“Are You Technical Enough?”: Kelly Kitagawa, Senior Solutions Engineer at HashiCorp (Video + Transcript)

March 18, 2023

Kelly Kitagawa (Senior Solutions Engineer at HashiCorp) shares her experiences learning on the job, and talks about overcoming limiting beliefs around like mindsets and imposter syndrome. She recommends creating an education plan, reframing your story, and applying for the job.


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Angie Chang: She is a senior solutions engineer at HashiCorp. Is that how you say it?

Kelly Kitagawa: HashiCorp.

Angie Chang: Previously, she was at Splunk as a sales engineer and before that she was an IT project manager and Accenture consultant. She is here to unwind the loaded question “Are you technical enough?” And we are here for it! Welcome, Kelly.

Kelly Kitagawa: Thank you Angie. I am so honored to be with you all today and feel so grateful that you all are giving me the next 20 minutes of your time. Let’s go ahead and dive in. So let’s start with a story. I wanna go back in time to the year 2010 where there was a 21 year old woman who thought that she would never be able to graduate from engineering school. But on that day of her graduation, she still felt walking down that aisle that someone was gonna pull her out and say, you still have to take one more class, or you failed that class so you can’t graduate. And nevertheless, she graduated with less than 5% of graduating class being women. She then decided after engineering school to go into tech consulting and work for a large firm cuz she didn’t know what she wanted to do.

Kelly Kitagawa: Fast forward to the year 2016 and she decides that she wants to go back to her technical roots, but she doesn’t feel like she’s technical enough for the job. Somehow. Nevertheless, she continues and manages to convince someone to take a risk on her without a sales engineering experience and to give her the job.

Kelly Kitagawa: Now for those of you who don’t know what a sales engineer is or solutions engineer, basically what I do is I talk to technical people all day, every day and I help them solve their technical challenges with my particular product or learn about new technologies that are coming down the pipe that I’ve never heard of.

Kelly Kitagawa: But I am constantly on the hot seat presenting to customers and especially talking about technologies that I don’t have a large background in years and years of experience in. I have to learn really quickly on the job about that specific topic and go research it and then be able to present until the next day. Then this is when the feelings of not being technical enough really started to creep in hard. And then for this person this unnamed woman she starts getting more confident in herself and she gets voluntold to speak at her company’s keynote in front of 10,000 people on new product features.

Kelly Kitagawa: Fast forward to present day today in 2023, I am now a senior sales engineer and I work with our largest customers in the world to help solve some of their biggest technical challenges. My name is Kelly Kitagawa and I’m gonna share with you how I’ve overcome my biggest insecurity throughout my career, not feeling technical. In the next 20 minutes, I’ll discuss what I’ve learned in almost 15 years of being in tech, years of therapy, countless imposter syndrome workshops, TED Talks, mentors, in the hopes of helping any of you who may have shared those icky feelings before. Here’s how we’re gonna do it.

Kelly Kitagawa: We’ll start with the agenda here on what technical means. We’ll talk about what your limiting beliefs are and how to rewire them. Create an education plan and reframe your story. And apply this talk is for anyone, like I said, who may have said the same things to yourself – “I’m not technical enough” or “I don’t feel as technical as others”, and I want you to know that you have everything inside you that you need. I want you to walk away with something actionable today because presentations are so great and inspirational like so many of the amazing speakers at Girl Geek X today.

Kelly Kitagawa: But the real benefit of my talk you will get when you try some of these exercises out yourself at home. And I invite you to invest the time in yourself so that you feel worth it and that you are worth investing in yourself. Let’s start with what does technical even mean? I’d love to ask you all in the chat to say what, what is your word? Association with technical. Please feel free to put something in the chat, like what does technical mean to you? I’d love to hear any thoughts like what comes to mind for you when you hear the word technical math? Absolutely. Is it coding geek? Yes. What else? Like what? Engineering, coding, math. And so I went through this APIs, absolutely, introductional.

Kelly Kitagawa: I went through this exercise at my company which is a DevOps company and I interviewed and polled a bunch of people, very technical people, of what technical means to them. And these were some of the responses that I got – Having a mindset, willing to dig in, building mental pictures, figuring out how systems interconnect. Also having a strong attention to detail. Architecture. And my favorite one that one of my most senior leaders in my company said is really having a desire to learn, and the desire must be so great that you overcome the obstacles to understanding something difficult.

Kelly Kitagawa: What is the common pattern between all of this? The common pattern is that everyone has their own version of what technical means to them. It is such a washed term. Depends on what product you’re talking about. It depends on which company you’re at. Every role, even at the same company will have a completely different version of what technical means. Every person that you talk to has their own version and association with it. It is just a label. It is a label meant to gate keep you from applying to jobs and feeling less worthy than others. It is just a label. Do not let it have power over you. And a part of that, of letting go of that power is really thinking about a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.

Kelly Kitagawa: When I went to engineering school, I had a very fixed mindset. The fixed mindset showed up for me is I’ll never be as smart as that person. They were born. Smart coding just comes so easy to them. They’ve probably, everything comes easy to them on technical subjects, they’ve probably always felt comfortable. And the growth mindset says you’re a lifelong learner.

Kelly Kitagawa: The growth mindset says, I may not know it now, but I can learn it. The growth mindset says I like to try new things and that challenges help me grow. The growth mindset says uncomfortable equals growth, scary equals growth and failure is an opportunity to grow. This comes to exercise number one, which is putting these down on paper helps you to really see clearly on what your limiting beliefs are.

Kelly Kitagawa: My limiting belief was that I’m not technical enough. And so what the exercise I wanting to do is get a piece of paper, spend 10 minutes, write down what the automatic thoughts that your imposter syndrome, your shame monster says.

examine limiting beliefs daily

Kelly Kitagawa: Write it down and put all of them down there on the left hand side, right? Like, I don’t think I’m technical enough to apply for this job. I’ll never be as technical as them. Or if I do this presentation, I will lose all credibility and they won’t hire me. And then what I want you to do is write a reasonable response to that.

Kelly Kitagawa: I want you to pretend that you’re talking to your best friend, your mentor, your mom, whomever that would actually respond to that. And they would hear, I’m not technical, but your best friend would be like, actually didn’t you do a six month coding bootcamp and you learned to be a full stack dev engineer? Or didn’t you pass the highest architect certification? Or didn’t you just give a huge presentation on technical topics?

Kelly Kitagawa: Or it might even look like no one is born with knowledge and skills are not innate. They are developed over hours of practice and I may not know it now, but I can learn it or I’m grateful for this opportunity and if it doesn’t work out, at least I’ve learned something new and I can say I was courageous enough to try.

Kelly Kitagawa: I need you all to go really deep and think about what would make you feel more technical. Be specific, talk about it. Your feelings are not always facts. Gosh, we know that. But when you really look at and examine your thoughts and think about reasonable responses to them, your feelings will become brighter about it. But you really need to take the time to think very specifically and write it down on what it is you’re limiting beliefs are that are holding you back. And once you write down reasonable responses and you do this daily on a practice when imposter syndrome shows up for you in these certain settings, for me it was always going into customer meetings or presenting to my colleagues, analyze it.

Kelly Kitagawa: When does it show up for you? What would make you feel less technical? And change your relationship to this over time. The feelings of my imposter syndrome do not go away automatically. Instead, my relationship with those thought changes.Iit’s not about shoving it down and never feeling it. It’s really about being more at ease with these feelings and rewiring your brain.

Kelly Kitagawa: There are like probably four or five really good TED talks that I put in resources about rewiring your thoughts. It is true, it works and it’s powerful. And being able to have reasonable responses in your mind, will make this become powerful for you.

Kelly Kitagawa: I’ll ask you with the question, what would be the positive consequences of having a realistic and appreciative opinion of yourself? What if you spent all of that energy that you spent telling yourself you’re not enough, you’re not technical enough? What if you spent all of that energy into positive pieces about you? Like I can do it, I can learn it. It’s okay. How would that show up for you in your life if you talk to yourself like that.

Kelly Kitagawa: This goes on to the next part, of being super specific. When you say you’re not technical enough, what you really mean and is, I need to learn more about Kubernetes and clutter cluster architecture. It is so vague for you to say ‘you are not technical enough.’ Stop saying you are not technical enough. Stop saying that you are ‘not technical.’ Instead be specific, and be really clear on what would make you feel more technical and say, ‘I wanna learn more about coding and Go,’ rather than saying ‘I’m not technical.’

Kelly Kitagawa: Stop saying that and ask yourself, what will it take to make you feel more technical? Think about it and invest the time and then write it down and make an education plan. This is three columns that I made in my education plan in a spreadsheet and I have the task I wanna deploy. In order for me to feel more technical with HashiCorp products, I wrote down the tasks – like I wanna be able to deploy Vault on Kubernetes. I wanna use Terraform to manage vault, and I want to pass my AWS Architect exam. And I put the how of I made to do that and the date that I wanna complete it by. And then for me, accountability is really hard.

Kelly Kitagawa: What I did is I found a technical mentor, and I hold a recurring meeting with them every two or three weeks, and I work and it basically builds in, for me, forcing myself to have to do these exercises, and really pushing myself, so that I can take that shame monster and throw to the trash, and realize it actually I just did it. I did deploy bot on Kubernetes. So guess what? Turns out I am pretty technical and you are cuz guess what? The growth mindset says you are a lifelong learner and that you may not know it now, but you can learn it and you can learn anything.

Kelly Kitagawa: Another one that I’m hear a lot, especially for people in non-technical roles is ‘I’m not technical.’ What instead I would like you to say is ‘I’m not familiar with that specific integration.’ Again, stop saying you’re not technical and be really specific about what it is that you wanna learn or what it is that will make you feel less icky about it. Is it really just around integrations or architecture? Take the time to really think about it. And then this is the part of reframing your story. We’ve worked on the internal thoughts, the limiting beliefs, your education plan, but now it’s time to get you ready for the interview. Or for talking to someone about what you’d bring to the table. The thing about interviews, this is a very limiting belief, is people are born good interviewers. The facts are that the people who are best in interviews are the ones that are the most prepared.

Kelly Kitagawa: One of the things that I’ve found to be really helpful for me is, I have a giant document that is reusable and I have a bank of my stories, and so what these stories comprise of are experiences that brought me here, there are experiences like what I’m most proud of in my career that relate to this job, but again, having the big bank of all of these experiences, things that you’re most proud of, and then in my interview, I printed out in front of me, and then I talk about it, and I just have them ready to go, so you don’t like, on the back foot have to remember all of these stories, but I think that the most interesting stories are the ones where you didn’t know something and you had to learn it and overcome it.

Kelly Kitagawa: Make sure you have at least two of those in your interviews and have them ready to go to talk about at any time, especially if you’re career pivoting into a new role that you don’t have experience in in that area. Like so as an example, if when I was applying for a solutions engineer, I didn’t have solutions engineering experience. What I did talk about is here’s other areas where I didn’t know something and I was able to overcome it. One of the best indicators of success is past success. Remember that. Think about all of the other areas that may not be that exact thing, but there are other areas where you’ve had past success to show your grit, your resiliency.

Kelly Kitagawa: It is all about how you frame these stories to show your potential. Stop thinking about what your current background is and start thinking about the potential that you have and sell them on your potential. Don’t sell them on your past experience. Sell them on your potential and what you could bring to the company that they don’t have already.

Kelly Kitagawa: One of the things that I experienced many times, especially being in a interviewing for a job where I didn’t have experience in that role, the best thing that I learned to say is, ‘I have something that you don’t have.’ I have a background that you don’t already have on your team. I have something from a security background. Yes, this is the infrastructure space, but guess what I have experience in it and security. Do you have other people on your team, you know, that have that kind of experience? Frame how much value you can add, not how you would fit in. Think about what you will add.

Kelly Kitagawa: I always say this, especially around culture. I do not wanna go to a company where I fit into the culture. I wanna go to a company where I add to the culture. And making sure that your hiring manager sees what you can add to the team that they do not already have – it is so powerful. Remember, sell them on your potential and what you could bring to the team that they don’t have already – different experiences that you’re bringing to the table. All of these slides are available to you. If you want to look at these for reference, because you’re gonna do the exercises at home, hopefully, and these, I just put on the slide of past stories from my big bank, my document, so you all can look at them later.

Kelly Kitagawa: Making sure that you are able to very clearly say what you uniquely bring. And this is the part about what you could add to the team that they don’t already have. Have these stories, be able to articulate very clearly why you want this job, and talk about your proud moments. Like I said, one of the best indicators for success is past success. Talk about the past successes that you’ve had and sell them all right.

Kelly Kitagawa: Now I wanna take some time to talk about this one because I mentor a lot of women and particularly women of color and I get this so often, which is, oh, I don’t think I’m tech enough to apply for that job. And people are so good at self-deception <laugh>, they’re so good at telling themselves that, ‘oh it’ll probably too hard’ or ‘I don’t wanna make myself uncomfortable.’

Kelly Kitagawa: But again, what would be the positive consequences of having this amazing, amazing picture and confidence of like a white male, cis heterosexual man have = that confidence going into these interviews and think about what it would be like for them? Do they have those same thoughts? So, especially when you apply for a job, I just talked about this with my sister who wanted to apply. She’s like, ‘oh, I don’t, I don’t think it would be good for me. I don’t think I’ll be technical enough for this.’ And I said, ‘You don’t even have an offer. You’re already saying no to the job and you don’t even have an offer. Make the decision that you take the job if you get an offer. And then at that time, then you can decide if you need to take it or not. Let the experts decide if you’re the right person for the job. The people that are in the hiring interviews with you, the people that are interviewing you. Let them decide if you’re the right person for the job, not your inner critic.’

Kelly Kitagawa: Do not take yourselves out of the running because your inner critic says you wouldn’t be good enough for it. Let other people decide that. Do not let those limiting beliefs hold you back from applying. Be brave and be courageous and apply anyway.

Kelly Kitagawa: For my sales engineering job, I did not think I was gonna get the job in most of the jobs that I’ve gotten, again, because I’m working on that inner critic that I’ve always had, especially on technical jobs. But I just said, you know, I’m gonna apply anyway and see what I can learn and guess what, I got the job. So it’s just going in with the right mindset. It’s kind of like, gosh, when you go on online dates and you have the first date, you’re like, oh, I think this person’s gonna be my husband.

Kelly Kitagawa: And it’s like whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Take it easy. You know, you wanna say, I have no expectation going into this. I just hope it’s a new cool person that I’ll meet at a pool bar. Right? You cannot put so much expectation and be so attached to outcomes when you haven’t even tried. Put yourself out there, be comfortable. And like I said, let experts decide if you’re the right person for the job. Now you’re inner critic. You can decide if you want that job, if you get an offer.

Kelly Kitagawa: What are my main takeaways? Technical is just a label. Don’t let it have fear over you. Stop saying you aren’t technical cuz you are. You have everything that you need in front of you. And remember the growth mindset. If you aren’t specific or if you don’t feel like you have that specific technical expertise on this specific thing, guess what the growth mindset says that you can learn anything.

Kelly Kitagawa: Write down your limiting beliefs, rewire your thoughts, have compassion for yourself, and then create an education plan and make it actionable for you. And lastly, reframe your story and apply for the job. Want it more than you fear it. Let discomfort and growth be where you learn the most and invest the time in yourself.

Kelly Kitagawa: And my last slide is really about this beautiful quote that your private voice is what determines the quality of your life. And the stories we tell ourselves are our re reality. Be courage, courageous, and tell yourself that you’re worth it and that you’re worth investing in yourself.

Kelly Kitagawa: Thank you so much. Find me on LinkedIn, email me if you have questions. Please take the slides and do the exercises at home. And I also have the resources that I like to use a lot like Ted Talks, workbooks, articles. But thank you so much for being here with me today and I hope you have a great rest of your conference.

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Angie Chang: Thank you, Kelly. I had, I took notes, so many notes. Thank you so much for our all of your pro tips. We’re gonna move moving to our next session, so we’re gonna say bye. But hopefully see you in this online conference. Thank you again, Kelly.

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