I am often asked the question, “So how did you get into this?”
Whether I’m at a meetup or having coffee with a friend or sitting across the table from a relative I haven’t seen in an age, people often look at me with a quizzical expression when I explain what I do.
- I’m a senior software engineer.
- I’m an MBA candidate.
- I’m a wife.
- I’m the mother of two small children.
… and all of the other things that go along with managing multiple (sometimes conflicting) roles.
The truth is that I feel incredibly fortunate to have stumbled into a career that continues to fascinate me and capture my interest for hours on end. And while I did stumble into it, it has required a great deal of passion and interest to get good at it. When you love what you do, work becomes play, even when the problems are increasingly challenging.
So here we go. Here’s where it all began.
A Brief History
Back before I knew what the word programming meant, or that development was a technical term, my sister and I were a couple of awkward (okay, I was awkward) high school girls known for our straight As and enthusiasm for all things academic. The Future Business Leaders of America club wanted to enter a new competition called Desktop Publishing, but they didn’t have anyone with the skills to enter, so they asked us to A) join the club and B) enter the competition. We agreed… and we won. It was challenging and fun and a total surprise, but somehow, I never made the connection that this was a job that people did in the real world.
Around the same time, I along with the rest of my high school class completed competency tests in an attempt to help us find our ideal careers. My results came back with tons of results with the word “engineer” in them. When I took these results to my high school counselors, no one could tell me what these jobs were or if they were viable options for me. I took their advice and decided that an English degree was probably more appropriate.
I passed the AP English exam with flying colors and set off on that path, but something still didn’t sit right. I ended up spending two years in a ministry and leadership training program. The most important part of that story is I met and fell in love with Chris there. I found my life partner, and he is my best friend and a true partner. I also received incredible leadership training that still serves me well and decided on a path in business instead of journalism or academia.
Learning the Hard (and Fast) Way
Following my training program, I moved back home and began working in graphic design. I was exposed to hardware issues (and how to fix them), software issues (and how to fix them), customer requirements (and missed requirements), and all of the ins and outs of running a successful small business.
Later, in 2003 when Chris and I were engaged to be married and both living in Colorado, he was just beginning to work for himself. After a while he asked me if I might be interested in helping with some new website work that he didn’t have time for, so I bought a 3-inch book on HTML and CSS and started to teach myself in between working my day job and wedding planning. We were fortunate to have clients that were as curious about technology as we were. In our minds the sky was the limit, and lucky for us, our clients were patient enough to wait on us to find solutions to their requests.
Intro to PHP
I was able to build on those basic skills and eventually started working in development as part of my full time job in 2005. I began learning more about servers and working with PHP frameworks later in 2005. Over the next three to four years, I worked on my Bachelor’s degree and kept fine-tuning my programming skills with many, many side projects (Creative Perch, The Whole Life, and a ton of client work), all while working my full-time day job as a marketing director and helping Chris lead the technical volunteer team at New Life.
It was hard. Really, really hard. But I was fueled by passion and curiosity. I also had a supportive husband and no little ones at home. What better way to spend my time than to build something I believed in?
Nashville + Parenthood Changes Everything
When we moved to Nashville in January 2010, I brought my freelance clients with me and was fortunate enough to gain some new ones. I finished my Bachelor’s that year, which was a big accomplishment, but my world really changed in a huge way that year with the birth of Mackenzie. I spent her entire first year balancing new motherhood and late night feedings and diaper changes with client work, just trying to keep all the plates spinning.
Eventually I had to admit that things just weren’t working. I was always exhausted and wasn’t able to be the energetic, attentive mom to Mackenzie that I wanted to be. Instead, I felt like I was always failing either her or Chris or my clients.
Just before Mackenzie’s first birthday, I decided to go back to work full time and was fortunate enough to meet the wonderful people at Leading Edge Communications in Franklin. The work was demanding but fulfilling, and my co-workers were wonderful. I worked on more projects than I can count, and I was proud of what I was able to accomplish there. I also had better boundaries around work and home life than I had had in years.
I started to build relationships in town and I quickly realized two things: toddlers hate long commutes and there was so much more to learn. Eventually, I decided it was time to make a change.
Web App Dev, Meet Software
When I interviewed with the Lead Developer at my current company, I walked away absolutely sure I failed the interview miserably. Technical interviews are hard, but I was shocked at how little I knew about the differences between the types of web applications I was used to building and holistic software development. I was disappointed because I had been exposed to something new that I didn’t know that I didn’t know, and I desperately wanted to learn.
Luckily for me, my willingness to admit that I didn’t know made the difference for the hiring team. I was thrilled and terrified, and I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you I spent the first two weeks in my new role questioning all of my life choices. But five years later, I am so glad I made the change.
Where It Goes, Nobody Knows
I’ve spent the last few years mastering “next gen” infrastructure at AWS, developing microservices, and fine-tuning my skills with other programming languages. I also decided to tackle my MBA (ETA August 2018). I am just as passionate about leadership as I’ve always been, and in the last three years I’ve had the opportunity to help build a healthy development team that ships great work. It isn’t always easy, but it is always worth it. Technology changes constantly, but investing into people is work that lasts.
That’s My Story. What’s Yours?
If you’ve read this far, thank you. Thank you for being interested in my story. I hope some nugget of it was helpful or encouraging to you. Are you willing to share yours with me? Leave a note in the comments, reach out on Twitter, or send me a message via the contact form. I would love to connect.
Great story Dee. You are an inspiration!
March 23rd, 2018 at 5:40 pm
Thank you, Pat! You inspire me every day.