My talk at Dot York: Learn and Teach

About a week after speaking at UpFront conference, I spoke at Dot York. The two talks were within a short space of time, but they were very different. 

At Dot York, I talked about my learning journey; why I joined Clearleft and what it's been like since. It was just a ten minute talk, which felt long enough because I gave an open and honest account of my journey so far.

I started by explaining exactly how I felt about being on that stage:

Hello

I'm pretty new to whole public speaking thing, so as I stand here now, I could ask myself: Why am I on this stage? I'm a fairly quiet person and I don't like drawing attention to myself, so this is quite an unnatural thing for me to do. I can feel my heart pounding really fast. Right now, my comfort zone is all the way over there, and I am very much here. So, if I feel like this, you might be wondering: "Why on earth are you doing this?" That is a good question, which I often have to ask myself in situations like this.

I came here today to learn of course, and I'm speaking to you because selfishly, I want to improve my public speaking skills. By sharing something which you may find useful, I'm also learning myself. 

The only way I could make this happen was to push myself out of my comfort zone. I’ve had to deal with imposter syndrome and worries about getting it wrong, and worries about looking like an idiot in front of lots people. These worries haven’t gone away yet, I really hope they do with experience, but until they do, I have to accept them, and I have to learn to feel comfortable looking like an idiot.

The first time I put myself in this situation was around 18 months ago.

Transition

I’m a front-end developer. I learnt to code between the classroom at University and in my own time. I made websites work in whichever way I needed to in order to pass my coursework. I also built some small, terrible websites to earn a few quid while I was a student. I used endless jquery plugins, Wordpress themes and pretty much anything to get the job done. I could rarely explain the code in the plugins and templates I used. And when I didn’t use plugins, I often copied and pasted code from forums and blog posts. I was what Chris Heilmann would call a "Full Stackoverflow Developer”. A Full Stackoverflow Developer is someone who spends most of their career copying and pasting code rather than learning how to do it for themselves. This is exactly who I was. And it satisfied me for a while. It got me through my first couple of web agency jobs where time was monitored and this approach was acceptable.

After about 6-12 months of working like this, I decided that I couldn’t do it anymore. It didn’t feel right to add so many plugins to my sites. I wanted to be able to write Javascript, or at least understand the code I was adding for myself. I wanted to have the time to learn this. Which is how I ended up at Clearleft 18 months ago.

Levelling up

I was the first permanent junior hire at Clearleft and I found myself surrounded by lots of very experienced and talented people. I often get imposter syndrome and find it difficult to believe that I can contribute anything useful when I'm surrounded by people with so much more knowledge and experience than me.

I’ve had to learn some Javascript and continuously work on my web development skills to keep up with the projects I'm on. And I haven’t used any plugins in production code since joining Clearleft.

If I’m honest, I find coding hard. Sometimes I’m slow at it. Sometimes my code doesn’t work and sometimes I feel like I can’t do it at all. I’ve wasted hours trying to fix bugs caused by one missing character and I’ve spent ages refreshing the wrong pages; and then I really feel like an idiot. Then sometimes my code works and it’s the best feeling ever; I could run outside and hug someone. It sounds mean, but I love hearing about other people’s frustrations because it reminds me that it’s normal to have highs and lows. 

My advice to anyone learning a new skill, particularly web development, is to never be afraid of asking for help because you’re not alone. Speak to other developers around you. They will have experienced the same frustrations and together you can solve problems quicker.

Progress

What has made constant learning easier to manage, is being lucky enough to have a mentor, Jeremy at Clearleft, who was already assigned to me when I joined. He gave me the support and teaching I needed to work on large projects and quickly improve my skills. 

It’s been challenging at times too. I think it takes a little time to settle into working closely with someone, especially when you don’t them know very well.  A mentor needs to figure out how someone responds to different ways of learning and communication. Listening to each other is important and patience is required from both parties. It’s important to have a positive relationship.

What was interesting and probably a comfort to both of us was that neither of us had done this before and neither of us knew what we were doing.

If I had to give three pieces of advice from my perspective to anyone thinking of mentoring, they would be:

  • Find the right level of challenge: Give junior developers the support they need to work on challenging projects, but make sure they also do enough work that can be completed with minimal or no support to build up their confidence. To feel like you can only work with constant support is detrimental to self-belief and it won't work out. It's important to be independent.
  • Show up when you need to: Arrange regular meet ups. Firstly so that both parties remember to show up, but also so that both people have enough space to take in what has been learnt and work independently.
  • Learn from each other: Mentors should make it clear that they are learning too. I think there is no right or wrong answer to the approaches that can be taken to this—they can vary depending on the people doing it, their abilities, their preferred ways of learning and things like that. You could even try reverse mentoring where the less experienced party gives some coaching to the more experienced party. I know a couple of organisations are trying this at the moment and it could be an interesting experiment.

Sharing

I'm very lucky to have learnt so much from other people sharing what they know. Until recently, it didn’t occur to me that sharing what I know could be useful too.

Some great advice I received from Jeremy is to have my own website and document what I learn. Initially, my response to this was: What’s the point? People will already know everything that I’m learning. Actually, it turns out there are several really good reasons for doing this:

  • Readers often get a better understanding of something when it is explained by the learner, rather than the expert.
  • Writing things down also helps me to understand them, and I often look back at what I've learnt. I regularly find myself referring to my previous blog posts when I need reminding of how to do something, which makes it a really useful resource.
  • There's lots of people out there learning to code and you never know when someone might find it useful. I couldn’t believe it when my old University lecturer got in touch with me and said that she is using my Flexbox posts in her classes as teaching material.

Community

So it turns out I can teach. In fact, we can all teach.
I discovered codebar in Brighton around the same time I joined Clearleft. codebar is place for under-represented groups in tech to learn how to code in a safe and collaborative environment. People give up their Tuesday evenings to teach others how to code for free and local web agencies offer us their work spaces for free and they sponsor the pizza we share at the start of the event each week. 

I initially attended codebar as a student because I wanted to work on my Javascript skills. I found the workshops to be so much more relevant than University. I learnt from industry professionals and socialised with people from different backgrounds and levels of experience, all with the same goal as me: To learn.
 
A few months later, they were short of coaches, so I nervously started teaching HTML and CSS to beginners. It amazed me, that I, a junior developer at the time, could teach anyone anything.

A few months ago I joined the team of organisers of codebar Brighton. I’m very passionate about providing a place for people to learn to code and at the same improve diversity in tech.

The most amazing thing is seeing people join codebar at the very start of their learning journey and watching them progress. This year, two women I helped at codebar went on to get their first jobs in the industry as junior developers. I remember introducing them to their first lines of HTML and CSS about a year ago, and now they are flying in their new jobs, which is awesome, and I feel proud.

I'm proud to be part of a team who work so hard to make this event possible. I’m also proud to be part of an industry where so many people are willing to give up their own time to share their knowledge to help each other learn.

So, I'd like to end my talk with this message: However much or little you think you know, there’s always more to learn and there's always more to teach.