Conversations #73: Martina Mickos, Senior Principal Software Engineer, Workday
Eliza Sarobhasa, Leadership Fellow at Women Who Code Python, interviews Martina Mickos, Architect at Workday. They discuss Martina’s Workday roles, what an architect's day-to-day looks like, and what skills are essential for the position.
How did you choose this path, and when did you know you wanted to go into tech?
I don't think I knew what being an engineer or working in tech was like until I had my internship at Workday. Choosing computer science was a practical choice. When you're in high school, you don't know what kind of career paths are out there. Looking at the list of majors applying to college, CS is aligned. I liked math and science in school. I didn't want to be a doctor. I also enjoyed my photography class and French growing up. UC Urban has a large variety of computer science majors. I picked a pretty interdisciplinary one. It's not just a theory in computer science and algorithms. It's human-computer interaction, software design, technical writing, automation, and quality assurance. I got to see a lot of that, which was fun, and the creative process of crafting software. That led me to Workday and wanting to go into engineering as a full-time job.
What has your journey been like at Workday?
In college, I applied to any and every internship I could find. I heard about Workday and the great culture and leadership. There was already some talk of IPO, and being in a pre-IPO company is always interesting. They were happy to take me. I was in the first group of interns in the application development area. They had hired interns before, but not in a legal capacity. I went into the team, not knowing what each team and enterprise software was about. It was a great experience. I was lucky to get an offer to come back after graduation. Workday is a growing company, so even though things were the same and I had already had a little experience, I joined a slightly different team. It was a new functional area, and I worked to use this proprietary program language. In the application development area, you spend about five weeks in a boot camp where you learn it.
I've been at Workday for ten years, so I've had a lot of different teams. Four years in, I wanted to dive into the other parts of the Workday stacks. I liked our transactional system, which powers all our apps. It’s more on the back end than our customers' building products. I had worked with this team before on some performance and scalability projects. They took me with open arms, happy to transition me. I learned new skills like Java. It was a little intimidating because I hadn't used it for almost four and a half years since college. Learning a language in school differs from using it in a professional setting.
I took that opportunity, which was a significant career change for me. After that, I worked in analytics products. We acquired a company called Platfora. It's a data analytics solution. We were integrating their technology into the Workday stack, and my team asked if I would want to go over and help them. I knew how Workday works and this proprietary language and got to help integrate those people, see their culture, and see how we could be a single company. I spent a year with them, which was fun. Then I returned to my original team but wanted to return to this analytics product.
They used Spark for data processing, which is different. I hadn't had experience with that before. I was there for a few years doing various kinds of back-end things. It was really on the data preparation and data processing side. You have multiple data sets. You blend them, join them and transform them into user data you can analyze or report on. That's a pretty heavy front end and a lot of back end. I like coming back closer to that product focus as opposed to just a framework that other developers use. That's what led me to my current role.
Can you describe what a technical architect is and what your day-to-day looks like?
The roles, job profiles, and responsibilities in different companies change a little between the titles. It might be a senior principal engineer or an architect, and they might have the same duties within a team. The titles don't necessarily equate to the same day-to-day. Within my current team, we're looking at the Workday architecture as it currently is and what we need to do to move forward and bring it into a modern stack. We've had the same architecture for 15-ish years. It's time to reevaluate and come up with some new solutions.
How are we building apps? Is that the right way to do it? Where are the pain points that our developers have? What can we do to make it better? That's our primary focus. There's also some M&A due diligence work on the technical side. If we're making any acquisitions, our team is there to provide feedback and talk to those other companies. I have yet to do that, but I know that's part of our focus. We're also looking at how you develop your engineering career and figuring out what resources we should make available. What are some programs we can have for our younger engineers? At Workday, we now have two tracks for individual contributors. You can go into architecture with some more high-level system or platform level. Or you can go into engineering, where you're an expert in some areas but are more focused on building certain things. You might be an expert in some technology.
Day to day, it's a lot of meetings, a lot of getting together with other people and collaborating on exceptionally complex problems and breaking them apart into small pieces and tackling one at a time. As an architect, you are often your team's voice or in the team's or organization's technical direction. It is a big responsibility. You are making decisions, writing those decisions down, and identifying problems and solutions. It is less coding, but there's room for that too.
What technical skills do you think are essential for your current role?
Having the Workday technical background has gotten me where I am. If you focus on something you love, I think you have that skill set that others will find helpful. If you are good at writing code, you must also have system or architecture skills and design patterns. How to be an engineering team or organization is also essential. There are non-technical skills too. You're collaborating, presenting your ideas or your group's ideas, taking feedback, having dialogue, and being able to take that feedback or criticism. You have to be able to sell your ideas and take the initiative to speak.
Can you tell us about Workday and how it's changed since you started working there?
Ten years is a long time—also an opportunity for a lot of growth. There are more customers and employees. We've grown in both those directions. The requirements of customers are changing. We have more scalability challenges, significant customers, employees, and data. Community involvement at Workday has grown. We are helping close the opportunity gap and supporting women in tech. I think the culture has stayed the same internally. Workday is a great place to work.
How has Workday supported you as a leader?
My managers and leaders have been very supportive of personal growth in general. Whatever product I work on is the principal focus. It's still ensuring you're happy and helping you find those other learning experiences, or maybe it's a rotation. I could do a Scrum Master project management role for about six months. I was interested in management too, and you do a lot of project management as the engineering manager. Getting promotions is another way. Having the title goes a long way.
Workday has a great workplace culture, like diversity and inclusion. Could you describe some of their initiatives to support their employees?
We have a lot of belonging councils or groups. You can find the one you feel you belong to, but they're open to everybody, which is excellent. They put on a lot of speaker series. During covid, we got Thank You Fridays in 2020 and 2021. Every few Fridays, we would get the day off. On a similar note, we get time off to volunteer. On the benefits side, it's not just medical benefits or health insurance. It's also fitness reimbursement; you can join a gym and get an Apple Watch or a Fitbit. Also, part of that is mental health benefits. We're adding things almost every year. We have internship programs for people who have been out of their careers for a while. We partnered with Diversify by Design, the San Francisco State University, to bring underrepresented groups into Design.
What are you passionate about outside of your job?
I love bunnies. I have one. They're cute and fluffy and help me de-stress outside of work. I'd love to rescue all of them. I love being outside, going on a hike or traveling, working out, and doing yoga. I think that helps me manage my stress. I love cooking. I'm trying to focus on the things that bring me joy.
Do you have any advice or pro tips you'd like to pass on to other women to help them progress in this industry?
Be patient. It's sometimes challenging, especially being a woman in tech or any underrepresented group. Your promotion might not come immediately. Someone might tell you no, or you might feel very awkward being the only woman in a meeting of 10 people. Be inquisitive and not just learn. If something is interesting to you, talk to your manager or your peers about it. Make connections, and not just within work. It will help to have a group where you feel like you belong. Don't try to be someone else. Just be yourself and be okay with being yourself.