What does … a Principal Solutions Engineer do?

Name: Johannes Nicolai

Age: 34

Position: Principal Solutions Engineer

Education: Master of Science in IT (Systems Engineering at Hasso Plattner Institute of Software Systems Engineering)

Company: GitHub

What do you do?

I have been working for GitHub in Solutions Engineering for several years. Here, I help companies realize the full potential of GitHub – the world’s largest developer platform with more than 100 million projects – in the business environment, be it in our own cloud, in their own data centers or in private clouds. In addition, I have the privilege of sharing for GitHub at many developer conferences our vision of how the way software will evolve will fundamentally change over the next few years.

As a solutions engineer at GitHub, it’s all about supporting the sale of GitHub (either self-installed or hosted by us). As a result, my job includes a mix of demos, conference talks, customer visits and technical support for existing customers.

How did you come to this task?

Previously, I was a development lead at companies that had ushered in the first open source wave with Subversion, Gerrit, and Sourceforge, and got to know GitHub.com privately for my projects. The opportunity to use GitHub not only in the open source area, but also for commercial software development, impressed me so much that I dared the change. So far, this has been the best decision in my career, where else does one have the chance to speak at eye level with the CIOs and CTOs as well as team leads of many impressive German companies?

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Which feature helps you the most in your everyday life? Why?

Humor and playfulness combined with empathy: we face other exciting clients with different challenges and cultures almost every day – humor has proven to be an effective way to build a true relationship and break the ice.

Part of my job is understanding each customer’s needs to provide them with the best software development software solutions they can. Our approach is to better understand development processes and bring them together with other companies facing similar challenges. With GitHub hosting the largest projects from Microsoft, Apple, IBM, SAP, Oracle, Amazon, Google and Facebook, we can focus on getting the best possible solution.

What is the most important task in your job?

I think I give my best advice to my clients, but that sounds very generic now.

In my job, I especially appreciate the invariably high motivation and professional quality of my colleagues and the very high level of trust and no patronizing due to unnecessary processes or restrictive software / hardware / travel cost restrictions. All the team members are paying attention to each other, we would never suggest anyone to a demo or a customer appointment, if we have not discussed this internally before and it will end with our family situations.

Perhaps that is the most important task – to look after each other and to motivate each other so that every day anew you can look forward to working together.

Describe as clearly as possible a project that has particularly impressed you

We helped build the collaboration platform for autonomous driving for several automotive companies. When a developer learned from the project that he could finally use GitHub for his job, he said “at last they take us seriously and we can work with cordless screwdrivers instead of screwdrivers”.

I liked the metaphor so much that I’ve been glad to use it myself ever since. I am always happy to see how the eyes of the developers start to shine when they finally – metaphorically speaking – can work in their job with a cordless screwdriver instead of an old screwdriver. Although the salaries of software developers account for a large part of the total budget, it is often saved in the wrong places, such as development tools. Breaking this cycle and seeing developers finally feel valued in their work is incredibly satisfying.

My job is indispensable because …?

I really do not think that my job is indispensable. However, I already believe that Germany, as a land of inventors and thinkers, has only one chance to continue playing at the top of the world, even if we can use the same platforms and tools in software development as they already do in the global open source Community on projects such as Kubernetes, Jenkins, Tensorflow or Visual Studio Code.

Many start-ups have understood that very well, but especially the small and medium-sized businesses and some large corporations still have some catching up to do here. Most department managers know exactly how many machines they have in production and how they are used. However, if you ask how many software developers they have, which technologies they master, and in which areas there is still some catching up to do, there is often confusion.

Of course, the resulting discussion is not a mere tool, but primarily a corporate culture question and that does not change so easily overnight. However, the open-source cultures that GitHub practices in the various developer communities, to translate into commercial software development within the enterprise, including the tools used, is often a welcome catalyst for cultural change. Often there are already many developers in the company who have grown up with open source and just need a bit of push and encouragement from the outside – in this regard, as an external catalyst we may not be indispensable but at least very welcome.

If you were not a Principal Solutions Engineer, what would you be?

My dream lately was to advise scriptwriters so that IT-lers are no longer so clichéd in German films. I have a daughter, and whenever she sees IT-related films, she feels that IT inevitably has to do with middle-aged men, either in green-screen cellars or in glass-paled suits or female models with martial arts experience. We do not do ourselves a favor as a society and exclude more than 50 percent of those who are potentially interested. GitHub is working hard to break the stereotype of the classic software developer. I still like “Anna’s Story” best:

Although about 20 percent of all German computer science students are female, the female share of open source projects is only three percent. We have some exciting features in our planning to significantly improve that ratio.

By the way, if you want to know more about it, you are encouraged to attend one of our conferences. The next major conference – the GitHub Satellite – will take place on May 23 in Berlin.

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