Web Development Midterm – Coder Profile, Sarah Howe

For this assignment, I spoke with one of the lead web developers at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (the Chamber), Sarah Howe. Sarah has a wealth of knowledge, not only as relates to web development, but also how the tech industry is growing, changing, and constantly redefining the skills necessary to be successful. Given that Sarah and I spoke for over an hour, I cannot fit the full extent of our conversation into 800 words, so I will discuss a few of the highlights.

First, I was intrigued to discover that Sarah fell into the web development world post-college and taught herself to code using Codecademy. In college, Sarah studied history with minors in art history, Asian studies, and classical studies. She then moved to D.C. to work as an event coordinator, first for the Korean Economic Institute, and then at the Chamber.

While working on events at the Chamber, Sarah had her first introduction to the coding world when she decided to create digital event pamphlets as opposed to print pamphlets to minimize paper waste. She quickly realized she enjoyed the work associated with digital tools – streamlining efforts, developing creative solutions, and covering diverse topic areas, to name a few. She realized that her future was not in events, and began to look for web production jobs within the Chamber.

A few months later, she switched teams and began working on content for Chamber websites, which continues to be her job today. Sarah oversees the web development team, making sure all of the “trains run on time” and working with other developers to create content for numerous branches within the Chamber.

I found Sarah’s career trajectory interesting given the complexities of web development. I thought a career in web development or coding would be similar to a career in finance as relates to the necessary training – if you do not major in the field in college and get a strong background, you’ll be too far behind once you graduate to break into the industry. I brought this up with Sarah and she explained that the difference with coding, as opposed to finance, is that the tech world is constantly changing, growing, and adapting in ways that make it both difficult to keep up with, but also easy to break into.

Sarah told me about an employee who was recently let go from the Chamber because his job became obsolete due to the changing tech environment. He had studied coding in college and worked as a server admin who hand-coded all of the Chamber websites (for reference, the Chamber has numerous incorporated affiliates, such as the Institute for Legal Reform and the Global Intellectual Property Center; each one of these organization has their own individual website. There are also branches within the Chamber, such as the Center for Education and Workforce or the Intellectual Property Center, which have pages on the larger Chamber site, so there are numerous complex sites to maintain). His job was to make sure all the sites were running efficiently by updating the cache, fixing minor bugs, etc. This work, according to Sarah, is now becoming unessential as websites are developing “smart code” that can handle this type of maintenance internally.

For example, in the past the individual who was laid off would set up rules for each page – for example updating the text on a page, telling the site to purge the cache as the old content is no longer up to date, and then telling the system to take a new snapshot of the page for the cache. Now, however, websites with “smart code” will automatically detect when the text on a page is updated and then execute step two and three automatically without needing an individual to update the code. Sarah pointed out that there is still obviously the ability for a person to code these rules by hand, or update the code if the site misses a step, but the technological improvements make a full time position unnecessary.

I asked Sarah what she thought this “smart code” meant for the future of coding, would it cut out jobs or create more? She felt that these improvements would cut out jobs for those who were unable to grow or adapt, but for those that were willing to continually learn and strengthen their skills, there would always be jobs available in the tech industry. She raised that the code is only as smart as the coder that created it and there would always be a need for coders to create the next level of “smart code.” I thought this was both a motivational insight, as well as a slightly daunting realization. To be an effective coder or web designer requires constant learning and change, as something that is cutting edge now will likely be obsolete in a few years.

I jokingly mentioned this to Sarah, and she agreed it can be daunting, but said that she thought taking our course, web development for media, is exactly the right first step to get into the coding world, as the basics won’t change. She analogized it to cooking – there are always going to be new ways to cook, and if you love cooking you enjoy learning new recipes, preparation tactics, etc. But minimally, even if you’re not a 5-star chef, you should have a basic understanding or the cooking process, the pieces that go into making a meal, and then, even if you don’t use all of your background knowledge, you have an understanding and appreciation for what went into the dish.

I really liked this analogy and I think it applies perfectly to what we have been doing in class. Although it has been a painful growing process, we have spent the past month trying to understand the intricate details involved in web development so we have a basic understanding of the process. Even if we are not going to use each minutiae coding detail in every website or blog we create, knowing the pieces that go into the larger system is important.

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