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Becoming a Nerd: One Developer’s Journey

Phillip Gray

Phillip interned with Big Nerd Ranch as a backend developer in 2015 and was hired as a permanent employee after the internship. In this interview he describes his journey from non-developer to Nerd.

What was your background in programming before the internship?

Way far back, I remember programming my scientific calculator in high school. Around the same tine, I took a half-semester of C++. I loved it, but then I totally forgot about it.

Fast-forward to 2014, and I was working as a chemist in a manufacturing lab. The job was pretty repetitive, so I started to dabble in programming as a kind of brain exercise. I picked up Python while taking a MOOC (massive open online class), and started to tinker on my own and with some new friends in CodeNewbie (shoutout to Python Thursday and that wonderful community of folks learning to code!). After that I discovered code katas: small scale puzzles basically asking “write a method that will do X.” I love puzzles, so that really got me hooked.

I learned a little Ruby syntax to apply for a Ruby bootcamp scholarship. I didn’t end up getting the scholarship, but I went to a RailsBridge event soon after and that cemented my interest in Ruby.

What got you interested in interning at Big Nerd Ranch?

I had been brainstorming what the next step could be toward becoming a full-time developer. Bootcamps are expensive, so I wanted to see if I could learn enough on my own to get an internship or apprenticeship instead. The only time I had been able to put toward studying and learning was a year’s worth of spare time, so I felt like an internship was sort of a long shot, but I kept an ear out.

Someone posted in a Slack group I was in about the backend internship at Big Nerd Ranch. I took a look at the internship description and Big Nerd Ranch’s web site and I was interested!

How did the internship help you grow as a developer?

There were a few different dimensions the internship helped me grow in. Technically, I learned Rails, became more comfortable in Ruby, and practiced solving problems in Ruby. There was also the dimension of code-adjacent tools: I learned more about using Git for version control, Pivotal Tracker for feature management, and other tools for collaborating around code. Finally, there was the value of experience. There’s no substitute for working on a real client-facing project, whether that’s an intern project for internal stakeholders, or a client project for external stakeholders.

What about the internship was most surprising to you?

When you aren’t using your brain for anything strenuous most of the day, and programming is an outlet to engage your brain during off-hours, switching to engage your mind full-time in that way is surprisingly tiring. Not to mention that when you’re starting out, there are a few things you know and a bunch of things you don’t know. You’re trying to connect as much of what you don’t know into what you do know, and move concepts and ideas into to the known and understood “pile”.

At one point, I had a conversation with my internship mentor about the idea of pushing the framework to the boundaries of your code and focusing on your domain problems, and it broke my mind. Up until that point, I had been thinking entirely in terms of learning the framework and writing Rails code, and that was the moment that I realized Rails is just the tip of the iceberg!

How did you decide you wanted to stay at Big Nerd Ranch as a permanent employee?

I had gotten the advice that as a new developer one of the most important things you can do is optimize for learning. You’re still discovering habits and ways of thinking. Since you’re a (relatively) blank slate, it’s to your advantage to work at a place where people are focused on best practices. And Big Nerd Ranch is definitely one of those places. People with development experience elsewhere come to work here because it’s a respite, a place where people are focused on doing things right.

I’ve realized that one important facet of optimizing for learning is to leverage the powerful ability of your brain to pattern-match. For example, if you’re learning to write essays and all you read is cartoons, your essays will be cartoonlike. But if you spend a lot of time looking at examples of great essays, your own essays will improve. Working at Big Nerd Ranch is a way for me to have access to great code so that I can then, in turn, do my best to produce great code.

What advice would you give someone thinking about a programming internship?

The beautiful thing about an internship is that you have the time to focus on one thing 100% of the time. There’s no substitute for calendar time. An internship is also an investment in your learning. If you’re thinking about career switching, there’s an opportunity cost in foregoing the things you could otherwise be doing. But investing in your learning will always pay dividends.
Another benefit of an internship is that it’s a rare opportunity where questions are encouraged and you can lean on your inexperience to get explanations for anything.

I’d recommend setting yourself up to absorb as much context as possible: maximize your opportunities to learn new things. Go to a talk on a technology you don’t know much about. Listen to podcasts and hear what other people in the community are thinking about. Browse the headlines on tech news sites to get a sense of what tools and technologies people are excited about. As a new developer you’ll mostly focus on one area, but take some time to be aware of surrounding areas as well. If nothing else, this will help guide your learning path once you’re finished with the primary area you’re focused on.

Finally, the narrative you tell yourself as a junior developer is also really important. If it’s a little fearful, if you tell yourself “I’ve gotten this far, but I’m not sure about it——it might be a fluke,” then you hamstring yourself. It colors the code you write, your interactions with your team and coworkers, and it hampers building your confidence as a developer. Be kind to yourself; tell yourself you have made progress and that shows you will be able to become a great developer!

Want to experience a Big Nerd Ranch internship yourself? Applications are open for summer 2017 internships for web development, mobile development, and design. Apply today!

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