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Ask for and be a Mentor with Lauren Lee

samjarman profile image Sam Jarman 👨🏼‍💻 Originally published at samjarman.co.nz on ・12 min read

Dev Chats is back for season two! This is a series where I speak to an awesome developer or techie every week or so. You can read more here. Let me know if you know someone awesome I should chat to next.




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Introduce yourself! Who are you? Where do you work?

Hi there! My name is Lauren Lee and my journey to tech was rather unconventional or non-traditional if you will. Unlike so many of my coworkers and peers, I didn’t grow up tinkering with or deconstructing our family computer nor did I major in Computer Science in college.

Instead, I studied humanities, took maybe one math course in university, and even spent the first few years out of grad school living in Belize teaching and spending the majority of my time scuba diving. I then spent seven years teaching English/Literature and coaching cross-country and track coach at a school in Seattle WA before finally embarking on my journey of learning to code.

In 2017, I was fortunate enough to attend Ada Developers Academy, a tuition-free year-long program that trains women and gender diverse folk to code in Seattle. These days I am a Technical Product Manager at GoDaddy where I get to evangelize a platform team that optimizes the engineering process for developers. I help teams adopt a framework that makes prioritizing Machine Learning, experimentation, personalization, and mobile-first development super simple, which is really really fun!

Who or what got you into tech?

I actually fell in love with coding because of the bridges it builds. And by that, I don’t mean the bridging of two interoperating runtimes or anything like that, but rather its ability to unite communities and foster empathy.

A few summers ago when I was still teaching, I took a group of my high school aged students to Zambia where we partnered with a school to do a cultural and technological exchange. We were to bring donated computers and teach basic HTML, CSS, and JavaScript to teens who would then go on to teach their peers in hopes of positioning themselves ahead within the global job market.

I was there not as the code expert but as a mentor for my students. I was essentially the emotional support while my co-leader and students peer-taught the actual technical lessons.

Things were rocky at first. It felt as though there were too many cultural differences standing between my students and their Zambian peers to make a genuine connection. The initial lessons flopped because there was nothing connecting them to one another. I think my students, despite all of the prep work they had done building up to the trip, were nervous and uncomfortable in the foreign setting. Neither the Seattle nor the Zambian students knew how to break down the cultural barrier that existed between them.

That all changed once they got behind a computer together. They began working collaboratively towards a common goal of building a website and all of their trepidation and nervousness gradually washed away. Our Nyanjan, the local Zambian language, got better as we soon learned the necessary words and phrases required for creating a webpage. And in time, students on both sides of the communication barrier were able to discover shared commonalities. They were unearthing shared interests, passions, and traits: “Oh you like memes too? Okay, cool me too. How about we create a website devoted to our favorite ones together!” The commonalities started out superficial and small but soon grew to encompass rich and complex topics including family, struggles in school, personal relationships, parental pressures, etc. Consequently, their lessons expanded beyond code as they began to form genuine relationships.

And ultimately it was coding that provided the bridge between the two worlds.

Code provided a common language. It filled the gap.

Thus, I fell in love with tech and the endless opportunities it equips us to tell unique narratives that can forever link lives together.

It’ll be no surprise to learn that after that trip, I was hooked. I had to learn more. I returned home and began taking courses online. Fast forward a few months, I discovered Ada Developers Academy, and that was the last school year I taught before I quit my job and dedicated my future to discovering more of those incredible human moments that tech can facilitate.

Teaching to Tech - bit of a change! Why? How are you finding it?

Definitely a big change! In my final year, I was feeling ready for that change though. I was craving a new challenge. This sounds bad to say, but I realized that I was becoming more excited about the summer than I was about grading another essay on the phoniness of Holden Caulfield. And my students deserved better than that. I was well aware that tech as an industry had a major gender gap and felt that I had an opportunity to make my students proud. They witnessed me taking a risk, as I switched careers so late in life, and tried something that seemed so far from what I had previously defined in my life as impossible.

I’m lucky because the skills I developed as an educator often prove to be helpful in my roles as both an engineer and TPM.

Sure, there have been a few times in interviews where I would have benefited from more time studying algorithms or trie traversals, but honestly, there have been even more times where lessons I learned as a teacher have turned out to be crucial to solving a problem in my code. You’d be surprised how often I’ve been able to link Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter to a watercooler debate over database migrations!

And so I ultimately feel really proud to have not allowed all of the circumstances and feelings of self-doubt stop me from following a dream of learning to code. And I’ve come to think that that is just as important as being a good teacher - demonstrating to my students that there absolutely is a place for women in this industry, that we can find success, that we belong here, and thus I’m striving every day to be a #girlboss and create space for more like me to find a place in this industry.

Tell us about Ada Academy, how did you find the experience? What were your biggest lessons you learned?

Ada is genuinely the most incredible community I’ve ever been a part of. Their admittance process is incredibly rigorous- they receive hundreds of applications for each cohort and are only able to accept 48 students at a time. I feel so freaking lucky to have been accepted. For six months we were in class from 9-5 every single day, which is WAY more school, including my Masters, than I've ever attended before! They pack 4 years of a CS curriculum into a 6-month time frame. Thus it is wildly rigorous but so so worth it.

Beyond learning the foundations of web development (Ruby, HTML/CSS, Ruby on Rails, JavaScript, and React), we also spent a great deal of time preparing for the industry we were about to enter. While within the walls of Ada, because we were all career-changers and new to the industry, we felt safe to fail in front of one another and learn from each of those failures. But we knew that the industry wouldn't be so forgiving. And that it remains male-dominated and can at times feel intolerant of those that are different. So it’s an integral part of Ada's curriculum to spend time discussing topics such as how to:

  • identify allies and mentors

  • ask the right questions in interviews of employers

  • identify teams that value diversity

  • recognize a manager that sees your prior life experiences and non-traditional path to tech as a benefit and not a detractor

  • and lastly, what to do when one finds themselves on a toxic team

I’m lucky that Ada’s community is still an available resource for me now even after graduation. I'm constantly on our Slack channel where we continue to support one another throughout all of the ups and downs that come with being a part of this industry.

I couldn't recommend the program more and firmly believe that anyone interested should absolutely apply!

Seattle has a pretty great reputation for Tech with a few giants there - how do you like the city for working and living in?

Seattle is incredibly dynamic city. To your point, yes, as those tech giants continue to grow (and have shown no sign of slowing down), it’s certainly become wrought with tech-bros, teslas, and astronomical rent. But that also means that it’s a place filled with opportunity, innovation, and excitement.

Say you’re searching for a job. There are enough Meetups/ Hackathons to network and attend a different one every night of the week. In Seattle, you never have to search long to find someone to practice for an interview or to collaborate on an idea for a new project. There's a new startup on every corner and you cannot go into a coffee shop without overhearing a conversation about someone's idea for a new app.

Tech is in now at the core of Seattle’s identity.

And beyond those mega-corporations, we also are home to some pretty awesome mission-driven companies like Code.org and Unloop. And I love how many people here are dedicated to diversifying the industry and making it a more inclusive place to work like the Riveter, a female-driven coworking space, that also started here! Plus there are tons of different organizations to volunteer with that support, empower, and inspire women and girls interested in learning more about tech like ChickTech and She's Coding.

Ultimately, it’s a city that values innovation and forward-thinking and that’s something I’ll always value.

Bonus points go to the fact that we’re equally close to the mountains as we are to the ocean and the majority of people here are passionate about spending any and all spare time outdoors. I feel pretty lucky to live in a place where connecting with nature and unplugging from your machine is so easy and rewarding.

What has been your toughest lesson to learn in your software career so far?

I've learned that when it comes to code, you simply cannot know everything. There have been countless times where I have been so hard on myself for not knowing every acronym used in a meeting or have felt utterly incompetent when trying to navigate a new codebase.

We so often put pressure on ourselves to know everything but when it comes to tech, that simply is impossible. There will always be a new language, concept, or design system to learn. And thus I've learned to embrace the fact that there are so many unknowns out there. I've adopted a growth mindset and no longer treat the countless things that I don’t know as barriers or blockers but instead, as lessons that I just haven’t learned yet!

What would be your number one piece of advice for a successful software career?

Ask for and be a mentor.

First off, never be afraid to ask the brilliant individuals you’re surrounded by for support, advice, and guidance.

And it’s important to be specific in your mentorship asks. There are benefits to having different mentors for different parts of your career. I don’t believe in having one single source of truth for anything. I’m all about building a “board of advisors” for yourself- as in, creating a team of individuals you trust and hear all of their opinions when seeking advice.

For example, I always go to one specific mentor for help in negotiating salaries. And another when I have questions about how to advocate for myself or get a promotion. I know exactly who to talk to when I’m faced with questions about the intricacies of the tech industry itself. I have a different mentor that knows what it's like to be the only woman on your team and simply is there to listen if that's ever what I need most. And because I hope to find a role in DevRel in the future, I also have specific mentors who help me find those opportunities.

It would be super overwhelming to ask someone to be all those types of mentors wrapped up into one, thus I find it’s best to break it up into many.

Plus it doesn't ever hurt, especially when I'm feeling down, to remember how many people I’ve got in my corner that believe in and support me.

And secondly, when you feel ready, be a mentor yourself. It often doesn't take much. Sometimes it's just being a sounding board for someone as they work through a problem. It's about making yourself available to someone and creating a safe space for them to grow.

As mentors, I think it's incredibly important to welcome women and gender diverse individuals into the industry. We’ve got to create space for more to join and for them to thrive and succeed. As advocates, we must encourage and champion them and sing their praises especially when they’re facing moments of self-doubt. We've got to all do our part to help those that are still learning and growing by making the industry as positive and inclusive as possible.

Have you got any hobbies outside of your job? Do you think they help your tech career in any way?

Absolutely. I’ve had a LOT of hobbies in my life and am always finding new ones. I was the mascot in university (Oswald the Tiger!), I love running marathons and have recently gotten passionate about triathlons, I like making jewelry and pins out of shrinky-dinks, and just generally am always looking for new ways to express my creativity.

I'm pretty adamant in believing that the majority of these passions have helped me in my tech career in that they add layers or dimensions to my point of view. I’m from Chicago originally where I grew up playing ice hockey and I’ve always understood that to be why I love being a part of a team at work now. I’ve also always loved musical theater, Shakespeare, improv, and performing. I now understand that that passion and my flair for theatrics has made me a better public speaker and conference presenter.

I’ve learned that Imposter Syndrome is alive and well within so many of us and it’d be really easy for me to see the fact that I don’t have a CS degree or years and years of experience in the field as a detractor. But I’ve spent a LOT of time reworking that outlook to see all of my life experiences as attributes that make a stronger and more compelling developer.

Because ultimately these passions and seemingly disjointed experiences are all things that I bring to the table that in fact differentiate my problem-solving skills. They diversify the way I approach a code review. They help me facilitate relationships beyond just my engineering team in a large company. They provide perspective: sometimes I think, OMG, I’ll never be able to resolve these 35 merge conflicts, but then I remind myself that I once held the record for most penalty minutes in my ice hockey league and I tell myself that I’m badass who can absolutely can and WILL tackle those conflicts!

What would you recommend for others wanting to follow a path similar to yours?

  • Listen to CodeNewbie’s Base.cs for hilarious and approachable explanations of computer science principles.

  • Read Sandi Metz’s Practical Object Oriented Design - I read it early on while at Ada and I continue to return to it when problem-solving and brainstorming ways to lower our team’s engineering costs.

  • In general, I’ve found a great deal of success from networking and attending local meetups and tech conferences. They're great for immersing yourself into tech communities and learning about cool projects others around you are working on. Most conferences have scholarship opportunities and I really really benefited from attending those early in my career (check out this piece I wrote on attending my first tech conference, RubyConf, here).

  • Extending that last thought, beyond just attending them, volunteer or submit CFPs to speak at those events! Seriously, If you’ve got a project you’re excited about or have struggled through a particularly juicy problem recently, share that with the world and give a talk!

  • Technical interviews can be particularly terrifying. And yes, there are a ton of awesome resources such as Pramp.com and LeetCode out there to help you prepare for them. But let’s be real. I’m not the first one to nearly pass out from nervousness and anxiety during a whiteboarding question!

At Ada, we wrote notes to one another to remind ourselves of our value, of our coding abilities, and of our strength during times when we were feeling insecure or were even doubting our decision to enter this industry in the first place. I’ll share one that I think we could all benefit from hearing before walking into an interview:

You are so much more than the person the interviewer sees for that hour in front of the whiteboard. How well you reverse a string will never be reflective of who you are as an individual. You cannot ever forget the fact that you too deserve to be here. You matter and there absolutely is a place for you in this industry.

Finally, make your shoutout! What would you like the readers to go have a look at?

You can follow my journey on Instagram and Twitter@LoLoCoding & read more from me at Medium.com/@lolocoding

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