Burnout & Broken Things

As 2016 wraps up, I’ve been waxing nostalgic about the past few years. I moved back to Cleveland from England on August 15, 2014; my divorce was finalized December 15 that same year, and I graduated from bootcamp on December 12, 2015—almost a year later. The disastrous culmination of my first tech interview process on December 30, 2015 taught me enough to fully recover for the next one, which resulted in a job offer from Hyland with start date of Februrary 22, 2016. I’ve been able to pull all of those dates right off the top of my head, somehow, even though I literally have to stop and think before telling people the date of my child’s birthday (March 3, May 5, same thing—right?).

The thing is, there’s a lot out there about how to live your best life—how to get a decent job, how to ditch your abusive partner, how to de-stress, eat right, exercise, meditate, how to dress for success, how to wing your eyeliner, how to clean dog puke out of upholstery. There’s all sorts of ways to get there–Google it, and you’ll find it. What no one seems to have is any advice for it what comes afterward… when you’re sure that you’re fierce and independent and capable, and suddenly, you’re sitting in front of an auditorium full of people with a microphone in your lap, and someone in the crowd raises their hand and say, “this is a question for Tori,” because they’ve decided that they want their best life, too, and they think you have the answers they’re looking for.

In a nutshell: 2016 has been both extremely rewarding, and utterly terrifying. I got a job—a full-time job, at a company that hired me for reasons other than that I’m capable of showing up on time and speaking in full sentences. After two years, I was finally able to pack up and move my kid, my dog, and myself out of my parents’ spare bedroom and into a house. I don’t worry about making my son’s school tuition payments, let alone worry that I’m not going to be able to afford medicine or food.

I’ve done this with the realization that if I hadn’t had my parents’ patience (and their spare bedroom), at least one good friend (hi, Dave), and someone to loan me $9,000 without even checking my beyond-terrible credit score (thanks, WCCI), this might not have played out so well. Even with the advantages, I still had to ask Hyland to move my start date up two weeks from their initial offer, because I had run out of money to keep putting gas in the car. Truth is, there are many, many people who had it far, far worse than I had it—which is exactly why I need to have answers when someone says, “this is a question for Tori”, because hard is hard, and I’m going to offer whatever slivers of hope and strength I can.

An apprentice at We Can Code IT contacted me recently and offered to take me out for coffee. If we do end up going for coffee, she’s not paying for it. She’s paying nine thousand dollars already; there’s no way she needs to spend an extra two bucks on buying her mentor a cup of coffee. I’ll buy my coffee, I’ll buy her coffee, I’ll buy pastries if she wants one. I’ve realized that you don’t just get out what you put in—once you climb the mountain, the good thing to do is to turn around and reach down to help the next person.

2016 has been humbling. I’ve also spent the last few months of the year fighting with a bout of anemia brought on by switching out one of my medications, which is its own special version of terrible. I’ve had to drop projects I was excited about, and push myself to finish others while exhausted. Good news, though—I’m a month into taking iron supplements, and I almost feel ready to try out some short hikes again. Strapping on a pack and putting down substantial miles is still a bit far off, but getting the boots on for a couple miles in the park is beginning to sound appealing again. Some of the things I had to drop off in 2016 should see new efforts in 2017, which I’m finally excited over (instead of exhausted just thinking about).

The title? Burnout, obviously, from the anemia—trying to do too much while my body wasn’t getting what it needed. I spent a couple months insisting that I was fine, and that my elevated heart-rate and constant fatigue were from stress and not having time to hike on weekends. In retrospect, that was ridiculous, because I had plenty of time to hike on weekends, I just wasn’t able to make it out of bed. I did force myself to Philadelpha for Ela Conf, which was very much worth it, and to attend a few events and start a couple of projects, but the physical cost was pretty great. Thankfully, I shouldn’t have to deal with it very much longer. Broken things, though—that’s a little more introspective. I’ve spent a long time identifying myself by what was wrong with my life—no money, no job/bad job/low-paying job, bad relationship, etc. There is still plenty wrong with my life (debt up my eyeballs, I live in a bad rom-com, my dog likes to eat things she shouldn’t), but I’ve quit defining myself by it. This has been the year that I finally started defining myself by the things I’ve accomplished and the things I enjoy, not the things that I don’t have or the things I’m not good at. That’s a lesson I want to share with people going forward.

There’s 2016 wrapped up neatly, let’s put on a bow on it and move on.

Ela Conf 2016

So, I went to Ela Conf in Philadelphia, PA this past weekend, and, like, I don’t even know.  I don’t even know what happened.  I’m going to try and write a blog post, but I’m also sure there’s no way to put the experience into words that properly express how amazing the weekend was.

First, some disclosure.  I knew I wanted to go to a conference, but every time I heard about one I could even think of going to, it was impossible–either registration had closed, or going would have cost me a thousand dollars, or both (usually both).  Even though I make sweet, sweet developer money now, I’m still a single mom with bills and a crapload of debt, so let’s be real: if it’s gonna cost more than a few hundred bucks to go to something, I’m not going.  I’ve heard from other people that a $400 conference ticket is “so cheap”, that the associated $800+ hotel stay is “reasonable for the venue”, and it’s totally okay to do things like fly across the country and eat $100 hotel-restaurant meals in the name of networking.  Maybe that’s true for people who aren’t nine months into their first real jobs and don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt, but for me?  Networking doesn’t keep my lights on and my kid fed.  (I guess I could set all the business cards I’d collect on fire for warmth, but that seems impractical.)

Here’s the first amazing thing about Ela: through sponsorship, they were able to pay stipends for speaker travel and childcare, and provide grants for ticket cost to any woman who applied.  In case you can’t figure out where this is going, my broke self got a ticket grant, which left me enough money to book a motel in New Jersey and buy gasoline to drive back and forth from Cleveland.

Takeaway: if a small, second-year conference in Philadelphia can get sponsorship enough to do this, why the hell can’t conferences with much more name recognition and/or budget do it, too?

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Recent Engagements

I am so, so pleased to tell you, readers, that this past Saturday, I was on a panel of women answering attendee questions about their careers during Hyland’s first Women in Tech conference! Here’s the official press release blurb:

“Hyland will host the Women in Tech Conference on Saturday, October 8 at its headquarters in Westlake, Ohio. Working with close partners the Ohio Collaboration of Women in Computing (OCWiC) and We Can Code It, the half-day conference aims to inform women about the career opportunities within computer science and information technology (IT) professions.

Attendees will hear from female software developers, quality assurance (QA) specialists and senior IT managers who will provide insight into their technology backgrounds, what interested them about their chosen fields and the roles and responsibilities for their positions.”

Source: http://www.prweb.com/releases/2016/10/prweb13733094.htm

Feedback for the event has been overwhelmingly positive. It was a great day at Hyland for those of us who were speaking, and I’m really glad to hear that it was a great day for our attendees, too! There was a lot of good energy in the room that came from over fifty women in one place with one goal: to represent and increase the presence and visibility of women in technology. The conference opened with a talk by Brenda Kirk, Hyland’s Senior Vice President of Product & Strategry (and my big boss!), followed by a presentation by two of our developers, the Q&A panel where attendees asked us about our career paths and opportunities at Hyland, a talk by my frentor (that’s friend + mentor, for those unaware) Mel McGee of We Can Code IT, and a presentation by volunteers and attendees of the Ohio Celebration of Women in Computing (OCWiC).

For more information on Hyland, We Can Code IT and OCWiC, check out:

I was also asked to speak at a recent We Can Code IT commencement, but that’s its own blog post, and it hasn’t been written yet! I’ve been keeping busy lately and am looking forward to finally being able to give updates on all the projects I have going on, including a new website (here’s a hint: I now own http://www.mylittlecoding.com) and a new meetup group. Stay tuned. 🙂

 

On Failing Gracefully

I haven’t blogged in three months.  To be honest, blogging is just another one of the things that have fallen by the wayside while I’ve been making a desperate attempt to keep my life in some semblance of order.  There has been so much going on (I’ll get to explaining why in a moment) and I’ve been trying to juggle so many things that I end up just dropping them, sometimes without even realizing it.  And so, for awhile, I’ve planned to write a post on failing gracefully–because that’s exactly what I haven’t been doing.

As a brief explanation of what I’ve been up to the past couple of months–I started having some stress about work, so I stopped working on my personal projects because at the end of the day, I was exhausted.  I also very suddenly had to move at the end of last month, into a house that needs a lot of renovation work.  I fought with my boyfriend a lot because I was so stressed out.  My dog destroyed my parents’ picture window, because she was also stressed out.  My kid started Kindergarten, so his tuition bills came due, and of course no one’s helping me with those.  To top everything off, I’d been talking about going up to Maine and backpacking for the better part of a year… and because of the move, the trip I’d been looking forward to couldn’t happen.

It’s been a pretty crappy time, to be honest.

Things came to a head the day before I had to sign the lease on the house, when my boyfriend (who is also stressed out because his business has been lagging) made the spur-of-the-moment, stress-induced decision to tell me that he couldn’t help pay the rent and I shouldn’t sign the papers.  The house is my parents’ rental property and they need a tenant to pay the mortgage on it, so if I didn’t sign the lease, my parents’ finances would take a tremendous hit–and they were already mad enough about my dog that I really had to be out of their house.  The only way I could afford the house and the rest of my bills comfortably is if my boyfriend moved in, so when he delivered this news–via Facebook Messenger, in the middle of my workday–I very calmly got up from my desk, locked myself in a stall in the womens’ restroom, wrote him a breakup text, and proceeded to completely lose my cool.

So why am I sharing all of these stressful failures with you, dear readers?  Do I expect you care about my window-eating dog, my parents’ rental house, and my boyfriend’s business ventures?  Not really.  But I do want to upfront and honest about something: I fail at things.  A lot.  And I don’t always fail gracefully.

What does it mean to fail gracefully?  In software, a one-sentence definition might be “averting catastrophe and providing a clear, understandable error message to the user when things go wrong”.  In life?  Perhaps we can emulate software–avert catastrophe, provide error message.  Instead of freaking out every time we fail at something, graceful failure means accepting that particular failure, moving past it, and learning from it.

I picked up a neat project at work, so I’m less loathsome of my office.  I signed the papers and moved into the house–and my boyfriend provided a check for half the rent.  I purchased a couple of radio barrier transmitters for my dog (like an indoor wireless fence), and she’s stopped eating windows.  I have enough money to pay for my child’s education.  None of the things I was so worried about turned out to be terrible–and, deep inside, I probably knew they weren’t going to be.  I allowed myself to catastrophize failure so much that I kept failing repeatedly, like software with no exception handling–the failure bubbled up until I broke down in the restroom.

Looking back on the last couple months, I’m a little embarrassed.  But I’ve tried to fail gracefully at my failure to handle failure–when I get stressed out over the house or work now, I ask myself if it’s really worth getting worked up over.  Most of the time, I realize that continuing to stress about it is counterproductive, and that makes it easier to either take corrective action, or to sit back and let the situation run its course.

For example, renovating the house–I pulled down wallpaper in the living room, and found that the previous homeowner (before my parents) had DIY’d some wiring.  I found this out because he had left gaping holes in the walls and stuck the wallpaper over them.  I’d been ready to paint the wall (the wallpaper had been sealed and painted over previously, but I found an unsealed spot to start peeling it up and couldn’t resist), but suddenly I was set back a week because I needed to patch large portions of wall.  Although I was distraught when it happened, the next day it was funny.  My boyfriend picked up some wall patches and compound on his way home from the office, and I put the wall back together.  Crying about it wasn’t going to fix the wall, so I laughed about it instead and did what I could to solve it.  Now that the wall is patched and painted, you can’t even tell where the holes were.

And so, gentle readers, do not be me.  Next time you experience a failure, take a step back, take a deep breath, and ask yourself if things are really as bad as they seem.  Chances are they’re really, really not.

Motivation, Part I: Find Yourself, And Be That.

It is weird being a software developer with a MA. It is super weird being a software developer with a MA in art history.  And it is super ultra weird being a software developer with a MA in art history whose research interests lie almost entirely in twentieth-century German sociopolitical propaganda.

It’s been seven months since I started my programming bootcamp.  In those past seven months, I have had to explain to a lot of people how I came to be a developer with a graduate degree in one of the most degraded humanities subjects available.  We’ve all read it or heart it, and probably some of you have said it: “if people didn’t spend thousands of dollars getting art history degrees and studied something that would get them a job, we wouldn’t have a student loan crisis/an employment crisis/war in the Middle East/child hunger/fascism/the threat of nuclear armageddon”.  What people don’t realize is that art history is, in fact, really freaking hard.  I’m not going to go into detail, but art history is basically requires a lot of very twisty thinking, attention to detail, and the ability to put together tiny bits and pieces to make a compelling argument for a whole conclusion.  Anyway, I don’t think anyone should get ripped on for going to college, so when people try to pick this fight with me, I shut them down as quickly as possible.  It’s not just because I’m defending my major, though–it’s because I’m defending me.

When someone picks on my choice of degree, what they’re really doing is calling me an idiot.  Why would any smart person spend ten years of their life and go into an un-payable amount of debt for an art history degree?  I’m obviously not that bright if this is the path I’ve taken, right?  For those people, I have three words: oh, hell no.

This is the point of this post: in order to really find yourself, you have to tackle your hard truths.  It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are (e.e. cummings’s words, not mine).  One of my hard truths was the realization that I was letting people make me feel stupid, and that’s when I decided that no one would ever get to call me an idiot ever again.  I was in a relationship with a person who didn’t respect me and kept me dependent on them by making me feel stupid and incapable.  In an effort not to displease all of our mutual friends (who I realize now were not my friends) or my parents, I kept my mouth shut and continued feeling like an idiot for way longer than I should have.  It was only when the dichotomy between who I was when I was in class and who I was when I was at home reached crazy levels of different that I realized what was going on.  I mentioned to one of my friends that my partner was having yet another episode where they’d refused to acknowledge me for the past day and a half because I’d done something they didn’t like, and my friend just said, “Tori–that’s not okay.  What the [expletive] is going on?”

If you don’t like the place you’re in, go somewhere else.  I don’t physically mean pack up and move–that’s time-consuming, very expensive, and probably a last-ditch effort; not everyone can afford that.  What I mean is that you can’t afford to be a victim of your circumstances.  Getting away from that relationship cost me a lot, both literally (I had been out of the employment game for awhile) and figuratively (I lost friends, my parents yelled at me, etc)–but I am so much happier now that even my crummy days are better than the good days I had with that particular person.  Sometimes, you have to accept that you are spinning your wheels and not getting anywhere–and after you accept that, you have to get out of the car and keep going on foot.  It’ll be hard, and sometimes it will seem as though it’s not worth it, but things will only get better if you make them get better.

I had to reconsider my entire life after getting out of that relationship–but I’m glad I did it.  The best thing you can do for yourself is find what excites you and defend it wholeheartedly.  Think about where you are and where you want to be–and then make a priority to get where you want to be.  I filtered myself down to “I really love making cool stuff and sharing it with people,” and that’s how I got to be a software developer.  I moved back in with my parents, worked retail, updated the coding skills I already had, then pulled the trigger on going through bootcamp in order to get my first job.  In my spare time, I draw My Little Ponies, because I like My Little Ponies.  I go hiking with my dog, because I like hiking and dogs.  I like to have bacon and avocado on my cheeseburgers, and never again will I put myself in a situation where someone makes me feel like I can’t get a bacon avocado burger because bacon and avocado is an unnecessary expense.  I like bacon avocado burgers, dangit, and I will spend an extra two dollars and forty-nine cents of my money on burger toppings if I want to!

Once you determine where you want to be, it’s your responsibility to get yourself there. There’s no room for hand-holding; you’re ultimately the one responsible for your own happiness. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be people along for the journey (more on that in the next post), it just means you have to take responsibility for everything you do—which includes success as well as failure. You are the only real constant in your own life–and you’ve got to own up to your own imperfections and stop trying to be flawless. For me, this meant accepting that I have a tendency to become frustrated and overreact.  It’s still something that I struggle with (especially if I’m desperate–I totally did this during a job interview when I was totally broke and really needed the job, and bombed the interview), but I’m getting better.  That’s another lesson: it’s okay to fail, so long as you learn from your failure.  This can be just as hard as picking yourself up and moving on from things that don’t benefit you, because it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking all you can do is fail.  When that happens, it’s okay to give yourself a break–go get a bacon avocado burger, sit out the next round, and try again when you’re ready.  The important thing is that you eventually get back up and try again.  When I want to give up, I think about how I’ll feel if I let myself give up: lousy.  You’ve got to determine that the hardness is better than feeling lousy–you’ve got to decide that you want success more than your’e afraid of failure.

Here’s my point: so long as you’ve got yourself, no one can stop you.  There will be people who are not interested in your success–but guess what?  You don’t need those people in your life.  Love yourself enough to really go after what you want, and the right people will find you.  We’ll talk about that in my next post. 🙂

 

If you’re looking for a little motivation, I’ve made a Pinterest board to go along with this post.  You can visit it by clicking [here], and feel free to follow it on Pinterest as I’ll be updating it as I find new material!

Engineers Week: Girl Day

A couple weeks ago, out of the blue, I received an e-mail from the Molly Bukowski, Director of Special Projects at Teza Technologies.  Turns out that people actually do read my blog!  She inquired as to whether I’d be interested in writing an entry for Girl Day, a day set aside during Engineers Week to show girls the creative side of engineering and encourage them to explore STEM careers.

Of course I said yes, not only because I was immensely flattered that someone read my blog, but also because I have a lot to say about encouraging girls to go ahead and push themselves to be whatever the heck they want.  I don’t see any problem with a girl deciding to be an engineer or an art teacher (or both!), but an oft-discussed problem with girls disregarding potential STEM careers is that they “can’t be what they can’t see,” and it’s hard for a girl to push herself to be an engineer if she doesn’t have readily-available female engineer role models.  On the flip side, I know plenty of amazing female art teachers.

It still feels a little odd to reply to “so what do you do?” with, “I’m a software developer”.  I’m sure that I have taken the most convoluted, expensive, roundabout path to software development possible, but now that I am a Bonafide Female Software Developer (TM), one of my goals is to be a readily-available female role model for girls.  Molly invited me to share my personal thoughts and experience for this entry, so I want to share my (very unique) path to software development.  So, kids, read on:

I was in junior high school when I first started making websites (about 1997).  Right now, if you want to learn how to make a website, you just Google “how to make a website” and can find zillions of tutorials for HTML and CSS (the code used to make websites).  When I started out, though, there were very few references for HTML available, almost none for CSS (it was very, very new), and Google hadn’t been invented yet. We did, however, have a program on the family computer called Microsoft FrontPage, where you could build a website by clicking on things and arranging them on the screen.  FrontPage would then let you switch over to see the code it generated for the website, and I was slowly able to figure out the code for things like text, images and buttons.

Know I could type some code and have it magically turn into a website was pretty much the most exciting thing ever.  As the Web really started taking off, I would re-write my websites over and over.  Each time, I’d try pushing just a little bit further, to make my site that much cooler.  In high school, my parents let me drill holes in the ceiling so that I could run a line from the cable modem in dad’s office to my computer in my bedroom.  I routinely stayed up way past my bedtime re-doing my websites and chatting with friends on AIM (which was like Facebook Messenger, except way more anonymous and easy to use).  My junior year, my web development hobby actually got me a boyfriend!  I’m not kidding–I entered my website in a contest for high school web designers and won first place in my category.  To find out whether or not I won the big prize, I had to go to an awards ceremony at the local community college, which is where I met a boy who won first place in another category, and we dated for like, six whole months.  (For the record, I did not win the big prize.  The big prize was an iPod and it was won by a team of six boys who all worked on the winning website together.  No idea how they split it up.  Also, last I heard, the boy I dated is also working in software development.)

Naturally, all of this obsession with making websites and understanding how the web worked meant that I went to a really awesome technical college, majored in computer science, and… wait, wait… that’s not the story at all.  I didn’t do any of that.  Instead, I went to art school, transferred to a liberal arts school, majored in art education, then art, then art history, transferred to state school, graduated with a BA in art history, went to London, earned a MA in art history…

So what caused me to close my editor at age 19 and walk away from building websites for ten years?

Part of it was that I couldn’t be what I couldn’t see.  I knew that college-level computer science required a lot of advanced math, which I’m really terrible at.  Another part of it was that the only real programming I’d done was some BASIC as a little kid and a few attempts at JavaScript in the early 2000’s.  HTML and CSS are markup languages–they’re used to display data, not manipulate it.  I was good at drawing, interpreting poems, and remembering random historical facts, and so I was advised to go into something more suitable to my existing skills than to try and fit my bad-at-math, no-programming-experience self into ‘real’ computer science.  All the comp sci students I knew were super into computer hardware, had tons of programming experience already, and were dangerously good at math–and, except for one, they were all guys.  It was really intimidating, so I played down how cool I think computers are and became a really good sport about people asking me what kind of job I thought I’d be able get with an art history degree.

Turns out, I’m a software developer with an art history degree.  I love drawing and writing and taking photographs, but I also really love to code.  After I decided not to pursue a PhD, a friend of mine suggested I go back to making websites.  He sent me a couple e-books to get me caught up to the new developments with HTML5 and CSS3 and gave me a some challenges to try and recreate things with my new-old skills.  It felt really, really good to get back into it, and I knew I was on the right path.  Just re-learning HTML and CSS wasn’t enough to get me a job, though–I knew I had to at least tackle JavaScript again to be a web developer, so I decided to go to a programming bootcamp… and this Monday, I started my first software development job.

I’m really glad I went to bootcamp.  We Can Code IT is focused on getting women and minorities into computer science, and even though the program has only been around for a year, it’s already seems to be paying off for the Cleveland tech community.  I’m really excited to see where it goes–so excited that I’ve contracted with WCCI to teach programming workshops for kids in addition to my full-time development job.

If you’re looking to get started learning code, I’ve included some links here that might help, as well as a special infographic from Teza about women in STEM degree programs and careers.

Happy coding, ladies! 😉

 

Suggested resources:

Scratch: a fun, free creative learning community based around an easy-to-learn, easy-to-use visual programming language.  Great for kids and those just starting out with code.

Codecademy: learn to code interactively, for free.  Includes lessons on HTML, CSS, JavaScript, Python, Ruby, and more.

Khan Academy: a free education site with computer science lessons including how to code with HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and SQL.  Good for math, science and art history lessons, too!

w3 Schools: a developer site with tutorials and reference for web languages including HTML, CSS, PHP and jQuery.

We Can Code IT: offers full-time and part-time .NET programming bootcamps in Cleveland, Ohio as well as children’s camps and workshops.  Diversity focus.

Software Guild: a 12-week, full-time Java/.NET programming bootcamp in Akron, Ohio.

Engineers Week_Girl Day