The last couple months, people have been telling me my LinkedIn profile picture doesn’t look like me. I refused to hear it; I’m reluctant to give up my youth. Nevertheless, I stumbled upon a new headshot last week. When I look at the two side-by-side, I do in fact see two different people.

When I look back at 2016 Melissa, I see someone had a very low opinion of herself. She was unconfident in her professional belonging due to feeling intellectually inferior. She thought that other software engineers possessed a level of intellect that was fundamentally unachievable for herself. She stayed in her comfort zone for fear of failing in unknown territory. Just the phrase “distributed systems” would have the little iOS engineer running for the hills. It was a painful place to be.

When she became a manager, it was deeply uncomfortable managing web and backend engineers. How could she have any clout if she still didn’t know what Kubernetes was? She just nodded along when they explained concepts she didn’t understand. For years, she somehow obtained externally perceived success in her career while thinking Cassandra was just the name of one of her good friends, but felt like a fraud knowing there was a gaping hole in her knowledge.

Well, it turns out that all Engineering Manager roles require the System Design Interview. In an interview, she couldn’t hide behind her iOS chops or team of engineers. It was either figure out how to do this interview or, well, there was no other choice. She learned about storage options and how systems communicate with each other. She practiced designing URL shorteners and stock brokerages. She read every engineering blog she could get her hands on. In her first manager interview onsite panel, the recruiter said her coding and system design was one of the strongest the recruiter had ever seen. (She consequently flubbed the non-technical interviews.)

Breaking the mental barrier that had plagued me for so long gave me the confidence to tackle any concept, regardless of complexity, and boil it down to 1s and 0s. If it was for sunspots and wrinkles I had to trade this realization, I’d do it again ten out of ten times. Ironically, 2024 Melissa is having the most fun at her job so far; she’s designing payments infrastructure alongside her team of engineers.