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Michelle 🐍
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Interview with Developer Valerie Phoenix

This is the transcript of my conversation on @FromSourcePod with Valerie Phoenix, a Developer II who has had a varied career from psychology to designer to teacher. We talk about what it’s like to get a development job without a computer science degree and how she levels up.

She is also the founder of Tech By Choice. Tech by Choice's mission is to increase the diversity of the Science Engineering Art and Math (STEAM) industries by offering low to no-cost skill-building events, workshops, and classes to adults in protected groups to ensure individuals know they can enter, stay, and thrive in STEAM. Follow Tech by Choice on twitter @_techbychoice or sign up to join the community.

This has been edited for clarity.

Michelle: Valerie, can you tell us your current job title and how long you've been there?

Valerie: Currently, I'm a Developer II at the zenith insurance company, and I've been there for almost two years now.

Michelle: What does an average day looks like for you?

Valerie: Most days, I'm usually taking or designing a couple of screens and translating that into code. Mostly, I spent a lot of time debugging and just iterating off of designs based off of feedback from the business or customers. So usually, that's how my day goes.

Michelle: What has been your favorite long term project?

Valerie: My favorite long term project that I was on was when I was working at my previous employer, I was working for the startup that was for the auto body industry. And we had this service that was like a pro service for the different car companies. So it was a lot of branding, a lot of styles and style guides and things like that. And my job during for that project was to create a UI that could easily switch, different branding, depending on what car you selected. So if you select it to work with the Audi, you had the Audi designs with the fonts, colors and buttons and same thing for Chevy and Jeep and so on and so forth. So that was a lot of fun. It was actually a whole lot of work, but I really enjoyed it.

Michelle: What do you think made it so much fun?

Valerie: That was pretty early on in my coding journey. So a lot of that stuff was very difficult. I was very new to Sass at that point. And I had to come up with a structure with my Sass variables and just files and things like that, that was very flexible. And another thing that I had to learn during that project was how to compress things. And make sure that those files were fast and small enough to be run on mobile devices and on lower internet speeds. So just learning all of that stuff in a very short amount of time because it was startup world. So everything was very fast paced. It was at the time very stressful, but also very rewarding because I saw all the good that it did almost like instantly.

Michelle: Can you tell me how you manage the stress of your job?

Valerie: I think for me, it's kind of like how I manage stress in general. Like I try my to do my best and give things my all. And I always try to remind myself that if it doesn't get done today, it's going to have to get done at some point, whether it's that deadline date, or a few days after or before, like it's going to get done. So there's no point in stressing over it. I know like, at that point, I was still very new to development, and things like that. So everything seemed very stressful. So that was like the one way I kind of like push back on that and just like gave myself room to kind of not have to be perfect and just learn to complete things and finish things.

Michelle: I think that's great advice for anyone to just kind of take things one day at a time and not really internalize all the deadlines and the largeness of a project. What's the most boring but essential part of your current job?

Valerie: Code reviews? Like, I don't like the current setup of code reviews that we have in my current position, because I don't tend to get a lot of feedback when someone else is doing my code review. And so I kind of feel like it's, like I and you know, how they say in a relationship, sometimes one person gives more than the other. I feel like I'm giving everything and getting nothing in return when it comes to code reviews. And I know a lot of people don't like code reviews, but I personally love getting feedback. I love getting criticism, and so that it's easier for me to improve. So right now, I kind of dread doing code reviews because I know that I am not going to get the same feedback.

Michelle: I find code reviews a little stressful because it's always hard to take criticism. But in the end, it always helps you grow in your career and helps you be a better developer.

Valerie: Yes, it really does.

Michelle: What skills do you find the most essential on a day to day basis?

Valerie: Communication. There's been so many times where we run into issues in all the jobs that I've had, whether it be between the business between the client, between coworkers or just different team members. If there's no communication or there's not a good line of communication, things will go south like very fast. So it's, it's really easy, it's a whole lot easier to get feedback often and soon. I forgot there's like a whole saying with that, but I always mess it up. But like it's a design thing. It's like a feedback loop. You want to always get feedback in from the customer or the client like instantly versus waiting to the end. So that to me, that's very important.

Michelle: Yeah, that reminds me of the basic agile methodology where it's like you want to put things out as quickly as possible. So you can get customer client feedback and see how things are running before you've made a huge time investment on giant features or projects.

Valerie: Yeah, definitely. That's it. If we would have did this in a very recent project of mine, everybody would have been happier.

Michelle: That actually reflects another part of agile, which is when you do projects, learning from them, and trying to do better next time.

Valerie: Yeah, definitely. It helps you iterate faster and just get a better product out faster. And I think a lot of people really forget that's why agile is so good.

Michelle: What skill do you wish you knew when you started working in tech?

Valerie: It's an unspoken skill that it seems like people are supposed to have, especially if you're a woman in tech or anything like that. It's that you have to be an advocate for yourself. That's one thing that just recently I'm starting to realize, and I'm starting to try to build that skill set of mine. But that's one thing I'm starting to notice I have to do a lot of saying this is what I completed, this is the issues I've run into, this is how I learned from it. And using that to highlight yourself or talk about things that you want to change or you want to do within your company. That was never really in my job description and I don't think I had to do this outside of tech. So that's one very interesting thing that I've noticed.

Michelle: Where there any skills in your job description, or advised to have, that you never use at all?

Valerie: For my most recent job, it required that I'd be a senior developer with five plus years of experience. And I went into the interview, kind of thinking like, Oh, this is for a senior role, like, I'm not senior. I'm like junior to like mid level developer. And I kind of psyched myself out in a way that kind of benefited me because I thought, oh since it requires a senior level, there's no way I'll get this, so there's no pressure. So I just did the coding challenge and I showed the company how I learned things, kind of just to get feedback from them. I ended up getting a job and there was no need to be senior for this position. I was able to level up very quickly and jump right into the project that I got hired for.

Michelle: It's inspiring how you went forward anyway. And your mindset of, if I don't get this, it's still good practice. Which is hard because tech interviews are so long and nerve wracking, but the more practice you have, the more confident you're going to be when you find a really good fit.

Michelle: If someone wanted your job, what's a good path to take?

Valerie: I think a good path to take is, for one, just try to find a way to be dedicated to build the skills you need. But that could apply for almost anything in life. The way that I got to my position is because it's kind of like a dual role where I'm a UX person and a Front End Dev. Technically I am a Full Stack dev. I started off going down the design route, learning UX skills and very basic theory. Then I started practicing my design skills for wireframing and how to display different elements in design tools like Sketch. So that's how I went about the UX part of it.

Valerie: As far as the coding part, I started off with basic HTML, CSS and JavaScript. Once I felt like I mastered JavaScript, I started to add on different back end languages. I did it that way because I felt like once you understand the logic behind one language, it's much easier to jump to any other language because languages have different syntax and they look different, and they have different names, but the theory behind like, what's going on is usually the same. I would kind of suggest that route, it's much easier to do front end development work. It's a simpler setup for your environment. Jumping from front end to back end, that for me was the easiest way to do it.

Michelle: I love hearing all these different perspectives, because for me, front end seems very intimidating. Every time I jump in, it seems like there's just so many moving parts. I run back to Python because it's just one thing.

Valerie: That's honestly why I made the jump to back end because there's so much going on in front end development, especially for web development. You have to think about compression, you have to think about does it work on IE, which nothing ever works on IE. There's a lot of like different things that you have to check for in order for it to be ready for production. So yeah, back end is awesome.

Michelle: What would you advise students to learn that's not in their current curriculum?

Valerie: I would say it's a very good skill to learn how to talk about your code or your design. Communication skills are great, because that's going to take you from being just a developer to like a manager or lead, the higher positions. And that's what I'm pretty sure everyone wants to do once they get comfortable with code. It also helps you kind of be your own advocate, being able to talk about your work is also talking about yourself. I think those go hand in hand and those are perfect.

Michelle: One thing we haven't touched on yet is the fact that you're a career changer and you don't have a degree in computer science. Can you talk about what you felt like set you apart and made companies want to hire you without that background?

Valerie: This is one thing I've thought about a lot, especially now, because I'm trying to make the jump from mid level developer to senior. I think one of the things that set me apart, at least for this last job interview I went to, to get this position was I showed them how I learned. I knew I didn't have a computer science degree, I knew I didn't have this schooling, to back it. I also didn't go to a boot camp or anything else like that. I was pretty much self taught, through online tutorials and things like that. The thing that set me apart was I was dedicated, and I really love learning. I wanted to show my employer that and that's what I did.

Valerie: At the time, Vue JS was really new, and it was something I hadn't used. For the coding tests I used Vue JS. I took a day to go through documentation, and then a day to build out the project that they gave me. Looking back at it now, it wasn't the best code I've ever written or anything like that. But I highly documented everything I did and how I learned. And then I explained that in my interviews. That's what sets me apart. My dedication in showing that and being able to kind of communicate that I'm a great learner.

Michelle: That's excellent advice and that's one of the things I look for when I interview. You turned what could have been a disadvatange to an advantage. How was it for you when you were hiring?

Valerie: I was hiring instructors to TA a bootcamp and it was very interesting. I looked for someone who could communicate. Because I noticed that that was something a lot of people struggled with just being able to have just very one on one off conversations before jumping into the actual interview. A lot of people like to go high level when explaining their skills and I wanted people to show me that they could deep do a deep dive. Tell me a little bit more about different things like NodeJS other than what you can find by just quickly googling the definitions. How is the technology actually applied?

Michelle: So, what's your next step?

Valerie: I've been thinking about this a lot and doing a lot of like reflection on the last year. There's a long list of things that I want to accomplish. But right now, my focus, as far as my career goes, is to make that next step to become senior level. The other thing is l want to try my best to support the community of people who are interested in entering tech, the best way I can, by volunteering and helping out anyone that needs help with code.

Michelle: That's actually a great transition to my next question. I know you've just started a new organization. Can you take tell our listeners all about it?

Valerie: Oh, awesome. Yeah, I started this organization called Tech by Choice. What I'm doing with Tech By Choice is creating a space that is safe for people of protected groups. Whether you are a woman, a person of color, the LGBTQ community, differently abled, different religious backgrounds, there's like no age requirement, either. I want to create a space where if anyone was thinking about tech or wanting to see what tech was about, they can come and learn with us. We'll offer classes and events at usually low to no cost to help people build those skills to enter in tech. And I think one of the things that I found that's really cool, is a lot of people think tech is just coding, but I am setting up Tech By Choice to offer classes that are not just coding, that we have things to help people learn marketing skills or how to be a scrum master and all the amazing other roles in the tech industry that sometimes get overlooked. We want to support people on those journeys.

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