Episode 018: Growing Your Team and Mentorship with Cheryl Schaefer

Panelists:

Astrid Countee | Sam Livingston-Gray | Jay Bobo

Guest Starring:

Cheryl Schaefer of Launch Code and CoderGirl

00:16 – Welcome to “Let’s Get this Ship on the Road!” …we mean, “Greater Than Code!”

01:06 – Origin Story and Mentorship

Cheryl Gore Schaefer: Grow Your Team In 90 Days @ RubyConf 2016

Empowerment Through Mentorship

11:38 – Avoiding Burnout: “How can I show up better as a Mentee? How can you keep yourself from giving up and washing out? When you find your skills have atrophied, how do you find the resolve to try again?” ~ Ariel Spear

Spot2Fish

23:41 – The Future of Tech Education

Sarah Mei Computer Science Education Tweetstorm

Sarah Mei People Who Apply for Opportunity Scholarships Tweetstorm

 

Support us via Patreon!
Get instant access to our Slack Channel!

 

Takeaways:

Cheryl: It’s valuable to have different viewpoints represented. Also, exposing people to fundamentals of tech is valuable as well.

Astrid: The RubyConf/RailsConf Opportunity Scholarships exist! Also, advice for mentees and mentors is the same.

Sam: Making a distinction between being a TA and being a mentor and giving the mentee ownership of their learning plan.

Please leave us a review on iTunes!

Transcript:

SAM:  Hello, good morning and welcome to Let’s Get this Ship on the Road! My name is Sam Livingston-Gray and here is Astrid Countee.

JAY:  Hey! Hi, everyone. I am Astrid.

ASTRID:  Just so you know, Jay. I’m Astrid. You’re Jay. Just want to make that clear. But we do have a guest today and I would like to introduce Cheryl Schaefer. Cheryl is a software engineer at LaunchCode, a nonprofit helping people get their first job in tech. She mentors in CoderGirl, a weekly meetup for women learning to code in St Louis. She has a master’s in music and taught music lessons before switching careers. She lives in Illinois near St Louis with her husband and three adorable cats. Hi, Cheryl. Welcome to the podcast.

CHERYL:  Hi, everyone. Thanks for inviting me to speak with you today. I’m super excited to be here. Let’s talk about learning and mentorship in tech.

ASTRID:  Yeah, well first we’d like to get your origin story.

CHERYL:  As you mentioned, I first studied music at university and I was performing and teaching lessons so I had lots of different day jobs while I was doing that. I’m still playing at an Irish session band sharing music. I was not writing code. I was playing video games. I wrote some macros for those and I did crafting and tinkering in other ways but I wasn’t writing code.

At some point, I decided I needed to switch to a career that was going to be a little more stable. So, I looked up some data on the Bureau of Labor’s website and surveyed a bunch of day one of university classes at the local school. Then writing programming and computer science seemed like a really good fit for me. I took a couple of classes there. I just jumped in feet first and said, “Let’s see what I can do with this.”

I started attending CoderGirl, which had just started and that was the summer of 2014 and some of the local meetups, still at Ruby, [inaudible] where I met Jessica Kerr. Eventually about two years ago, Mike Menne took me on at LaunchCode as an apprentice. Just to come full meta in April, I took on an apprentice and since then hired full time.

SAM:  The circle of life.

ASTRID:  I just would like to say, I really find it interesting that you went to the Bureau of Labor Statistics to try to figure out what you should do. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody say that before.

CHERYL:  I had no clue what I planned to do. When I first went to university when I was 17, I was going to double major in CS and music and one class have vested me of that plan and I dropped the whole thing. But I didn’t think of it when I thought, “I should do something else. I should do something that provides health insurance,” and that was my main criteria.

SAM:  And that is totally okay.

[Laughter]

CHERYL:  Yeah, I used to work for the Census Bureau so I knew the Bureau of Labor had taken the census statistics and sort of drilled down into it.

ASTRID:  This is where your odd jobs came in handy?

CHERYL:  Every step of the way.

[Laughter]

SAM:  It’s really interesting, though that you originally wanted to do the double major because I’ve heard a lot of people opined that musicians tend to make good software developers. I think there’s also a studied correlation between music ability or music study and math, right?

CHERYL:  Yeah, I was good at math too at that time. Not so much science but math. There’s a lot of skills that transfer over like communication skills, iterative process as music is very much the iterative process of coding. I did the exact same thing when it came time to help other people in tech.

After I’d finished the CS50 Harvard class online, there are a lot of other ladies that were like struggling through further back and I just kind of hang around at CoderGirl and I was volunteering to help them also finish the class. What I really found is that a lot of the techniques I was using to teach my, primarily high school girls with music were exactly the same when I was teaching a 30-year old how to write a website or how do pointers work. The learning is the same so that really helped a lot.

ASTRID:  Cheryl, you had mentioned that you started taking some courses online when you decided that you were going to switch over to computer science for a career. What was it about those courses that kept you going since that first class in college kind of turned you off?

CHERYL:  College class was the only experience I had at that point with an auditorium class. It was the introductory class but there were an excess of 100 people there and there were just a lot of things about it that made me uncomfortable. I was able to complete the material just fine but also the university curriculum made it difficult to do both at the same time. I had scholarships to do music and it was engaging and it was fun so I focused on that first.

As far as completing the online classes, there’s a lot of things that I think set up for success. I scheduled that in every week. I con a friend into helping me and also taking it for a while. I talked a lot about the ways I used for myself and ways that you can use for yourself or someone you want to train. In that talk that I gave at RubyConf in Cincinnati in November, a lot of those techniques have been studied in education and we can really just like lean on that research and not repeat ourselves, if you see what I did there.

I also kind of wrote it out in a blog post that I put on Blog.LaunchCode.com about how you can help empower someone with mentorship like there’s a lot of topics, just a survey to come and get you started. But I think the main thing for me is finding what it is for a one-on-one thing, “I’m going to try this one thing. Let’s experiment and try this one thing did that help this one person,” and if it did it, just explain and do everything that way. It’s just super fulfilling to see people spin up on something new. You can really change people’s lives.

ASTRID:  Totally it changes people’s lives.

JAY:  I would definitely agree with that. I think sometimes with people don’t understand about mentoring is part of you’re giving yourself and it could be fulfilling, obviously but it’s also a lot of work. Sounds like you’re doing a lot of work in this area. You talk a lot about that side of it and also what’s needed in order to be a good mentor for someone out there.

CHERYL:  If you’re trying to be a good mentor, the main thing, the most important thing is just to be present. Schedule the time in so it becomes a priority. Don’t try and multitask and do it at the same time with something else. Just give that one person a devoted hour and you and I are going to work on this now and I’ve got to back.

Ultimately, they’re responsible for their own learning. Here are the guys. It’s really their journey but if you can give them that level of support, you’re really going to be responsible, ultimately for everything that they’re responsible for too. Help them with motivation and make sure they’re accountable and what they’re doing is actually achieving some of the goals they’re trying to reach.

Limit it to the most important things and burned out is a big issue too. It can have on either on the learner or the mentor. If you don’t say no when you need to, you’re probably not going to be as successful and neither is going to enjoy it. Like when you’re on a plane and they say, “Put the oxygen mask on yourself before you put it on your child,” that’s really important to think about that.

Another thing to think about too is really only do one at a time. I want to do everything. There’s so many interesting topics out there but maybe, this quarter let’s focus on Node and next quarter we can learn Spanish. If you’re try and do them both, it’s not likely to be successful.

SAM:  Who gets to choose that?

CHERYL:  Of course, you do.

SAM:  As the mentor?

CHERYL:  No, you as the learner. If you are the mentor, no [Laughs]. You, however can choose to extract yourself as a mentor, if it doesn’t align with your roles.

JAY:  I’m traditionally limited in doing mentoring, even when I took on a group of about six or seven. I said, “I’m going to be your mentor and I’m going to help out.” We’re going to meet like three days a week and then I recognized that that was way too much for me because we had one-hour session that I was doing on this code review on top of it so over the years, I learned to connect people together and really focus on the code review.

I’m asking for a feedback but what do you think about that, as far as people wanting to mentor but they feel like, “I’m going to take on this huge burden.” Do you think it makes sense for people to say, “I’m just going to focus on something small,” like send me your code or push up a pull request and I’ll take a look at it for some open source project. What are your thoughts about kind of limiting your mentorship so you can make it a little bit more long-lasting?

CHERYL:  I think that’s a wonderful idea, especially when there’s so many different aspects, it’s perfectly viable to say, “I’m going to help you on this narrow context,” and I think that’s really smart to do. That apprentice that I take on at work, you know what? I can’t apprentice on dev ops yet. I’m doing some of it but I just started two years ago.

When we come to a big architectural decision, now’s the time to kick that up to somebody else and let’s discuss it as a group or let’s bring one of the more senior people on this issue. It doesn’t mean you can’t help them. It just means you can’t do everything and who can really do everything, anyway?

I prefer on-going mentorship. If I’m going to help somebody, I want that accountability for myself and for them that we have a very specific goal and we’re going to reach that goal and our responsibility when we have achieved that goal is not released. We’re always buddies. I’m still your friend but we’ve made the goal that we’ve tried. The other models of mentorship like single serving occasional flyby. There’s really no way for you to know if that was successful. It’s great to have a conversation at a meetup and I suggest if you’re learning you do that. Go to meetups and ask question. But as a mentor, I don’t feel like that is as successful for me because I don’t get the positive feedback that keeps me going to mentoring.

ASTRID:  I’m just speaking from my experience here but I think sometimes there needs to be a distinction between being a teacher’s assistant and then being a mentor because there’s so many little nuance parts of how you write your code that could be adjusted. It’s almost like some people are saying they want to mentor but what they really want is almost like a teacher’s assistant, which is too much for a lot of people. They don’t have the type of time and energy to be able to do that because they have other stuff going on.

But I know that in my experience, some of the people who have been my best mentors have been people that I just feel comfortable asking them a question. It’s not always a specific technical question. It’s just, “I wonder should I apply to this job. Would do you think?” That type of stuff. Or, “Am I ready to try this new thing. Am I putting too much or should I try to do something beyond my scope? Am I ready for that?” I think that’s more like what a good mentor like good mentors I’ve had for years. There are people who I could call and ask a question like that. More and so than people who I could say, “I’m having problems with this method. I need you to help me with my code.” That I think is a little bit different.

CHERYL:  Yes, absolutely, Astrid. Thank you for bringing that up. I don’t think in the big picture outline like that. I’m thinking of what you’re trying to reach and where you’re trying to go and generally, like I review pull requests of course. But if you’re thinking of ways to pull that three lines down to one line, as long as there’s no bug, I’m probably less interested in that.

Just individually from my personality, where somebody else might find that super engaging so I think learners and mentors accept that you need a whole community of people to learn from. The more the merrier. If you can get a different perspective from different people like when you’re a kid at home, mom said no, I’m going to go and ask dad. Go find out what the other person is most interested in and learn from most appropriate for each topic. I think people working in tech can and should as very early on, learn the small details themselves. Figure out and help them learn to read the API, help them learn how to read the man-pages and then set them free to figure that out on their own.

SAM:  That was we were talking about in the pre-call that turns out to be an absolutely essential skill for everybody, even very experienced developers, right? It’s good to teach that early on, I think.

We have a listener question, listener Ariel Spear asks, “How can I show up better as a mentee.” She goes on to say, “How can you keep yourself from giving up and washing out and when you find your skills have atrophied, how do you find the resolve to try again?”

CHERYL:  I think whether you’re the learner or the mentor, a lot of the same advice applies — limit what you do to what’s most important so you are only working on one thing at a time. Like a CoderGirl, I see a lot of folks who come in and they want to be web developers so they’re taking a front end course and the back end course at the same time. I think that is madness.

Pick one thing at a time and even if the other thing is super important and engaging, just put it on the back burner, put it in a queue and you’ll do it next. When you’re coming back to something you’ve left for a long time, if you think it’s important, bring friends, get help, find a meetup, an online community and all of the resources that are available that you can possibly use. Find all of those things and see which help you the most and focus on that one.

If you fail before you saw where you did do well and what possibly you can see what made you not do well. You know, if you got sick, that’s I think it happens and you just have to accept it and move on. This time you have a better shot. But if it’s, “Oh, well. I was busy staying up late playing video games,” maybe if you also quit the raid team, you will be a better this time around.

SAM:  Unpossible.

CHERYL:  Unpossible, that’s right. Astrid, you have some knowledge and wisdom to share on this stuff with your Rails Girls.

ASTRID:  I think sometimes it’s too high of an expectation. I think it’s okay to just, like you said learn one thing. I think it’s okay to spend time really getting familiar with your text editor. I think that’s fine. I think that’s a goal. I think it’s fine to feel like you know what you’re doing when it comes to one language in just certain context.

I think that sometimes, there’s this idea that you have to be able to do a whole lot of things before you can call yourself a name and say, “I’m a Ruby developer. I’m a web developer,” and I think it gets in the way because there’s so many opinions about what it takes to be that. When you’re really first starting out or even if you’ve been doing it for a while, it’s hard to discern what it means to be something.

I think it makes people kind of freaked out. I think that’s where the burnout comes in because you’re trying to do so many things because you’re trying to reach this goal and this goal is kind of a goal that I think, at least for my experience, the more that I have been learning how to do things, the more I realized that there is no real one definition of what it means to be a senior developer. There’s no one definition of what it means to be a good front end dev. But you don’t know that in the beginning.

You’re trying to learn all the JavaScript frameworks, which will make you want to kill yourself, anyway and you’re trying to be great with CSS and do all these animations and you realized you have to learn back end and you’re doing all these things. Instead, you should try to just say, “Can I do this one thing really well? I feel confident in this one thing,” and then allow that to be a goal. Then be able to reach for the next thing because I think sometimes like from the mentee perspective, it can be hard to tell the mentor what you want if you’re trying to do all those things.

Instead of saying, “I want this goal. I’m trying to reach this place with Ruby and I’m having a hard time with these types of functions. Let me see if there’s something I’m missing, maybe those resources I don’t know about,” that type of thing. Than say, “I want to be a Ruby developer. Help me,” which is so much harder.

CHERYL:  I absolutely agree, Astrid. I think assessment is so important when you’re trying to limit the scope of what you learn at that point. Can you look at what you did and see what is better than what you wrote three months ago? Can you recognize some of those invisible skills? Like, “I use grep excellently today and every time gold star, right on the board. Oh, yeah.” If you can use those kinds of things to recognize what you’ve done and just be compassionate with your past self, that really helps the burn out because then you can recognize what you have accomplished.

If you say something vague like, “I want to be awesome Ruby developer,” well, you got that true. But you can never accomplish that because the goal keeps moving. When you learned more, you’re more awesome as a Ruby developer but now you know more unknowns from before, some of your unknown unknowns are now known and you recognized, “Now, I know some things I don’t know still,” and you’re never as awesome as some invisible possible goal. But actually the amount you could know is theoretically finite but practically infinite.

[Laughter]

ASTRID:  One thing that I have actually started doing that help me is to rebuild the same thing again because then you can actually see what you’ve learned. you may have gone off and tried to this new thing or trying to learn some new skill but if I try to rebuild a site that maybe I built six months ago, I can actually tell that I’ve picked up new skills, that I understand something much better than I did before. I think that feels like going backwards to people but it might actually help them better understand what they need.

CHERYL:  I think that’s really fantastic. I recently did something similar to that where I just wrote a little toy game in Ruby a while ago. A couple coworkers of mine and I wrote a similar little game in Elm, just to learn Elm. It was just a lot of fun but it was learning a new topic and it was, “Now, I see all these things.” I didn’t really look at my Ruby code before we started writing the Elm code. Now, I’m looking back at that and say, “Oh, I could have done this, this or that.” But we had it work.

I think that’s another point to be made that you were able to contribute from the beginning. As a mentor, you should try and ensure, especially that’s on the job training. Your trainee is doing stuff that matters from the beginning. They have a voice in how it’s done and they have a responsibility to meet the goal too. Then they can take some personal ownership for that. It’ll make it easier for you to let them form their own style. They don’t have to copy your style but it also just make you feel so much about it, that you can look back and be like, “I made a commit on the first day that went live.” Even if it’s just a text change on a splash page. But I did code it and it went live.

JAY:  Yeah, I think both of what you were saying is so on point that I’ve seen a lot of people utilize that same model for learning. I kind of want to plug a site right now of a guy who used this quite a bit. His site called Spot2Fish. When he first wrote the site, he first put it together in Rails and I believe, when he got out of dev bootcamp. He turned around and he did it in Express, then he went back and build an iOS version and he continues to add stuff to it and add features to it but it’s been a big part.

I saw him do a talk here in Central Ohio about it and it’s just great. He talks about how it’s really helped him learn stuff. He has a mental model for the way things should look but he sees that evolving and changing as he goes and picks up, do languages and new libraries to work with and so on and so forth. I want to point that out and I highly recommend that to our listeners.

ASTRID:  Can you say the name again?

JAY:  Spot2Fish. It’s a really great app that just gives you spots to fish at.

ASTRID:  One of the reasons why I started doing it is because of what you had mentioned, Cheryl just getting burned out of like you’re learning and you’re trying to learn some new things and feeling like you’re not knowing what’s going on and if you’re actually improving. I’ve got an idea to do this just from, I watched I think it was The Practice or something with the New York City Ballet.

These are people who’ve been dancing, probably most of them since they were like eight or nine years old and they are doing it at the top of their craft. Every day, they come in and they do the same practices that you would do like the first day of ballet class. It made me remember something that I already knew, which is that if you’re really good at something, you have to practice all the time which is talked about. But when you’re doing something like that, your practice is the same practice, like you’re doing the same stuff that you would have done regardless of your skill level. But it’s important that you keep those muscles really warm and you can do more if you can do that.

It may be think of treating code like that like, “I know how to make a pretty simple Rails app but can I make it faster? Can I make it better? Can I keep tweaking it? Because if I can do that, then maybe I actually am learning. Then since it is the same app, then I can actually see my progress,” whereas like once you do something, then you go to the next level, it’s harder to tell how good you’re getting because you’re doing new stuff. It’s always going to be more challenging. It kind of distorts your thinking about how good you really are because you always feel like a novice.

CHERYL:  Yeah, and music we talk about that in terms of learning portable skills, like you study intensely one style at a time and maybe three or four songs at once. But each song is in one style. It’s kind of like learning how to learn, you focus on the fundamentals and the things that you’ve learned in this one song, in this one style apply to other songs in that style. Also focusing on fundamentals scales and I’m sure there’s similar things for dance, where you are learning how things work under the hood and why you’re doing things.

The next time you learn something else or the next project you work on, you can take that skill and just reapply it. That’s the kind of the value of the experience that you bring on when you’ve studied something else first and you’re just bringing it with you like if you enter another career. There’s also people want a career swap or reenter the workforce after parenting or military service or something. But those kinds of life skills you have from your previous career really show up in how you learn things on the technical side as well, just breaking things down into small steps and reapplying those steps in other cases.

SAM:  That iterative approach of going back to the same app over time or as you were just saying, Cheryl learning one new style at a time ties into something that I’ve seen a lot in people who are learning their first programming language, which of course the problem is not that they’re learning their first programming language. They’re also learning the entire structure of programming. They’re learning how to think in those terms. They’re learning how to read parser errors and figure out what the heck is going on and where they missed their semicolons and they’re learning all kinds of other invisible skills like how to function on the command line and at least get the basic use out of your editor.

I think a lot of people don’t realize all of the stuff that you have to learn your first time through. I see a lot of first timers run into that wall pretty hard so I really like that idea of just picking one thing, doing nothing and coming back. Every time you come back, you’re actually going through that same process again unless you go from Ruby to Python, where the languages are very, very similar. They do a lot of the same things. You’re going to be learning a new domain and you’re going to be learning to think about all the things in that domain. It’s not just a new syntax. I really like this approach of break it down, just do one thing at a time and eventually, if you do enough things then you get to be pretty good at it.

CHERYL:  I think that’s a great way to think about it. I think whether it’s your first language or a framework or a special editor or whatever you’re learning, that kind of plug-and-play Lego approach really help. If you are coming up from a place of being personally humble but just be fearless and pursuit of the knowledge: jumping, meet people, talk about your code, and just try something new.

SAM:  I’ve been dying to get into this topic since before we started the show, actually. What do you think, Cheryl about the future of tech education?

CHERYL:  When we’re talking about what the future of tech education is, then we have to address the motivation for it. It’s all over the news all the time that there is a huge shortage in tech workers. Tech workers are not diverse. It’s very limited on who actually makes it all the way through the pipeline and ends up in these roles. But there’s a lot of reasons for it to be a great fill to go into, besides work conditions are generally safe and pleasant, the compensation is good and it’s exciting to build things people use. But you really have an opportunity to shape the future of what’s happening. I find that so exciting but it’s also totally okay to just focus on the fact that you can get health insurance when you feel like that lack of motivation is coming through.

I think that the tech education groups are going to be looking at that when they’re developing what they do so like just a survey what the current state is. We have universities pulling out people who really know their stuff and don’t have a lot of experience. Then you have bootcamps, which seemed like a relative new thing. I think it started in 2012. It was the first one. That was before I was in tech.

SAM:  Yes. The first one I was aware of was Hungry Academy and that started it in 2012. I think they started advertising it in 2011.

CHERYL:  I think Dev Bootcamp was in 2012 as well.

SAM:  I think yeah.

CHERYL:  Community colleges are kind of moving towards that model as well in a lot of cases. I think it could be a good fit. I think it just depends on what individual you’re working with. I think you need to just be very self-aware and experiments. Be fearless, try something and measure your success. Different people are going to have access to these different levels of education. Unfortunately, that’s a fact of life. That works for your life situation if you have kids, if you have elder care that you’re responsible for. So many things in your life can affect what is possible for you to do.

I think university study is a great option if you can afford college and if you know you’re interested. I think bootcamps are really great too, especially you did get a college degree but didn’t study CS or you have a CS degree but you couldn’t afford to take that internship, you need some experience practically in the field, I think is a really great option. But generally are full time and a lot of them cost under $15,000. That can create a lot of barrier for some people too.

Places like LaunchCode and some community colleges are offering night classes in coding topics too now. The LaunchCode class, the LC101 class, I’m pretty involved with is more of a learn-at-night model. Two nights a week, you can still work your day job and support yourself and your family so it’s kind of in between a college class and a bootcamp. Then you get on the jobs immersive experience but you can still keep up with your life.

LaunchCode also offers a bootcamp periodically too. We’ve done job placements for a lot of people who actually really did just teach themselves how to code in the basement. Not a whole lot, like success rates on that are pretty low. It takes a lot of drive. It’s totally possible. It works best if you also paired up with another source of support. My thoughts on that, in the future I think all of those models are still going to exists and they’re going to continue to operate in tech training.

There are so many jobs in field that I don’t think that anyone is really going to get pushed out of the market. They’re just going to serve slightly different markets. I think it’s just awesome to jump into any of these things. But you just have to be aware of yourself and think which of these is going to work best for me, what city do I want to work in and is the market for this university or bootcamp is teaching me available? How good is the market in that city that I want to live in? Then once you have some of those decisions settled on, I think just jump in and try it. Who knows where you go once you get there?

SAM:  When you first brought this up, I thought immediately of a tweet stormed by Sarah Mei. She has a lot of excellent tweets storms but this one was probably about five, six days ago. She starts out with the wonderful lead, “I’ve been into the wine so of course it’s time to talk about computer science education,” which if you know Sarah at all, you’re in for a fun Twitter rant.

But she talks about the comparison contrasts the traditional CS university curriculum with the people that she sees coming out of Code School. One of the things that she really clarified for me that I had in the back of my head but hadn’t really thought about but she really crystallized was this idea that one of the things that the different kinds of education emphasized or don’t is communication skills. She talks about people in poli-sci majors because of the way that the curriculum was structured and the way that the classes worked, they got a lot of practice in talking and debating and communicating with each other, whereas the CS programs tend to emphasize a lot more of solo work: you go home, you do your homework, and you turn it in.

She talks about how she’s seen Code Schoolers come out with a lot better communication skills and she finds that tends to dominate after she’s had like three, five years or so, where those people are doing demonstrably better in the field than the people who came out of a solo-oriented university career. Does that match with what you’ve seen?

CHERYL:  You know, I love Sarah Mei’s tweet storms too. I actually had an opportunity when I spoke at RubyConf to meet her. We had a long conversation about this after dinner and there was wine involved.

[Laughter]

CHERYL:  I’m data driven most of the time. LaunchCode has not been around long enough to have really good stats on our success. We’re experiencing with different class format and I’m so excited to see what happens to these people three years down the road. But I don’t have a really good data about that yet.

Anecdotally, I can say for me that was 100% true and I felt like I face a lot of pressure to jump into management roles and project management. I’ve been involved in that before and I already know how to train people. But I felt that would be a mistake for me to make career-wise before I can back that up with a proper tech skills.

I think seeing my brother’s career unfold — he has a master’s in CS and has followed a more traditional path — I saw his career take off fast at first and then he had to learn those communication skills. He’s been working and doing well the whole time but to become senior, to have that ability to communicate and lead, he had built those skills on the job, whereas I did the reverse. I built communication skills and management skills and professionalism as just as you do working. Then kind of taught myself online and at work, tech skills so the curve is kind of the opposite direction but you end up in the same place.

ASTRID:  As a person who went through a bootcamp, one of the things that I realized that I was a little bit sad about is that there wasn’t a lot of digital literacy period that I learned before learning how to be a software engineer. I do not think that you should have to try to be an engineer just to have a space to learn about how the internet works because I think [inaudible] by itself is actually a really great skill.

I also find it really ironic that part of the reason why there’s this big need for a lot of software engineers is because every industry uses software and technology and they’re doing a lot of work, they do online now and using the cloud, etcetera, etcetera. But you don’t get that training, not even a piece of that training, unless you’re actually specifically focused on a technology based major and I think that’s a problem.

One of the things that I feel like should change is that the way that you’re learning whatever discipline you’re learning should incorporate how this relates back to any type of digital online technology, even in the smallest sense because just understanding simple things like your browser is sending a call to a server and if there’s a problem that’s what those 404 is about. I think that would actually help a lot of people do their jobs better. Like for me, I was a social scientist and one of the first things that I realized is I don’t understand why we were learning SPSS, which is the statistical package program that you learn on how to use when you’re running statistics in your social science experiments and how you evaluate those stuff.

I can do that in [inaudible]. I can use Python for that. Why did we learn those things as well? Because I don’t think that everybody needs to be a software engineer but I do think that if we’re going to live in this world, where so much of what we do is going to have software behind it, you should know something about it.

CHERYL:  I totally agree, Astrid and I feel like we could have a whole another hour-long conversation and talk about non-coding technical jobs and how can we prepare people better for those. I think that speaks to partially like why so many people use QA or they use technical writing. I learned a lot of tech stuff just trying to fix the computers at a previous job. We had this old Windows system so the only computers that could run it were refurbs like you can buy a new computer and run this old software.

I just learned a lot because I needed it and you see people in that situation where they don’t need it until they’re adjacent to it and there’s no other opportunity to get to it. I don’t know what I don’t know and I don’t know that I don’t know that my Facebook just shows up when I click the button and why shouldn’t everyone have that literacy to know that you got an option.

So many people ask me all the time like, “Do you think I can do this?” I never know how to answer that question. It’s a long question to answer because my first response is, “Yeah, sure,” I want to be encouraging. Realistically, other people don’t want to and that’s totally okay. You may love it and you may not and you’re not going to know until you try it. It seems like the only way to try it is go through many of these things that’s aimed at engineering.

One of the websites now that do intro stuff: Code School, Code Academy, there’s a bunch of those that you can go on and just tinker a little bit and you’re not committing until months and months and change of your life. You’re just knowing the basics vocabulary.

ASTRID:  Yeah, I agree. I think even with those assets that are out there, unfortunately it still seems that people feel like, “That’s not for me if I don’t want to work in technology,” and I kind of feel like that’s just a failure of our whole system to just make technology a part of what you learn, like I don’t see why you wouldn’t.

We learned English grammar even though nobody speaks correct English but we learn it because you’re supposed to understand how you should be speaking or why can’t we learn how the internet works or what really happens when you press the button. Why can’t that just be a part of what people learn so they don’t have to actually seek it out themselves?

SAM:  As somebody who’s gone through the traditional computer science route, it seems to me that a lot of the people with a lot of expert knowledge in that field tend to focus on people who are going to be just like them. I certainly have inadvertently picked up this bias myself and I didn’t even realize it until Sarah made another tweet storm where she was talking about people who apply to the Opportunity Scholarship Program at RubyConf and RailsConf. That’s something where people who are members of underrepresented groups can attend RubyConf and RailsConf for free and they get paired with a mentor who is somebody who is more familiar with the community and can introduce them around.

But anyway, she was talking about the selection process for this and how she hadn’t really thought about, whether she was selecting specifically for people who wanted to go into programming, as supposed to people who were curious about tech or might be artists that could benefit from knowing just a little bit about tech. I think we in the field have this all-or-nothing bias like we’re not going to waste our time teaching unless you’re going to go all the way. I think that probably plays into it somewhere.

CHERYL:  Yeah, I think there is also an aspect of a speed of change. You’re talking about traditional schooling including that. It’s like you come on board, the amount of stuff they have to cram into the kids at each grade is just overwhelming and the tech stuff is so new, relatively it’s just hasn’t been included yet. The places where it has been included tend to just have a higher budget or somebody pushing that as a need.

Now, we need to have this for our kids. Especially in the United States, our schools aren’t universal anyway. It’s one of those priorities that just falls on the floor and like teacher education, it doesn’t teach them how to do that. They don’t know that topic either so how are they going to teach a thing if they need to teach themselves first or have someone help them.

ASTRID:  There’s a lot of barriers in there and I do understand that when you start talking about the education system like that, that’s a conference by itself.

SAM:  Or a Senate hearing.

ASTRID:  Yeah, sort of Senate hearing. But I guess it’s just something that the more that I learn, the more I become more passionate about because I think there needs to be an avenue for an alternate route. Everybody isn’t and everybody shouldn’t be a software engineer and that may not be their goal. They shouldn’t also be terrified of even looking at code, though and I feel like that’s what’s happened is that you’re either in or you’re not.

For people to be freaked out by HTML, which is something that can be assessable, if it’s made assessable, I don’t think that should be the case. Also having had some experience working in a position where you are at odds with the software engineers or you’re on the other side of that as a software engineer, you’re at odds with the business side of the company, I think a half that conversation is because you aren’t speaking the same language.

It doesn’t mean that you have to learn everything but I think if you even knew what they were talking about in some capacity, it could help you better advocate for what you want because people are using word like, “The thing over here and the button that does this –” which just frustrates because software engineers are not necessarily trained to be your translator.

But then on the flip side of it, oftentimes when you’re that other person, you’re trying to figure out how to say what you really want but you don’t know and it’s not so much that you have to go learn a whole programming language but if you just have a little bit more understanding how this thing actually operates in general, it can help.

CHERYL:  Absolutely. I totally agree. We feel that shortage a lot at work at LaunchCode. You know, just always looking for a qualified instructors to help and [inaudible] even to help with the classes. Some people choose to just volunteer once a month or something like a lower commitment. It’s a lot to ask for a person still but if you can and it helps you learn and you help other people learn but without them, you can only do so much.

There’s sort of a back door, though right? You’ve got places like Code School and Code Academy and Khan Academy and stuff, that if you knew to go to those sites, you could go and learn a lot of things without anyone holding your hand. You can just go check it out and then if you didn’t do well, no one could see you embarrass yourself. Although, it becomes unclear where to go if you have questions. There’s so many of them. If you’re at the very beginning, there’s just thousands and thousands and probably millions of links that you can find. We’ve put together a little learning tool on the LaunchCode.org site to help you pick which ones might be relevant for what you’re trying to do.

ASTRID:  That’s cool.

CHERYL:  Yeah, it’s really awesome but if you’re not trying to do a specific job, you don’t have any criteria upon which to select. Maybe you just try whatever one you’re on and see what you learn.

[Laughter]

SAM:  And iterate.

CHERYL:  Iterate! Now you know something. Something plus one will be better.

SAM:  We’ve come to almost the very end of our show, which is when we like to do reflections, which are things that stood out to us, things that we’re going to take away from this conversation. They can be things that we want to challenge our listeners to do. Cheryl, it sounds like you’ve got some of those. Go for it.

CHERYL:  Yeah, I actually had two takeaways from today’s conversation. The first is that I felt it’s really valuable to have different viewpoints represented. We didn’t talk about this in the episode but we have some of the traditional CS degree. We have someone who graduated a bootcamp and we have someone who was a self-taught. You’re going to like piecemeal together different resources. It all had slightly different perspectives on each of the topics, which I thought was really interesting.

My other take away was I tend not to focus much on exposing non-coder the fundamentals but I think Astrid’s point is about exposing people to fundamentals of tech is so valuable at every level.

SAM:  Yeah, that’s something that I have been coming to terms with as I raised my own daughter. Of course, when she was a baby I thought, “Oh, maybe she’ll grew up to be a programmer just like her papa.” It’s very clear that she wants to be a scientist or an artist so maybe someday I’ll get to pair program with her. I don’t know but in the meantime, I’m just trying to realize that I can be there to help explain stuff as she asks for it and she doesn’t have to grow up to be another mini Sam and that’s okay.

[Laughter]

SAM:  I think that’s helping me build empathy for other people outside my own mold as well.

CHERYL:  But I bet you bought her that Ruby children’s book, right?

[Laughter]

SAM:  It is in her bed with a bookmark in it right now. She was so pleased like I bought it for her a year or two ago and she just happened to pick it up again and she was reading and I was like, “Oh, that’s so great.”

ASTRID:  But you’ll never know, Sam. She might end up being a programmer because I was like that as a kid. I love science and even right now, if I was able to go back again and do college again, I probably still wouldn’t pick computer science but I would learn the skills so you’ll never know.

SAM:  I’m not sure I would advise her to pick computer science anyway.

ASTRID:  One of the takeaways I had was something that you mentioned, Sam which was the opportunity scholarship because I did not know that existed. That’s news to me because I do want to go until the RubyConf or RailsConf so I’m going to look into that. But then also something else I took away was something you mentioned, Cheryl which was you were responding to a question and you said that the advice for the mentors and the mentees is the same and then you continued your response. I had never heard that before. Usually, it’s talked about as two different things but as you were explaining, it started to make me realize what you mean by that, which I thought was really eye opening and helpful.

CHERYL:  Thank you, Astrid.

SAM:  We usually like to give a listener shout out but this week we don’t have one. Instead, here’s a quick update on our funding situation. As panelists, we all volunteer our time to do this but we rely on Mandy Moore for editing and coordination. We all feel strongly that Mandy deserves to be paid fairly for her time.

Right now, our listeners support has plateaued at a level that’s almost enough for us to produce two episodes a month. We’ve been recording every week since we started because we’ve booked a bunch of great guests. But in the long term, we need your help to sustain the show. You can support as at Patreon.com/GreaterThanCode or if you know a company who would like to sponsor one or more episodes, Please put them in touch with us. We now return you to your regularly scheduled nerd fest.

One of my takeaways from both watching your talk and then having this conversation is really just the idea that I’ve been really interested in being a mentor and it’s always been in the back of my head that I might like to teach someday in a formal classroom setting. But even before I get to that, there’s a lot of mentorship that I can do and that I want to do. But I’ve been coming at it very haphazardly.

There have been a couple of things that we’ve talked about today that I think really helped clarify for me the role of the mentor and one of those, Astrid was from you. You were talking about making a distinction between being a TA and being a mentor. Then, Cheryl the thing I took from your talk was something you said about giving the mentee ownership of their learning plan, which of course you can provide input on. You can make suggestions but it’s really up to the mentee to own. Both of those I think really helped to clarify a model that I should be working towards. Thank you both.

CHERYL:  Thank you very much for having me today.

ASTRID:  Oh, yeah. This is fun.

SAM:  Yeah, this has been another great conversation. Thanks.

CHERYL:  I really enjoyed it.

SAM:  Thanks listeners. We’ll talk to you again next week.

This episode was brought to you by the panelists and Patrons of >Code. To pledge your support and to join our awesome Slack community, visit patreon.com/greaterthancode. Managed and produced by @therubyrep of DevReps, LLC.

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