My Journey From Chef to Senior Software Engineer: The Importance of Soft Skills, Teamwork and More

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Anna Eilering

Photo courtesy of Google.

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April 12, 2024 at 8:34PM UTC

Is there a skill overlap between coding and working as a chef? You’d be surprised! Just ask Anna Eilering, a former fine-dining chef and current Senior Software Engineer at Google. When Eilering made her transition to tech ten years ago, she notes that she “didn't expect nearly as much crossover.” Now, “I'm slinging code instead of steaks, but a lot of the skills honed from long hours with my crew in the kitchen apply when we're in the weeds getting a launch out the door,” Eilering explains.

The reason for this comes down to soft skills, which Eilering mentions are often underrated in coding and tech. “The ability to work as a team and support each other's strengths and be aware of our own weaknesses is vital to the success of most projects,” Eilering remarks. “I am incredibly technical, but as I grow in my career, I find that my leadership and communication skills become just as valuable as my ability to sling code.”

In this article, Eilering took the time out of her busy schedule to tell us more about her job as a software engineer and her advice for others who are looking to succeed in tech. Read on to find out more!

Tell us a bit about your job.

I am a Senior Software Engineer on the Google Play Services Engineering Productivity team; there's a lot to break down there. Google Play Services is the thing that makes Google Android phones 'Googley'. Engineering Productivity is a sub-field in Software Engineering. As 'EngProd,' our focus is to build tools and infrastructure that improve the developer experience as well as provide mechanisms to ensure positive user experiences. If we do our job right, things just work and no one knows we're here. If we don't, well, things break and are harder to do.

I like EngProd work because I like the breadth of problem spaces we get to solve. It's so much fun.

How did you decide to become an engineer and join a traditionally male-dominated field?

I came from professional cooking which, at the time, was a very male-dominated field. Software engineering, from the outside, didn't seem that different. I have found that the challenges in tech are much more subtle than the challenges I faced as a woman in professional kitchens.

To be really, brutally, honest — I wanted a career that had health insurance, time off and paid well. Cooking, at least in private restaurants like where I worked, often involves low pay and long hours. I was approaching 30 and realized that I would never be able to retire, never be able to own a home, never be able to afford to take a vacation. I hadn't had more than a day off for years. I couldn't afford to go to a doctor. Finding a career that I also found interesting and engaging was just the cherry on top of the whole sundae.

Getting paid well to do something I love is like a dream come true. 

What traits/skills do you have that help you succeed as an engineer?

I think the one of the most valuable skills I have is my ability to problem solve, often on the fly, and find ways to fix things and make iterative progress. A manager once told me that I "shouldn't make perfect the enemy of good," and that really struck me. When I was a chef, I often problem solved on the fly, making it work with what we had. As I transitioned into a career in tech, I often struggled with feeling like to do it 'right,' like I had to have a perfect, fully explored solution. That I had to prove I had a right to be here.

It took me time to relearn being comfortable around being wrong, around making a call even if I wasn't sure it was perfectly correct. I prioritize improvement, even if it's just iterative, over perfect stillness.

What is your normal day-to-day life like at work? 

I'm working from home nowadays — so my day is very flexible. 

I'm an early bird, so my work day starts around 7:00 a.m. — reviewing my emails, any high-priority bugs that came in overnight and generating my plan for the day. I look at my calendar and see what my team is working on and create a to-do list of three 'must do' and six 'we'll see if I get to it' tasks for the day. 

After emails,  I'll check in with my team on chat to make sure no one has any emergency blockers or needs assistance. I'll post a meme or three in some of the different team chats I'm a part of. I believe that social communication is just as important as strictly technical work-related communication. 

I'll take a break and workout around mid morning, and then it's time for meetings and design work through mid-to-late afternoon. I try to make sure I take some breaks in here to just walk around, stretch and meditate. Sometimes, I might even take some time to paint or play with my cats. Time away from the computer is as valuable as time sitting in front of the screen when it comes to solving hard problems.

My partner and I will take a walk, and, when I get back, I'll check my communication queues for anything that needs immediate attention. After handling that, we'll make dinner together and just take some time to relax. I often take a couple of hours later at night, when it's quieter, to do work. Because of the flexibility of working from home, this means I'm still working an eight-hour day, but I can take advantage of the times that make sense for me.

What do you find are the most rewarding and challenging aspects about being a woman engineer? 

As someone who is AFAB (assigned female at birth), my perspective is definitely colored by the experiences I have had, and I lean on these experiences and the intuition born of this to ensure that different voices are lifted and heard throughout our app. For example, growing up in a more rural area in the midwest, I have a different experience when it comes to internet availability than someone who may have grown up somewhere with a stronger internet infrastructure. 

One of the hardest things about being a woman engineer is being the only woman in the room. Until somewhat recently, I was the only woman on my team. Although I love and appreciate my teammates, it was still lonely. One way I've worked through this experience is to join and support groups of technical women in other organizations across Google. I find that making sure I have time with other technical women is important to center myself in the technical mindspace.

How has your company supported you in your career?

Google does a variety of things to support Googlers’ careers. One thing I really appreciate are the Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) that are employee created, managed and maintained with Google support. These are an amazing way for me to stay connected with folks outside of my direct team.

I also really appreciate the variety of ways Google supports me in continuing to grow my skills, both technical and non-technical. There are tons of internal and external training available to me, and my leadership supports me in taking the time to learn and explore. Curiosity is foundational to innovation; by continuing to learn, we can grow our ability to solve bigger and harder challenges.

What’s your No. 1 piece of advice for women looking to start a career in engineering?

Take the time to understand your own strengths and weaknesses. Take a self inventory. You are amazing, and you bring a lot to any team that you chose to work with. You don't have to be perfect, you don't need to have all the answers and you can take risks and be wrong and still be an amazing engineer. I know we put a lot of pressure on ourselves, and, of course, pressure from our culture and just the world in general. Be kind and gentle to yourself — you are amazing. Any team, any project and any company would be lucky to have you work with them.

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