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Alter Everything

A podcast about data science and analytics culture.
Alteryx Alumni (Retired)

We're joined by Tasha Alfano for a chat about software engineering, developer tools, and we'll find out what's in that gigantic binder she carries around the office...hmm





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Episode Transcription

BRIAN 00:06 

[music] Welcome to Alter Everything, a podcast about data and analytics culture. I'm Brian Oblinger and I'll be your host. We're joined by Tasha Alfano for a chat about software engineering, developer tools, and we'll find out what's in that gigantic binder she carries around the office. [music] 

BRIAN 00:27 

Hi, Tasha. 

TASHA 00:28 

Hey, Brian, how's it going? 

BRIAN 00:30 

It's going great. How about you? 

TASHA 00:31 

I'm doing great. Thank you. Excited to be here. 

BRIAN 00:34 

Yeah. We're so excited to have you here. So thanks for coming on and let's start with you. Tell us a little about you. 

TASHA 00:42 

Oh, wow. So I've been with Alteryx for about three years now. But before that, I worked in business intelligence and software at The Home Depot. And prior to that, I went to the University of Alabama, "Roll Tide." Where I have a degree in MIS, which is really computer science with a combination of business. So while working at Alteryx I feel like I've had a good opportunity to flex both of those skills. And I've had quite a few roles here so I'm still loving working at Alteryx. It's a great place to be. And Inspire just wrapped up this year, so I'm still riding high off of the endorphins of seeing everyone and really hearing from all of the great customers. 

BRIAN 01:34 

Great. So when you came out of-- and "Roll Tide" by the way. And when you came out of that particular experience, how did you make your way into analytics? What was that journey or path? What did that look like for you? 

TASHA 01:46 

Oh, now that's interesting. So one of the first projects that I actually ever did, I was a junior in college and I worked at the IT department at Alabama. And one of the very first projects was a migration of SQL server integration services packages. So that software does something similar, it's more of an ETL tool. But a little bit similar to what Alteryx does. Which is just taking data and manipulating it and pushing it out to another data source. That was really my first introduction to working with analytics. And then when I worked at Home Depot, I worked in business intelligence during my last year there. And that was really my next foray really into the analytics space. And in hindsight, I would have killed for an Alteryx license back then. 

BRIAN 02:40 

That's awesome. And did you ever get your hands on any community data, by chance, when you were working at Home Depot doing BI? 

TASHA 02:48 

I don't think so. No real community data there. I worked really on internal reporting and things that would get distributed to store managers and regional presidents and things like that about how things were really performing at the store level. 

BRIAN 03:06 

Cool. So after all that experience, what kind of brought you to Alteryx? How did you find your way to us? 

TASHA 03:12 

Oh my gosh. I was looking for a job specifically in Colorado. And I think at that point in my life I didn't really know if I wanted to work more in the business intelligence space. I'd also done some work in software and even a small stint in QA. So I really just cast a bit of a wide net at that point and applied for all different types of roles. Alteryx was, of course, my first choice. And so as soon as I interviewed and got the go-ahead, I signed immediately and drove across the country the next week. And it's been full steam ahead ever since. 

BRIAN 03:59 

Wow. And what was that first role? 

TASHA 04:01 

My first role I worked-- so it's really interesting. So the team I work with now which is platform extensibility is actually the team I started on as a content engineer. So I think Neil's been on the podcast and I worked with him as a content engineer when I first joined the company. And some of my very first projects were building connectors and building things like connectors for Marketo and other things like that. But I've really, my entire time at Alteryx, stayed inside of this extensibility space about building new things for Alteryx, or how do you really build on top of our platform? And it's been a really great experience so far. 

BRIAN 04:50 

Yeah, that's great. Now, I think I've said this to you before but I'm going to restate it here for our podcast listeners. I feel like every time I open my email, there's an email in there announcing that you got yet another promotion. So I don't understand what's happening. So maybe walk us through that journey because you've done a lot of different things and had a lot of roles here in a relatively short tenure, I think. Right? So. 

TASHA 05:18 

Definitely. So I've been here almost three and a half years. And in that time, I spent about a year in content engineering, working on building those things like connectors. And then I decided at that point that I wanted to be an architect. That was my endgame. I was ready to go deep into assembly language and really understand everything and write code. Day in and day out. And so I applied internally for a software engineer position and this was really my first full-blown software engineering position. I'd worked as a functional configurator before but this was really the big-time for me. And so there's an infamous set of flashcards that get passed around the office and they're my JavaScript flashcards. And whenever I was interviewing-- I even took my whiteboard on a weekend trip to Breckenridge, for a skiing weekend and made my friends watch me whiteboard coding problems to get ready for that interview. So that was a fun time. And I spent time there and spent some time in software engineering. And then this opportunity came up to run with developer tools. So whenever I was a content engineer, I was leveraging those developer tools to build tools. And then whenever I was working on the software side, I was working on the SDKs themselves. So it almost felt like a really perfect progression to become the product manager for developer tools. And it's something that I feel incredibly close to and passionate about. Because the possibilities are really endless with what you can do. When someone says, "Oh, is this possible?" My answer is usually, "Yes, it's how much time do you want to invest in that?" So I feel so incredibly fortunate that I work somewhere that allows me to jump at those different opportunities and helps me grow my skill sets really. I've taken public-speaking classes and gone to JavaScript conferences and all those different types of things. And I feel like each one of those experiences has really helped me in each step of my career here. 

BRIAN 07:55 

That's excellent. So let's jump into that a little bit more. I want to specifically ask you about, what are your tips or your sort of your vision for-- how do you adapt? Because you've done so much in such a short period of time. What does it look like to adapt to those things? And how do you suggest other people embrace similar change? 

TASHA 08:20 

Yeah. I think that embracing change is a huge part of growing your career but also it helps you in all aspects of life. I joke around that I just expect change now and I feel like that really helps me roll with the punches. And I really think it's important to figure out what works for you. So if you're going to say make a career jump from working more on the business side to programming and you want to get into that. You've got to figure out what helps you cope with that type of-- if you're going through this learning curve and ultimately it's going to come with a little bit of stress. You've got to figure out what keeps you healthy, mentally and physically. And so for that-- for me, I think that if you paid attention to my work patterns, you'll know that I'm getting really stressed if I go for a run every single day at lunch. And that's just figuring out how to be happy and how to really work effectively and embrace that change. Figure out what makes you feel better and what helps you cope. And my other thing is, I'm pretty famous for having a binder with me at all times. So if I'm taking on a new project or if I'm rolling into a different position, I break out the binder again. And that just helps me feel like I have all of the really important information at my fingertips at all times. So I think it's just really figuring out what works for you and what helps you cope and manage and feel like you're ready to move on or take on a different role or a different challenge. 

BRIAN 10:10 

Tell me a little about your passions as far as the software engineering and BI space go. What have you been working on that you can tell us about? What's the hot new thing? 

TASHA 10:19 

Oh my gosh. So I would say that the hot new thing this year for dev tools was really the Python SDK if we look at tools specifically. The Python SDK went GA with 2018 dot 2. And that just opens the door wide open for using different third-party packages directly within your workspace. So I use Natural Language Processing as an example all the time, so you could use Tensorflow. Or if you're trying to do things with mathematical computations like you're using scikit-learn or NumPy, there are just so many different opportunities that are open to you to manipulate your data if you can leverage the Python SDK. And then as a whole, within the past year, I would say that Developer Community is obviously high up on my list. We'll be approaching our one-year anniversary pretty soon. I think in two or three months. And it's really crazy to me that that much time has gone by. 

BRIAN 11:23 

Yeah, absolutely. So going back to the Python SDK real quick, I'd love to get your thoughts on what are the types of-- what are the use cases for that? So if I am a customer and I'm listening to this right now and I have access to Alteryx, what are the types of things we're hoping people conquer with that set of tools? 

TASHA 11:43 

Yeah. So I think that if we look at tools as a whole, they can really be broken down into three different categories. And that's input and output, which are dealing with pulling in data or pushing it out a new data source. And the Python SDK can help you with that because a lot of popular integration points with different APIs or systems that you want to integrate with will often have a Python wrapper or something that you can start with and get going pretty quickly. And you could leverage that using our SDK. Now the third category that those tools usually fall into or any tool or custom-tool that you're building is really processing. And that's the biggest use case that I've seen most recently with Python. And so a few of those include things like improving on complex calculations. That's a big one that I've heard from the finance industry. Pulling in packages like NumPy and really being able to encapsulate functionality of a really complex problem all within a tool. Another one that I've seen is things like space optimization with shipping containers. I've heard that a few times actually. And so it's really if you're asking yourself, "Do I need to use the Python SDK? Or could this be a good play for me? Or should I invest time in even attempting it?" I would ask yourself, "Do I want to use the power of a third-party package? Or is there a Python library that really does what I'm trying to do?" And then the second question is, "Does it make sense for me to create an entire tool around this? Do I want to package all of this up and encapsulate that functionality and expose some parameters to either myself or my colleagues to use that tool over and over again?" But the possibilities I would say are endless because you can write whatever Python code you want and you can also pull in whatever third-party package you desire to really do more heavy lifting for you if you want. 

BRIAN 13:53 

Yeah. I'm really excited about this because I think-- we tell this story all the time here about code-free and code-friendly, right? 

TASHA 13:59 

Oh, yeah. 

BRIAN 14:00 

And sort of explaining to people, "Hey, you're already building these workflows in the code-free way, you're dragging tools down onto the palette and building great workflows. Now you can augment it or supplement it with these great tools like the Python SDK." So I think it's opening up a world of possibilities and it's hopefully bringing in a new audience of people that previously thought, "Well, I'm a little more advanced. I'm using Python for this, that, and the other thing, and this sort of a tool is more of a drag and drop thing." Sort of bringing them into the Alteryx world is something I'm excited for. And it sounds like you are too, Tasha. 

TASHA 14:35 

Definitely, definitely. So I think it's a great opportunity to bring that more advanced group in. And also I think it's a great opportunity to pull in people, maybe who don't identify as a developer. I think the term developer tools can be a little bit intimidating sometimes because you're like, "Oh, I don't have a CS degree. I'm not a software engineer." But if you think about Alteryx as a whole, one of the guys on my team, Rithi, actually pointed this out, Alteryx is almost an IDE in itself. You have tools that you can pull in, you create a workflow. And a workflow or a macro is almost like a function in programming. So if you think about it that way, we're really all developers in a sense. And so I'd love to see that idea take root a little bit more. 

BRIAN 15:25 

So I want to seize on the idea of what makes a developer. Because I think this is one of those things I've heard a lot about recently as we've put more advanced functionality into our platform. And I agree with you that I think a lot of people hear the word developer and there's sort of this recoil or this, "Oh, I don't have that kind of skill. I'm not developing anything." I would argue differently. I think that anybody who's building anything is developing something. But I think the word developer has such a strong association with writing code that maybe that's why there's that feeling when that word comes out. But maybe-- can you expand a little bit on that? Because I think it's really important as we ramp up our developer community, that people understand how they can fit into that and what does it really mean to be a developer from your perspective? 

TASHA 16:15 

Definitely. I think that if you have created a workflow in Alteryx and seen an opportunity and said, "I'm using this set of five tools over and over again. If I can wrap this up in a macro I can use this continuously without having to add those five tools over and over again." You're already thinking like a developer. Or if you see something in your workflow and you decide to schedule it, you're automating something. You're a developer. I think it's really this mindset of seeing patterns in your work, whether that's a workflow or a report that you send every week. And saying, "There's a better way to do this. Can I pull in data a different way?" Or, "Can I automate a piece of this?" It's really more of a mindset in my opinion. You can see all of those patterns emerging and really act on it. And with Alteryx, we make it really easy because you can take a workflow add some macro inputs and outputs and some interface items and you've got a brand new tool right out of the box, and it's pretty seamless. So I think that everyone who's building with Alteryx-- I mean, I've even heard of groups at different companies using Alteryx now called Alteryx development groups. And that gives me chill-bumps a little bit. I get so excited that they're kind of moving in that direction. So I think that everyone that I talk to that works with Alteryx is pushing the envelope or questioning how they are doing something or how they can do it better. They're really working like a developer. 

BRIAN 17:55 

Absolutely. And I've seen recently, I've noticed-- obviously I'm-- I wouldn't say a heavy Twitter user but I'm on Twitter quite a bit, and I've noticed recently that there's been a pretty obvious uptick in the number of job postings that include the word Alteryx in the title. And so, therefore, they come into my feed. And I click through and just kind of look at the job descriptions and you're definitely starting to see more and more of those job descriptions include not just, "Hey, do you have experience with Alteryx? Are you certified?" That kind of thing but they'll say, "Hey, we're looking for someone with familiarity with Python, Json, XML." All these different things that are maybe considered a little bit more developer-y. So yeah, that's an exciting development to see. Development becoming more of a term associated with the Alteryx lexicon. 

TASHA 18:46 

That is so awesome. I think that just seeing Inspire also growing over the past few years, I think this was my fifth Inspire. Because I was very fortunate to go to Inspire UK last year also. I went from talking about APIs and extensibility and connectivity during tech tracks to two or three rows of people to I think every session was standing room only this year. And that's so incredible. 

BRIAN 19:17 

Well, when we put your name on the agenda, it's going to be standing room only Tasha. Let's just be honest about what's happening here. 

TASHA 19:24 

Oh, man. I wish. 

BRIAN 19:28 

So let's dig into your software engineering background. And now you're a product manager. And maybe you could explain to the folks listening what are the major differences in those two roles? And then maybe gives us the inside baseball here on what's a big challenge you've faced? What's a project you've worked on and how did you approach that and overcome whatever that challenge might have been? 

TASHA 19:55 

Yeah, definitely. In software engineering, you're really dealing at the most basic-- or not basic like the lowest level of a problem. And that's a really cool place to be because you're solving challenges. You get information from your product manager that says, "Okay, this is the experience that I want my user to have and here are some key features or requirements about what this feature should entail or how the process should work." And then as the developer, you're really challenged with going in and saying, "Okay, I've got-- I'm implementing this but I also need to be really aware of the edge cases or how this might impact another area of the product and communicate." So I think that there's this widespread notion that software engineering is locked in a closet and coding in the dark. I do prefer to code in the dark, I mean I'm not going to lie. But you really do have to be thinking about how what you're doing affects other teams or other areas of the product. So I think that if you walked around the second floor of our office here, where most of our developers sit, it's an incredibly collaborative environment. You see different team members talking to other teams. There's code reviews going on and it's a really cool, dynamic environment to be a part of. And so moving over to product management, I think one of the hardest things for me to go through was knowing that when I wrote a requirement or a story that sometimes I would know how to implement it. Or how I thought it might need to be implemented and really letting go and stepping back and handing it off to the next person or handing it off to the team. But I also get to work with our customers more directly. I get to think more about the product as a whole and where we're going and what the industry is doing and what our customers really need. And so that's kind of been my theme for the year, which is expanding my reach. So I think it's easy to get into maybe a complacent state with either your work or a workout. I'm a big fan of fitness like cycling and running and things like that. So I think it's really easy to become complacent sometimes but you have to start to think, "Okay, what more could I do to positively impact my customers or people at my work." Or, "What more can I do to help my friends?" Or it's really any area of life that you can apply this to. And so with working in product management, I feel like I get to positively impact Alteryx developers everywhere with the work that we're doing to put out the Developer Community and new SDKs and samples and all of those different types of content. 

BRIAN 23:07 

And I think this is the part of the show where we should have everybody just pause and go work out and then come back-- 

TASHA 23:14 

Do some burpees. 

BRIAN 23:16 

--in honor of Tasha. I think that this is great. We're encouraging fitness here along with software development. So it's wonderful. 

TASHA 23:24 

Oh, I'm happy I could slip that in there. Now if I can make a plug about recycling or things like that, then I'll have accomplished all of my mission for today. 

BRIAN 23:33 

Okay. Well, we're going to get there. Just give it time. So one of the other topics I wanted to catch up with you on is-- as an organization, I believe Alteryx is doing very well from a diversity standpoint. But I wanted to kind of hear your perspective on it. Obviously, you're in what has traditionally been a male-driven profession. So being in software development and product management. But clearly, you've had tons of great opportunities here. I'd just love to get your experience and thoughts on that, and maybe tell us a little bit about Girls who Code as well. 

TASHA 24:12 

Yeah, definitely. At Alteryx, I love our environment here. We have people of all varying backgrounds and different experience levels. And as a woman in a previously- like you said- more male-dominated industry, I think that it's so great to never feel any different. And I really don't ever feel any different in my day-to-day work. And that's fantastic. I think we have a really great group of people working on this product and working at this company who have a really high level of empathy. And to your point about Girls who Code, that's so exciting. Some of the engineers here organize a local chapter of Girls who Code. And I've gotten to go for the past two or three years now and talk to them and hear about what they're working on. And that's so awesome because when I was in school, I think that I learned how to balance a checkbook on one of those really big calculators that you-- like a tax professional would sit on a desk and the receipt paper prints off. And that was the extent and maybe a little bit of typing. So I'm incredibly enthusiastic about programming at a younger age. I think that's amazing. So I hope that I get asked to come back this year to talk to that Girls who Code group. I think it's incredible that they're keeping that going. And I've even met some of the participants later after they've finished. And I think that coding is something that they say they want to continue doing and that's amazing. 

BRIAN 26:02 

So when you decided to jump over to the software development side, what sparked that? What was sort of the catalyst for you thinking, "Hey, I want to go from where I'm at, in this sort of BI world into writing code specifically?" 

TASHA 26:15 

So throughout my entire career, I felt like I had always skirted around software engineering. And whenever I came out of school I had done the SSIS migration project. I had worked in different IT systems in school and then I went into QA. So I was working with other peoples' code. And then in business intelligence, I was writing a little bit of VBA to generate reports. And coming into Alteryx working as a content engineer, I got to work with code more directly building out those different tools. But I felt like I really wanted the full experience of being part of a development team, and really being able to spend an entire day working on a problem and going all the way from requirements and understanding what needed to happen, to implementing it and learning how to test it. And have code that was in production. That was just such an interesting and alluring idea to me and I was ready to go all the way to the end and know what it was like to do that. And maybe one day become an architect. So I kept writing code in my current role and really trying to do what I could on my own to advance those skills. So figuring out different design patterns or getting code reviews by more advanced people in the company. And everyone was so amazing and receptive to that and helped me out a ton. And so once the opportunity came up, I just studied like crazy and luckily it worked out. 

BRIAN 28:00 

Okay. So for our final segment of the show, it is community pick time. So Tasha, what has been interesting to you lately? 

TASHA 28:07 

So going back to the start of the program, I'll highlight a few things that have been so great to me whenever I was going through this process of learning about software engineering. And so the first one is a podcast put on by some of my friends over at Netflix, and that is Front End Happy Hour. They put out great episodes about front-end technologies for developing. And they're just a really great crew to listen to. They have different guests on all the time and I love them. Another podcast along the same lines that I'd like to sneak in there is Base.cs. So if you're getting started with programming, I think it's really common these days to not have an official CS degree. The show highlights different types of boot-camps and things like that. And so Base.cs is a really fantastic podcast put on by two totally rad women and they talk about core foundational concepts of computer science. So there's one about Big O notation and all types of great different topics. They've gone through two seasons now and every single one of them is so great. I have one along the lines of figuring out what works for you and if you're trying to figure out how to manage time or if you just feel like you have a lot of content. There's so much content out in the world these days to consume and if you're really interested in following industry trends for your work or you want to follow the latest news with the Tour de France - like I am - I really recommend and love Feedly as a content aggregator. It allows you to group different sites into different categories. So I have a site for platforms and industries and then I have a section for cycling and different sections. So I get a nice snapshot of what all of my favorite sites for content are doing. And it just allows me to manage my time a little bit better. And then my last one is Developer Community. So like I mentioned were coming up on a year pretty soon. And there have just so many great questions going on and cool ideas. And we would love to have your questions there or see what you're interested in working on. I answer questions there all the time so if you are thinking about using the Python SDK for a certain use case and you don't know if that's the right way to go, just post a question, and we will be happy to answer it. 

BRIAN 30:55 

Excellent. Those are great picks. And to round it out, I will just say that we recently launched a beta program. Something that was-- well actually, so we had a beta program before-- I would say that what we've redone or what we've done really is relaunched the beta program and it's super cool and awesome now. And so if you go on Community and you go to the Getting Started section and then you click on Join Beta Program, you can get all the details there. And of course, we'll put the links to all this on the show notes in community dot Alteryx dot com slash podcast. So Tasha, thank you for being on the show. Where do people go to get more Tashas? Are you big time on Twitter? Where do we find you? 

TASHA 31:37 

Oh, that's a good question. So I definitely use Twitter more than anything else. And then if you'd like to get access to me directly, I would say Alteryx community on Dev Space is the perfect place to go. It's my morning regimen to grab a cup of coffee and settle in and check out what's going on on Dev Space. So hit me up there. 

BRIAN 31:59 

Very cool. Well, thanks so much for being on. I really enjoyed the conversation. I think our listeners will too and we will be talking to you again soon. 

TASHA 32:09 

Thank you so much for having me. This was so great [music]. 



This episode of Alter Everything was produced by Maddie Johannsen (@MaddieJ).