Kathy Applebaum joins Arnell J. Ignacio to talk about her professional journey at Inductive Automation. In this discussion, they explore Kathy’s experiences from the early days all the way to her current role as Software Engineering Department Manager. Kathy also shares insight about what it is like to work at Inductive Automation, what makes IA such a unique place, her unusual journey to becoming Software Engineering Department Manager, and much more. We also get a peak into Kathy’s diverse interests and what she envisions for the future.
“Sometimes you have to challenge thinking, and I love that we have the freedom to do that without fearing that someone is going to be angry… It’s a great experience.” - Kathy Applebaum
Software Engineering Department Manager
Kathy Applebaum joined Inductive Automation in 2013 and has previous experience in software engineering. Kathy has a Master's Degree in Computer Science from California State University, Sacramento.
Arnell: Hello and welcome to Inductive Conversations. My name is Arnell J. Ignacio, and we're doing another episode of How'd You Get Here, where we explore an employee's journey here at Inductive Automation. Today joining me is Kathy Applebaum. She is the Software Engineering Department Manager. Kathy, welcome.
Kathy: Hi, Arnell.
Arnell: Before we begin, Kathy, tell us a little bit about yourself and what you currently do at IA.
Kathy: So as you said, I'm the Software Engineering Department Manager and that means that all of our software developers report to me either directly or indirectly. I help both manage their careers, I also help with staffing levels, figuring out the direction of the department, working with some of the managers above me to just make sure everything runs as smoothly as possible.
Arnell: Everything seems to be running smoothly, especially with the release train. Is that something that you work with quite a lot?
Kathy: Yeah. Actually, until recently, I handled the dev portion of all of the releases. I now have one of my engineers helping me with that, and he's handling the majority of it. But for probably, I don't know, maybe the last five or six years, I've been doing the dev portion of all the releases.
Arnell: Yeah. The release train has been a welcomed thing that our customers have been looking forward to, and the blogs have been very popular, and it's nice to see all the new features that have been coming out on a regular monthly cadence. Thank you for all the work on that.
Kathy: Yeah. Well, thank my engineers because they do the majority of it.
Arnell: Yeah. Excellent. So before coming to IA, can you talk about that? Were you in school or were you coming from another organization? What was that like?
Kathy: Yeah, so I was both in school and coming from another organization. I've had a variety of careers. My undergrad degree was in math, not computer science. But I had my own business at one spot, and that was in the construction industry. We all know how the construction industry went in 2008, and I decided to go back to school and get a Master's Degree in Computer Science. And while I was doing that, I was working at a small company locally that made force-torque sensors.
Kathy: And at one spot, I decided that truly to grow my career, I needed to look elsewhere. They were just too small to accommodate what I wanted. And I heard about this little company in Folsom doing some really cool things, and I heard they were hiring, so I decided to apply, and here I am nine years later. So I was still in grad school when I started, and Inductive Automation was really awesome about accommodating my school schedule and my needs and let me graduate with a master's in 2016.
Arnell: Oh, that's excellent. Congratulations on the master's.
Kathy: Thank you.
Arnell: It's great that Inductive Automation has given you that room to be able to continue on your education, and especially I would imagine the skills that you've gotten from the master's is helping you currently with your work.
Kathy: Yeah. A lot of our listeners probably know me from ICC talking about machine learning. That is what my master's was in, and so I've used that to help Inductive Automation with machine learning and Ignition.
Arnell: Well, that's fantastic. You found out about Inductive Automation. Can you talk about what, and I think in an earlier conversation we had, how did you come across IA and what made you decide to join? I think you mentioned about when you met the individuals here, that you felt like this was the place to be.
Kathy: Yeah. So my journey to IA is probably not like most of our employees. I actually found out about IA in a trade magazine. I was reading a trade magazine at my previous employer while I was on hold with somebody, and I learned about some of the things that Inductive Automation was doing, and I filed it in the back of my brain of, "Well, it seems like kind of a cool company." And then when I saw the job ad, that clicked of, "Oh, this was that cool company I read about, I really should check them out." So I came and I interviewed, and when I interviewed with Carl [Gould, CTO] and Colby [Clegg, CEO], it just clicked with me. I realized they were the people who could help me advance my career and show me the direction that I wanted to go. And so when I got called with the job offer, I accepted immediately.
Arnell: I would imagine this was way before we were at our current building, way before the Palladio. Was this...
Kathy: It was just after we started at the Palladio. So I interviewed maybe two weeks after I moved into the Palladio, and started a couple of weeks after that.
Arnell: Okay, okay. And when you first started at IA, how was that experience? Can you walk us through that?
Kathy: Yeah. Well, it was a bit overwhelming because even though I had been reading trade magazines, I didn't really know what a PLC was, I didn't know what tags were, I didn't know what SCADA was. It was my first time being a software engineer with other software engineers, because I'd been pretty much a one-person show at my previous company. So all the things that I had to learn were overwhelming and exciting at the same time and luckily, I love a challenge, and Carl and Colby gave me lots of them, so it was really great.
Arnell: Let's look at your journey at IA. So when you started and up to now, can you talk about that progression? What skills that you started with? What skills that you picked up? And what projects you worked on that placed you on a path of success?
Kathy: Yeah. I was a very junior engineer. Even though I'm not a spring chicken, I've not been a software engineer my whole career. I've done actuarial science, I've owned my own business, I've done a lot of other things. I was a very junior engineer. I had never used Java before. I came from a C++ background. And so I had all of these skills and things to learn. I eventually became a senior engineer and then I became an engineering manager, and now I have engineering managers under me.
Kathy: As far as the projects, Carl and Colby gave me a lot of things that were really perfect for my development. I worked on some of the versions of the Mobile Module, getting that to run in a headless environment, which involved a lot of research because this is not a done thing. We were inventing new things with that. I got to work on the Web Browser Module, I got to work on revamp of the Reporting Module. And all of those things taught me new skills, also taught me how to be more of a leader, how to lead groups, and what's important for developers and their satisfaction, which I use every day now as a manager.
Arnell: Very cool, very cool. And so when you started, you probably had, you had probably an idea, maybe you didn't, but had an idea where you wanted to end up. Did you envision yourself being in the place you are now?
Kathy: Yeah. Well, the place I am now didn't exist, first of all, when I started because there were only six of us, including Carl and Colby in the Development department. But, no, they always say you should have a five-year plan of where you want to go. I've never been able to successfully do that because I don't have a job title in mind. I want to make a difference. I want what I'm doing to be important both to the users and to the company.
Kathy: And luckily, that has given me the flexibility to take advantage of opportunities when they've come up. And IA is really great about providing opportunities for employees. So I've been able to jump on things as they've come up and it's been a great experience. But I never imagined being here and I have no clue where I want to be in five years. I just know that I want to be doing things that make a difference to the company.
Arnell: Yeah, no, definitely, and that's the great thing about Inductive Automation, that there is multiple pathways that you can take to expand. Currently, I know that in the Software Engineering department, there are pathways to get to where you want to go. But there's a lot of flexibility depending on what you want to do. Is that correct?
Kathy: Absolutely. For a lot of companies, you're forced to become a manager if you want to keep progressing as a software engineer. They're very different skill sets and not every software engineer wants to be a manager. We're really lucky in that we have two parallel pathways for senior engineers. One is as an individual contributor, you're never forced to go into management to keep progressing in your career. You can keep contributing to code and it's awesome. But we also have a management pathway for people who want that challenge. And I love that you can do either and it's great. You're not forced to do one or the other.
Arnell: That's cool. Yeah, I'm glad that there are pathways and people can choose one or the other that would fit their needs or fit whatever their career goals would be at Inductive Automation. So, that's really cool. What makes you excited about the work that you're doing?
Kathy: Honestly, it is such a great feeling when I can help one of our engineers either progress in their career or remove a roadblock for them or just help everything just all come together. Ignition has gotten so big that it's not something that one person can really comprehend anymore. There's just so much code, and being able to see all of the moving parts and see how they all come together every five weeks for that release train is really great.
Arnell: Since being a manager, I would imagine that your active role in programming has gotten less. Is that correct?
Kathy: Yeah, sadly.
Arnell: And is that something that you miss or do you enjoy getting into more of the people aspect of what you do?
Kathy: Both. I did miss it at first. It took me a little while to come to terms with the fact that I probably wasn't gonna be writing code on a serious basis. I cannot let the engineers be waiting on my contributions. But at the same time, I started to realize that honestly, people are a harder engineering problem. Finding a place where every engineer can do their best and grow their skills and we can make the best use of the skills that they have and make sure that they have coverage for everything. That's a really difficult engineering problem and it changes all the time and I love tackling it. So I've learned to substitute one kind of engineering for another.
Arnell: Okay. While working at Inductive Automation, what is something that is really important to you?
Kathy: Honestly, it's the respect that we all have for each other. I've worked at places where that just was not the case. People's egos got in the way. People like drama. And I really never see that among our Inductive Automation employees. We can be passionate about things, we can have technical disagreements, but at the end of the day, we all know that we're trying to put out a really awesome piece of software and make our users' lives better. And we just may have different routes to get there. But it is so nice working with people that you know have the same end goal as you and that respect you and feel that you are also trying to do your best.
Arnell: Just knowing that people have that flexibility and the capability to express, and that's good to have that passion. Sure, there may be a little disagreement here or there, but I think people are passionate about what they do. They want to share their knowledge, but I think the end goal is finding a solution. And do you feel like that's something that is company-wide?
Kathy: Oh, for sure, yeah. And you can also go too far in the other direction, right? If everybody just agrees and you don't get the best solution, sometimes you have to challenge thinking. And, yeah, I love that we have the freedom to do that without fearing that somebody is going to be angry or that we're going to lose our job. It's a great experience here.
Arnell: That's cool. Do you think that's a unique aspect of Inductive Automation? That ability to share the ideas, the respect. Is there something else that makes IA unique?
Kathy: Yeah. So when I talk to candidates, job candidates who want to work here, it does seem like it's a unique thing. Another thing that seems to be very unique, or at least they react to it as something unique, is how much we care about our employees' careers. We actually give them work time to do things like classes, read books, experiment with a new technology, do proof-of-concept on something. And the managers work with people to make sure that those things that they are doing really are progressing their career and getting them to the point where they want to be and keeping them challenged and interested. And there's so many places where they just don't do that investment once they have you hired. And I love that we are willing to do that. It's very much a people-first company.
Arnell: Yeah, I see that company-wide that we care about our people, about the work balance. We are a remote-first company and we've gotten a lot of benefit from that. So when you're talking to new applicants or new prospective employees, some of the things that we do here is... Do you find people are surprised by a lot of the stuff that we do here? I've heard a lot of comments where a lot of companies in the Silicon Valley like Google, Apple, just as an example, or these other startup companies, they're venture capitalist-funded and they're just working really hard to get user base. And there's all these things, but then when they come here, it's a different experience. Do you find that there's a consistent, "Oh, is this what we're doing here at IA?"
Kathy: Yeah, there is. I've learned to give concrete examples for every one of my selling points about why they should consider working at IA because so much of it sounds just like corporate speak. And we really do walk the walk. And it's nice to be able to say, "Here's an example of why I can be very confident we are remote-first or why I can be very confident that we care about your career," because we do these things and they're not trivial. So, yeah, it's a lot of fun actually talking to prospective employees about why they should work here because it is a pretty unique and awesome experience.
Arnell: That's awesome. And so along those lines, how would you describe the culture at IA? What would be something that you would, again, if a new employee were to ask, "Well, what's the culture like here?" What would you tell them?
Kathy: Yeah, well, one thing I mentioned was the respect that we have for each other, and not just for each other, but honestly, our users. Boy, they are crazy smart. They challenge us, they do things with the software we didn't think was possible. So many times I talk to a user and they say, "Oh, yeah, I did this." And I'm like, "I wrote that software. How is that even possible?" But they found a way to make it do something amazing. So they really keep us on our toes, which is great. You cannot get bored working on Ignition. If you do, it's your own fault.
Arnell: Okay. So you mentioned our community. We have a very passionate community, Ignition community. And a lot of the feedback that they give us is important. Is that something that's unique with IA, to have that community, to give us that feedback in terms of how our software evolves over time?
Kathy: Very much so. So many of our features are really driven by our users. We have the ideas forum; we do read it very often. One of the... When I used to lead the maintenance team, one of our most fun things was when we would take two weeks and we would just take the top 10 ideas that we found on the ideas forum and see how many we could implement in two weeks. The developers had a blast doing it. And then when we were able to present that to our users, we could always tell they were very happy that we were listening to them.
Kathy: They really drive what we're doing with the product and where we see the future of the product, which, again, is pretty unique in software. A lot of times it's just driven by what is going to produce a profit in the short term for shareholders. And we don't have to worry about that here. It's not, "Oh, the next quarterly meeting, we have to meet a share target." It's, "Let's look at the long haul. We're not in this for the next three months. We're in this for the next 30 years. So what do we need to do to make sure that Ignition is a really great piece of software to use for the long term?"
Arnell: That's great. Yeah, it's great to see the software continually build upon itself. A lot of times when I've seen software releases, it's just jarring changes that happen here and there. But I feel like, with the release train, they're iterative changes. They build upon them, and if there's something that needs to change, it's done thoughtfully. And it's not like, "Oh, we're just going to throw that out there and hopefully that's going to make everything better." But I feel like there is a great relationship between our community and us to get the software where it needs to go and that the communication is great with our customer base. So that's fantastic. Do you feel like Inductive Automation gives you what you need to succeed?
Kathy: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I feel a lot of support for management, which is great. When I have an idea, they're always willing to listen to it. It doesn't mean every idea is automatically approved, but they're willing to give it a fair shot. And if it fits in in any way with what's going on in the company or what the priorities are, then definitely it gets done, and it gets done without a lot of red tape, which is really nice. It's not like, "Oh, this idea I have might get done in three years." It's like, "Hey, that's a good idea, let's start on it now," which I just love.
Arnell: Yeah, no, that's great. Just having that ability to be able to share your ideas and then be able to take it where it needs to go. And then, management is listening to what everyone has to say. I think that's great to have here. In your time here at Inductive Automation, do you have any memorable moments that stand out to you?
Kathy: Right. Well, ICC has got to be at the top of the list, right? Just the energy we get from our users going up on stage and sharing something with your 500 closest friends is great. But honestly, one of my favorite parts of ICC is when I just sit down at a random table with someone I don't know and say, "Tell me about what you're working on," and they love to share. And it's a great way for me to get new ideas about the product too, or things that maybe we need to fix to make it a little smoother experience. Or sometimes just being able to explain to a user why we made a choice that we made. And they're much happier with the software just because they know we thought about this thing and there were trade-offs and we're trying to do the best that we can. It's just, it's a wonderful experience being able to do that.
Arnell: It kind of mirrors what we have here at IA in terms of just being able to share those ideas. And that's the interesting observation that I have, is there's no sense of competitiveness in the conference. We have all these people coming together, sharing ideas, trying to figure out new solutions, and trying to push the software forward and beyond where people thought it would go.
Arnell: And I think that's fantastic that we're able to just sit down and people are just willing to talk to us about what the software can do, what the projects are all about. But also talk to each other to say, "I'm working on this." "Well, I'm working on this." And then they find a path to this new solution. I think that's great. It's great that we're able to interface with our customers that way and have that communication with them, so that's great. As you look towards the future, what do you see for yourself? What do you see for the company and the industry as a whole?
Kathy: Right. Well, my immediate future is doing a lot of hiring. We're hiring a lot of engineers, and so I'm spending a lot of time doing employee interviews, going through resumes. But also we have the challenge of growing the department in a way that keeps our culture. And we've been very intentional about that. I've talked to all of our engineers about, what are the things that are important to you about IA? What do you hope never changes? And how do we figure out a way to go from being the company that was 50 people when I started to eventually getting to a company that's 500 people? And that takes some work and that'll be a challenge. And that's one I'm looking forward to.
Arnell: Has there been any challenges with having remote individuals joining the team?
Kathy: Honestly, I think it's gone really, really well. In our department, we actually had a partially remote culture before the pandemic. A lot of our senior engineers worked from home two days a week. So we already knew how to do the asynchronous communication and meetings and how to make all that work very, very smoothly. So we just slid straight into 100% remote. Now, as you can see, I'm in the office today. I do come in a couple of days a week because our office is so beautiful.
Arnell: Yeah, it is.
Kathy: My office looks right on a lake and a parkway and a nature preserve. It's amazing. But we have people on the other side of the country, too. And honestly, I have a hard time remembering who's remote because we make it work so smoothly. I don't have to remember, "Oh, we have to accommodate so-and-so." Everybody is acting the same way in our meetings and our communication. And it's really, really nice, honestly.
Arnell: Yeah, I've noticed that too, that we haven't missed a beat with going on remote. Being able to communicate with your colleagues, it just seems seamless. It doesn't... As you said, we do have individuals who work on the East Coast. Yeah, there's a time difference, but overall, just everything seems to flow smoothly in terms of the workflow between us. So, that is great. Talking about what we do at work, I'd like to talk about what you do outside of work. What are some of the things that you like to do in your free time?
Kathy: Yeah, boy, well, I have several hobbies. I love riding my bike. I'm a road biker. Never quite gotten into mountain biking, but being out there for five or six hours on my road bike is a great Saturday for me. I love to do... A couple of weeks ago or a few weeks ago, Colby mentioned on his podcast that he does Levi's GranFondo; I do as well. I'm training for the next one. And in fact, one time I was riding in Levi's and Colby just rode up next to me and said hi, and we talked for about a mile and then went at our separate paces. So that's one thing I really love a lot. I also grow orchids. I have about 30 orchids.
Arnell: That's cool.
Kathy: Yeah. They are temperamental, so apparently I'm a person who likes challenges a lot. And I'm also an art quilter. I was a professional quilter for a while. Now I don't do it for money, I just do it for myself, but it's really enjoying and it's something that's taught me patience. And again, there's some engineering challenges in how do you make things go together and stay flat and stay together after you've got them done? So I do that, too.
Arnell: Awesome. Excellent. How did you get into art quilting? What was the entry to that?
Kathy: Well, I grew up in a family that sews. My aunt actually is an art quilter as well. She's been featured in some international shows. And I started as well, not really because of her, but I think it just kind of goes in the family of that working with cloth and fiber. I've been in a couple of international shows as well since I started. But yeah, I just, I picked it up because I love the color, I love the design, I love the freedom of it. But I also deliberately wanted something that would teach me some patience. Sometimes it takes a couple of years to finish a quilt and you have to have some patience and planning to do that. And it's been a really good way to develop my skills for other portions, including my professional life.
Arnell: And I think you also have been teaching, is that correct?
Kathy: I do. Yeah, I've been teaching for the last four or five years at our local university, CSU Sacramento. I teach computer science at night, specifically databases, both the beginning and advanced database classes for majors. A number of our employees at Inductive Automation had me as a professor.
Arnell: That's cool.
Kathy: I'll be walking in the halls and I'll hear, "Hey, professor."
Arnell: So how did you get into teaching? Is that just something... I'm just curious, just how... Is that something that you're like, "I want to teach." Or was there an opportunity that popped up or were you invited to teach?
Kathy: They came after me. They are always really looking for teachers in computer science because honestly, teaching doesn't pay well compared to what we can make in tech. So it is a little bit hard to find teachers, but you have to have at least a master's. And I got my master's there so they knew that I was available. But one of the things that I love about working at Inductive Automation is helping to level up more junior developers. And so when this came up, it was an opportunity of, "Hey, I can help level them up while they're still in school and I think I'd like to try that." So, yeah, it's been working out pretty well.
Arnell: Well, that's really cool to be able to impart that knowledge. And with Inductive Automation, we have a lot of educational resources to bring everyone up to speed, like Inductive University. And also, in the support area, there's the Technical Pathways [Program] and just all these resources. So I think that's excellent. And then having that experience within the organization of being able to teach, I think that's fantastic. So that's really cool. We're coming to a close to our conversation. Is there anything else you want to talk about or mention to any of our viewers, or if there's any prospective employees or applicants, I should say, to Inductive Automation, is there something that you want to impart?
Kathy: Yeah. Well, for applicants, apply! I have some ambitious hiring goals for 2023. It's going to be a challenge to meet. So I definitely wanna be talking to people who have some really good experience in Java or in front-end development. There's a few other positions we're applying for. It's such a great place to work. That's why I've been here for nine years. I wouldn't have stayed if it wasn't such a great place to work.
Arnell: Yeah, yeah, I agree. It's a fantastic place to work. And there's a lot of opportunities, a lot of ways to grow in your career. And it's a very supportive culture, which is excellent in all areas. Kathy, thank you so much for joining me on this podcast. And thank you for sharing your journey and your experience. I hope you have a great day. Thank you.
Kathy: Thank you so much, Arnell. It's been fun.