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Cover image for Emma Brillhart on Diversity in Tech: It Is Not a Choice – It’s the Ethical Thing

Emma Brillhart on Diversity in Tech: It Is Not a Choice – It’s the Ethical Thing

gitnation profile image GitNation Updated on ・6 min read

We talked to Emma Brillhart, an Engineering Manager & Location Head at Formidable, a Team Skills & Communication Advocate who’s passionate about diversity and inclusion in tech.

Emma Brillhart has swiftly and elegantly progressed in her career at Formidable from starting out as a Software Engineer and becoming a full-fledged Engineering Manager. In this interview, she shares her web development journey, passion for the importance of communication and team skills, and her sincere dedication to supporting engineers in their professional growth. Emma is coming to London to give a talk at React Advanced Conference, Oct 25, 2019.

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Hello Emma, and welcome to the interview with React Advanced! Please, introduce yourself. How did it happen that you graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Politics and International Relations but didn’t end up in the White House? 

Hi! I'm an Engineering Manager at Formidable, and I live in Phoenix, Arizona. I planned on becoming an attorney, but after working at a law firm in Los Angeles during my first year out of college, I realized it wasn't actually for me. I knew I wanted to move back home to Seattle, but not what my next steps would be, and my dad mentioned how many coding bootcamps were popping up around the city. I ended up signing up for a 12-week bootcamp with General Assembly and pursuing my development career from there!

Can you, please take me through your previous work experience?

After getting out of the bootcamp, I spent about five months working at a startup that was building an app in React and Meteor.js. The company wasn't able to secure funding, and I ended up at Formidable immediately after. I've been at Formidable since May of 2016 and don't see myself leaving any time soon!

During your three-year tenure at Formidable, you’ve been swiftly progressing in your career, from being a Software Engineer to an Engineering Manager. How did it happen for you? 

I've been very lucky at Formidable. We really invest in our employees' growth, and I've been a major beneficiary of that program. Our work is client-based, and continuing to work on my communication skills has helped me a lot when it comes to professional advancement. I'm also personally invested in Formidable's internal culture and success as a company and have very strong relationships with my coworkers. 

Emma giving a talk about Spectacle, one of Formidable's OSS projects, at a Phoenix React meetup this past January
Emma giving a talk about Spectacle at a Phoenix React meetup

I don't feel like I can point to one thing that's allowed me to thrive at Formidable as much as I have, but I think the overall environment has been an incredible fit for me at this point in my career. 

I've also created openings for myself — a coworker and I were interested in hiring people in Phoenix, where we're both located, and leadership was very supportive and encouraging in us pursuing that, but we had to be proactive in creating that opportunity. 

I think that looking for projects that were both a stepping stone for my professional development and benefitted the company's goals, and taking initiative on those projects, has been very valuable for me. Here's a case study for a project I worked on at Formidable: Starbucks Progressive Web Apps.

What does it mean to be an Engineering Manager? 

As an Engineering Manager, I see my role primarily to be a resource for the people who report to me. I want to make sure that people I manage are able to grow and progress as engineers, both in general and within Formidable. Generally, I like this relationship to be driven by the people I manage as much as possible since goals are usually more meaningful when self-directed. I'm there for advice, or to be a sounding board, or to make suggestions when appropriate. As an organization, we value autonomy, so the balance is ensuring that the people I manage feel supported without feeling stifled.

A picture of Emma at Chain React 2017
Emma at Chain React 2017

You also describe yourself as a Team Skills & Communication Advocate.  What does the title imply?

In terms of being a Team Skills and Communication advocate, that's not a title that's connected to my work at Formidable, or any sort of title at all, really. I'm passionate about the importance of communication and team skills - sometimes referred to as soft skills - in the tech industry. I think the importance of these skillsets is absolutely becoming more widely recognized, but for a long time, there really was an emphasis on "the only thing that matters is how well you write code, even if you are horrible to work with." This doesn't serve engineers, clients, users/customers, or the industry in general. I feel like the importance I place on these skillsets informs basically everything I do as an engineer and manager.

Repo for a workshop Emma co-led at React Europe 2018:

React Europe React.js Workshop

May 15-16, 2018

Created and Led by Ken Wheeler, Brandon Dail, and Emma Brillhart

Welcome to Intermediate React.js! We're excited to have you. We'll be covering a variety of topics over the next few days, including Context, Universal Components, Async Safe Patterns, Portals, and more. See a full schedule here.

Set-Up

What you need

To install and run these exercises you'll need:

  1. Node (v8.0 or later please)
  2. Yarn
  3. Git (you probably already have this)

Installation

Please clone the repo to your personal computer. Feel free to fork it first if you want to mess around with stuff later on. All of the exercises and solutions that we'll cover over the next two days are contained in subfolders.

git clone https://github.com/aweary/react-europe-workshop
cd react-europe-workshop

Install the dependencies for every excercise. This might take a long time

yarn
node install.js

When we're about to start an exercise, the…

Do you consider yourself more of a manager or an engineer?

Both, equally. I feel like those two roles are very intertwined for me at this point in my career.

What are the advantages of diversity in the workplace? 

The short answer here is that having a diverse workforce is the ethical thing, period. The longer answer is that, at the end of the day, everything we're building is for some sort of end user. Our end users are diverse! They have a huge range of needs from any given product. The closer your development team matches the user base you're targeting, the better your chances are of providing value to these users. The greater the number of backgrounds and life experiences that your product team brings to the table, the better. This goes beyond women to all underrepresented groups in the tech industry. There are also several studies out there showing that diversity within a company, especially at a senior leadership level, leads to higher profitability - so if anyone out there needs cold, hard, numbers to believe that diversity matters, there you go!

What does Formidable do to embrace inclusion and diversity?

Formidable has worked hard to minimize the friction that someone from an underrepresented group is going to experience as an employee. As a woman in tech, I've personally always felt very supported and valued at Formidable, which I know is absolutely not the case for all tech companies. 

We still have things to work on, but policies like heavy emphasis on 40 hour work weeks, solid parental leave, generous PTO and unlimited sick time, and a good health plan all contribute to flexibility for employees, which in turn allows for a wide variety of types of people to feel like working at Formidable gels with who they are as a person and the rest of their life outside of work. 

We've hired a lot of folks who don't have a traditional technical education, which has absolutely helped contribute to our diversity as a company, and we also think it's created a stronger team since there's such a range of past experience brought to the table.

Do you have any hobbies? 

I do love to cook, and I was actually writing a cooking blog for a while last year. I’ve considered starting that back up!

I also try to squeeze in time to do the occasional watercolor painting. 

Living in Arizona, there are tons of hiking opportunities that I’m trying to take advantage of this winter and spring, and I spend quite a bit of time in the pool during the summer.

Are you excited about the upcoming conference in London? What are you going to talk about and what are your expectations from the event?

I'm so excited! It's always so fun to have the community experience that a conference provides, and this will actually be my first time as a speaker at a conference! I've hosted workshops before, but never presented solo.

My talk will be a case study on how we were able to make a React codebase more readable and improve communication and productivity on the team by leveraging technologies like TypeScript, GraphQL, and React hooks during a rewrite. This provided a lot of benefits for the team that we didn't anticipate our choice of technologies would affect at all.

I'm most excited to hear about all of the other advanced topics that will come up at the conference during both the talks and the workshops. I'm also really intrigued by the advice lounge component - I think that's such a cool addition!

Do not miss a chance to meet Emma at React Advanced


The interview was prepared with the assistance of Marina Vorontsova, a copywriter from Soshace.com. Soshace is a hiring platform for web developers: hire a developer or apply for a remote job.

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