Learning to Code with Liz Norton

Category: Development
learn code
This is the third entry in our “Learn to Code” series. You can find our other entries over here. In each post we ask programmers and developers to share their biggest learning experiences. If there’s one thing I’ve learned interviewing these experts, it’s that there are tons of opportunities out there to get involved in the development community. I hope this series inspires you try out something you thought you’d never be able to do!

Liz NortonLiz Norton is learning code on top of working full-time as a manager at a coffee shop. She blogs over at www.lizcod.es. And we are very grateful she took time out of her busy schedule to answer our questions.

JH Media: What made you decide to start learning code?

Liz Norton: For close to a year, Jordan Burke had been trying to tempt me into learning to code or at least getting involved in the tech community. (Editor’s note: Jordan was previously featured in our series.) Back in August, he invited me to the Developers of Athens meetup because he thought that the nontechnical speaker’s subject would be interesting to me. It turned out that the technical speaker reached me. I understood very little of Matt Farmer’s talk, which was on a language called Scala and a framework called Lift. However, something about his talk made me desperately want to start learning. I took my first CodeAcademy course two days later. The second post on my blog is actually a more detailed account, if you’re interested.

JHM: What steps did you take to get started? How long have you been working towards your goal?

LN: I got started with a few courses on CodeAcademy. I did “Make a Website,” “HTML & CSS” and started “Javascript.” Now I’m in the workshop that Jordan is teaching for Ruby on Rails, I go to Meetups and FourAthens events when possible. I can get a lot of information online, but it becomes clearer every day that making friends and connections is just as important. Friends help me when I run into problems outside of language and syntax and with my limited experience, and keep me from giving up when I’m getting really frustrated, as corny as that may sound. Since I have no experience outside of tutorials, I will need connections when I’m ready to start getting professional experience. I’m getting close to the three-month mark, which sounds crazy to me. It feels more like eight months to me, but I’ll talk about that more in a minute.

JHM: What are some of the biggest questions you’ve had in the early stages of learning code?

LN: I’m not going to answer the question that I’m reading, because I think that you might be asking something slightly different. I can do all the online courses I want and know all the syntax and theory for building a program and still not be able to do anything with it. I needed Jordan’s help to understand the programs and tools that developers use. Without him, or someone like him, talking me through my setup process as a developer I wouldn’t know what program to build my code in (Sublime), how to use GitBash, or the point of GitHub. I liken it to reading a DIY home repair book and then stepping into a Home Depot for the first time. You’ll know that you need things there, but where are they? And once you have your hammer, you know the steps that you use it for, but what if no one has ever shown you how to hold the hammer or how to hammer a nail without hitting your own thumb? 

JHM: What are some of the biggest roadblocks/challenges you’ve faced personally (or seen in others), and what did you do about them?

LN: The biggest challenge I have had is my lack of time coupled with my impatience. I am still working almost full-time as a supervisor in a coffee shop, while learning to code. When I started on my own, I was working 30+ hours a week at the store and spending about 10 hours a week on coding. A month and a half later, when the Rails course started, the time I needed to commit to coding and practice went up to close to 30 hours a week, which is very difficult for me to balance. My irregular work schedule keeps me from making a regular schedule for coding practice and class homework. Adding to this, I’m preparing to take on (with a co-organizer) the responsibilities for the women’s development group in Athens while trying to make time for networking opportunities. I think this just turned into a three-minute rant for myself, but thus far, this has had the most impact.

JHM: Can you list some communities or groups where you’ve connected with other coding beginners?

LN: There is another woman in the Rails course that I am taking, and we bonded fairly quickly. We meet outside of class to help each other and plan to go events together to make sure that there is always a friendly face. She is going to be my co-organizer as well, and we hope that this will provide a good opportunity for other women to make those kinds of connections. I have also been to a meeting of Rails Girls Atlanta and met some women through that group. Some of them came up for RGAthens’ latest coding weekend as coaches. That weekend has been the greatest resource for people for me. Some of the coaches from Atlanta and Athens have become sources of help. Also, some of the people that I worked with as a coach aren’t very far behind me, so they’ve turned out to be peers more than mentees. I haven’t been to as many of the Software Dev Meetups as I want, but that is an excellent way to meet people.

The cool thing is that once you’ve met a couple of people, they will introduce you to everyone they know, and your circle starts to expand exponentially. Also, my one experience with the FourAthens Happy Hour is that people WANT to meet new people, so introducing myself to complete strangers and having them introduce themselves has never been less awkward. Twitter has also been a great tool. It has been easier to stay connected with some people I had already met, connect to more code newbies, and stay aware of what’s happening in the tech community. I follow a handful of people that consistently post great articles on tech culture and news. 

JHM: Anything else you want to add?

LN: This is going to sound bizarre, but I’ve been comparing my experiences to AA. I have a mentor that is there when I’m facing a difficult situation, like a sponsor, and people I can turn to when I’m getting frustrated and feel like quitting, like a meeting. One of the most important things I did early on was find people for support and help.

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