Developer

I'm Pamela Fox, Product Engineer At Coursera, And This Is How I Work

The easiest way to explain what Pamela Fox does is this: she makes really cool stuff. As a product engineer at Coursera, Pamela and her colleagues are leading the charge to bring world-class university-level education online and free for everyone.

As she explains it, “I joined Coursera because I love their mission, and also because there is so much more experimentation to be done in the world of online education. I’d like to be on the frontlines when that happens.”

In her free time, Pamela works on a mindboggling number of side projects, including EatDifferent (a nutrition tracking tool), QuizCards (a series of Chrome extensions focused on geography and language), and Profane Game (a game that encourages you to swear as much as possible). We caught up with Pamela to find out her best life hacks and favourite gadgets

Current gig: Coursera Product Engineer; GirlDevelopIt SF Chapter Leader
Location: San Francisco (live); Mountain View (work)
Current mobile device: iPhone 4
Current computer: MacBook Pro
One word that best describes how you work: stealthily

What’s apps/software/tools can’t you live without?

Copypastecharacter — because I have the need to insert smiley faces and flowers into my codebase and code reviews at least five times a day. Regexpal — so that I don’t cry everytime I try to be a RegEx ninja. Google Spreadsheets — when we don’t have an actual database for some Coursera info but I still want it in a semi-structured form, then I make a spreadsheet and use my Apps Script to export it as JSON.

Pictured at right: Pamela’s iPhone homescreen.

What’s your workspace like?

OK, so I’m not your typical engineer. I don’t have a two-monitor setup and sound-blocking headphones and a Das keyboard. I tried, I swear, but it didn’t work out. I’m a bit more of a minimalist, and that’s probably because I got so used to working while travelling in my old job as a Google Developer Advocate, and you really can’t lug a two-monitor setup around airport security. So, I have my laptop and a set of iPhone headphones (the cheap kind, so that I can replace them every week when I lose them), and I plop down wherever I am, whether that’s my bed, my seat on the Caltrain seat (my favourite place to work, actually), or a desk at work.

What do you listen to while you work?

My current favourite Pandora stations are Mumford Sons (if I’m feeling particularly epic and emotional, like during a refactoring), Manu Chao (for new and exotic features), or Call Me Maybe (because, well, it’s AWESOME, and even the dudiest of the dudes in the office will start dancing).

What’s your best time-saving trick?

This one’s for the women: I ditched my purse. Now, instead of storing my phone and wallet in my purse or in a purse stuffed in my backpack, and having to rummage through it to find them, I’ve discovered a much better way: just tuck them under tank top or sports bra straps. It’s super easy to pull them out and stuff them back in when you need them, especially when you’re on your bike, and as an added bonus: it’s like built-in padding!

Another one for women: the IUD. It will save 12 years of you having to remember something twice a day, and 12 years of worrying that you have to spread your salary across two humans instead of one.

Pictured at right: Pamela commuting on the Caltrain.

What’s your favourite to-do list manager?

Stickies for the Mac. My to-dos start off there and get turned into Jira tickets for the actionable items or Google Docs for the long-term visions if they don’t get done within the week. If I’m having a particularly hard time focusing one day, then I write my to-dos on real live post-its and surround myself with them until I’m done.

What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What’s your secret?

I’m really good at Googling. Even at Google, amongst Googlers, I could Google better than the Googliest of them. That means that if you’re trying to find something on the internet or figure out the workaround to some bug, I will figure out which Google search queries will find your answer the quickest. I might do a little time filtering (hint: “last year” for modern web dev questions), maybe a site restrict (like site:github.com for code samples), maybe some advanced image options (like 16*16 if I’m trying to find a nice little icon).

I would like to credit my parents for supporting my entry into Science Olympiad as a middle schooler, where I competed in “Internet Search Sleuth”. No, I didn’t win it — but I think that failing it horribly left me with the overwhelming desire to spend the rest of my life proving my worth as an internet search sleuth. Take that, middle school science competition!

What’s your sleep routine like?

I do not believe in alarm clocks, I wake with the sun. Or at least I did before I became the owner of two cats. Now I wake when they decide that they absolutely cannot wait another minute to be fed and they will die if I do not feed them their Fancy Feast immediately. If it turns out that it’s still dark out then, I kick them out of my room and try to get a bit more sleep in until the sun rises.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadgets can’t you live without?

I really hate gadgets, at least the electronic kind. See, electronic things require plugging in, and I hate having to plug anything in. Every gadget I’ve ever owned has run out of battery, never to be charged again. I even spent half a year without a phone, and the only reason that I’m finally keeping my iPhone charged is because I have to use 2-factor auth to sign on to our Amazon servers to deploy code, and well, I really like deploying.

So, yeah, check back with me when they invent more solar-powered, wireless gadgets (which totally exist, but there’s just not enough of them yet).

Pictured at right: another one of Pamela’s favourite things, her Mighty Wallet.

Who would you like to see answer these same questions?

Brian Fitzpatrick, author of Team Geek, co-developer of SVN, and director of engineering at Google Chicago. I think he has quite a few productivity tips up his sleeve.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

As corny as it may be, I like the advice in Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People and I re-read it every few months. He wrote an entire chapter in that book on how important it is to smile, both because it makes you happy (your body’s emotions can get tricked by your body’s physical signals) and how it will make everyone else around you happy too. So, that’s it — smile! Even when you feel sad inside and can’t imagine anything would make you feel better, just try it.

Is there anything else you want to add for readers?

I’m spending too much time lately doing shitty things, literally — my cats litter up a storm. So for my next hack, I’m going to try the “Litter Kwitter” (as advertised by the freaky grey cat in that airport magazine that you read during every flight take-off). I dream of a future where humans and cats can share the same toilet seat. Possibly even flush.

We’ve asked heroes, experts and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces and routines. Every week we’ll feature a new guest and the gadgets, apps, tips and tricks that keep them going. Want to suggest someone we should feature or questions we should ask? Let us know.


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