Engineer to Engineer: Art is in the Code
Written by Sarah Wachs
From left to right: Sarah Wachs and Gaelle Despoulain
In this edition of Engineer to Engineer Sarah Wachs a Women Who Code Berlin Network Lead, and a Developer for Netlight, interviewed Gaelle Despoulain, a full stack web developer for IONOS. They spoke about the convergence of art and tech, the foundation of the internet and her experiences with it, and overcoming the challenges of being a woman in the industry.
To get started can you talk a bit about how you got started in tech?
That’s an interesting question because I have been into tech since my early childhood. I was good in several fields, and I wanted to go into art actually, but I also really loved computers. My father, who’s 66 now, was there at the beginning of IT. He enjoys tinkering, learning by himself, and he was good at it. He once turned an old Telex machine into a printer by reprogramming it, just for fun.
Growing up, I was always surrounded by machines like Amigas and old Macs. With my little brother, we played games like Pac-Man on floppy disks. When I was 13, my father built me my first computer. It was really unusual at the time for a family to have one, let alone a kid to have one just for herself!
I wanted to go into the arts because I enjoyed, and still enjoy, drawing and writing stories. However, I also wanted to go into IT. At the time, it was too early to really combine the two so I followed my teacher’s suggestion and studied math and physics, and got an engineering degree. I realized, too late, it was only technical and not artistic, but I was quite good at it — and liked it. So, I made the conscious choice to pursue software engineering.
When I got my first job, I started in a field that was quite different from what I studied. My background was supposed to be in artificial intelligence and imaging; but if you wanted to do that professionally, your only choice was between research and teaching — or maybe video games, but it was a hard path. So, I chose something else: the web.
That all sounds really cool! You’ve had such a long career already and have worked in quite a few different countries and also different companies. Would you consider being there when it all became what it is today a highlight of your career?
Yeah, really the most interesting thing is that I discovered the web when the web was discovering itself. I was also almost in the right country, because North America is where everything started, especially the US. I learned all the basics that are quite mainstream today, how they work, how they first took shape. It was an incredible experience.
Absolutely. Today most people who want to do something in IT are going into something web-related because so much has moved there. Now to turn from studying in France to working in Canada, what brought you to Germany?
It was basically a deal with my boyfriend! We were in Canada because he had an opportunity there at the time, and he wanted to pursue it. I was not really happy at the beginning because it was far from home, but we gave it a shot for two and a half years. And after that, we decided to move closer to home again — Europe. I was missing my culture. And bread. And croissants!
Why Germany though? It’s a little bit silly but I always loved Germany because of a childhood memory. I studied German at school, out of pure curiosity, and I remember liking how the language sounds, and the visits to the country through lots of class trips. It was really cool, it was my first time discovering a new culture — I got emotionally attached, I guess. So, I told my boyfriend: after Canada, it was only right that we try Germany next!
He was able to complete his thesis in the North (Lübeck) and quickly found work. From my side, I found a lot of opportunities too; but then, four years later, we found a better one in Karlsruhe and moved there. I started working at IONOS. And we bought a house now, so I guess we’re here to stay!
One thing that might be interesting for the audience is that you have had this long career working in different countries, cultures, and companies. Do you think there was anything that was different for you because you are a woman, or do you feel that didn’t really have an impact so much?
I would say it depends on the time period. When I was in Canada, I never had the impression that there was a difference. I had female colleagues, the whole workplace was very welcoming, and I wasn’t really thinking much about it at the time.
I do remember experiencing a huge change from the culture in France, though, outside of the job. You know, on the streets, for example. Damn, you could walk on the road side and just … be left alone! When I compare this to cities like Paris and Strasbourg (where I was in my 20s), it was a huge difference. The big French cities are nightmarish. You can’t walk 10 feet (3 meters) without being harassed. In Canada, it was so quiet, so good, I had the impression that I could do — or be — anything.
When we moved to Germany, I can’t say it’s like France. Germany is still very traditionalist, in a way, but it’s better. Still, I can remember an incident, when I was looking for jobs in North Germany. One company had me do a kind of trial day — I was given an assignment, and I completed it in a day. I remember them being surprised (maybe they didn’t expect that) and the team lead commenting “Wow, for a woman, I didn’t expect you to code so fast.”
Right? It’s easy to say that this job was a no-go for me. But this made me realize how often I had experienced similar incidents in the past: at university for example, in France, with the idea that, because I was a woman, it was easier for me to get good grades … because only 20% of the students in IT were female so we were favored.
I am already a perfectionist, but I think all of this made it worse. Because I always live under the impression that I have something to prove. That I have to be better than everyone, especially men, that I have to be the best, just so that I can be recognized as equal and that my contribution can be valued.
Well, at least it’s better now. I have quite a good work environment where I really feel safe. And I think that, compared to even ten years ago, there is less sexism. At work, in our culture, in the media. I hope it continues because even if you don’t see so much of the silly stereotypes you did before, there’s still a lot of work to do!
I like your point about the media because sometimes you watch a movie that’s only ten years old and you’re constantly cringing.
Yeah! I used to be a big fan of 80s action movies — oh my — they have lots of stereotypes throughout them. Watching them now can be really painful. Fortunately, there were also a few really good movies from these times, with “strong” female characters, like in Alien or in Terminator and it was really cool.
It also makes me happy to see these issues being brought up, and discussed, and changed, in the media and in the workplace. Where I currently work, I know it’s a topic that has really started to gain traction.
That’s a great transition to my next question. Can you tell me about your current workplace and what you and your team are working on?
At IONOS, we’re really focusing on WordPress. WordPress has only gotten bigger over the years as a tool for building websites. It’s a Content Management System (CMS) and we host it on a platform that allows any user, even non-tech-savvy users, to install it with just one click. I like this principle because, even if WordPress is one of the easiest CMS on the market, it requires some getting used to when you don’t have a background in web applications. If you want to fully understand it, you have to have some technical knowledge, download and install the files, understand configuration and database, and so on. Your average user doesn’t want to waste time and energy on that.
Not only that, but you also run into other issues like managing your domain, right?
Right! It’s complicated. For example, domain binding in WordPress still has some problems and you may want to use plugins or themes for that, but you don’t know which ones to install. With that also comes some security concerns because it’s an open community, where everyone can contribute, so you have many, many plugins and themes available. You have to be vigilant and check the security standards of the ones you want to use.
Our product allows our users to avoid these complexities and go directly to the fun part. Our key focus is to understand our users better and help them the best we can. We want to know if there are more steps we need to implement, to guide them on their journey, etc.
This must fit you very well since you’re really interested in user-centered design. I think working on providing WordPress as a tool for everyone to build their own website is a great way to get in touch with many users from all levels.
It’s also one of the challenges. Because we are a very big hosting company, and we have millions of users! It’s hard to “get to know them” when you can’t reach each of them personally, just like you do when you design single websites. We need to define groups, somehow. To build a spectrum, which ranges from people who know PHP to people who don’t even know what a desktop on a computer is.
As we continue to understand where users stand, we create step-by-step tools that automate a lot of things. An automated process makes choices that the user can skip if they know what they’re doing, or just follow along if they’re not experienced. Meanwhile, we take care of things like security, configuration, caching, etc., to make sure the website has all the basic requirements. And we ensure that what our users choose to add on their own isn’t some shady software!
I don’t know if you can talk about this but how do you reach your users? What are you using to find out what users want or need?
That’s a big question! The department where we are is quite young, so it’s still kind of just starting, but we have a lot of projects. One of the projects I want to do is, for example, user tests: having people come in and test the software directly in front of us, it will really help us gain qualitative information on their interactions.
We also want to monitor what users are doing, what kind of plugins they favor, for instance. It’s a field where you have to be careful about what you are doing. We need statistics and not personal data, but still, we have to choose the right tools, the right protocols, and we have to always be very focused on preserving our user’s privacy and security.
User experience is a hard thing to measure. You have to be very aware of the world you work in, and you have to ask the right questions. That’s what it is, in the end. I remember reading an article about user experience that said exactly this. UX is not design. UX is asking questions, and design is answering them. If you ask good questions, you can be a little surer that you’ll get quality answers.
Especially since, as we mentioned earlier, users can have such different levels of knowledge. It can be extremely hard to formulate the question in a way that’ll get a good answer.
You have to focus on specific topics. For example, connecting the domain. Staying in touch with the problems users are having is really helpful because you’ll discover something that you didn’t think about before. This can range from technical problems, but also includes things like clarity. Are we making it clear what a domain is and how it is related to their page? Have we informed our users how it can influence their search engine ranking?
We have to be aware of these types of issues, and be broad in what we offer, so that we consider a wide range of users.
I think WordPress hits the sweet spot for something that’s powerful but still accessible to the majority of people. It’s a really cool way for a lot of people to have an internet presence.
Speaking of users, what do you think are some of the challenges that users face today on the internet?
I think it’s knowing about how to be visible on the net. When the internet started, it was easier to be “on Google’s first page,” because it was just starting. It wasn’t rocket science at the time. You’d go to an agency, they’d apply the basic rules of SEO, and it would work decently. Today, even if you know how to do that, it’s tricky because the web has become so huge.
Here’s an example. Imagine being a baker, and you want people in your surrounding area to discover you. You have to know where to start. Maybe in this case, the point is not to be visible on the entire web, but to be visible in the area you can do business in! So you’re not trying to be on the first page anytime someone types in “baker” on Google, which would be very hard to achieve; but maybe it’d be a more reasonable — and productive — goal to appear on the first page when someone types in “baker” followed by your city name.
It’s important that our customers understand this context, and that we help them understand it. Today, the internet is too big. You have to define more precisely what you want to achieve with it, so you can achieve it.
You have to think about how you find the people that are relevant for you. Being on Page 3 on Google for baker might be a big achievement, but it probably won’t help you much if your goal is to reach the few people that are in your area.
Exactly! I don’t think small bakers want to ship bread across the country. Especially in these times where many small businesses could really stay afloat by going online with e-commerce, it’s important they see who their own customers are.
We have, I believe, many customers like this. We call them small to medium enterprises (or SMEs). Many of them often lack the time or money they can invest in the creation of a large and custom web presence by a professional agency. What they need is something simple and efficient, and they really can benefit from it, but you don’t always need the whole marketing package. You may not even need a website. For some businesses, you may even just need a social media presence! If we go back to our baker, it might even be a more efficient way for people nearby to find you!
Maps as well. You can ensure you’re on Google Maps so potential customers can see there’s a bakery and what your operating hours might be.
Those are the types of tools we want to make sure users have and that’s why we make them accessible with just one click. What the users need, in the end, is to be guided — to be advised on what they require for their business to be successful.
That sounds like a great user-centric approach! Is there anything that any developer should keep in mind if they really want to keep this user focus when they are developing?
Definitely try to put yourself in the user’s shoes. We have a method here we call the “red chair.” The idea is simple: you have a red chair, and when you sit in it, you are the user. That means, you forget everything you know. I don’t think many developers do that and it’s usually for two reasons.
One, I think it’s not a reflex, because we tend to view developing as fun and full of creativity, and we forget sometimes what the ultimate goal of our work is.
Two, I think we tend to think that it’s not our job to do that. We think it’s for marketing teams or product managers to think about users; but in the end, they can’t think about every single detail that comes up during development. We also have to keep the user experience in mind when we sort out the little details. At times, it’s clear that something may work in one case, but let’s not forget about all the other scenarios that users may find themselves in, and where it won’t work as we’d intended.
We have to put ourselves in the red chair more often.
I think that’s an awesome technique! When you forget everything you know, then you can focus more on a particular customer’s perspective.
One other thing I find makes for a great learning experience is to watch user tests. You watch an hour of real people testing your product and, I can tell you … first you go crazy. At first, you don’t understand. You see someone struggling to find a button, and you want to scream, “It’s there! It’s right there!” It forces you to take a different point of view. It has nothing to do with intelligence but more so with what people are used to. And the benefit of these observations is that you slowly get it. There’s a real distance that exists between someone who’s really deep into a software, and someone who is just casually using it.
My team, for example, is building tools to make websites. What are people going to think about when they want to write content for their website? They’re going to first think about Microsoft Word, because it’s text, right. Then they’re going to right-click because that’s how you format text in Microsoft Word and how you access more options. They’re also going to look for all of the settings in a bar at the top of the page because that’s how it’s usually displayed in word processing software.
And you usually only have these types of insights when you’re watching people do it in real-time, be it in person or through monitoring software — or both. It’s really eye-opening. And frustrating! Because it’s almost like you’re actively watching your own failings!
That’s really good advice.
We don’t have much time left, so as a final question is there anything that you’re super excited about for the future of your work or things you see on the horizon?
I’d like to stay on the topic of why I’m doing this interview. I’m really excited to see more women in this space. Seeing more women represented in tech can shift both the technology and the overall culture in the industry because we bring different perspectives.
Why? Because men and women are educated in different ways. Women are encouraged to act more compassionately. Men are encouraged to be more competitive. That means until we can dissolve these stereotypical gender roles until we can achieve equality both in the workplace and at every level of our society, we need a good balance between what women and men can bring to our field. Until the day comes when only our individual differences matter. In this future, gender diversity won’t even be a topic anymore. It will just be.
I think that was a great last word!