Tam Eastley – When you’re learning to code, it’s hard to decide what to do

Rails Girls Berlin “Wall of Fame”

This a series of interviews with women, that have successfully made their way into coding.
Check out their stories, get inspired!


 

Meet Tam who moved to Berlin in 2008. She never studied Computer Science and worked as a freelance writer. After attending her first Rails Girls Berlin workshop in 2013 she joined a project group, attended Rails Girls Summer of Code and is now working as a junior developer for more than a year.

 

I figured I’d go to the workshop, pick up a few programming tips, and get going! This of course didn’t happen, but it opened up a whole new world to me. The idea that I could write stuff on my computer and have it appear in my browser was just incredible.

 

Hi Tam, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your educational background.

I never studied computer science, and it never occurred to me to do it. Back home in Canada I studied Cultural Anthropology with a minor in Greek and Roman Studies. After finishing my degree I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I went travelling for nine months around Europe and South East Asia and then moved to Berlin in the summer of 2008. Education here is a lot cheaper than it is back home, so I decided to get a master’s degree in English Literature at the Freie Universität. After writing my thesis I worked as a freelance journalist and translator.

How did you get to know about Rails Girls Berlin?

I don’t really remember, but for the second half of 2012, it was popping up a lot. I had recently joined twitter, so it probably had something to do with that. Also, a journalist friend was hired to do a podcast episode for Deutsche Welle about the growing women in tech scene in Berlin. She interviewed a number of women in the industry and also discussed the Rails Girls movement. I applied for my first workshop in the winter of 2012 and was turned away due to limited space. I applied again in the new year, and my first workshop was February 2013.

Why did you join the workshop and what was your impression of it afterwards?

I initially joined the workshop because I wanted to improve my website. I had a podcast at the time with a friend, and we just used WordPress for publishing everything. I was constantly playing around with it and trying out different styles. My dream was to build a sound map where we could upload sounds to a map and give people a sort of audio tour of Berlin. I figured I’d go to the workshop, pick up a few programming tips, and get going! This of course didn’t happen, but it opened up a whole new world to me. The idea that I could write stuff on my computer and have it appear in my browser was just incredible.

In a bizarre turn of events, I supervised a Rails Girls Summer of Code team at SoundCloud in 2014 and they started working on a soundmap called SoundDrop! I asked if I could help out, and this past summer I mentored SoundCloud’s 2015 RGSoC team who worked on the app. I am thrilled to see this project come to life all these years later.

Had you any previous programming experiences before?

Very little. I remember writing simple HTML sites when I was a teenager for my favourite bands, but that’s basically it. I always told myself though that I should really learn HTML and CSS because it would improve my job prospects, but I kept putting it off and never touched them until I started with Rails Girls.

How did you continue learning?

After my first workshop, Tobi, one of the coaches, said he wanted to start a project group. Together with Til, he started coaching what soon became the rubycorns. We meet every Tuesday at 7pm at bitcrowd and our numbers fluctuate between 5 and 10. I am 100% certain that I would not be where I am now without the rubycorns. Whenever I feel insecure about my coding skills or need some encouragement, I turn to them and our projects. I really feel that joining a project group is _the most_ helpful thing one can do when learning to code. Not only do you get to hack on something awesome in a safe and experimental space, but you’ll also find a community of friendly and supportive people to help you along your way. It’s these people that will keep you in the game, and keep you coding when things get tough.

What was the biggest obstacle during your learning process?

When you’re learning to code, it’s hard to decide what to do. Sometimes it feels like there’s a new language coming out every week, and to build a website or an application you need to know a little bit of what can feel like a million different things. It’s hard not to get discouraged by this, and it’s hard to focus. But this is also the great thing about software development. There’s always something new to learn, and you’ll never get bored. Plus, the more you learn, the easier it becomes, and one skill will build upon another, and the overall time it will take you to learn a new task will decrease.

When and how did you decide to change your profession?

I think it was an accident and not really a conscious decision. In 2013 I was plodding away with my project group and doing Codecademy tutorials in the evenings when I saw a tweet about the first annual Rails Girls Summer of Code. I immediately knew I wanted to apply, and Susanne, a friend in my project group, asked me to apply with her. We didn’t get in, but the amazing company that agreed to mentor us, Absolventa, agreed to take us on anyway as interns to work on an open source project for them. Once the summer was over, the next logical step was to get an internship, and I started my new career at adjust working on an internal project. A few days short of the one year anniversary of attending my first Rails Girls workshop, they officially took me on as a junior developer. It all sort of snowballed in the most wonderful way. Now I’ve been happily working as a developer at Makerist for over a year.

Where you afraid of that step? If so, how do you think about it in retrospective? Was there a reason to be afraid?

I wasn’t afraid because it seemed like the most reasonable thing to do at the time. I was more terrified of my current career as a freelance writer. I wanted some security, and despite always having said that I wanted to be my own boss and make my own hours, it was exhausting, badly paid, and I was desperate for a change.

What do you like the most about your new profession?

I love that I have the power to create something. Together with my project group I work on rorganize.it, an app that helps organize project groups around the world. It’s so empowering to be able to look at a project I’ve helped create, sit down one weekend and create a new feature for it, and then ship it the following Tuesday. I love that my colleagues can come to me with an idea which I can then turn into reality. It’s such a creative profession, and I think I’m finally getting to the point now where I’m really able to explore that side of it. It’s incredibly exciting.

What is your advice to women who want to learn coding?

Find or create a project group, surround yourself with supportive like-minded people, and keep at it. There’s a lot of horrible people out there who will tell you you can’t do it, but there’s also so many incredibly supportive, kind, helpful, wonderful, inspiring people out there as well who will do everything they can to help you succeed. Find those people and don’t ever let them go.

Your extra question from Malwine: Did you start any of you own workshops or initiatives afterwards? If yes, which?

I started a podcast called Bits of Berlin with my friend Bodo. We interview people who are working on interesting tech projects in Berlin, and I’ve learned all about things like Freifunk, cyborgs. and cryptography.

Together with a fellow rubycorn, Sara, I recently started an organization called Juniors Are Awesome (JAA). Being in the newcomers-to-tech community, we noticed that many people were struggling, often due to lack of support at work, self doubt, and negative experiences. However, it seems that many people don’t want to talk about what they’ve been through for a variety of different reasons. So we decided to start this organization as a way to open up the dialogue among juniors developers and give to them a place to talk about the challenges they’ve faced and how they’ve overcome them. We hope that juniors openly talking to other juniors will help people to improve their work situations and to succeed in the field.

We thank Tam for helping us to inspire more women to get into coding and wish her happy coding. If you want to tell your own story, please get in touch with us.