27 Oct 2019
In which I give my first lightning talk and have my Rubicon moment: realising I want to code as a career.
In 2018, I participated in Django Girls. In 2019, I coached it. And if it wasn’t for the encouragement of a coworker/friend, I doubt I’d be able to say that.
First off, Django Girls is an organisation that puts on coaching workshops for girls and women in cities all over the world. The workshops are free and take place over the course of a day. Participants follow this tutorial, in which the goal is to create and deploy a simple blog.
When I applied to participate in the June workshop, it was mainly because I knew some things about HTML and CSS from my previous blogs and was curious to find out what lay beyond that. Plus, I didn’t really have anything to lose, as I was keen to leave my job at the time.
I actually ended up on the waiting list, but someone dropped out and so I got my spot. (If not for that person, it’s unlikely I’d ever be writing this, so thank you, dropout, wherever you are.)
To be completely honest, back then, I found the workshop very tough. My coach was nothing but supportive, but it was hard to overcome my own mental hurdles. A couple of hours in, I was like, okay, it’s abundantly clear I am not a coder, I’m not cut out for this. I was getting frustrated from making all the usual first-time mistakes where I had no clue what was happening.
Luckily, there was yummy vegan catering, so lunchtime was a bit of a respite. In the end, I got about 70% through my project and then went home because I had a stinking headache. I didn’t even look at it again afterwards because I was overwhelmed by all the stuff that needed to be “set up”.
All the same, it was a positive experience. The safe, supportive atmosphere wasn’t lost on me, so I wondered if there was a way I could still get involved in IT without actually having to code.
My now-employer was sponsoring the event. The aforementioned coworker/friend was coaching, but he also gave a short presentation about them. I was curious, looked them up, and applied for a content management role. I’m glad I’d already had some experience with CMS and user testing, because I was offered an interview. I got the job in October.
It was roughly July 2019 when I decided to give the tutorial another go. This time, I was looking at it with a different pair of eyes. I knew the basic deployment pipeline! I knew more jargon now! It was cool to think that the things I was doing now formed the basis of the work that was done.
‘They’re trying to have all-female coaches this year,’ said my coworker/friend one day over lunch (probably falafel). ‘Do you think you’d be up for it?’
At first I laughed at the idea, but later I thought about how far I’d come and decided to rise to the challenge.
Once again, my employer was sponsoring the event, which was going to take place that October. Sure enough, the CEO also approached me, asking me to give a five-minute talk, seeing as I’d been a student last year. I said that was fine, as I was actually going to be coaching there anyway. The idea both excited me and made me cringe. For the next couple of weeks, I worked on my presentation, trying to make it both pithy and accessible. I’d forgotten how much I liked doing things like that.
It’s not that I have a particularly pronounced fear of public speaking; it’s more a fear that I won’t express myself properly and people will get me wrong. I didn’t rehearse my presentation until the morning of the workshop, just before leaving the house. I set a timer on my phone. 10 minutes. Twice the time that had been recommended. I imagined people checking their watches as I blabbered on about how great I was. Ugh.
This year, Django Girls was taking place at motionlab. It was early in the morning, rainy and autumnal, and I was carrying a heavy company banner in my arms. I got off the bus and stood there figuring out where to go now. It turned out to be at the far end of an industrial park in Alt-Treptow. The space was quite impressive. It was like a huge, weird workshop with a mezzanine and even a converted double-decker bus.
Did I have massive imposter syndrome? Yes. Especially since, if I’m being totally honest, I did another run of the tutorial in the months leading up to the event and stumbled across many issues. I got it working in the end, though. This was useful because when my students ran into a problem, I could check their code against what I’d saved for the exact same project on GitHub.
After lunch — which consisted of a delectable selection of vegan and vegetarian wraps — it was time for me to give my talk.
I’d prepared my presentation on Powerpoint and had some printed & highlighted notes, too. But, as I learned in high school drama club, you shouldn’t be reading them off the page. You have to master the art of glancing at them coolly. Somehow I got through the presentation, I made people laugh, and afterwards I was told it was great, inspiring.
None of my students finished the tutorial, but they all reached points where they were happy to carry on at home. They all seemed to appreciate my help, which is a reward in itself.
At some point during the day, I chatted to another coach and caught myself playing myself down; in front of her, a professional software engineer, I felt adequate. However, she considered it an asset when when fellow recent learners are also in a position to coach, because they’ll be more sensitive to the hurdles.
Looking back, I too believe the fact that love_at_first_sight != "python" + "me" made the teaching experience much more authentic. It hadn’t been a long time at all since I’d been in their shoes, yet I was also a testament to how quickly we can learn, especially if we can change our perspective. Mine happened to be changed by some combination of my year of relevant, work experience, a desire to learn a new skill, and a general increase in self-confidence. I have a feeling it’s going to be one of the best decisions of my life.
love_at_first_sight != "python" + "me"