AJ Dyrbye

Web Developer and Digital Humanist

Tag: learning

Volunteering with Ladies Learning Code

This last Saturday was a particularly good one: I did something to shift from being simply a learner, to assisting others’ learning experience. That something was volunteering with my local chapter of Ladies Learning Code, a digital literacy initiative that provides affordable, beginner-friendly sessions in technology skills.

I first heard about them in late 2013, when I’d just defended my Masters and was looking for a community and a way to keep developing my own hard-won knowledge base. I took their session on PhotoShop and Illustrator, and was impressed by not only the quality of the workshop, but the enthusiasm and collegiality of the instructor and volunteer mentors.

Not long after, I fell down a year-long WordPress rabbit hole and forgot about it for a while. It was no bad thing from a personal and professional standpoint – being brought on to the Contemporary Ukraine Research Forum as web developer was one of the highlights of 2014 and prompted me to take a course in theme development – but it stalled my participation in the local community.

Now, in 2015, that’s something I’ve resolved to rectify. It’s partly that working (not to mention job hunting) from home is isolating and getting out to participate in the larger community is one of the best ways to break that isolation. But, more importantly, I’ve reached the point where I’m comfortable in my own skills, and it’s time for me to give back by helping others with their learning.

I chose the first session of the year, LLC Edmonton’s HTML and CSS workshop, to take the plunge as a mentor. Despite the overnight dump of snow, about 30 learners braved the roads to attend, plus several other mentors.

Once the instructor started, the time flew.

I initially had a table of three, which became a table of four about an hour in. For the first half hour or so, the uncertainty was palpable. The subject matter was foreign and intimidating to the learners. It was amazing watching my table as they made simple changes to their HTML document, and the baffling cipher in front of them began to transform into a process they could understand and control. One woman even laughed delightedly when she refreshed the browser and saw her changes take effect. With one exception, the help they needed was primarily to break down a given task a bit further until it clicked for them, or to catch them up when the instruction occasionally proceeded faster than their new understanding.

That exception was the latecomer to the session. To get her caught up, I ended up quietly working one on one with her for about half the day; I am tremendously grateful to the mentors at the adjacent tables who jumped in and out to help the other three when I wasn’t able to. She started out flustered, apologetic and baffled, but, over the next few hours, she not only gained confidence but caught up and started adding her own customizations to her page while she waited for the instructor to move on. Though she started behind everyone else, she left excited by what she’d accomplished and was looking forward to teaching her daughter what she’d learned.

By the end of the day, it was amazing how far everyone had come. They’d gone from feeling over their heads to building a simple, well-styled one-page website, no mean feat for a beginner. The last hour was the most intense from a mentoring standpoint, however – by that point in the day, the learners were commenting that were feeling overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information they’d been absorbing. They were generally upbeat and satisfied with their progress, but keeping up with the remaining tasks had become much more challenging.

All said and done, I’m tremendously pleased that I could help out. Having a busy table proved to be no trouble for me; I ended up energized by it. It helped that the Ladies Learning Code group as a whole was tremendously open, welcoming and supportive. Though most other mentors were seasoned, I was by no means the only first-timer. Furthermore, they were from a range of backgrounds – some work in web development, some are interested in web development for personal reasons, and at least one is currently learning web development and programming as part of a career change.

The common thread was love of the subject and desire to instill it in others, and I’m left glad that I took the plunge to share my own.

The Circuitous Path

It’s been a long, meandering path to where I now stand. Finding a career job has been difficult, and despite my wishes to the contrary, is still a work in progress.

And yet, though the journey has been challenging and the way unclear, I am still glad for the experience I’ve accrued, and the knowledge I’ve gained along the way.

There’s the bookstore job, which I took on while I was finishing up the last few courses of my undergraduate degree. It made it possible for me to build my independence, and introduced me to people I never would have met otherwise. It also taught me how much I value working with my mind, that I thrive best with new challenges on the horizon, and how hard it is, financially and psychologically, to live on near-minimum wage.

There’s the utility company, where I worked in a variety of administrative positions on a term contract basis. It taught me how to function as part of a team, to be flexible and agile, that the planning and time management I relied on so heavily as an undergraduate is one of my greatest assets. I realized in this time how much I enjoy working with computer systems, and that I wanted to know not only the how but also the why of the systems I relied on daily. My time here made it clear to me that, as I was shuffled internally from one position to another according to need and long-term leaves, that I have a deep need to feel I belong and can make a lasting impact, but that the types of opportunities available to a BA in the utility business were not where I could see myself long-term. Here, I had the living wage, but still could not find the job satisfaction I craved.

And so, between the instability of the economy, the looming end of my contract with the utility company, and the limited opportunities available to me, I returned to higher education. In the final years of my undergraduate degree, the university began offering a Masters in Humanities Computing, and that knowledge had stuck in my mind like burr in the intervening years. It taught me that, by building up my computer skills, I could find a niche for my humanities background in the wider world. I learned basic programming, web markup and stylesheets, how servers work, how to integrate and manage a dataset stored in a database. I learned how to figure things out on the fly, to cope with demands that require specialized knowledge without a clear path to it. I learned to be the person mediating between the people with the ideas and the people who could build it. I learned new strategies for managing stress, and just how far a little communication can go to alleviate a hard situation. It reminded me once again how much I value working in a team environment, and showed me that, as amazing as I am in situations requiring self-motivation, I am even better when I have common goals and a support network.

Post-Masters has been challenging.

I’m fortunate, in that I’ve been able to continue with some paid project work I started as a graduate student. I’m even more fortunate that I was able to pick up a part-time web development contract, which spun out into a new web development contract. It’s reinforced how much I enjoy working with websites and building up the infrastructure that makes others’ work possible. It led me to deepen my knowledge of the WordPress CMS, which I am currently working with most.

However, that permanent long-term job has remained elusive.

It’s maddening, sending resume after resume out into the void and getting only a small number of responses in return. It’s heartbreaking to interview, to fall in love with a team and a role, only to have it go to someone else. It’s frustrating to watch the months accrue, to see no stability in sight, to have my capacity for long-term planning limited.

All I need to do is keep going forward. Send out one more resume. Tweak my web portfolio. Take that WordPress course. Go to that networking event. Spend more time with Photoshop and Illustrator. Fight back the voice that says it’s not enough, I’m not enough.

Do my best to make my own luck.

It will happen eventually. Not many people are permitted the smooth path from education to career. I have no regrets for how I got here, no matter how challenging it is not to see where I am going.

The time in between is the hard part, and what is life but a series of in-betweens?

…And we’re live!

This is a Big Deal moment for me.

You, gracious stranger, are reading the very first post I have ever written from a blog hosted on a domain I own, on a WordPress install I created, with a theme I have customized.

This is a work in progress. I’m still straightening out the kinks, polishing up the CSS and working out the inevitable bugs.

Nevertheless, I’m pretty proud of it.

So, why a domain? Why WordPress? Why now?

The long and short of it is, I have been working on websites for four years now, and I find that I rather like it. I’ve built up a portfolio, one I sincerely hope will continue to grow.

In particular, I have worked on two WordPress sites as web developer in the last year. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know the plugin environment, and the flexibility the child themes permit.

I wanted a portfolio site that would let me run with my strengths, and give me one more way to show that I know my stuff. This site is that opportunity.

As for the why now, the great, and terrifying, thing about being web developer on those two sites is that it’s been an exercise in learning what I still have to learn. I’ve had to pick up everything from security to SEO to customizing with child themes. It’s a different beast indeed from hand-coding a site and trying to work out what

I realized pretty quickly that I needed a way to plug the knowledge gaps I didn’t know about. I also realized that the sheer volume of information out there was getting in the way. While I have no regrets whatsoever for taking a Humanities Computing degree, I’m by no means a computer scientist. I’m still learning what many of the components look like and how they fit together, never mind what the abbreviations are, or which ones are programmer in-jokes.

And so, when Skillcrush announced a WordPress developer course, I decided to take the leap. It’s steadily filling in those gaps, including the ones I needed to build this site.

It’s an exciting time. I love having new things to dig into, and it’s thrilling to be able to showcase new skills so directly.

Thanks for reading, and for letting me share my enthusiasm with you.

© 2014 - 2016 AJ Dyrbye

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