Professional Development

Sign of the times, and place: Pittsburgh TechFest 2021 brought lessons in remote work and career transitions

The event's talks signal a community that is looking ahead to applications of its technical strengths, while still continuing to build its workforce amid changing workplace norms.

Bakery Square, one of Pittsburgh's main tech business districts.

(Courtesy photo)

Call it a local tech temperature check.¬†At this year’s Pittsburgh TechFest, remote work and career changeups dominated the conversation.

The event is an annual meeting of the minds among Pittsburgh’s tech community led by the Pittsburgh Technology Council, where developers, product managers and executives come together for networking and conversations around the biggest trends in technology and workplace culture. Last year’s festival had a hybrid setup, with some in-person activities taking place in North Park. But this year was fully virtual, with all breakout sessions held online, allowing patrons to move back and forth between talks throughout the morning.

Pittsburgh TechFest caters to its technical audience with presentations that feature targeted advice on a development tool or service, such as this year’s opening session on Amazon Web Services (also the event’s main sponsor) as well as overviews on trends around popular coding languages, such as a JavaScript discussion led by an Academy PGH instructor.

But many of the talks dug deeper, bringing the local tech community together for conversations around problem-solving strategies, the importance of web application accessibility and shared lessons in product testing. Each session was hosted by someone from a local tech or tech-adjacent company, with speakers including employees from Niche, BlastPoint, Aurora Innovation and Philips Respironics.

Here’s a closer look at some of these themes:

The changing work-life

Eric Schmuck, a software technical leader for Philips, shared how the company had changed its interviewing and onboarding practices for a remote world. In his division, which specializes in medical devices and equipment related to respiration, Schmuck explained that understanding a person’s technical capabilities in an interview — and ensuring a smooth transition to the job afterwards — are vital to launching and testing a product. But, he said, “the 2019 decentralized model of interviewing and onboarding is not at all suitable to this new world that we’re in,” forcing Philips to reassess its hiring practices for an online world.

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Some of the changes mentioned in Schmuck’s session will likely be relevant and helpful to the company even after normal in-person work resumes. With everyone online, Philips centralized its interviewing process across all divisions to reduce inconsistencies in applicant experiences, Schmuck said. And similar to Amazon, Philips added a “Bar Raiser” phase of the interview, in which someone from another division offers a third-party impression of the candidate to give a fuller perspective beyond the needs of the applicant’s potential team. Finally, to bring new employees up to speed as quickly as possible, Schmuck helped to develop a new technical onboarding program to ensure developers and engineers were ready to meet the company’s software standards in swiftly and consistently.

Schmuck’s advice shed light on continued changes to work patterns that have come with the pandemic, and will likely continue long afterward. The inclusion of his talk itself is a sign of major and more permanent change, as none of the sessions in last year’s festival covered topics related to remote work for the tech industry.

Experimentation for growth

Another subject featured this year was a talk on autonomous vehicle design and infrastructure from Aurora Innovation Senior Software Engineer Tashwin Khurana. The sector — which has a prominent Pittsburgh presence — has seen rapid growth in recent months, with two companies announcing plans to go public and launch consumer products in the next couple of years. Khurana’s discussion of design and experimentation techniques specific to autonomous vehicles were themes that appeared in nearly every other talk, even those focused on professional development.

Joshua Sager, the owner and managing director of software data company Viable Industries, shared advice on how to use “tinkering,” or practicing hands-on curiosity, for career advancement in unexpected ways. Karisa Fernandez, another speaker who now works as a software engineer at IQ Inc., also shared her nontraditional pathway to tech, starting as a soccer coach and growing new skills in a coding bootcamp.

Their stories’ inclusion in the event particularly resonate following Pittsburgh Tech Council’s recent launch of ApprentiPGH, which brings a job training model long used by the trades to help fill software roles in the city while aiming to create pathways for groups that are underrepresented in tech.

Looking ahead

These talks and others focused on new frontiers in engineering and software development signal a tech community that is looking ahead to applications of its tech skills, while still continuing to build the workforce. Pittsburgh is undoubtedly at a turning point, and the festival catered to an audience of technologists looking to grow their careers here and tech novices hoping to soon join the developer ranks.

As uncertainty around the future of work lingers with the pandemic, it’s clear that the Pittsburgh tech community is no longer waiting for change to come, but adapting to it along the way so local companies can continue to thrive.


Sophie Burkholder is a 2021-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments. -30-
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