Getting to know you…🎶

(Cross-posted from Medium.)

Nice dress, Julie.

Tomorrow is my first day in the immersive curriculum of the Grace Hopper Academy full-stack JavaScript “bootcamp,” (as opposed to the part-time, remote portion, which has been going on since April), and we’ve been asked to write a blog post introducing ourselves to our classmates and anyone else who happens to stumble in.

(Note: I already have a bunch of rusty old blogs, most notably India, Ink., which is mostly about my work in and around book publishing, and ITPindia, which is a classwork blog from my ill-fated 2008–2010 stint in grad school. There’s also DrawMo!, a group blog I created to manage a daily drawing challenge that happened a couple of years in a row.)

The questions we’ve been asked to answer in our first post are as follows:

Why are you attending Fullstack Academy?

There are two forks to this question: Why are you attending a programming bootcamp? and Why are you attending this one? I’m something of a completionist, so I’ll address both.

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One of the things I most wanted to learn when I applied to my graduate program was computer programming, and that was certainly what all the most fun stuff I did there was about. Back when I attended, though, ITP was teaching the version of Processing that was based on Java, and between hating Java and hating ITP, by the time I left there, I pretty much never wanted to see that language again; accordingly, I can no longer really understand any of the code I posted on my old classwork blog. Being able to rewrite that stuff in JS is an eventual goal.

I didn’t touch programming again for several years. In the meantime, though, all these bootcamps had started popping up. Flatiron School was the first one I heard about, and I thought it sounded really interesting, but even if I had been convinced of its quality and efficacy back then, I was so completely beyond broke from the combined financial devastation of attending grad school full-time for two years plus the concurrent recession that there was no way I could even think about trying it.

I ended up going back to working in book publishing, which I’d been doing for most of the previous decade, because that’s where most of my connections and experience were. The big difference was that the Kindle and iPad had blown up while I was in school, so I returned as an e-book developer rather than as a book designer or production manager. I didn’t know much about it, but neither did anybody else. We made it up as we went along, much as we’d done on websites a decade earlier.

Then in 2015, I got hired to handle the e-book library at Amplify, an educational technology company, and I had my first experience working with modern software teams. I’d collaborated with individual programmers before, and with a couple of small firms, but never at a place that had multiple groups working on different chunks of a big product. I liked learning how such projects were managed, and getting to participate in structured QA and problem-solving. Jira tickets! Whee!

I talked with some of my colleagues on the content production team about starting up a JavaScript study group, as I’d been meaning to learn how to use that for a long time, and it seemed like time. It turned out more of them wanted to solidify their HTML and CSS skills, so I started compiling notes on how to help with that. And then…

We all got laid off. And so it goes.

I knew I didn’t want to go back into publishing, but my coding skillset was too narrow and weird (ask me about HTML and CSS support in e-readers!) for me to get hired at another tech company.

What a perfect time to sign up for a coding bootcamp!

I started attending more tech meetups, and listening to the super-excellent CodeNewbie podcast, and I tried out Free Code Camp, and I started learning JavaScript on my own. It was around that time that I heard about the Grace Hopper Academy, which had just started up, and I thought it sounded awesome.

But I was also kiiiiind of looking for work, as one does when one has no income, when a six-month temp job on a small, agile Web team fell in my way. I thought it’d be a great place to park myself while I learned a bit more about the agile development process, continued studying JS, and prepared to apply to an immersive program. I thought the six-month contract would be ideal, as then I’d have a deadline for getting my shit together.

More than thirteen months later—this past Friday—I finally said goodbye to my lovely colleagues at MoMA.org, and here we are. So much for deadlines.

`this`

The key things that attracted me to the Grace Hopper Academy were as follows:

All-women cohort.

I didn’t understand the appeal of all-women schools when I was applying to undergrad programs, but in my tech-oriented graduate program the idea started to appeal, as there was definitely some gendered bullshit going on. It’s hard enough learning to program/upending your entire life without having those kinds of interactions, y’know? I’d just rather not waste bandwidth on that when I can avoid it, thanks.

Meanwhile, I’ve had consistently fantastic experiences with women-in-tech groups and events, such as Write/Speak/Code, so when this program started up, it immediately became my top choice.

Some coverage of actual computer science.

I don’t do well with magical incantations. If I’m going to do something, I tend to do it better if I have some idea of what’s actually going on. One of the things I found most frustrating about learning Processing is how it attempted to hide the gnarly Java stuff behind a (relatively) friendly library and IDE. This meant that if you wanted to do anything not graphics-focused, you basically had to learn Java all over again, from scratch.

I was an English major in college; I’m much more interested in crunching text than in making bouncy graphics. I managed to stumble through Allison Parrish’s Programming A to Z class in Java, but I’m pretty sure it was harder for me to learn that coming from friendly, cuddly Processing than it would have been had we started with some thorny abstractions. And as I’ve mentioned, I retained almost none of what I “learned,” in the long term. So, bring on the thorns, please.

It takes time and effort to learn the whys as well as the hows, but I am convinced that over time, this will make it easier and faster to become good at what I do.

JavaScript-based curriculum.

I have learned a little bit of a lot of programming languages over the last twenty years, so I waffled intensely over the question of which one language to properly learn first. But ultimately it comes down to this: a lot of people sniff at JavaScript—I heard the standard string of complaints just the other day, from one of the supernice developers at MoMA—but if you’re going to do stuff on the Web, you have to know your way around JavaScript. So I might as well start there.

Back-loaded tuition.

I’ve worked at nonprofits and in book publishing for most of my so-called career; I don’t happen to have ten to twenty grand stuffed in my mattress. (For anyone who’s wondering: nonprofits tend to pay better.) What I do have is student loans that I might be paying off until I die. There are certainly other ways to work around this problem, but not paying tuition until you actually have a job is one of the most practicable ones I’ve found.

Solid support for career change and advancement.

I’ve already successfully shifted careers a couple of times, and I think I’ve done reasonably well at getting hired and getting promoted, but I’ll still take all the help I can get.

Is this a career change? If so, why?

Yes, and no.

I started learning Web development in 1996, pretty much the same time I first saw the Web itself. (Yes, I’m old enough that I still capitalize things like “Web.”) I was the webmaster of Poets.org, back when that was a job title serious people had; it ran on MS IIS, MS SQL Server, ColdFusion, and some other closed-source stuff, and though I didn’t build it, I did handle the day-to-day maintenance, both back- and front-end. When I started hearing about the open-source software movement, I played around with rebuilding the site on the LAMP stack, but it was too many things for me to learn all at once from O’Reilly books, while on the job. Still, I wanted to.

Then September 11 happened, and I got laid off, and book publishing looked fun, so I went and did that for several years. I still approached things like a coder, though, and used a proper text editor, even when the coding was just cleaning up Quark XPress Tags or messing with WordPress templates. And because I had started learning typesetting and CSS around the same time, and I’d been having to do conversion of text from one format to another at every job, I was always thinking about (a) the separation of presentation from content, (b) how to refactor things, and (c) how to automate processes.

The next time I worked on a website was for an online magazine, and though my title was, somewhat ridiculously, “art director,” I found it easier to communicate with our developer by sending code snippets than by making mockups or describing what I wanted.

When I became a full time e-book developer, I spent literally all day in HTML, CSS, and XML files. I have Feelings about coding standards, CSS hygiene, version control, and documentation.

When I worked at Amplify, two teams’ standups happened literally right behind my chair, so I got a big dose of agile software development practices, whether I needed it or not.

And this is kind of what my last month at MoMA looked like:

Screenshot of a GitHub commit history chart, showing me as the main contributor to a repo, with 110 commits between May 2 and June 2, 2017
Okay, so they were mostly just Markdown pages to get merged into Jekyll templates the devs built. But still, that’s a lot of git for a nondeveloper! (Hint: This is related to my bombing on the final Foundations checkpoint.)

Have I ever been what is generally meant by the term software developer? Absolutely not. But I feel like I have a bunch of the pieces; they just don’t fit together yet.

What is your work history?

I’ve rambled too much about this already, but the gist is:

  • nonprofit arts administrator
  • webmaster at a nonprofit arts organization
  • production editor/managing editor (with bonus typesetting and design)
  • typesetter and book designer
  • book designer
  • art director at a nonprofit arts organization, mostly for the daily online magazine
  • e-book developer and QA person
  • managing editor again (but! including editing, designing, and typesetting, as well as producing e-books)
  • e-book developer again, but at a software company, with some ad-hoc product management thrown in
  • digital media producer for a nonprofit arts organization

What motivated you to learn to code?

I’ve always been more of a craftsperson than anything else, and for many years my life has revolved around things that are crafted out of code, so it makes sense to learn how to build those things myself.

Tra la.

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