My start in tech happened well before I actually had the title of “Engineer” or “Developer”. It started in a small town known primarily for being home to one of the most liberal (and most hipster) colleges in the country. I had mixed feelings about attending school there and was pressured in part by my parents to apply to schools in Ohio (they were moving there at the time). Moving to Ohio meant leaving behind my friends and boyfriend (at the time) in Minnesota where I went to high school. We settled on Oberlin because it gave the opportunity to study lots of different things. At the time I was passionate about at least a dozen different things and had no idea what I was going to do for a career. Naturally I wanted to put off that decision for as long as possible, hoping I would figure it out during college.
I was always interested in technology, but before starting college (and also during a fair amount of college itself) my leanings were toward art and writing. That’s not to say I didn’t spend a ton of time in front of screens — my unofficial babysitters were my Gameboy, Nintendo, and PC running Windows 2000 —but as a kid my best friend was an extremely talented artist and we would draw and paint together constantly. I loved to go to museums and could stare at my friends art for hours. I also loved to read and wrote numerous short stories in middle school and wrote for the high school paper. I was very much a creative generalist and loved all things that involved the imagination. However, my parents kept pushing me toward a practical path, because they were still struggling with their own careers and worried about employment options for artists in the USA. Of course they were right to worry, since very few artists succeeded in getting their work into a gallery, let alone selling that work for enough money to make a living. However, I learned in my late teens that there was another option- which sounded much more practical than being a writer or an artist. It was sort of like an overlapping of art and technology and it was called design.
I dabbled in web design during middle school and high school, when I had participated in storytelling forums and later decided to create my own which needed had a very generic look if you didn’t modify it. Essentially it was just a monochrome colored forum with no background images or icons, and I wanted the forum to look like it was part of my website, and to be a bit more pleasing to the eye as well. Essentially I was using CSS to make these changes, but it was back when there was no such thing as developer tools (which would allow you to see the CSS alongside the site and actually make modifications to see the visual changes in real time) and very little instruction, so the level of frustration accompanied with something as benign as altering the background color was pretty insane. It was fun and rewarding to see my websites come to life, but the process was so time consuming and at the time I had no idea anyone even did that kind of thing as a career.
By the time I was starting college however, I had learned a few more things, and I realized design really was a viable career. What was less encouraging was that I was also told that Oberlin does not actually have a design degree. What it did have was a creative writing degree, in fact one of the best undergraduate creative writing programs in the country. If I had known that my future would be pretty much solely focused on web development, I probably would not have given Oberlin another glance. But though I knew art was not much of a viable career, I thought maybe if I got into the creative writing program I could still become a successful writer. All thoughts of design and technology basically went out the window at this point. There was still a bit of that snowflake millennial inside me that hoped to become a bestselling author, and that snowflake wasn’t going to melt so easily.
It took three events happening in college to melt that snowflake. The first was that I was never accepted into the creative writing program at my college, the second was the economic crash, which happened soon after I started college, and the third was breaking up with my long distance boyfriend who I was in an unhealthy codependent relationship with. My dreams of becoming a bestselling author were shattered by rejection. Suddenly I was hearing from friends and acquaintances that they couldn’t find a job.
I realized that I thought that I had been too weak to work in the field of software engineering. I also realized that this perception of myself as weak was false, because I had just done something I never thought I could do… break up with someone despite my issues with codependency and lifelong fear of rejection.
With the economic turmoil looming, my parents anxiety about post-graduation life, and by extension my own, quickly quadrupled. It was not eased by the fact that my classmates seemed to be either too separated from the realities of middle class America (a large percentage came from wealthy families) or too absorbed, or perhaps in denial, with the college life bubble to care. Although all of the events mentioned did not unfold immediately upon starting college, I felt enough of the pressure just from the first event to decide that I needed to get a job.
I felt guilty that my parents were paying for this expensive college, and ashamed that I had wrongly believed I could be accepted into the prestigious writing program. In fact I was so frustrated and angry with myself as well as the school that I almost transferred after my freshmen year. Probably the only reason I didn’t was because I had already moved so many times and become so jaded that I doubted that another school would be much better. Or maybe it was getting a job that saved me, because working for the Oberlin Office of Communications at least gave me a little bit more confidence that I could find a job after college despite my fears.
If you are in college or soon to be starting college, I highly recommend that you also find some sort of part time employment while you are in school. I did all sorts of things and learned a lot about myself in the process, possibly more than I learned from all the classes I took combined. To give you a brief overview, here is a list of some of the jobs I took in college: obituary writer, photographer, web banner designer, web developer, interviewer, dance instructor, and archives assistant. At this point I think it would be beating the dead horse to say I tried a lot of things, but I do want to emphasize that I did not choose web development simply because of the money. I tried a lot of other things and realized that many of my interests were not quite as strong as I had originally thought they were.
Even as I continued to take art and design classes, I began to wonder if it was the right path for me. I enjoyed aspects of it, such as the strategic thinking that was necessary to identify audience and tone. But the 2D limitations of the medium frustrated me, and my classmates who always wanted to make political messages with their work didn’t always mesh with my desire to master the craft. I wondered if I could do more with design if I learned how to code. I also wondered with the economic turmoil if a career in design was going to be sufficient to make a living wage. Though I had never doubted this before, when I looked at designer portfolios online I could hardly find any that were made by beginners. I was extremely intimidated by the senior design portfolios that I came across, and wasn’t sure that I would have what it took to compete.
At this point I decided it was time to hedge my bets and take advantage of my liberal arts school and enroll in my first programming class. This was sophomore year of college, and now that class feels like a distant memory. The thing I remember most clearly is that programming was not at all what I had expected it to be. For some reason I expected to spend a lot more time with the hardware of the computer, and needing to understand how the most primitive parts of a computer worked. That is to say, I thought that I needed to know how to take a computer apart and how to put it back together, and be able to explain how each piece of the computer functioned in order to translate code into instructions.
Since nobody had ever given me any clue about what being a programmer was actually like, I really had no idea. I realized very quickly that this was not at all the case, and that programming adhered to rules which, once understood, were applied in a straightforward manner to pretty much all programming languages. One could write software their entire lives without even necessarily knowing how to use Facebook.
It was honestly my first real exposure to seeing code on a screen. I had never been exposed to it in elementary, middle, or high school, nor was it ever mentioned by any teacher, coordinator, or camp counselor in my entire life. This fact, now that I look back on it, ought to have been the most shocking one of all. I had certainly been exposed to math and science, but to this day I cannot believe that nobody had so much as entertained the thought of showing me how to code when I was younger.
My first programming class was pretty much an introduction where we learned Python, a language which very much resembles English, and in retrospect I probably could have skipped it and dove right into the larger and more intense Java programming class that funneled students into the Computer Science major. Instead I took that class after the intro, because I had very little self esteem and had been told hundreds of time over my life that programming was “hard, challenging, and probably not for me”. If you are a girl, that will probably sound familiar.
In the Java class, I spent about a dozen hours each week on the take home projects. This paid off greatly and helped to balance out my grade when I didn’t do so well on the exams, but meant that the vast majority of my time during that semester was spent on programming assignments. It was the first time I realized just how extremely frustrating and challenging it can be to get something to work with your code, but also my first time experiencing the elation of having a functional program that I created with my own hands.
This elation was especially strong when I got to create the Go Fish game with Java. As you may recall me mentioning in the first paragraphs of this chapter, I loved to play games as a kid. I had never imagined that I would have the ability to actually create those experiences that brought me so much joy in my childhood that they felt truly special. It was such an empowering feeling to create something from scratch that people could interact and play with. Like one of my friends told me years later, programming has a certain element of magic. I loved the feeling of being the magician, and creating something that seems to have a life of its own.
Despite this elation, however, like the vast majority of my female peers at college, I did not decide to pursue a Computer Science major. The reason was because I had heard lots of horror stories about how the next class towards the major was the hardest class of all, that it involved data structures far more complex than the humble array, and that I would be lucky if I passed. So even though I would have had a perfect A in my Java programming class were it not for a few pesky exams (I got an A on every take home assignment), I was scared that I would fail the data structures class and therefore decided majoring in Computer Science was not for me.
Nobody attempted to dissuade me from that decision, either. After all, women don’t belong in tech anyway, right? It seemed perfectly natural that I chose to pursue design and the arts with a bit of programming sprinkled in, rather than the other way around. If I had decided to stay in the major, I would have been the only other woman graduating with a Computer Science degree in my year.
This “sprinkle of Computer Science” ended up being a 12 credit concentration as part of my Visual Arts degree, which was one of those strange creatures one can only find in a liberal arts college. Basically, most of your credits toward your degree come from the Art Department, but you can choose 12 credits from any other department to supplement your degree and call it a concentration.
I was lucky that there were some Computer Science classes that I could take outside the track towards the major. Not all of the classes really added to my knowledge of programming. 3D Animation, for example, was a fun class but had nothing to do with my future career. At the time I actually believed I had a chance becoming a designer or a 3D artist, though, so it made enough sense to me.
I should have realized back then after how much fun I had in my programming classes, despite their difficulty, that it was more useful and more practical for me to continue with the full Computer Science degree than sticking with art and a little bit of Computer Science on the side. But my fear of failure was great, and I chose what at the time felt like the safer, more comfortable path. I cannot say I entirely regretted this decision, but I often wonder what would have happened if I had continued with the major.
I would also be lying if I said part of me didn’t want to believe that I could work on a mix of art and programming in my career, and I guess I also hoped that if I did this in college I would have better chances of finding a job like that after college. Maybe this would have been true if I knew anything about networking, or got a head start on researching where I should move to. I had no idea how few jobs existed that were like that. I also had no idea that 99% of the jobs which did exist like that were in California.
My art classes really ended up having almost no application in my career as a software engineer. The students in the Oberlin College Art Department were not the most practical bunch, and a few of them even suggested I was a sellout for wanting to get a good paying job.
There were other things I did in college outside my degree which actually helped with my career more in the end. I did some freelance work as a graphic designer, and this taught me how to work with people in different age groups and what it was like being in a client relationship. It also taught me that freelance work was kind of terrible, because you had to be very good at navigating different personalities and clearing up any confusion, while also putting your foot down repeatedly. I had the unfortunate tendency to want to make friends with my clients, and did not establish appropriate boundaries like always signing a contract or being clear from the get-go about payment expectations. This led to much awkwardness later down the line, and helped push me away from being a freelancer.
No, instead of being a freelancer I ended up being something totally unexpected after college. In fact, if someone had told me my freshmen year what my first job out of college would be I may not have believed them. This was because it wasn’t a design job, or a programming job, or a writing job. In addition, the “where” was equally surprising as the “what”. I was going to be staying in the same tiny town where I had gone to college for another two years, working for the same department that I never felt like I really belonged in. I was going to be an “Art Technical Coordinator.”