for daily study and contributing to a resource that I am creating (right now I’m focused on the KubeCon keynote), then in the afternoon I will do tasks that don’t require deep thought, such as drawing the title card for a future ⚡️Enlightning episode, taking meetings or performing administrative tasks.
[Lisa] I’d like to learn more about your interests in photography and music and the collaboration on projects with your brother, Jordan, singer/songwriter for Mutual Benefit. Were the two of you teenagers when you began seriously pursuing your crafts and supporting one another?
[Whitney] Nah, I’m almost 10 years older than Jordan. We’re very close, but as kids I was more like an aunt or mother to Jordan than a collaborator. However now as adults, Jordan is one of my best friends, and we do contribute to each other’s pursuits. I did the artwork for two of his albums, Skip a Sinking Stone and The Cowboy’s Prayer. And he recently wrote a song for me to use to open each ⚡️Enlightning show. I just debuted it recently with the “What Is Argo CD?” episode!
And can I just say … I have another brother Caleb who is rad too, and has positively influenced my life in big ways. He taught himself Japanese using the learning techniques outlined in the book Fluent Forever. After watching his success, I used those same learning techniques to teach myself about cloud technologies. This is a big part of how I’ve been able to learn so much so quickly.
[Lisa] I understand another personal interest of yours is traveling, and visiting Sri Lanka is on your bucket list. When you get there, swing by The Pagoda Tea Room in the fort area of Colombo. It has vegan fare and it’s where Duran Duran filmed the video “Hungry Like the Wolf” in 1982. Simon Le Bon had sat at a table, lip syncing the song, wearing a hat and glacier sunglasses, and during the last climatic chorus, flipped the table over. And for accommodations? You can stay in the “Duran Duran Suite” at the Strand Guest House in Unawatuna in Galle ‒ it’s 2+ hours south of Colombo.
[Whitney] I see that you’re an avid Duran Duran fan! As far as Sri Lanka, I’m specifically drawn to the VegVoyages’ tour of Sri Lanka because I would LOVE to meet some elephants in my lifetime, and this tour provides an opportunity to do that in an ethical way.
[Lisa] Good for you! That’s really something special to look forward to. So what does “The future Whitney” look like? What’s down the road for you? Where will your enthusiasm for learning take you?
[Whitney] That is a difficult question because I don’t yet have a good sense of my present. Where I am right now is wildly different from where I was last year, which is wildly different from the year before that, and the year before that.
Right now I am focused on working hard, staying humble and genuine, saying YES to scary opportunities, being grateful for each moment and then hanging on to my hat and enjoying the ride.
[Lisa] It sounds like you have an excellent grasp of your present, Whitney. Just saying.
In closing, it’s no secret that women are underrepresented in tech, especially open source, but as someone who is making breakthroughs with your ⚡️Enlightning episodes and teaching novices how to understand highly technical concepts, you’re leading a reform of sorts, setting an example and inspiring others. Do you have any advice for those who’d like to tackle a new career path in tech based on your own journey?
[Whitney] Your closing remarks are knocking me out of my chair! They’re very kind. I don’t think of myself as someone inspirational, I’m just me. Some habits that have helped my career journey include being consistent with daily learning time, not making assumptions (about both technologies and people), and being willing to admit when I don’t understand something (and asking questions!) so that more complex knowledge is built on a solid foundation.
Also it is strange for me to talk in this advice-giving mode. I don’t consider myself an expert at all. I am simply a curious person who loves learning and growing. My path works for me but I don’t mean to imply that it will work for everyone.
[Lisa] You’ve provided insight and tools for learning that any and everyone can use at their discretion. I am moved by your humility and do applaud you, Whitney. For having the courage to pursue a radical career change and not looking back, for your desire to learn and passion for enlightening new learners to cloud technologies with your contagious excitement.
Some habits that have helped my career journey include being consistent with daily learning time, not making assumptions (about both technologies and people), and being willing to admit when I don’t understand something (and asking questions!) so that more complex knowledge is built on a solid foundation.
[Whitney] I’m blushing.
[Lisa] Thank you for sharing your journey in tech with us, your inspirations and motivations and so much more. It’s been a pleasure.
[Whitney] I appreciate you Lisa, and thanks also to the people who read this, for taking the time to get to know me and my work.
KubeCon + CloudNative North America 2022 (Keynote!) – What a RUSH! Let’s Deploy Straight to Production! – Whitney Lee and Mauricio Salatino– Thurs, Oct 27, 2022, 9:15 AM – 9:30 AM EDT
SpringOne – Who Should Use Kubernetes? (Breakout Session) – Wed, Dec 7, 2022, Time and Location TBD
Streams most Thursdays at 11AM EST / 8 AM PST on Tanzu.TV / Popular episodes include:
- What is Argo CD
- Event-driven Architecture and Real-Time Analytics
- Getting Your Code to Production with Cartographer
VMware Explore (Breakout Session recorded on Aug 3, 2022)
Tune into a recorded live performance of Mutual Benefit at Seattle’s KEXP studio, January 22, 2014. Whitney’s brother, Jordan Lee, sings lead vocals and plays guitar, and Whitney sings harmony and plays the keyboards. Mutual Benefit will be releasing a new album in 2023.