Alumni Q&A: Katie Clay on Bridging the Gap Between Software Engineers and Customers
Based on a February 2021 interview
BYU, B.S. Mathematics, 2016
Symbiont.io, Solutions Engineer
- There’s a need for people who can fill the gap between technical engineers and their non-technical clients.
- Get comfortable with discomfort and don’t be afraid of looking dumb.
- Rely on and learn from your peers.
Orson: Tell us about yourself.
Katie: I started ACME in 2015, knowing full well that I didn’t necessarily want to be a pure mathematician for the rest of my life. I love working with people, which led me to intern then later work full-time with Fast Enterprises as an Implementation Consultant, and now at a startup called Symbiont as a Solutions Engineer. My roles have largely been hybrids of technical and client-facing work, which I really enjoy. I’ve discovered there was more opportunity outside of “data science at Google/Apple/Microsoft/etc.” than I ever knew about when starting ACME, and it’s been a lot of fun working on these different types of problems.
Orson: What do you mean by “technical” and “client-facing?”
Katie: There’s an interesting niche in the intersection of developers (the “technical” side) and the clients they’re delivering products to (the “client-facing” side) that historically has a harder time getting filled; many technical people don’t want to deal with customers and many customers don’t understand much technical jargon. At Fast Enterprises, the overall job was to gather requirements directly from our clients, then fix/build to those requirements. A lot of that first step required more insight than taking everything at face value: was what they were asking for really what they needed? Was there something else I could give them that would better address the problem? Often it included communicating technical details in a way they could understand (“We can’t make it work that way because X, but we can give you Y instead”).
As a Solutions Engineer at Symbiont, I’m mainly focused on the deployment of our product, which includes, again, gathering requirements, pushing back where necessary, but then also talking to the software engineers and product managers about changes we’re going to need for this product to be better usable by our clients. It involves writing documentation and training clients on how parts of our product work in a way they understand while abstracting away things that will confuse or distract from the main point.
All that to say: there’s an often forgotten but very important space between technical and non-technical people, and my job is to bridge it.
Orson: How did you stumble your way into ACME?
Katie: In high school, my two greatest interests were music and math. I started BYU as a Music Education major, wanting to teach high school chorus. I soon realized that if I worked in music, I would most likely never do Math again, but if I studied Math, I was much more likely to have it both ways. I changed my major to Math Education because I had no idea what other possibilities were out there for mathematicians. I left on my mission and when I came back, I saw ads for ACME all around the Talmage building and thought it looked way cooler than what I was doing (and had another realization that if I wanted to teach math, I would be doing homework for the rest of my career!). I attended an info session, talked to the professors, and that was that.
Orson: Bringing this back around, how did ACME prepare you for your “hybrid” career?
Katie: First and foremost, ACME introduced me to the wide world of what you could do with Math and Computer Science besides just being a teacher. Even though it still didn’t give me all of the vocab I needed for my specific interests (“I want to be a… I don’t know… like a sort of a math-y translator?”), it showed me that the set of job opportunities was much larger than I previously thought.
Second, having Math on your resume in tandem with Computer Science is a gold star. A lot of companies responded to my applications even though I didn’t have every qualification they were looking for simply because I had Math on my resume. It’s a great way to set yourself apart from lots of applicants who only have a Computer Science background. Even in other fields, it still sets you apart as someone who can think, problem solve, and work hard.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it got me “comfortable” with being completely out of my depth. I’ll be the first to admit that I was toward the bottom end of our class. The homework was overwhelmingly hard and I was surrounded with classmates who are infinitely smarter than I am, but I loved getting to learn from the best of the best, which I wouldn’t have done any other way. And that’s not been the last time! Most of my coworkers at Symbiont have PhDs or have started their own successful companies or have decades of work experience; it’s easy to feel small in comparison, but at the same time, I get to learn from brilliant, extremely talented people! ACME got me comfortable with discomfort, and I’m a lot less afraid to look stupid because, hey, I’ve done it before! Besides, any time I’ve had to work a longer workday post-ACME, it feels like nothing compared to those hours we pulled at school, so that’s a plus.
Orson: How did you balance the demanding course workload with looking forward to job prospects?
Katie: I would do as much homework as I could while my classmates were still around on campus and would work on job stuff after that as necessary. I just had to block time to prepare for job searching, even if it meant sometimes taking a lower grade on homework for that night or two. Luckily, it came and went in waves; the STEM fair was big, and internship recruiting is pretty seasonal. I spent hours the nights leading up to the STEM fair perfecting my resume, perusing the attending companies, trying to find which of them had jobs that I would be interested in, then researching the heck out of those companies. Fast Enterprises was one of those companies, so it paid off! It helps to remember that school is a means to an end. You go to school to prepare you for work, but that can’t happen if you’ve got school-only blinders on.
Orson: Lastly, what advice do you have for ACME students going through the program?
Katie: Lean on your classmates. Even if you’re a whiz and the coursework is easy for you, the professional world is entirely collaborative, and working with your classmates is fantastic preparation for that. If you’re not a whiz, like me, working with my classmates and asking them my dumb questions was the only thing that got me through. Plus, you’ll make some great trial-by-fire friends! Overall, it’s excellent prep for any demanding real-world task by forcing you to go through something super hard, so you’d might as well enjoy it as much as you can with the people you’re with.