In this episode, Saron talks to Anna McDougall, Director of Product and Engineering for the tech subsidiary of Europe's largest media publisher, Axel Springer National Media & Tech. Anna grew up in Sydney, Australia, and moved to Germany to pursue a career as an opera singer. At 32 she rediscovered her love for code and technology and made the switch to software engineering. She quickly discovered her mix of software and social skills made her perfect for leadership and technical speaking. Today, Saron and Anna discuss her experience in tech and navigating the career transition from entertainment to code. She is also the author of "You Belong in Tech: How to Go from Zero Programming Knowledge to Hired", and is passionate about getting historically excluded individuals into tech.
[00:00:05] SY: Welcome to the CodeNewbie Podcast where we talk to people on their coding journey in hopes of helping you on yours. I’m your host, Saron, and today we’re talking about going from opera to code with Anna McDougall, Director of Product and Engineering at Axel Springer National Media & Tech.
[00:00:21] AM: I had been part of this tech community on Twitter for almost a year by this point and I had always been engaging with people. I’d been talking to people about what I was learning and what they were learning. And I never really asked for anything in return. So when I did this tweet and I said, “I never do this, but can you please retweet?” I feel like that personal approach that I had taken for so long, this is where it paid off because people suddenly were like, “Yeah, we can support Anna now like she supported us.”-[00:00:48] SY: Anna talks about how she got to where she is today, which includes both her coding and her opera journey after this.
[00:01:05] SY: Thank you so much for being here.
[00:01:06] AM: Thank you so much for having me, Saron. I’m so excited to be here.
[00:01:09] SY: Yeah. I’m so excited to have you. So before we get into your coding journey, I know that you were in a slightly different time zone than the one that I’m in. Where are you currently living?
[00:01:20] AM: I’m living in Leipzig, Germany. So my company, as you mentioned, Axel Springer, the, the big company is like Europe’s biggest media publishing house and they’re based out of Berlin. So I work out of Leipzig mostly remotely. But as you can tell from my accent, I am not German. I’m originally from Australia. So an even more different time zone.
[00:01:39] SY: Very cool. So you initially were exposed to coding when you were very young, when you were eight years old.
[00:01:45] AM: Yeah.
[00:01:45] SY: What first got you interested in code at that age?
[00:01:48] AM: To be honest, I have no idea. I was always into computers. My mom loves to tell this story how one time she was driving me in the car. I was three years old, and I was in the backseat, and I said to her, “Mommy, I want daddy’s computer.” And she was like, “You want daddy’s what?” And I was like, “His computer. I want his computer.” And she was like, “Oh my gosh! What is going on? What is she asking about?” And of course, she eventually worked out like, “Oh, no, she wants his computer.” So yeah, I’ve always been drawn to, yeah, puter, puter. But when I was eight, yeah, we were just in this bookshop, and I don’t know why I saw this book about Create Your Own Websites with HTML or something. This is ’95 by the way. So this is like weird thing to be interested in for a kid. And so I insisted that my dad like buy this instead of Animorphs and the rest is history, I guess. Yeah.
[00:02:43] SY: Very cool. So you then studied software design and development in high school. Tell me more about that. Were you able to pick a specific focus in high school? How did that work?
[00:02:53] AM: No. So as I mentioned, like by the time I was in high school and doing software design and development, this was early 2000s. So the internet was kind of just starting to take off as like a really common thing. iPhones weren’t out yet. This was all kind of still new. So it was a very, let’s say, not particularly well-structured course, and I was very interested in it. I was very good at it. I won a school award for it. But certainly there weren’t a lot of different options for like what you study. And my teacher was also not particularly, well, let’s say, attuned to what was going on. So much so that actually by that point I taught the class the HTML section because like…-[00:03:38] SY: Oh wow!
[00:03:39] AM: Yeah, I actually like just got up and kind of taught everyone because I had mentioned to my teacher that I’d done it before as a kid. And so he offered that to me. But it didn’t work out for me. I didn’t actually continue with it. So like for those who are listening, they might think, “Oh, yeah, she coded as like this little weird eight-year-old and then she did software design and development and then she started her tech career.”-[00:04:01] SY: Right.
[00:04:01] AM: But that’s not really how it happened. I ended up dropping the subject after that year. And part of that was pretty much purely because I was the only girl in the class and who don’t want to say like, I wasn’t discriminated against, I wasn’t like ostracized or made fun of or anything like that. They were lovely. I was very lucky to have very nice classmates, but I also wasn’t part of their group. Do you know what I mean?
[00:04:21] SY: Yeah. Yeah.
[00:04:22] AM: You know, I work a lot nowadays with diversity and inclusion and the inclusion part is something that I think a lot of people miss. It’s not just about being there, it’s also about being included. And that’s something that as a teen girl in a room full of teen boys maybe doesn’t happen not only because we’re not in each other’s social groups, but also because they’re worried about like coming off wrong or something like that. So there was a lot there that kind of just made me feel uncomfortable. I had lots of subjects that I really loved and was good at. And so in the end I decided to drop software design and development at that stage.
[00:04:58] SY: And that’s what’s so interesting because you have this really early start and you’re like teaching HTML and CSS, which is pretty cool. But then when you get to college, you kind of totally switch gears and now you’re studying and majoring media communications. Why media communications? Why the switch?
[00:05:12] AM: Well, I said I had lots of subjects I was good at. I’ve kind of I want to say suffered, but I’ve suffered my whole life from being what I call a Jill of all trades. I’ve always been someone who’s kind of good at lots of different stuff, but never like amazing at any one thing. So for me, I was good at English, I was good at languages. As you can probably tell, I’m quite an extrovert. So I like talking to people and presenting, and I did lots of drama at high school as well. And so for me, it kind of made sense to go into the direction of journalism, media presentation. So I did like radio presenting, radio editing, but also video editing, and yeah, standard kind of traditional journalism with like newspaper articles and that kind of stuff, too. So yeah, it just kind of made sense to that point to combine those things that I was at the time good at and passionate about and pursue that. But yes, didn’t end up going in that direction, long term.
[00:06:09] SY: Yeah. And after the MediaCom’s track, that led you to work in project management, then in digital marketing at Opera Australia, and then you went back to school to get your master’s in opera performance.
[00:06:24] AM: That’s right.
[00:06:25] SY: Tell us about that.
[00:06:28] AM: Yeah, it’s kind of wild. As you said, I was doing digital marketing with Opera Australia, and music was another topic that I had been offered to do at high school and said no, because I had other things I was interested in. So I’d always loved it. I’d always loved singing. I’d always been someone who had a natural voice. And after working at Opera Australia, being around it, I approached one of the sopranos and said, “Would you teach me?” And so she said yes. On my lunch breaks, I’d go up to the rehearsal rooms because the offices in the rehearsal spaces were in the same building and we would just learn to sing. And after a few months, she kind of said to me, “Look, I know you said you just want to do this as a hobby, but if you wanted to do this as a profession, I think you could. And it’s up to you and this is how you would go about it. This is who you need to talk to. This is what you need to work on,” blah, blah, blah. And I said, “Okay, let’s try it.” And so I auditioned for the Masters of Music Program at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. And yeah, somehow I got in.
[00:07:31] SY: Wow! What an exciting life.
[00:07:34] AM: I mean, yeah, that was my first big career change, I would say. I know imposter syndrome is a big topic in the tech community, but definitely with my switch into music, it was huge for me because I was in this master’s program. And normally when you’re in a master’s program, that means that everyone who you are studying with, they’ve been studying this for four years.
[00:07:53] SY: Right. Right.
[00:07:53] AM: You know, they’ve been studying music for four years. They’ve been musicians since they were five sometimes.
[00:07:57] SY: Right.
[00:07:58] AM: You know, these are people who know music back to front, and I had no music theory at all. I could sing well and I could act and I could move on stage. So I had that as like my opera foundation. But musically speaking, I was a complete novice. So I kind of had to go through this process of really grinding these skills and many, many tears were shed basically during the process. But by the end of the two years, I was a lead role in the production that we put on.
[00:08:26] SY: Oh my goodness!
[00:08:28] AM: So I got there, but it took time.
[00:08:30] SY: And it really worked out for you because you were an opera singer for seven years.
[00:08:33] AM: That’s right. Yeah.
[00:08:35] SY: Which is very impressive.
[00:08:37] AM: Thank you. Yeah. When I graduated my masters, I was hired straight away by Opera Australia again. And then at the end of that, I decided to move to Germany to kind of find more career opportunities because there’s a huge classical music scene here in Germany. That’s why I ended up in Germany as an Australian, which is kind of weird. And yeah, and thus begun my career.
[00:08:56] SY: Wow! Even just hearing you talk about it, it seems like you were really into it. You sound excited, reflecting on it now. Why and how did you end up going from opera singer back to code?
[00:09:09] AM: Yeah, it’s interesting. I think there are so many reasons. Let’s talk logistics firstly.
[00:09:15] SY: Sure.
[00:09:15] AM: The logistical consideration was this. I was pregnant. My husband, who is also an Australian opera singer, was working here in Leipzig and I was working in a place called Wiesbaden, which is on the other side of the country. So pregnant woman, it doesn’t really work living on opposite sides to your partner. So there was the first consideration that I knew I would have to move. And then I had to consider, “Okay, with a baby, a newborn baby, can I really continue working evenings and weekends and holidays?” Like you have no holidays as an opera singer because there are shows on, right? So you’ve got to be there. And when there are two of you both doing that job and we don’t have any family here to help out, like literally, how do you look after a baby in that scenario or a toddler even or like a little kid? It’s very difficult. So there was that practical consideration I had to really consider, “Okay, is this something where I really want to continue pursuing it?” But I think if that were all it was, I think I probably could have found a way around it. We would’ve found a way, but there was more, of course. The other thing is that I had worked at Hessen State Theater for three years and I was doing really well, but I noticed you’re kind of doing the same job day in, day out, and this is true of many jobs. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but in most jobs, there’s an opportunity to advance in some way. But with an opera singer, there’s no like senior opera singer, like you’re singing or you’re not singing, and that’s kind of it. You can’t even graduate to conductor. It’s very unusual for a singer to become a conductor or a director or something like that. So it’s not this thing where there was really much room for growth. And I’m a very ambitious person. I’m not shy about that at all. And the other thing is that for me, I knew there was this intellectual side of my brain, this very logical side of my brain that I wasn’t using and that I wasn’t exploring. The only way I was exploring it was like crosswords. And so I was like, “Okay, probably there’s more I can do here.” At this point, I mean, I knew I had done code before. I wrote a blog post ages ago about my transition and what I called it was the floating thought that all my life I had this floating thought of, “Maybe I should go back to programming. Maybe I should do more of that. I’d probably be good at that. I knew a lot of software engineers.” I dated software engineers. I had flings with software engineers. I went to parties and I would meet software engineers and they’d be like, “I’m a software engineer.” And I’d be like, “Oh, I learned HTML when I was a kid.” I’d get so excited, but I actually didn’t have like…-[00:11:50] SY: It’s been the same thing.
[00:11:51] AM: Yeah, but I didn’t have any like actual meat to like back up my excitement.
[00:11:55] SY: Yeah. Yeah.
[00:11:57] AM: So I knew that it was something I wanted to explore for ages, and at the same time thinking about what other jobs could I do. I mean, this was 2019 when I was thinking about most of this. And at that point, you go onto a jobs board, it’s basically all software engineers. You know, they say like it’s turtles all the way down. To me, it was like software engineers all the way down. And so I was like, “Okay, they need programmers here.” My German is good, but at the same time it’s more comfortable for me to work in English. And tech is an area where most companies work in English. So that was also a benefit. I knew I’d had some exposure to it before and I knew it paid well. So it was kind of like, “Okay, this is all good stuff, but I didn’t know if I could code. I’d done some HTML as a kid, but I think I was like 31 at this point. So it had been like almost double a lifetime since I had last studied software design development. So I was like, “Okay, am I actually going to be any good at this?” And thus began the transition phase into tech.
[00:13:17] SY: So when you decided, “Okay, I want to get back into this, I want to revisit this,” how did you decide how to do that? I mean, you had your master’s, you could have gone back to school, get another four-year degree, you could have done a bootcamp, you could have done self-taught. How did you decide what you wanted to do and how you wanted to get there?
[00:13:35] AM: I love the way you asked that because actually I sent an email to the local university here back when I was having these thoughts and I even said, “Hi, I’m curious about doing this computer science degree. I am Australian, so I’m not native. I don’t know if that throws a spanner in the works or like what language level would I need? And also, I’m a mom. I’m a new mom in my early 30s. Would I be welcomed culturally?” This was a huge concern of mine. And they never responded. So I was like, “Okay, well I guess that option’s out.”-[00:14:09] SY: That’s that.
[00:14:10] AM: But I mean, I did look into it, but the thing is, even though university is close to free here, it nevertheless would be very difficult for us to support a newborn baby with no income for four years, essentially, for me. I did look into a bootcamp. There was one three-month one. Again, you had to pay for it, and so I wasn’t sure about that and also whether three months would be sufficient. And there was very high demand for that course, too. So it wasn’t even a guarantee that I would get in. And then the one that I settled on was a one-year course that was certified. Now I don’t know how much you know about German culture, but they are absolutely obsessed with certifications, certificates, stamps, like anything official, like they love. So this one-year course that I found, it was supported by the job agency since I had given up my job and moved to Leipzig, I was officially jobless, and that meant that the job agency could actually sponsor me to do the course. So that meant not only was the course completely free to me, but I would keep getting my jobless benefits. So I’d keep getting my payments and they would pay for my childcare and they would pay for my public transport to the course.
[00:15:17] SY: Wow!
[00:16:37] SY: Yeah.
[00:16:38] AM: Not really going to work out. So he didn’t have work, and that meant we could split the day in half with the baby. And I spent my mornings every morning for 60 days coding The Odin Project. And that kind of got my skills up. It made me realize, yes, I’m supposed to be doing this. I felt like myself again. I felt like I was back in my element. Yeah, it was just a total light bulb moment. And so as I said, when that 60 days was up and I’d done this research with the recruiters and local developers and found out about this course and the education certificate from the job agency, that meant I was able to enroll in that course and begin learning in earnest, I suppose.
[00:17:19] SY: Very cool. So then you got your first software engineering job just from being on Twitter. Tell us about that.
[00:17:28] AM: Yes, I got it from Twitter. It was quite the experience. What I did is while I was doing my course, I found at the time that I’d worked in The Odin Project had actually put me far ahead of the other people in the course itself. So the organization teaching me also then hired me as a class tutor. So I was teaching them and learning at the same time, which was really cool, kind of reminiscent of what I did in high school, weirdly, return.
[00:17:53] SY: Right.
[00:19:15] SY: Right. Right.
[00:19:16] AM: But instead I got this message from someone I had met at a gaming event years ago, and he said, “Hey, I don’t know if you remember me, but we met at this event years ago and we’ve actually got a job as a junior front-end developer. Would you like to apply?” And I freaked out because I was like, “Oh. I’m not ready to apply for anything. Oh my God!” So I had this little freak out. And I was like, “Okay, I have to put together a CV. What do I do? I need to put together a portfolio. What do I do?” So I like whipped up all these like application documents, portfolio, et cetera. I did it in like, I don’t know, a week, two weeks, like really rushed it. And as part of that I was like, “Okay, I want my portfolio to have some sort of like video feature about me because I know I’m good at talking. I know I’m good on camera.” Again, all those old media skills coming back to help. And I had like a few videos from my YouTube channel, but they weren’t really for employers. They were more like just me geeking out. So I was like, “Oh, okay, I guess I’ll record something new. And I recorded almost like a two-minute cover letter, like who am I, do I have working rights in Germany, can I speak German, what is my tech stack, what is my work experience. You know, it was that kind of stuff. And I posted it on Twitter on this portfolio that I’d made last minute. And suddenly, I could not believe it, within 24 hours, I had 12 different people messaging me with either direct offers to talk to the managing directors of these companies or saying like, “I know a job you should apply for at my company here. Tell them I sent you,” blah, blah, blah. And as time went on, I just got more and more and more of them. I had to end up like being quite picky about who I responded to because I just didn’t have enough time to answer everyone.
[00:21:05] SY: Wow!
[00:21:06] AM: So somehow, I went from like thinking I was going to get a job in June to basically being interviewed in February because I had just done this one tweet being like, “Yeah, I’m going to get a job next year,” and it turned into this video tweet, which turned into all these offers, so it just kind of went gangbusters.
[00:21:25] SY: Tell me a little bit more about that video. What do you think it was that made it so popular? Is it being video on a platform that’s made for text? Is it your amazing, bubbly personality? What do you think it was that really got people excited?
[00:21:42] AM: I think it was that it was a video CV and lots of people hadn’t seen that before. I had put kind of like funky music behind it. So maybe that helped. I don’t know. But I guess it was also because I had built up a lot of goodwill, to be honest. I had been part of this tech community on Twitter for almost a year by this point. And I had always been engaging with people. I’d been talking to people about what I was learning and what they were learning. I’d been really wanting to help people wherever I could. I’d been making these videos and I never really asked for anything in return. So when I did this tweet and I said, “I’ll never do this, but can you please retweet?” I feel like that personal approach that I had taken for so long, this is where it paid off. Because people suddenly were like, “Yeah, we can support Anna now. She supported us.” And I think it wasn’t like my plan. I didn’t like sit there and plan it out that way, but I think that’s part of why it got shared so much as well.
[00:22:38] SY: That makes a lot of sense. Yeah. And it feels like it also kind of played to your strengths too, because as you have said, and also like it’s very clear, even though we can’t see you, I can just feel your personality and I can feel your excitement, your enthusiasm, and I can imagine all that coming off very well in video and coming off very well in a video CV. So I feel like you probably played to your strengths of being a performer and being so good on camera.
[00:23:05] AM: Exactly. Yeah. I mean that’s exactly it. It’s something I talk about a lot, but you have to play to your strengths. If you want to go into marketing talk, part of my unique selling point as a developer and as a woman in tech is also the fact that I am very good at communication. I’m good at talking to people. I’m good at presenting ideas. I’m good at using metaphors to explain technical concepts, so being able to demonstrate that in a visual way I feel like was very strong for me and my personality. So it’s obviously not for everyone, but for me and my strengths, it was basically me leaning into that.
[00:23:41] SY: So I want to go back to opera for a second, and I want to talk about your experience as an opera singer and compare that to your experience now or recently with technology. How would you describe the culture between the opera and tech? How do those two compare?
[00:23:58] AM: Oh wow! Apples and oranges. I mean, they’re so different. Obviously in opera, here’s a big one, which is more about the employment situation. In opera, you are fighting for work all the time. This goes for like every opera singer of every level. They’re constantly fighting for work. They’re constantly trying to work out what they can do next. They’re constantly the underdogs. Because simply put, there are way more people wanting to do opera than there are jobs doing opera. It is an extremely competitive environment. You are torn down all the time. You are told everything you are doing wrong in excruciating detail. It is very, very hard on the ego. And that in turn, I feel like has made me very resilient, but it certainly doesn’t make for necessarily the most fun way to get a job when you’re starting out. Once you’re in, it’s lots of fun. You know, obviously costumes, makeup, rehearsal process. There are very, very high standards. They call opera singing the Olympic sport of singing, and it’s so true, like you use your entire body. The standards are incredibly high. You’re expected to be singing in multiple languages as if you’re a native speaker. I cannot kind of emphasize enough how difficult it is as an art form. You also can’t fully relax. It’s not like once you’re in, you’re like, “Oh, a few, I’m in. Job done.” You also have to keep those standards throughout the entire process, but certainly the fun is in the downtime, like when you’re waiting between scenes or you’re at the bar afterwards or the cafe afterwards or between rehearsals, that’s a lot of fun. And of course, hugely group environment, team environment, you can be on stage with upwards of 70 people in some big operas. You need to be able to rely on everyone to do exactly the same thing every single time. And you need to be able to trust everyone and they need to be able to trust you. So there is a high level of reliance on each other and communication with each other in order to make sure that happens. So in comparison to tech, so with tech, the weirdest thing I’ve found is especially after you have a few years under your belt, that you are often in a position of power in an interview situation. The weirdest thing for me is I suppose the fact that I’m needed and that I’m wanted. Because in opera, you constantly feel like you are struggling to just get someone’s attention, let alone get a job. It is so hard. But in tech it’s like, again, especially once you’re really in it, like people really want to hire you. When you go into a job interview, whether you get it or not, right? No matter what your level, people are there like really listening to you. They really want to know what you can do and what you can’t do. There isn’t like this weird aloofness, like in an audition for opera. They’re very aloof. They’re kind of often sitting at a desk that’s a long way away from you. They often don’t even look at you. It’s very much impersonal. And in tech, I really felt like even those places that didn’t take me, I really felt like they wanted to understand what I had to offer and what value I could bring. And just that feeling of being valued is extremely different, I would say.
[00:27:24] SY: Yeah. Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. Coming up next, Anna talks about why and how she went from opera to code after this.
[00:27:57] SY: So you wrote a book called You Belong in Tech: How to Go From Zero Programming Knowledge to Hired. Why did you feel like you had to write a book? I feel like there’s so many blog post stories, pop-ups episodes, so many different pieces of advice out there around this topic. What made you feel like you needed to write a book about it?
[00:28:15] AM: Yeah, it’s a great question. So there were two reasons. The first was exactly what you just said, like there is so much information out there, but it’s also in lots and lots of different locations, right? Like if you want to actually know, okay, you want to learn about the Dunning-Kruger effect, you want to learn about how to create a brand for yourself online, you want to learn about how to do tech blogging, you want to learn about what stages of an interview process there are in tech, like these are all completely different things that you have to then go and look at completely different blog posts or YouTube videos or podcasts or whatever to get all that information. So what I wanted to write was what I needed back when I was getting started, which was, “Can I just see in one place the basics of the entire process?” I just want to know what do I need to learn, how do I create a community, how do I learn about the culture of this thing, will I be accepted in this culture, which is, again, why I called it You Belong in Tech because I think it’s an important message that everyone belongs. Everyone has a place. Everyone should be welcome. And then how you actually do it, how do I actually get a job, what do I need to do with a portfolio webpage, how do I actually apply for tech jobs, what is a technical interview, how does it work. These kinds of things. So my goal was with this book was to create a basic guide from absolutely nothing to like you’ve got the job or you’ve got rejected for the job, for the entire thing. So as I mentioned earlier, it’s divided into three parts. It covers everything that I just mentioned a second ago and heaps, heaps, heaps more. And it’s really like just a rundown. It’s a guidebook and it’s a practical one. So the aim is to give people as many tools as possible, but also the basic pieces of like cultural insight that I’ve gained. For example, what is rubber ducking? What is the rubber duck approach or technique for debugging? This is something that you don’t often come across unless you get really ingrained in tech culture. So it’s something that I wanted to give people like, “Here are some of the in-jokes that you will hear like deploying on a Friday. Here are some of the words you’ll hear about. What is imposter syndrome? How do you deal with it?” I just wanted something that would cover a bit of everything and give people an introduction. And then if they want to then go deeper on any of that stuff, that’s when I think it would be better to then start going into deeper blogs, deeper YouTube videos, all that kind of stuff. And then they can go do that research knowing the basic terminology of like what they’re looking for.
[00:30:52] SY: Got it. Makes sense. So you say that you love putting yourself in your own shoes in 30 years to make decisions, which I think is such a fascinating decision making process, such an interesting way of thinking about it. Tell me a little bit more about what you mean by this and why 30 years.
[00:31:08] AM: Yeah. It’s not specifically 30 years, but it is vaguely, I would say around 30 years. So I always like to think when I’m retiring or like to be a bit more morbid on my deathbed, what would I look back on and how would it make me feel? And that, I kind of use as a guiding staff for the decisions I make, especially the big decisions I make. For example, with the opera to tech switch, I was like, “Okay, would I regret not learning to program? Would I regret not going back to that?” And I knew I would because I’d always wanted to go back to it. I’d always wanted to try it again. And so I thought, “Okay, this is clear. I want to do that.” And of course, it doesn’t always work because sometimes you don’t know how something is going to go. But nevertheless, I like to use it because it gives me distance from the concerns of the moment. When a friend comes to you and asks advice, it’s often very clear to you which choice they should take. Right? Often, it’s like obviously you should do this thing. It’s so obvious to you, but why isn’t it obvious to them? And the reason is because they are taking into consideration every little thing that is happening in their life into this one decision rather than viewing the decision in terms of the bigger scope of things or simply as a purely objective situation. They don’t have distance. In other words, they’re too caught up in the decision to be able to see it clearly. So me distancing myself by going into the future is my way of distancing myself from those decisions and trying to think, “Okay, in the grand scheme of things, is this decision going to support my goals and what I want to achieve in the world and who I feel like I am? Or is it going to be just me, like being comfortable or not wanting to cause a fuss or not wanting to hurt someone’s feelings, let’s say in a case of a breakup or something like that?” So it’s my way of getting distance is the short version.
[00:33:06] SY: Yeah, that makes sense. That makes sense. So you mentioned earlier that you always knew you had this ambitious and logical side that just wasn’t really being used as an opera singer. And I think that a lot of us probably feel, maybe not exactly that, but some feeling of not living up to our own expectations. Life not turning out the way that we expected and us feeling like we haven’t really pushed ourselves. We haven’t reached for the stars, so to speak. And I think that it’s really courageous of you to have that feeling to sit with that and then to do something about it. How did you navigate those feelings? How did you find the courage to say, “There’s this itch I’ve been wanting to scratch, there’s this part of me that doesn’t feel quite all the way fulfilled, I’m going to go for it”? How did you do that?
[00:33:53] AM: Yeah, it’s a good question. I think part of it is, yeah, having that perspective on like who I am and what I want to do. So there’s that aspect of course. But for me, I think it’s also just always been part of my personality that I love a challenge. I love kind of digging in. And as I mentioned earlier, like as a Jill of all trades, I’ve started things many, many, many times. So I’m not scared of like starting new things. I’m not scared of knowing nothing. I’m not scared of the least intelligent person in the room or whatever it is. It’s just a matter of like, “How do I get from there to the end goal?” And in the past, nothing’s really clicked with me enough for that to work. But in this case, it did because I found what I’m supposed to be doing. But for me, it’s just about trying new things, I guess. It’s just about being open to sucking at stuff. I just go in and I just say, “Okay, this is going to suck. This is going to be hard. And then let’s see what happens.” And obviously, I’ve had some situations where that’s been great and that’s worked for me. I’ve had other situations where maybe it wasn’t the best thing to do. And yeah, I’m very lucky that I’m in a country where I was supported to do that in a more official sense as well. So that obviously helps in an environment where let’s say it would’ve cost me a lot more money or time or I wasn’t supported by a partner or by the government, then obviously it would’ve been a lot harder of a decision and it would’ve been harder to take that jump because there would be no safety net. So I have a lot of sympathy for people who do take a long time to make those decisions or do take a long time to get started. It’s not as simple as being like, “Oh, yeah, I’m just going to be brave and do it. No, there are actual practical considerations to be had. But at the same time, for me personally, I guess it was a combination of, “I’m not afraid to suck at something and I have this opportunity to be supported. And if I fail, my whole life won’t come crashing down. I just need to get through it.” That was my kind of thinking, I guess.
[00:36:05] SY: Absolutely. It might suck, it might be hard, but let’s try it anyway. Let’s be open. I like that.
[00:36:10] AM: Yeah.
[00:36:18] SY: Now at the end of every episode, we ask our guests to fill in the blanks of some very important questions. Anna, are you ready to fill in the blanks?
[00:36:24] AM: I’m ready to fill in the blanks.
[00:36:26] SY: Number one, worst advice I’ve ever received is?
[00:36:30] AM: Oh yeah. Okay, so this one’s all over Twitter. I hate it. It’s the hustle culture. Like people saying you have to hustle. Forget about Netflix. No more sleeping in. You should be coding from 8:00 AM to 8:00 PM or else you’ll never become a professional developer. It’s the worst advice you could ever give someone. For me, the time I spend with my family, the time I spend watching terrible TV shows. I’m obsessed with The Bachelor, by the way, it’s like my guilty pleasure. The time I spend doing that, that gives my brain time to switch off. That makes me a better developer. I can focus so much better. And now obviously, I’m a director now, so also it gives me stuff to talk about with people, to network with people about and to talk to people about. Sleeping in is great. If you need sleep, you should be sleeping. It’s one of the best things you can do for your brain. So yeah. Yeah, it’s terrible advice. Hustle culture, hate it. Leave it in the 20th century.
[00:37:23] SY: All right. Number two, best advice I’ve ever received is?
[00:37:27] AM: Get comfortable saying no. I think, again, this has to do with boundaries. This was advice I actually got in my project management job. This was like my first job out of uni. My manager at the time said like, “You’re doing great work, but you are overworking yourself because you’re saying yes to everyone straight away. You’re doing everything that everyone wants all the time.” And it was kind of like a people pleasing thing.
[00:37:51] SY: Yeah.
[00:37:52] AM: And I find a lot of women in particular, I don’t mean to stereotype, but it’s true that a lot of women in particular feel like they have to constantly impress people in order to get ahead. You have to be twice as good to get half as far, that old saying. And for me, I had to get comfortable saying no or saying something like, “I can do that, but I have this other thing so I can only start it next week,” or, “I can’t do that right now because I have this higher priority item right now.” You know, just being really upfront and saying like, “This is where I’m at. This is the situation. So no, I can’t do that right now.” Or, “No, I can’t complete that before tomorrow.” Or, “I don’t know if I can complete that before tomorrow.”-[00:38:32] SY: Yeah.
[00:38:32] AM: And it’s kind of contrary to what people think. People think, “Oh, you need to do everything to impress people.” But weirdly, when you start saying no to people, they start recognizing that your time is valuable and they actually take you more seriously. So I found it actually has the effect of people valuing your time more and not coming to you with every like frivolous request.
[00:38:53] SY: Very cool. Number three, my first coding project was about?
[00:38:58] AM: Yeah. So I mean, if we’re going back to my eight-year-old HTML days…
[00:39:01] SY: Yeah, let’s do it.
[00:39:03] AM: There’s a BBC TV show, a comedy, set in Ireland, and it’s called Father Ted and it’s about like these three terrible Catholic priests. Each of them is like terrible in their own way. And it’s very, very funny. And I was obsessed with this as a kid. I used to watch it with my dad all the time. And back when I learned HTML, Google wasn’t a thing yet. Right? Yahoo was just starting as a search engine. So I created a Father Ted Link page. I would go and find Father Ted pages about this show and then I just created a page that was like full of links to other pages.
[00:39:34] SY: Nice! Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. A little drudgery.
[00:39:37] AM: Yeah, and it had like a guest book and a counter and all the classic ’90’s website stuff.
[00:39:41] SY: Yeah.
[00:39:42] AM: So yeah, that was my first coding project.
[00:39:44] SY: Very cool. Number four, one thing I wish I knew when I first started to code is?
[00:39:50] AM: How much of a team effort it is.
[00:39:52] SY: Oh, interesting.
[00:39:52] AM: It’s not all about individual brilliance. I think so many newbies, they get so caught up in the technical skill and I understand why, because it’s a hard thing to learn. But to me, it’s not just about knowing how to code, it’s also about knowing how to communicate about code. Why did you do things in the way you did it? What were the decisions you made along the way? This stuff is not just useful in a team environment. When you start working as a developer, you are working in a team. You are debugging as a team. You are pair programming. That’s teamwork. You’re doing code reviews. That’s where you’re talking about your code. So it’s useful once you’re in the job, but it’s also extremely useful for things like technical interviews where they might give you a coding challenge and you should be explaining to them what you’re trying to do, because then what are you trying to achieve, how you’re trying to achieve it, what data structure you’re thinking about using and why. And if you do that stuff, if you can communicate well about it, often it doesn’t matter so much whether you actually complete it correctly or not, especially for a junior position. What a lot of people, and I say this is someone who sits in on a lot of interviews, what you are actually looking for as an interviewer is will this person be a good teammate and will they be able to learn. So if you can show that you know what you’re talking about, you’re thinking in the right kind of direction, you can communicate what’s working for you, what’s not working for you, this stuff is extremely useful and it’s so underestimated. I didn’t know it before I started as a developer. And once I started as a junior, I was amazed at how often I was talking to people. I thought I would be like the basement dwelling nerd stereotype, and it’s so not that. It’s so not that. It’s just so important.
[00:41:38] SY: Very cool. Well, thank you again so much for joining us, Anna.
[00:41:42] AM: Thank you. It was a real pleasure. And yeah, I just want to say to everyone out there, keep going. You’re doing great. You can get through it. And yeah, you got this.
[00:41:52] SY: You got this. Love it. You can reach out to us on Twitter at CodeNewbies or send me an email, firstname.lastname@example.org. For more info on the podcast, check out www.codenewbie.org/podcast. Thanks for listening. See you next week.
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