The Nuts and Bolts with Polina Giralt

Polina Giralt, Senior Software Engineer, Product Data Engineering


What was your path to engineering?

I’ve always loved learning new systems, languages, and all types of technology.

Since I was a little kid, I've been tinkering with computers. I got comfortable navigating the DOS command line in order to play video games. I built a computer from scratch with my dad when I was in grade school, and wrote my first program when I was 12.

During high school, one of my friends taught me how to use Linux, and I learned C++ in AP Computer Science. I also created a few static websites in GeoCities and Angelfire to share thoughts, post pictures, and list my favorite bands.

In college, I started off with two years of Computer Science and ultimately double majored in Information Technology & Informatics and Psychology.

Since then, I've built a career as a full-stack programmer, currently focusing on data engineering.

What was that first program you wrote when you were 12?

My first program was a “hello world” app in Visual Basic. My father owned a few programming books. I was curious one day during summer vacation, so I looked through them. I remember choosing to try Visual Basic because that book had the most pictures.

It was fun to give the computer instructions and have it work. I've been chasing that same high ever since.

How do you measure success?

Work success? A job that challenges me in positive ways; working with great people; technology making incremental progress.

Life success? Kinda the same: surrounding myself with people and adventures that support me, challenge me, and help me grow.

What is your superpower?

Making friends. I find it easy to talk to new people. Over my lifetime, this means I’ve amassed a network of incredible individuals. I hadn't thought of this as a superpower until my partner pointed it out to me recently.

Is there a superpower you try to cultivate in others?

Confidence to express their beliefs in constructive and professional ways. Some people don’t enjoy or aren't good at defending their point of view, but this is a learnable communication skill. We grow by challenging ourselves and the distributed systems we're creating. When someone is holding back their thoughts, it’s a lost opportunity to improve. In technology, everyone should stop worrying so much about “being right.”

I admire people who focus on expressing what they know, admitting what they don’t know, and calling out something they don’t agree with.

You’ve shifted between leadership roles and senior engineering roles. What have you learned about yourself in the process and how you’d like to shape your career?

After 10+ years working in tech, I’ve learned that I enjoy focusing on complex technology problems.

I keep oscillating between leadership and individual work, based on where I can have the most impact. I've worked as a Project Manager and had roles where I organized teams across a portfolio of projects. As an engineer, I went from individual contributor (IC) to team lead at my last job. At Squarespace, I started again as an individual contributor. I ended up leading two teams after a year.

Squarespace has a split in the career ladder that allows me to choose whether I want to grow more as a manager or IC. I’ve decided to focus my time toward the individual contributor role and have reduced my lead responsibilities from two to one team, Product Data Engineering. This gives me more time to code and focus on my own technical growth. I plan to keep grappling with hard technical challenges, working toward the title of Staff Engineer (and beyond).

Solving problems has always driven me towards technology. Once in an organization, I noticed that not all the problems are best solved by writing code. Sometimes it’s a process or people-alignment problem. As a team lead, I’ve gotten to spend time focusing on both technical and non-technical challenges. Deep down I feel more drawn to complex problems that can be solved with code or a distributed system, which is why I’ve chosen the IC track. I also find myself in a state of flow more frequently while solving issues with code. It sparks joy.

How would you advise younger engineers to navigate leadership vs. individual contributor roles?

Work on your tech skills for a while before going into leadership. If you switch to management too early, you risk peaking with regards to your tech knowledge, which will hold you back as a technical leader. Try both and go back and forth if it makes sense, until you know which one you prefer. Introspect about your preference: why are certain problems more or less interesting?

Over time, continue to ask yourself if you're solving the right problem. Even in a leadership role, staying up-to-date with evolving technologies and retaining some hands-on work keeps you from stagnating. Finally, find some strong mentors who can help you think through this.

Can you talk about the double-edged sword of being a good communicator?

As an engineer who’s seen as a good communicator, people assume you’ll make a great manager. At many points in my career, I’ve been nudged toward the management track. I’ve observed that even though many different skill sets contribute to the success of a project, the double-edged sword is when leadership/communication skills are devalued for being less “technical”.

For managers, it may be easier to observe whether someone is a good/bad communicator. Labeling someone as either strong technically or good at people creates a false dichotomy. Communication skills help me be a stronger engineer because my code is legible and I enjoy collaboration. Distributed systems design is all about making computers communicate with each other. The challenge for me now is to continue to demonstrate my technical skills.

You manage a data engineering team, a husband, a nanny, a two-year-old, and a newborn. You’re also rumored to make a mean gazpacho. What’s your secret?

LOL. Great question.

Part of the secret is picking your battles. Since becoming a parent, I’ve changed my approach to work by developing my prioritization skills. Once you have a child at home, you realize there are only so many hours in the day that you can spend working. Getting the most out of those hours has been a focused growth area. As a result, I optimize what I choose to do. It’s one of the reasons I’ve decided to stop leading two teams.

As for the husband, nanny, and children, it’s more of a support network than a hierarchy. I often joke that my toddler is the boss in my other full-time job. It’s not that the toddler is in control, but we're managing up and anticipating demands. For parenting tips, I’ve been reading a lot of books and blogs and talking to other parents. I have an app where I track my kid’s sleep and another app that tells me what age-specific brain developments they’re going through.

I enjoy cooking as a creative outlet. Gazpacho is one of my favorite foods, so now that I’ve mastered it, I can eat it whenever. Best summer BBQ pairing is watermelon gazpacho with grilled fish tacos.

Are you planning to teach your children programming?

For sure, but we won’t force it on them. My two-year-old is a little sponge for new information. He’s very curious and interested in almost everything he’s come across. Current interests include robots, space, animals, construction vehicles, drawing, and synthesizers. His favorite band is Daft Punk because they capture many of his interests at once. He’s also obsessed with reading and we've got close to 200 children's books already.

Besides the usual children’s classics like Dr. Seuss, he’s got over a dozen math and science books. We also have computer-related books: Quantum Computing for Babies, CSS for Babies, HTML for Babies, JavaScript for Babies, and Blockchain for Babies. My partner is an engineer like me, so it’s common for our children to see us reading technical books or working from home.

The best way to keep our toddler occupied while I read an O’Reilly book (the tech books with animals on the covers) is to read out loud and show him the technical diagrams. He can recognize code when he sees it on my screen (he points and says "code" or "mommy is working"). He’s also got a toy robot that he can program by pressing directional arrow buttons. My partner and I agreed to expose both our children to as many things as possible. We’ll encourage them when they show an interest in programming.

Creating a Code Review Culture, Part 1: Organizations and Authors

Building the Squarespace Image Filters