Leaders in Tech: Mandi Walls

Welcome to our Leaders in Tech editorial series. Speaking to leaders in the industry to capture their stories, career highs and lows, their trials and successes, their current company and their role, most recent projects, advice to others, and the individuals who they most look up to in the industry.

This week, we talked to Mandi Walls, DevOps advocate, to find out more about why she joined the tech industry, what her role entails, what are the challenges she faces as a tech leader, and her advice to aspiring engineers and developers.

First of all, can you tell me a bit about yourself and your current role? 

My name is Mandi Walls. I’m a DevOps Advocate at PagerDuty. At PagerDuty, the DevOps Advocates are sort of like developer advocates in that we’re here to help folks get the most out of PagerDuty, but we focus on the rest of the cultural and organizational changes teams might find challenging along the way. So, we focus on things like creating learning organizations, running blameless post-incident reviews, and building healthier cultures for teams that have on-call duties as well as our developer tooling.

How did you get to where you are now?

In sort of a roundabout way. I started out in the industry as a systems administrator and worked on larger and larger environments at AOL. I then went to work at Chef Software (then Opscode) and did professional services, training, and community-related stuff there for about eight and a half years. The Community aspect of that job was the fun part: talking to users, helping them with the product, meeting them either 1:1 or at industry events, so that’s what I’ve kept doing with PagerDuty.

What inspired you to get involved in the IT industry? 

It was neat. I didn’t have much exposure to computers growing up; they just weren’t available at my school. So when I went to college, I originally majored in Biology and Chemistry, but the difference between sitting in a lab waiting for a white powder to do something with a clear liquid vs getting the computer to do what I wanted was no contest!

Why did you decide to specialize in DevOps?

Coming from the Operations side of the house, DevOps was as much a survival skill or a recognition that operations are more work than anything else. It’s incredibly difficult to effectively operate a large system that was created without any actual thought being given to the production environment and requirements.

For me, DevOps is about recognizing that software starts “living” and creating value only after it gets in front of the users, not when the artifact is created by the build process. So teams that are looking at that full lifecycle are making better use of their resources and producing better products.

Do you have a favorite part of your job?

I like discovering what kinds of crazy things people get up to with our products. One of the best parts about working for a tool vendor is that creative people are going to do all sorts of things you never thought of.

What is a typical day for you?

A typical might be any number of things. I do a bit of writing, for blogs and other outlets. I create talks, so I might be working on slides, or giving a talk live, or recording a talk. We have a Twitch channel, so I might be there, talking to partners or users. I might record an episode of our podcast. I’ll check out our community forums for interesting questions. I might meet with a customer to talk about incident management workflows or post-incident reviews or automation. It can really go anywhere!

What are some of the challenges you faced during your career?

Early on, I felt like I was always behind. I didn’t get to grow up programming as other folks did. Coupling that with often being the only female-presenting person on a team, it could be very hard to be taken seriously and not just ignored.

What are you the proudest of in your career so far?

There are plenty of things, but the big ones are that I’m still having fun and I’ve met a lot of wonderful, creative people all over the world. That’s not anything I could have predicted when I started out.

What have you learned from your experience so far?

That we’re all learning. There are so many things being created and updated and reinvigorated all the time that it’s all but impossible to keep up with absolutely everything. It’s ok to not know all the minutiae and the latest buzzwords. In the grand scheme of things, everything we’re doing now is basically still new.

What are you aiming for in the future?

More fun! Right now I’m just hoping the end of the pandemic is sooner rather than later. The stress of uncertainty has taken such a toll on top of the stress from dealing with COVID. When we can get back to more in-person events, I’m definitely looking forward to seeing folks again.

Do you have any advice for aspiring engineers?

Find your balance between “always be learning” and being overwhelmed. There are so many things to learn, and no “right” way to learn them. So take some time to figure out what works best for you and makes you a successful learner. Some folks like to read the book, others prefer to watch some videos. You might get more out of a few meetups or have an experienced mentor that you would get out of other methods.

And if you’re building products that people will use directly, take into account diverse users. Folks with different backgrounds. Folks who use assistive technology. Tech can be absolutely transformative for people, but it can also leave them out completely.

Finally, do you have a memorable story or anecdote from your experience you would like to share with us?

There’s probably a million weird or funny things I’ve forgotten. When I worked at Chef, we would participate in a conference in Ghent, Belgium, ConfigManagement Camp. It was held on the campus of a technical school during a week when there were no classes. The location is close to the train station but not close to hotels, so there was this one burrito shop nearby that we would basically descend upon during the three days of the conference. It was always a bit of a bizarre adventure to be eating burritos in Ghent in February.

One big thing that I have enjoyed so much while working for software vendors is sharing people’s “ah-ha” moments. It’s especially gratifying to be giving a talk or a training, and hear from someone that what your tool does will change their work-life in a noticeable way. Being sort of behind the scenes, helping a lot of people build wonderful products for their users is pretty excellent. I love hearing from folks who benefit from our products.