What’s Next? ADA DEVELOPERS ACADEMY!

Hello followers (mom, hi). I am very pleased to announce that I’m taking my coding hobby pro in September as part of Ada Developers Academy‘s fourth cohort! I am beyond excited. When I got the notice I had to read the email like a billion times over before it became real. It still isn’t real but today our cohort got to finally (virtually) meet. I am so stoked to be joining the team and have a group of 23 other women who share this awesome opportunity.

So what does that mean? Ada Developers Academy is a Seattle-based 12-month program for women that jumpstarts their careers in tech. Starting on September 21, I will begin the seven-month classroom phase which includes intensive programming study in Ruby, Javascript, and the Full-Stack. After that, I’ll be in a five-month internship with a local puget sound company. It’s going to be a really intense experience not only intellectually but also personally. I’ll have way less time for my friends now and have a whole new set of very close friends. I have had some experience with cohorts and communities like this (University Honors, the Sullivan scholarship) in which people from very different backgrounds are put through an intense collaborative experience. It is not easy. But the idea is that we come out the other end with a strongly connected group of peers to support us going into this industry. And I’m confident we are up to that.

Anyway, the same day I found about Ada I burned my hand pretty bad on a pot at my dishwashing job so I took it as a sign. I’m really excited to move past this summer and start this next chapter. Ada is giving me the amazing opportunity to do that. Now I just have to finish all the prework and get things in order for the Fall. Also, Ada will be hosting another cohort starting January 2016 so if you are at all interested in applying, DO IT! And I would be happy to talk, help, advise as best I can, etc. so please contact me.

Last note, I am part of Ada’s fourth cohort. So I am in Ada Cohort 4, but another way of putting it is Ada Cohort[3] or Ada[3]. This is the way arrays work because they start counting at 0 so the cohorts so far are [0, 1, 2, 3] … four cohorts!

I hope to blog throughout my Ada experience so stay tuned! Now, celebrating!

Jon Stewart, Comedy, and Craft

A short thought.

So I was on a few planes this week and I had a lot of down time to read and think. I finished Andy Weir’s The Martian. It was okay. Should make for a good movie. Anyway, I got to engage in one of my favorite down-time past-times: listening to a gajillion billion podcasts. Besides NPR, The Read, Another Round, Call Your Girlfriend, Slate, etc. (all the favorites), I decided on a whim to search for “Jon Stewart” in podcasts and dug up some old interview’s he did on Fresh Air and Bill Moyer’s show. I have watched Jon Stewart for as long as I’ve been interested in politics… so for the whole tenure of his time on the Daily Show. I have always felt a strong connection to his righteous anger on issues of corruption in the media and in politics. Sad about his leaving the show, I decided to listen to him speak about comedy and his time early on in the show. In this search, I came across an interview he did with Dave Davies in 2004 that struck a chord for me. Here is an excerpt from their conversation:

DAVIES: And you decided to go to New York and do standup […] And at first just got brutalized, as people do. And I’m wondering – you know, there are lots of people who are funny, that make their friends laugh, make their families laugh […] I mean, you were so funny, you had that brain working that way. What was it you didn’t know?

STEWART: What was I didn’t know about which?

DAVIES: About why didn’t it work? Why is being funny with your friends not the same thing as…

STEWART: Well, because it’s a craft, you know? It isn’t – there’s a big difference between having an analytical mind and being a good scientist. There is a craft to learn. And that was the biggest lesson is that it takes – again, it’s that idea of turning obnoxiousness into wit or comedy. You know, creating something from nothing is different from just being reactive at a bar. And you have to create the atmospheric conditions for comedy. Comedy is oddly enough very fragile and can be thrown off by, you know, a glass breaking or somebody talking or – you, know, there’s a lot of different elements to it that – and construction of a joke – you know, you have to create – one of the things about being funny life is the premise is already there.

This completely encapsulates my motivations and thinking as I delve further into projects in programming (and as I try to defend this divergent path to friends and family as well). There are lots of people who are sharp, who are analytically minded, who are the most creatively critical in a classroom. I was one of those kids. I’m an analytical person. However, being smart or analytical is exactly like being funny around friends in Jon Stewart’s case. There is a big difference between the potential and the profession. I think that in this year after my graduation, I want to build craft. What a word. Craft. 10,000 hours. I want to work hard at something that is intellectually exhausting and come out the other side two, five, ten years down the line, with a craft. As Stewart says, the biggest thing to learn is taking that energy and potential and turning it into something, producing something, and building something, and then channeling that something positively. I see so many similarities between comedy (purely, the most intricate and nuanced facet of language itself) and code similar to how I saw similarities between linguistics and code. And that comes down to craft. Craft is not a manual. It is not something that can be taught straightforwardly. It is an expert intuition, always moving and evolving, it is nuanced in its execution. When this craft is tuned and focused and then let grow through improvisation, it can be amazingly beautiful.

Wow, I got to go code some more.

tumblr me8m1h0m161qcmnsuo1 400 All the Jon Stewart GIFs you'll need as he leaves 'The Daily Show

Web Development & Positive Externalities

“Social justice” has been a long-held passion of mine. For years I have thought deeply about the question “What is social justice, really?” and “How do we talk about these issues from a place of privilege?” and “How do we leverage that privilege?” The definition of social justice is broad and often includes the idea of positive externalities. Recently, I have been describing/justifying my dive into web development as an attempt to gain skills that will allow me to build tools with some positive externalities. I have had many long and engaging conversations with friends about what exactly that means over the last couple months, and specifically conversations with other developers about what they think that means for a field so (seemingly) overwhelmingly homogenous.

One of the most interesting conversations I had about social change and technology happened with my friend who works for Pivotal Labs, a company that is trying to change the culture of software. Changing the software definitely has positive externalities. Here is a portion of Pivotal’s mission statement:

We’ve been at the forefront of agile development for more than two decades building highly scalable mobile and web software that reaches across a variety of industry verticals, software platforms and device types.

This mission aims to change things beyond the code that is being produced, and thus aims at a positive externality. I love the idea and definitely hope that I can get the opportunity to impact my field in a way that people at Pivotal do. The question of the definition of impact and particularly positive impact comes up again and again in economics. Maybe that’s where my obsession comes from. However, our language to describe social impact is still awfully vague. In development economics we are still obsessed with measurement and tracking the effect of economic activities on “social good” but spend a very small amount of time (read:none for the classrooms I was in) talking about what social good means, how inequality was created, and the larger systemic problems at play here.

However, the type of projects I am thinking of also have a social value at the margin. Social, political, and economic inequality are all mind-consuming obsessions of mine. But we can’t just say that if a company or organization adds positive value, even with externalities, that it adds social good. The economist Dean Karlan came to speak at Seattle U in the fall and discussed this on a panel with other development economists. He said that if we define Small to Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs) or social businesses as having positive externalities only if they add value, technically Wallmart is a social business. He defined social businesses as having something that impacts people beyond the exchange in a largely positive way like having a positive impact on the environment or significantly making the quality of life better for people in the community who may not ever have direct contact with the product itself.

With this in mind, I wanted to talk about several things I have learned about just in the last month in web development that have the power to have a huge positive impact on the lives of others or bring information into peoples lives that changes their behavior or thoughts for the better. It has given me hope that these conversations about social justice and positive impact will stay with me as I dive into programming and web development. These are only a couple of examples I have experienced recently, but there are many more examples out there of how programming can have a positive impact on the lives of others.

Twitterbots

I went to a talk last week as part of the organization PyLadies which featured Liz Uselton‘s discussion of Twitterbots. It was hilarious and fascinating. A Twitterbot is a program used to deliver automated posts on Twitter and can range from the hilarious to the sad to the informative. It’s also often used to spam others or advertise for useless stuff, but another view of Twitterbots is their use for activism. Liz talked about the #botALLY community which builds bots that are sometimes silly and sometimes really moving. Researching #botALLY and the awesome community that comes with it lead me to find my personal hero @tinysubversions who helped build @staywokebot with input from my other personal hero and awesome activist deray mckesson. Stay Woke Bot helps keep activists informed and affirms them. It is a spin-off of a prototype of Stay Woke that both Darius and Deray made called 101atron, which helped activists deal with their haters by tweeting replies at people who used certain key words with links to more information about that subject. So, for example, if someone were asking a question about appropriation the bot would take care of it by tweeting back at the person with a link to more information instead of the activist having to educate the person on a basic concept. Stay Woke just released the code for this on GitHub and I’m so excited even though I can’t really understand it yet <3.

Another string of awesome bots that do good are bots that parse public information for the public. My favorite two  I have found so far are: congressedits, which tweets anonymous Wikipedia edits made form IP addresses inside Congress, and censusAmericans, which tweets real facts about individual Americans from the census. These bots have the power to inform, create empathy, argue with trolls for you, protect you, and affirm your friends. How cool is that?

Accessibility

The next awesome social good webdev thing I want to talk about is #a11ywins. Tumblr here. I discovered and learned about #a11ywins and accessibility in software in general through my HTML/CSS instructor at Girl Develop It, Marcy Sutton. Accessibility is the measure of a computer’s accessibility to all people, including people with disabilities. Thus accessibility in tech refers to how software is designed to make the system accessible to people with visual impairments, hearing loss, and limited dexterity. The #a11ywins hashtag showcases computer programmers “wins” in making software more accessible. To me, this is such a cool concept that has implications beyond the product itself for access to information on the internet. Imagine if, because of faulty design, something like Google or WikiPedia were not accessible to you? Thinking about people outside of yourself and your own experience with software is a great example of empathetic programming as well.

Empathetic Programming 

Finally, something that I picked up from the Ada Developers Academy information session (and have been researching and embracing for the past couple weeks) is the idea of empathetic programming. This isn’t unique to just Ada. Empathetic programming is the idea that communication is key in designing code and makes you better able to not only relate to your user and your clients, but also to the future users of your code. In last week’s Code Newbies Podcast with Courteney Ervin, Ervin discussed becoming a self-taught programmer. At one point in discussing empathy, she said “You don’t make code for yourself. You make it for people.” This is the reason I’m super excited to get into a bootcamp. I know it’s going to be hard and I’m not talking about the code. The interpersonal relationships are hard, having to communicate with people from different backgrounds is hard, having to deliver your complex and half-baked ideas about math and code to other humans is really really hard, but I think that this is the necessary next challenge for me. I have had my head in a computer for the last couple of months and while I’ve gotten pretty good at understanding arrays, I haven’t had many experiences in communicating these ideas with others (I love my friends but they just couldn’t care less about this stuff).

When I was a student at Seattle U in economics I found the times when I tutored others to be the most intellectually engaging and tough moments of my study. When you have to explain regression to someone who is struggling through it, there is no better way than to re-struggle through it with them. I have never had a better grasp on concepts than when I’m learning that way. That’s empathy. And I’m really hoping I can get into a program that understands and embraces that. It will make me a better programmer and most likely a better person as well.

I signed up for the Seattle half-marathon!

I have never liked running until this year. It has always been something my family loves to do, but I’ve never really been into it. To this day, I still have not run more than five miles in a row.

I just signed up for the Seattle Half-Marathon in November and for a long-distance running class throughout the early fall (and just gave away all my Saturdays to volunteer for said marathon and class to pay for the scholarship, ha!) I feel oddly accomplished even though I haven’t done anything yet… and nervous. Hey… I’m an adult!Colbert-report

Design and Creativity

I’m currently taking an intermediate HTML/CSS class with Girl Develop It. The class is being held at Adobe in Seattle. Wow! That office space is beautifully designed (I mean, of course, but still) and taught by the awesome Marcy Sutton who is basically everything I want to be later in my career in programming. I just talked about this for my Ada application video, but five years into my career I would love to find my place in my coding community, give talks, be an educator and mentor, and have a larger effect on the community when it comes to accessibility and inclusivity for others. Marcy is doing all that and is awesome.

I enjoyed the last HTML/CSS class I took with GDI and my websites are starting to move out of the 90s and into the modern era with a little CSS3 help: Screen Shot 2015-07-14 at 7.55.54 PM

And a 3-column design looks so pretty (ignore me and the donut)!!!:

Screen Shot 2015-07-15 at 8.49.54 AM

However, the class has me thinking a lot about “design” and what that means and if I would be good at doing it or even like it. I am not one of those people who think anyone and everyone can design or that art is not a deeply rooted praxis. This comes from being raised by an architect and having several industrial and graphic designers in my family. I have heard a lifetime worth of arguments over hexcodes, shades, good design practice, and the difference between all sorts of triangle shapes — 30 degrees is NOT 31 degrees and that you would insinuate that is an insult. I find design compelling, I do like art, but I’m not sure it’s really my strong suit. I have always liked spatial problems. Or maybe it’s just math — any problem with multiple variables and a restraint. I often imagine time constraints and word counts in terms of finite space.

I just don’t know if tweaking CSS and HTML to hack design on a website is exactly what gets me excited. Tweaking databases and data structures so that we get different and more accurate interpretations of results however… I could do that all day. I don’t mind cleaning data, because I love breaking down something large and complex. I think it’s so important to appreciate design and know how it works though and I understand in the abstract sense that the “front end” is not only design. I am excited to learn more about the whole array of computer programming topics.

I wrote a philosophy paper once in undergrad about Martin Heidegger’s Building Dwelling Thinking, which argued for carefully inclusive design of public spaces. Heidegger begins his book stating

We attain to dwelling, so it seems, only by means of building. The latter, building, has the former, dwelling, as its goal. Still, not every building is a dwelling. Bridges and hangars, stadiums and power stations are buildings but not dwellings; railway stations and highways, dams and market halls are built, but they are not dwelling places.

In my head right now, you could so easily replace “building” with “web app” and “dwelling” with “webpage” where it exists through the browser. We attain to an accessible webpage only by building but definitely not everything we build is accessible.

Design is so important. Just learning a few basics, like what a “hero” (large header at the top of a website) is and how to alter it to look good, what SVG’s are and why they are better than png’s, and all sorts of best practices that will make your content accessible to everyone. At one point Marcy told us, “You don’t need to know how to create tools from scratch, but just being able to alter a SVG file is helpful.” I believed it. Having a birds eye view of design will definitely make me a better programmer no matter what part of the process I find fits me best.

I’m so thankful for organizations like Girl Develop It that go out of their way to offer classes at discounted rates for people who can’t afford General Assembly or Code Fellows. They are helping women like me to be more informed about the field as a whole and introducing us to really cool spaces like Simply Measured and Adobe in Seattle. I would definitely recommend looking into it if you are interested. They are very welcoming and have scholarships to their classes.

Applying to Bootcamps and Committing to Code

Last night I went to an Ada Developers Academy information session. The panelists talked a lot about personal journey and how crafting a narrative is key to success in their application. I think this is just true for all professional goals. So here I detail what got me inside that room last night, and why I am so committed to the type of community Ada is trying to facilitate.

Around six months ago, I was working in Pune with the digital ops team for Pratham and started to become interested in programming for the first time. I looked around (Googled) for different programs and bootcamps in Seattle that might be helpful in this journey. I wanted a bootcamp that was, above of all, intellectually rigorous. I wanted to my cohort to push me. More than that though — I wanted a program that matched my personality and values, that emphasized issues beyond the code. During this search, I found Ada Developers Academy, a year-long program just for women that looked both incredibly intense and put strong emphasis on communication, dialogue, and having the conversation about diversity in tech (not just talking about the conversation).

When I found Ada back in February, I became momentarily obsessed. Unfortunately for me, I found it exactly when the application opened up for the next cohort which started in May, and I was stuck in school until June. Five credits and some certifications stood between me and graduating with an economics degree. And everyone, I seriously considered dropping out of school to pursue programming right there and then. 

Have you ever found something that felt so right it made you nervous and excited at the same time? That’s how I felt when I found Ada. However, it wasn’t Ada that made me excited in and of itself. Ada looks fantastic, yes — but one program or product alone cannot cause an existential crisis or make feel like I need to drop everything and change my life. Ada’s tagline and mission were manifestations of a certain philosophy. You can find this philosophy in many organizations I have come to love in this journey: Girl Develop ItCode Newbies, and Women in Tech to name a few. Reading over Ada’s requirements and application sparked my enthusiasm and not just to apply. It gave me this strong feeling that I could actually do this. The amount of support for the organization told me something as well: people wanted me to do this. I didn’t need a CS degree, I just needed my own willpower and the ability to foster a community and support networks. 

So I didn’t drop out of college, obviously. I let the deadline come and go for the application and the opportunity slipped away. I knew there would be a cohort for me in the following months, but didn’t know how far off the organization would announce that. I wasn’t going to wait around for the application to open up again before I starting seeking out this community. I returned to Seattle to finish my thesis. School had become pretty dull at that point. All the excitement last quarter happened for me outside of school, at meetups and in conversations with mentors about this change. I took a class on feminist theory and wrote my senior thesis using R, which I enjoyed, but left me with only more desire to start coding and to meet other women in STEM.

I picked up some books on code (borrowed a lot from friends) and delved into online materials. I quickly realized something that I’ve heard many times before: coding is really really really hard.

And that made me love it all the more. I started out studying philosophy in school. I was intensely passionate about making arguments and delving into the depths of different writings to support ideas I had built from scratch. After a while though, I craved more opportunities to have a tangible impact and became interested in economics, where I could use math, statistics, and algorithms to support my models and arguments. Constraints and utilization curves had data behind them! I soon realized even economics had its share of faulty assumptions, inaccuracies, and often fundamentally mischaracterized human psychology. I started studying math. I like to tell people that I started out a philosophy major but if I had eight years to go to school, I probably would have become a math major. All this is to say, I began to realize that rigor and the constant search for more efficient (read: lazy) and powerful means to build arguments is at the core of what I wanted in a career. I never want to stop learning. In school there always seemed an end to the learning: the end of the syllabus, the quarter, getting a 4.0 in economics, graduating, etc. and I think a lot of academia is trained that way. In this new world, however, the possibilities are endless. We can pivot and pivot and pivot and no assistant dean is going to tell us “But six months ago you said you were going to teach Ruby and now your teaching Go? What is this?!?” Evolution in learning is not constrained by a syllabus anymore. 

This has all been in my mind for the last four months since I returned from India. I immediately set up coffee dates and happy hours with every developer or tech adjacent person I know. My friend Martina Welke gave me great advice about being a woman in tech. Kristina Lenova introduced me to amazing developers at her company Tune, and showed me what working at a tech company could be like. My friend Ben, a semi-recent graduate from App Academy, told me about his journey and discussed the culture. The countless amazing people I’ve met at Girl Develop It and Seattlerb gave me advice on learning materials. Finally, I reached out blindly to about four Ada students in their class or internship phases and all of them immediately responded “Yes. When?” I was able to have great conversations with them about Ada, and more generally how the mission of Ada compares to the community at large.

All of this brought me to Galvanize downtown last night for an information session. The application for Ada opened about a week ago and there are less than two weeks left in the process. The session was amazing, and the women from the cohorts spoke brilliantly about their experiences. I loved everything Amira, Loraine, and Kari said about community and their cohort. It reminded me so much of the Sullivan program at Seattle U. The panel also discussed creating positive culture and the ability to trust other classmates and work as a team. At one point, Rebecca Mark said she hopes the women and Ada will “be brave and unbounded” in tackling problems in tech and the world. At one point, a prospective student in the audience asked about intersectionality. I was relieved that the executive director’s answer came from a place of understanding. Cynthia spoke of Ada’s “no woman left behind” policy and how they try to build a constructive and open environment. Rebecca perfectly framed why these things are so critical when she said that this is was makes these women not only amazing humans, but “empathetic programmers.” If you cannot communicate your work to other classmates, how are you going to be able to communicate with users of your product? How are you going to be able to see if your product is applicable or accessible to people outside of yourself?

The session ended with a discussion of self-care and healthy habits while in the intense classroom phase, which I personally found comforting. In that moment I was so happy to have found Ada not only because of their program, but because this is exactly the culture I want to create, foster, and learn from in this line of work. So regardless of what happens in the coming months, I am glad to have this community and thankful for what they’re trying to do for women like me in trying to enter this field. I hope that even if I don’t become part of their cohort, I can still be part of the community and support its growth in the future.

You Cannot Stay on the Summit Forever

“You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.”

– René Daumal

Inspirational quote of the day. A close friend of mine and current roommate is a mountain guide and brought home this beautiful book of pictures of mountains and quotes from climbers. This passage got me thinking about how climbing things is like achieving any new skill. Why even go to the summit? There is no final summit, just a series of ups and downs, so why bother? Coding and programming are part of this: “the art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up.” Never stop learning. Never stop evolving.