From designer to web developer
We also talk about:
- about her experience transitioning from Designer to Engineer,
- the role her Juno Web Development Bootcamp (formerly HackerYou),
- her new role as the first engineering hire at a startup,
- her drive to learn and level up in public,
- and how she managed to build a large Twitter following.
Annie Liew, is a web developer at a startup called Pastel. She transitioned from Design to Engineering,
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Read the whole episode "From designer to web developer" (Transcript)
Michaela: [00:00:00] Hello and welcome to the software engineering unlocked podcast. I'm your host, Dr. McKayla, and today I have the pleasure to talk to Annie Liew. But before I start, let me tell you about botany.io, who sponsors today's episode. Botany is a virtual assistant and personal coach for engineers. It helps you adopt better habits, improve your skills or automate your workflows. So how does that work, you ask? Well, great question! Botany connects to the tools that your team uses and crunches through the data to find opportunities for you and your team to improve your skills, strengths and collaboration, and improve processes and automate workflows. By gently and smartly nudging or reminding you, you stay on top of open tasks and learning and growth opportunities. In this way, Botany smoothly drives your new skill and habit acquisition. I love how it makes code reviews, and giving and receiving feedback a better experience for the whole team. But I guess it's best you try it out yourself. For that hop over to botany.io to request access to the tool. So that is botany.io, but now back to Annie.
Annie is a designer who transitioned into software development. I want to talk with her about how she got her first engineering job and how she now builds software in this startup as the first engineering hire. So I'm super excited to have Annie here with me. Annie, welcome to the show.
Annie: [00:01:27]Thank you so much so happy to be here.
Michaela: [00:01:30] Yeah. I'm really, really glad that you joined. So Annie, you have been a designer and then one day you wake up and you say, I now want to be an engineer, or how, how did that happen? And what did you do about transitioning from design to engineering?
Annie: [00:01:47] Yeah. So it's a bit of a long winded process. To be honest. I studied multimedia design at university and I worked for several years as a designer in Australia and in England. And after that I decided, okay, I wanted a change of a pace. I really wanted to move to Japan because traveling is something that I really enjoy. And so I actually went from design to being an English teacher for several years and then decided, okay, I'm going to move to Canada and try to get back into design, but because the landscape had changed so much, it was a real struggle, and I didn't know anybody in Toronto as well. So I basically was in this position where I was just like freelancing on the side, like trying to get my design hustle going. But I was also like working a bunch of minimal low-paid jobs to kind of pay the bills at the same time. So I was kind of in this place where I was like, okay, this is not where I want to be. What can I do? How can I level up, how can I - you know - get the skills that I needed? And I looked into something called bootcamps. At the beginning, I looked into a lot of UX boot camps, and then I found a school called Hacker You. They're called Juno now. But at the time, the only- The only boot camp that they offered was a front end web development boot camp. But I really, really liked the community that they built around it. So, you know, I've, I've built websites in the past before, and it wasn't something that I really enjoyed. I really enjoyed the designing part of things, but I was always happy to hand off the coding, you know, part to, the developers. However, I did have to build websites and when I did them, I didn't enjoy it at the time, but this time I thought, okay, let's try again. Let's see if something has changed. And so I started attending small kind of little free - not seminars - but workshops around the Toronto area, and I was like, okay, what is this Flexbox? What is this? And everything had changed, and so I started getting really curious about it and so I remember it was really interesting because I never, never thought that I'd be interested in code. But after doing the workshops, I was like, okay, maybe I can do this. And so I applied for the bootcamp afterwards, got accepted, and as they say, the rest is history.
Michaela: [00:04:10] Oh Okay. Okay. And so you said you were mainly interested by the community. How did you, was it an online community or was it an offline community and how did you get in touch with the community? How have you, you know, like, I imagine that you get access to the community after you joined, but it seems like you have- you knew the community exists even before you joined this particular bootcamp.
Annie: [00:04:33] Yeah, that's a really, really great question. And that was the reason why I joined the community. I always have this idea that it's less about what you do and more about who you do it with. I really, really liked this idea. And so the way like the Hacker You has a really
- or Juno college - has a really strong community because there's a lot of
past alumni who shared about their journey. So I, I started, you know, contacting them and say, and asking them. Hey, how was your experience? Would you meet up for like a coffee so I could talk to you about it. And I, and I went to several events and talked to a lot of them and every single one of them said, this was something that I don't regret. I a hundred percent recommend it. This was pre COVID. So the bootcamp was an in-person boot camp as well. So it was nine weeks of 10 to six. And then on top of that, you have your assignments and classes. So it was just like a full-time in-person bootcamp.
Michaela: [00:05:30] Okay, so it's nine weeks. So you make a commitment for nine weeks. You leave everything other aside, right. And you just go and do your work there and I don't know. Do you have homework then? Or is that, do you do everything in class and then you go home and then that's it the next day you do it again?
Annie: [00:05:48] Yeah, well, it started- like off pretty, you know, easy where it was just like the 10 to six, but there's so much work. And the way the bootcamp works is that you're, you're constantly building projects. So there was no way that you would have been able to do everything just in the 10 to six. There's been like, it's, it's such a fun little, like, it's almost like a summer camp experience because we all had access to the school basically. And there'll be nights when it's like midnight and there's like all my classmates around me and we're all just working hard and we have like pizza coming and it's just a really fun- And that's what I mean about community as well as it has a really fun atmosphere where you're doing something difficult. You're trying to transition into this new career. But they're doing their best to, you know, support you along the way and make it fun. And, yeah, so it was, I don't think I actually went to the grocery store for about eight weeks because, and I'm really lucky to have a partner who could do that, but it was just so intense, like the work that - you know - that I was doing, the purchase that I was doing and what I was learning, I just really didn't have time. And a lot of people just didn't really have time to do other things.
Michaela: [00:06:58] And so do you still have contact with a few of those people that you met there?
Annie: [00:07:02] Yes. Yes I do. Yeah. And there's still a very strong alumni network as well. There's like a Slack alumni network. I Still do some mentoring and I go back and help, like, you know, current students and I've spoken on some panels with them as well for people trying to get their first jobs. So yeah, I'm still an active part of the community. And that's something I like about the school is that a lot of us alumni are still very active.
Michaela: [00:07:31] That's really nice. And do you think it helped you also get your first job or how did you make that transition now from, okay, you're doing this nine weeks and then what happens then?
Annie: [00:07:41] Yeah, definitely. It helped me to get a good job because the school has a lot of industry contacts. And one of the things that they did was that we had an industry day where they invited a lot of potential employers to an industry day where we all kind of showcased our work. It kind of almost works like a blind date. If you think about it, where we all the students were sitting around tables and we had like a, a minute to give our pitch and to talk about ourselves and to share a project that we're really proud of. And then the bell rings and then they kind of like go to the next student.
Michaela: [00:08:17] So it's like speed dating.
Annie: [00:08:20] Yeah, it was completely like speed dating, but for employers versus, you know, and like potential employees. So it was really, it was like very stressful because all of us were trying to like practice our speeches and our pitches and, you know, like try to finalize the work that we wanted to show. But as a result of that industry day, I got invited to two interviews with some companies. And I ended up getting an offer, which I accepted a week later. So I was actually the first person from my cohort to accept a job.
Michaela: [00:08:52] Yeah. Very cool. Very cool. And so how long was that ago?
Annie: [00:08:57] That was, I graduated in summer of 2019 and I started in August. Yep.
Michaela: [00:09:03] And then you worked at that company as a software engineer - Front-end software engineer?
Annie: [00:09:09] Yes. So I was hired as a front end developer and I was there for a year and a year and a quarter.
Michaela: [00:09:17] How was that experience, was that good? Did you feel like now your deepening your, your knowledge or did you learn a lot?
Annie: [00:09:26] So the, the first job I had as a software developer basically was a, I worked for an agency. And what that gave me was a lot of structure around things that you don't learn in bootcamp. So I got introduced to like agile methodology and stand ups and the process of, you know, tickets and JIRA and a lot of soft skills that not soft skills, but a lot of processes, internal company processes that don't - That you can't really learn in a bootcamp, but you have to learn them on the job. I also got exposure to one of the very big things was I got exposure to a lot of big, large code bases, some with legacy code, and I also had to build architect sites from like the ground-up. So, and I worked with so many different websites. It was a, they are a WordPress, VIP partner. So all our sites were done in WordPress, but I was doing like the architecture and, you know, like HTML or CSS and some JQuery as well. But because I had exposure to so many different types of websites and processes, it was a really big, yeah - it was a really big boost I would say, and definitely helped me to get my next job for sure.
Michaela: [00:10:38] And so is the next job that you done accepted? Is that the one that you're currently at, is that the startup that you're working for?
Annie: [00:10:44] That's correct. I've been there about four months.
Michaela: [00:10:48] And so how does that happen? Like why did you change and why, why did you go from an agency to a startup? What was, what was the interest for you?
Michaela: [00:12:58] And so now you are working in that startup, and what are your responsibilities?
Michaela: [00:14:10] Yeah, I think that sounds like really good next step for you and the ability that you can grow in that role so much, how old is the startup and you know, how does that work? A startup I imagine, right. Like extremely stressful and a lot of pressure of we have to ship. So how does that work in a startup that there's so much time for you to learn things and how, you know. Is everything actually running smoothly. And so it just doesn't need - There's not so much pressure or how does it work?
Annie: [00:14:43] Yeah, that's a great question. So this startup actually started in March, 2017 and I got hired and started in October, October last year, October, 2020. So they have been going strong for just over four, almost four years, by that point that they hired me and they were basically profitable at that point. So they decided to, you know, start growing and becoming like an actual company. So just to give you a bit of context, there's actually just three people in the startup before I got hired, it was the CTO and the CEO and the product guy. So a designer, an engineer, and operations. So as they were growing, they realized they needed more help. And that's kind of what I got hired for, because we're profitable at the moment. And we have a, our model of, we have a SAS product that is a subscription model. We know that the money is coming in all the time. So while there is a bit of pressure to ship features and I definitely feel it, I think a lot of the pressure is more the internal pressure that I feel to kind of validate that I belong here by shipping features, but I've had a lot of discussions with my, my CTO. And basically he said, one of the things that is important is that I'm able to learn, to like, basically start slow to speed up later. So, they understand the importance of learning and growing as a junior developer or as someone very early on in their career. And they're thinking the long-term game it's, you know, I can like probably like try and just like really hustle and ship a lot of features, but would they be like really good features? Well, I actually learned the things I need to learn so that I can do it a lot better. You know, like later on for the company, I think it's like for everyone involved is really important that we have like a strong foundation built first so that we are able to then, you know, become a lot better and faster later on,
Michaela: [00:16:49] I really like this long-term vision and long-term thinking it's something that I think is quite rare. Even for large corporation that could definitely, you know, invest into their employees. There's often, you know, a very shortsighted action that I, that I feel like you have to provide value and you have to provide it now. But there are companies that I, that I hear really provide value also to the employees, like for example, Automatic I know from several peoples that work there, they have also, for example, I think a really great place to work because, when employees are in trouble, I always heard like they are there, right? Like they give you paid time off or like some time to breathe and to think and so on. And so I really liked that mindset as well, that, you know, they are getting someone on the team and they're investing in the person and I think. I don't know about you, but probably it also makes you very loyal to that, to that company.
Annie: [00:17:46] Yeah! I really like what you said about investment, because that was basically in some of my discussions with my CTO. They are definitely investing in me. So when I got hired, they knew that I had the skills coming in from, as a designer and you know, they didn't, they wanted someone who could basically have ownership of the front end and not have to worry about, Oh, can you move this pixel here?Can you move that? That's all taken care of. I'm very, very pedantic about those details and like the UX and UI of things. They don't have to worry about that at all. So he says it's a lot easier to teach someone to code than to actually care about the product and how it looks and how it feels. So, yeah, totally resonated with everything that you said there.
Michaela: [00:18:29] Yeah. And I think this is a really good perspective as well. Right? So you want actually the right people that are caring. And I think also people that feel cared for, and at least from what you're telling me here, it feels like you, you feel cared for which I think translates back. Right. So it's, it's like giving and taking. So one thing that I'm super interested in as well is how do you experience developing software in a startup, like, what are the processes there? Is it very flexible? Do you have like mentorship? Do you have like code reviews? What about testing? You know, like what you're telling me, it's like two people, right? So it's the CTO and you, so how do you do that? How much, how much formality is there and, and, and who takes over what.
Annie: [00:19:18] Something that we discussed at the very beginning is that with processes, we don't have processes for processes sake. So that's because as a startup, we want to basically move fast and iterate on things and be able to push things out. We basically follow a, although not formally, we follow an agile process where we have stand-ups, we do the sprints and we do retroactives at the end of the week to see what has gone well, what could be improved and then kind of reiterate on that. In terms of the, the product development process. We basically have roadmap meetings, roadmap plannings, every one or two months, basically when we kind of look at the roadmap that we're building and seeing what features need to be built. And the way we decide what features need to be built is based on kind of two ideas. The first idea is A) is it something that has been requested? Is it something that customers have requested or is it something that we have some data around how customers are using our app? Is that something that they're doing often enough? And then the second part of that is what is the potential impact of this feature?
So for example, like maybe customers like request something and they requested it a few times, but is that going to have a big impact on the company or on like the usability of the, like, will it help us to get more potential clients or, you know, so kind of those two things are two things that we think about when we, when we plan out our roadmap and look at all the features that we have available and we didn't do like a kind of one. One, usually a one month plan where we work on, we prioritize the features that we're going to work on, and then we just basically go for it. In terms of mentorship, I have a very close relationship, I would say with my CTO slash manager, we do our one-on-ones. We talk very, very openly about things like imposter syndrome, how we want to shape the, the culture of the company, what kind of company that they want to be. One of the things that really impressed me from the beginning was that they said, okay, and this was during the interview process. They said, we are very keen on building a great company culture. The kind of the kind of company that people want to come and stay, but we don't want to have like high turnover. We want our people to feel valued and we want them to have autonomy over their workflow and the things that they do. And we want them to have an impact, but you can definitely, definitely make an impact in our startup. So the type of management style that they have here is very, very suitable for me because I tend to get bored easily, but in a startup, because I'm doing so many different things and have such a, I guess like impact or influence or ownership over the product it's- I feel very invested in the job and in the company.
Michaela: [00:22:08] When, when I actually started out of university, I thought like, what kind of company do I want to work for? And I was very impressed by these large corporations, but I think it was more the names than everything else. Right. And now over the time, I think my view shifted quite a bit because at a startup you can maybe make the whole, the whole half of the product, right. Or maybe the whole product. There's definitely something there, which also right now fascinates me more like having more impact, having more, you know, like. Yeah, contributing more and also maybe different hats. That's something that I like a lot. Actually, when I was working at Microsoft, I wasn't in a very specific position. Right. It was in the tool engineering teams. And so there, there was a lot of research, a lot of innovation, and that also had like a lot of hats, a lot of flexibility and a lot of impact, to be honest. But then when I wanted to transition, I looked at other teams and said, Oh, I don't know. This is a little bit too restrictive for me. How is that for you? Do you have like several hats while, do you have like probably designer hat, then you have maybe the developer hat, but other, other hats, I don't know, responsibilities that you take over in the company?
Annie: [00:23:24] I wouldn't say that I have like responsibilities per se, but I would say that I have the flexibility to kind of shape the role that I'm in and look into things that I'm interested in. So for example, one of the things that I did, probably in the first couple of months is that I joined calls with our clients, with our CEO, so that I could like talk to the client specifically and ask them questions about how they're using the product, how they like it. And so that gave me a lot of. I guess empathy for our users and how they're using the product. And actually this product is something that I use myself. So I, it's like, I am the user at the same time as something that I'm building for myself. So it's interesting, but I also. Yeah. Like, because it's such a small company, we do a lot of different things. For example, I don't have to do this. My core responsibility is to build features and like be in engineering. But one of the things that I also do is that. I, you know, sometimes I'll reach out to people. I think that we get a benefit from, from using Pastel. And so that's something that I do as well. It's very, very, very, very flexible. It's, I've actually never worked in a company that has been so flexible before, like that, like any hierarchy, like structure is like quite flat. So everyone's just going responsible for everything we have. Like, we communicate very openly and discuss things and it's very much a process where it's very collaborative. We all work together. And we're very intentional about the things that we do that would move the company or move the product forward. So, and also just going back to what you said about mentorship, and one of the things that attracted me, I guess, about large companies was the idea of mentorship. And because like, traditionally we feel like large companies have very formal processes in place for mentoring younger developers. So it was something that I was very, very worried about when I first, when I was talking to the CTO, because there is no formal process. It's a bit, it's a bit chaotic in many ways. So I asked him about that and we have code reviews. So I think maybe you're familiar with the idea that code reviews are in many ways, a form of mentorship anyway, because you know, you're getting your code review, You're getting a lot of feedback. He's very good at the feedback as well. He just, he doesn't tell me, just do this. He tells me the why. And yeah, it's like very, very detailed and it's, it's really helpful. But the other thing that we do very consistently, at least twice a week, if not more, is that we pair on a very regular basis. And that's been an immense source of mentorship as well.
Michaela: [00:26:04] Yeah, I think to be honest in a company like that's that small, right? And you have like the CTO as the main engineering person, you have access to the CTO, right? I mean, it means that it's the person that shaped the whole product that knows the architecture. So which means in another company, there will be several layers that you have maybe to go through, or people are really busy maybe also, and here, because there is an investment from the CTO also in you. Right. It's in both interests to be like pairing and exchanging ideas and learning. And so, yeah, I can imagine that this is actually a really good spot to be in and have like. Almost like, like a really personal mentorship, which you know, there are mentorship programs in larger organizations, but I don't think that people are that invested right in their mentees than probably your CTO is in you. Right? Because there is like higher stakes to make it work for that person. Right.
So. One thing that I wanted to touch base, which is a little bit out of context, but you mentioned it at the beginning. And I think it's interesting for a lot of people that are looking for jobs maybe that are coming out of bootcamps would come, you know, coming or transitioning or coming out of college or whatnot. Right. And getting a foot into that??, you said, well, actually my Twitter was super helpful. So. How, how, how are you using your Twitter or how are you building your following? What's the value that you get out of Twitter and how can you, you know, how can others maybe also benefit from that and let it help them also a little bit in their, in their job search.
Annie: [00:27:46] It's interesting because I was never really a social media person. I had to open our, my Twitter account because my bootcamp made us open the account. And I remember in the very early days, I had no idea how to use Twitter. I was like, okay, I have to tweet something. What do I talk about? How do I connect with people? It was a very confusing kind of landscape for me because it was just a platform that I wasn't familiar with. And I hadn't used it before. When it started to change was when I, when the pandemic started and I'd been in my job for awhile and I was very comfortable with what I was doing, but I really wanted to level up. So I joined a hundred days of code and I started sharing my process on, on Twitter. And that was when I started to meet more people, build a community and basically, that was how, like my following grow. I, I guess it was very unexpected. I wasn't expecting it. And it was very intimidating at the beginning, but in terms of why our boot camp made us open a Twitter account, it was because they knew the value of having a online, personal brand. And your Twitter account or any other, like your LinkedIn and stuff, your website is all part of that overarching idea of your personal brand. And it's really helpful because a lot of companies do checks on you to see what kind of person you are, outside of just the code that you do. And people hire other people for soft skills, not just, you know, like they can like, do like a for-loop and stuff, but it's actually like what, what you bring to the company and Twitter is a way to not only kind of show the projects that you're working on, which I was doing. I was like doing a lot of projects and just showing them, or freely on Twitter and on codepen as well. But it's also a chance for them to see who you are as a person. And I think that is the value of like Twitter or some of the other um, social sharing, social networks as well. Yeah.
Michaela: [00:29:46] Okay, cool. So Annie, thank you so much for taking the time talking with me. Maybe I want to use the last few minutes to just catch up with things that you wanted to say to my listeners, or, you know, like something that you want to leave people with, I think especially people that are coming from bootcamps would be interested in, people that are transitioning. Right? What is your advice for them? What do you think? What should they, yeah. What, how do you think that they could make themselves successful? Or set them up for success.
Annie: [00:30:21] One of the things that I heard over and over again was that your network is so important and I really, it was something I really, really, felt when I started to get into coding because when I came to Toronto and I didn't have a network, it was extremely difficult for me to get into design. I didn't know anybody. And once I tapped into a network and a community, everything became so much easier. So, there is a lot of value in reaching out to people, because at the end of the day, you do the things that you do, you don't build features and products and code by yourself. You build it in a team with other people and having mentorship, and a mentor can also be just someone like who's a little bit ahead of you. If you can look on your current journey and give you advice on what you can do and just talk to them and kind of encourage you as well, having that kind of connection with someone who is already in the field or with a larger community, I think has a really large impact on, I would say a developer's career. Something that I heard from somebody I remember this very clearly was that he said that the most successful developers, are people who have a large network to draw from, and also they're not kind of tied into one specific like technology or something. They're always kind of learning. They're always open to hearing about like more things and they have like a large depth or breadth of knowledge and they're successful because they can draw from all these different areas. And I think that's, that was like something that had always stuck with me. So. Yeah, like reaching, reach out to people, get involved in community, but also actually do work. The only reason that I was able to probably attract the attention of my current employer was because I was like really, really putting into putting in the hours of all the projects I was doing. And I think it shows as well, like the kind of work that I was sharing. Like I had spent hours and hours on them and just kind of refining my skills, getting better and improving each time. So. Those are things that come across when you're sharing. And it's very easy for people, I guess, like as new devs to become very discouraged when, you know, you're looking for your first job and you get a lot of rejections and it's like, it's really hard. It's like soul crushing, but you kind of have to understand that rejection is not - it's not personal. It might be just that the company didn't, it's not the right fit at the right time, or there's a lot of different factors and it's not like really personal and you kind of, kind of to help you to get over that hump is just to do work that you want to be hired for, or you want other people to see. And I think being able to show and share your work and show that you're passionate about what you do and that you're willing to learn is very, is very important.
Michaela: [00:33:24] And so was that work that you showed and that you did, was that outside of work or were you able to showcase the work that you did for work?
Annie: [00:33:34] It was outside of work and that was because the work that I was doing at work belongs to the company and I was comfortable with the job that I was doing there. So I wanted to learn other skills beyond the work that I was doing at work. And actually this brings out a really good point because something that, that maybe like you kind of feel, feel this as well, like tech is one of those industries where there's almost an expectation to work outside your job. And I just want to clarify and say like, that is not expected, and you definitely shouldn't do it because like a doctor doesn't, you know, practice like operations in like his or her free time. And like, I don't like the feeling that I have to, you know, work outside of my job, but it was something that I wanted to do personally to kind of level up, because I wasn't getting the kind of skills I needed at my current job at that time. So that was the reason why I did it.
Michaela: [00:34:35] I also think like building up those profiles, that we just touched on before, right. Is something that's really hard if you're employed, because most of the time the code doesn't belong to you. Right? And it's not something that you can easily share and say, Oh, look at my github. There's my code that I write for my employer. That's confidential. Right? So if you want to fill your GitHub with nice stuff, it somehow, it means that you are doing stuff outside of work, but yeah, we have to be really realistic that a lot of people are not, you know, they don't have the position to do that because they have like a full-time job they have people to care for. Right? So, yeah, I think I understand. And I understand that this probably has a big impact, but it's also. I also, as you said, I'm not advocating at all right? That people should, should need to do it, but it's, it's definitely interesting to, to hear that, that's the way how you grow your following, how you grow your skills, right? So there is a trade-off that you have to make and, you know, if you're in a position to do it, then that's great. And I think it's also not good to forbid people to do something outside. Right? I mean, sometimes it's what you have to do. That's how it is, right?
Annie: [00:35:48] And in lieu of that as well. I also think that's why having a network is so important because that's how you can get your next job without having to do all the extra work of learning outside of your full time job.
Michaela: [00:36:00] Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Yeah. Okay. Annie, thank you so much for taking the time and talking with me today, it was really a pleasure to have you. I wish you all the best for your job and that you learn a lot and I will continue following you on Twitter and see what you're doing. And I'm really excited for you. Thank you so much for being on my show.
Annie: [00:36:20] Thank you for having me.
Michaela: [00:36:20] Yeah, it was my pleasure. Okay, bye!
Annie: [00:36:23] Bye.
Michaela: [00:36:26] I hope you enjoyed another episode of the Software Engineering Unlocked podcast. Don't forget to subscribe and I'll talk to you again in two weeks. Bye.
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