Jan Dennison 

Mission Coffee Co. — Jan Dennison is a Front End Developer who loves both coding and design, and delights in bridging the two worlds. After web design transitioned her into front-end coding for several years, she recently took the opportunity to attend Dev Bootcamp’s Localhost pilot in Columbus to add to her back-end skill set. Jan is passionate about building community, empathy, and thoughtful user experiences.

Would you introduce yourself? Who are you and what you do?

So I’m Jan and I’m a frontend developer. I previously worked at Battelle for six years doing biodefense research, but I wanted a career change so I got into making websites. I have been doing that ever since.

Jan Dennison
Jan Dennison is a Front End Developer and Co-Chapter Leader for Girl Develop It Columbus

Why the career change?

It might sound weird, but research wasn’t challenging enough for me.

[Laughing] I think a lot of people would find that very challenging!

Science is really fascinating, but it’s on a much longer timescale. Your chances of having a breakthrough or learning something new diminish as time goes on. With the web everything is much faster and you need to keep learning to stay on top of it. That’s hard for me, but I like it because it keeps me interested.

Ultimately I was just really bored all the time. As an outlet I started doing art and graphic design. I also made websites for friends and eventually I decided to leave science to make websites. One day I looked at some job postings for what I wanted to do and decided, “Okay I am going to learn all of these things.”

So that was when your career in development started?

Yeah. I have been moving in that direction ever since, being self-taught and taking positions that were each more challenging than the last. That’s how I’ve learned and improved my skillset.

Tell me about your involvement with Dev Bootcamp Localhost.

I got to a point with HTML, CSS, and JavaScript where I felt really comfortable, but I knew that there were programming concepts that I was missing. There are a lot of things in web development that are assumed you’ll know, but I am coming to this from a non computer science background. I decided that Dev Bootcamp would help me fill those gaps.

As someone who is also self-taught, I totally agree. The backend is a whole different world. It’s also the other half of the equation, so we’ve got to learn it.

Yeah, I knew that I could continue learning on my own, bit by bit, but there’s always that feeling that you don’t know what you don’t know. How can you learn something if you don’t know that it exists?

When the Dev Bootcamp Localhost pilot came along I knew it was a big risk, to join the program you need to quit your job so that you can attend full-time. But I really wanted the opportunity to learn the whole stack. It felt really rewarding to reach that point.

What’s Dev Bootcamp like?

So Dev Bootcamp is a coding school that goes nine weeks part-time and then nine weeks full-time, which means seven days a week for twelve-to-fourteen hours a day. Some students have a background in web development, but most don’t.

You learn the basics of full stack development, so using the console, writing Ruby, working with databases, web serving, and then the frontend. It’s really intense.

That’s a lot of ground to cover in a relatively short period of time.

Yeah it’s very challenging.

In addition to the curriculum they also put a lot of emphasis on pair programming, so we paired every single day.

How was the dynamic between you and your pair when you covered topics that you were strong in? Did you find yourself in more of a mentoring role?

It turned out to be fine. We spent so much time writing backend code that I was learning just like everybody else. It wasn’t until the very end of the program when we got into HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. I just let my pair learn and only helped out where appropriate. I’m also glad we covered the frontend last because it helped me survive the final few weeks.

This was the initial class in Columbus, right?

Yes. The Localhost program was their first attempt at branching out to smaller cities using a remote teaching approach. Dev Bootcamp is currently in San Francisco, Chicago, and New York, so they are looking to expand.

It was intended to be a remote, asynchronous program, so that two days would be in-person, while the rest of the week we’d be working on our own. That didn’t work out because the curriculum wasn’t really designed for it, so we worked in-person nearly the whole time.

I had looked into Dev Bootcamp before, but decided that I couldn’t afford to quit my job and move to Chicago, so I jumped at the opportunity to join Localhost.

What was most challenging about Dev Bootcamp?

The most challenging part for me was the high level of stress and having to pair program the entire day. As an introvert it’s very draining. It was hard to keep my energy levels up while working with another person and learning the material at the same time.

You do get really close with the people in your cohort and everybody eventually learns that it’s okay to take a break. You can take a short walk outside to gather your thoughts and then return to resume working.

There’s a weekly session called “Engineering Empathy” that’s focused on getting engineers to be more empathetic with the people around them. A counselor would come in to facilitate the sessions and those helped a lot. You’re encouraged to be comfortable with your own boundaries, but also listen to others. Sometimes there were difficult discussions and giving a lot of feedback where they coached us in approach, which was a really cool aspect of the program.

What was the biggest takeaway from the experience?

One of the most rewarding things was having more confidence in my development skills.

I also learned how to give helpful feedback by doing it in an empathetic way. I’m shy and easily intimidated so that’s always been difficult for me. It’s such a big part of the program that by the end I felt like the feedback champion.

I absolutely feel more comfortable with my JavaScript. I understand how web pages come together as a whole, when they’re pulling from the data layer, and when they’re being served. We also did a lot on RESTful routing, which is something that I hadn’t been introduced to before.

I just started a new job where I work with a Backbone app and connecting all the parts has been a revelation for me. I’m glad my co-workers are patient because I ask a lot of questions!

Exactly. We spent a lot of time covering MVC, first in Ruby and then later in JavaScript. Now that I know the pattern and understand what each part of it does, I can see differences and variations between frameworks and how different people approach it.

So it just clicked for you?

Yeah.

Did you learn anything at Dev Bootcamp that you’ll apply to your work with Girl Develop It?

Absolutely. I’ve been a TA for Girl Develop It classes and I’ll definitely feel more confident teaching classes now. Before I wasn’t sure if I knew enough to do that, but now I know what skills I can bring to a class to help other people get into it.

Again, the soft skills we learned about in “Engineering Empathy” are just so important to bridging different communication styles between the people in a group. Those will definitely help me.

One other thing that Dev Bootcamp does is “Lady Lunches” where they take the women in the program out to lunch to strengthen those relationships. It’s hard getting women into the industry, but it’s even more of a challenge getting them to stay. When you form bonds with other women in tech, who you feel that you can rely upon, it makes you feel more engaged so you don’t get discouraged and keep going.

Would you talk about Girl Develop It? What is it and how did you get involved?

Girl Develop It is an international program that’s designed to lower the barrier for women to get into tech. We offer inexpensive classes, mentoring, and community nights where you can come to meet people.

We have our “Hack Night” where you can bring your laptop to work on a project. It’s not hacking, but an opportunity to meet people and talk about tech. We also have our “Code & Coffee” meetup once a month, which is the same general idea.

All women are welcome to attend. We have women who have no background in tech, as well as women who work in tech professionally. It’s really a wide range that’s intended to be accessible and provide resources to teach and build community.

The Columbus chapter was founded by Jen Myers, who encouraged me to get more involved in development. I took the JavaScript class because I was muddling through learning it on my own. At the time I thought, “I don’t even know what I’m doing here,” but taking the class helped. I’ve stayed with it since then.

I really love building community, making people feel included, and being helpful where I can. I became Co-Chapter Leader with Kim Hamper, who had commitments outside of the group with graduate school, so I stepped up to help. It’s been really great and I think that I’ve managed to helped her a little bit. I immediately started Dev Bootcamp after volunteering to help, but now that bootcamp is over I am directing more of my attention to it

So now you’ll have a lot more bandwidth?

Yes, absolutely.

As a Co-Chapter Leader, what are your responsibilities?

Chapter Leaders are the organizers for all the classes, events, and meetups. We also try to get involved with other groups in Columbus to cross-promote. We also look for sponsors to fund our work or to host our classes.

I’ve taught a workshop about HTML5 and how it differs from earlier versions of HTML and why it matters. We’ll also be offering more classes around HTML, CSS, Ruby, and probably JavaScript.

We offer scholarships to women who can’t afford it, so we take in the applications and consider them. We really just try to make the barrier for entry as low as possible.

We also meet with other Chapter Leaders once a year at a Girl Develop It conference.

That sounds like a good place to discuss what’s worked and what hasn’t for each chapter.

It’s a really great resource for getting advice, like “We had this crazy recruiter come to our meeting, what should we do?” Or, “What do we do about men in the group?” We’re open to both genders, but our goal is very clearly to support women getting into the field of technology. Men often have more experience, so they make great teachers and mentors. We are inclusive, which helps our goal to have both genders viewing women as co-workers. That’s really important to us.

What suggestions do you have for women who are looking to get into development?

The best suggestion I have is to really believe that you can do it, in addition to seeking out good resources to learn from. As a gender we haven’t been socialized towards technology, so sometimes it feels like, “Oh this programmy concept sounds complicated, I’m not sure that I’d be able to understand it.” I hear that all the time, but it’s just like any other process. You can learn it step by step with each level building towards the next. Believing that you can learn something is really the first step to doing it.

I always like to think that every one of us has made a lot of terrible websites, whether we’re beginning in development or have been doing this work for years. You have to start somewhere.

That’s absolutely one aspect of our industry. At every step you now know the least amount that you’re ever going to know again because you learn another thing. And then you learn another thing. Everybody is like that. It’s not just you, everybody does it.

You’re always doing the best you can at the moment with what you know and that’s good enough to keep going, which is really empowering.

What are common impediments to having more women in tech? What needs to change in our industry?

One thing that I don’t often hear about is finding the right balance between soft and hard skills. In a lot of companies the extroverts are valued for their energy and aggression. They aren’t afraid to ask for what they want, so they get better compensation and career opportunities.

That conflicts with how I am and how a lot of other women are. How can I be as successful without compromising who I am? Some women put their families before their career and that’s important to them. Or maybe they just don’t want to be as cutthroat, but instead be open and supportive. How can I be a full participant in this field and still retain that balance? I think that’s a big challenge.

What’s the best part about being involved with Girl Develop It?

The best part is helping other people make big changes in their lives. Being involved with Girl Develop It can open a lot of doors to a flexible work environment. There are a lot of low-paying and inflexible roles out there for women, but working in technology can create lots of opportunities.

With Girl Develop It you can basically pay forward everything that you were given, from the mentors that helped you get into tech, to all the websites and tools that you use, to all of the classes you took. It’s like a patchwork. Being able to provide that to other people is so rewarding.

You’re doing good work that’s definitely needed in our community. I wonder when we’ll get to a point where we won’t need an organization like Girl Develop It.

It will happen. Just having the conversation is the first step. And we’re absolutely having that conversation.

What languages or technologies are you most interested in?

So CSS is my favorite thing in the entire world. I can still remember the time I discovered CSS Zen Garden, about fifteen years ago. I was blown away by the fact that everything could look so different, but still had the same structure. It’s just like painting, but you have to use your mind to translate it into code.

I am really excited about JavaScript because I feel like I know it now. I also enjoyed learning Ruby, probably because I was being taught by great teachers, instead of teaching myself by reading a book.

You mentioned that you were searching for a job. How is that going? What are you looking for?

It’s going really well. Obviously I wish that every company just knew that I was available and knew about my work [laughing]…

“Jan here’s your dream job!”

…“Here’s your offer!”

I’m taking a different approach. I did the additional week of Dev Bootcamp for their Career Services and it was really great. They changed how I think and go about looking for a position. Most people search for jobs and take the first offer they get. Instead of doing that, I am taking a step back and researching companies that I would want to work for. Also roles that I would like to fill.

I have connected with a lot of new people and looked into a lot of companies. It’s pretty neat, but kind of scary too.

So potentially you’d pass on an opportunity in the hope that a more ideal one would come later?

Right. Instead of interviewing and trying to convince someone that you’re competent, you instead have a conversation about who you are and how you’d fit in the company and culture.

Would you move or work remotely?

I have several leads, both here and outside of Columbus, although I’m not looking to relocate. I am open to working remotely, so that opens me up to lots of companies.

There are a lot of places that focus on their employees’ happiness so that they can do their best work for the company. I’m looking for that so I can have a good work-life balance.

Really it’s a privilege to be able to apply to positions like that. Not everyone is able to and I certainly haven’t been able to before. I’m cognizant of that and appreciative too.

How do you find work-life balance? How hard was Dev Bootcamp?

Dev Bootcamp was difficult for me because I have an anxiety disorder. I work really hard to maintain a balance. I know myself really well, so I am able to listen to warning signals so that I don’t get burnt out. Dev Bootcamp really stripped away that balance by going constantly for so long.

To keep my balance I make sure to reserve time alone for myself and my art. I also make sure that I spend time with my friends and my family. I give myself the approval to do fun things and not feel guilty about them. That’s a big priority too.

What are your interests outside of development?

I love to do art, I’ve done many shows and festivals around Columbus, like ComFest and Independents’ Day. I do art mostly as a hobby now.

I have a really great dog, she’s a cocker spaniel named Rosemary. She’s sleepy and lazy and wonderful.

I also play board games with friends, go to movies, and just explore Columbus, especially to find new restaurants and cool shops.

What are your goals for the year?

I don’t really do yearly goals. I have general aims and I do occasional checks to see if I’m making progress.

Oh, I would like to get a bike this year so that I can bike places.

Cruise around town?

Yeah. That’s been a goal for a couple years and I’ve not made any progress.

I also haven’t had a chance to read a book since starting Dev Bootcamp, so I’d like to do that. Read a book and ride a bike.