Erin Spiceland: Software Engineer at SpaceX

Leader spotlight: Erin Spiceland

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Every March we recognize the women who have shaped history—and now, we’re taking a look forward. From driving software development in large companies to maintaining thriving open source communities, we’re spending Women’s History Month with women leaders who are making history every day in the tech community. Erin Spiceland is a Software Engineer for SpaceX. Born and raised in rural south Georgia, she is a Choctaw and Chickasaw mother of two now living in downtown Los Angeles. Erin didn’t finish college—she’s a predominantly self-taught software engineer. In her spare time, she makes handmade Native American beadwork and regalia and attends powwows.

How would you summarize your career (so far) in a single sentence?

My career has been a winding road through periods of stimulation and health as well as periods of personal misery. During it all, I’ve learned a variety of programming languages and technologies while working on a diverse array of products and services. I’m a domestic abuse survivor and a Choctaw bisexual polyamorous woman. I’m so proud of myself that I made it this far considering where I came from.

What was your first job in tech like?

In 2007, I had a three-year-old daughter and I was trying to finish my computer science degree one class at a time, all while keeping my house and family running smoothly. I found the math classes exciting and quickly finished my math minor, leaving only computer science classes. I was looking at about five years before I would graduate. Then, my husband at the time recommended me for an entry software developer position at a telecom and digital communications company.

When faced with the choice between an expensive computer science degree and getting paid to do what I loved, I dropped out of college and accepted the job. I was hired to work on internal tooling, and eventually, products. I did a lot of development on product front-ends, embedded network devices, and a distributed platform-as-a-service. I learned Java/JSP, Python, JavaScript/CSS, Node.js, as well as MySQL, PostgreSQL, and distributed systems architecture. It was an intense experience that required a lot of self-teaching, asking others for help, and daycare, but it set me up for my later successes.

What does leadership mean to you in your current role?

“Leadership is about enabling those below, above, and around you to be at their healthiest and most effective so that all of you can accurately understand your surroundings, make effective plans and goals for the future, and achieve those goals.”

I appreciate and admire technical, effective leaders who care for their reports as humans, not as lines on a burndown chart, and forego heavy-handed direction in favor of communication and mutual dialogue. I think it’s as important for a leader to concern herself with her coworkers’ personal well-being as it is for her to direct their performance.

What’s the biggest career risk you’ve ever taken? What did you learn from that experience?

Last year I took a pay cut to move from a safe, easy job where I had security to work in a language I hadn’t seen in years and with systems more complicated than anything I’d worked with before. I moved from a place where I had a huge four bedroom house to a studio apartment that was twice the price. I moved away from my children, of who I share custody with my ex-husband. We fly across the U.S. to see each other now. I miss my children every day. However, I get to be a wonderful role model for them.

“I get to show my children that a Native woman who grew up in poverty, lost her mother and her culture, and who didn’t finish college can learn, grow, and build whatever career and life she wants.”

What are you looking forward to next?

I can’t wait to wake up every day with my partner who loves me so much. I’m looking forward to showing my children exactly how far they can go. I’m excited to keep exploring Los Angeles.

“I expect to learn so much more about software and about life, and I want to experience everything.”

 

Want to know more about Erin Spiceland? Follow them on GitHub or Twitter.


Want to learn more about featured leaders for Women’s History Month? Read about:

Check back in soon—we’ll be adding new interviews weekly throughout March.

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