Author Archives: Dana Jennings


I am glad to be getting done with this class because it is the natural progression of things; to move forward we have to move on from where we are. But I will miss the class because I have found the learning to be, all at the same time, fun, fast, frustrating, and fulfilling. The thing I have found most exciting is the fact that I know I will use this class in the future. I cannot say that of my other classes. I really enjoyed both Covering Capitol Hill and Crime Reporting, but the odds of being a journalist in both of those fields is slim (with the exception that many Capitol Hill stories are about corrupt politicians…).

I interviewed Patty Tompkins, who has worked for numerous companies as a contractor, consultant, and developer. She is one of a small number of women who started programming early in the computer era. She started in the late ’70s and has kept up on the cutting edge of the industry all of these years. She now owns her own company that contracts out to other companies. I met her during my trip to New Hampshire, which is where she is based out of. She was really funny and nice, and I could tell that she is someone who is able to get things done, no matter what. I think she summed it up best when she told me that she doesn’t see it as work, but rather an enjoyable hobby.

She has also found a way to be a ski instructor for over 20 years, and it really made me think about how I want to have my career path go. I want to make sure that I don’t get stuck in a rut doing work that I don’t enjoy, when I could be out doing fun things that I could make a career. This course has shown me that I could find that combination with writing and programming. I want to make sure that I keep my head up and look for the latest in technology and stay at the forefront. Once you get stuck in a certain technology, you can stay there for a long time, and I want to be always adapting.

Web Developer Patty Tompkins

Jennings Web Developer Profile

Patty Tompkins, 58

President, Autumn Software, Inc

Applications Developer/Web Developer

Patty Tompkins started at University of Bridgeport, graduated pre-med three schools later, went to intern at a programming company, took a left turn as a ski instructor, and then worked her way up to building her own company that she runs today. Her career has seen the beginnings of client-servers, PCs, and the internet, and she has had to change along with the technology.

Tompkins feels that only certain people can be good programmers, and that it is a state of mind rather than a simple learned skill. “I don’t want to stereotype men or women either. I have met many men who were terrible developers, and I have met many women who were terrible developer,” she said, “I think that it is a matter of how they think; how they solve problems that makes them good.”

Owning a company puts Tompkins in a position where she has to be the PR representative as well as the president. She is always thinking about how she is showcasing herself and her company to possible clients.

Being a woman in a male-dominated profession has not been lost on Tompkins, as she has felt the need to prove herself to men who haven’t seen her work. “They were like, ‘She can’t do that,’ and I think they pre-judged me before they even met me,” she said. She has made significant contributions to the programming community, leading multiple seminars a year to give developers experience in many different languages or skills, teaching at New Hampshire Technical Institute, and helping those developers in her employ to gain new skills that will help them be more marketable.

Tompkins wonders what effect the next generation of developers will have in the programming careers. “They have grown up with the internet always being there, and we have gone from having nothing, to having all of this,” she said, “They might be great or they might not understand.” She thinks that a lot of the things that are hard for someone older will come more naturally to a younger developer, but that they might not have the experience of how it all came to be, and why things are put together the way they are.

Many people go to college with no experience and little idea of what they want to do as a career. Tompkins was in that boat. She was a pre-med student who got disillusioned with the university, took a year off and then took classes out of the University of New Hampshire, Notre Dame, and Saint Anselm’s, ultimately graduating as pre-med but finding an internship programming for a database company.

Once she started programming, she found that the work was more fun than simple work, and she wanted to continue in that career path. “The guy asked me at the end of the six-month internship if I wanted to make some money at it,” she said, “I was like, ‘YES!’ and from then on I’ve been doing this.” After a few years, she started a team for her company that was based out of New Hampshire, and when the company got sold to Lockheed Martin the owners wanted her team to move to Texas. Since no one on the team was willing to do that, they started their own company, Chestnut Hill Software, with Tompkins as their president, and worked on in artificial intelligence for six years, until the company finally folded and she rebooted with her current company, Autumn Software.

Tompkins finds the freedom of having her own company to be its greatest asset. “I’m not becoming a millionaire with my own company,” she said, “But I am able to stay on the cutting edge of technology because I can decide which direction to take the company.” She enjoys the work because it is always changing. “In a company with a lot of employees, you can get bogged down in maintenance, where the development is all done,” she said. It’s easy to find developers in situations where they aren’t doing anything new, just maintaining the status quo, and she doesn’t like that. She prefers to find the projects that test the boundaries and challenge her company to keep up with the current trends of technology.

Finishing the project doesn’t mean the end

I am having a flashbacks of error messages from COBOL. The solution is exactly the same for all of them: google what the error code is or what you want to do. Almost every time, someone has been trying to do what you are doing, and has documented failures and successes. It is  encouraging because you don’t feel alone, but also discouraging because you feel that you are trying to slam through a brick wall with your head; it hurts.

I am looking back at my thoughts from the first classes of the semester, and I am not seeing the kind of results that I had optimistically (naively?) put my sights on. But even with not being quite what I wanted to have at the end of this process, it has taught me that this isn’t the end. And that’s a good thing. I remember stating earlier that I didn’t like some previous projects that have lain dormant after the end of the corresponding semester, and I am confident that I will continue to tinker with this puppy until I get it perfect: that is to say, never! This also brings me to the issue of between midnight tonight and class on Tuesday, I will still be working on it to try and keep improving it, I hope Greg doesn’t mind!

I am learning that I don’t really want to be a “web genius” like Zuckerberg or Wozniak, because I do still want to be the journalist writing for the public, rather than one of them writing behind the scenes and changing our online lifestyles. It is laudable, but I want to be finding the stories that people read and get engrossed in. This by no means changes the fact that I find this class extremely interesting and fulfilling. I am so glad that I can now control my own online presence instead of dictating needs to someone else without knowledge of what is occurring. I find it detestable to not know how something works, and that is what will keep me employed as a journalist, and this class makes me even more valuable to would-be employers.

My final project has gone through several facelifts, and I am pleased with how it is shaping up, but I do not think that it is my vision yet. I do not think that it will be there until I completely work out some issues with the Twitter idea, the way for the blog to situate itself, and other ideas I have. I have come to the concession that I will probably find things I want to change about it every time I look at it.

Technical difficulties come in all sizes. Typically all at once.

To build off of my last post, I still am unclear about what APIs do for our sites and whether I need to be worried about them or not. But I am confident that I can get some good things working by the end of this project. Also I have signed up for next semester’s class and that makes me feel better to know that I will have more time and teaching to get this perfect (or at least better!). I am a little worried about how little I feel that I have actually done and the looming deadline on July 21st (that is the deadline, right?).

I was having major troubles getting things done on my MacBook and decided to take the leap to Snow Leopard to try and make Github work for me and the MAMP work better for me. This has been a less than fun experience. I am in need of some technical assistance that might be beyond my expertise and I am hoping it doesn’t put my laptop on the disabled list. I am going to be away from the computer tonight, but I want to get this fixed ASAP, so when I get home late tonight I want to do my best to fix it.

APIs and general generalisms

Looking at the API tutorial article has again shown me how I can learn a lot in this class and then still need further explanation of something after reading it. I missed last class and I don’t know if we went over this, but I am unclear about what exactly an API is supposed to do for us as end-user journalists, even after reading the paragraph “The fundamental question: What can this API do for me?” several times. I would like to have a nuts and bolts answer to the question, what do I want to get out of the API, and how do I do that?

As far as the project is going, I have been thinking that the best way to go about it is to take the Twenty Twelve theme and fiddle around with the controls that WordPress allows us to do, and see where that puts me. Then I would like to get into a discussion (with myself!) about what I want the site to do that WordPress doesn’t have a specific allowance for, and then work on how to build it myself or whether it is implausible. I am pretty confident that WordPress can do a lot of the things that I want to have on the site because it looks pretty interactive from the controls that I have looked into.

Actual, factual results

I like that we are beginning to see results on our own webpages, because the conceptualization can only get you so far. I feel like we have learned a new foreign language (or several!) in a short period of time, and only now are we starting to talk to anyone in those languages.

One of the greatest skills in a work environment (like mine) with coders and management is the ability to be a liaison between the two. Seriously. Coders talk in these funny languages and everyone else talks in English (or French, or Spanish, etc) and usually neither side takes the initiative to try and understand the other. The ability to understand “code-speak” and translate it into real results is a highly valued commodity, and I think that this class is beginning to make it a reality for us.

In my normal coding experience, we specialize so deeply that once we send the code to production, we simply move onto the next project and rarely see the end result. To be honest, I have never really cared because all of the work I do refers to life insurance accounts and how their algorithms work. It has never really engaged me more than the simplicity of my work, and I have always wanted to get out of that business (hence journalism!), but with this class, it has brought me back to why I started learning about computers in the first place. I am very excited about what we are doing, and have already been envisioning building the website to host several things that can be related to a new business and journalism at the same time.

Jennings Final Project Pitch

I have changed gears for my final project idea. I wanted to do something with video editing, but now I am thinking that is a bit too specialized and more work than I expect to be able to complete in a semester. I still would like to fiddle with it once I get better with the languages, but not for now.

I am looking to build a blog site for sports that can be customized. I think of it as a portfolio of sorts for me, as I ultimately want to write about sports and I think I could customize it to have some cool interactivity on it. I envision adding a section that aggregates tweets that reference the blog or certain sporting events (like the Stanley Cup Finals currently) on a rolling ticker on the right, and then content and allowing for video and pictures to be uploaded directly by me or other admins.

I want to keep the content to small chunks on the main page, with a “read more…” link similar to what WordPress already does, and make it so that the front page always keeps some pictures and videos static in place (not necessarily the same pic or video, but the same place on the page) to ensure that the page is visually appealing on first view.

So that is where I am starting from, with changes to be made at irregular intervals according to the whims of Greg, me, or the gremlins in the code.

PHP is HTML with flair

I am a bit intrigued that PHP is its own language rather than just part of the HTML syntax. I like that the PHP is self-closing and makes it easy to find and, hopefully, easy to work with the code. It makes me chuckle that the PHP language started because a coder wanted to write some code for his own webpage, and it grew into an incredibly popular language used by so many people. It just epitomizes the way that coders live and work.

This week seems to have less concepts to learn and more syntax to learn. I am glad, because I have been feeling like we are constantly building upon what we have already learned, but we usually only did the things we just learned once or twice. Now that we are doing things that allow us to practice using the earlier concepts, I am feeling more confident with the earlier material. I think this is because I learn by repetition and doing something just once or twice isn’t enough to make me confident in the practice.

I’m not sure if this is because it is the summer semester or just the material, but I felt that the first few weeks were a firestorm of new information, and the next few weeks will be figuring out what information was vital and we need to get proficient in.

Still confused, but less so.

The weeks that we have been doing this have shown me that I can be getting better at coding, while constantly being confused about one thing or another. As soon as I get the answer to something I don’t understand, the next thing we do reinforces the idea that I am learning via the “trial by fire” method. (Lots of fire.)

The JavaScript course 3 and the jQuery courses 1 and 2 were actually easier than I had experienced the past two weeks. I am really pleased with how I am progressing through the Codecademy courses and I can see how much I have learned. Even though I still feel like I have jumped into the deep end of the pool, I am excited to put my (limited) experience into practical application and see how I do.

I really want to get into some actual web-based setup, so that we can see tangible results (including massive failures!). I want to attempt to make some things work on my website, realize that they don’t work, try to figure out how to make them work, give up and Google why it’s not working, and then laugh about how simple the mistake was that I made. This is how I learn best (hey, don’t judge me, haha!).

The only part I am confused about for this week was the web hosting and setup of our sites. I got the GoDaddy and installed WordPress on it, but I didn’t do anything that I remembered from class (I wasn’t able to do them in class because my laptop wasn’t able to handle the “newfangled” software, and so I wrote everything down). I’m not sure if we’re going to go over it again in class, or it was a “FYI” kind of thing, or if we will use it later?

I was a bit upset that GoDaddy couldn’t sell me the domain I wanted, and there’s nothing even on the domain, so I wanted to take it over, but alas, I think I will be able to move on from it.

JavaScript works best with a cup of java!

I really think it’s amazing how the languages for computers are so similar, but yet do such different things. It makes it easy to learn a new language (as in learning JavaScript after learning CSS, after learning HTML). It builds upon the last language you learned and makes options more accessible with the more that you learn.

I am worried a bit about getting confused with the syntaxes. I began with COBOL years ago and have become comfortable with it, but it is so similar to JavaScript and HTML that sometimes I find myself writing in one of the languages that I shouldn’t be (as in writing HTML in JavaScript or vice-versa). I am confident that with practice it gets easier, but for the beginner in any language, it is frustrating to constantly be checking to make sure that I am writing in the correct syntax as well as learning the new functions and other options.

Once the learning curve is adjusted for, I found JavaScript to be quite exciting, because it is a language which is intended to “do things” on a web page. I like the abilities of HTML, but JavaScript has the commands that make actions occur, and that type of visual feedback is comforting at a base level for me. It reminds me of the contrast to the frustrations of both HTML and COBOL, where if the code doesn’t work the computer just sits there. That meme that you sent us about the coder’s code working and having no idea why was very amusing and reminded me of many of my colleagues (and if I’m being honest, me!).

I like the slow pace of the Codeacademy, because it is actually teaching a lot of material very quickly, but it makes it seem manageable and not overwhelming. I remember (and STILL have) many of those fat language books you referred to in class (right now I can see three COBOL books, an HTML for Dummies and a SQL book weighing down my bookshelf). The manner I learned COBOL was a trial by fire (and almost fired…) that really made me feel that it is so hard to pick up a language cold, and I wish I had found the codeacademy long ago.