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Lessons from an intermediate programmer-journalist (part 3 of 3)

Posted by on Mar 27, 2015 in Blog | No Comments

Thanks to my recent awakening in embracing a programmer identity, I’ve learned a lot. Self perception is a lot more important than we might think in our day-to-day work, and my eyes have been opened. Coming from a journalism background, and realizing coding means so many things, and has so much power, can be a tough transition. I’m rather introspective, and I’ve been thinking a lot about some principles that have allowed me to up my confidence and embrace who I need to be. The last post in this series isn’t so much technical, as some thoughts about a journey of self-discovery.

Several threads of thought on how budding journalists can embrace their identities as intermediate programmers, and continue to pursue growth, have become an obsession for me during recent months. There are so many thoughts that I’ll be sharing information out in three posts I’ll be releasing, will address some thoughts I have, in the hopes it might help others. The first, focuses on laying out the problem, and explaining how the way we write code, and follow standards, can inform the quality of what we do. The second addressed how intermediate concepts improve how we communicate with others, technical and not, inside and outside our organizations. And this final post will address self-acceptance, and making peace with what it means to be a programmer, and overcoming imposter syndrome through seeing one’s best technical work as non-optional.

Learning to find passion in being the best you can be

For years, I have referred to the work I do as The Mission, capitalization mandatory, thanks. Meaning that what could be accomplished editorially, however I got there, was what I perceived as the end game. I love the work we do, and our community and consider it what my life is really about. I have always loved learning, and approach every task with zeal, and am not particularly sure how to do something when I’m not excited about it. And when our high school graduation speaker said “Find the work you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life”, I believed her, and I lived it, still do.

But all the concepts I’ve been writing about in the posts recently, this was all secondary to what I really loved. I needed to find a way to spark passion in rewriting code to be more readable, structuring beautiful code architecture. The puzzle itself was enjoyable, but not the end game. Leave it to editor Troy to recommend a helpful book to change my thoughts — Cal Newport’s “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”. Highly recommended.

The main takeaway was that instead of searching for a job you are passionate about, if you try to excel at the work you are doing, you can find the passion in being the best *blank* you can be. And as you get good at it, you’ll start to find the passion, and enjoy it.

So, no, I still don’t wake up in the morning and say “I am going to refactor some code today with best practices and it will be epic!” But I do wake up excited to learn some new techniques, and find ways to practically apply them, to write the best code I can.

Embracing being a “real developer”

I’m very motivated by the idea of making code more shareable with others. And I’m competitive by nature, but with myself. It’s fantastic to blow past the You of yesterday, last week, last month and be better.

Old me would get beaten down by observing the developers with more experience and realizing it would be an endless race to be them. But they are not the competition — nor are they “they” — “we” are all collaborators. The best we can do is bring the best version of ourselves to the table, but that is something it is our responsibility to do. And maybe one day, decades from now, I can play the role they play for me now.

To grow in the developer journey, I think fundamentally we need to be operating at the very edge of our abilities — I’m fond of picking 98 percent of my capacity as my sweet spot, but that number is arbitrary. If it’s comfortable and easy, we could be doing more. If it’s difficult enough we’re unhappy, it’s too much. Working at even 101 percent of one’s capacity is still too much. It should be tough, though. I was advised way, way back to go to a place where I could learn, and I felt I was one of the least knowledgable people in the room. I’d add that is good, but even better if those more knowledgable people respect your opinion anyway, and value where you are in the journey. When all that comes together, it’s beautiful.

So, I don’t distinguish between myself and “real programmers”. I’m just at an intermediate step in the journey. Lack of experience does not cast us outside the circle. It merely casts us at a different step on the continuum. And we all have things to learn.

Seeing myself reflected in the community

When I started on my journey, patient colleagues mentioned to me that it was important I get out there and write, talk, present to anyone who would listen because it mattered that when other people coming us saw someone who “looked like you”, they might realize that they too could join in. That has become a cornerstone of my being, and I am more devoted to it than ever.

It became apparent to me that “look like you” has a lot to do with gender. I don’t need to point you to myriad articles on what it means to be a woman in technology, and I speak about it publicly extremely rarely, although I’m willing to discuss one-on-one. But practically speaking, I socially gravitated to groups of women at conferences. When I suffered from a lack of confidence, looking around and not seeing me was a blocker. It was never the main issue, but when I did walk over to the group of programmers, the combination of not being able to access the language AND all the other differences added up. With added confidence and knowledge, I can enter into the world of the technical language, and the rest is easier to move past, because it really is inconsequential.

So, the next time I read a blog post referring to a coder as “he”, instead of it being the straw that makes me close the tab, it’ll just be a minor inconvenience I can move past. The differences that I can’t change, I’ve always chosen to just exaggerate. I don’t look like the others because I wear a big blue hat to conferences — that’s the reason, right?

Overcoming imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome, and feeling that you don’t belong, is real. I’m lucky to have brilliant colleagues, but attaining their level of skill sometimes feels unattainable for me. The journalism/recent grad background doesn’t exclude us from that programmer circle. I worry that these newfound ideas instill me with so much confidence that I might develop too much ego, so I have to keep remembering how much I still have to learn. Maybe the best way to not feel like we don’t belong is to simply, belong. When we spend the energy on The Work and The Mission, rather than worrying about ways in which we don’t fit, something interesting happens — we start to become strong enough that we do start to fit.

This is all not to mean that I’m letting go of working with people at all levels in the community. I still don’t think everyone in a newsroom needs to learn to code. And it’s essential that we work with, engage with, help folks with many different newsroom function skills and specialities. But if you’re going to learn to code, seriously, then that means everything that programming entails. If we’re going to commit — we need to Commit. So it’s important to me, and those of us coming up, that we not perceive an “us” and a “them”, and that we feel comfortable engaging with the coders.

I recognize these posts are at a different level from my usual writing. I will strive in my teaching at Medill and in the community to adapt to appropriate levels, that’s its own skill. Most of these concepts, I wouldn’t throw at a beginner, just as they weren’t thrown at me much earlier. But to be the best teacher, journalist, programmer, developer, I have to embrace this level of work, too. And I don’t see a lot of posts on the Web that emphasize that coding is hard, and a lifelong journey. It’s so much deeper than conquering an online tutorial. And I’d like to posit that getting to that deeper level is even more rewarding. The euphoria you get from putting a Google map on the page? Pretty cool. The euphoria when you develop your own custom system and data structure? So. Much. Cooler.

It’s with this mentality that I’ve finally embraced the programmer identity, but acknowledged it doesn’t change what makes me, me. Whether that’s as important as standing up for our beliefs and balancing technical and editorial skills, or as inconsequential as wearing long, dangly earrings and sparkly nail polish. Judge me on the intellectual ability over everything else. Perhaps most of all, I’m grateful to a team and editor that never lets me settle for less than my best that I get to call my intellectual family. I dislike saying “dream job”, but perhaps it applies. Really, I don’t know what I could dream of that would be better. But I wanted to document all of these experiences; I would have relished reading posts like this even six months ago.



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