In this episode, Saron Yitbarek joins us to talk about the CodeNewbie Community, the upcoming Codeland Conference in New York City, and helping junior developers move up in the programming world.
Saron Yitbarek: @saronyitbarek | CodeNewbie | Codeland Conference
JEFFREY: Hello everyone. This is Episode 63 of The Frontside Podcast. I'm Jeffrey Cherewaty, developer here at The Frontside. With me is Robert De Luca, also a developer at The Frontside.
ROBERT: Hello, hello.
JEFFREY: Our guest today is Saron Yitbarek. She's the founder of CodeNewbies and host of The CodeNewbies Podcast. Hi, Saron.
SARON: Hey, how is it going?
ROBERT: Pretty good.
JEFFREY: You have a big event coming up, the Codeland Conference. Why don't you tell us a little bit about what's going on there?
SARON: Yeah, I'm so excited for Codeland. It is our first CodeNewbie conference. I've done a good amount of speaking at different tech conferences all over the world for a few years now. Ever since the first one I went to, I thought, "We really need one for junior people, for folks who are just getting started," so I kept a running list of everything I hate about conferences and the things that I like about conferences. This is my chance to put it all to the test.
It’s a two-day conference, single-track and the idea is really to get people excited about all the things they can do with code, especially for our community. The two types of jobs we generally hear about are working in a really, really small startup or working in a really big tech company like a Microsoft or a Google. But we don't hear about working at the hospital or working at the library or the many nonprofits who need technical help. The idea is to bring in people from all different backgrounds, walks of life, solving different problems and showing how code can be a really, really great tool for that
JEFFREY: What are some of the things from previous conferences that you really like that you're bringing in Codeland?
SARON: I like that you started positive. That's a good start.
JEFFREY: We'll go for negative later.
SARON: Yeah. [Laughs] Save the best for last. The stuff that I really like about conferences is the community part. It's being able to see a bunch of Twitter avatars come to life for the first time and being able to sit and talk. I feel like conferences are the only place where I can network without feeling gross and without feeling like I'm networking. I feel like I'm genuinely having real relationships and conversations. I think it's because we are going through this experience together and I can say, "Oh, did you hear that talk on this and that? It was so cool." It's a very organic way to start a relationship. That's probably one of my favorite things about conferences.
ROBERT: There's a lot of ability in there for small talk about anything because there's so much going on. You could pick anything that you want and you're all experiencing the same thing and you're all kind of vulnerable. I love conferences for that reason.
SARON: Yes, exactly and a lot of times, you're in a new city for the first time, you're staying in the same hotel, you're eating the same food. There's so many created and forced points of connection there for you so you can pick anything and start a conversation.
ROBERT: Yeah, I really like that. I'm looking at the website right now and I see inspiring talks and it doesn't look like they're all exactly technology specific so I like to see the city life and health. That's super interesting. I want to hear a little bit more about that.
SARON: Sure. I wanted to pick topics that are generally not covered as much in tech. Also, I didn't want to start from the technology. I think that a lot of people our community are very excited about the possibilities of tech and what they can do with it. We hear a lot of stories of people who say, "You know, I see this problem in my neighborhood. I see this problem in my community. I see this problem at work and I think that code is a really great way to solve it and to put together these solutions that I have in my head."
ROBERT: That sounds really cool. Is there going to be conference talks that are centered around like how to have proper work-life balance, for example to filling to that health or how I've configured my editor to help with... I don't know, like ergonomics for my hand because I was getting carpal tunnel on my left hand because I was using control too much, that kind of stuff. That sounds really cool.
SARON: Yeah, that's actually a really good idea. That would make a really great talk but that's what Day 2 is for. The one thing that I've seen a lot in my own conference experience is I'll watch a talk, I'll listen to a talk and it'll be so inspiring and exciting. But then I go home and it's over and I'm back to my daily grind and all of that energy and positivity just kind of goes away.
What we wanted to do was have that first day be focused on all these ideas and projects and the second day transition into what do we do about them. We have a block of workshops from things like crafting your portfolio, to doing really well on a technical interview so really getting your hands dirty and trying out some of those skills. Then we have handouts for people who come in and talk about how they contribute to open source.
We do have one actually on work-life balance and learning to code and how you do that so making sure that we leave people with really practical advice and action items and next steps so they feel empowered to go out and be awesome developers.
ROBERT: This is awesome. The conference is kind of structured almost like a workshop in a way to where like Day 1, you're going to come in and hear a bunch of things that are going to get you all riled up and inspired and then Day 2, it's like, "This is how we go and implement that."
SARON: Yeah. I want to credit Duane O'Brien from PayPal who forced me to think very, very hard about the conference experience. When I first pitched him on this I said, "Hey, I want to do a conference for CodeNewbies," and I have kind of a disconnected list of topics that I wanted to talk about and do address and he said, "You really need to sit down and to think through what is the UX or the experience," like what's the user story.
I go to CodeNewbie as a new developer so that I can structure it so it feels like one really cohesive experience. I sat down for many hours and really thought through, "How do I want people to feel? Where do I want them to get excited, to get to work, to be interactive and really participate?" Putting a lot of time into that has really shaped this conference.
ROBERT: That is really cool. To be clear this conference is happening in April.
SARON: Yep. April 21 and 22 in New York City.
ROBERT: Awesome. I think this is really cool. Conferences are awesome but when it was my first conference ever, I just felt overwhelmed because you walk past the cliques of people -- I don't want to say cliques but you see the groups of people that have been there and done it and you're like, "How do I break into that?" If the conference is kind of filled with everybody like that, giving your first conference talk could be a lot easier, just like breaking into the community and talking to people could be a lot easier so I think this whole idea of running a conference for newbies is A+, honestly.
SARON: Thank you.
ROBERT: I wish this was around whenever I was within the very beginnings of my career. That's really cool. Is there anything, anybody on the outside can do to get involved and help like volunteer?
SARON: We have a bunch of volunteer’s spots to help out at the day of the conference. I'm really excited because a lot of people who've stepped up are people who aren't necessarily the right attendees. There are folks who have years of experience who just want to wait to join in and do something and help out. We have volunteer spots and I'm happy to include that in the show notes. I can send a link to that.
Then we also have a section during our workshop. We have like an optional community coding session where if you don't want to do any specific workshops, you can just bring your laptop and just socialize and code and work on your own stuff. If anyone is interested in the New York City area in participating or just being like a floating, technical mentor of sorts, those are the two ways to get involve.
ROBERT: That's really cool.
JEFFREY: New Yorkers, get on that.
ROBERT: One of the things that I hear you like to talk about and it kind of fits in perfectly with this is this Impostor Syndrome. I think this'll really help with Impostor Syndrome. One of the foundational goals for this is to help people come to grips with that and deal with it better, I guess or peel the onion back on what Impostor Syndrome is.
JEFFREY: Let's start there, let's start with what is Impostor Syndrome. Why don't you give your best definition of it?
SARON: Sure. I was really excited the very first time I heard about Impostor Syndrome, I think it was maybe four or five years ago and I said, "Oh, my God. That explains so much of my life," and when I really dug into it though, it was slightly different than the way that I initially understood it. The official academic definition of Impostor Syndrome is a way to describe the phenomenon where I have a lot of accomplishments, I'm ten years into my career, I have all these accolades, I'm the CTO senior or whatever of this and that, and even though I have all these very tangible, very real accomplishments and proof of how awesome I am, I have trouble internalizing that.
I can't look at that and go, "Oh, I am awesome." I look at that and go, "Ah, that's cute but I'm still not quite there yet." I think that in our community, when we talk about Impostor Syndrome, that's not really what we mean. I think we are describing what happens to everyone when they're learning something for the first time where they say, "Oh, I'm not getting this as fast as I think I should. I know a little bit but I won't know nearly enough to belong." It's really the sense of belonging that we have classified as Impostor Syndrome.
We actually had a guest, Alicia Liu on our podcast, I think it was about a year ago, talk about it and it was interesting because the first time that she blogged about it a few years ago, it went viral. Everyone’s like, "Yeah, it's totally how I feel," and then she wrote another blog post a couple years later that said, "No, no, no, everybody. That's not what Impostor Syndrome is. You're not impostor. You're actually just a beginner, you're just new, you feel like you don't know what you're doing because you probably don't, which is fine." It's totally fine to not know what you're doing. But the definition of Impostor Syndrome for me has definitely shifted a little bit over the years.
ROBERT: It's interesting that the textbook definition and what we kind of experience in the industry are at odds, in a way because the textbook words like you have this well-accomplished person that has done a lot and they don't feel like they're good enough for what they're doing. Then what we have is just like, everybody in the programming community is trying to fit in and they're always trying to learn new things and always feeling like they're not getting it fast enough. I think that's an industry-wide problem.
JEFFREY: I kind of always feel like a beginner because everything's changing in our industry so fast, all the time so there's always this disconnect between, "Well, I may have done some things and I may have accomplished some things along the way but I'm still beginner whatever this new tech is," Actually, everyone else is too. It's nice to be reminded of the fact that to be around other engineers who are experiencing that too that we're all in this together and we're all new at this. Nobody is quite expert level at this particular tech stack or this particular way of thinking it. We're all figuring it out as a community.
SARON: None of that matters.
ROBERT: "Now, I need to go learn something else."
SARON: Yeah, exactly. For me sitting in the audience I was like, "Yes! Heroku," because I'm thinking, "If that's how this guy feels, he's been doing it for so much longer than I have, I have a chance at this."
ROBERT: I feel like I send the 'I don't know what I'm doing dog' meme to someone, at least once a week. At least.
ROBERT: I feel this often. I think it can be interpreted to the world is changing so much. But I think it's a little different for people that are experienced in the industry versus people that feel who are brand new because, I think when you're brand new, it feels so new and I don't know... uninviting maybe for the Impostor Syndrome? Whereas you get older -- not older -- you get more experience and you become one with the Impostor Syndrome like somebody asked you to do something that you don't know and you're like, "Urgh! Yeah, sure. I'll do it. I'll figure it out somehow," and then go on your way but you still feel that feeling.
But when you're a newbie, it's overwhelming almost. Do you know any tactics that kind of help that? I actually have no clue besides like pairing and trying to bring this new person into the programming world and telling them like, "This is kind of how it is."
SARON: I think that community is a great way to solve that. When I first learned to code, I taught myself for a few months. I did all the free and relatively cheap online resources and it was so frustrating because it was my first time being in a world where I was in a semi-permanent state of failure until something finally worked and then I got to celebrate that for two seconds. Then we moved on to the next feature, the next bug, the next whatever.
Being in this cycle, this vicious cycle of constant failure and having so little time spent, actually enjoying the wins was so different. It was really hard not to internalize that. Especially in my world where my family has no idea what coding is. They still don't really get what I do. I said, "It has something to do with computers and podcasting." My mom is actually going to come up for Codeland and I'm so excited because she can finally see what it is that I'm doing all day.
ROBERT: That is awesome.
SARON: Yeah. She texted me and she's like, "Yeah, let's bring your family and your friends and your dad can come," and I'm like, "Mom, that's not what this is."
SARON: But yeah, your family doesn't really get what you're doing, your friends. If you're not coming from the tech world, if you're transitioning, they have no idea what you're doing so it's super, super lonely and it's really hard to explain. When I transitioned from that into enrolling in a boot camp and doing that for three months, all of a sudden, I had 40, 45 people who were with me every single day for eight to twelve hours at times, who knew exactly what I was going through and who understood everything that sucked about it and everything that was awesome about it.
Just knowing that it wasn't me -- I was not the problem, the code was the problem and the journey is the problem -- just changed everything and that's really why I started CodeNewbie to say coding boot camps can be an awesome experience but for a lot of people, they're not accessible. It's three months at least without a job, it's between $12,000 and $17,000 and because there's not always a credit programs, you can't necessarily get like a student loan the way you can for a college.
For a lot of reasons, there are really high barriers. I wanted to make it a little bit easier for people to find a support system who are going on that journey. That's what really started CodeNewbie and we did that through the CodeNewbie Twitter chats that we do every Wednesday at 9PM Eastern Time and we do that every single week for an hour, really as an excuse to say, "We're all going to hang out at this place." As long as you have an internet connection, you can join and find friends and find people who know exactly where you're going through and that's really been, for me a huge, huge help.
JEFFREY: What kinds of positive experiences and stories have come out of that community? Have you seen actual great change happened through that?
SARON: Yeah, definitely. We've had people get internships, we've had people get jobs, we've had people just find out that other people in their neighborhood are also learning to code. I've seen a lot of like, "I see you're in Portland. I'm in Portland too. Oh, my God." A lot of that and then they meet up in person and they pair. We've seen a lot of mentors and mentees pair up through CodeNewbie so it's just been a really great jumping off point for a lot of folks to find those connections and opportunities that run with it.
JEFFREY: Through Codeland and through CodeNewbie, one of the goals is to connect junior engineers into their community. What kinds of roles and ways to connect do junior engineers have through the opportunities like this?
SARON: A lot of folks are finding internships and apprenticeships and some junior roles. I think what I'm really excited for with our community is the growing number of junior positions that are popping up. If you see the list of the companies, GitHub is the one, I think of top of mine who have started creating like a hybrid coding and community roles for junior people to get their foot in the door, to start to get some real experience under their belt before going for something a little bit more coding, have a little more full time.
I think at GitHub they're calling it like a... Oh, I'm going to mess it up. It's not a community manager but it's something around like a community manager position. What I really like about these hybrid roles is the fact that a lot of folks in our community who are transitioning into code have very, very valid, very awesome real world job experience. It's just not technical experience. They've done a lot of sales, they've done some design, they've done marketing, they've done a lot of community building, they've done a lot of customer service, really empathy-centric jobs and roles. With these hybrid positions, they're able to leverage that background a lot for those really awesome communication skills, while also getting a little bit more comfortable in transitioning into a more code-heavy, tech-related position.
One thing that I hope happens and frankly, I think just needs to happen, given the high demand for developers is more of these hybrid roles, more of these entry-level junior developer roles. I know that there are apprenticeships and internships that have always existed for computer science degree students that are now transitioning and being a little bit more open to career transitioners as well as people who are students. I'm definitely seeing a lot of shifts in the industry and I hope to see more of that. I hope that more of these awesome people who are really just so excited and so passionate and eyes wide open and very teachable. I think it's one of the things that senior people are really excited about working with our community is knowing that we are very open to being taught, we don't have best practices, we don't have bad habits yet so we're really moldable in that way so I'm really hoping to see that trend to continue where there are more learning positions and also more full time entry-level positions in software.
JEFFREY: That's excellent. I hadn't heard of many examples of the kind of hybrid role but I'm thinking back to previous job I had where there was a very large customer service department and several members of that team are like, "We want to start developing." Like they're playing around with code and there definitely could have been an opportunity for them to maybe 75% of their job is the customer service work and what they've been trained to do. Then the other part of their job is like, "Let's start leveling you up and let's start teaching you some things and giving you an opportunity to play and learn." That's an awesome opportunity.
SARON: Yeah and that's the thing too is a lot of this is already happening on informal basis. I've heard definitely my fair share of stories and we've actually interviewed people in the podcast who said, "I started in customer service. I started in accounting. I started in this totally unrelated part of my company and then I raise my hand and I said, 'I want this coding stuff.' I started shadowing developers and just going to hang around the engineering team enough that they eventually let me do some documentation work or look at some bugs. Then I slowly transition into a developer position."
A lot of this has been happening very organically but I think the more we can systematize it, the more we can formalize that process, the more accessible it becomes for people who just didn't know that they could raise their hand and create those opportunities for themselves. I think the more people do it and the more we can really put rules and structure around programs like that, the more we can bring more people in.
ROBERT: That sounds really cool. I have a question. We know what the good situation would be for a newbie to get into. Are there any things that you could advise people that might be looking for the first dev job like anything that are red flags to avoid?
SARON: There are so many red flags. That's a good one --
ROBERT: Because I wish I had this when I was starting out.
SARON: Yeah. I think one of the hardest parts about being a junior person is just not knowing what it means to be a good developer. It's one of those things when senior people tweet and write blog posts and things about how incompetent they feel a lot of the times and how they feel like they just don't know enough. On the one side, it's really comforting and it's validating but on the other side, for me at least, it makes me panic a little bit because I'm thinking, "Holy crap. If you don't feel like you're good, then how would I ever be good? How would I even know what good is if I'm working towards that?"
I think one of the things to look out for is a company that actually has put some thought into what it means to be a good developer? What are best practices? I know this is super subjective and a lot of times it's just based on the product of the company and the values of that space but I think for a junior developer, if you walk into a place where people are so busy running and trying to catch up or trying to keep up that they aren't able to look back and go, "Oh, you're on the right path," or "You're making progress," it's going to be, at the very least frustrating for you and worst case scenario, it'll be impossible for you to grow and really develop and progress in a way that's going to make you happy and fulfilled for your career.
I think one of the red flags is -- not so much of a red flag, it's more of one of things to look out for are companies that have tech blogs, that have a podcast, that have really good documentation, that have style guides, that have a mentorship programs, that do brown bag lunches, things like that really show that the companies put a lot of thought into what they value on their engineering team and are much more likely to help you grow in your career.
JEFFREY: So that it's more likely that they will have room for you to grow instead of, "Hey, we need some cheap labor."
ROBERT: Yeah, exactly and that's the thing. As career transitioners, people who are not used to tech salaries, it's super easy to undervalue yourself. It's very, very easy to say, "I'm just coming from a job that paid $25,000 or $30,000 a year. Yeah, I'll take a $40,000 dev job. That's so much better than what I'm doing." It's like a 50% increase. It's really easy to sell yourself short. I think when you look at a company and see the structure and the thought they put into growth, I think they're much more likely to really invest in you, as opposed to taking advantage of the fact that you're just more than happy to be there.
ROBERT: Yeah, I love that. One of the things that Brandon told me when I first started here and I was worried about failing was we didn't invest in Rob the developer, we invested in Rob the person. That was something that really stuck with me that helped like it harkens back to the Impostor Syndrome, it definitely helped with me except being that failures will happen and if I do fail, it's okay because I'm in a space that allows that.
Maybe something that a newbie would look out for is software teams that have good process, not shipping broken tests to production or things like that. But also managers that are there to help you and to be there for you and take you on one-on-ones and give you good feedback. I guess, it really just boils down to having a good support structure.
SARON: That's the kind of thing that can be hard to evaluate until you're actually there on the team. When you're in the interview, it's like dating. You put on your best outfit, you put on some lipstick, you get your hair done and who knows what you really look like on Wednesday night at midnight, right?
JEFFREY: That's when I made my best. I don't know about you.
SARON: Some questions that have really helped me out or asking how do you support more junior people. You specifically asking like, "Do you have an education stipend? Do you have a conference stipend? Do you have books? What are the perks?" A lot of times, it can be really straightforward to evaluate. How much they care about your development as a person, if you just look at the perks that they offer? I really love when there is an education thing, when there is a book thing, when they pay for you to go to conferences because that really tells me that you care, not just about getting the most out of my time with you but you really care about my development as a person, as a developer. Those are really good signs.
Then I think there are things like when you brought up testing -- that was one of my basic requirements when I was interviewing a few years ago -- and was saying like, "Do you have tests? Why don't you have tests, if you don't?" I've had a lot of answers and they were like, "We didn't really see the point," or, "We just don't do that here." Those are not good reasons to not have test.
ROBERT: No. Those are very bad. If you could see the faces we just made, we're like, "Ahhh! No!" Especially for a newbie jumping in, that is your safety net because you read the assertions and you can understand what the code is supposed to do.
SARON: Yeah. Same thing with documentation like how much time they spend on documentation? If the answer is, "We don't do that," then the whys are what really become important. If the why is simply, "We're stretched too thin. We're trying to fix that by hiring people like you where we can now focus on documentation," that's a much better answer than, "Ahh! We just don't really need it. We don't see the point."
I think when we can ask the people who are looking for jobs, when we can ask the companies more why questions and really get a sense of the way they make their decisions, I think that can be very telling in what type of environment you're getting into.
JEFFREY: I add in there. One more thing for junior engineers to look for is vulnerability from future employers that they're willing to own up to their mistakes and talk about their failures. You know that you as a junior person, I also have the ability to do that. You're going to fail. It's going to happen. But if it's an accepted thing and a thing that the company knows how to deal with and talk about and embrace and turn around into successes, then that's a very good thing.
All right, thanks for joining us, Saron. Everyone check out CodelandConf.com. That's coming up in April. That's all for The Frontside Podcast. Thanks for joining us.