How I Fail - Felienne Hermans | veronikach.com

How I Fail S01E22: Felienne Hermans (PhD’13, Software Engineering)

How I Fail - Felienne Hermans | veronikach.com
Felienne is assistant professor at Delft University of Technology, where she researches programming for everyone, from spreadsheet users to young kids. Felienne’s biggest passions in life is to share her enthusiasm for programming with others. She teaches programming in a community center in Rotterdam every week, she organizes the Joy of Coding conference, a one day developer conference in Rotterdam celebrating the joy and art of programming, and she is a host at SE radio, one of the most popular software engineering podcasts on the web.

If she is not coding, blogging or teaching, she is probably dancing Lindy Hop, running or playing a (board)game. Felienne blogs at felienne.com

1. Hi Felienne, thanks for joining How I Fail! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I am Felienne, recently tenured assistant professor at TU Delft. For my PhD thesis I worked on helping spreadsheet users design better spreadsheets, with techniques to find errors and to restructure complex spreadsheets. My recent research concerns teaching programming to young children, and their teachers.

2. Was there any particular event that made you decide to join this series?

As a community, academia is very much about celebrating successes, but not that great and celebrating, or even acknowledging failures. Which is weird. Since science is so much about trying and failing and learning from it. Also I love the fact how you put so much efforts into this series so I felt I wanted to give back to you for the amazing work you do on making failures a normal topic.

V: Aww, thanks!

3. What failures have been most memorable to you in your career so far? Were there any differences between your PhD and tenure track?

Well… define failure. There are different types of failure, so I will do a few if you are ok with that.

Immediate failures: An immediate failure is a failure that you know when it happens.

My biggest one or at least the one that hurt most is when I applied for a personal grant in ‘14 that I did not get. One of the reasons, I think, is that I felt like I needed to have that one grant to succeed in academic life, and therefore the writing took lost of energy and the rejection hurt A LOT. What I learned form that is that there is always another grant and there are multiple ways to success (although sadly there seems to be a Matthew effect from this particular grant)

Failed research: When you run an experiment but it does not work out the way you want.

This is an interesting type of failure that we talk too little about I think. I always want to write great blog posts about this, but it never happens. I once ran an experiment where we needed kids with advanced programming knowledge, and a teacher volunteered his class. We drove for 2 hours to get to the school, turns out the kids were not as advanced as the teacher thought. This taught me the value of assessment!

Slow failures: The type of failure that you only know happened in hindsight.

I think if you talk about failures you talk about the immediate ones, but the slow ones are interesting too. Sometimes you are on the wrong path for a long time, but it seems like the right one! For me I think the first year of my tenure track was one big slow failure. I had no research plan other than ‘continue my thesis work’ and in hindsight I was not so interested in that topic anymore. I also had no prioritization or planning skills, so I did lots of tiny things, but since I had not big goal, they did not really add up to anything real. I felt miserable about not achieving anything and about not loving my topic. Of course the immediate failure f not getting the personal grant did not help. I only got out of this failure mode by total coincidence, because I stumbled onto a new topic (programming for kids) not because I did anything concrete to face myself from this failure.

4. Is there anything that you feel like you are currently failing at?

I would love to have more relaxed chat time with students. I do not like it that there is little time to just run into each other and chat, because to keep myself sane I need to plan my day well. I know it is the best for them ultimately, if I take good care of myself then I will be a better supervisor than when I engage on things I cannot keep up like ad hoc meetings, but I still feel bad about it because I would like to be the type of supervisor that can just do that.

Also I fail at being as good as Veronika in blogging!

5. What are your best tips for dealing with rejections, stress etc?

Stress and rejection are not the same, so I deal with them differently too.

Rejection

Rejection remains painful, but I have gotten better at dealing with it. When my personal grant got rejected for the second time (on a different topic) I told myself: ‘it is okay to just feel sad about this, no need to be strong, no need to fix this now’. That helped. What also helped was that the second time around I actually like writing the grant proposal. I had an idea, I was inspired and the background work I did was useful to me in exploring other ideas later on, and some ended up in related work sections of later papers. If you just write a proposal to get funding, getting the grant is the only thing that will make you happy. If you enjoy the process of thinking about a research direction, of finding related papers and of writing the grant, the success of the grant is less important.

Stress

Stress is different of course, just like with failure, there is immediate stress like when a grant is rejected and long lasting stress because of all the work we have to do. I learned a lot from the great post by Philip Guo why academics feel overworked? We have so many sources of work: courses, research, committees etc. I battle stress by doing rigorous time tracking and limiting my working hours to 5 days a week, max 9 hours a day, usually during regular hours. Limiting my time forces me to prioritize heavily and time tracking helps me understand where I spent the most time, and whether I am happy with that. Also I run! 20 km every week. No excuses. Health is more important than work (and also me doing this shows my students that I do not only say it but that I mean it)

6. Do you have any advice on how to approach discussing these issues with your colleagues?

Not sure I have valuable advice here… I think in these types of discussions it is important to know what you want. Take the running for example, when a collaborator suggested that I could also not run to make more time to work on a shared project, I simply said that was an outrageous proposal, as ridiculous as proposing to save time by not eating. But that is how I am. If you simply are not the type of person to do this, this advice is useless. Also things have gotten a lot easier since I got tenure. Both practically (I do not worry about not having a job) and mentally (I can tell myself I am doing fine and I also believe it now :))

7. What type of things do you wish would be given more weight in hiring and promotion decisions?

Of course it is hard to answer this question without bias! You are basically asking what parts of my job I enjoy 🙂 I like giving talks about my research to non-scientists, so that should count a lot more if you ask me.

But I also believe that, in the time we are in, it is important to keep a connection with the ‘general public’. Vaccination grades are going down because people do not believe scientists, funding decreases in many places because people think we aren’t doing valuable work. It is our responsibility to keep people informed and engaged.

A second thing I think should be given more weight is work regarding diversity. I time track so I can tell you I have spent about 50 hours last year on diversity initiatives inside and outside of the university. That is about an hour a week, ranging from giving lectures to young girls to advising colleagues. This does not help my career at all, in fact it could harm it. And the male colleagues that are already more privileged do not have to do any of this. Some do of course (thank you if you are one of those!!) but they are not expected to. Since I am one of the few women in our department, people come to me.

8. How do you think the difference in numbers of men and women in computer science affects our relationships towards failure?

It is hard to say because there are so many aspects at play here! I think that the hardest is that people in our field have an image in their heads of how female success looks like, of that the ‘story’ is for successful women. Does that make sense? Because of that they create new, alternative stories like: the woman in question was lucky, or supported by a smart supervisor or something else. The narrative that some women are just smarter is hard to swallow for some men still even though they might give lip service to diversity.
I tweeted about this a while back:

9. What about the recent rise in student numbers in CS? Are things going to be different for them?

Yes I think so, I spoke to a programmer from Silicon Valley last week and she indicated there is now a surplus of people that can program and it gets harder to find a job unless you possess specific technical skills. With so many 1st year students in our program (my program is said to have about 800 next year!) it will likely be harder in the Netherlands too.

10. What is the best piece of advice you could give to your past self?

Not sure I have something here to be honest! Given advice to your past self is weird, it gets me thinking about alternative timelines. If I give the advice, does that affect my current self? How am I writing this when all my great advice should have resulted in me retiring and living on a beach somewhere and thus not writing this piece? 🙂

And in any case, Felienne of 2013 would not believe me, I am sure of that.

How I Fail - Felienne Hermans | veronikach.com

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