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 will meet Diane Serra, a freelance developer from San Diego, California. Keep reading to see how Diane balances family and freelancing!
What’s your job? What’s your day-to-day like?
I am a full-time freelancer based in San Diego, California. I work most days from home but it can be distracting because my husband works from home too. So as of April I will start working from a co-working space nearby.
My day-to-day is awesome. I wake up at 6am and start cooking breakfast for everyone (me, husband, toddler, dog). Then I drop off my daughter at preschool and head to the gym for an hour. I usually don’t start working until 9:30am.
As a freelancer with many projects, the first thing I check when I sit down at my desk is my Hello Bonsai dashboard where I view my list my tasks for the day according to each project. Then I get started working.
I tend to give myself the first part of the week to focus on deliverables. I plan any meetings, new client inquiries etc. for later in the week on Thursdays. I always try to give myself Friday off or at least a light workload so that I can have a good start to the weekend.
This is why I chose to stay freelance, because it allows me to make my own schedule and be flexible with the demands of parenthood. We also like to travel so I am able to take my work with me when we want to get away for a bit.
For example, we spend a couple of months per year in Spain. It took a long time to get here as a family but it was worth every effort we made to manifest it.
Can you tell us about how you got into code, and why you chose this career path?
I got into code in 2016. I kept reading more and more articles on coding and had a natural interest in it although I do not have a CS background. Coding to me was about learning new languages, which is something I love (I speak 3) so I knew I could wrap my head around coding if I gave it the same amount of effort I give towards learning new languages.
I was living in Barcelona at the time and although I spent the evenings learning programming fundamentals on Linkedin Learning, I knew I wanted to take a bootcamp to help it all sink in with the guidance of a teacher.
I interviewed a few schools in Barcelona but also in the US (I’m from California). I compared many schools to each other and prices. The US bootcamp prices were outrageous compared to the schools in Barcelona and everyone was essentially offering the same thing. By that I mean, they teach you how to code, give you projects for your portfolio and help you with your job hunt (hopefully).
I chose to take the Full Stack Bootcamp at Barcelona Code School. I was really impressed with the instructors. It didn’t seem like a money-trap like a couple of other schools I interviewed.
The reason why I wanted to learn how to code is because when I moved to Barcelona I had already started my career as an interior designer so I had a website (just a Squarespace template) and a developed social media presence that women in my networking groups really like. So they hired me to build websites for their businesses.
I started building sites for entrepreneurs, then eventually small businesses and startups. I realized I really liked web development and at the time did not plan on staying freelance so I originally thought I would take web freelance projects until I found a permanent role somewhere.
If you had a different career before, what was it? What skills from that career has been helpful to being a developer?
My career before I left for Barcelona was a designer. I formally studied interior design and was working on luxury vacation rentals in Southern California.
I’ve also been blogging since 2009 so over the years I’ve gotten really comfortable with representing myself online.
Prior to being an interior designer I was working as an E-commerce coordinator so I had some familiarity with how customers navigate interfaces. This skill always helps me as a developer so that I never lead a client into anything over complicated for their customers.
What is your favorite part of being a freelancer?
Freedom and flexibility. Even if I wasn’t a mother I would still need these two things as much as I do now. I like being able to adjust my schedule according to the needs of my family.
For example, my husband travels a lot so I want to make sure I am a constant in my daughter’s day to day life. I also like being able to be with her on sick days and make it to all her after-school activities with friends.
What are the challenges?
At first the challenge was getting consistent clients. But thanks to networking, referrals and constantly checking in with my design community, I have a steady flow of clients.
Another challenge at first was charging what I really wanted to get paid. This took some time to learn for me.
At first I would always under bid myself, but over time I began just asking for the price I really wanted to be paid. This weeded out the cheap and complicated clients and brought in more committed and professional clients.
Another challenge at first was staying organized in a professional way but finding the best software that works for you will help you immensely.
For example, I use Hello Bonsai to create contracts (I never start work without a signed contract), track time, invoice my clients and log expenses. I know there are similar platforms so I suggest looking at them all before deciding which one will work for you if you want to do freelance work.
If you lost all your clients today, what would you do to get new clients ASAP?
Network, network, network. I am very strategic about networking. I have the groups I go to that are more community support as in other women coders and I have other groups that I go to that are my target clients.
In the target-client groups I introduce myself as a “Web Designer” because not everyone knows what a “programmer” or “web developer” means. You get one handshake to make an impression on someone so keeping my work title clear really helps.
For example, I say, “Hi, I am Diane, I’m a Web Designer” and they usually respond with, “Great! I need a web designer” or “I have a colleague that needs a new web designer”.
I should also mention that a lot of times I don’t totally enjoy networking because I am slightly introverted so it can be a challenge. But I am always glad when I make the effort to show up and make some good connections.
What do you think is the biggest challenge for women in code?
That’s a good question. I can’t really speak for all women in code because I feel like every woman has a unique situation, unique goals and skills.
My biggest challenge as a woman in code was trying to land a permanent position. I was exhausted and depleted by the interview process.
Every company wanted a different stack of tech skills and wanted to see something different from my portfolio. I kept adjusting everything to try to meet the needs of everyone but that only led to burnout.
Also, I realized that there are so many BAD interviewers out there yet I showed up so prepared, so professional to each and every interview. Once I really started to honor my strong work ethic and high-level of accountability, I realized that the “perfect” job for me was one that I had already started – my freelance career.
When I finally decided to put all that drive and focus into my freelance career the universe responded and I swear I have been booked non-stop ever since.
I should also say I am having more fun because I am hired for such a variety of projects which has allowed me to learn about cool and interesting businesses.
Why do you think it’s important for more women to get into technical roles?
I think it’s only important if it’s something they want to do. If women have a natural interest in it then absolutely follow that interest because those internal voices that ask us to explore things never go away.
What advice would you give to a woman at the beginning of her coding journey?
Share your story about what you are learning and experiencing on your social media or within your community. You will find a lot really supportive friends out there to cheer you on.
I also advise to just keep chipping it away it at your own pace. It takes time so don’t pressure yourself to try to learn it all in 12 weeks or whatever.
Also, start working on your portfolio today. Even if you don’t custom code it yet – use a template and start writing about your process, the problems you are solving, your thoughts on why you chose to solve a coding problem in one way vs. another.
I once had a portfolio review from a hiring manager at Playstation and he knew I was really into blogging. He suggested I start blogging about coding katas I was doing and then posting those blogs in my Github. That way you are building your Github, learning to code and providing content for your portfolio before you have any finished projects.
Quick Fire Round
When I can’t solve a bug, I …
Search Google for a solution. If I can’t find it there then I head over to Stackoverflow although I seemed to get shamed for not asking a question correctly (eyeroll). I think we need a nicer version of Stackoverflow that doesn’t do that to people.
My favorite programming language is…
Dream company to work for …
In 5 years time, I want to…
Keep doing what I am doing now. I am happy. I run my own show and make my own rules. Of course there are ups and downs but those exist even as a permanent employee. It would have to be a killer opportunity to pry me away from what I’ve built for myself. It took forever to get here and I want to enjoy it as long as I can!
Your favorite quote…
It’s not a quote but something I strongly believe in:
Don’t be afraid to be multidimensional if that’s a huge part of your personality. Everyone wants to put you into a category like only a “web developer” or “ux designer” or whatever, but you can do both or all if you want to. Be it all if you want to.