Geek of the Week

Geek of the Week: Hulu’s Billie Sue Chafins credit training and onerous work for lengthy profession in tech

Billie Sue Chafins
Billie Sue Chafins joined the streaming TV company Hulu in 2014. (Photo courtesy of Billie Sue Chafins)

Billie Sue Chafins grew up a coal miner’s daughter in Kentucky, but with more than 20 years in tech, she said education helped her get to where she is today.

“Through education and hard work, I have had some incredible opportunities in my life,” said Chafins, the director of software development at Hulu’s Seattle offices. “Because of my personal experiences, I understand the importance of education and mentorship for personal and professional growth.”

Chafins, who is GeekWire’s latest Geek of the Week, leads all client development across mobile, web, and living room devices at Hulu, where she manages a team of more than 130 developers, technical program managers, and QA.

“For a small team, we do a lot, and are responsible for delivering an amazing experience for our viewers across all devices.,” Chafins said.

Before Hulu, she spent 14 years at Microsoft, leading teams responsible for products like Windows UX and Office. She also spent time as a lecturer in Computer Science at the University of Kentucky and was a volunteer computer science teacher for TEALS, an organization that partners with schools to bring computer science programs to students who may not otherwise have the chance to learn CS.

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Billie Sue Chafins:

What do you do, and why do you do it? I love building things — that’s always been a part of who I am. Even as a kid I was always collecting boxes to build houses and popsicle sticks to build bridges. When I was a CS major, I gravitated towards projects that were more practical to build something that would help people (as opposed to, for example, a discrete math class writing proofs). That’s why coming into tech made sense for me. I love building things and then going out into the world to see others using it — like when I was at Microsoft and I’d see Windows everywhere. Now working at Hulu, my mom can even see what I do (she thinks I make TV).

“Another big aspect of what I do is leading teams — I love being a teacher and building teams. Helping people realize their potential is one of my favorite things about my job. To see someone build their raw skills and have their “Aha!” moment is really rewarding, and I’ve had the opportunity to manage some people since they’ve come out of college and watch them progress. It’s incredible to see people get excited about something, push themselves out of their comfort zone, and be surprised about what they can accomplish.”

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? To me the most important thing about our field is that it’s always evolving. If you want to learn new things, tech is where you want to be. Being able to constantly learn is why I signed up to be a CS major. I knew the field would continue to evolve — I’ve been doing this for 20+ years and I still learn something new every day.”

Where do you find your inspiration? I really look at how products are made and I’m constantly thinking about how an experience can be simplified and made better. I also read a lot, especially about leadership. It’s eye opening to see what other leaders are going through and how they went through the same trials I’m going through now (and that I’m not the only crazy one haha). I also find that traveling gives me perspective — seeing the world yet being grounded in knowing where I came from is incredibly inspiring.”

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? My phone (like everybody else, I’m addicted) and my kindle (which is waterproof and I love).”

Billie Sue Chaffins
Billie Sue Chaffins’ desk.

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? My workspace is very eclectic. My chair is decorated to be an “iron throne”, there is a 7-foot inflatable elephant over my desk, and recently there was a pink tablecloth with party llamas. My team likes to decorate it for various events and I never take the decorations away. They provide lots of good memories for me and stories for others. What I love about it is that it reflects me and my relationship with my team.”

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) Maintain perspective. Not everything can be done at once, and I’ve accepted there will always be more on my to do list than I can get to. Always focus on the highest priority item — the biggest thing that only you can do to that will have the biggest impact on those around you. And drink coffee. Lots of coffee.”

Mac, Windows or Linux? “Mac.”

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? “Picard.”

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? “Transporter.”

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … I would want to do something in the social impact and education space. There are so many people who don’t have the same opportunities just by nature of when and where they were born. The startup would be focused on ways I could impact people’s’ lives through education and how I can level the playing field.”

I once waited in line for … I actually remember I waited in line for Windows 95! And all those floppy disks! I was a CS undergrad at the time.”

Your role models: My dad — he had an 8th grade education and he started working in the coal mines when he was 13, yet he successfully raised me and my sister. His persistence, compassion, and the selfless nature of how he approached everything is inspiring. He instilled in me a lot of my values.”

Greatest game in history: I’m from Kentucky. Basketball. ‘Nuff said.”

Best gadget ever: The smartphone — it has changed everything about our lives. We’re always on and always connected (which has upsides and downsides). It’s changed the way we lived.”

First computer: Packard Bell in 1992.”

Current phone: “iPhone 7 Plus.”

Favorite app: Wunderlist — I love lists.”

Favorite cause: Education — finding ways to give opportunities to those who wouldn’t otherwise have them.”

Most important technology of 2017: Is it cheating to say Hulu with Live TV?”

Most important technology of 2018: I think AI and machine learning are going to change how companies do business and how products are experienced. A great example of this is how Hulu is leveraging machine learning to create a personalized experience for our viewers. Across our technology stack, we’re using data to be smarter and more efficient, and deliver the best possible experience to the viewer.”

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Part of being a geek is being curious about things. Be curious, keep learning, and keep growing.”

Twitter: @billiesuec

LinkedIn: Billie Sue Chafins

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