Getting Real with Darla Ahlert

Darla Ahlert is active in the tattoo, bowling, computer science, and kazoo communities. In this episode Darla tells us about her journey to choosing software development, how she has setup her prototype currently around consulting, and how she is growing and learning with her teams to pursue culture, brilliance, and equity.


Today we welcome a special guest Darla Ahlert. Darla is known in the tattoo community, the running community, the software development community. Yes.

I was thinking that you were going to go the kazoo route.

Well, it was bill actually forgot while we're on the topic though. Here's Darla and her kazoo band doing a cover of the friends theme song. I'll be there for you. So as we've alluded to Darla is a woman of many talents. She has degrees in computer science and math. She's done master's degree work. She is a bowler. She did bowling in college or through college rather, and she is in a kazoo band. So really interested in how Darla you sifted through all the stuff on the show. We talk about it in terms of archetypes and prototypes, you have all of these different talents. How does you start to think about that and piece together that you wanted to be a software engineer, a computer science and put that together and how you're working on your current prototype and how your skills are currently coming together?

Yeah, so it's basically started in high school. Well even, probably a little bit before that, but in high school, I remember with like, you know, my space saying, ah, all those amazing websites that I have nostalgia for. I would just like go in and mess with HTML just to like make the page look like how I wanted it to or whatever changed colors, do really simple things. I didn't really know what I was doing, but I was just like, this thing makes this thing change and kind of figuring that out. I had a high school teacher actually point me in the direction of computer science because you know, I was always very, very much on my computer all the time. And she talked to me about computer science and she was like, okay, sure. Why not? Cause you know, in high school you have to like make some big life decision about what you want to do for the rest of your life and choose what major you want and you're, and you're like, what?

And so, you know, I could've gone a lot of different routes I think. And her kind of pushing me in the direction of computer science was just like the thing that did it. I took a class my very first semester in college and that professor was like, you don't really think you should stick with it. Like if you enjoy it at all. And I did. And so here we are. You know, I obviously went a bit further. I did get math and computer science because math was always something that I really enjoyed as well. And then before graduating from undergrad, I couldn't figure out if I wanted to do my grad school or just go straight into the world. And eventually basically decided that I might as well get a master's because it'll allow me to learn, I got to do a little bit more research based type stuff. And it allowed me to kind of utilize both my math and computer science degrees. And then, yeah, and then I just went on to, I worked for 18 T for a couple of years as a developer there. And then I'm at sorghum now as a developer. And yeah,

It's interesting to hear how you took all your education and pieced it together through your experience to kind of come out the other side. So you enter the computer science space more specifically the software development space, but then it's not an individual sport anymore. It's a team sport and we do a lot of working groups. How did you, how did that fare, how did you do once you got out of this kind of solo learning and into more of a team environment?

Yeah, I think you know, you mentioned my bolused skills. I think that growing up as a bowler and I literally started bullying, which was, is it tends to be an individual sport a lot as well, but you know, I, I bold Saturday morning league basically since I was, I don't know, since I could walk. And you're on a team when you're bowling league. And I think that like having that background and just going through and being a part of a team sport and kind of growing up into that as I moved on to middle school and got more competitive and then went to high school and got very competitive as part of a team. And then of course, like I went to college on a bowling scholarship and like, this is all part of this like team thing. And I think that really gave me an upper hand to being able to transition from, you know, this individual research individual project based work to a workforce that you're working with, people needing to collaborate with people. So I think for me the transition wasn't too bad because I had that background of being part of a team already, even just in a different context.

And then as a bowler, do you have any opinion of the big Lebowski sequel if it should happen or not?

I've never seen the first one. I'm sorry.

So it's interesting as you, you move from forming your recipe or your prototype in school and coming out, you mentioned, you know, working at a corporation and then you move into consulting, which has so much of an agile mindset. And for those that don't work on agile team, it's much more multidisciplinary and self-starting you're, you're making the team together and there's not as many leaders as everybody's leaning in. How did that go? What, what was that?

It's kind of crazy because whenever, when I was at, at and T it was like an agile world and I'm using the quotes on purpose. And then I, you know, I came to som, which is actually a lot more legitimately agile and being on my first team, I didn't fully grasp the whole self forming teams thing. Because I was at, at and T it was just like, go do this thing. Like, it was very much a you're being told what to do. You're being told what stories to take. You're being told, basically everything. And I don't want to like dig on at and T it's just how they do things. And when I was on my first project at slalom, it was a whole new world in a lot of different ways because I had never been a consultant before. So I didn't really fully grasp that.

I was working on a project that had all new technologies that I had never worked on before. And I was working with four other people that I'd never worked with before. So it was just like a lot all at once. And I think that honestly, like for me, I just kind of sat back and let other people take the driver's seat because it, it was such a w like drinking from a fire hose type of situation that I was just like, okay, I'm just going to hope to absorb as much as possible and then go from there. And I think it kind of just naturally happened. And I don't know if like people, you know, doing the self forming teams kind of naturally happened. I know that there were a lot of people that I was working with were very amazing people and very amazing individuals.

And I think that they really kind of showed me the way and, and just started taking things on. And I think that helped me kind of in a roundabout way, just like see that happen and then made me realize that I can also do that myself. And I think that's kind of what that was like for me, at least at the beginning. And now it's like, I don't know. I feel like it just kind of naturally falls into place. I feel like it's somewhat easy for me to just kind of do what seems like I should do. I don't know. I don't know. I think my challenge to myself would be to try to start pushing the edges of what I tend to fall into, because I think that is where I'm really gonna start growing

Progressed to this point where you're not only working out your prototype and, and tweaking stuff here, you're doing it with other people while they're working out their prototypes. And then you're doing it in this very dynamic setting with agile and things like that, where people are even not only making their prototypes, but making their roles on the team and, and really somewhat organically bringing their different skills to bear. And then you talked about a really interesting thing is finding the edges of that. And I think that's really relevant to our prototype conversation because not only if you're growing, because you maybe getting a little bored or you want to stretch yourself, or you need to grow rescaling for, you're still coming into your own, you know, after school, wherever you're at in your growth cycle, to be able to find these edges is super important. How do you go about finding those edges

For me? It's about what seems scary. What seems like, Oh, I'm am initially turned off by that because I feel like I can't do it, or I feel like I don't know how to do it. And then maybe taking on something like that, or it's just like, Oh, my initial reaction is like, Ugh, I don't want it. Maybe I should do it.

Well, that's, that's cool. I think right off the bat though, some people might struggle with that because they may not feel safe. Right. They may not feel safe in the group they're working with. How, how do you advise people on that? Or how does that work to build safety?

Yeah, I think you know, we've had probably a lot of conversations about like psychological safety, especially with Ben Studebaker being on our team. He likes to bring it up and I think honestly, like I never really fully grasp the concept until we all had conversations about it. And I think it's so important because you can tell people like, Oh, trust me, trust me, but until you've proved that they can trust you, they're not going to not necessarily anyway. And I think for me being on a team that allows me to be vulnerable and like is vulnerable back is like one of the big keys, because I think it just shows, like, I think that the biggest thing is like the human factor. So like, are you a human? Yes. Am I human? Yes. Can we just act like humans that are going through some stuff that have insecurities that have vulnerabilities that, you know, like, I think that's a big part of it.

And so I think I really enjoy people that are open to being vulnerable and allowing us to build that relationship and build that trust. And it's, it's just, it's a hard place to be because it's not natural to be vulnerable. And it's, you know, it's just something that like, I think is super helpful in those types of situations. And then, because you're being vulnerable because you have that hopefully build that trusting relationship. You can be honest with your team and be like, Hey, I don't know if I know how to do this, but I'd like to push myself and I want to try it. And is everyone okay with that? And kind of go from there.

We started off the last question with this idea of finding the edges and then how to navigate, try new things when you may or may not feel safe. So let's go one more step forward. Then, have you talk about a time where you needed to try something new or were asked to try something new or decided to try something new? And how did that go?

I mean, I think that first project, the one that you're mentioning you know, we were on it prior to you joining and that whole experience was that team just allowing me to learn. It was all a new program language database I had never used before different types of technology that I had never used before. And I really did have to learn everything like boom like that. So essentially what happened was I was slated for a different project. I had been training and doing, studying on that types of that type of technology, which I had also not used before. And one of our managing directors came up to me and was like, Hey, I have this project. I think you'd be a good fit. It's going to be a little challenging. But like, if you're up for it, I'd love to have you on the team.

And I was like, well, heck yeah, like I'd rather have ha start building and like get experienced and then sit around and wait for a project that may or may not happen. And he's like, okay, great. We're going tomorrow. And I was like, Oh, well, I don't know any of this. And he's like, it's fine. Like, okay. And you know, the, the team obviously knew that. And I was, I was very open with our team about that. I was just like, I don't know, these technologies y'all are going to have to give me a little bit to like, get caught up and try to start taking everything in. And you know, there was, like I said, a lot of different, there's a lot of moving pieces, especially at the beginning, it was just learning. So forming teams and like a true agile type of delivery, and then also learning a new programming language and also learning how to be consultant and like all of these things, right.

It really was that fire hose. And so the, I can't command that team enough for just staying with me and like, keep it, like, just being like, Oh, here's a lifeline, let's pull her back, you know, and, and doing that probably multiple times. I remember spending hours and hours pair programming with you know, Kevin Webber and just him teaching me all the different things about the language and all the different things that he knew. And, you know, it's just stuff like that where it's just like those, those team members, 100% just kept, kept dragging me along. And then eventually I caught up and I was able to stay on top of things, but it was very much a situation where I was just like holding onto my team. Like, please, please don't leave me.

And I want to transition on that note to humor. I think that's something that we've used a lot on work together to help I've appreciated humor for much of my career. But one of the things that happened on our team that really kind of brought trust and psychological safety working together, we were at happy hour, one night. And y'all thought of a phrase that I use often. Do you remember what that phrase?

Oh Oh my God...

It wasn't supposed to be a test. Sorry.

No, no. I just it's like right here and I can't,

I had used the phrase keep in mind quite a bit. And so we were having a beer and we were talking about this. And so he was like, Oh, you sing that all the time. And I kind of started checking and you all search Slack for the phrase, keep in mind, just like rushing your lifestyle. And it killed with all of these times that I had said that in our conversation history, I think we laughed about that for like 45 minutes, just reading different things that I said. So there was just this mix of like, I trusted y'all a lot. And it was really funny. I mean, it was, it was really funny. And the times that I used it, I was really trying to encourage us to not to lose heart, you know, so there was kind of all those things mixed up in there. And that's when a time where I felt like humor, really Nelly like ease the moments that also really helped me don't trust situations like that.

Yeah. I mean, I am a naturally sarcastic person. My kind of just born and raised that way. I think for me, that's literally how making fun of each other is literally how I like show my love. You know what I mean? And if, if I'm not making fun of you, it's probably because we don't have a close enough relationship, you know? And I think that for me, that's like something that's always kind of been instilled in me. So you know, growing up, my dad was always like, Hey, make sure you're smiling. Like don't, and in, in a good way, like if more of like, if you're not having fun, you shouldn't, you should reconsider what you're doing. And not necessarily that we should be having fun constantly, but like having fun with what you're doing, having fun with the situation you're in and making sure you're laughing and smiling.

And that kind of sense. Yeah. It's always just kind of been instilled in me to like, try to have fun in situations and sometimes it's harder than others. And I think it's just really important for everybody to try to have fun and just find humor in certain situations because, you know, there are tough situations. There are tough projects, there are tough clients. And if you don't allow yourself to kind of see the humor in it or have some fun with it, you could drive yourself crazy. And I think we were really good at that. Like our team was having fun.

I want to transition to self care here, at least intentional with this, like lean into it a lot. So a story to start with this, we would like ask each other for help or be talking about something like the code or, you know, and so one time I'm just like really lost in the puzzle and I'm like, I keep asking you questions. And then I finally like to look up and I'm like talking to her, but she's not here. And we're in like a big room with lots of desks, kind of in a keep walking around and you're not there, but I can share your points. And you are continuing to talk about how I finally kind of get up and look under the table. And there you are like rolling out with cross ball to help stretch out after a run earlier in the morning. And I'm like, okay, well, now that you know, now I can sit back down, keep working now that I know where the person is, but I guess my point is, first of all, it's a funny story. Second of all, it's like how you have really sought to integrate self care and stuff like that into your normal life. Can you talk about some of your philosophy or kind of how you approach that?

I think it's extremely important for everyone to do. But I also struggle a lot with anxiety and depression. You know, I've medicated for it and it's something that I've struggled with for a while. And what I found was when, when I was younger, when I first, when I first tried to put me on medication, I had a lot of bad reactions. I was scared to be put on medication again because of the reactions I had to the other medication. I think for me at the time I was young enough to be like, Oh, well, I can't go to a therapist. Only crazy people go see therapists, you know? And so my doctor at the time was trying to be, you know, I'm a young kid. I don't understand why I'm having panic attacks. I don't really understand what a panic attack is.

I don't understand why the medication that's supposed to fix it is making it worse. I don't want to go to a therapist. So if my doctor is trying just to kind of bring me along in a nice way. And she suggested trying to get focused in, on working out, trying to kind of level out my hormones a little bit in chemicals a little bit. That way it immediately started helping me. And I pretty much have been an avid active person since then, because it does truly help level me out. And, you know, I've obviously had ups and downs since then. And we did finally find a medication that helps, which is also great, but because I want to stay on like a lower dosage. I'm trying to do things like working out like meditating, like making sure that I'm taking care of my body.

In other ways like eating right and you know, all the rolling a lacrosse ball in the middle of the day, you know, those types of things. It's just really important to me and for me to kind of stay more level. And I have had a lot of times where I've let those things fall off and I go downhill pretty quick. And because I know that about myself and because I'm aware of that and you know, I don't want to keep doing that. That's really what drives me to continue to take care of myself in whatever way I can.

Thanks for being vulnerable and sharing that. That means a lot. We've talked through this arc of starting with your prototype coming out of school, you know, getting into the groove of consulting and agile teams, working around other people that are on, you know, working on their prototypes to working as a team and all this kind of stuff. And some of that does center on skill sets. And we've talked about a lot of hard skills, a few soft skills, but then part of our prototype and part of how we're all wired differently is his personality. And one of those key things that comes out almost immediately in teams is extroversion introversion. I remember reading a book called quiet by Susan Cain. She wrote it over, I think, seven years between maternity leaves and stuff like that. She is a lawyer by training. Now she speaks on, on the book, but in quiet, she talks about the most compelling definitions and a framework of how to talk about introversion and extroversion that I've ever encountered.

It really helped me understand more about myself. And I remember a time when you and I were working together, Darla, and you received some feedback from a coworker that you needed to speak up more in meetings. I remember being a little shocked by that because you do speak up, you do talk a lot, especially about interpersonal things or in relationships, but when you speak up during meetings, it's mainly when you have a significant thought to contribute. And I was just took that as this is when I tune in. And this is when I make sure that I'm listening. If Darla is talking about this, it must be important, but that is sometimes some hard feedback to receive from people that, for example, you need to speak up more and, and that's not how everybody's wired. How do you deal with feedback? Like

It's really hard. I struggled a lot with imposter syndrome. I'm a female in a very male dominated tech industry. It's something that is, I am very aware of because when I walk into a room or go to a tech conference it's so obvious. Like I just look around and I'm like, were my ladies at no. Okay. and I think that plays a lot into it. So comments like that. Of course they hit me really hard because I'm just constantly in my own head. Especially in meetings certain meetings more than others. And it's honestly like something that I still kind of struggle with. I still am trying to figure out if that's even right. You know what I mean? Because I feel like that's such an old school way of thinking about things. And I thought about this a lot in my, in my heart of hearts, I know that when I speak up, it's the same thing.

It's it, it makes me happy to hear that you say that, that, like when I speak up, you know, that it's intentional because it is I don't speak just to speak. I don't talk just to talk. I don't want to just hear my own voice. I'm often taking things in and listening and really trying to process whatever the conversation is without just like blurting things out. And so I think it's been a struggle to figure out like, okay, well, that's definitely who I am and that's where I naturally fall in. But is it one of those edge cases where I need to try to speak up a little bit more where I need to kind of challenge myself to speak up a little bit more, or is that just like an old school way of thinking of things? And I should probably just brush it off. You know, that there's like these different sites that I have with this, these types of comments, and it's probably a little bit of both. I definitely think it is an old school way of thinking. And I definitely think that's how a lot of people that are in power right now have gotten to be where they are. But I don't necessarily think it's the right way to do things

Well, as we finish up here, I think you hit on it a little bit in the last question, but being a female in a male dominated industry and part of this whole idea of prototypes and making your own prototype is we have to have the space to do it. We have to have a safe space to do it. And I'm just wondering your opinion in this, in this climate. And as we've continued to try to do better with equality, is there hope do you, do you feel like this male female thing is getting any better in the workplace? And how would you give some thoughts on that?

I think there's always hope. I think it kind of depends on where you're at, what company you're working for. I think there are a lot of companies that have come so far. Even those companies, they're still a little bit of like a bro culture where it's very much like I live, breathe, eat programming or engineering, and I think that's okay. Like if that's who you are, that's totally fine. But I do think that we need to turn the knob a little on that's what you need to be. I think a lot of people feel like you have to work on side projects and you, you have to have a, get your own personal, get hub that you can put a link to your LinkedIn profile or your resume. And then you have to show people all the cool stuff you're doing on the weekends and off hours, even though you've been working on a computer all day, I think that's ridiculous.

I have so much more to me than that, but I'm also like a bomber programmer. Like I can be both without having my life centered around it, you know? And I think that's, that's like one of the biggest things. And I think that's one of the biggest hurdles to getting more females into the computer science world and into the tech world, because I think that's a big barrier of entry. People are like, Oh, well, I don't want to do that all the time. All day, every day, 24 seven. And I'm like, yeah, you don't have to, that's the thing you don't have to, you can be good at being a technologist in a lot of different ways and then go home and like close your computer and not worry about it for the rest of the night. And I think that's a bigger hurdle you need to figure out.

But yeah, I do think it's, it's a veteran worse in some areas, there are definitely companies that continuously ask in interviews. What do you do in your free time? What side projects you're working on? And if I say none, they're going to be like, bye. And honestly, like those aren't companies I want to work for anyway. So it works out. But I do think that there's also companies you know, like slalom, for example, I had no intention of leaving 18 T when I started interviewing it was more of just like a, Hey, let's just go. Why not talk? Why not continue to hone in on my interview skills? And my very first interview, I was asked what side projects I have. And I was like, not for me. It's not something I do. And then I got asked back for, you know, 12 more interviews or whatever the process is.

That's an exaggeration, but you know, and it was, it's one of those things where it's like, okay, well, some, some companies are good at it. Some are very bad at it. And so I think we're getting better. And like I said, I really do believe there's always hope and I'll continue to try to mentor younger girls than do what I can to make sure that they understand that like, there is a place for them here and that it isn't just like this nerdy bro culture. You have to do this all the time type of thing. But yeah, I think that's kind of my take on it anyway.

Great. And then if somebody is listening to this and they don't have terminal degrees in computer science and they want to get into development, if they're trying to skill up and they're wondering where to start, what advice would you give those folks?

I mean, there's so, so many resources online to just get out there and start looking. The base is going to be there probably no matter which class you choose and I wouldn't necessarily base it on, you know, one single one. I would say jump into a couple especially maybe shorter ones that kind of give you some hours without being excessive. And, and just kind of see if you even like it. I think that's, that's a big thing is you don't want to commit to something, pay a bunch of money like I did for college and then not like it, you know, I mean, I ended up liking what I did and I got very lucky that like, you know, I didn't, I didn't have to worry about it a whole lot if you're enjoying the process and you're enjoying learning about it, like keep pushing yourself and continue to push yourself a little harder, try a different class, or try to specialty, you know, kind of, I don't know, go for it.

Author Bio

Darla Ahlert

Darla is active in the tattoo, bowling, computer science, and kazoo communities. Career Path: Math + Software