The Women of DevOps: Carmen Saenz
The Women of DevOps: Carmen Saenz. Not only is she an amazing DevOps engineer, but she's also a PhD student.
Welcome to Women of DevOps, Episode Four! Today’s guest is Carmen Saenz, and she’s by far one of the most interesting people I’ve talked to. Not just for the DevOps part - she’s just all around amazing. You’ll see that especially when we get to her current education path. Don’t worry, it’s still in tech - and it’ll help a lot of people.
I actually got to know of Carmen through Leigh, our third Women of DevOps interviewee, who worked with her at PEAK6. Super thankful we met, and I hope we get to highlight her again in other ways.
Can’t wait for you to listen to the podcast, so I’ll stop rambling on now!
‘Til next time,
The Women of DevOps, Ep. 4
Can’t listen to the audio? Read on below for a transcript of our conversation.
Rox: Hey everybody, thank you for joining us for Women of DevOps, Episode Four! Today, we have Carmen. I'm very excited because Carmen is actually a recommendation from Leigh, who was our previous Women of DevOps interviewee. Very excited. Carmen, could you tell us a little bit more about yourself, please?
Carmen: Sure! I just want to say I'm excited to be here. For the sake of the audience, Leigh and I used to work together. It was cool, because she was the first other female DevOps engineer that I had met. I hadn’t actually met another one until now. Just wanted to throw that out there for background.
I'm Carmen Saenz. I am based in Chicago, Illinois. I currently work for PEAK6, and I've been working in the finance industry for 12 out of 13 years. One of the years I worked at Jellyvision, which was super awesome to get a different perspective on things. That's where I'm at with work. I am currently also a PhD student at DePaul University in my third year, and it's obviously in computer science, with an emphasis on sign language.
Rox: Leigh actually mentioned that there was a heavy machine learning undertone to that.
Carmen: Yeah, there is, definitely. We're trying to do machine learning in taking motion capture of different sign languages. There's actually more than one - a lot of people don't know that there's no universal sign language - well, there is, but it's not really used.
We're taking each different sign language - French, Mexican, Greek, Swiss German is different from German - and we're getting motion capture data and doing machine learning to have an avatar mimic, even down to the facial expressions. It's pretty cool.
Rox: Wow, that is really cool. Fair to say that once that is all done and over with, it will effectively end your career now (in DevOps)? [laughs]
Carmen: I mean, who knows to be honest? It's weird, because I think a lot of people say there's always one trajectory in your career. I feel like you could have multiple trajectories because of what you like, and I always loved teaching. I started teaching at my alma mater, which is Loyola, teaching undergrad and graduate students - I did it for five years, and I love giving back to places that helped me become who I am. That's why I went back to my alma mater - because there was that whole “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
I'm like, “There's not enough brown professors in computer science specifically. I'm gonna go back and be that voice, be that change I want to see in the department.” That's why I did the academic thing, then that turned into, “I want a PhD in something that I really care about.” I decided sign language.
I had a friend - he recently passed - who was deaf. He worked with me at my first job as a DevOps engineer. He was a software engineer. I learned sign language to try to communicate with him better with a group of other coworkers. That got me into that whole sign language thing. So I found my other niche in academia and sign language.
Rox: If that's not a calling, I don't know what it is. That is exciting to see. How many years do you have left?
Carmen: A lot. [laughs] I'm in my third year and my goal is to finish within five or six. But I mean, it really is whatever higher power, if you believe in one, whatever happens happens. Life happens, so maybe I might have to do 10 years, maybe I'll finish in five. But my goal is five or six years.
Rox: So currently with being in DevOps, what's your area of expertise? Since it's so overarching, there's so many areas you can specialize in. What do you like the best?
Carmen: It's a blessing and a curse, being a DevOps engineer. There's so many things you grab. I like the automation of infrastructure - creation of infrastructure - and creating resilience, like autoscaling and reliability. I like being an architect. They say this is our plan for now, but then you have to leave some leeway for the future, so it's kind of open-ended, right? I want to create scalable and reliable infrastructure. Infrastructure as code is Terraform, Ansible, and Kubernetes obviously, but also at the same time, being able to leave that room so that we can continue the architecture of growth. The product will always change depending on how popular you get. I love working in the automation of our infrastructure and being able to create new customer infrastructure each and every time.
Rox: I can tell you're really passionate about it, it's so cool to see.
Carmen: Oh, I love it. [laughs]
Rox: So with the path that you're choosing - I ask this question for everybody, and it might sound weird to you, but - what's your take on education, especially in the tech sector? Do you believe that those four year degrees are the way, or do you think bootcamps can be enough, and self-learning can be enough? To you, what do you feel the ideal path is?
Carmen: I don't think there is an ideal path. Sometimes it's like, you just get into a place, right? I didn't know I was going to be in academia and be in industry at the same time. It just so happened because I had another passion. If you think about when you go back to school 20 years ago and being a Latina, growing up without the same means as other people, the receipts had to be there, right? So in my mind, and the way that I was raised 20 years ago - there were no bootcamps, there was no Facebook, there was none of that. There was no LinkedIn or Lynda, right? We didn't really have that. Your only alternative was to go to a community college for your first two years, and maybe go to a four-year.
If you feel like you're lacking in certain areas - let's say you do to go to a bootcamp, but your job’s gonna pay for you to get that basic computer science foundation, or even do a Lynda, or another thing online where you can get one of those small certificates saying you have the foundations of computer science, I think that's totally valid now. If I was going to school in this day and age, I would do a two-year community college and then go do a bootcamp or vice versa. I think that there's no one path. There's multiple paths.
Rox: Yeah, that's perfect. I will say, when I was 17, which is - oh god, almost two decades ago now - I remember buying books to learn HTML and CSS. I know the feeling of there not being anything else. That was pretty much all you had if you wanted to learn.
Carmen: You kind of had no choice. You would pick up Windows for Dummies and that was it, right? That's all you had. Encyclopedias were CDs back then, you couldn't go search for wiki. [laughs]
Rox: I'm so thankful technology has risen so much.
Carmen: Oh yeah, me too. Definitely.
Rox: If you could go back and do it all over again, what would you change, if anything? What advice would you give your younger self in regards to your career?
Carmen: Take more risks.
Carmen: Yeah! I didn't take risks. A lot of the decisions I made, like what college I went to and what industry I went into, were based on the need of taking my family out of the situation we were in monetarily - to be somewhere better. I didn't really choose finance, it kind of happened - thankfully, it just happened. I got really lucky that it happened at the time where, in the early 2000s, things were popping. The work I did was so fruitful and so engaging, but at the same time, I was making a good amount of money to even support my two siblings to go to private school. So I made decisions based on the needs of my family and not the need of taking risks and learning.
I think if I went to a startup and roughed it out, my path would have been completely different. I could have had more impact in the sense that I would have been hit with so many more different technologies, and I would have learned quicker and I would have had a principal architect role already at this point because I would have had to learn to make the startup be fruitful, right? As opposed, I had the stereotypical path. It's kind of like when you work at IBM, you do your path, and then you get a raise after two years, and then they move you up in title. That was the path I took. I took the more traditional path, but I wish I took more risk. Take more risks. I think if you're young and you can, take more risks.
Rox: That is some of the best advice I've heard. So what actually drew you to tech then?
What ignited that passion for you?
Carmen: I've always told this story, because computers were - I mean, they're still expensive, but they were hella expensive. Back in the 90s, you were considered rich if you had one, right?
For my first computer, my mom didn't make a car payment and got a used Gateway with 5GB of hard drive space. It wasn't even a Pentium Two or Pentium One. It was like 486k, whatever before the Pentium was - I don't remember. That was my computer. My mom's like, “You're not getting a new one, so either we win the lottery or you come into some money or something. And you're gonna have to learn how to fix it.” So I was kind of forced to fix it and upgrade it. How do I upgrade a hard drive, how do I do ram? How do I tinker? And, how do I make my computer more optimized? Windows for Dummies was my thing, you know? The necessity actually taught me how to fix computers physically, but also software-wise. It was literally the need, knowing I may not get another one.
I did get another one, thank god, because I had a quinceanera - I had a cotillion, kinda like a sweet sixteen. With the money that I got from my quinceanera, I actually bought another one in high school, but even then my mom's like, “Okay, so you got lucky, you got a new computer, but you need to learn how to fix this one.” I had that one until my sophomore year of college. So from 15 to 19-20, I had that one.
Rox: Wow. I remember our first computer as a family that we got was like 533 megahertz. [laughs]
Carmen: And it always was in the family room, right? Everybody had to use it in the family room.
Rox: Yup! Can't go hogging it. I remember that. What has your experience been like, as a woman in tech?
Carmen: It changes with the time and that's just like with everything, right? I went to an all-girl high school in the southside of Chicago, and then I went to a college in a major where I was probably - almost 98% - the only female in class. I went from an all-girls school where we were all killing it, right? AP calc, AP stats, AP whatever you want to call it, you were killing it, right? Those are my sisters. And then I went to this major where I was usually the only female and it was awkward. Everyone's socioeconomic status was way the hell higher than they were in my high school. We were urban high school so everyone was pretty much working class. So that was different.
In the work structure, I've had some things come up where I've had a manager not direct questions to me even though I was the one working on their problem. I had to tell my manager and my coworker, “Does this person know I'm handling their problem? I told him that.” When my manager noticed that, he called it out. I've always had allies in areas where they noticed that I'm not getting that proper treatment, right? Like, “Hey, she's working on your stuff.” So it has happened a handful of times within the 12 years, but I cannot say that you should let that - you should take that in and learn how to work with that situation and make sure you reach out to your allies, whoever they are at your job. Make sure that they know.
It's been a great ride though. I think I've gotten lucky in many ways where I've had very helpful coworkers and a lot of mentors. There weren't a lot of female mentors in the upper echelons at the time when I started, but I had really great male mentors and nonbinary mentors. Now, I have more female mentors 13 years later. It's been great. I think it's been a great journey. There are pockets where you feel like, “Why is this happening?” But those are the ones where you learn that you have allies. Look for the people who are willing to push you up.
Rox: Do you find that just generally speaking, you've had to work a bit harder than your male counterparts to be taken as seriously?
Carmen: I don't know if there was a reason in the sense of something being done or said for me to do it. But as a woman and as a Latina, and as a person that is part of the LGBTQ community, I feel like I have three strikes against me sometimes, even though it's not blatantly there. It's probably that inner turmoil of yours, right? You're self aware and you feel that you have to always prove that you are better than your male counterparts. I don't think that there was a situation that made me say, “I need to prove that I'm better than this person,” I think it's always an inner thing because of the way that I grew up that I always had to show that I can do what I can do.
So I don't think necessarily it's because of a situation, it was just because I recognize that where I was at in my life in certain situations, I always had to do it. And it just stuck with me and it just became a part of me, you know? Is that a good thing? [laughs] Maybe it is a good thing. I don't know. But I know that whatever I do, do I always do 110% and I do get recognized for that work. If I didn't, then that would be problematic, I think.
Rox: Oh yeah. If you don't get the recognition, that just kills whatever drive you have. I would view it as a good thing. If it's really making you give your all in everything you do, that's always a good thing. Motivations be damned. It's a good thing.
Carmen: Yeah. Especially at work, right? I'm sure because you like what you're doing, you're like, “I'm gonna give my 110% because I'm like that.” It's not because you have to prove that you're better, but it's because you like it.
Carmen: And if by default, someone thinks you're better than someone else that's not your fault! [laughs]
Rox: Do you have any advice for other women who are looking to start a career in tech? You kind of started looking into it, you're getting your feet wet, you're interested, but some things are scaring you about it. What's your advice to them?
Carmen: Well it’s like you said Roxanne, computer science as a field is hella huge. DevOps itself, even though it's a niche within computer science, that also is hella huge. I think that just because you can't figure out how Fibonacci sequences work doesn't mean you shouldn't go into computer science - like, you don't need to know how the towers of Hanoi works and recursion works. That's literally not what you're going to do in computer science at work [referring to towers of Hanoi]. Maybe you'll do more frontend, which means that you have to be more visually alert.
Basic coding doesn't have you do towers of Hanoi. You cannot give up on a subject just because the foundation seems super hard. Not every computer scientist took AP calc and got an A. It's okay if you suck at math, it's okay if you suck at certain sciences. Computer science is so overarching, you shouldn't give up on it. You just need to find your niche within it. If you really love tech, you'll find your niche. It'll take some time, but you'll find it. So don't give up.
Rox: I really have to commiserate with the whole Fibonacci sequence thing because I have seen that done as a DevOps test in the interview process way too often. And it's like, when are you actually going to use that in real life? Make it practical, not just these things that you're actually never going to get anything out of it. It's so weird.
Carmen: #thatstrash. #DevOpspeopledontdoit. And people are gonna hate me for saying hashtag like that. But seriously, DevOps people don't do that. Give them a Terraform test. Or, here's a VM. There's a Postgres database on that. Figure out why - disable admin. I don't know, you can think of many other tests for your DevOps area than Fibonacci. No DevOps person is ever gonna use that, right?
Rox: Never. [laughs]
Carmen: Exactly. I know you notice that we get some bogus tests as DevOps engineers that have nothing to do with what we do day to day.
Rox: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. My partner is actually a DevOps engineer, so I've seen him through the years - when he gets a job interview, he’s like, “I don't get it. I don't know why they keep doing this.”
Carmen: How is this relevant? That's kind of bogus as hell in the sense of, they don't teach DevOps in college. DevOps is literally picked up as you go along in industry. Giving tests like that also throw away people from bootcamps because they may not teach them the basic computer science recursion foundation in the sense of - everyone’s heard of towers of Hanoi if you have a two or four-year degree, but that doesn't necessarily mean that you'll have heard of towers of Hanoi if you went to a bootcamp. I don't know many people that do. So I think that also gets rid of a huge group of people that may be really good at their job. But they have this test that is not helpful in what they're looking for.
Rox: Yeah. And honestly, I don't even know a single bootcamp that offers a DevOps course, because it is so complicated. Your average bootcamp will last, what, three months? There's just not enough time to go over every area of DevOps like that. That needs to be a thing.
Carmen: Yeah. Like I mentioned, that's why I don't think a four-year degree is gonna save you if you want to be a DevOps engineer. DevOps is picked up by Udemy courses and random things that you do at work. That's why the traditional stuff may not even be a thing. If you want to do that, there are always ways to get to different avenues of computer science.
Rox: Yeah, there's so many paths. This is a very broad question and you might hate me, but what's your favorite project you've ever gotten to work on, and why?
Carmen: Oh man… I was thinking about this, because I figured it would be a question. There was this one project I did a while back where I had to maintain, but also create some changes in a frontend - this was like 2010 - it was Java Swing. Think of that as a GUI. We're using Java Swing to create a GUI. This GUI was created by my manager at the time and then I had to maintain it and add more to it. This GUI - what it did was, it would interact with our databases, but only via procedures and via login through MySQL Server. So whatever you were in a group and you would run with this frontend, you would do a search, it would do a procedure. You couldn't do SELECT statements. And it limited you in that way, for then you won't bog on the database.
I'm not a GUI expert, so that was really interesting to work on because I had to continuously update and maintain this Java Swing GUI. I knew Java, but GUIs weren’t my thing. I was only three years out of school so it was a learning experience, but I was proud because it was something that I visually saw people use. Usually, as a backend engineer and a DevOps engineer, you don't see people use your things because it's all backend or hidden. But this was the first frontend thing that I did, and I liked seeing people use it. If there was something wrong with it, I would fix it right away because I felt part in it. I didn't create the thing, but I maintained it and gave it that love.
Rox: Oh, that's so cool. One of our interviewees, Patricia - she was the second Women of DevOps - she told me that her favorite project was when she got to put an actual product on the AWS marketplace. So that seems to be a thing, people are just really excited when they actually see people using the thing.
Carmen: Yeah, actually, her last name starts with an A, correct?
Carmen: I heard her interview. So when she said that, I was like, “Yeah, that’s a great feeling!”
Rox: For sure! Is there anything exciting coming down the pipeline for you, barring the education stuff? Is there anything else, like a certification, mentorship, speaking engagement, anything cool, that's going to further your mark in tech?
Carmen: There's a couple things that I do. So I'm part of this group called TECHNOLOchicas that has led a lot of Latinas in the tech community. I belong to part of their Whatsapp group and they usually say, “Hey, we need speakers for this or speakers for that.” I try to volunteer as much as I can. I'm hoping that they picked me to give a panel discussion in pure Spanish. I'm hoping they picked me so if they do, I'll send you a link to it just to say, hey, it was completed, but I might have that down the pipeline. [Spoiler alert: they totally picked her! Here’s a link to the panel at the time Carmen speaks] Anyone who really wants to join groups like that there's TECHNOLOchicas, which is great. There's a lot of great groups out there and I love that I get to engage with the Latina-Latino community through TECHNOLOchicas.
Rox: That's awesome. And last question! Is there anything else you'd like to share? Perhaps a word of encouragement to fellow women in tech?
Carmen: Yes, you can. Sí se puedes. Whatever you're going through, cry it out, dance it out like in Grey's Anatomy, whatever you need to do. Just keep going forward. If this is really your passion, no matter how much the science bogs you down, or how much the area grouping of (sometimes) all men gets kind of crazy, you can get through it. There's always people that are helping to push you up and see you achieve greatness. So keep going. Sí se puedes.
Rox: Awesome. Thank you so much for spending half an hour with us. So good.
Carmen: Thank you!
Want to be our next Women of DevOps? Email me and we'll talk!