As a young, single mother of twins, I embarked on my software engineering journey really because I considered myself to be “good with computers,” and because I was searching for a way to provide for my children. I set out at the local community college to study Computer Information Systems, and Programming more specifically, thinking this could be a good career move for my family’s sake.
On a different day, I might characterize my long journey as one I made alone, because in some respects, I truly did. No one advised me to graduate early from high school, that was my decision. It only worked because I had worked so very hard to be a good student throughout my three years in high school. With two children, I needed a way to support them and I decided getting on to college was paramount. No one but me, felt the weight of full time school and full time entry level work that first year. I pushed myself to stretch, early and often to move ahead and provide. I transferred beyond community college. I made a pitstop in an Associates of Arts. I continued my education over many years, even when I think some people might have given up. I pushed myself for more responsibility, more difficult work, more challenges, and only I could make that journey for myself.
But today, and more often as I get older, I remember the people who have made my success more possible in the opportunities they provided. I would never have given up, but without those helping hands the road would have been much longer, much lonelier, and I wouldn’t be where I am today.
I was only a few classes into college when a professor recommended I apply for my first job in software engineering, and honestly I might not have applied if she wasn’t so insistent that I should make the attempt. Quite frankly, I was surprised she recommended me since I had a habit of falling asleep in her class. It was an early morning class, of a long day of classes for me, and I had two babies at home, and at night I worked as a waitress. For at least half of the year, I also worked part time in a tuxedo shop measuring men for tuxes and processing orders. I was lucky to live at home at the time and my mother was especially a big help for me. Ultimately though, there was never enough time for sleep, and that early morning class on IBM mainframe programming spent an awful lot of time on programming basics that I had already mastered. Long hours working and caring for two bright children and boredom in the classroom, well sleep was nearly inevitable.
Still I was a top student, and I enjoyed the assignments and working in the lab. I worked hard and my answers on tests were often used as class examples. Maybe I could do this as a career, right then, as my professor suggested but I was skeptical.
I was surprised when I was called for an interview, and I felt I did well under the scrutiny of the many people I interviewed with. I later learned there was some concern whether I would make a good hire, being so young, and a parent, and only having achieving the title of “waitress.” I am forever grateful I got the opportunity I did to become a part of the working family processing collections data at my first software engineering position.
I was hired as a student programmer, but within the first few months was promoted to programmer/analyst. I was a part of the Y2K project for our company and was ever encouraged forward by my first great manager, of which I have been so fortunate to have had many. Working there was truly like being part of a family. I’ve not had a position since that has really measured up to that feeling of belonging, but I can say my current role is very close.
Today, I remember the director of the software department that was a big part of that first opportunity. He’s lost his battle with cancer, like so many I’ve known in the last few years. I want to acknowledge, without that first step, I would not be where I am today.
All along the way, there were people willing to let me take a shot at many a wonderful opportunity, who encouraged me to stretch myself, and many of whom are still a strong part of my life today. I made lifelong friends who still always believe in me, always have my back, and I feel so fortunate to have had all of these opportunities, to have worked with so many bright and brilliant people, and to count myself among them.
It took me 17 years to finish my degree. By the time I was done, I had learned so much more in the professional world than I could ever learn in a classroom. I had moved from student programmer, to programmer analyst, to software engineer to Scrum Master, consultant and coach. I had seen the difference for myself and the teams I worked on, between big upfront planning and nimble agile development. Putting people first made sense. Taking incremental risks was safer, smarter and delivered software sooner.
If I look at my career closely, that all comes down to my first opportunity. I was given the chance to take risks, to prove theories, and to explore a better way forward. My first months, I pair-programmed with two developers who are still some of my best friends. Working together, two sets of eyes were better than one. They taught me what they knew, and (I hope) I offered a fresh analytical perspective. I’ve always been a problem solver, but my career in software engineering gave me a license to do it nearly anywhere it was needed.
The problems I tackle today may be bigger, and more complex, and perhaps involve more people, but I believe that at my foundation, are lessons learned at that first job before Agile was an official methodology.
There were later roles that gained me experience in Extreme Programming and Test Driven Development, so early in the Agile movement that I can barely believe I got such a fantastic opportunity to do things that today I am teaching others how to do. There are so many managers, mentors and coworkers that I want to thank.
Ultimately it comes down to this, though. Take chances and encourage young talent. It goes such a long way to building careers than you can ever imagine, and I am living proof. No doubt, one of many, as I have taken these lessons and encouraged other young and bright programmers on in their fledgling careers and hoped that they will someday arrive at this same place I am today: in gratitude to all those who took chances on and encouraged me.