Welcome to our interview series, where we introduce you to developers of all levels from all walks of life. Prepare to be inspired!
Today we meet Alex Vuong, who studied finance. She became a data analyst and then decided to learn code on her own. Through months of hard work on VanHack, she landed a job in Vancouver, Canada and moved from Vietnam!
What is your position and company? What’s your day-to-day like?
I current work as an Intermediate Front-end at a company called Mobify, based in Vancouver. We provide front-end as service for companies who wants to build e-commerce sites.
After work, I won’t do anything code-related like I used to because my health does not allow me to do so anymore. I am trying to adopt a healthier and more balanced lifestyle. I normally do something entertaining like hang out with friends, play, the guitar, or just browse through YouTube.
On the weekends, I do different things depending on my mood. Sometimes, I learn a new song on my guitar (I am a fan of fingerstyle guitar). When I don’t want to be productive, I play video games for hours.
When I feel motivated enough, I will continue to work on some of my side projects or learn something new. At the moment, I am learning about backend with Node and Express. I also read occasionally (a stack of books is waiting to be read on my desk).
Can you tell us about how you got into code, and why you chose this career path?
My first job after graduation was as a data analyst at a French company in Vietnam. Besides a data department, they also have an IT department. One of the IT guys opened an HTML/CSS class and encouraged anyone interested to join, regardless of their department. I found the class very fascinating.
I asked the guy to be my mentor and started to teach myself while working as data analyst. After approximately 6 months of constant learning, I started to share my plan with everyone in my company and started to take part in some small projects.
I was able to do this because my company encouraged everyone to be proactive and to have autonomy. As long as an employee proves themselves that they have skills to join the projects, they can join regardless of their position.
You can read my full story here.
You studied Finance in school. What skills from that career has been helpful to being a developer?
To me, it is the soft skills such as teamwork and communication skills that are the most helpful. While I was in university, I had a chance to join a marketing club which organized many events for students.
It was a small version of a company where the club managed its own budget, maintained its own operation board, and made plans for the club. They taught me how to work as part of a team and how to communicate with other members to prepare for upcoming events.
When I first became a developer, I did not think that these skills would be so vital. I thought developers are supposed to sit in front of their desk and code all day, yet I was completely wrong.
What I learned is that the most successful software engineer is the one who seems to excel at soft skills along with their profound technical skills. Soft skills are as vital as technical skills.
Recently, you got a job in Canada as a front-end developer through VanHack! Can you tell us how this happened?
I got to know VanHack through a post in the Women in Web Dev group. It was the 15 females Leap. Unfortunately, I was not selected.
In October 2018, they organized another Leap in Vancouver. I continued to apply for it, completed their programming tests, and I got selected in January.
I took a flight to be in Vancouver for a week in February. While in Vancouver, I went through many interviews with a few companies. I was rejected by most of them and got one offer (I feel so grateful every time I think about that).
For more details, read Alex’s full experience here.
What is your favorite part of being a front-end developer?
Well, this might be the difficult one for me because I really have no idea how to answer this question. Sometimes I love what I love and I don’t know how to explain it.
When I learned about front-end development, the first thing that intrigued me was the fact that I could see what my result visually on the screen by using HTML and CSS.
Of course there is more than just creating beautiful UI for users. You have to take into account performance, code optimization, UX and architecture as well. There is a wide variety of things I need to keep up with as a front-end developer, and I am taking one step at a time to hone my skills.
The more I learn, the more I realize don’t know. I guess that is the most enjoyable thing of being a front-end developer.
What do you think is the biggest challenge for women in code?
I don’t think I could speak for all women because everyone’s experience is unique.
To me, there are two things. Imposter syndrome and subconscious bias (both individual and in society).
I have had impostor syndrome since I was a kid, despite the fact I had no idea what the term was. Even though things seemed to go well, I always felt like I don’t deserve any of them. I have doubted myself countless times.
Things got even worse when I had to work with difficult and toxic people in my previous company. My confidence level deteriorated after many incidents with my colleagues. It was the darkest moment of my life.
Fortunately, I found an open-minded team where everyone supported each other. I could see myself in the industry again and went back to what I had left before.
The impostor syndrome still exists, but at least I manage to reason with myself when I start to doubt myself instead of letting it control me.
As for subconscious bias, the reason why I use the word “subconscious” is because it is something many of us aren’t aware of it yet. We accept it as-is without a second. One thing I struggle with is gender bias.
On an individual level, as a kid, I thought that boys are better than girls in STEM, even though I was always into these subjects. There were many cultural situations which made me hardwire myself to this belief.
There were many times I thought that programming was not for me because my male co-workers seemed to understand things so easily while I was having a hard time digesting them.
In addition, I don’t have any female role models around me to show me that females can thrive in the IT industry. I haven’t worked with any female developers in my four years in the industry. It was really hard to think otherwise when being in such circumstances.
However, thanks to advertisements on the Internet and some Facebook groups, many women have started to open up about such topics. I started to become more aware of it and eventually learned to adjust my mindset.
It is an ongoing process because I know that I will encounter many more gender-related situations on my career path.
From society’s perspective, especially in Vietnamese culture, many people still think that women are not suitable to be developers. The most common reason I have heard is that it is going to be tough since developers will sit long hours in front of the desktop and plus many hours of working overtime.
Since it is tough, it is supposed to be male career. In my culture, women are normally expected to follow “easier” path and then get married and have and raise kids. Even though things are changing in a more positive way, still, women have to face a lot of skepticism in the IT industry.
Because of this, I think many women in code are usually underrated and not taken seriously in the workforce. Sometimes, I guess that much of it comes from subconscious bias.
What advice would you give to a woman at the beginning of her coding journey?
Persevere and cultivate a growth mindset.
Everyone has their own timeline, so you don’t need to compare yourself to someone else. The beginning of each journey is always challenging (physically and mentally) for everybody.
Every struggle is valid and it is okay to have struggles. All I can say is that just keep pushing and it will get better with time.
Learning to code is hard especially when you are a beginner because there are many concepts and definitions that you need to wrap your head around. You need to understand that your brain needs time to absorb new information.
When you feel stuck or confused about something, don’t believe that you will never be able to understand. Instead, you can think that you will get it sooner or later no matter how long it takes.
Now, I am still struggling with some of them because I barely use them directly in my projects. However, I keep reading articles or playing with these concepts when they came across my mind.
The most fascinating thing is that every time I come back to learn about these concepts, I find that some of them start to make sense little by little.
This is why I believe in the power of “yet”. As long as you don’t close all the doors yourself, you will find a way to hustle through things.
Quick fire round
When I can’t solve a bug, I… call it a day and return to it tomorrow because normally I have spent hours trying to find a solution on Google already. The funny thing is I seem to find the solution the next day. In conclusion, I give myself a break.
Dream company to work for… a place where I can grow individually and with others.
If I had unlimited resources, I would develop… a mood tracking application which we can journal our mood and have insights of it over time. I got this idea after I battled with my depression 1.5 years ago. It occurred to me that mental health is very important, but many of us tend to ignore it as a way to deal with it.
I thought, “What if we can have something to look back to see how we feel at some certain time? Will it help us understand more about ourselves?” We are humans after all and we have emotions. I have developed a small piece of the web version but haven’t made time to continue working on it yet.
In 5 years time, I want to… find a place I can call home and bring my family with me.
Your favorite quote… “When there is a will, there is a way”