Nell Shamrell-Harrington isn’t your typical software engineer.
She studied theater at the University of Puget Sound and uses those skills to talk about her work in open source governance at conferences around the world.
“I learned emotional intelligence first – why I react to things a certain way, how others might react the same or differently based on their own experience and truth – and layered hard technical knowledge on top of it,” she said. “Now I use both sets of knowledge and weave them together throughout my daily work.”
Shamrell-Harrington is a senior software engineer for Chef, here in Seattle. Her role involves governing the company’s open source projects, Supermarket and Habitat.
She also comes from a military family; both of her parents were Air Force Officers. Growing up in that environment gave her unique insights into the challenges veterans face when transitioning back into civilian life. It led her to Operation Code, a non-profit that teaches technology skills to veterans and helps them find work when they return from the military. Shamrell-Harrington joined Operation Code as a mentor when she wasn’t able to enlist in the military due to a medical disqualification.
“I think the best thing you can do for most veterans is to help them learn the skills they need to get a job now as they navigate that major transition from military life to the civilian world,” she said. “Operation Code is a major and essential part of that.”
Shamrell-Harrington recently shared what she’s learned throughout her unorthodox career during the GeekWire Cloud Tech Summit.
We caught up with her a few weeks later for this Working Geek, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for her answers to our questionnaire.
Current Location: Seattle, WA.
Computer types: Development work — Macbook Pro. Gaming — Alienware Aurora.
Mobile devices: iPhone, iPad Pro (love the giant screen both for reading and for gaming), Apple Watch.
Favorite apps, cloud services and software tools: Evernote with Alternote — Alternote enables me to create and read Evernotes with a dark interface and does not sear my eyes!
Feedly — great for specifying which topics I want to see new stories on, I check it several times throughout the day.
Round Health — it’s a great medication management app (which also works with the Apple watch) and was incredibly useful after I had shoulder surgery last year. It would not only remind me it was time to take meds, it would tell me exactly what to take and how much!
Vim and Tmux — these are older tools, but the fact that they have stood the test of time illustrates how incredibly powerful they are. I’ve tried different editors and terminal managers periodically, but I always come back to these two.
Describe your workspace. Why does it work for you? Perhaps the most vital thing is a baby gate on the door to my home office. I have two pet rabbits who are free roaming through most of the apartment but are not allowed anywhere near the computers. The more expensive a cord is, the more enticing it seems to be for them to chew on it.
I have two monitors which I can easily switch between my work laptop, personal laptop, and gaming box. I use a Kinesis keyboard, it took awhile to get used to but it is the only keyboard I can type on for more than an hour without experiencing wrist pain — it’s been a career saver! I also use a set of three-foot pedals — one is mapped to escape (which is extremely helpful in both Vim and Tmux), the other two I rotate what key they are mapped to based on whatever I am working on.
I also have a studio microphone and an audio converter which connects to my computer. A few years ago I was paid to do a screencast for Ruby Tapas. I took the payment and invested it in some better sound equipment, which is quite useful for podcasts, screencasts, a little bit of voice acting, and more.
Your best advice for managing everyday work and life?
It’s good to enjoy your work. It’s great to be very dedicated to your work. It’s not good to allow that enjoyment and dedication to interfere with your real life, personal relationships. Business and personal relationships are fundamentally different – and they should remain so – don’t sacrifice your personal relationships for your business relationships. As much as you might love a job, it will never love you back.
Your preferred social network? How do you use it for business/work? LinkedIn: work and mentoring.
Twitter: work and personal — by far one of the best ways to keep informal connections and conversations alive.
Facebook: personal life — this is what I would expect you to know about me if we were personal friends, not business connections. Although there is some overlap, I try to keep it separate from my work life as much as possible.
Current number of unanswered emails in your inbox? “I don’t even want to think about it…
Number of appointments/meetings on your calendar this week? Not including daily standups — 17.
How do you run meetings? Empathetic efficiency — while I do want meetings to run efficiently, I also understand that short tangents are necessary to help people one, work through complex issues and tow, feel heard. My general rule is five minutes is okay for a tangent, then it needs to go in a parking lot for the end of the meeting.
Everyday work uniform? Jeans, T-shirt, hoodie, boots, army green cadet hat (usually has a button on it, sometimes a Captain America shield, sometimes a rainbow pride pin).
How do you make time for family? With the amount of speaking and outreach I do, along with my core engineering duties, I tend to travel fairly often. The rule my wife and I established is one to not travel two weeks in a row and two, keep trips to a maximum of four nights away unless we’ve discussed special circumstances (i.e. flying to Australia when it is more than 24 hours of flights and layovers each way).
Best stress reliever? How do you unplug? I currently practice a martial art called Naginata — it is a Japanese Martial art which uses a polearm with a blade on the end. I practiced Tae Kwon Do for eight years, but it was causing injuries in my wrists and knees. I focused on stage combat and more theatrical fighting arts in college but found myself without much of an outlet for both my physical and mental energy after college.
I found Naginata through my wife. In my day to day work, particularly when I’m working in a difficult code base or in a sensitive system, it is necessary for my mind to be two to three steps ahead of my hands. However, I found that this kind of mind frame was bleeding into my daily life, I wanted to constantly be able to predict two to three steps ahead of whatever I was doing. This simply isn’t possible with most things in life, and it made it very difficult to ever truly appreciate a moment as I experience it. Naginata has helped me learn again how to move my mind, body, and spirit as one — to simply be alive and not to plan but to react to whatever I experience. I am profoundly grateful for this.
What are you listening to? I am a big fan of musicals and soundtracks. Right now Hamilton is on heavy rotation. I also enjoy listening to video game soundtracks as I work. It makes me feel like I am still in the game as I code. When I’m not doing work that requires heavy concentration, I also often listen to NPR. Both of my parents were Air Force Officers, so we moved around fairly frequently. My dad always had NPR on in the car. Even though the places, schools, and friends changed as we moved from place to place, the familiar voices on NPR remained the same. NPR feels like home to me.
Daily reads? Favorite sites and newsletters? Seattle Times, ArsTechnica, Wired, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, SyfyWire.
Book on your nightstand (or e-reader)? The Trinity Paradox by Kevin J. Anderson and Doug Beason. I love alternative history stories and this one is a great one. It covers World War II and what might have happened if Nazi Germany gained access to nuclear weapons before the U.S.
Night owl or early riser? What are your sleep patterns? I used to be quite the night owl, but as I’ve gotten older it’s hard for me to sleep past 8 or 9 a.m., no matter when I go to bed. It’s also much harder to recover from a very late night. I try to get to sleep before midnight most nights and usually wake up around 7:30 or 8 a.m. when my two pet bunnies start making noise that they want their breakfast.
Where do you get your best ideas? Whenever I’m not doing the thing I want to get the idea about. When it comes to code, taking a walk often leads to my best ideas for working through the thorniest of technical problems. When my brain is not sure how to do something, it is essential to give it a break from trying to force it. Quieting my mind is essential to seeing things as they really are and finding a path forward.
Whose work style would you want to learn more about or emulate? I would love to learn from those who work on critical systems — i.e. electronic infrastructure, cyber defense, and more. I am fascinated by those who can maintain a clear, logical head in emergency situations on a daily basis, I think I could benefit a lot from that.