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How I Got Into Development: My Journey from Geocities to Girl Develop It

Alexis Goldstein, author of Learning CSS3 Animations and Transitions, shares how she become a developer, from learning about GeoCities to working on Wall Street to teaching girls how to code through Girl Develop It.

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My travels as a technologist have taken me many places, from my beginnings as a curious teenager building my first websites, to a programmer working on Wall Street writing trading software for hedge funds, to a teacher trying to distill my experiences for students. Regardless of what form it took, I have always found development to be stimulating, captivating, and incredibly rewarding. In this article, I talk about why I got into programming and where it’s taken me over the course of my career.

My first foray into technology came in the mid-nineties, when I found first found my way into the world of web development. My parents had gotten a monthly subscription to AOL, and I would spend hours browsing the web (via Netscape Navigator, the cutting edge at the time). I was excited to have so much knowledge at my fingertips. But I also saw how many people, even in the Web’s infancy (or perhaps toddlerhood), built their own sites and made their own contribution to the World Wide Web. I wanted to learn how to do it, too.

I began with GeoCities, which provided a basic WYSIWYG editor that allowed you to visually construct a page. But I soon outgrew it. Right-click > View Source became my fascination. I was constantly inspecting and reading others’ code, divining--or trying to divine--what made their pages work. These were the dark days before the incredible suite of free tools that web developers now have access to, like Firebug or Chrome’s Web Developer Tools. Digging through the entire HTML file, I would try and discern which element controlled the part of the page I was interested in. I experimented, I created, and I fell in love with how easy it was to create my own content and then make it publicly available for the whole world to find.

My projects in high school made me fall hard for the HTML and CSS markup languages, but I had yet to encounter computer programming, apart from making a Turtle move around a screen using Logo during summer camp.  My first major exposure to computer programming came when I began working at a wine store. The husband of the store’s owner had written their entire online ordering system by himself. I was enthralled that just one person could take a store from purely brick-and-mortar to a full ecommerce site, and I desperately wanted to be able to do the same thing.

With the wine store and its website in the front of my mind, I signed up for CS 1007--Intro to Computer Science and Programming in Java--when choosing my classes at Columbia. My plan was simply to take a few Computer Science classes, enough to give me the basics so that I could build up my own ecommerce site (which, in retrospect, was an overly ambitious goal), while I pursued my planned major, Economics. But I found myself fascinated with my computer science homework, and somewhat disinterested by comparison in my Principles of Macroeconomics course. In CS 1007, we watched videos of robot dogs (the Sony Aibo) playing soccer in Robocup, the worldwide competition whose mission is to develop, by 2050, a team of fully autonomous robots who could beat the world’s best human soccer players in a match-up. I had always been fascinated with robots as a child--Short Circuit was one of my favorite movies growing up. But I had never dared to think that I might actually be able to build a robot, or program one to do something. Professor Elizabeth Sklar, who taught CS 1007 with a focus on robotics and the possibilities that programming opened up, captured my imagination. I was hooked.

I changed my major and jumped into Data Structures and Algorithms, the second course in the core curriculum. Here, I started to learn core programming concepts, like queues and stacks, which made me more comfortable doing basic programming in Java.

At first, all of this new information was a real challenge. I found myself fighting to get my basic programs to compile, confused about the syntax of Java and the rules I needed to follow. I spent many, many long days in Mudd, the name of the Engineering building at Columbia, bent over a keyboard in one of the two windowless computer labs with Sun Terminals. But slowly, slowly, as I learned the rules of the language and came to understand the syntax errors that prevented my program from compiling, I came to appreciate just how exacting a compiler is--it has a discrete set of rules that it will follow no matter what. Everything must be correct. It was a beautifully predictable and controlled environment.

Eventually, I moved on to more advanced courses like Intro to Operating Systems, which began with the basics of UNIX and shell scripting, and ended with the students hacking the Linux general. I could hardly believe what I was doing at first--I was modifying an operating system! I spent many long nights with my lab partner, Eric, coding late into the night, rebooting the Virtual Machine after a faulty code change caused a kernel panic. It was incredibly hard work, but it was also a ton of fun. We laughed and teased each other, and told a few too many “Your Mom” jokes.

But my real evolution as a programmer began in earnest when I started at an investment bank in New York. I had interned with the same firm in 2003, and was offered a full-time position in 2004, which I accepted. I thought I had learned enough of the basics of programming to send me off and running, but I quickly learned that there was so much I didn't know, and so many important habits I needed to develop. I was incredibly privileged to join a group that had a daily, team-wide code review. We would all dial into a group conference call, headsets on, and walk through every single new change made to the codebase. As a new programmer, this daily routine was indispensable--I got to listen to advanced software engineers not only explain their code changes, but also critique the code changes made by other engineers on the team, offering suggestions for how to improve the code. And the next day, at the changelist call, I'd get to see how these suggestions were implemented in a new check-in to the code base.

I learned C# and .NET, and got to work on building portions of the front-end for a piece of client-facing trading software offered by the firm. The pressures were high, but I developed good habits early, thanks to the constant eyes of other engineers on my code and the conversations I got to partake in and listen to during the daily calls. I had wonderful, funny colleagues in the Product Group as well, which was the team on the business who would decide which new features to implement. One of my colleagues, a brilliant man with a wicked sense of humor, always exhaustively tested new versions of our software. He was particularly creative in the fake account and client names he would create while testing out a new release in the development environment; my favorite fake client was “Monkey Shot Into Space.” This same colleague also set his phone ringer to OutKast’s “Hey Yeah”, so sometimes in the middle of a business meeting, the song would start playing and he’d rush out, to the laughter of everyone in the room (him included).

Soon, I was adding new features to the software, and this is where the magic of programming truly captivated me. At its heart, programming is often like solving a puzzle. You have some action you'd like to complete in code, and you need to figure out the best way to achieve it. Once you get deep into a problem, time falls away. It's just you, your IDE (integrated development environment), and your quest to implement the feature, the bug fix, or the optimization to the code. One of my more satisfying projects was developing a keyboard-only order entry form that allowed our clients to quickly enter trades in the least time possible. I built the entire feature myself, learning much about how to respond to and process keypresses in the .NET environment in the process.

I spent time at two other firms before finally leaving the financial industry in 2010. I was dissatisfied with a career where the only objective was to further enrich the already wealthy. And I was tired of an environment that rewarded the status quo over creativity. I was eager to have the freedom to code my own projects and share what I had learned in the process, rather than everything remaining a proprietary secret of the firm I worked for.  When I left, I was looking forward to returning to Programming and Web Development, something I had not had the opportunity to touch during my time on Wall Street. It was my first love, and I was excited to come back to it. But on my way back to it, I found a new love as well.

In late 2010, a friend of mine forwarded me a link to an intro to HTML and CSS course, with a brand new group called Girl Develop It. I had been spending much of my time on my own projects, exploring iPhone app development and setting up new websites for myself, but I was intrigued to help out with an effort aimed at educating women in programming. I offered to help out, asking if they needed anything. They were looking for teaching assistants to help this first class of students with in-class exercises. And so I began to help out with Girl Develop It as a TA. In the second round of this intro to HTML course, the teacher had a conflict. So I stepped in as a substitute. I really enjoyed sharing what I knew with a group of students eager to learn and experiment. And it felt so good to try and flag problems that I had on my learning journey, to try and help the group of women taking this course get up and going faster than I did.

Soon, I was teaching the course on my own. And I found that seeing the websites that my students developed after taking my intro course was as satisfying as tracking down a software bug that nagged me for days--it felt triumphant, and it felt like I had really achieved something.

As I became more experienced as an instructor, teaching both intro Web Development and JavaScript, I also became more active on a listserve I had long been a part of but mostly lurked on—devchix. On that listserve, I got to know the brilliant Estelle Weyl, who was in the process of writing an HTML5 and CSS3 book with Louis Lazaris. They needed a third author to cover some of the JavaScript APIs in HTML5, and Estelle invited me to contribute to the effort. I was excited and honored to be a co-author of this book. Following this first book, I met a Pearson editor, Chuck Toporek, when I attended the Apples Worldwide Developers Conference. He’d seen the earlier book and knew me from the community, and we began talking about doing a book on CSS3. As I dug into the research for the book, I found that while there were many books on CSS3 as a whole, there wasn’t a dedicated book on CSS3 transitions and animations. I put together a proposal, and we got to work. Chuck soon left to join Apple, but I began working with the very talented Trina Macdonald, and in December of 2012, Learning CSS3 Animations and Transitions was released.

To date, I have taught well over five hundred unique students, most of them women, through my work with Girl Develop It. Every time I teach a course, I try to refine it and improve it. I think back often to my early snags and confusions as a beginning programmer, and I try to do what I can to give my students enough information, key vocabulary words, and practical examples to get them up and running as soon as possible.  I also teach private courses through my company, and with Marakana, an open source training group out of San Francisco. I’ve spent the last couple of years very busy with teaching, but I hope to spend the next year focused more on my own projects, such as a knitting math web app I hope to create with the help of my sister, who is a devoted knitter and has created her own spreadsheets to do what she calls “Sweater Math.”

I’ve gained so much from both my former coworkers, and the unbelievably generous web community as a whole, who share so much in the name of spreading knowledge to as many as possible. I am proud to be a small part of this big, wide, and open web.

For more articles and resources, visit our Women in Technology page.

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