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Meet the Linktree software engineer who believes in the power of paying it forward

Sharon Vaughan didn’t have a typical career path. She was both a film projectionist and movie complex manager before she eventually transitioned to software engineering. But she didn’t do it alone – she credits the org Ruby Australia for opening the door for her and giving her the support and mentorship she needed to take the leap. 

Now Sharon hopes to help fellow engineers at Linktree as a co-founder of the Engineering Mentorship program. The program was designed to foster an environment where engineers feel supported and empowered to be the best version of themselves at work. 

We chatted with Sharon to find out more about her career transition and why she believes giving back to her community is so important – especially for women who might be going through a challenging time. 

Tell us about your role on the Engineering team. What’s your focus?

I work as a software engineer in the Auth Squad. Our focus is to create low-friction, secure ways for Linktree creators to access their accounts and to build low-effort pathways for other engineers to secure their services.

You didn’t start your career in Engineering. What led you to make the transition?

My mum, in the 80s, said, “I think there is a future in computers” and enrolled me in a “computing” degree. I was 16 and living overseas at the time, so I was like, “Sure, ummm, okay”. It seemed an obvious path for a student who did well at maths and science. She passed away before I finished it and I decided to go for a wander through the arts and academia for the next couple of decades, ending up as a film projectionist.

Five years into that career and I was replaced by a machine – digital projectors. I had no idea what to do so I transitioned to a movie theatre complex manager. But, I was getting older and the shift work was taxing on my sleep cycles and social life, and career prospects seemed limited. I really wanted to have a career; something to build, engage my brain, challenge me, be creative with and something to be passionate about. So, making my mum happy, after three decades, and taking irony firmly in hand, I decided to control machines. I would be a software engineer.

What types of tools do you use on a daily basis?

There are two categories I guess. One set of tools are in direct service to my work as a software engineer, i.e. VS Code, Docker, GitHub, Auth0, Twilio and DataDog. Whereas others are more about communication, i.e. Slack, Zoom, Dynalist, Loom, Notion, Linear, Mermaid and Miro. When I started working as a software engineer, I was so surprised by the number of tools used daily that I created the concept of MVD, Minimal Viable Developer, in mimic to the often referred to MVP, Minimal Viable Product. I would ask myself, “What is the least amount of stuff I need to know right now?” Otherwise it can feel overwhelming.

One of Linktree’s values is “go further together.” The engineering team embodies this through regular touch points and, despite it being a reasonable size now, still feels like a well connected, supportive community.

What’s one thing that you think people will be surprised to learn about Linktree’s Engineering org?

One of Linktree’s values is “go further together.” The engineering team embodies this through regular touch points and, despite it being a reasonable size now, still feels like a well connected, supportive community.

We have a fortnightly meeting called Platforum where any and all thoughts and ideas are discussion topics. It is kinda like a guild, but cross-functional/cross-discipline, i.e. it includes back-end, front-end, ops, data, quality, junior to staff engineers, from anywhere around the world. It provides an awesome diversity of opinion and opportunity for learning, sharing and building robust systems together. Topics covered are very broad and have included our build pipeline, monorepo Vs microservice Vs lambda, inclusive naming conventions and database migration methodologies.

There’s also a fortnightly presentation by an internal member of the team called Tech Talks and monthly meetings where high-level topics are covered.

You’re very involved with the organization Ruby Australia, which is dedicated to furthering the use and adoption of the Ruby programming language – why is this cause important to you? 

My first foray into the modern software engineering world was to attend RailsGirls. I was looking for a career and a friend suggested I attend, that I “…could do something with that first degree.” I’m a serial academic so I do have a few degrees, in fact there are more letters in my post-nominal titles than my name.

Convinced by the argument that the industry was looking for diversity in their recruits and has significant shortfalls in the supply chain, I went along. By the end of the day, I had fallen in love. I…I had created a website! The poweeer!!!! And soooo much fun. I left with a feeling in my tummy akin to a four year old in a jumping castle, all joy despite not knowing what was going to happen next, but 100% certain it wasn’t going to hurt and equally likely to be enormous fun.

Ruby is the language used by the framework Rails, which is taught at RailGirls and sponsored by Ruby Australia. Ruby Australia, and its many wonderful community members, gave me my career, my work-life balance, support, financial freedom and, ultimately, a great deal of happiness. Ruby Australia kinda feels like my first professional mentor so I feel very connected to Ruby and its peak organisation.

You’re not only involved with Ruby Australia, but you also donate your time to Linktree’s Engineering mentor program and blog. What value do you see in giving back to your communities?

My ongoing relationship with contributing to the wider community is an idea seeded in my desire to help others succeed. I’m in a privileged position where I can provide access to an experience of life that provides choice and is fulfilling. Others helped me into this career, lent their experience to my advantage, why wouldn’t I do that too?

I might add, this is not a purely unselfish act. I love, love, love, seeing the look on people’s faces when they get a concept. It reignites the jumping castle enjoyment of my own career.

In addition to helping with the mentoring program at Linktree and contributing to this blog, I run RailsGirls in Melbourne. RailsGirls, in particular, was my gateway to a software engineering career and, to me, Ruby made coding easy. It reads like English so is more accessible than some of the terse, bracket-y and semicolon-peppered languages. It was created in the mid-90s so has a solid amount of reference material that has grown up around it over the decades, which is helpful when challenges arise. Its creator, Yukihiro Matsumoto, optimized Ruby for programmer happiness which is evident in the community at large as everyone I’ve met is super lovely and wonderfully helpful.

Because of these points, I truly want others, especially women, to know about and explore Ruby, which hopefully leads to them considering a software engineering career. I want them to have the idea that a software engineering career is accessible to them. That they might be able to create a path out of poverty or abusive situations, to have that same knowing of freedom and self efficacy that I feel. As a single parent from when my son was 16 months old, I know our lives would have been significantly different if I’d been aware of the low barrier to entry available to becoming a software engineer.

Do you have any advice for people who might be interested in changing careers?

There are a couple of approaches that worked for me.

I participated in meetups, hackathons, community events, camps, conferences and any online training I could find, and a lot of these can be free, too. This high level of participation was for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I used this approach to get to know companies who were looking for software engineers. Secondly, it was a good way to gauge entry level requirements for jobs. Thirdly, I thought it might be useful to network for mentors, advocates or newbie peers with whom to share angst. Finally, I decided, if even by osmosis I was going to learn this thing called software engineering, so I would sit there with concepts flying high overhead determinedly trying to remember as many keywords and concepts as my brain could handle.

I coded every day. I rose most mornings at 5am, because I’m a morning person, and studied coding for an hour before heading into my day. I chose to concentrate on one language at the start, depth not breadth. I’d been told it was a good strategy to understand one language well because concepts once learnt are transferable to others.

Finally, I reminded myself (to this day, still) that now is a moment in time. Bad challenges will become good challenges as skill develops. Like the jumping castle analogy, just bounce on in, it’ll be great fun and support is there when you land.

Credits

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We acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land on which our office stands, The Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation, and pay our respects to Elders past, present and emerging. Linktree Pty Ltd, 223 Liverpool St, Gadigal (Darlinghurst) NSW 2010