Catherine McGarvey is the VP of Software Engineering for VMware’s Tanzu line of products, leading a distributed engineering team focused on developer and platform operator products for container-based workloads as well as more traditional workloads. She has been involved in several open source communities including Apache Geode, Carvel, Cloud Native Buildpacks, Backstage, RabbitMQ, Kubernetes, and knative. She is the governing board chair for Cloud Foundry Foundation and a passionate advocate for tech that serves developers and creates inclusivity in the industry.
LISA: Everyone has an “origin story” – the event or moment or teacher that got them pointed towards a technical career – for some, that moment was decades ago, for others it was more recent – what was your defining moment? Was there a pioneer in technology who influenced your thinking or direction when you were just starting out?
CATHERINE: In the 9th grade, I had a great IT teacher. She assigned a coding assignment in Visual Basic and I finished it super quickly. She gave me the book and said ‘have at it.’ It was so fun solving a whole bunch of little problems and getting the satisfaction of seeing it work and being creative about it. That was my favorite class and my teacher told me I had the potential for a successful programming career. It never occurred to me that it was abnormal to be a female programmer and from that point on, I knew that programming was what I wanted to do with my life.
LISA: You hail from Australia and attended university in Canberra but make your home in New York. In fact, your social media from last April said, “I stepped off the plane and moved to New York eleven years ago today. Beyond grateful for the opportunity.” Was it a job that brought you to the States?
CATHERINE: It was. I was working in a defense contracting job in Canberra on this cool GIS multi-national product, it had great perks of travel and meeting lots of new people. One day I realized that they were going to use the code in real-life scenarios without the full suite of vigorous testing and I didn’t feel comfortable with that and I quit. Feeling adventurous, I looked online and applied for engineering jobs in Canada to no avail. That’s when a job listing in New York caught my attention, “want to learn a new language and work for a cool startup?” I decided to apply having no prior experience with the programming language or knowing anyone in the area. Just three weeks later I arrived at Pivotal Labs in New York and it’s been an incredible journey ever since.
LISA: What first sparked your interest in open source?
CATHERINE: The team at Labs really championed people that “had given back.” This was super nerve-racking at first. The culture of closed federal code that I’d been used to was quite different. Working in Ruby on Rails, it was very common to pull in “gems” (libraries), look at the source code to understand it and submit pull requests to modify them. There was so much open source code that really created lift when doing development and it changed my perspective on how to approach features. Before I picked up a feature, I’d first investigate whether the necessary code had already been developed, often finding that it had. As long as that code was well-maintained, it streamlined my workflow. I encountered a particularly challenging bug related to time zones early on, only to discover that the issue was rooted in the library I was using. Fortunately, submitting a pull request on the code was all it took to resolve the issue.
LISA: Your career began as a software programmer and progressed to a senior database developer role. Eventually, you took on management and leadership positions at Pivotal, despite the lack of accessible paths for women in technical roles and architectural discussions. How did you overcome these obstacles to build a career in tech and did you navigate the experience alone?
CATHERINE: While my IT teacher had normalized being a woman in the industry, she turned out to be the only personal example I would encounter for nearly seven years. My computer hardware and software engineering courses did not have any other women in it. In my double major of math and programming, there were a few women in some of my classes, but more often than not, I found myself as the only woman in the room.
In the workplace, it wasn’t until I became Director of Labs in 2013, leading a team of highly skilled agile product managers, product designers and engineers, that I began to work with a lot more women. Prior to that time, say, in a team of 30, there might be one other female engineer if I was lucky. I worked briefly for a woman leader only once in my career and that was just for three months. There were no advancement opportunities in technical roles at that time and my greatest strengths were in analysis and translating complex problems into simple concepts for those less technical. That capability led me to a management career path.
Throughout my journey, there have been lots of hurdles. I vividly recall one instance where my manager pulled me aside and accused me of sending him an email with a “passive/aggressive” tone. I asked him to re-read the email and pretend it had been written by a man named ”John.” To his credit, he did re-read the email and ultimately apologized to me.
The journey has been challenging and required a willingness to adapt in certain areas while advocating for change in others.
LISA: Did something beyond the obvious motivate you to become an advocate for increasing representation of women in tech and promoting gender equality?
CATHERINE: During my time at University, I gave a short presentation on the varying room temperatures that men and women statistically tend to find the most comfortable. At the time I was passionate about this as I was always freezing in our electronics lab, despite wearing layers! During the presentation in a room of sixty people, a man I didn’t know started ranting about how we don’t need women in engineering. I stood there, the room gone silent, too shocked and appalled to assert that I had good grades, loved programming, and was fully capable. I excused myself and returned to my seat.
I’m so thankful there’s now evidence that a more diverse team is smarter, more creative and more successful.
Diversity today has a significant and positive impact on design, planning, idea creation, and development. I’ll share an example. A few years ago, a colleague was in charge of designing our company’s new office space. He had developed the floor plans and showed me the design before submitting it for approval. When I looked at what he had mapped out, I noticed a significant problem – the shower area was designed in an atypical way where women would have to walk a few steps without any privacy partitions to get to the bathrooms. The lesson here is if he had included women and others at an earlier stage of the design process, he would have been able to incorporate their feedback and saved himself a lot of time and effort.
I recognize how challenging it has been for me at times in my career and yet I am aware that for many individuals from underrepresented groups, it’s been much harder. It is my aspiration to actively endeavor and commit myself to creating an inclusive culture that values and respects all employees.
LISA: You’re a big believer in investing in people and have proven it’s the secret ingredient to great leadership, having grown teams in Services, Sales, Product and Engineering in your nine-year tenure at Pivotal, and three years here at VMware. Could you talk more about your formula for success? What’s your secret superpower?
CATHERINE: Since early in my career, I’ve needed to change my role every two years to keep growing. At Pivotal, I had the incredible opportunity to jump jobs within the same company. The leap to move to NY enabled me to learn a new role, expand my team, and launch a new product, while satisfying my yearning for personal growth and development. Combining these qualities with valuable lessons I’ve learned – such as cultivating curiosity, empowering others, providing direct feedback, and encouraging open communication – has allowed me to thrive.
Prioritizing respect and kindness over being liked has also been effective in my leadership style. By treating your colleagues and leaders with respect, you can build strong relationships that can lead to enjoyable and productive work experiences. Additionally, listening to your customers and fostering trust in those relationships is crucial – be open to personal feedback and adapt the product to users’ needs. Honesty and empathy go a long way in any role.
The number #1 thing I tell other software development leaders is there isn’t just one way to approach development. The key is to measure what matters and focus on delivering quality code. Whether you choose to use sprints, scrum, agile, kanban, or a mix of methods, it’s important to give your team the autonomy to evolve the process.
LISA: You’ve been drawn to the app development side of tech and your passion to make processes, tools, and programs better for developers is contagious. What drives your motivation to provide a world-class enterprise developer experience and the iteration on and expanding that experience?
CATHERINE: It’s easiest to understand the needs of a product user if you are that user. In my days developing and managing apps in production, I experienced the challenges of managing environments, writing system administrator guides, debugging code, and doing DevOps. And the truth is I hated DevOps at first but eventually learned it out of necessity. My mission became wanting to elevate the experience for every app developer out there by minimizing the time they spend on tasks that don’t involve developing their app.
LISA: In a recent talk about The Standard for Dev Experience and its Evolution Forward on Cloud Foundry Foundation Day, you discussed CF’s 2022 dashboard results which shows 59.22M of lines of code changes; 13.54K commits, 286 contributors and 296 repositories – all indicative of an enormous amount dev work that has gone on in the community. Is this indicative of efforts for greater security? The acceleration in cloud microservices architecture? AI and ML apps?
CATHERINE: The Cloud Foundry community is a driving force in changing the landscape of a platform as a service. Contributors to the code base tested PaaS in real scenarios, running live apps serving millions of users. PaaS has evolved and been adapted over a period of 10+ years, driven by the feedback and usage of millions of developers who use it every day. Open source has allowed great iterations and emphasis on security. It’s been incredible to see how PaaS has come to prioritize transparency in security practices rather than opaque security practices.
LISA: Cloud Foundry changed the game in making app development and deployment easier – enabling simplicity in deployment, single command, and native integrations with RBAC and CRDs, and bridging the divide between a low level abstraction and the learnings of the large end Cloud Foundry user community. As a passionate dev advocate, how gratifying is it that you’ve managed to insert yourself in the thick of the continuous evolution of the platform?
CATHERINE: It’s been incredible to be a part of this journey! I was involved in the early days before source code repository was the default for the source to push an app. A developer had to push their working folder and hope nothing crazy was included. I got to embrace the end user community and champion product changes into it, plus pitch and focus on the technical pre-sales. Now, amazingly, I lead the VMware team in this space.
LISA: From its start in 2009, through the launch of Cloud Foundry Foundation in 2014, Cloud Foundry has defined the standard and expectations for all App platforms. Cloud is considered standard these days so what’s the next evolution and what does that mean for developers? Is the future in WebAssembly (WASM)? Or Generative AI – code by bot? Or both?
CATHERINE: The ecosystem continues to push upwards in that developer experience. I believe the focus is evolving on proactive security, understanding CVEs and their impact, and the fact that developers need to take more onus on triage and impact analysis. That requires tools that simplify and make that triage efficient and effective.
The concept of independently deploying pieces of code, and the journey of microservices to serverless really enable larger and larger teams to work together seamlessly with an emphasis on API first development. The languages and frameworks continue to evolve but are very purpose driven. WASM can really speed up the ability to do data heavy analysis. The ecosystem is still growing and it’s definitely one to keep an eye on.
LISA: Kubernetes wasn’t created as a product, but as a foundation for building platforms that can provision and scale cloud resources in response to app needs. IT teams are evolving, but a gap remains between what developers and operations teams want (to write code and deliver features in a secure way) and what the Kubernetes ecosystem provides (a multitude of projects and technologies with varying degrees of maturity and interoperability). Do you see that gap narrowing and if yes, how so and what’s at play?
CATHERINE: There are many evolving projects in the CNCF trying to bridge parts of this gap, but they require some deep integration work and then ongoing patching with a cohesive UX experience on top of it. I’ve been excited to see and invest in the OSS projects of knative, Carvel, Envoy, Istio, and Paketo as independent valuable parts of that ecosystem. In leading the Tanzu engineering team, my focus is to elevate that experience away from needing DevOps and thinking of first-class app needs of blue green deployment, and app requirements, and translating them into Kubernetes choices across clouds and clusters behind the scenes.
LISA: The Stack Overflow State Developer Survey 2022 revealed that businesses running the workloads that underpin our everyday world, such as banks and healthcare, report confidence in their app security posture, even though many have experienced security breaches in the past year. In addition, 60% of these companies only scan their applications for threats every three months, creating significant possibilities for exploitation. What is causing this misguided confidence – one might say, hubris – and what will happen in this ecosystem moving forward?
CATHERINE: Change is incredibly hard. The larger the organization, the harder it is to create real change and to improve standards and security measures. While most groups in this state are doing their best, it takes time to make change, and not all have a handle on the state of their architecture, their development, or their security posture. I’m sure many with security titles are deeply concerned. App security is one where a good platform and process rollout must happen together. If platform security is not in place already, this will be harder to address at scale.
LISA: Open source software is increasingly shaping enterprise software architectures, and its use has become imperative for business growth. What traits do you believe are essential for VMware to succeed in this rapidly evolving industry?
CATHERINE: VMware needs to be an active contributor to open source to both influence and gain the benefit of the rapid evolution. Going it alone in the core concepts that are universal – RBAC, secrets management, and areas like service discovery – are both slower and would leave us behind the larger community’s speed of improvement. For consumers of this evolving landscape, it’s vital to have support, patching, and layers of abstraction that reduce complexity for the developer baked in.
LISA: Could you talk on how open source enables speed at the enterprise level to improve a solution? In other words, how does open source help to drive product innovation? And help VMware’s customers meet their goals?
CATHERINE: Open Source harnesses the global hive of experience and knowledge in a transparent way. As an example, with Cluster API (CAPI), we’ve seen a huge amount of investment in the core concepts of creation, configuration, and management. It’s built with many use cases in mind and is tested in many different scales and situations, all with shared impact. This gives each end user that uses it confidence in its design, scale, and capability. Essentially, VMware gets the lift and investment of a much larger team through engagement with projects like CAPI.
LISA: Thank you for sharing your deep expertise and insights. To conclude our Q&A, I’d like to ask you a few brief questions about leadership and your advice on mentoring.
LISA: What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
CATHERINE: Ask for direct feedback regularly to really grow and learn. My career and my career journey is 100% in my own hands. I can get the benefit of growth and wisdom from those around me if I’m open and interested in that growth.
LISA: What is your best leadership advice?
CATHERINE: Very rarely in life is a mistake catastrophic. When you encounter a mistake, help everyone remember that. Mistakes are incredible ways to learn and doing so with kindness, keeps everyone open to that learning.
LISA: What advice would you give to younger women entering tech today? Anything you wish you had known?
CATHERINE: Ignore stereotypes and find what your key strengths are. Once you have them identified, harness and grow them further. Match your career journey to growing these core skills and adding other secondary ones to the mix. The titles, jobs, and roles will differ but this will help you navigate the many different positions in the industry and make your job fulfilling. It took me 20 years in the industry to realize this and now I see the value in the many different roles I fell into.
LISA: How do individuals find mentors or the help they need when looking for advice on a given topic, learning about someone’s journey, or establishing themselves in a community?
CATHERINE: For me, great mentors are the ones I can see who have accomplished a skill, a role or respond in a way I’m not yet able to. If I can identify this quickly, and verbalize it to them, then I have a good opportunity of being mentored on a specific skill. A good example of this is boundaries: if you have a hard time saying no to things, or enjoy people-pleasing, identify someone in your network that regularly says no. They might be a good candidate for mentoring you.
LISA: What comes to mind when you read this Australian proverb: “A bad worker blames his tools.”
CATHERINE: In Australian culture, we regularly ensure that no one is elevated too high above the rest of us. This proverb does ring true to me. As an individual, you are in control of a large portion of your life and your career. You have the capability to change many things. If the job, team, manager, situation is not working for you, you have the power to change it, influence it, provide feedback, or do something different. If you find yourself completely powerless, look to your community, counseling, or other support to help you.
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