Tag Archives: midterm

From Kitchen Floor to Front End Developer

This time last year Kristen Kagei, sat in her pajamas on her kitchen, in the middle of the day, covered from head to toe in flour. She cried as she attempted to bake cookies to comfort herself from being let go from her job, one that she had started just months earlier. Unsure what she was going to do, Kristen dodged calls from her parents because she knew for certain she didn’t want to return to home to Tokyo, not yet at least. Desperate to find something, Kristen began a 24-hour job hunt, and in the middle of the night she thought to herself “coding.” Fast forward a year later, and Kristen Kagei is currently a junior web developer at National Public Radio (NPR) located in Washington, D.C.

Kagei’s journey into web development is an unconventional one and not the one she set out on when she traveled to the United States for school. Born and raised in Tokyo by her Japanese father and American mother, she left the only home she knew in 2009 when she enrolled in Georgetown University to study linguistics. Upon the completion of her degree, she thought she would travel the world, possibly teach in another country—the possibilities were endless. Infatuated with D.C., she decided to stay here and see what the city had to offer.

In August 2017, Kagei was let go from her job when the market research company she was working for was acquired during a merger. At the research company her desk was positioned next to the web development team and she was often intrigued by their work, citing their multiple monitors of “colorful gibberish” as what sparked her interest at first. Thinking that coding could be her next move, Kagei enrolled in coding school to learn as much as she could about the subject. She describes coding school as “the most grueling process of my life.”

Since Kagei entered coding school with no working knowledge or computer science background, she would look at the coursework and compare it to things in life she was familiar with. She often compared the systemic process of coding to the processes in the restaurant industry, an industry she worked in before. Viewing the customer’s order as the desired webpage action and the kitchen as the back-end frame. Kagei also came to understand coding as a method of solving problems mathematically. When trying to grasp new concepts she would ask herself, “How do people solve problems? How can they do that with technology?”

Upon completion of coding school, Kagei began a web development internship at NPR, working with their podcasts, community of radio station and apps. She worked on projects that made sure their products were accessible. This included developing bypass mechanisms within the app for users with limited or reduced mobility. She accomplished this by creating menu options that allow users to skip ahead, instead of having the entire page read to them.

At the end of her internship, Kagei was brought on to the development team full time as a junior developer, which involves working on emerging platforms. She described her new role as finding ways “to sync the information [content] with the new technology.” One of the platforms she works closely with is their new app, NPR One. NPR One is described as a constantly evolving platform that allows listeners “a whole new way to listen to stories, shows, and podcasts.”

Each day she asks herself, “How do you get people the news they want?” Kagei’s job is to work on NPR One and introduce its content to new platforms like Fire TV and Amazon’s Echo. Platforms like these allow the audience to engage and consume their favorite outlets in ways like never before. Kagei works to ensure that their user experience is the same regardless how it’s accessed: their website, app or an outside interface.

Kagei says working on code that someone else has written is one of the hardest parts of her job. Often she finds herself trying to manipulate long chunks of code without breaking it, but making it do what she wants.

Although she has had great success thus far in her career, Kagei still views herself as a beginner with a lot to learn. For example, she still spends some days learning code or tools of the trade to make sure she is up on all the latest things.

A year into her new career, Kagei is enjoying herself. She appreciates the flexibility she has to work in any industry and values her role in a large media company where she feels she can contribute to “a bigger cause.” She hopes from her story that others learn that they’re capable of anything and there is an “infinite amount of possibilities among these ones and zeros.”

Dr. Todd Shurn Speaks Computer Science

Dr. Todd Shurn is an associate professor in the Computer Science program at Howard University. He earned his Bachelor’s (1983) and Master’s (1984) of science in industrial and operations engineering from the University of Michigan. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in computer science and engineering from Southern Methodist University in 1994. Dr. Shurn’s specialties include interactive applications, computational optimization and engineering and computer science entrepreneurship amongst many others. His research includes games, service oriented programming, agriculture applications, and immersive applications. Dr. Shurn has taught various subjects at the Howard University School of Communications and computer science program, such as video game development, interactive multimedia applications and discrete structures.

Dr. Shurn had many early influences and life-shaping moments. He explained that he is from Benton Harbor, Mich., a predominately black city that was taken over by the state of Michigan. Benton Harbor has a very high crime and unemployment rate. He explained that he did not want to be in a position where he was a part of the negative entities that surrounded him in his community. Thus, he strived to acquire a skill that would allow him to define his own way. That is what led him to computer science. Making sure that he was in a position to define his own way despite his surroundings is what affects his decisions still today. Dr. Shurn also explained that the reason why he came to Howard was to work with black students and be a part of the movement of empowering the community to have better representation in computer science fields, whether it was games, blockchain, interactive media etc.

Dr. Shurn explained the necessary qualities that are important for a developer to have are commitment to finishing the job, resourcefulness and confidence in your skill set. That’s because, when developing original software, there is always the question of rather or not your goal is accomplishable in the first place. Thus, those qualities are important to reach your end goal. In addition, Dr. Shurn mentioned that he appreciated the creative side of software deployment and that it enables opportunities for the black community to create jobs within the community, due to the many areas where software is deployable.

One of Dr. Shurns current projects involves blockchain technology. Merriam-Webster defines a blockchain as “a digital database containing information (such as records of financial transactions) that can be simultaneously used and shared with a large decentralized, publicly-accessible network.” Dr. Shurn mentioned the Black Blockchain Summit, which was recently held at Howard University. The summit’s website states that the purpose of the summit is to “convene Blockchain technology developers, entrepreneurs, and enthusiasts to present Blockchain applicants for solving challenges worldwide. The objective of the summit is to find innovative and lasting solutions that disrupt the unsustainable status quo, bringing lasting prosperity and independence as envisaged by freedom fighters and liberators in the ‘Arusha Declaration.’ ” Dr. Shurn gave much insight about the implications of blockchain.

Dr. Shurn explained that one of the utilities of the blockchain is that it creates an immutable record that parties can agree to. For example, if there is a land transaction, that transaction can be documented in a blockchain in a way that is indisputable. It is unchangeable and its validation is not dependent on any particular government or political organization. This notion, particularly in underdeveloped countries is major because you can, for example, stake out a deed for land or another resource and no one can dispute the transaction because the transaction is documented on computers around the world. Blockchain does not even allow users to pull documented transactions off their own systems. However, if that was to occur, the rest of the users in the network would still have the record. A possible con of blockchain technology is due to the fact that blockchain transactions cannot be changed. So if someone executes a transaction that they are not satisfied with, there is no way to undo it. The only possibility is to do another transaction. Thus, proper procedures and guidelines to ensure the accuracy and integrity of a transaction before entering must be established. When asked if he thought the implication was positive to use blockchain for transactions such as voting and taxes, he agreed and added that another major notion for blockchain deployment is using the technology to track nuclear material (waste and material for weapons). Another aspect that Dr. Shurn mentioned that made blockchain especially notable for undeveloped and African countries was its ability to transfer currency that it is not controlled by any one government or bank. The digital currency bitcoin for example is the same all around the world. Thus, governments cannot repress citizens with measures such as raising the cost of a product or not making something available. Dr. Shurn explained that it was relatively the equivalent of providing the ability to make international purchases and have the products sent to you.

Another project that Dr. Shurn is currently working on is “Smart Cities”, which is a system in which sensors are put in roadways that interact with cars and in waterways that identify pollution. Dr. Shurn explained that a current major emphasis in development is developing code around real-time sense-data, which means that inexpensive sensors can be deployed (in the ground, water systems, the air etc.) and decisions can be made in order to control what is desired to be controlled. For example, low-cost sensors programmed with software that can read water levels and pollution to control gates in a sewer system can be deployed to improve optimal water flow and to ensure that the treatment center is getting the most polluted water first. The Smart Cities concept involves computer science, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering.

Dr. Shurn explained that he is an avid reader and participant in workshops and conferences to keep up with the constantly changing and evolving field of technology. When asked if he came across any problems or challenges in his computer science journey, he explained that he did not consider his challenge to be a problem but an opportunity. The broad domain of information technology (database, cyber security, network optimization, artificial intelligence, human computer interface etc.) makes it somewhat challenging to identify a core expertise. Dr. Shurn made some decisions in terms of the skill set within that space that he wanted to develop, which was network optimization (logistics, optimization, getting data from point a to point b efficiently, etc.).

In closing, a last message from Dr. Shurn for individuals who might be interested in the field of computer science was to reiterate the idea of identifying an area of specialization. In addition, he encouraged showing initiative by participating in competitions, which is very important (rather it is cyber security, robotics, programming, steel bridge design and other design competitions etc.). This is a means to test your creative skills and try to develop it as much as possible to solve problems. Lastly, for communications students, Dr. Shurn advised that learning how to code makes a communications student more employable. In addition, because technology is so heavily involved in the field of journalism, many reporters have to know how to interact with content management systems and conduct their own data analysis. Thus, Dr. Shurn shared with me that a major Journalism outlet views reporting as more of a data analysis type of endeavor, compiling data from various sources. Due to this, he has experienced that particular journalism company often recruit people from the computer science department at Howard, because their idea is they can teach the computer science student the journalism skills on the job. I had a very insightful conversation with Dr. Shurn.


Healthcare and Computer Science

Jessica Jacques

Entering this class, I wasn’t sure what to expect when it came to web development. Prior to this class, my only knowledge of any form of web development was making websites on Weebly. I was unaware that people had careers in constructing the code necessary to complete various projects.

I had the opportunity to speak with Jessica Jacques. She was born in Manhattan and  relocated to the suburbs of New City, N.Y. during her elementary school years. She graduated from the University of Maryland at College Park in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in Neurobiology Physiology. Working with computers was never really an interest of Jessica’s during her younger years. Jessica was a pre-med student and had plans to “go through the medical track.” She recalled that during her time in college there weren’t “too many blacks or Hispanics” in her program. After graduation, Jessica worked as a research student until she would soon find her career in a completely different field.

In February 2018, Jessica was hired as a software developer in the IT department for Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. She was able to incorporate her passion of working in the medical field with her new career as a software developer. The role of a software developer is to “create and maintain computer programs.” Her department is Healthcare IT and her major role is to create new and innovative ways to configure the software to fit the hospital’s needs. Jessica focuses on enhancement, solutioning, and troubleshooting. The hospital uses pre-developed code from their vendor Epic. Epic Systems is a healthcare software company that is privately owned. The hospital uses it to manage their medical records. The company is popular amongst the healthcare community because “hospitals that use its software hold medical records of 64% of patients in the United States and 2.5% of patients worldwide.” The coding language that Jessica primarily uses is MUMPS cache and its mostly utilized in hospitals and banks. She also uses SQL as a healthcare database. The program is used to “get a broader picture of medication adherence, patient demographics, where patients are, and population analysis.” It can inform hospitals about common diseases found in particular areas of a town. By working with the database, Jessica is able to provide the hospital with statistics, analytics, or whatever information the hospital deems as necessary. Her career allows her to continue to be involved in the medical community while keeping up with technology.

I wondered what factors led her to stray from the path of being a medical student to working behind-the-scenes with computers. After graduation, Jessica was a research student and was interested in applying for an open position as a research assistant at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. On resumes, you have to advertise yourself as the most qualified candidate. Jessica wasn’t very proficient in coding or computer software other than an elective computer science class she took in college. She listed that she had a computer background and immediately stood out to her employer. Mount Sinai hired her in 2011 and her career in IT began. Although she never had the intention of working in IT, Jessica enjoys her current career as a software developer and says she hasn’t left since she started. While diving into a new territory, she faced some challenges with some programs. She described Python to be the most difficult and its currently still a struggle at times. That program is her least favorite.

As we move forward into the future, being literate in technology is necessary. “I think definitely now the way technology is going, I think it’s important that people are at least exposed to minor coding and so on,” she said. “It’s just a good skill to have.” The starting salary for most programmers is around $79,000 and, although software developers will see a decline in job growth due to jobs being out-sourced, there is an expected 27 percent  growth in web developers over the next 10 years. She spoke out about the lack of women in the computer science field. College Board found that men outnumbered women by 4:1 on the AP computer science exam. In society, our technology is advancing at a fast pace, and there is a dire need for individuals that can maintain the programs used to perform tasks. At Montefiore, Jessica became part of a more diverse team, and she says that diversity plays a factor in a healthy work environment.

Overall, Jessica provided me with a view into a world I knew nothing about. I’ve always assumed that software and web development were mainly used in the communications field or for engineers who create robots and such. We fail to acknowledge the developers behind the technologies that improve our everyday lives. I also admire her ability to be successful in field that she didn’t expect to work in. Life may not always work the way we expect it to, but it’s up to us to adapt.

The Legal Design Team and Their Endeavors

My main academic interest throughout undergrad has been in law and the legal system. A few weeks ago after brief research, I came across a group called “The Legal Design Team.” They are an interdisciplinary team based at Stanford Law School and working at the intersection of human-centered design, technology and law to build a new generation of legal products and services. They have a track record of developing a few apps designed to help navigate different aspects of the law — from what to do with the deed of your house after a natural disaster to communicating with legal professionals for advice.

The Court Messaging System app has been the most effective. The initiative is designed to improve the number of people who actually appear for their scheduled court dates. The Legal Design Team believe that what is arguably the most widespread form of communication, SMS messaging, tied along with web interfaces used my court employees, can be combined to produce the most effective way to get individuals to attend their court dates. They have already established this system in various judicial districts to help improve attendance rates. It’s an interesting topic to see the connection between a back-end interface and a front-end interface. I plan on doing a small profile of the developers who’ve worked on the project, but mainly discussing what elements they used to create this website to aide these judicial districts.

Two of the key developers from the Legal Design who worked on this project are Briane Cornish and Margaret Hagan. Cornish,  who has facilitated and participated in legal tech and design workshops, was born in San Jose, Calif. and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y. She received her B.A. in English Literature and a Certificate in Ethics, Law and Society from Tufts University and her J.D. from Stanford Law School. Hagan is a lecturer at Stanford and a fellow at Stanford Law’s center on the Legal Profession, working to bring law and design together. Margaret holds a J.D. from Stanford Law, as well as an A.B. from the University of Chicago, an M.A. from Central European University in Budapest, and a Ph.D. from Queen’s University Belfast in International Politics.

The problem the app attempts to address is the alarming rates people with court appointments didn’t show up. The Court Messaging System is designed for two specific users: the court employee and the individual they are trying to reach. The designers first staged a specific scenario to gauge whether or not this tool would be effective. They first asked those who could benefit from the system what did they not like in the previous way courts communicated with people and was there anything they liked. The most important part for the creators was to make the system more efficient and in sync with the already-available technology. This was all in an effort to see if the scenario staged is could potentially be a real scenario. They then developed a system map, which functioned as a draft to show the operations of the would-be system. The idea was to decide which kind of interface would best be suited for civilians and the court employees based on the scenario they created, but this was not the final version of the system. It was a prototype they could show to would-be users of the system and receive feedback.

The main coding at hand was an effort to make the back-end interface, which was being used by the court employee, able to: provide for data entry, give confirmation emails of sent and received items, and customize user information and preferences. In order to develop a back-end interface that can be used with other front-end interfaces, such as mobile phones, coding languages such as AngularJS, jQuery and Bootstrap CSS were used.

The designing of an SMS system that allows for an automatic response and release of information to litigants is a key advancement of the legal future. It makes for a more efficient and effective form of communication that hasn’t since been seen in the legal system. The reminders and calendar events sent straight to an individual’s phone are key. The main goal of the designers was to combine their love for web design along with the legal system and provide a cost-effective solution to an issue facing many legal districts. Using these systems and allowing for continued customization and improvements, the Court Messaging system has already proven its worth. By addressing what were once alarming rates of missed court appointments, this project has an opportunity to be seen as one of the key advancements of the legal system.

Karen Howell Demands her Seat at the Table

You wake up around 8:30 a.m. to start your day. Before you even get out of bed, you’re checking emails from clients to make sure nothing urgent needs to be handled. Once you’ve showered, dressed, and eaten, you’re climbing into the car and heading to the office. As soon as you get settled, you look at the time on your laptop screen. It’s already 10:15 a.m. Now it’s time to make a to-do list of all your responsibilities for the day. You might have to update some code on a site and record a screen capture so your client can understand the changes you’ve made. Your phone vibrates. It’s time to go to a meeting. After that you have two back-to-back conference calls. Between all these meetings, you’re communicating with clients through various project management systems. It’s a good thing work ends at 5 p.m. However, learning doesn’t.  Later on tonight you’ll be attending a class for a new programming language. This is the everyday life of a web developer.

Originally from Los Angeles, Seattle-based web developer Karen Howell was eager to express her love for her profession. She is a freelance web developer, designer, and digital media strategist with a background in sales and management. This isn’t uncommon considering that the top majors developers have degrees in are computer and information sciences, visual and performing arts, and business, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Some of her specialties include WordPress, Squarespace and ConvertKit. She leverages this expertise to work with small businesses to build their online presence. After a decade-long career in sales, she realized she needed more of a challenge. Sales didn’t allow her to be as creative as she would’ve liked to be. With her already-established online community through beauty blogging, she started dabbling with code by customizing her WordPress website templates. After talking to people she already knew in the web development field, she transitioned into web development and design.

When asked what the biggest challenge was a newcomer to the developing world, she said with a laugh, “Definitely JavaScript. I had a pretty good handle on HTML and CSS, but I didn’t feel like I was really getting somewhere until I got over that hump of JavaScript. I almost quit about three times.” Although she now has years under belt, she stressed that the learning never stops. The technology field is constantly evolving, so web developers have the challenge of keeping up with it. This fast-growing field also calls for curious minds who genuinely enjoy figuring out how to solve problems. “As a developer, you have to be willing to look at the bigger picture in order to break problems into smaller steps. In addition, you have to comfortable and confident enough to assert that you can offer your client the solutions they need,” Howell stresses.

The web development field can be especially challenging to navigate when you are working with people who don’t look like you. Karen offered some perspective on the disparities she has seen first-hand. She shared, “A lot of times I am the only female and the only black person in the room. Sometimes when I’m in a room full of men, especially older developers, there’s a bit of an ego problem.” She said she’s even had to endure being talked over during a presentation. Situations like this could easily make someone want to shrink back but Karen has a more positive outlook. “I think it’s important that I continue to show up. Just because we’re not there in high numbers doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be there.” The numbers are less than progressive. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 60 percent of web developers are male. 77.4 percent of developers are white, while African-Americans make up around only 6 percent. When asked why the lack of diversity still exists in 2018, she pointed out the overall education gap. “It’s hard to learn how to get into the industry and who to speak to, especially when all communities don’t have the same resources.”

Despite the statistics, Karen encourages those interested in web development to take full advantage of all the free resources available online. The industry is becoming more accessible to all communities with groups such as Black Girls Code, Women Who Code, MotherCoders, and AllStarCode. Even Google has recognized the importance of inclusion, and now has a tech lab in their New York office for Black Girls Code. It is also important to note that this industry is booming. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the growth rate for developers is 7.4 percent faster than the national average over a 10-year span of employment. As the industry grows, we can only hope that the diversity rates will parallel these rates.


Diana O. Eromosele: Developing Software that Matters for People that Matter

The year was 2016. It was a scary time for journalism. Publications were issuing out layoff after layoff. The infamous “pivot to video” loomed ahead. Diana O. Eromosele was a 26-year-old working at The Root. She had been fairly successful in journalism, having landed a CNN Editorial Fellowship prior to her job at The Root.

At 26, however, dreams are quickly overtaken by a need to survive — and pay rent. It was then that Eromosele decided to make her second career change. She had already taken an unconventional path to journalism. After completing an undergraduate degree in political science from Duke University, she worked full time in communications.

After a change of heart, she began working on a graduate degree in journalism at Georgetown University, which granted her eligibility for a CNN journalism internship. After CNN and The Root, with a couple years of journalism experience under her belt, she began to look for something more stable. She was browsing The New York Times when she noticed publications were laying off some of their best writers and editors.

“If this 20-year veteran is getting laid off because there are no jobs, what does the future look like for me?” she asked herself.

She needed a job that she could pivot into quickly and affordably, that would pay her bills and allow her to use all of her current skills. Software development checked all of those boxes, so she began her journey with a 3-month stint at Dev Bootcamp, a software engineering bootcamp designed for professionals to learn coding and be job-ready at the end of the program. Her class was dominated by people between the ages of 20 and 30, looking to change their careers.

“For me, it was do or die. It wasn’t just a hobby. I knew I wanted to transition. I knew I wanted a higher-paying career that was a bit more stable,” she said.

A few of her colleagues had already begun the transition and urged her to come along. She is now a full stack software developer at Newsela, an instructional content platform that allows users to read content at different levels. With the click of a button, educators can read an article at a second-grade reading level with their students.

Eromosele loves what she does now. “The beauty of software engineering is that whatever field you come from, every industry requires tech, requires applications they can use to make their processes faster or offer better services.”

One of the most common misconceptions, she said, is that you have to be a nerdy white male who plays video games in your mom’s basement to be a software developer, or that she sits at a computer all day staring at ones and zeroes.

While it is a white male-dominated field and being an African-American woman places her into an underrepresented group in web development, she has been able to use it to her benefit. Dev Bootcamp granted her a scholarship to attend because of her minority status.

Eromosele is dedicated to changing stereotypes and creating a space for diverse mindsets. Google’s annual diversity report reveals that about 53 percent of its workforce composition is white, with the closest minority group being Asian people at about 36 percent. Black people comprise merely 2.5 percent of its workforce and Latinx people comprise 3.6 percent.

Eromosele basks in her differences. “I’m an urban chick from New York City. I come from a liberal arts background and I love to code. I like to build things. I don’t think like anyone else,” she said. “I’m going to build things that have a social justice component.” Because of the lack of diversity, she receives emails and calls from companies heavily recruiting people like her.

She has leveraged those differences to create a tool called Categorized Tweets. It is a Rails app, running Ruby on the back end and JavaScript on the front end. The tool separates the tweets of politicians on local and national levels into nine categories, based on issues. She got the idea as a project during her bootcamp, after wanting to create a tool that would allow the average person to have an idea of what is going on in politics.

Tweets were an easy pick to build the tool around because of their brevity and the simple language that politicians have to use on the application. Combining her interest in civics and her liberal arts and journalism backgrounds, she was able to create a tool for people like herself.

Though she received pushback when she initially presented the idea, she continued with it and built the back end the next day. Upon its launch, it was so successful that she decided to launch it as its own entity. Most recently, she added a category of tweets for the polarizing Kavanaugh proceedings after seeing how active everyone was on Twitter, voicing their opinions on the matter.

She wants to continue building useful tools like Categorized Tweets and encouraging not only minority groups, but everyone to learn software development. “The tide is turning,” she said. She predicts that coding will become one of the core subjects taught in schools. She urges minorities to start building things that interest us and learning from people who look like us. With the future looming, it is imperative to have a stake in our narrative and create tools that are reflective of our entire society’s needs.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Web Developer Profile – Jamie Newell

For my midterm, I profiled a coworker’s husband, Jamie Newell, who works for Discovery Communications, or as many know it, The Discovery Channel a.k.a. SHARK WEEK! But Discovery also owns TLC and Animal Planet, among many other popular T.V. channels. Jamie has been a web developer there for 3 years at the headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland. Prior to joining Discovery, Jamie was the Director of Web Development at Amplify Public Affairs in Washington, D.C. for 3 years, and before that, spent around 11 years doing freelance web development in the area. I asked Jamie to tell us about his journey to becoming a full stack developer.
//* What is your current job/title and what do you do for Discovery? 
My title is Web Developer and I primarily develop websites and interactive learning modules. Our website is very interactive by design, which was one of the reasons I chose Discovery! *//
//* What programming language(s) and CMS do you use for work?
Well, of course JavaScript as I just said, but at Discovery I also use HTML, CSS, and PHP languages, and work a lot with Drupal and the React JavaScript library. *//
//* How did you get into web development? What drew you to it? 
I messed around with programming growing up and enjoyed the challenge of solving technical problems, along with the satisfaction that came from creating something. In my early 20s I volunteered to create a website for a recording studio that I was working for at the time and decided then that I would pursue web development as a career. *//
//* Is that still the same reason you enjoy it today? Or has it changed with time? 
Yes, the challenge of solving technical problems is still what I enjoy about web development. It’s true — even someone with years and years of experience still encounters new and tough challenges when programming (more often than you’d think!). The problems are just often more highly technical.  *//
 //* If possible, can you recall some early struggles you had learning languages/programming and offer any advise to us newbies? (Anything you can think of that helped you succeed.)
My biggest struggle in the beginning was not being able to find answers to my questions. At the time, there were very few online resources to go to for help, so I spent a lot of time experimenting. While finding answers, tutorials, and examples is much easier nowadays, I would still advise experimenting. *//
//* If you had to pick, what would you say is of your favorite language and why?
At the moment I am enjoying working with the recent versions (ES6 and later) of JavaScript. There is always something new to learn and to manipulate. *//
//* Can you describe a favorite development project and detail (high level) how you built it? 
While working at Amplify, I designed and developed a collection of highly interactive advocacy tools that I integrated into our clients’ WordPress and Drupal sites in order to engage users and encourage them take action in support of a cause. The tools were built with PHP and JavaScript, and would push and pull data from the APIs of social media platforms, geolocation and mapping platforms, third-party advocacy platforms, and the Sunlight Foundation, to name a few. *//
//* How do you stay up to date on the latest in the programming world? Blogs? Websites? Programs? 
By spending time reviewing projects on GitHub! It is a great resources once you figure out how to navigate and utilize it. *//
//* Any other insights you’d like to share with the class? 
The industry advances very quickly and it can be overwhelming trying to keep up. Many of the shiny new languages and frameworks do not stay popular for very long so stay focused and don’t jump from one hot framework to the next. Experiment a lot with the language you are already learning and build from there. HTML, CSS, and JavaScript (and jQuery) will outlast us all. I’d say to all those learning the ropes to just practice, practice, practice! *//
A huge thanks to Jamie for taking the time to provide us all with some words of wisdom. It was encouraging to hear him say he uses the same languages we are learning now in his daily work. I know I have a long way to go, but this made me feel like I could talk about his work with him — I now have the basic tools/words — and maybe, one day, work alongside him. We are only halfway through the semester and I’m already seeing results!
I can only imagine how difficult it must of been for Jamie to teach himself how to code… And it made me think about how much I have been relying on Google. I know Greg encourages us to search for answers to our problems, and it makes sense since the resources are so readily available, but perhaps going forward I need to experiment and fail a couple times to really learn. I will say that Codecademy gives us the opportunity to experiment a couple times in each lesson, and I have found that by try 3 tries, often, I will finally get it correct. The failure forces me to really scan the code I’ve written looking for errors.
The project Jamie worked on for Amplify really struck me. I work in cause consulting so I was able to really connect some dots and see how a tool like that would have a huge impact for a non-profit or advocacy group. His example got me excited to learn PHP next week and got my brain cogs churning in thinking about a possible final project.
I laughed when Jamie said he uses Github as a resources to stay up to date on all things web development and to learn new techniques and tricks from colleagues. I think I found it funny because Github seems so abstract and mechanical. But in understanding how it works to some extent, I can see how reviewing others projects could be quite helpful. Sounds sort of similar to inspecting webpages to see how certain things were coded.
The insight Jamie left for us is poignant I thought. It was the first or second class when I asked Greg why everyone isn’t using Apple’s programming language, Swift, because like all things Apple, (I’ve read) that it is super user-friendly and clean. I think I even asked if there may be a future where there is one universal, open-source language… but that is for another time. I appreciate how Jamie warns of the “shiny new languages” and says to instead keep practicing the “oldies.” That is just what I plan to do!
I really enjoyed this exercise and hearing from a web developer in the field. I can’t wait to read everyone else’s profiles or project descriptions this week — and see what advice or take-away they provide.

Words of Wisdom: A Q&A with Two Developers

For my web development Q&A, I interviewed two developers: Zach Howe, an iOS developer at Mobolize, a start-up in California and Alan Florendo, a web developer at Asynchrony Labs. Both are interesting people because they took different paths to do similar jobs: Howe forewent university to become a professional developer while Florendo formerly worked as an accountant and attorney before deciding to go into web development. Both offered insights on how to master coding, how to get better at it and how to pursue a career in technology and web development.

Alan Florendo, a lawyer-turned-web developer

How did you get into web development?

ZH: I was interested in computers from a young age. I taught myself to program early on. I was in high school, I wouldn’t do homework, I would go home and code. But I learned how to code.

AF: It’s a weird story. I used to be a lawyer and my husband was in grad school and when he graduated, he moved to St. Louis and I moved with him. I never liked being a lawyer. I decided to move with him and not practice law anymore. I started working out a lot and the guy I worked with went to a coding bootcamp and learned a lot of what you are learning. The purpose was to train you to learn enough to get you a job afterwards. I always tinkered with computers, followed suit and took the career path of this guy. I’d worked as an accountant before I was a lawyer. I did a lot of work with Excel and databases and converting data into large Excel spreadsheets. I had a background both in databases and understanding them in a rudimentary level and programming them in Excel. I had a couple courses in high school that stuck with me pretty well. I had basic principles and when the opportunity came around, it kind of all clicked.

Where do you work now and what do you do exactly for them?

ZH: I work at a startup called Mobolize. I mostly do mobile development now and I got started with iOs. I’ve been in mobile since I started.

AF: I work at a software consulting called Asynchrony Labs. I’m a software consultant. We work at long-term projects. We are contracted out for 3 months to a year to build software projects, Android apps, enterprise systems and consumer-facing systems. I build web apps for them.

What’s your favorite development project you’ve worked on?

ZH: When I worked at a company that built an app that was large with a lot of users, it was awesome to use and that people outside my company used it at my work. That made it exciting. When we built this up, millions of people used it. It was at Fandango, and millions of people used the app. It was awesome to see that I was making something and millions of people would use it. To know that many people would actually see your work, instead of something that would be buried on the app store.

AF: I’ve built some games. There’s a lot of complexity in games.

What projects are you working on now?

ZH: It’s really just one I work on. They’re all kind of interrelated though. So I work on an app with Sprint. It deploys on their app store. They vendor our app, which we build for them. It’s a secure app—whenever you get on public wifi that’s not secure or isn’t Starbucks where people can listen on traffic, we build a software on Apple or Android that would encrypt that data on demand where you wouldn’t have to do anything at all. I worked at Trucar on their mobile application for iOs. It’s all about the same stuff – basically mobile front-end to their website, companion apps to their websites.

AF: I work on a job recruitment site for a financial institution—pretty simple, listing their jobs and what they do, but there are a few additional hoops people have to get through so we program those.

How difficult is it for people to learn how to code?

ZH: I think people can learn it better than they think they can. It often looks intimidating but you learn it bit-by-bit and it takes time and you begin to understand it a lot better. At some point, everything just clicks. The more and more you go and do it, the easier it gets. It just takes time to get good at.

AF: There are a lot of coding bootcamps and there’s concern too many people are learning how to code and not enough. It’s easy to learn how to type something in and make the computer do something. It’s more of a skill to do something in a manageable way. It’s one thing if your little game works well and you don’t understand the code in a way. But if the code is written poorly, it can require rewriting the whole thing to make a simple change. You have to distinguish between writing manageable code and writing something that functions.

What is the best advice for people who want to go into web or mobile development?

ZH: Jump right in—solve the problem you want to solve. From a learning perspective, you can’t jump in all at once and be able to do everything. Don’t expect to build the biggest app ever or Facebook overnight. That’s a massive project. A lot of apps I work on don’t happen overnight. Try to find something you want to build yourself and you have a use for. Those kinds of things are easy to navigate through. If you don’t learn as you go, you will never go off the ground. Find something you are passionate about and stick with it.

AF: Think about why you want to go into web development – is it the design portion of it? The coding portion of it? You can’t learn everything at once – try to learn some sort of depth into the skill first before going into anything else.


Midterm Q and A: Matt Callahan

Matt Callahan is an Art Director at The Washington Post. I sat down with him recently to talk about how he has used his work in the design department to modernize The Post digitally, and use different approaches with big stories. Matt has recently worked on pieces about the Galapagos, the slow death of the electric guitar, and an interactive approach to the National Parks’s 100th anniversary.

Some of the answers have been shortened for both length and clarity.

Would you describe yourself as a coder, art director, or journalist? Or a mix of them all?

I’d describe myself as an art director foremost. My greatest strength I find is conceptualizing ideas and finding the most effective manner of communicating an idea. What I find most exciting about web development is being able to carry out these ideas and concepts in new and different ways. Furthermore, you get to communicate with people with an immediacy that is unlike print. You can reach them on their phone, computer, tablet and do it all instantaneously.

When did you start coding?

My first class in computer programming was in high school in 2007. I took a course in C++ as a misguided attempt to learn Photoshop (the person I knew who was most skilled in Photoshop had just taken that class, so…). That said I didn’t use coding in any real capacity outside of class or personal websites until I worked at The Post — end of 2014.

What’s more important, good storytelling skills or coding skills, when taking on a custom project?

Good storytelling skills are imminently more important. You can always pick up the actual programmatic skills. Understanding how animation works and what function it provides, versus images, versus video versus audio is something you can learn from watching and listening, but it is hard and takes practice. If you understand how it works you can communicate ideas and work with others to help create an overall vision. If you just understand the tools you’re at the mercy of someone else’s idea.

 What’s the most valuable thing you know when it comes to coding?

Sketches and rapid prototyping. Never get too near and dear to your first idea or version. Honestly, don’t spend much time working on it — do a sketch with pencil. Envision it. Think how someone will approach it. Then do a quick wireframe. Then an unstyled HTML doc. Don’t worry about how it actually looks until it works right — because people actually need to read it and use it. Otherwise it’s design for the sake of design — which is neither functional nor useful.

Let’s move on to more specific projects you’ve worked on recently. Which enterprise template were you most proud of?

The Marine story was probably one of the pieces I’m most proud of. It was an opportunity to explore so many different modes of storytelling all within the same story. I was able to be so close to the project because I was brought in just as the story was being rewritten. I had almost-daily meetings with the reporter, John Cox. We talked about what shape the story was taking — and he understood that I cared about telling this story every bit as much as he did. When the reporters know that you care and how much you care, you can have conversations and arguments, discussions, and it’s okay because you’re all playing for the same team.

With the Galapagos template, how long did that take to construct?

The Galapagos story was probably about two months or longer in total planning time. Though not all of that time was spent actively working on it, and it wasn’t my only project (I was designing travel on a weekly basis as well). Most of the time was spent trying to just get our heads around what this story would be. Then some time on how to conceptualize how to tell this story — whether it would be map based or story based, and how to navigate from video to video. Later we ran into the technical limitations of 360 video, which included probably a week of just last minute bug squashing and changing out a video player just a few days before publication.

And finally, were you surprised that the national park “find your park” interactives were so popular?

Certainly — though gratified might be a better word. This one in particular was a very long term project. We started brainstorming ideas for this at the end of 2015 and it didn’t run until summer 2016. We’ve talked about it since and we could and Alexa, Nicole and I don’t remember who came up with the idea of checking in or logging which parks you’ve been to, but we all loved the idea — especially because national park lovers are very devoted and very passionate. This was also great fun because I got to help shape the length of content and what type of content we wanted alongside Nicole, which made it a truly great experience.

Takeaways: Talking to Matt was really helpful. He’s someone I’ve seen in the newsroom, and he always has his computer open with JavaScript. It was really exciting to learn that a lot of the mold-breaking stories The Post has done involve his handiwork. He had a really cool approach to web development as well. Like he mentioned, attention to storytelling and the end goal are paramount, and you can learn the code along the way.