The very first warm-up exercise of my very first RailsBridge, was an interesting one. We were asked the question “What does a developer look like?”. There were a variety of drawn and written responses, everything from a detailed sketch of your “typical” developer, complete with thick rimmed glasses, checked shirt and a pen in his pocket, through to a stick figure in colorful socks and a wild haired person with a cup of coffee in each hand.
The exercise, as you may have guessed, encouraged us to put our preconceived ideas of what a person in a certain profession looked like. These preconceptions were later challenged when we were tasked to look up various successful and prominent developers on the web who broke the stereotypes of age, gender and race usually applied to the field of programming.
Back then, I knew a developer could look like anyone. I’ve always tried my best to not judge a person by their appearance. However, there was one big issue I was struggling with (and still do, to a lesser degree) and that was the question; “what kind of person can be a developer?”.
What sort of education do you need? What kind of strengths, talents or personality does a developer have? Do you need a Computer Science degree? Do you need an influential network of friends? Do you need to be a maths genius?
When trying to decide wether to make the leap and study Front End Development or not, it was these questions that really troubled me. In my opinion, my education, my talents and my personality seemed to be the exact opposite of what your “typical developer” should be.
Why the exact opposite? Well, for starters, I dropped maths at school as soon as I could in favor of art and music. I studied Fine Art for two years on an academic scholarship before losing said scholarship and dropping out. I then worked as a veterinary assistant for a few years, saving up money to study Graphic Design (which I did actually finish, having learnt from the mistakes of my wild student daze). Following that, I was lucky to find employment in my chosen field of study as a designer. It was decent enough work, fairly challenging on a daily basis, but the long hours, assumed overtime and relatively low pay versus effort and skill expected had me feeling somewhat disillusioned.
One day I came into work to find the office being cleared and my boss packing files away into cardboard boxes. The company had gone into liquidation, and over the course of a weekend I went from being comfortably employed in my field, to unemployed. I looked for new work for over half a year, but the industry had moved on from when I had completed my studies. It had shifted from print to digital, desktop publishing to web design. Almost every graphic design position advertised actually wanted a web designer, with knowledge of difficult sounding acronyms like HTML, CSS and exotic skills in Bootstrap, Wordpress, Dreamweaver…
In the end, out of sheer desperation and not wanting to be completely broke, I took a crappy retail job, working even longer hours than I did as a designer and for much less pay. At the time, I knew studying something web design or web development related would help rejuvenate my out-of-date design diploma, but I was out of funds, and more importantly I was scared. To my mind, I wasn’t the right kind of person to learn coding. I wasn’t the right kind of person to be a developer.
I spent about two and a half years in that crappy retail job. Saving up, researching alternate avenues of study, working up the courage to make the change. In the end, after much disappointment, empty promises of advancement, steadily worsening work conditions, lots of encouragement from my colleagues (who were the only thing keeping me sane at that point) I was so desperate for something better I decided to take the plunge.
I’d done the research, and despite the lingering fear that I wasn’t the right kind of person to learn code, I knew there was so much demand, I figured even if I sucked or if I was lucky and was just average, I would at least be able to find a job slightly better than the one I had now.
So I took the gamble, quite my dead-end job and studied New Media Development for a year, full-time. I put all my money into it, cashed in a retirement policy, used up savings I had set aside for buying a car and JUST DID IT! In working myself up to do this I had mentally prepared myself for many things, mostly revolving around failure or inadequacy. What I wasn’t prepared for was how much I ended up loving my new profession. How completely wrapped up in code and problem solving I would become, and how amazing it was that I was able to do all of this without being a maths genius and all those other shortcomings I was worried about.
In my journey to a new career, I learned that once I lost my fear, things I only thought were possible for a certain kind of person became possible for me too! I discovered that I had the ability to be both logical and systematic in my approach while still being creative. I learned that there is never just “one right way” of solving something. As with any spoken language, there are many ways words can be structured to tell a story or communicate information. I learned that if I applied myself, read, googled, stackoverflowed (that’s a verb now), asked questions, practiced and struggled with my code I would eventually get it working. It is this perseverance, despite the lack of a clear answer or path to follow, is what I believe distinguishes those of us who could make it as developers, from those who prefer to be end users.
What was my reward for taking the gamble? For dedicating all my money and a year to studying full-time, interning part-time, many late nights and weekends spent knee deep in solving problems with code rather than sleeping late or goofing off and playing games?
The reward was finding myself, for the first time in my working life, truly challenged. My unpaid internship with Unboxed Consulting became a part-time paid internship and now, as of January 2016, I am on a full-time paid internship which has better hours, benefits, prospects and pay than ANY OTHER JOB I HAVE EVER HAD! A big thank you from me to Unboxed and all the peeps there that continuously contribute to my growth as a dev \o/.
So why am I sharing my path to development with you? Because I understand that sometimes you can get so hung up on a false perception of yourself that you can become blind to the fact that you do actually have the power to change things. I understand that you might have been stuck in one job or career for so long you fear that you might not be able to do something else.
If there is even one person who I can encourage to give development a try, to persist with it, to believe that YOU CAN be the kind of person who can who can be a developer, then this talk will be worth it. Because I feel I have been given a great opportunity with my newfound coding skills, and it is my hope that I can help make this opportunity achievable for you too.
Written by RailsBridge Cape Town student and mentor, Danielle Eriksen - Junior Front End Developer
P.S. Apologies for ALL the CAPS, I just get excitable about these things.