In this episode, I talk to Dagna Bieda. Dagna is a software engineer turned career coach who has mentored 50+ clients, some of whom worked at big brand names (such as LinkedIn, Amazon, Google, Disney), as well as much smaller businesses. Whether it’s for promotion, salary increase, landing a new job, or becoming a CTO, she’s committed to helping her clients reach their full potential.
We talk about:
- how Dagna experienced a plateau in her career as a software engineer
- what she did to overcome this stagnation
- Cultural differences in the US and other countries
- how she helps immigrants like her fit into their American workplace
- and common limiting beliefs engineers have and how to overcome those.
This episode is sponsored by Tonic.ai – where your data is modeled from your production data to help you tell an identical story in your testing environments.
[00:00:00] Dr. McKayla: Hello, and welcome to the Software Engineering Unlocked podcast. I’m your host, Dr. McKayla. And today I have the pleasure to talk to Dagna Bieda. She’s a software engineer turned career coach for software engineers. She’s been coding for over 10 years and has been a coach or has been coaching for the past two-plus years.
[00:00:24] Dr. McKayla: And today I will learn everything around how to get a job, how to be successful as a software engineer, and how to advance your career. But before I start, let me introduce you to an amazing startup that’s sponsoring today’s episode, Tonic.ai, the fake data company. So what does Tonic.ai do? I’m sure you know how complex and cumbersome it is to create quality test data.
[00:00:51] Dr. McKayla: It’s a never-ending chore that eats into valuable engineering resources. Random data doesn’t do it and production data is neither safe nor legal for developers to use. What if you could mimic your entire production database to create a realistic dataset with zero sensitive data? That sounds amazing, right?
[00:01:10] Dr. McKayla: Tonic.ai does exactly that. With Tonic.ai, you can generate fake data that looks, acts, and behaves like production data because it’s made from production. Yet, Tonic.ai guarantees privacy so your data sets are safe to share with developers, QA, data scientists, heck, even distributed teams around the world. Visit Tonic.ai to sign up today or click the link in the show notes to get a free two weeks trial sandbox.
[00:01:38] Dr. McKayla: Well, Dagna, I’m, I’m so excited to learn everything that, you know, you have been through. in your career as a software engineer and how you actually help software engineers get the most out of their career. So can you tell me a little bit, how did you go about to this shift from, you know, being a software engineer, yourself to being a full-time career coach for software engineers? Why did that happen and how?
[00:02:03] Dagna Bieda: Absolutely. And first of all, thanks so much for having me on your show, McKayla. Essentially, you know, in my own career, I have seen some incredible accelerated progression in my own career. When I started programming, I went from a junior engineer to a senior engineer fairly quickly.
[00:02:22] Dagna Bieda: It happened in less than three years, which, it takes a lot more for a lot of engineers in our industry. And it was all because of the people that were in my corner that supported me, that mentored me. And because I was very relentless about asking them for feedback to tell me how I can improve, how I can do better.
[00:02:44] Dagna Bieda: And as I kind of like, went up in my career in my senior engineering role, what happened is I experienced this plateau, you could say. And I recognized, later on, you know, in hindsight that I was just working really hard on the wrong things, but I didn’t have that kind of support that I needed that would have showed me like, Hey, Dagna, what you’re focusing on is not going to take you to that next level.
[00:03:11] Dagna Bieda: So after having that aha moment, I recognized like, okay, I was going super quickly, advancing in my career in the early, in the beginning, because of that support. Later on, I didn’t have that support. I had to figure it out by myself. And so , it was so much slower of a process when I was trying to figure it out myself.
[00:03:32] Dagna Bieda: So I decided that, you know, this is a great idea for a business because not everybody, being a software engineer, has that support network that they could lean on. So I could step in and become that support network for my clients. And that’s exactly what I do today. And it’s just amazing. And I’ve helped so many clients, you know, I’ve had over the past three years that I’ve been coaching, I’ve helped over 50 engineers.
[00:03:59] Dagna Bieda: They had various backgrounds. Some of them work at fan companies. Some of them work for like small mom and pop shops, and they had experience ranging anywhere from 2 to 20 years of experience. Some were self-thought. Some had college degrees, some are boot camp graduates. And you know what I do right now as a coach and that lits me on fire and, you know, brings a lot of fulfillment to my life is to help my clients find that in their life and in their career.
[00:04:28] Dr. McKayla: Okay. And so, what does it take from a junior to become a senior? And why was there no support for you when you were a senior to get, you know, to the next level? Maybe what was your next level? Was it like a staff engineer that you wanted to become, or is it more in a managerial role that you wanted to develop yourself? So what’s the next, the next step?
[00:04:52] Dagna Bieda: I wanted to become a team lead and team lead is like a mix of both, right? On one hand, like from an HR perspective, maybe you are not on the org chart on top of like a team, but you are leading your team with your technical expertise. So like it’s a mix of the managerial and the engineering responsibilities.
[00:05:09] Dagna Bieda: The big reason why I had the plateaued is because I moved from Poland to the United States. And as an immigrant. I didn’t realize that, you know, the way I was thinking and going about work, while it made perfect sense back in Poland, it didn’t necessarily set me up for success in my American workplace.
[00:05:30] Dagna Bieda: And also like right now, a lot of my clients are immigrants moving from one country to another. And what I help them is to understand how their cultural upbringing affects their performance at their workplace. Because for me that was one of the blockers, right? I had to really kind of like understand my new situation, my new culture, how I was fitting in what was stopping me, and for example, there’s this one situation that I can, that comes to mind is when, when I posted a joke in slack that I thought was super funny and, and being an Eastern European, we have this dark sense of humor.
[00:06:06] Dagna Bieda: And, you know, in this new American company, what happened was I was called to HR and I was told that that was inappropriate. And I was like, what? That was super funny. What are you talking about? So, that was like one of the things that I had to realize, like, okay, This is the type of sense of humor that just doesn’t go with my workplace.
[00:06:27] Dagna Bieda: So I can, you know, keep doing that on my own and private, but this is not going to help me in terms of work advancement, right?
[00:06:34] Dr. McKayla: So can you, can you go a little bit more into this in this cultural aspect, right? Okay. There are the jokes that obviously, there are cultural differences. What’s funny, what’s not, what’s inappropriate, right, and so on. But is there also like for leadership because you were talking about tech lead, right? So it’s, how, how can you show the outside world that you’re ready for it? Is there a difference in your experience?
[00:06:58] Dagna Bieda: Yes. So that’s another like cultural aspect, you know, like, there’s this specific tool that I use for analysis that helped me really map those differences. And it’s called the Hofstede model. And essentially, it has, like, this database that compares different countries on, like, six different dimensions, right? And one of the things for the United States specifically is that individualism is super highly rated, right? And Poland is more rated closer to being like a collective culture, right, where we work together towards success. And I can tell you, for example, there was this initiative that I was leading in my American workplace.
[00:07:45] Dagna Bieda: And what happened was I was talking to different people, different types of stakeholders. They agreed with me. So I thought, okay, if I have a buy-in, something’s going to happen now, right. Because that’s how it would have worked back in Poland, right? In the American workplace, I was expected to, once I picked up the initiative to lead it from end to end. And, you know, I wasn’t aware of that. So, you know, I got all the stakeholders on board. Everybody agreed to my idea and then nothing happened, and I got so frustrated. I’m like, why there’s nothing happening? Like, didn’t we all agree, should we all collaborate together? And because they didn’t realize that my cultural upbringing was different, nobody could give me that kind of feedback, right?
[00:08:29] Dr. McKayla: Yeah.
[00:08:29] Dagna Bieda: They just didn’t know how to support me there.
[00:08:32] Dr. McKayla: I think this topic is so interesting because right now I’m working on the book on code reviews and I’m working a lot about feedback and disagreements, agreements, and how to solve that, right, how to collaborate together.
[00:08:45] Dr. McKayla: And so one book that I’m actually deep diving into that I found really interesting was The Culture Map. I don’t know if you are familiar with, from Erin Meyer, and there she…
[00:08:55] Dagna Bieda: Oh, that’s interesting. Okay.
[00:08:56] Dr. McKayla: Yeah, you can have a look at it and she also looks at a different perspective. And one is, for example, agreements, how are people from different countries agreeing? And for example, Germany or Austria, right? It’s a little bit more collaborative or, you know, collective, right? Collective agreement.
[00:09:11] Dagna Bieda: Exactly.
[00:09:12] Dr. McKayla: It’s really, really important. So it takes a very long time until everybody agrees. And it’s a little bit an upfront process, right? Whereby in America, it’s more, well, one decision is made by the leader, but then this decision can also be questioned along the way, right? And so it’s quicker, quicker to get started, right? And one person brings up and says, okay, this is how we are going to do it.
[00:09:34] Dr. McKayla: And then people are working on this vision. This is how she explains it, right? But yeah. And then over time, you can actually challenge that a little bit, right? You can say, but maybe, you know, we should change course because we have more information now and so on. And in Germany, it’s exactly the other way around, right? So we are investing a lot in this process of collective agreement, on this is the right way to go. But because there’s a lot of, you know, a lot of time and information that goes into this process, it’s really hard to challenge that later on, right? So after three months of discussing that we are going to do that.
[00:10:09] Dr. McKayla: It’s really hard to say a month later, oh, maybe you should change that again, which I think is perfectly fine in America. I don’t know. Can you see that as well? Is that something that…
[00:10:20] Dagna Bieda: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. And another interesting thing is like, for example, in terms of the short-term versus long-term orientation, in the United States, the culture as a whole is on the Hofstede model described as a more short-term oriented. So the company would be more like working towards your quarterly goals, right? And when I work, for example, with some of my clients that have Asian upbringing and working in the United States, that their cultures tend to have this long-term orientation.
[00:10:51] Dagna Bieda: What happens is, for example, in an interview, whenever they present themselves, they’re talking about, you know, building a solid foundation for a long term. But what happens is. American companies don’t necessarily value that, right? Because, and they even have this, this saying here to hit the ground running, right? So when I work with my clients, I tell them, look, if you’re starting to work in a new workplace, American workplace, you want to present yourself as someone who’s operating fast and can bring results really quickly because of valuing of that short term results rather than long term.
[00:11:27] Dr. McKayla: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I can totally see that. So you are working as I understood it, you’re working with a very range of experiences, right? So you said people are coming from boot camp, but it’s just coming from boot camp with no experience and want to go into the workplace or is it more, are they already, you said two years, something like this.
[00:11:48] Dagna Bieda: Yeah.
[00:11:49] Dr. McKayla: Is it really an even distribution here or do you see that it’s cooling in one direction, right? More the junior engineers in the first, let’s say, five years or more the senior engineers or midterm, maybe?
[00:12:02] Dagna Bieda: I would say that the majority of my clients are the mid-level professionals and the more senior professionals that are kind of like finding themselves a little stuck, maybe not sure about their next step.
[00:12:13] Dagna Bieda: And they’re looking for, you know, figuring out first of all, how are they stopping themselves? Second of all, how to find fulfillment in their career rather than chasing money or promotions. And, you know, the truth is there’s, to my knowledge, nobody else that offers the type of services that I offer, which is working on the engineering mindset for success, right?
[00:12:36] Dagna Bieda: And you know, what got you to that senior engineer position was very likely your technical foundation. And I do not work on that technical foundation while having been a software engineer myself, I can definitely send my clients some pointers, like what are the gaps that they have in their skill set that they should, like, fill up in terms of you know, career advancement, but what I really am passionate about and what I really love to focus on is that mindset piece, right? Like, what kind of blind spots do you have? What kind of limiting beliefs do you have? I actually like to say that I moved from programming computers to reprogramming human minds. And it really beautifully describes what it is that I do, because once you change your mindset, I put it this way.
[00:13:21] Dagna Bieda: How you think is how you act. And how you act is the results that you’re getting then from, you know, the reality, the real world.
[00:13:31] Dr. McKayla: Yeah. Can you tell me some limiting beliefs? I also regularly reflect on mine and, right now, you know, I’m also in a, this state where I think, because of the pregnancy and the very new birth, I think this is such an inward-facing period in my life again, right, where I’m thinking, like, what are the beliefs that I have, and that are holding me back and so on. I would be really curious, can you give some examples of beliefs that engineers have, maybe that you have seen patterns?
[00:14:00] Dagna Bieda: Absolutely.
[00:14:01] Dr. McKayla: Yeah, that hold them back.
[00:14:02] Dagna Bieda: There are two that are super common and super popular. Number one is believing that your work speaks for itself, which it doesn’t. It does not. Like, okay, if someone else works on the same code base with you and they can look at your code, they could see the value that you bring to the table if they put in the work and effort to actually go into the code, look up what it is that you committed and, you know, have some thoughts on that.
[00:14:28] Dagna Bieda: But, in order to be successful in an engineer’s role, what you really have to do is market yourself. You have to talk about your achievements and accomplishments and not expect everybody in the company to just know what it is that you’re doing, because people just don’t know. They have their own work that they’re prioritizing.
[00:14:44] Dagna Bieda: And it’s very critical to figure out if you have that limiting belief of work speaks for itself because again, it doesn’t. That keeps a lot of talented engineers stuck in their career. That’s number one. The second one, which always cracks me up, but I used to think that way too. There was a moment, and I have to be honest with you, there was a moment I thought the same way. And the second limiting belief is essentially, that you are surrounded, as an engineer, with idiots that just don’t want to listen to your amazing ideas. And here’s the thing, whenever, as an engineer, you have an incredible idea and you want to pitch it. You want to get people on board.
[00:15:25] Dagna Bieda: It’s super important for you to communicate about it in a certain way. You have to be able to negotiate. You have to be able to like really describe it, but describe it in terms of the priorities of your stakeholders, right? So if I’m going to, and I’m guilty of that as well. Like, there was this two projects that I worked on in my most recent engineering job, and I was responsible for taking care of a mobile app.
[00:15:48] Dagna Bieda: And it was a pain in the butt that the build of the app was taking a few minutes, you know, and I just felt it was so inefficient. So I went ahead and I refactored how this particular app was built. And I reduced the build time from few minutes to, like, 30 seconds. And I was so proud of myself, you know, I was so like, yes, this is amazing in reality, what happened is, that what I did that work that I did, impacted my life and one other engineer. Nobody else cared. It didn’t matter. Then I had a second task or project that I worked on in the same company, which was creating a deliverable for a client, super boring, a lot of copy and pasting, a lot of like following steps. I did not enjoy doing that at all, but guess what?
[00:16:36] Dagna Bieda: Whenever it was deployed and the client could spread the mobile app to their own client base, I got praise from the sales representative from our BA, from the project manager. My tech lead was like, wow, Dagna, that was a super fast turnaround. You know, everybody across the organization was like, yay, success.
[00:16:57] Dagna Bieda: And I’m thinking to myself, Wow. I would have never in a hundred million years figured this out on my own. If, if you ask me as an engineer to like put a value on this project versus that project, I would’ve thought that the refactoring was better. So here’s long story, but essentially what I’m trying to say is, it’s very important to understand how what you are doing trickles, like, how what you’re doing fits into the business as a whole, the business that you’re working for and how to communicate about it. That’s the, really the key of what I was trying to say here.
[00:17:35] Dr. McKayla: Yeah, I think that’s really, really important, but I also found myself working at companies where. You are assigned things, right? So you’re not really asked for your opinion. if this is now really helpful or not or, or something like this. And then maybe reassigned as well, right, which I think there are, there are several impacts to that. First of all, what would be your advice for people that are assigned projects where they also know maybe doesn’t look like this has a big impact on the company, right? So it’s also limiting my ability to advance my career here. What should you do? How do you communicate about that? What’s your advice?
[00:18:18] Dagna Bieda: Yeah, we’re kind of going back to, you know, to that communication piece, right? So, first of all, one thing that I want to share the assumption I’m coming here up with is that whoever assigns you that work is not a mind reader, so they would not necessarily have your priorities, your career priorities in mind.
[00:18:37] Dagna Bieda: So it’s important to, whenever you are asking for work to kind of like be proactive and say, Hey, I am really working towards becoming, let’s say a staff engineer, becoming a team lead, becoming an engineering manager, can you help me out and assign the kind of work to me that will help me achieve that goal, right?
[00:18:58] Dagna Bieda: Asking for that help and support because most of us are nice and friendly people, and we want to help. But we don’t always know what’s the best way to provide that help. So being kind of like your own advocate and talking about what it is that you want to do is really critical here. A second thing is, you know, whenever you’re in those one-on-ones with your manager, is to really ask for feedback. How are you doing, how you could be doing better, and creating that safe space for feedback. You know, something that is my strength actually, and really helped me with accelerating in my career early on was that relentlessness in asking for feedback. Like, I had this team lead that worked with me that helped me become a senior engineer because he kind of vouched for me in the meetings that I wasn’t part of.
[00:19:53] Dagna Bieda: And he really said like, Hey, she’s ready. She can handle it. She can be a senior engineer. I think she’s ready. And that’s what got me the promotion. But when him and I worked together, I was telling him, look, I really want to know. Don’t worry. You’re not going to hurt, hurt my feelings. I want to advance, I want to be hitting the ground running, and I want to really work on the things that are holding me back.
[00:20:16] Dagna Bieda: And, you know, one of the critical pieces of feedback that he initially didn’t want to give me, because it felt like maybe he would hurt my feelings or maybe was too much. I don’t know. But after I was pushing and pushing for that feedback, he essentially told me, Dagna, fast is great. But reliable is better.
[00:20:35] Dagna Bieda: And that advice changed how I was thinking about writing code, because I was really prioritizing being fast, delivering as soon as possible, right? But sometimes my fast solutions were not fully thought out. And a senior engineer really has to have that understanding of how the engineering decisions impact business, the team and what it is that, that they’re trying to accomplish as a team.
[00:21:03] Dr. McKayla: Yeah, I’m thinking back of a time, right, where I think it’s totally true that we have to go and advocate for ourselves, but I also wonder how many people are a little bit stuck in that, well, this is what the business needs, right? I understand that you want to advance your career. You want to become, you know, a senior engineer or a tech lead or whatnot.
[00:21:27] Dr. McKayla: You know, saying that the project doesn’t seem to have such big impact, right? And big impact, I think has to do with the stakeholder. Who is it visible to, right? Who is going to see and hear your name and, and so on. I thought, I think there’s a little bit of political background towards that as well. Have you worked with people that are just really stuck in a situation where there is nobody that really advocates for them too much, or they are assigned a project that’s, you know, low visibility and they’re stuck there. Would you say the best is to move companies or?
[00:22:01] Dagna Bieda: The short and sweet answer is yes. And, you know, in the very first meeting that I have with my clients whenever we start our coaching sessions in the program, what we do is we figure out what are their specific life and career goals, and what are their values and, how their current workplace supports those values. And then we measure them in a specific way. And after that, specific exercise, we’re able to confidently say whether it’s worth staying in that place or if it’s time to move on.
[00:22:38] Dr. McKayla: And so, whenever I see, like, in my Twitter bubble, right? I’m also very much in the American, you know, world somehow. And everybody is like, oh my God, the marketplace is, or the market is so hot now. And, you know, jobs are everywhere. I don’t know in Europe, I don’t feel that way.
[00:23:00] Dagna Bieda: Got it.
[00:23:00] Dr. McKayla: Is, is it like this? Do you feel like right now, it’s so hot and everybody can, you know, change their career in a second and get better and you know, why would you even stay there? I feel like even if you have a good place, let’s move because you can make more money and so on, which is a very different mindset.
[00:23:18] Dr. McKayla: I don’t see that here in Europe so much. It doesn’t feel that hard or it also feels like if I’m at the good company and, you know, I make a market okay salary, I don’t feel that people are looking forward, changing every one and a half, two years, more.
[00:23:34] Dagna Bieda: Yeah. So two years is very common for people who are very ambitious.
[00:23:39] Dagna Bieda: I want to try to see how different companies do different things and gain those experiences across a variety of industries or companies of different sizes. So, two years is definitely something that’s seen as fairly normal. And I feel like you touched on an important subject there, it’s very important to realize that the European job market is much more fragmented, right?
[00:24:03] Dagna Bieda: Because we have different countries, different cultures, and it’s not as easy to, you know, have access to all those opportunities. In the United States, it’s way more streamlined because you know, it’s one country and people mobility is also completely different. So like if you live in LA and then next year you get a job in New York, it’s much more likely that you’re just going to pick everything up and move for that job.
[00:24:30] Dagna Bieda: In Europe, we are not like that. so it’s more like choosing a town you want to live in, and then you find a job within that town, say, for example, right? So in that sense, we have just different priorities in Europe, and there are different priorities here in the United States, and that impacts that job market, absolutely. With that being said, with the COVID, the pandemic, and the acceleration of the remote workplaces, there’s more and more opportunities for the Europe software engineers, for example, or anyone else really to access those American jobs. I cannot think of, like, anything in particular, but there’s more and more companies that are supportive of those remote jobs and help pair American companies with offshore workers.
[00:25:18] Dagna Bieda: And it’s kind of like in that saying where Europeans work to live and Americans live to work. There’s definitely something in that, some truth to it. I mean, I remember when I moved to United States and I was, you know, trying to get my very first engineering job and, on the phone interview, someone would tell me, like, we offer three weeks vacation, we’re generous.
[00:25:42] Dr. McKayla: Yeah, it’s different.
[00:25:43] Dagna Bieda: Yeah, right? It’s different. It’s different. There’s so much more vacation time back in Europe, back at home. In the United States, even though they are coming up with, like, this unlimited time off policies it really depends on the company. Some companies are just trying to not pay you out the accrued time off.
[00:25:59] Dagna Bieda: So you have to like really be wary when you are verifying if it’s really unlimited time off. But with that being said, I had a client and she took like 10 weeks off within a year. So you know, there are companies that, yeah, there are companies that really kind of like honor that.
[00:26:15] Dr. McKayla: Okay. Okay. Well, I have a last question for you, actually, and it’s about code reviews because you were touching upon communication and also showing your work and what you are doing. How do you think can people use code reviews to do that, to accomplish that, to, you know, make their work a little bit more visible? Is it something that you thought about? How that fits together?
[00:26:39] Dagna Bieda: So in terms of code reviews, the advice that I really give to my more inexperienced clients who are earlier in their career journey is to not take them personal.
[00:26:51] Dagna Bieda: Just take it in as an information, as a guidance and, you know, earlier in their career, a lot of software engineers tend to take those comments, that feedback very personally, and they have their feelings hurt. But in reality, it’s just feedback. It’s just objective information that you can use to better yourself.
[00:27:11] Dagna Bieda: Now, in terms of my more senior client, their skills are at the level that, you know, I don’t see code reviews being very critical there because they already, you know, have mastered that technical foundation. So what I focus on really is those skills that are missing: the people skills, the communication, how you market yourself and all the things that we talked about today.
[00:27:34] Dr. McKayla: Okay. Okay, cool. So, Dagna, thank you so much. Maybe you can also tell us a little bit how people can follow your work can find you, and maybe something that you want to. You know, give on the way for the engineers on how to find the career or the next step that makes them happy.
[00:27:56] Dagna Bieda: Yeah, absolutely. So the best way to really get in contact with me is through my LinkedIn profile. You just can go to LinkedIn and find me under Dagna Bieda, D A G N A B I E D A. And then you can also go ahead to my website, the mindfuldev.com/podcast, and you’ll find there a case study. And that case study beautifully explains the process that I follow with my clients and how it helped them really level up in their career. For one client, it meant going from an underappreciated senior engineer to a startup CTO in three months. For another client, it meant moving from a senior engineer to a VP of engineering and innovation at his company. For another client, that meant doubling his salary as we work together. So, you know, if that case study is something that you’re interested in, you can then reach out to me and we can see if we’re a good fit to work together and how I can help you accelerate your career.
[00:28:57] Dr. McKayla: Okay. Cool. Thank you so much. Thank you, Dagna, for being on my show.
[00:29:01] Dagna Bieda: Absolutely. It was a blast. Thanks for having me, McKayla.
[00:29:04] Dr. McKayla: Yeah. Thank you. Bye.
[00:29:06] Dr. McKayla: This was another episode of the Software Engineering Unlocked podcast. If you enjoyed the episode, please help me spread the word about the podcast, send the episode to a friend via email, Twitter, LinkedIn, well, whatever messaging system you use. Or give it a positive review on your favorite podcasting platforms such as Spotify or iTunes. This would mean really a lot to me. So thank you for listening. Don’t forget to subscribe and I will talk to you in two weeks. Bye.