How a Concussion Prepared Me for Software Development Interviews

August 31, 2018

Hello! What is your name, and what do you do?
My name is Jessica Del Grande, and I’m a front-end developer. Technically: I build PaaS web and mobile applications on a Salesforce platform. What I tell my family: I build software for banks. I’m also working on a style guide and pattern library and developing a proprietary CSS framework.

What were you doing before you knew how to code? How long ago was this?
I started coding in high school but never thought that it was something I could actually do as a job, so I went through two other careers before landing back in software. The first time around I studied advertising and spent over a decade working in ad agencies; the second time I studied Traditional Chinese Medicine and nutrition science and ran my own wellness business for a couple of years. It’s now been about a year and a half since I finished an intensive developer bootcamp and got my first full-time job as a developer.

What motivated you to get serious about software development?
I was burnt out on advertising and entrepreneurship and was trying to figure out my next move. All the years that I was working in totally unrelated industries I had never stopped building WordPress sites for friends, and one day I was reading about web development as a high-growth career and the light bulb just turned on.

What did your friends or family think about you starting to learn to code?
My partner was and is super supportive of me doing something that I love, especially since he has known me through the despair of advertising and the stress of entrepreneurship.

My family just kinda took a deep breath and were like, okay, so this is another new career?

What was your first step in learning software development?
In my teens I bought a couple of O’Reilly books and spent a lot of time in my room trying to figure things out.

How did you get your first job offers and/or clients?
I was incredibly fortunate to get multiple job offers and be hired straight out of a networking event hosted by the school I attended.

Did you think that you were going to get paid more as software developer? What if you would be paid less, would you still have learned to code?
I had a pretty realistic expectation of what I would be making as a developer — I’m thorough in my research so I had read through a lot of salary surveys and pay grade charts before deciding to dive into coding full-time. It’s nice to earn a fair salary, but it’s also nice to spend my days solving puzzles and building cool things. After spending too much time working in jobs where I was well-paid but miserable, I feel so lucky that I don’t have to choose between making a decent living and being happy. I think that I would have taken the same path even if the pay wasn’t as good. When they say that if you find something you love you’ll never work a day in your life, it doesn’t mean that it’s not still work, it just means that it’s not a chore — and you really can’t put a price on that.

What are the biggest challenges you ran into while learning to code?
When I was first learning to code, I struggled with the most basic stuff. I remember calling a friend not because I couldn’t understand the language, but because I didn’t know where I was supposed to type the code. It felt like a lot of assumptions were made, even though the books I had were clear and thorough and meant for beginners. My definition of beginner is that the person has only just learned that software and websites are made from code, which is basically where I was. I needed things explained like you would explain them to a toddler, and I’m grateful that I found the part of the early internet that was filled with IRC and BBS, and that there were enough kind people to answer my rudimentary questions.

More recently, I suffered a concussion while I was in the middle of web development bootcamp. Treatment for concussion is to avoid screens and intense mental work, which didn’t really jive with being introduced to JavaScript and React for the first time. I learned a lot of code from books, printouts of websites, and sketching things out on paper, which was tough at the time but probably the best possible preparation for a whiteboard interview.

What resources helped you the most?
The school I attended for bootcamp, HackerYou, has without a doubt been the most wonderful resource. I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am today without their generous staff and community. Also, I swear by the O’Reilly books, and am consistently impressed that they manage to stay relevant when the dev world seems to move so fast.

Jeffrey Zeldman was one of the first people I discovered on the internet, and I remember being blown away by everything on his site — it felt like he was single-handedly growing the internet and at the same time teaching me about what the internet even was. I’m really happy that he’s still sharing about so many things, especially via the A Book Apart series and An Event Apart.

Other than that, the garbage fire that is Twitter has actually been so important for introducing me to developers from around the world. Connecting with people outside of my bubble has shown me just how many different things people can do with what is essentially the same skill.

What are your goals for the future?
Some of my work in advertising was in design and research, so I’ve been taking part-time courses in UX design because it feels like a natural progression to me. And I can’t talk about UX without talking about accessibility, because you’re doing a lousy job if you’re designing a user experience that can’t be experienced by all users. Bringing development, UX, and accessibility together is the key to open and inclusive technology, and I’m excited to develop my expertise further in all three areas.

I never imagined that I would live my whole life in one country, so my personal goal is a five-year plan to get the heck out of here (“here” being Canada, and also my comfort zone). There are a handful of places on my shortlist, and that list is only possible because code is a common language. Tech really does make the world both bigger and smaller.

What’s your advice for people learning to code?
All of this is learnable. Every. Single. Thing. Just break things down into the smallest pieces you can, ask the most basic questions you can, and have the answers explained in as many different ways as you can. Nobody is born knowing how to code; even the most incredible devs had to learn this stuff in exactly the same way that you are.

Take care of yourself: sitting at a computer for hours is incredibly hard on your body. Get up and stretch, stay hydrated, and get enough sleep. Eat lots of vegetables. Have hobbies that don’t involve code.

Also, break stuff early and often*. Breaking my company’s production org in my first week on the job taught me that nothing can’t be fixed (thank goodness for version control), that people are forgiving (and that they enjoy a great story), and that a big mistake is the fastest way to get well acquainted with the dev team.

*I don’t recommend that you deliberately set out to break things. But know that you will break stuff, and it will be okay.

Where can we learn more about you?
My website is at jessicadelgrande.com. I write short stuff on Twitter at @jessdelgrande, and longer stuff on Medium. If that’s not enough for you, you can also find me in the Geek of the Week archives at the now-defunct hotwired.com.