Jillian Vogel is a senior open source developer & DevOps at OpenCraft.com. As a developer, she has worked on the LabXchange project for several years. In honor of Engineers Week, we sat down with Jillian to learn more about her career journey and her passion for coding. Keep reading to learn more!
I never wanted to have much to do with computers, and certainly didn’t seek out a career in software. My Dad was a support engineer for a mammoth insurance company in my hometown. All I knew was that he disliked his job, so I assumed I wouldn’t like working in tech either.
But I’ve always loved science and mathematics – the logic and structure and boundless possibilities of it. So when I went to university, I started a BS degree in Psychology, with the goal of doing research and running my own lab someday. Then I met a grad student who gave me a piece of advice that changed the course of my entire life: learn to code. His reasoning was, when you’re running your lab, if you can write code, you can process your own data, so you don't have to spend precious grant money on programmers. So I learned to code. And from the very first class, I was hooked! It was the most frustrating and most rewarding thing I had ever done, and for the first time, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
Being able to code opened so many doors for me. I moved around the US a lot after school, and everywhere I went, I found a better job than the last – each with more interesting work, better pay, and better conditions. So when I had the chance to move to Australia, a country I’d never even visited, I jumped in without any hesitation. I knew for sure that I had skills in demand. And though the world is forever changing and my skills always need updating, this is still true now, even 24 years after I graduated.
Now, I work for OpenCraft, which is based in Europe, but has no central office or location. Thanks to the efforts of amazing people in the tech industry, my colleagues and I can be scattered all over the world, and still collaborate, discuss, design, refine, and deploy our work together. And since we’re also spread across time zones, we can assist each other when operational things go wrong, passing the baton to whomever is awake and fresh and able to take over when someone’s workday is done.
The best thing about OpenCraft is our values: openness, quality, commitment, and empathy. That openness extends through everything, including the code we write – we contribute to Open edX and prefer using and contributing to open source software. If everything is open source, any of my clients can benefit from the work I do, and I never have to do the same thing twice! On a typical day, I might build a new feature, architect a new solution, deploy a security update, explore an opportunity for a new client, help out a teammate with an emerging issue, or present at a conference halfway across the world. In other words, there’s no such thing as a typical day!
The emphasis on quality also has its benefits: every system I build and every change I contribute is rigorously reviewed by one or more people on my team.This was quite daunting when I first started – especially since the reviews, like everything else at OpenCraft, were all out in the open! But it didn’t take long before I embraced it, because the code that came out of this process was so good.
I credit my interest in STEM to the excellent teachers I had growing up in public schools in the Midwest. My teachers opened up the wonders of biology, chemistry, and mathematics, but more than that: they conveyed that there was always more to know and do in these fields. The more you learn, the more you see how little we understand, and the magic of this has always excited me. Science is a living thing, always growing and changing, and being a part of STEM means being a part of that creation.
When I was eight years old, I decided to find out if the Tooth Fairy was real. (Spoiler alert: it’s your Mom!)
Method: When I lost my next tooth, I didn’t tell anyone, I just put it in my magical Tooth Fairy pillow pocket (kinda like this) and went to sleep.
Hypothesis: If the Tooth Fairy exists and really is magic, she’ll know I lost my tooth, and there will be a shiny silver dollar waiting in the pillow like always. If she’s not, then, well...the next grant proposal will investigate the Easter Bunny and Santa.
Because the tech industry is relatively new, and historically well paid and secure, there aren’t many trade unions or other collective organizations to help ensure fair pay and opportunities for all involved. So I’ve had to learn how to negotiate raises and improvements to my work/life balance, as well as making sure I’m doing the kind of work I really want to be doing. My happy place is down in the weeds, writing the code and designing the systems. When I first started in tech, following a management track was the primary way to advance, and that didn’t interest me. Now, we have StaffEng roles that offer increasing responsibility and autonomy for people who want to grow along a technical track.
What I fully expected to confront, but haven’t had to deal with much, was discrimination for being a woman in tech. It’s impossible to say how many opportunities may have passed me by because I didn’t fit the image they were looking for. But I consider those to be bullets well dodged. The vast majority of people I’ve worked for and with have been friendly, supportive, engaged, and genuinely thrilled to find someone who wants to get the job done.
Linus Torvalds. He created Linux, an open source operating system that runs most of the world’s web servers and cloud infrastructure, and thus powers the internet. And to facilitate contributions to Linux, which had outgrown all the available code source control systems, he created Git, which is now used by almost every developer everywhere in the world. Socially, he’s not perfect, but he also acknowledged his shortcomings, publicly apologized, stepped back, and sought help. And thus, he’s helped to change the technological world in another way, by showing people how to admit fault and make the community friendlier, more open, and more welcoming.
Learn to code! Even if you don’t want to stay in tech, code is a tool that will assist you in any field you choose to pursue, be it science, engineering, arts, or politics. Some of the best software projects don’t come from the minds of programmers. They come from people in other fields who have specific problems to solve. And code can help you solve them!
Kaylee, the ship’s mechanic in the 2002 TV series Firefly. Kaylee demonstrates an experience and depth of knowledge of spacecraft in general, and her ship specifically, while being simultaneously, and unequivocally, a woman. She is self-taught, like many people in my industry, and probably the cutest geek ever penned. She loves her ship, Serenity, and takes personal offense when anyone derides it. She knows it inside out and takes care of it, working within desperate timelines and nonexistent budgets to keep Serenity flying. She’s a master engineer, passionate, skilled, and honest.