How Gymnastics has Helped me Become a Better Software Developer — and Vice Versa

By Mike Wilner

As you may have seen on our social media in September, our senior software engineer Mike Wilner recently competed in the U.S. National Gymnastics Championships. We are in awe of not only Mike’s athletic ability, but also his ability to compete at such a high level while not missing a beat as a full-time employee at Connamara. We asked him to share some insight about how he has balanced his sport and his job, and how he has used the two to complement each other.

Both gymnastics and software development have been part of my life for as long as I can remember. For the former, I started in the mom and tot classes at age two, like most kids. While I was part of the sport for a long time, I only started on the competitive track at 12 years old, which is actually very late for a gymnast. I was one of those kids who played several sports growing up — baseball, wrestling, gymnastics — but in high school I decided to focus solely on gymnastics. I won a team state championship my junior year at Stevenson High School (in Lincolnshire, Ill.), then my senior year I competed exclusively with my USAG club, where I won an individual title on rings at Junior Nationals. 

From there I went to the University of Illinois, where I won an NCAA championship with the team and earned All-American honors for three years in the rings event. After four years of college, I still felt like I had a lot left in me — perhaps because I got a late start in serious gymnastics — and decided to continue elite training. I’m glad I decided to keep with my passion, as I ended up winning U.S. Nationals in 2017, and made the podium again this year in August. 

 

Similarly, software development has been with me my whole life. While that is not as common an interest for children as gymnastics may be, I was fortunate to pick up the interest from my dad. He worked at Cypress Semiconductor as a field applications engineer. He traveled a lot for his job and would bring developer kits and demo boards back for me to experiment with. I learned basic programming, which eventually led to me studying computer engineering in college.

I went to work for Northrop Grumman straight out of school, and spent three years there doing embedded development. A little over a year ago I moved to Connamara, which has been different on a number of fronts — instead of doing defense sector work at an enormous company, I’m working at a small company in the financial sector. But at the most basic level, the core engineering problems we face are the same: to move data as quickly as possible from point A to point B, and to make sure you don’t lose it! That’s one of the aspects that I love about developing: no matter how different the domain knowledge and industries one can work in, the skills are transferable everywhere.

Both my sport and my career are time-intensive endeavors, but it was never a consideration to choose one or the other. That brings me to the first skill I picked up: time management. Looking back at college, I was typically training 3-4 hours every day, plus traveling for competitions. I had to balance that with a full engineering course load, not to mention trying to have a social life. You learn quickly how to prioritize your time.

Things didn’t get any easier after college — for context, I was the only athlete at this years’ nationals who had a full-time job outside of the sport. For the most part, in the U.S., most of the national team members either compete at college and are on an NCAA program, or they are finishing masters degrees. Or, they live at the Olympic training center and train there. With a full-time job, I really had to maximize my efficiency during gymnastics training when possible, without sacrificing the quality of my work in any way.

The second overlapping skill set I gained was the ability to communicate and work with teams. It may be a stereotype, but I can admit that engineers don’t always have the best social skills — we can be some of the smartest people on the planet but still find it difficult to speak to a client. It’s just not what we’re trained for. 

Gymnastics events are individual, but when you’re in school (or in an international competition), it is very much a team sport. Being on a college team for four years and pushing towards the same goal as 20 of my teammates, all with different backgrounds and motivations, and all balancing school at the same time, I learned how to navigate a team environment and communicate effectively. This skill has proven to have a lot of benefits in the workplace, where every day I work with people who have different responsibilities and personalities, and I feel quite comfortable talking with my peers and clients. 

Finally, while it may be less tangible, I have noticed that I end up using the same problem-solving philosophy in gymnastics as I do in development. As an engineer, I have to be analytically-minded, breaking down a project from high level requirements into constituent pieces and essentially working backwards — I know what the project needs to look like at the end, so what are the steps I need to accomplish to get there?

I’ve ended up adapting this same approach for gymnastics as well. When I’m trying to learn something new, I look at the skill and say, “Where are my deficiencies?” I then boil those deficiencies down into individual drills and work my way up to be able to do the full skill. By breaking things down into digestible parts, projects or skills seem less daunting and can be accomplished far more efficiently.

I’ve been thinking about these overlaps a lot recently because, after nationals this summer, I retired from gymnastics. Well, at least from the competing part. I’ve been coaching at UIC for the last two years, and I plan to continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The gymnastics community is small, but very tight-knit, and I’d love to be able to pass along the knowledge I’ve gained to the next generation. Most of that will be in the gym, but I also want to encourage them — and really, anybody — to think on a larger scale about the various things they are passionate about and love doing. The USA Gymnastics slogan is “Begin Here, Go Anywhere.” Even with two things that couldn’t seem more different, there are likely complementary skills that you can learn and apply to help you not only pursue varying activities, but actually improve at them as well.

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