By day, Doguhan Uluca is a principal fellow working on some of the top teams at Arlington, Virginia’s Excella. But you also might know the 39-year-old Bethesda, Maryland resident as the founder of Tech Talk DC, author of “Angular for Enterprise-Ready Web Applications” and a 2019 Google Developers Expert.
After attending the Koç School in Istanbul and a few summer programs in the US, the Turkey native officially moved stateside in 2001 for college. Now, he’s an architect on a high-impact, high-FISMA system for the Department of Homeland Security while working with a team to add generative AI to the daily workflow (and a LEGO-builder, mixologist and avid traveler on the side).
We sat down with Uluca to ask about his journey from being a high schooler working at McDonald’s to becoming one of the top engineers in the region. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What are you most excited about in your current role?
One of the number one things that keeps me going to work every morning is the great people that I get to work with. I love teaching, I love growing people, I love problem-solving and when you do any of these things with a group of energized, smart people in an environment of respect and trust and challenge, then that’s just a joy.
How would you describe your job to a 5-year-old?
I teach, learn and share. The other part of it is, of course, being a contractor for the federal government. We help keep people safe.
What made you want to get into tech?
Computer games initially. When one of my friends told me that it was code that was behind all those graphics and sounds and things, that just blew my mind. I was like, “I have to know how this is done, I have to know how this works.” At an early age, once you figure out that you’re kind of good at that kind of problem-solving and play in your own sandbox environment, the possibilities just seem limitless.
Where did you go to school and what did you study?
I went to Virginia Tech and I studied computer science — it was between that and film. But, immigrating from Turkey, I knew that my chances of being able to stick around were significantly higher if I pursued computer science.
What was your first tech job, and what did you think of it at the time?
It was at a company in Roanoke, Virginia called Meridium, which later was acquired by GE Digital. I was building industrial, handheld applications for engineers to go around and collect measurements and things like that. I was on the mobile team for Windows mobile devices before the smartphone revolution happened.
I got into that through an undergrad research program where I wrote a paper on handheld navigation UX and got that published. Through presenting that work I got an internship and even though I didn’t have really good grades, through that internship, once they saw my work ethic and all that, I was lucky enough to get a job right out of the gates.
How did your career progress from your first tech job to your current role?
After Meridium, I contracted at NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. I built a web app for the national diving program for them to track their equipment and their dives and things like that, that was really fun. Then, for the past 11 years, I’ve been at Excella.
That involved rearchitecting a replacement for a 30-year-old, mainframe-based retirement system for the next 30 years. That really forced me to reevaluate everything I did, because we were so used to just every few years going in and rewriting systems over and over again. We stepped back and asked the question: how can we architect a system that can last the next 30 years without having to be rewritten? That put me down a path of minimalism, nailing down to fundamentals and injecting core web technologies.
Nobody goes and is like: “Hey internet, can you guys please stop using this while we upgrade everything?” That never happens. That path of just digging back into the fundamentals put me on a path to be able to become an expert at what I’m doing. Otherwise, engineers tend to add more and more complexity. And because engineers revel in complexity, making something simple is much harder than making it complicated. So, I’ve been on a crusade of minimalism and simplicity ever since.
What’s been one of the biggest challenges of your tech career so far?
Transitioning from an individual contributor to more of a leadership or management role has been a real challenge. Because even when I was coding 10 hours a day, I always had this imposter syndrome feeling in me, and that gets dialed up to 11 when you stop delivering. You’re like, why am I here? Why am I not coding all the time?
But the one thing that I learned is every team needs someone who has the big picture without being on the critical path the delivery. If you’re always every day saying, “Okay, I’ve got to submit this story, I’ve got to unblock this pull request or I’ve got to do a production release,” if you’re constantly thinking about these things, it’s very difficult to take a few steps back and make some of the necessary strategic calls that need to be made. Because being able to identify at that macro level that we need to stop this and start doing that, those kinds of calls are really important even in high-performing teams. Going through that transition has been very difficult, but ultimately I knew what was right for my team.
What advice would you give to aspiring technologists?
I see a lot of FOMO and anxiety about technology because it moves so fast. Social media doesn’t help because everybody wants to go out there and boast about the latest and greatest thing that they’re doing, an award they’ve just received — it’s just this classic distorted lens where every day is a success. Every day something amazing is happening. And especially in the world of technology, something amazing is happening every day, so there are an infinite amount of things to learn.
I would encourage people to master their fundamentals and don’t be so anxious to jump into everything. It’s great to play around with things but it’s also okay to just put aside the toys and just stick to what you’re doing for one, two, three years at a time – and then, with more experience or with a different outlook, go ahead and absorb that that new thing that’s probably more mature at that point. You can make meaningful changes without getting caught up in the craze and hype.
Knowledge is power!
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