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Interview w/ Ali Spittel (part 1)

Published 3/18/2019

We all have different experiences coming into development, and today we talk with Ali Spittel, a software engineer at Dev.to, Director at Women Who Code - DC and lead instructor at General Assembly.

In part 1 of our interview with Ali we dive into her work at Dev.to and how she got into teaching.

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Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
We all have different backgrounds and experiences coming into software development and today's guest is no different. Today's guest is Ali Spittel. My name is Jonathan Cutrell, you're listening to Developer Tea. This show exists to help driven developers find clarity, perspective and purpose in their careers. Ali is a software engineer at Dev. She is director at Women Who Code DC and she's a lead instructor at General Assembly. You can find her at Dev.T.O. Of course you can find her on Twitter and at alispittel. Thank you again to Ali for joining me for this episode and make sure you subscribe in whatever podcasting app you use so you don't miss out on part 2 of my interview with Ali. Now let's get straight into the interview with Ali Spittel. Ali, welcome to the show. Thanks. I'm glad to have you on for a bunch of reasons and love for you to give an introduction to yourself how you want people to know you. Of course you work at Dev. That's Dev.T.O. for anyone who's interested. Can you tell us a little bit about that and also the work that you do in DC? Really, I am really interested and involved in the developer community as a whole. I think of myself as a teacher first and then a developer second. I just actually left working full time as an instructor at General Assembly and I moved over to working for Dev which I'm super excited about. I'm working in a hybrid role between being a software engineer and a developer advocate for them. It's really fun to be wearing these multiple hats and get to do a lot of what I love. I'm writing code for the platform. Really cool because it's open source. That's different than anything I've worked on in the past. Dealing with the community and writing code in public is really, really cool. Then in addition to that, I'm doing speaking things and writing for them. I started as a community member for about a year, year and a half before I joined the team full time. It's really cool to see the other side of the aisle there. I still actually teach at night as well. Then on top of all of that, I'm really involved with the DC tech community. I am one of the directors for Women Who Code here in DC and then also have a couple other meetups that I'm involved in. I'm the lead for Women Who for View Vixens and then I also founded meetup called the Art Code Collective. Involves in the community in a lot of different ways. I'd like to, again, think of myself as both a teacher and a developer. That's very exciting. If I'm reading correctly, you are also developing a course. It's a multimedia course. This is on your Twitter account. Is that still in progress? Yeah. I'm definitely working on that. Something that I've noticed while working a lot with new developers is that a lot of people can copy and paste pieces together or figure out how something works through a tutorial. But then I'm actually solving a problem by themselves and bringing down the pieces and then putting them back together. That's the part where I see a lot of people struggling. I want to help bridge that gap and build a course that helps people build their problem solving skills so that they can really become standalone independent developers instead of relying on these things. It will help both in technical interviews but then also working professionally and even working on our school projects as well. That's an excellent way to put a problem that I've seen in pretty much every year. The environment that I've worked in, which is the problems that you face in your work environment are not going to be perfectly packaged. There's not an answer sheet at work necessarily. You end up having these problems that have ambiguous solutions, maybe they have multiple solutions. A lot of it is about opinion, a lot of it is about collaboration and cooperation. I'm really excited to see what you do with this course. Thanks. I'm really excited about it too. It's kind of the, I think, the pinnacle of some of my teaching and builds off a lot of what I've learned from working with so many students, both the hundreds of people that are taught in person but then the hundreds of thousands online through blogging. Yeah. I'd love to ask you a question that typically, in the past, we've asked this towards the end of interviews. I'd like to ask you towards the beginning of the interview. What is one topic that you wish more people would ask you about? That's a good question. I think that I would like to be asked more about teaching. In general, I think a lot of interviews that I do end up surrounding blogging, which is another thing that I am super passionate about in love. But I don't get to talk as much about teaching normally and so that's big. Also, writing code, I barely talk about that outside of some of my blog posts, which are tutorials. That's an interesting. It's interesting that people are seem to be more interested in asking you about blogging versus teaching. I wonder, do you have any theories as to why that is? Do you think people are just trying to build their own blogs? That's why they're asking you about that. Maybe there's not a lot of people are actually trying to teach. I think that's part of it that other people are trying to build their blogs. Also on top of that, it's probably what is most visible that I do. Definitely blogging builds off of teaching. The impression lecturing is my favorite thing to do, though I do really love writing as well. That makes sense. Let's talk a little bit about teaching then. I'd love to know what got you interested in teaching and which came first. Was code your first gateway into teaching or was it the other way around? That's a really good question. I'm going to step back even further. I went to school with the hopes of being a political journalist. I wanted to go on the campaign trail to say candidates around asking them questions. I went to a liberal arts college. Your encourage to take all sorts of classes from all types of disciplines and two of the programs that I fell into were computer science and education. Both of them I had extra credits and decided to take those classes because I had the time to do so. They were both things that interested me, although I had no idea what computer science really was. And so I think I actually took both of them for the first time in the same semester. And both of them became like instant loves for me. And I wanted to actually double major in computer science and then minor in education because my school didn't have an education major. Didn't happen for either of those things. I quit computer science after my second computer science class. Because I thought I wasn't a good enough programmer. And then I ended up finishing college. I was a year early in order to become a software engineer. So the education minor didn't happen either. But those were both two loves that I had from college. And I started with teaching kids while I was still in college. And I was teeing from my computer science department. And that's something that I really, really loved from early on. I did research on how to teach computer science to middle school and high schoolers. And I think that someday that would be something that I would love to pursue again. And then as an adult, the opportunity to teach cone arose again. And I couldn't pass that up. So definitely it was an awesome, awesome opportunity to do that. I think you're probably hitting on a bunch of different nerves for people who are listening to this to this podcast right now about their experiences in education. I also went to liberal arts school. I also started out as a journalism major. I ended up in communications, which is just kind of like the brother or sister program to the journalism major. And so it seems like there's probably a common path into software development, especially front end development for people who are interested in communication in general. So that's a really cool overlap. But I think another perhaps a wider overlap that you have with the audience is that you felt the sense that you weren't good enough during your education process. And you're not a good enough software engineer to cut the program. And this is something that I think a lot of developers have faced, whether they were self-taught or more formally pursued in education in computer science. And I'd love to know if you can take us kind of to that moment of what those emotions were and why did you feel that way? Yeah, so I, again, grew up in kind of the middle of nowhere. Didn't have access to computer science in till college had no idea even what it was other than that people thought that people who liked math would do it. And in high school, I kind of liked math. So everybody was kind of pushing me in that direction. And I finally came and took the class of my first semester. It was an introduction to Python. I totally fell head over heels in love with it. I thought it was so cool that I could build things and write things and different things would pop up on the screen and I could build games and do all this really cool stuff that I didn't even know was possible. Did really well in that class was asked to be a TA for the next semester for that class. And then I also took the C++ data structures and algorithms class, which was a weed out class. Not really a thing in most liberal arts majors. So it wasn't something that I was at all used to. But seeing all these other students drop out around me and we have been changed classrooms because so many people have had dropped that we didn't need a bigger class anymore. And I remember spending all nighters on projects and working so, so hard on these things. And I was a pretty good student. So in other classes I was getting really good grades without having to like overextend myself. And in this computer science class I was pulling all nighters and working crazy hard and going to the office hours and all that and then like pulling out bees on assignments and seas on some and I just thought that if I was really good at this it would click and I would be getting a's and I wouldn't have to be pulling all nighters. So I just thought that this wasn't for me. Actually it's really interesting. Rachmas so Jonny who founded Girls Who Code has a talk, a TED talk about how we teach boys to take risks and teach girls to be perfect. I think that I really, really, really to that talk a lot that I really expected like perfection for myself. And if I wasn't getting a's in every class then it probably wasn't for me and you know there was something wrong with me there. So I just wasn't good at it. And I think that honestly if I had been getting like a's in math classes and computer science classes I would have been way more likely to go into those fields rather than getting like bees which at the time was heartbreaking to me which looking back at so ridiculous because none of these periods matter at all now that I'm out of that world. But yeah so I didn't actually do that that bad in that class and I think you know at the time it felt like I did but yeah so all that work and all the you know less than perfect grades made it so that I thought that I wasn't good enough and I was like I don't even know how this is going to fit into my future career. The only reason I even fell back into it was kind of good luck anyway so. Yeah. That's that's very interesting and in some ways there's some hard break in there for maybe the education system. I guess you know I don't want to paint with a broad brush here but do you feel like those kinds of classes that you know kind of weed people out. Do you think that that is good or could be good for programs or do you think that it may be in this maybe a leading question. Do you think it's better if we have more kind of kind of open classes that are a little bit more forgiving of those. I mean it's some of this stuff is very difficult to grasp and it takes a lot of experience sometimes to really understand and grapple with things that may not come you know immediately and we know that developers come from all kinds of backgrounds and eventually kind of really fulfilling and complete careers without having deep experience. So I'd love to know you know do you look back on that and wish for those programs to change. So definitely I think that looking back there are so many things that I advocate for now that would have helped me so much. One thing is having equal access to computer science programs kind of across the board and you know right now I live in Washington DC and I know that a lot of the suburbs and parts of the city as well have like mandatory multiple computer science classes for students and I think that's huge progress and I think that learning early and making those classes mandatory makes that access a little bit more equal and allows more people to have exposure to computer science early and so I think that when they get to college they're more prepared to take those computer science classes because I think actually in a lot of colleges those intro to computer science classes aren't really meant to be intros they're supposed to be for people who already know how to program but want to learn like data structures and algorithms or something like that and I had never written code before I hadn't even written like Neopets code I think the only thing that I'd ever done was copying piece cheat codes into the sims and I'd ever been to programming with for that computer science class so and I know that as we progress as you know technology field more and more kids will have access to code earlier and earlier but I think having equal access to that in schools is really important and I think there are some great organizations working towards that but then getting towards college I think that having computer science classes that don't think that students have access or don't think that those students have already taken computer science classes and already know a lot of the introductory material is really important and also that those classes are branded to different learners as well in different interest types because you know even if you're actually going into journalism having some background in code is actually really helpful now because you can automate some of your data analysis work or you can draw data visualizations to go into your journalism work so you know computer science doesn't have to be an end all even if it's part of your education it's so important for just building those problem solving skills that I'll apply to other things in life as well. Another thing that I have strong beliefs about is grading I think that especially with like motivated adult learners putting number grades on things and percentage grades cannot often be more harmful than it is good because people are focusing on getting a grade rather than actually internalizing the knowledge and building off of it. So I think that that would be important and that kind of goes back to my computer science experience as well where I was really thinking about this grade and really fixated on that rather than like what I did know and what I was building all of that. Yeah, yeah it's so I've done a lot and this is a topic that I'm very interested in personally as well the process of learning and how you know what kinds of environment does learning really suit best and also the converse what kinds of environments really bad for learning. And pretty much across the board the bad ones are the ones that have high pressure. If there's very little fun if there's very little room for error then you're very likely to not learn very well first of all and then if you have the option of leaving that you're probably going to leave it because it's not very comfortable. Few people don't want to be challenged in a way that they can't rise to the challenge especially if the stakes are high like failing a course and so having these courses that are kind of designed with you know three or four major grades that's a really probably a poor design for a course and so that's I think that your experience is a kind of a picture of that exact problem with computer science courses. We don't have a lot and I think you know the converse side of that is that your involvement with code and art you know combining these ideas is the other side of that coin where you have a very playful environment very low stakes if you get it wrong then chalk it up to you know this is just another art board right you can kind of move on and do something different. That's a much higher potency for learning and I'd love for you to talk a little bit about that relationship for you and how you decided to kind of take that on and learn for yourself. How did that you know provide the right stage for your learning? Yeah so I think that that's super important the idea of having a state placed a fail I think is really important for learning to code because especially when you're starting you're going to go down the wrong road a bunch of times before you eventually go down the right road and having that space and that ability to take that wrong road a couple times is like totally normal and should be encouraged rather than discourage by failure or something like that or super hard deadlines. So totally agree with that point for me art and code has been something that's come later I didn't even know it was possible and I think that a lot of other people don't know that it's even possible so something that's been really fun for me to play with actually came in tandem with blogging it was my first blog post idea was learning how to build art with CSS and so I played around with that and then was able to kind of build this desktop background for myself using CSS and then I wrote about that and then from there I met one of my very close friends who is one of my co-instructors and my last job and we definitely communicated a lot about this idea of art and code and built some things and I kind of spun off each other and now we even have a generative art talk together that would do this really fun but I think that the idea of even like teaching code through art is really cool. I'm teaching a workshop leader this spring on learning Python through turtle turtles built into the Python language actually and it is like this little turtle that you can tell to go in different directions and make different colors and even build cool programs that way so teaching people how to code through that this spring and I think that's a really cool different idea to appeal to different learning styles. Very interesting I didn't realize that Python had that built in but it doesn't surprise me. Does it the group of people in charge of Python that's the kind of thing they would do? Totally if I thought it was my favorite. So I'd love to ask you, I know we've dug into your past a little bit and how you arrived where you are now and it's from the story it feels relatively smooth. You kind of had this linear going through your education and then you eventually got to where you are and there were no bumps along the way and everything was wonderful but the truth is and you know the truth that wasn't how it went. I'd love for you to kind of rewind to a moment where things were really uncertain where you didn't know what was next. Maybe you had a lot of fear or a doubt about your career path and kind of explain how you felt in that moment. Yeah I mean I feel like that's been almost my whole career is like doubting whether this is really for me and whether like what I do really fits in and what I want to do a long term. I feel like it's just like constant questioning with that but at the same point I think that the biggest moment where was when I actually did quit computer science in college that was definitely a big moment for me and I definitely only ended up back in programming by chance. So that definitely is a huge moment of doubting my abilities there and then definitely when I got into my first job I really doubted whether I was good at programming and knew the right things and what I was doing if it was like what was needed and whether I was good at it and all that and like really didn't gain any confidence until I was getting like really positive feedback on stuff from higher ups and like I really needed that validation from somebody else I think earlier in my career that I was doing well and that was helpful to have for sure and then teaching is a little bit different but there's always challenges there in every group of students that you have is different, different challenges definitely and even in that time I think I in some ways doubted my coding abilities too because you're not rating production code every day you're putting that on pause so are you still a strong developer at the end and so I was like pushing myself to a right code but also that wasn't my full time 100% job and so there's some like imposter syndrome that comes in there especially when you're dealing with people online who are saying rude things about you or whatever that definitely kind of doubled up on that as well and then transitioning back into a software engineering job recently like I still feel like I have it in some ways but there's still a lot of questioning there whether I reverted on my skills by teaching instead of being a practicing developer for a couple years. Yeah I know exactly that feeling and the feeling that because I went more towards a management position which is a very similar kind of move where you're not actually working on something where there's hundreds of thousands of users who are running that code and so you get out of that a little bit and you start doing code that is more representative rather than a production piece. I did a lot of tutorial writing I did a win down that path and had the same feeling so that's a very interesting feeling to have because it feels like hey I have this ability to teach other people to do this but do I have the ability to do it? Can I do the thing that I'm teaching other people to do? Yeah and I think the thing with that is I would look at any other instructor and be like you're an incredible programmer because not only do you know this but you also know it well enough to teach it to anybody else and you can make it so that somebody who has no idea what code is can understand how to build something with this and so I can look at those other teachers and say that and say that they're incredible programmers and can do anything but then when it's yourself it's like harder to see that I think. Yeah I think something about that is probably due to the fact that you know your own weaknesses and we have a tendency to know to not know other people's weaknesses. There's one of the the teabrag challenges I believe I mentioned something along these lines it was something like you are better at something than someone you would consider your hero basically right something that you do you know far better than someone you really respect and that's that's kind of a weird reality to accept we kind of think about all of our skills as like a rising tide so that everybody that is better than us at one thing is better than us at everything but the truth is that's not necessarily the case in fact it's almost certainly not the case we each develop different expertise and you know it's very interesting this is one of the reasons why I love to do these interviews because there's something that you know very very well but there's something that you alley people think that you know that you may have absolutely no idea about and that's okay there's something kind of reassuring about that fact that we're all good at different things. Totally that's great insight. Huge thank you to Ali for joining me on today's episode taking some time out of her day and being so kind as I had to reschedule many times Ali was just kind throughout the whole process thank you again for listening to today's episode if you haven't yet subscribed I encourage you to subscribe to teabake challenge this is teabakechallenge.com this is a daily soft skills challenge it's going to help you become a better developer and typically these challenges don't even require you to get out pen and paper or write down anything really it's mostly a mental mental exercise that you do and sometimes it's just a thought for you to consider on a daily basis these are delivered to your inbox head over to teabakechallenge.com to get started with that today. Thank you so much for listening make sure you subscribe in whatever podcasting up you're currently using so you don't miss out on the next episode the second part of this interview with Ali. Thanks again for listening and until next time enjoy your tea.