When Arne Mertz, lead engineer at Zühlke, interviewed for his role, his specialism in the programming language C++ helped to pique his future employer’s interest. Not only was he highly proficient in a difficult and widely-used language, but Arne had spent his free time writing about it in his widely-read blog, and had an appetite for speaking at conferences. “Being passionate beyond your nine-to-five can actually help your nine-to-five,” he explained.
While studying Physics at university, Arne learnt C++ as a hobby for projects with friends. This informed his choice to switch to an area of physics where he used programming to check data — his first step towards software engineering.
“In my previous job, people asked me about the specifics of C++. I went one better and started documenting things.” After writing two small articles for his company’s Wiki, Arne realized it could expand into a public blog. Within a year, he was asked to talk through his expertise at a new conference. “I was interested in meeting people there, such as all the other speakers and big names you see online in the software community,” he said.
A few years on, Arne now talks several times a year to large international conferences about C++. What was once his hobby is now an intrinsic part of his development in his engineering role at Zühlke.
From side hustle to specialism
In his role as lead engineer, Arne is the go-to person for specifics on a project, particularly when it comes to C++. Having a specialization at Zühlke is common, and development is commonly focused on expanding those skill sets.
For example, Zühlke invests 10% of its annual turnover into learning and development. Arne took advantage of this for speaking at conferences. That means his time off for talks doesn’t come out of his annual leave budget, and he gets financial support for any traveling and associated expenses. “I meet stimulating people at every conference,” he said, “it’s the inner circle of the programming community. I’ve been able to grow my standing on the international C++ stage.”
Arne also conducts regular training and support for new and experienced developers on C++. “It’s about 20% of my time right now, speaking and training, separate from client work,” Arne explained. This means that his client time has been reduced to support his development work, as well as three kinds of training he’s taken through Zühlke: internally, for customers and as a freelancer.
“I lead training sessions as a freelancer, working alongside another trainer in Germany and internationally, so it’s easy to find engaged learners and develop that side of my work.”
At Zühlke, finding your niche is not only encouraged, but actively facilitated with training programs and support. “At Zühlke, many people have specialties in different areas, for example people with in-depth knowledge of electronic parts or communication protocols for devices,” Arne said. “There are many niches that people can specialize in and that’s what makes us unique.”
Dedicated development time
Engineers at Zühlke usually specialize in a kind of T-shape. Arne explained, “You have one area — the vertical part of the T — that you’re a deep expert in, while the other part of your work — the horizontal part of the T — is where you have broader, more general knowledge.”
Part of specializing in a specific area means helping to widen the expertise of other team members. “We recently set up a training program for new developers to help them become familiar with C++,” Arne said. As part of this, he helps junior developers with on-the job-learning and ad-hoc support. There are also more formal training sessions where people can learn the theory of the language to help them address challenges once they see it in action.
Twice a month Zühlke holds ‘Zühlke Fridays’, where employees can take a break from client work and meet in topic groups to participate in knowledge sharing sessions. Here, people exchange experiences and conduct more informal training.
“I’m the leader of the C++ topic group in Germany, but we also interact with other developers internationally. We’re constantly looking for new ways to share our learnings,” Arne explained. “Going forward, I’d like to be more of a technical consultant for advanced projects and share my experience across as many projects as possible.”
Alongside topic groups, giving more formal presentations has helped Arne when it comes to communicating with customers. “I’ve had a lot of experience in presenting technical detail, which is useful not just for conferences but when it comes to presenting technical effects to clients,” he said.
Personal brand building
His training and development work at Zühlke has also helped build his personal brand as a C++ expert internationally. “Giving a talk at a conference can be pretty intimidating at first when you know all the big names in the industry are there,” he said. “My advice to people growing their careers would be to just jump in because it’s a really friendly atmosphere. It’s rewarding to be part of the community and they’re all very supportive.”
Arne recommends short, “lightning” talks (20 minutes or less) as a good way for new speakers to get started. He typically provides hour-long talks, as well as taking part in user groups.
“My first talk was in front of 25 people, but my second or third was in a room of around 120 people. After the talk, I had professors who were already teaching C++ coming up to me, asking questions.”
This was when Arne realized how rewarding it was to have a specialism that could be developed.
While his blog helped his personal brand grow organically online, Arne focused on being the international point person for creating maintainable and clean code. “I’m really surprised by it, because it all happened relatively quickly.” But, he said, it’s important to nurture your interests and not be overwhelmed by imposter syndrome.
“It’s easy to think everyone else knows so much more than you do. Yes, as a group they do. But individually, everyone has their specialisms and they all have their blind spots,” he explained. “So finding your own niche and your own brand usually pays off — because you can teach almost everyone something.”