A Chat with WITS Virtual Summit Speaker — Audrey Troutt
Audrey Troutt is a Director of Mobile Engineering at Comcast. Her session at WITS Virtual Summit is Grow Others to Grow Yourself: Lessons Learned Going from Tech Lead to Manager to Director.
Why is speaking at WITS important to you?
Speaking at WITS is important to me because I want to give back to the community that made me who I am today. The tech industry moves so fast, and the only way we can keep up and thrive is to be constantly learning and sharing what we are learning with others.
What are you doing to ensure you continue to grow and develop as a leader?
The most important thing to me is to stay curious. My curiosity has fed my growth from the beginning of my career. Before I got in to tech I wondered how my desktop apps worked and that got me into programming. Then I wanted to know how larger systems were designed and deployed and monitored and so I learned about that. I was curious about automation and testing, and so I dug into that and learned all I could. As I grew into a leader I became curious how I can help my teams learn and grow themselves. I was curious if there were better ways to organize our teams and our work, so I read and took training classes and listened to conference talks. I got curious about where our roadmaps came from, why we choose to invest in some ideas and not others — this led me to ask questions and find ways to involve myself in strategic planning. This hunger for knowledge drives me to challenge myself again and again. This kind of growth isn’t really about getting a bigger title, although building my skillset has led to promotions. I think what’s more important is that I keep continuously learning and that makes it actually fun and deeply satisfying work.
What have you learned recently to work more efficiently from home?
You know, my last job before Comcast was a 100% remote job for me, so I thought I was really good at working from home already, but this quarantine has been a challenging time. I was glad that I already had a really good home office set up, and good habits around communicating effectively with my teams via asynchronous channels, and I knew how to separate work time from home time. However, I’ve had to get even better at managing the use of my time and my teams time for meetings to avoid burnout for everyone. I’ve learned that we can’t continue to meet and collaborate the way we did in the office. We need to limit the number and length of in-person meetings each day and use chat and email and collaborative documents more and more effectively. Meetings are now 15, 25 or 55 minutes by default or replaced by an email thread. This not only avoids video meeting burnout, but also gives people flexibility to structure their days to accommodate caring for children or themselves.
What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?
Well, I try to do something that terrifies me at least once a year. The bigger risks that I’ve taken have to do with changing not only companies but also jobs. There was the time I left a very safe and stable job as a senior software developer and supervisor to join a startup and learn mobile development, starting over in completely new language and toolset and industry at a brand new product company that had no guarantee of being successful. I have zero regrets — it changed the course of my career!
Why did you join Comcast?
Before joining Comcast I had mostly worked at smaller startups. I had worked on business services and consumer apps and and as a consultant building custom software. I had been part of starting new teams and joined very well-established teams. I had worked within academia, at a non-profit, and in the industry. I had never worked at a really large company, though. I bounced back and forth a few times between leading teams and being an individual contributor, but I had finally decided that engineering leadership was for me and I wanted to continue growing as a leader. I was drawn to Comcast for a few reasons: first, I was really excited about the product, Xfinity Home. I like building useful things for people and the opportunity to contribute to peace of mind and awesome home automation for millions of people was really appealing. Then I got to my interviews and was struck by two things: what a great fit the teams were for what I had to offer as a manager and how many amazing engineering and product leaders I would have to learn from — I’d never had that many peers and potential mentors at once! I was very curious to learn how decisions get made and culture gets influenced at this larger scale too. So, there was a great product, with awesome people, I had a lot to contribute, and I could learn a lot — it was an easy decision to join Comcast! I’m definitely glad I did.
In a large organization there can be a tendency for the “institution” to dampen the “inspiration.” How do you keep this from happening?
Until I joined Comcast I had mostly worked at smaller startup companies. What’s different in our large organization is not only that there are a lot of people with a lot of opinions, but also a long history for how we do things. Some of the hardest hurdles I’ve come up against have actually been “we tried that before and it didn’t work.” This is not unsurpassable, though you may have to work harder to sell your idea. Actually, I’ve benefitted a lot from listening to the stories from the past and using those lessons to make my ideas better. Despite that, I have been blown away by the innovative thinking and comfort with change in our organization. Big company or small, you have to be brave and speak up when you have an idea and work hard to make it real.
The other difference at a large company is that it can take longer for an idea to become reality. There are many more people involved in making a decision and building our products or tools. Then there’s a lot happening all the time at Comcast, and it can be easy to lose sight of an idea that you care about. I do sometimes miss being able to quickly decide and build like I could at a much smaller company and see the results right away. But I work hard as a leader to give visibility to the progress that my team’s ideas are making, to remind them that things are still moving, and make sure we celebrate when things get done. It’s not easy, but by making sure my teams see the big picture it gives them confidence to keep contributing new ideas — to keep the inspiration flowing.
What has helped you get to where you are and what advice would you have for others who want to set off in a similar direction?
You should come to my talk! This is what it’s all about. My main point is that if you invest in growing others you create time and opportunities for you to grow as well. It’s sounds simple, but I have had to learn that lesson at least three times going from engineer to tech lead to manager to director. It’s hard to let go of what you are good at, what made you successful in your previous role. But, that’s what you must do — let go and coach others to be great instead. In my talk I also share that as I have leveled up each time I was really surprised by what it looked like to lead at the next level — not every company has well-defined career ladders, and even when they do it’s not always easy to see from that what the job will be like. I am deeply grateful for the mentors and leaders I’ve had over the years who have opened my eyes and shown me what it takes to influence and lead larger and larger organizations. I thought it would be helpful to reflect back on each of those surprises and lessons learned and share them with WITS. My dream is that I inspire someone to pursue an engineering leadership role!
What other sessions or speakers are you most excited to see at WITS?
There are so many great talks again this year! DevOps, DevSecOps, CI/CD, A/B Testing. So many talks to look forward to! Two sessions that I’m especially interested in are “Differential Privacy — What is it and why should I care?” by Afreen Aliya because I think privacy is a critical topic for everyone in tech, but especially for me as someone who builds mobile apps for consumers in an increasingly data-driven world. I also can’t wait to go to “Empathy is a Technical Skill” by Andrea Goulet from Corgibytes. That abstract really grabbed my attention! I have to know how we can use empathy while coding.
There are several talks after mine on July 23rd that are going to be great too: “Document Yourself: A framework for career advancement.” From Michelle Brenner at Netflix and “Secrets of Being a Great Software Engineer” by Kate Green (who also talks about helping those around her grow helped her grow too). I think these are going to combine to make an awesome day of talking about and thinking about your career growth in engineering.
How can someone contact you if they want to learn more?
If you are joining us for the summit, find me on the Whova app. I’d love to chat about mobile app development, engineering leadership, or working at Comcast!
If you are interested in jobs at comcast please visit jobs.comcast.com