From Aerospace to Computer Engineering: How DigitalOcean’s Carolyn Mason Changed Her Career to Work for Her
Advice on Shifting to Engineering & Remote Work
You know those people who go to college 100% sure of what they want to study, then graduate 100% sure of what they want to do for work? That was Carolyn Mason. Until it wasn't.
Carolyn graduated from the University of Colorado Boulder with a degree in aerospace engineering and went directly to work as a propulsion systems analyst.
"I was doing exactly what I thought I wanted," she says. "I was working on jet engines, doing thermal design and analysis."
But a few years in, something didn't feel quite right.
"The culture wasn't great for me," shares Carolyn. "The work was a little bit slower and projects took a longer time; it's just the nature of how they work. And because a lot of the work we were doing was very sensitive, that added extra hurdles to things like even getting software updated."
On the work front, Carolyn knew she was ready to make a move. And on the personal front, she was building out a van with the intention of living in it and traveling. She knew she wanted a meaningful engineering role that would give her the freedom to work remotely and explore. Enter DigitalOcean.
Preparing to make a change
Carolyn is now a performance engineer at cloud computing company DigitalOcean, but her transition wasn't immediate.
When Carolyn decided she wanted to consider a new role, she started out by taking online classes on data science and software engineering to build up her relevant skills. She connected with a friend of hers who had just finished a master's in network engineering and asked for reading recommendations and homework. She set herself up on personal projects to practice what she was learning. And she read about software, companies she thought she might want to work for, and job openings.
Carolyn knew she wanted a remote job and found PowerToFly's remote job board. "There are quite a few different remote job boards on the internet, but PowerToFly is what I kept going back to," she says. She started attending PowerToFly events, including a virtual one hosted by DigitalOcean, and decided to apply.
After a year of taking classes and six months of preparing to enter the job market, she accepted an offer from DigitalOcean and joined their performance engineering team, where she now works to manage and maintain DO's cloud services. Her current project is building a tool to aggregate alerts and see over time how healthy DO's systems are, with more insight into incidents and trends.
Carolyn has one simple piece of advice for other engineers looking to make a transition to another field: "Start learning as much as you can." She says the most important skills she uses across disciplines are good problem-solving and good engineering practices, and that everything else, from new coding languages to specific tools and applications, can be learned as long as there's that solid base in place.
Taking work on the road—literally
Carolyn thought she'd like a role in software engineering, particularly for a remote company. It turns out that she loves it.
We talked to Carolyn from her van, which she's fully kitted out, complete with three bikes that she takes out on breaks during the day or on longer trips after she's done with work. The remote nature of her work allows her to pursue the lifestyle she prefers while letting her build a career, be part of a team, and pursue meaningful work, too—and to do so even more efficiently than working in an office.
"I'm not blocked on anything, really ever, for more than an hour," says Carolyn. "In previous roles, sometimes it would actually be weeks of not getting support on whatever it was. I've been really, really happy with how DigitalOcean is set up."
That set-up includes DO's IT support ("they're very responsive," says Carolyn), remote work setup (DO sent Carolyn all the tech she needed, including a monitor, laptop, and headphones), her team's availability to answer questions pretty much whenever ("I feel like I've had a much easier time asking questions as a more junior engineer because everyone's available all at once; I don't have to go wander to someone's desk and see if they're there"), her interactions with managers ("both my manager and my manager's manager have been very, very supportive"), and the fact that none of her meetings require her to book available conference rooms.
Carolyn has also enjoyed DO's focus on empowering employees, including via their "Shark-Hack" week, where engineers are given a week off from their regular work (and regular meetings) to explore personal projects, which they can then present to the whole company. Carolyn joined her first one only a week after joining and worked on a project on droplet fingerprinting. She shares an overview: "Essentially what we were doing was to see if without knowing what was running on customer machines, whether we could classify what resources they're using, so we could down the road pair droplets who need different resources. This one could be very CPU intensive and that one could be very network intensive, but if you had one hypervisor where it was all very CPU intensive, then they don't share as well. So in classifying sets of droplets, you can pair them and just get better performance."
Changing career fields wasn't without its challenges—Carolyn says her first few months were spent "taking a lot of notes on everything in a growing Google doc of things to go back and reference"—but her drive to learn and her team's generous support made it easy to work out any kinks and get fully up to speed.
"Because everyone's working in different time zones, it's more about getting your work done than sitting somewhere for 40 hours," says Carolyn. "That has been a really good mental transition for me. And I feel more ownership for the work I'm doing."
If you're interested in a role (including many remote ones) at DigitalOcean, check out their PowertoFly hub here, which also includes information on upcoming virtual events.