My Climb Into Software Development

I frequently get asked “So, how’d you get into Software Development?” To this, my response is a smile with “Want the quick and dirty version or the full story?”

The TLDR version: I was feeling stagnant in marketing and curious about web development; tried the self-taught route and internship for two years, then ended up at the Turing School of Software and Design and jumped right in. Fast forward to today and voila, software engineer.

The TLDR doesn’t really tell you the JOURNEY though. So if you want the real story, continue reading.

Let’s go back to 2009. I was a marketing executive for 5 resorts, managing all of the marketing and sales efforts. The economy had tanked and they were reducing departments. The options were to move to either coast, as my current position was being eliminated or leave the company. Ultimately, this resulted in me staying in Colorado and taking a position as an E-Commerce Marketing director at a new company.

During my first day, the new boss says “So, we need to redo our website, you’re in marketing, you can do that right?” my response with full confidence was, “Of course, let me get together a plan of action for us to review tomorrow.” That night I went home and googled “How to build website…” and came up with a multitude of options including Dreamweaver (ugh, no), and a few Content Management Systems. The best solution ended up being with Drupal and WordPress, while still maintaining the company’s existing super-outdated php website until further notice.

I learned a lot, broke a lot of things, including a heart-skipping day when I realized I deleted production. I’ll never forget the heart stopping, panic-stricken moment and realization I had just before before lunch: deleting a folder thinking it was a duplicate, checking the URL and realizing, holy f**k, the website is gone. GONE.

Frantically, with more anxiety than ever, I spent the afternoon rebuilding the website, rerouting PPC (pay per click) campaigns to another site and typing furiously while breathing into a paper bag before my boss noticed something was awry.

This lesson was a lucky one: I was the only person in my department and I contained all the panic in my 8X12 office. However, I learned some invaluable lessons about development:

  1. never edit in production,
  2. keep backups,
  3. and — later on — use source control.

That night over a glass of wine, after going over all the things that went wrong and could’ve gone worse; I thought through what would’ve made a difference. I realized knowledge.

Knowledge makes the difference in a careless mistake versus a naive mistake.

I knew I needed a better environment to learn and train.

After a year, I left and took a year to do freelance work for small companies needing websites, catering primarily to business via word of mouth and reading all I could about the best SEO practices and code standards for WordPress and building custom widgets. At first this felt amazing, being in charge of my own career, running my own business, all things pointing upward. However, there was this lingering feeling like I could do more. “What other languages were out there? Who was the person behind building WordPress itself… could I learn to do that?” This led to conversations and research and word on the street was that Boulder was the place to be if you wanted to be in the “startup” industry and hone your skills.

Next stop, Boulder! I took an operations position in which I created custom social media reports for big companies working in between marketing and development. This opportunity was intended to get into the startup scene and to get closer with a technical team to find out what they do. Fortunately, this position allowed me to do both and, within my first two weeks, I made friends with the development team, One of my teammates, Nathan, provided encouragement in the form of Rails for Zombies screencasts. Followed closely behind by discovering git and GitHub, I was hooked.

Simultaneously, Tim came into my life. He was starting Boulder Beta and I loved what he was doing with community, so I started attending more events and meeting people. It was at this point, in Fall of 2011, I decided to volunteer at Startup Weekend in Denver. After participating in a few meetups and running that Startup Weekend, I was also hooked on building communities.

Early 2012 I had been doing self taught work of Rails and starting some JavaScript when I met Jessica at a meetup. She was pointed out to me as one of the only other women in the room and also named Jessica. Therefore we had to talk with each other, right? Approaching her in probably the most awkward manner, I started a conversation about her recent tattoos, which happened to be super fresh and peeling. We had a laugh about it and then quickly became friends. It was in that moment I was able to picture myself actually becoming a developer. Just having met this bad ass that was learning software development and that hadn’t been doing this since they were eight years of age, inspiration flooded over me that night.

During work days, I was finding different ways to make my job more efficient with the software skills I was learning. This came in a number of ways, but my favorite was developing a tool that mined data within minutes through a Klout API call, cutting down on a task that would usually take the marketing department 8–10 hours to complete. Shortly afterwards, there was an opening in the engineering department with an internship, it was my chance to go for it!

After speaking with my department head and a few other devs about the possible transition, they were all very excited for me to make the leap. After prep work and cleaning up my fancy tool I built, I was ready and a meeting was set! The head engineering sat down with me and I presented the case for why they would hire me for their team, the work I had done previously with WordPress sites, servers and the tool I built for the team. Feeling like this was a great opportunity since I also had domain knowledge with the company, I was told with a completely straight face

I don’t like having woman on my engineering team, they are too distracting.

It was another moment of my heart skipping a beat and I felt like I was hit by a train. It was my first experience with real sexism in tech. I was stunned. “Wait, what. Is this a thing? How is this possible? What did I say or do wrong? Was I wearing an inappropriate outfit?” Millions of questions and self doubt raced through my mind as I mumbled a thank you and left. That night over wine, I again found myself pondering and then angry. “How dare he say that. This is ridiculous, I don’t want to be a part of this team anyway. I’ll show them I can do that job plus some.”

I quit within a week with a lengthy email to the CEO listing out all the things that were wrong with the company. I could write more about all the sexism, overt and passive, I’ve experienced on my journey (and will one day), but that requires another blog post. Suffice it to say, that comment catapulted my work with women in tech and has made me a tremendous advocate for new software developers.

I took the next month to apply at two bootcamps and another internship and was denied.

The fire of motivation I had to show everyone they were wrong and I could get into software development was dimming and I felt at a loss.

During this time I was doing a lot of yoga to balance out stress, one day while I was lying in Savasana thinking of all the things hitting dead ends in my life; the teacher made an announcement about Yoga teacher training beginning in two weeks. My gut response was “…might try something completely different and see if I can succeed at that.” With that, I threw myself into all things yoga that summer and lived the full Yogi lifestyle, becoming certified in Bikram, Vinyasa flow, Sculpt cardio and Power classes.

For those 4 months, my life was blissful and I was in damn good shape, but I felt like I was missing something. I didn’t feel fully satisfied and craved something more. From encouragement of many amazing friends, I opted to try the software route again and went into full networking mode at Denver Startup Week. There was a job fair that I attended and found a company that was looking for Rails interns, after a long talk there and a long interview, BAM, I was offered the job. Here is where I met Elaine and we were determined to conquer the world together as #Jelaine.

Unfortunately, within two weeks of us starting our internship, the two seniors meant to mentor us for 6 months quit.

We were left with one senior developer that didn’t know Rails and were limited to 30 minutes per week to ask questions. All the while we continued to work on production bugs and small features. This was a tough position to be in, but we stayed optimistic as we both wanted to be software developers and the company was very nice. However, six months later, we were both left with a bit more knowledge than we came in with learning from one another, but not enough for a junior development position. Another one bites the dust.

So it’s summer again, and I decided to spend it in Europe; live with my Dad, lick my wounds a bit from yet another failure and try to study what feedback I was given on why I wasn’t good enough. That fall, I came back and had been working on my application for G-School through Galvanize, when I was approached by Elaine to work with her on Go Code Colorado, a concept which she and a team were working through. It wasn’t a software development job, but I wasn’t sure that would be a thing I could get right away anyway. It appealed to the combination of community and software that I love, and seemed like the perfect opportunity to take while searching for my next role and to help build something new and exciting. I worked with the team that year through April of 2014 and it was a great success for year one!

Simultaneously during Go Code Colorado, in early winter of 2013, I met Jorge at a DenverRB meetup and he told me about an upcoming school he was apart of, called Turing. This was not starting until June of 2014, but he assured me it was worth the wait. This prompted me to reconnect with Jeff, whom I had met during my time with my Rails internship, to have a very frank conversation about this school he was starting. This was it: this was the last time I was going to pursue a job in software development. I could make another investment of my time and a big chunk of change for my future, and if this wasn’t it, then nothing was and I would go back to Marketing or find my calling somewhere else. Anxiously, I waited for the application to come out, applied, and stopped half-way through in fear I would be told once again I wasn’t good enough. “Can I handle rejection one more time? This is getting embarrassing”. Jeff reached out to me via email encouraging me to complete my application of logic problems and a video (of course I had 🍷 beforehand) and holy shit, I was accepted.

Game. Changer.

The next 7 months were hard. REALLY hard. However, the firehose of information and the amazing mentorship I got made the decision worth it one hundred times over. Turing filled in the gaps from what I didn’t understand with the self-taught route, eliminated some bad habits I picked up, gave me a love for TDD, opened up my world to contributing to open source and to top it off, I met some amazing people I still call friends to this day.

Post Turing, I’ve worked at two companies, a very small consultancy and a very busy startup. Both provided some great experience and I’m appreciative of what I learned at each. I wanted to give back to the school and community that provided me with a pivot in life change, so I continue to mentor at Turing with individuals and through the Joan Clarke Society. Through Turing, I also met Steve, one of my favorite sarcastic humans, ever. Two years ago he approached me about doing DinosaurJS, so we have done that together and it’s been awesome. Go Code Colorado has continued to be amazing and I’ve had the opportunity to work with them throughout its existence, wrapping up year four with another smashing success in Colorado tech innovation.

All of these roads the past years have led me to a place in my life where I realized I had been concurrently running a community track in my life in my spare time and an engineering track during my 9–5 career.

I am thrilled to announce that I’ve found a role that will let me use my code skills as well as my community skills: Developer Advocate at Algolia.

Find the people that believe in you and align yourself with them, and move away from the people that doubt you.

There were key advocates along the way in my journey, and key detractors. If I had listened to the detractors I would not be @jessicag. By listening and aligning with the right folks, I am proficient in a multitude of languages as a software engineer and I continue to learn and get better every day. I like to think that your life is what you make of it, and it is, but it’s also, who you decide to listen to along the way. If you work hard enough, you can make your dreams happen, and drop the haters like a bad habit.

Throughout this entire journey, I’ve been lucky enough to have both the emotional and financial support of my wonderful husband, Brandon West, which I realize is not something that everyone has. He has been there from day one through three thousand and counting, with adventures and ups and downs. I feel lucky to have a truly great partner in life; and one who truly understands and supports my career. Thank you love!

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