Learning to Code After Having a Baby. Meet Vanessa Wang.
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 Vanessa Wang, a civil engineer who became a technical writer, then a mama, and now a developer! After wanting to be a developer for a long time, her 1-year-old daughter inspired her to take the leap.
If you’re a mom who’s thinking about doing the same, you’ll definitely want to read this!
You’ve wanted to be a software engineer for a long time. Can you tell us where this desire came from?
I have a bachelor and master degree in Civil Engineering from National Taiwan University, the most prestigious university in Taiwan. When I received my master degree, instead of becoming a Civil Engineer, I pursued something completely different: I came to the states and got a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing.
People assume that my drastic switch was because I never enjoyed engineering in the first place. In reality, I’ve always loved math and science; I used to read books about the theory of relativity for fun.
I had an equal love for literature, and at that point, I didn’t know how I could be both a writer and an engineer, and I felt very miserable.
Maybe it has to do with the Taiwanese education system; as early as in high school, we had to choose between a science or humanities career. Whatever we choose more or less affects everything in life thereon after.
I had always been in the STEM field. When I received my Master in Civil Engineering with job offers on the table, I had a harrowing fear that it was my last chance to do something about my love for writing, or else I would drift further and further away from it and be forever trapped as “just” an engineer.
Because of my degrees in engineering and writing, I became a technical writer. For a while it seemed like a good way to integrate my writing skills and my technical aptitude.
Four years I worked alongside engineers, and helped them document their problems and solutions. Very early on, I realized that I burned with the desire to find the solutions myself, not just document them. But I felt like I had removed myself from engineering for too long.
If I wanted to go back to engineering, I’d have to start as an intern, I thought. At that time it felt like a shameful thing, to have to start from scratch after all the decisions I made to get me to where I was.
What was your previous career? What skills from that career has been helpful to being a developer?
As a technical writer, I wrote training manuals for Tesla production associates on how to build Models S, X, and 3. Knowing how to write instructions is, in fact, a very useful skill for a developer. Developers spend a lot of time reading documentation on how to use tools and libraries in their code.
Version control is another thing that is common between technical writers and developers; in both roles, keeping track of the different revisions of your files is central to your every-day work.
In fact, I want to say that being a developer is very similar to being a technical writer. As a technical writer, one writes instructions for a specific audience so that they know how to perform their job. As a developer, you are doing the same thing, except that your audience is the computer.
How did you teach yourself? What resources did you use and where did you go for help?
One day I had downtime at work, so I Googled “what coding language should I learn?” My very random search led to two things: an interactive learning platform called freeCodeCamp and an article titled Learn to code in less than 5 months, get hired, and have fun along the way, by Andrei Neagoie.
I signed up for freeCodeCamp, tried out one or two lessons, and was immediately hooked. The curriculum is designed so that you can complete one lesson in as little as two to three minutes. It was very satisfying to see myself progress with my learning through what seemed like playing a video game.
I wanted to experiment taking an online course with an actual person teaching it, and I realized that Andrei Neagoie taught a best-selling course on Udemy. After reading many articles and watching YouTube channels, I always came back to that article by Andrei.
I was persuaded by his strategic approach to learning, which was “research how to learn before you start learning”. In his five months of learning to code, he actually spent the first whole month just researching and designing his own curriculum. Moreover, he toured many countries while learning to code, so he also had fun.
His learning mindset really resonated with me, because I believe that we should all have fun and enjoy life, even as we are working toward a difficult goal. I bought Andrei’s Udemy courses, and his teaching style happens to work really well with the way I understand things. It’s important to find learning material that matches your style of intaking knowledge.
Did you have a routine to learn? What was it?
On weekdays I have exactly nine hours to learn each day, as those are the hours my daughter is in day care. I try to work a little bit more between 8:30-10:00 after she goes to sleep at night, but I use that time mostly to reply to emails, apply to jobs, or complete some tasks that require less brain power.
On Saturday and Sunday, I try my best to work in a total of two to three hours to code when my daughter is napping or sleeping, but it doesn’t always work out. Having limited and very specific hours to work has been the best thing ever. It has made me very efficient and focused with my learning.
Many women think they need to do everything before they have a baby. In your case, your daughter inspired you to take the leap. Can you talk about this experience?
I mentioned that I wanted to go back to engineering, but that I was ashamed to have to “start from scratch.” Many of my friends are already managers, and I was embarrassed by the thought of maybe having to compete alongside college students. Would people laugh at me, I wondered?
Having my daughter changed my perspective.
My daughter is only 13 months old, but in her very short life she has gone from being a helpless bundle that can’t even roll over to a toddler who I have to run after to catch up with. I realized that in the time I was debating whether or not it was “shameful” to start over in my engineering career, I could have learned all the skills I needed many times over.
I gather a lot of inspiration from watching my daughter learn her motor skills. She “fails” a hundred times a day, but she’s not embarrassed by it. She just gets up and keeps going because she’s burning with the desire to master the next milestone.
And no one laughs at her for trying again and again. Honestly, people couldn’t care less. At the end of the day, it’s just yourself and your desire to learn.
When my daughter turned three months and I returned to work, I told my manager I wanted to work toward becoming an engineer. I worked around mechanical engineers at Tesla, so I learned how to draw mechanical designs, how to work in the machine shop, and how to implement solutions to improve the assembly line.
That was my real start to figuring that I indeed loved using math and logic to problem-solve. I was less enthusiastic about hardware, and that led to me to coding.
My daughter has taught me a lot, but becoming a mother has also been good for me. When I was pregnant I worried about balancing work and family. When I went back to work after my maternity leave, I pumped breastmilk at work and woke up multiple times per night to a crying baby, it really was quite challenging.
But together with my husband, we made it work. We alternated our nights so that one night he got up and fed the baby when she cried at 2AM and 5AM, and the next night, it was my turn to get up. We were very sleepy for many, many months, but I also felt very good about myself.
If I can do this, I can do anything, I thought.
What was the biggest challenge learning how to code on your own?
The biggest challenge has been the unexpected arguments I’ve had with my husband. When I first started on my coding journey, I thought it was so great to have my husband to turn to with questions about coding, as he’s a frontend software engineer.
Neither of us foresaw that it would be so frustrating for me to learn from him, and for him to teach me, as our learning styles are very different. Lots of times, I cannot understand his explanations, and his teaching style seems overly harsh to me.
It does not help that he is also self-taught, so I feel sometimes that he is superimposing his self-taught experience on me, when really, our respective journeys are unique. We’ve learned a lot about one another in this process. We made small adjustments on how we interacted every day, so really, it’s been a good thing for us.
This example just goes to show that life is unexpected: what may seem like a learning leverage can turn out to be a challenge. But the opposite can also be true, so don’t be discouraged if you feel like you have a learning disadvantage; it may turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
You’re a new developer! What kind of projects or industries interest you the most?
I’m a writer, so I think it would be cool to work as a developer at companies that focuses on books or art, such as Goodreads, Pixar, Disney, or Pinterest.
Why do you think it’s important for more women to get into coding?
I believe everyone should do what they love, regardless of their gender. But I do think it is harder for women to nurture their passion for a career in STEM.
I said I didn’t pursue a career in engineering because I love writing and afterwards I felt ashamed of having to start from scratch in engineering. Those are two big reasons, but there are also a million other smaller reasons that drove me away from engineering initially.
I remember all those people who asked me, “Really? Civil Engineering? Why would a girl want to study that?”. I remember the people who gave me unsolicited advice on what I should do with my life. “Maybe you should consider teaching, like your mother; it’s an easier path for a woman, if you want to balance work and family.
And then, I remember being one of the few females in engineering school, not quite knowing how to blend in among all the men, and wishing I was not labeled as “engineering girl” (read: wears jeans, doesn’t know how to apply makeup, wears glasses, not popular with guys).
I wish I could say the will to succeed in STEM is stronger than all of these petty roadblocks, but the truth is that life is made up of infinite small crossroads, and when you add all these small things together, they could truly determine a person’s lifepath.
The bottom line is, society as a whole roots for men in engineering: as a career, it is masculine, guarantees a certain income-level that makes one an attractive bachelor, and is challenging enough to seem like an ambitious life goal. There are lots of incentives for a guy to become an engineer.
On the other hand, women have to work against the grain to become one; unfortunately, being a female engineer does not make a woman sexier, and this realization happens very early in life.
I’ll give you an example to illustrate this. When I was thirteen, I asked the only girl who had a boyfriend in my class how she got that guy to ask her out. “Easy,” she said. “I ask him to teach me math.”
“Ah,” I remember thinking, “I should put that into practice.”
But I also thought the situation was ridiculous. The girl’s math grades were lightyears ahead of the guy.
What advice would you give to a woman at the beginning of her coding journey?
Don’t give up, even if you doubt whether you’re “cut out for coding.” It may seem like you’re just not good at logical thinking, and that without talent, you’ll never make it. One thing I’ve learned as an engineering student is that what you learn in school is a lot harder than your every-day job as an engineer. Structural dynamics may seem cryptic, but when you’re on the job there are software that’ll help you with the calculations. Recursive functions are hard to understand, but you’ll almost never use them in your day-to-day job.
Other than that, I think one of my daughter’s books, called “Be Brave, Little One!” has the best advice on learning:
“Be brave to step up and try something new.
Be brave to step out when it isn’t for you.”
Quick fire round
When I can’t solve a bug, I… Google, ask on online forums, or ask friends
Dream company to work for…Disney
If I had unlimited resources, I would develop… an online coding course designed specifically for women, because I believe men and women learn in different ways.
In 5 years time, I want to… be a digital nomad, an online coding instructor, and the author of a book describing my journey to becoming a developer.
Your favorite quote… Follow your heart.