Mom. Developer. Warrior. Meet Donna Smith.
Welcome to our interview series, where we introduce you to developers of all levels from all walks of life. Prepare to be inspired!
Donna is single mother who is overcoming domestic abuse and raising two children on her own. In her own words:
I am a single mother who was fired from a job for attending police interviews and court due to a violent ex-husband. I lost my previous qualifications as a licensed real estate agent and financial planner because I served a bankruptcy for a family member’s debt when they fled overseas for 3 years.
Raising 2 children on my own with no child support, I started by teaching myself WordPress & Drupal, and eventually started my degree. I had to stop my degree several times because of court over 4 years.
Web Development gives women in these situations the ability to work flexibly and a skillset that can’t be taken away by the actions of others. I have also self taught myself hardware repairs and this has also helped with my financial situation.
What’s your day-to-day like?
My day to day can’t be planned too far ahead because I’m a single mother. I have a full-time study load that I do online via Open Universities, and I slot my freelance work and hardware repairs in amongst the rest of my life.
Court issues sometimes take weeks to manage, so I need that flexibility. I need to be well-organized with my time management and do most of my web development jobs in the evenings.
Can you tell us about how you got into coding, and why you chose this career path?
I started when I co-owned a business and needed to learn small skills that we couldn’t afford to outsource. I started by building all the PCs in the business, then we needed databases to manage our clients.
After my separation, I kept up with content management systems, such as WordPress, and picked up small jobs on freelance platforms.
The more I learned, the more I enjoyed it, so I enrolled to start a degree in Information Technology. When I found myself bankrupt, I couldn’t use my current licenses and had to change industries. I needed to re-skill myself, so I enrolled into my university course – Bachelor of Information Technology.
I’ve found that coding is a great career choice for women with children or who need to have flexible work. It’s a great way to get additional income when rebuilding their lives.
If you had a different career before, what was it? What skills from that career has been helpful to being a developer?
Previously I had worked in finance and owned my own businesses, as well as having a side hustle as an artist.
All of the skills have translated into Information Technology. I found my art was one of the strongest relatable skills. UI Design, understanding colour theory and colour separation also help with grasping concepts like object oriented programming as you already know how to think compartmentally and understand reuse.
Creative skills and business management skills are both valuable skills for coding and development.
You’ve had a lot of stumbling blocks throughout your life, and you had to take time off from school multiple times. How did you keep going?
Knowing when to ask for help and learning to accept help when I needed it was the hardest thing for me to learn.
I want to show my children that life can throw all sorts of things at you that you never planned, but you just keep striving towards your goals. You roll with the punches.
It may take longer to get there. You may have to start again from the very beginning. When you do what you do for love – love of what you’re doing and love of the people around you, then you just know in your heart that everything will happen in its own time.
What is your favorite part of your work?
There is always more to learn. It is very humbling. There is such a reward when you create something beautiful or get your code to work. It’s like solving puzzles, and you get an incredible sense of accomplishment when you learn a new skill and start applying it.
I love how you also learned hardware repair! What made you decide to learn it?
I’m still on a student budget and can only take on small freelance jobs with my coding at this stage – fixing a theme or content writing & small single page web sites, etc.
As a mum, I’m always having to fix things. My youngest calls me Mumguyver. One of them broke his phone and asked if I could fix it, so I started Googling and found some YouTube channels by Jessa Jones and Louis Rossman.
At that time, on a local buy-sell-swap page, a local guy was selling his Mac repair business. I couldn’t afford to buy the stock, but I bought his tech know-how training, and his contacts for supplies and from there I taught myself as much as I could.
Soon after, I met some people from a local e-waste facility who invited me to come to their business and get spares and broken e-waste to practice on. The three things just happened in such a synchronous way, that it just seemed to evolve on its own.
There is such a thrill when I get something working again. Both my boys like to pull things apart and learn too. My youngest repaired a MacBook Pro by himself last week, and I love that I can teach them these skills.
How can someone get started in hardware repair?
I started by looking up YouTube tutorials, trying a few simple projects. The biggest growth for me happened when I got the broken parts to learn on. With each repair I did, I then sold it and bought more tools for more repairs.
With my coding, it was a similar journey. I started doing online MOOCS – at Coursera and Lynda. When you find something you love, it drives you. I started learning about computers out of necessity but there are so many facets to IT that there really is something to explore for every skill set.
What do you think is the biggest challenge for women in code?
There is still a lot of sexism in the industry. I find that if I post a comment or question with a male sounding name, the responses are more positive and engaging. If I post under my name – questions get ignored or I get patronising answers asking why I’m doing something a certain way.
I’m getting better at managing this, and I find that if I just keep focused on doing what I love, then it isn’t an issue. The problem with men who speak to women like that is their problem, not mine. They are just projecting their own insecurities onto me, and I don’t have time or the energy to engage with that.
I know what I want to achieve and if I can overcome the road blocks I have already, then all I have to do is just keep myself focused on engaging with the people who want to be a part of that.
What advice would you give to a woman who is experiencing the same hardships that you faced and considering web development as a career?
Firstly, if you are experiencing domestic violence – start planning now – put aside small amounts of money in a secret savings account or somewhere safe.
Start keeping evidence – if you have photos – save them in a secret folder and call it Windows Icons or something inncouous.
Contact local support centres and legal aid. In Australia, everyone is entitled to a free legal aid interview – ask for help. Sometimes the best help comes from strangers.
Tell someone what is happening. I couldn’t have gotten through without the support I got from friends and strangers.
To start coding, the benefits are more than just earning money and a new skill. It brings your confidence back. It brings back your value.
You may have anxiety issues from the trauma, and you may find it confronting to go to these groups when you question your own worth. Be gentle on yourself and go at your own pace.
In Australia, you can get a free mental health plan – see a psychologist. It’s great. You vent. You cry. They tell you you’re awesome. You feel like maybe you can handle another day.
If you are feeling overwhelmed – take one day at a time. If that’s too much – take one hour at a time…one minute or one moment. It does get better.
Quick fire round
When I can’t solve a bug, I…
step away and do something physical and non-related – mow the lawn, fix some hardware, fold washing, cooking…anything but what you were doing. Then come back with a fresh brain. This works for everything that weighs your mind down. Just step away.
My favourite programming language is…
come on now- that’s like asking me which one is my favourite kid!
Dream company to work for…
Myself – The end goal is to freelance and travel around the world with my kids.
If I had unlimited resources, I would develop…
An application for women to support each other in business and in life – a social network where women can find businesses run by women and where women can support each other in growing and developing as a community.
In 5 years time, I want to…
Be travelling and exploring the world and absorbing myself in other cultures. I’ll still be learning too. I love learning.
Your favorite quote…
“Home is wherever you are” – one of my children