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Interview with IT Manager Eliza Barrios

This is the transcript of my conversation on @FromSourcePod with Eliza Barrios, an IT Manager at the Wikimedia Foundation and practicing artist.

This has been edited for clarity.

Michelle: Eliza, what is your current job title, and how long have you been there?

Eliza: Hi, thank you for having me. My current job title is IT manager with the Wikimedia Foundation, and I've been there for about four years.

Michelle: What is an average day for you?

Eliza: I actually really like schedules. From when I wake up to when I head into work, I have these daily rituals. My usual routine is to do my meditation practice and then get ready for work. I look at my schedule for the day. I prepare for that as I'm moving along towards the office. I do have some work from home days. But typically, the day begins with my practice for myself, and then I open up the calendar.

Eliza: Then from there, I'm getting into the habit of taking notes and having my little daily planner guide me. That means meetings, depending on what time of the fiscal year it is. Then, of course, daily activities and who I engage with. That includes my team and my CFO, and anyone else in the office.

Michelle: Most people know about Wikipedia. Can you tell us more about Wikimedia?

Eliza: Yes. Wikimedia is the infrastructure that maintains the Wikipedia infrastructure. There's a technical and product arm of the foundation, which heads a lot of building the tools. We don't actually build the tools; we work in collaboration with our tech community and volunteers. There's the other arm, which is operational. We do fundraising, where we make sure the machine is running, and donations are used toward the approximately 13 projects.

Eliza: Another part of the foundation is the legal part. The legal part ensures free knowledge happens all over the world. Right now, the big challenges have been Turkey and China because Wikipedia is blocked in those countries. As I've been talking to a few folks, it's also a good space in place to really see what's happening in the world. It's a good temperature or a gauge.

Eliza: Free knowledge should be for anyone, everywhere, regardless of class, regardless of background, regardless of language. When countries block that knowledge, it's an indicator of what else is going on. Maybe I'm overly confident, but certain political agendas may be lurking in the background when you stifle free knowledge. I kind of veered off. Clearly, it's a mission-driven organization. We ensure that everyone can have free knowledge everywhere.

Michelle: Being someone with many privileges in America, where everything I look for is generally available online, I tend not to think of places that are different. Where they go on the internet and information is blocked. We can have difficult conversations about people in power. Whether the information is accurate or not is a different story, but I at least have access to have conversations and see different ideas.

Eliza: Oh, yes, definitely. Speaking of privilege, access, and technical, we're currently working on our 2030 strategy. We are also aware that there are countries that do not have the technical infrastructure. That's why, when you open up a wiki page, it's kind of plain and boring. It's purely text. That's there for a reason. When you think of slow bandwidth, when you think of a mobile platform, a page needs to load up. Those are also all the things that we're considering in our 2030 plan. What is the internet going to look like? How are we going to receive our information?

Michelle: It sounds like you have to work on providing content for a wide range of people, from those with limited data to those who can experience rich media.

Eliza: Yes, Yes, for sure.

Michelle: What has been your favorite long term project?

Eliza: I actually was thinking about that because I'm lucky enough to have a creative practice as well. My favorite long term practice is how I integrate the two worlds. There are different dimensions of my life. My creative life, as well as my career and technical life. How I integrate that long-term project is also how do I show up? How am I present? How am I my best self, my vulnerable self, and maintain my curious self? That's pretty much my long term project. They feed into each other.

Michelle: There's this stereotype that when you're in a tech job, you have to give 110% to your job, but I prefer to have other things in my life. And you definitely do. Can you tell us more about the art that you do?

Eliza: I actually have an MFA degree. It was in sculpture and photography. My trajectory was to be an art professor. It didn't work out that way, by choice. I felt like I was a little too young to be a professor to older folks. I wanted to create some life experiences. My work is mainly video installation right now. I've been getting into VR work, creating experiences and not the typical experiences you think of VR.

Eliza: I just did a project on queer women, folks of color, trans folks of color, who have experienced sexual trauma. Doing a VR workaround that was a very enriching and learning process for me. That's where I'm focusing. My creative work is learning the technical aspects of VR work and bringing my installation artwork experience into this medium.

Michelle: That sounds super interesting. If our listeners want to see some of your work, can they do that? Or do they have to be in person?

Eliza: I do have some documentation. I have a website. It's elizabarrios.com. That's mainly my art site.

Michelle: How do you think being an artist has helped your technical career?

Eliza: It really lends itself because it's like exercising both sides of the brain. When there have been some technical challenges, you sometimes need to get creative to solve them. I use that part of my brain to help come up with creative solutions.

Michelle: What is the most boring but essential part of your job?

Eliza: I don't have any boring moments. But there are moments when you can go on automation. You see a ticket, you fix this computer and person gets to do their thing. Those are kind of boring moments because the computer either turned on or off, or the software works or not. Remove it or install it or actually update it. So I would say that's kind of boring because it's automated. The part of the job I most enjoy is the folks I engage with when solving their issues. Sort of like how they explain the issue, how we describe it, and how we work it through.

Michelle: Would you say the most satisfying part of your job is helping people?

Eliza: Yes, I would say that is the most satisfying part of my job. Helping them and empowering them. We're part of a generation where there are still folks that have an aversion to technology. I'm not going to call them technophobes, Luddites, or whatever, but they have an aversion right to technology. When I'm able to hit home, when I'm able to show or share with them how technology helps and empowers them, that's the biggest thing that I enjoy.

Michelle: What is the most stressful part of your job, and how do you manage it?

Eliza: Blockers. Blockers are a huge stressful part of my job. There is a chart called a Cynefin chart, and it's a decision-making chart. There is an area between the complex and the chaotic decision-making best practices that stresses me out. Being a troubleshooter and problem solver, that compels me to take my stress, and use my creativity to manage the decision making, The moments where it's unknowns and all the puzzle pieces of the problem, aren't there that's kind of stressful for me.

Michelle: But you always find the answer?

Eliza: I would say 85% of the time. Some answers cannot be answered at the moment, because of either for skills or competency or even resources. It's not possible. But knowing all the puzzle pieces, how they present themselves is helpful. It gets you kind of there.

Michelle: Is it stressful working for a non-profit where your salaries are based on the kindness of strangers, and they have to keep raising every year?

Eliza: That's a good question. Because I actually fell into this. I didn't look for work at the foundation. I just thought of Wikipedia. The geeky thing is that you look at their annual report and see their operating budget. You see how much they spend, and you see what the turnaround is. What makes me more inspired to work for the foundation is the leadership. Catherine Maher is our CEO / Executive Director for the foundation, and I really believe in her leadership.

Eliza: It helped me make that decision. And, of course, the mission. All non-profits have specific niches that they're addressing, like with the Global Fund. Women and Girls' rights around the world was a mission that I can get with. Typically all the non-profits do have their operating budget. You can see what kind of structure they have and what they've maintained over the years.

Michelle: You mentioned a conference NTEN. Can you tell us a little more about that?

Eliza: Sure. NTEN is a conference that happens every year, but also an organization that supports non-profit technologists. Every year they get together in different places. I went to one in DC, a couple in San Francisco, and last year in Portland. Everyone can talk about best practices from the technology level to the management leadership level to the fundraising level. It's a great space. They have four tracks, such as IT for me as well as a track for leadership folks.

Eliza: Workshops range from security to best practices for your non-profit. There are workshops for storytelling, how to tell a good story for fundraising, and how to raise more money for your organization. I've been a member since at least 2010. They've been really, really helpful and supportive. You also get the community alongside, and I've reached out to folks that I've met at the conference to ask, how do you do this? How do you do onboarding, etc?

Michelle: Let's talk a little more about your job. What skills do you find the most essential on a day to day basis?

Eliza: This is kind of cheesy, but the biggest essential skill is listening to learn, which sometimes is hard. When you have your ideas, but listening to learn, questioning, and being curious. It's essential to realize that there are different styles of communication for folks. As a manager, I like to compare it to gears. You shift gears depending on who you are engaging with, what team you're engaging with, whether you're engaging with a C level or a report, you shift gears in terms of your communication and understanding style.

Michelle: Is there anything you'd recommend to help someone who wants to improve that skill?

Eliza: I feel really privileged. The Foundation has a program for managers, and it's called WikiLeads. That's where we can exercise those skills and learn how to be a better decision-maker and communicator.

Michelle: Are there any skills that were on your job description, or you were advised to have, that you never use at all?

Eliza: No, actually, I feel like I do use them all and then some. Some skills weren't listed, that I wasn't aware of, that has come into it.

Michelle: What were some of those surprising skills that weren't listed?

Eliza: This is a thing because I'm not a business major. It's the accounting and budget side. It just takes a lot of experience. I almost feel like I should have taken a business course to be a better budget owner. But I would say more on the hard business side, that those are the skills that you know. When you get into it, there are so many intricacies that I wasn't aware of. I'm learning, getting a little better at it. We have a ton of business analysts that I get to work with and ask all the questions.

Michelle: Let's talk a little more about being a manager. What do you look for when you're interviewing?

Eliza: I look for the technical side as well as passion and curiosity about the role. When I say passion, it means they have an interest in what they'll be doing.

Michelle: How can someone demonstrate that they're excited and curious about the job?

Eliza: By asking good questions about the role and delving deeper into what the role can look like.

Michelle: Once you've hired someone, how do you make sure your team stays excited about the job?

Eliza: Team lunches? No, I try to mix it up. It's sometimes a thankless job. No one cares about IT until their computer breaks, and then it's our fault. What I do is assess where everyone's at. I am mindful of the time of year, moments of the year where it's busier, and I take the opportunity to discover what's challenging them and find ways to make it less challenging. Then I have a bigger overview of how they can make their role work for themselves.

Eliza: I also like to engage other companies. Sometimes we feel so siloed, so having field trips and talking to other folks that do similar roles in different companies is helpful. We discuss learned lessons and highlight their successes. I think that's really key. Not only do you give them nuggets to grow, but you also acknowledge what they're good at.

Eliza: That's how I feel you keep the momentum. Also, change it up once in a while. I've gotten into this really cheesy thing where I share podcasts every week, and it varies from super political to super technical. I also want to create a personable or personal relationship with them. They hear the trends and what our work is doing in terms of impacting the world.

Michelle: It sounds like you're a very thoughtful manager.

Eliza: I think so. I've had many managers to model or not model from. I take all the little bits that have propelled me to this position and trying to embody them.

Michelle: I can't wait for the morning, where you can say, "Hey everyone, here's a podcast of the day it features me no big deal. I'm so awesome, listen to me talk." It's gonna be a fun day.

Michelle: You mentioned a cycle to IT work throughout the year, and I wasn't aware of that. Can you tell me more about how that works?

Eliza: It's not like tried and tested. I like to create systems for myself. There's the annual planning process. That's pretty much the cycle that you function on for the year. You have your deliverables at the beginning of the year. You have the core needs, and here are the deliverables that I've hit or not, here are the blockers, etc. That's the general business cycle for the foundation.

Eliza: As an IT team, there are moments. There's a thing that we have every year called all hands, where everyone pretty much comes to the mothership. We all meet because over 50% of the staff is distributed around the world. At those moments, we get swamped. That's when we get to resolve many IT issues because folks in India don't get that much technical support because of timezone difference and then access to technical parts that need. So we plan for that, and it gets hectic around that time.

Eliza: Then there's a thing called wicked mania, that happens every year. That's yet another opportunity for many distributed folks to come together with the community. That time of the year, we're a little busy, helping to support mainly off-site, so it doesn't really impact. During that time is when our big maintenance window is when we can shut down the servers and do all the things because folks are at Wikimedia doing their thing. Those are the types of cycles that I'm aware of and try to leverage or have the opportunity to make a lot of systems improvements.

Michelle: It sounds like whenever everyone else gets to party, IT has to do the most work.

Eliza: Exactly. Seems extremely unfair.

Michelle: I'm actually just imagining you wearing a party hat but like fixing a machine, while everyone else is at the actual party.

Eliza: It happens. It actually happens. There's a lot of, hey, something is going on with my computer as we're celebrating something. Yeah, it happens. I love it, though. The joke is I'm getting paid for what I would do for free for friends.

Michelle: You talked a bit about making sure your employees are always learning new things and growing. Where do you go to learn new technology?

Eliza: I am fortunate enough to have a few mentors who have positions such as CTO and CIOs, and I learn in conversations with them. I also like to listen to Kara Swisher's podcasts. There are certain topics that she discusses that I get into. I like to call it the Wikipedia wormhole where you hear this little thing that this company is doing, and then you go further and further in. I usually let my curiosity take me forward. I'm a geek. So there's really not a dearth of innovation or technology that is not happening.

Michelle: Are there any questions you often hear when you're mentoring or events that I haven't touched on?

Eliza: It's usually about education because, in technology, a lot of the innovative folks don't go to school. They go off and do their own thing and learn their code. They get into technology through that route, not necessarily having a computer science degree. I feel like the education you get from an institution is worthwhile, not only for education but also for the networks you have.

Eliza: Those are the types of questions I usually get. We haven't talked about it, but the difference between getting a four-year institutional degree versus just acquiring your skills on the job. I wouldn't say one or the other is better, but just so you know what you get from each. Not just college debt, but networks.

Michelle: I feel like that's something we're not telling 17/18-year-olds. To network as much as possible. There are so many times I hear people say that they got this job from someone they met in college, or the professor recommended it to them. Especially in technology, where things are always changing very quickly. What you learned in school is great, but you're gonna have to learn more every day. Having those connections really helps in growing your career.

Eliza: Completely. The super self-motivated folks are good at going to meetups. They make connections that way. So, I think you just need to learn for yourself what works best for you.

Michelle: If you aren't one of those who feel very comfortable doing that, find an extroverted buddy, and make them come with you.

Eliza: For sure.

Michelle: So what's your next step?

Eliza: I just completed an ITIL cert, which is the ITIL foundation library. It's a service management library certβ€”one of the harder tests that I've ever taken.

Eliza: I could see myself with the foundation for a couple of years. The challenges that will come up when an organization or company scales is such a great opportunity to flex your service management knowledge. I feel like I'm at the beginning of that and could do that for a few years.

Eliza: I also have potential art shows coming up shortly. That always runs parallel with career life. I'm heading off to Stockholm in August, where we'll have the Wikimania conference. Hopefully, I'll meet some Wikipedians there and see where that leads me.

Michelle: It sounds like you're working on so many different things. That you're keeping your options open to find the most interesting and rewarding projects to keep working on.

Eliza: Yeah, I think that's really key. That's something that I always discuss with my reports. Jobs are more short-term nowadays. You don't normally see that 20-year history at one position, especially for non-profits, unless you own it. Even if you do head it, you should actually leave after three or four years. That's another story. You should anticipate the change, and you're not going to be in the same position forever.

Eliza: It's really key to keep your eyes and your interests open because I've known folks that have started in legal and are now engineers and coders. And that's awesome. We can do that now. I think about my parents. I don't think that was possible for them. You couldn't do that. My sort of retirement dream is to be a bartender.

Michelle: A bartender, where it's a completely smart bar and everything is automated. And all of your art is displayed on the wall. So everything is yours.

Eliza: Hmm, I hadn't thought about that.

Michelle: I feel like you couldn't stop yourself. You can't just have a regular bar. You'd have to have this super awesome technical art bar.

Eliza: Yeah, I bet you by the time I get there, there will be art bars already.

Michelle: Are there any technical organizations that you enjoy being a part of?

Eliza: The Center for Media Justice. They do awesome work. The Internet Archive. All of the coding camps for girls and women. Anything that empowers girls and women I'm really supportive of.

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