Toni Akinwumi 03/22/2019

Developer Kirsten Westeinde talks Developing a Growth Mindset, the Early Days of Shopify, and Working with Go

Developer Kirsten Westeinde talks Developing a Growth Mindset, the Early Days of Shopify, and Working with Go

Meet Kirsten Westeinde, she’s a senior software developer on the Kit team based in San Francisco, California. She’s been working at Shopify for just over five years now and has seen the ebbs and flows of the company as it’s continued to scale dramatically over the years.

Her Early Days at Shopify

Kirsten’s journey at Shopify started when she was hired as an intern on the Internal Tools team working on in-house web applications managing processes like recruiting, employee celebrations, and knowledge sharing using Ruby on Rails. After completing her Software Engineering degree (BESc) from the University of Western Ontario, she started working full-time on the Partner Engineering team and was responsible for building Shopify apps which integrated with other services like Quickbooks, Xero, and Postmates. She would eventually work on extracting software used by Shopify Partners (digital agencies helping Shopify enterprise merchants scale) out of Shopify Core and rebuilding it from the ground up using ElasticSearch, Kafka, Ruby on Rails, and Shopify API.

Developing a Growth Mindset

As Shopify has scaled over the years, its invested in creating better documentation for developers and opportunities to grow within their role or outside of it. For Kirsten, the ability to explore different teams and take on new challenges has been a pivotal part of her journey here. Additionally, the more experience and knowledge she’s gained, she’s taken on a wider range of responsibility. “I started out being fed bite-sized tasks, which I could only complete with lots of help. Now I’m at the point where I’m helping to scope out work for entire projects, break it down into actionable tasks, and delegate and assist in the implementation.”


Project Context Gathering and Sharing Past Learnings of Her Work

Shopify is such a fast-paced environment that new projects are constantly popping up, leaving room for new challenges. For Kirsten, this meant she could work with and learn from a wide range of teams and people. “I’ve had the pleasure of working on four very different teams since joining Shopify as an intern. My roles ranged from working on internal tools, to building web apps used by our partner ecosystem, and to my current role on as a backend developer on the Kit team.” As Shopify continues to hire new people and she’s become more experienced, she’s taken all her knowledge and experience from the past to educate new members on her team about being a developer at Shopify and thinking through difficult problems.

Thinking through Difficult Projects

Kirsten has worked on several challenging products in her time at Shopify, and shares some of the methods she uses to gather knowledge and problem solve.

Whiteboarding

When thinking about complex systems, Kirsten likes writing out everything on a whiteboard to help draw out the various components and how they interact with each other. It allows you to move quickly, as you can easily try things out and erase them if they don't end up panning out.

Taking a Mental Break

Taking a break like going for a walk or resting, allows Kirsten to give her brain a rest and think more clearly. After all, she believes that her best ideas often come when she least expects it.

Writing It Down

Kirsten believes writing her thoughts down or explaining them to another person forces her to think through a problem more clearly. It also helps to ensure that everyone working on the task at hand has the same understanding of it before proceeding.

Solving Problems at Scale

Kirsten works closely with the Data Engineering team to generate a high volume of recommendations in real time and deliver it to our merchants through Kit, or the marketing section in the admin. Architecting a system that can handle the current load, and also scale to the future was one of the most recent problems she worked on. “It's very rare that we as software developers get an opportunity to build a system from scratch, much less one that we already have a really good product context on. While the problem that needed to be solved was technically challenging, we had all the product information we needed, and access to experts in almost every technology here at Shopify.”  

This feature is built using Go and Ruby, which comes with its own challenges but Kirsten likes working with a statically typed environment within an IDE. “It’s so different from Ruby, but it’s interesting learning about how to implement parallelism in Go, and how explicit its error handling is.” While learning Go is that she found that once she had learned one programming language, mastering a second became a seamless endeavour.

The Importance of Mentorship

When it comes to mentorship, Kirsten mentions how fortunate she’s been to have found many great mentors over the course of her career. She was also one of the few employees chosen for the pilot program with Everwise, a mentorship program connecting people with personal connections to help them succeed. “For the Everwise program, my mentor was a Director of Engineering at a supply chain and inventory software company. We would meet bi-weekly to discuss things like career planning, problem-solving, and she would share her vast experience with me. Working with someone in a senior position at a different company helped open my eyes to how universal some of my problems were, and she really helped me to work through many of them.” Seeing how impactful mentorship has been for her growth, Kirsten also tries to pay it forward spending time pair programming with junior developers, and she runs a bi-weekly meetup for female developers in the Shopify San Francisco office. It’s a safe space to discuss issues surrounding their career growth.

Difficulties She’s Faced Within The Tech Community

While she’s been lucky enough to work with many great mentors, some of the challenges she’s faced are the lack of technical women in leadership positions, making it challenging to find mentors with similar experiences and insights on navigating a career in tech. She’s also encountered instances of ignorance when interacting with other developers within the industry. “Countless people have said things to me about not looking like a software developer, or casually ask if I’m lost when attending an external developer event. While some may be well-intentioned, the result is that it makes me feel excluded and frustrated.” This prevalent issue within the industry that several other female Shopify developers have experienced. “In situations like this, it's always hard to react positively, since it makes me feel frustrated. But it always motivates me to work even harder and share my technical accomplishments (by speaking at conferences and writing blog posts) so that people get used to seeing women in positions of technical expertise.”

The Importance of Employee Resource Groups

She's the co-chair of f(empower), our Employee Resource Group (ERG) for women at Shopify. The group works with teams across the business and creates events and programming including panels and workshops; with the internal diversity and inclusion team to ensure fair hiring practices; and increasing awareness about the importance of ERG’s in the company.  “I think it helps raise visibility around the less obvious forms of sexism that are still prevalent in the workplace (bias, microaggressions) especially to those who might otherwise not think about them.” The ERG is open to all employees of Shopify and allows a safe space to vocalize their experiences and difficulties that women in tech face. “It has given me a sense of community, where we can come together to discuss challenges that are unique to being a woman in a male-dominated field. It also has given me an avenue to be a part of ensuring that our culture is as inclusive and diverse as possible for everyone.”

Best career advice you’ve received?

“Question everything. It’s easy to assume while you’re starting out that everyone else knows better than you. If something seems off to you, there will be one of two outcomes that can happen if you question it: It is, in fact, wrong, and everyone else was too close to the problem to be able to see it, or it isn’t wrong and it’s an opportunity for rapid learning for you.”


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