Aiven Blog

Aug 3, 2023

Meet the Cast: Olena Babenko, Staff Engineer and Tech Expert

We chatted with Olena Babenko, our newly promoted Staff Engineer. We learnt about her sideways journey to Aiven, what life is like here, and her advice for others looking to make a career in tech.

Jen Szabo

Jen Szabo

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Senior Specialist Employer Brand at Aiven

Like any true Crab, Olena has had a lifelong penchant for sideways exploration. From her home country of Ukraine, she has spent time everywhere from Toronto (one of her favorite cities) to Germany, and also worked for a couple of years in Russia. But Finland is where she now calls home – and she’s certainly come a long way professionally as well.

Born to succeed

Olena says her original mission in life was to annoy her big brother – just like any younger sibling. But they’ve become very close over the years and she’s spent a lot of time in Germany, where he lives.

Family has always been important to her, and Olena’s were very supportive of her becoming a software engineer. After early experience in Ukraine and then Moscow, she made the move to Zalando SE, the German online fashion retailer. A big influence there was Antti Pennanen, who helped her develop both hard and soft skills, such as encouraging her to participate in the hiring process of new candidates – you can learn a lot from candidates with different backgrounds.

At the start of 2020, she decided that she would like to work at Aiven. She heard that there was a plan to launch an Apache Flink® service and this is what she was eager to do. But her timing wasn’t quite right. The COVID pandemic had just started, and she was also told that she needed to improve her Linux and systems knowledge.

However, no would-be Crab lets something like that scuttle their hopes. With the help of Cloud Guru and Udemy, Olena duly learned all she could about Linux and cloud systems. Six months after her first interview, she reapplied and got the job, joining our Engineering team as a mid-level Software Engineer.

Olena says “That is why I tell people not to be afraid to re-apply even if the first shot was not that successful”.

Making a bigger splash as Staff Engineer

Olena found the team on her side from the start, with particular support from Ivan Yurchenko and Andrey Pleskach.

Her previous experience with Apache Kafka® and Flink at Zalando also proved invaluable. And her stubbornness (or persistence if you like) has helped her to fix many complex bugs and a wide variety of problems. Part of her success can be attributed to this time spent answering customer issues and fixing incidents, it helped her understand Aiven’s customers and their problems in more detail.

Just recently she was promoted to Staff Engineer, which means she can now make an even greater impact with both staff and customers. Her team is called “Helpful Husky”, a name randomly generated. (As she points out, it could have been weirder – imagine if it was “Rebel Raccoon” or even “Fecund Ferret”.) But the name does reflect the team’s mission to build better data streaming services – and huskies are famous for their ability to work as a team.

Life in the Aiven ocean

In a crab shell, Aiven is about Courage, Code and Community as far as Olena is concerned. And thinking sideways, of course. For her, that means always being flexible and open to new ideas and people with other ways of doing things. Aiven is a fertile environment for all kinds of innovation and new ideas.

Remote work and asynchronous communication encourages that, enabling people from different countries and backgrounds, and with varying points of view, not just to collaborate, but to innovate.

People often think that engineers just write code all day, but a huge part of Olena’s daily work involves meetings, Slack, Google Docs, and so on. With any big project, the initial what, how and why is what really counts – the actual writing of code is the most straightforward part.

But the most interesting part of the day, according to Olena, is “running small but meaningful experiments”. That includes testing ideas on how to fix a challenging customer problem, writing some proof of concept (POC) for new features, estimating the performance of new frameworks, verifying if new approaches or patterns could work for the team, and so on. Fortunately, the sheer scale of Aiven means that it’s much easier to identify the best features and fixes, and thus to focus on what really matters for companies and end users.

In other companies, software engineers find it frustrating that products or services that they’ve put so much into end up being barely used or quickly superseded. But here, almost everything our teams develop is extremely important for customers.

Another thing that Olena really appreciates at Aiven is the ability to contribute to open source. She and many of her team also aid the wider community by writing blogs and spreading knowledge about technology in general.

Olena’s advice for a career in engineering

Everyone is different, with their own passions and dreams. So even after ten years in tech, Olena is wary of offering one-size-fits-all guidance. But she does have some suggestions that are likely to be invaluable whoever you are.

She recommends participating in meetups as a great way of learning and expanding your network, whether these get-togethers are women-oriented or more general. Even more important is to find yourself the right mentor. Not just for learning new skills, but to help you see your own shortcomings and mistakes, which can be hard to recognise yourself. That’s the key to professional growth.

As an organization, Aiven has a part to play too. Olena hopes to see more mentorship and training programs supported by the company, turning today’s junior female engineers into tomorrow’s leaders.

Our thanks go to Olena for sharing her story!

Interested in joining the Cast? Check out our open positions. And keep your eyes peeled (sideways) on the blog as we continue to meet more of our clawsome Cast of Crabs.

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