Episode 64 – How Holly helps

Holly Gibson and Arsalan Ahmed with Mentoring Developers

Mentoring and being mentored are the main topics of this podcast, but not everyone knows how to find a mentor and how best to be mentored or to mentor others. Did you know that you can learn a lot more during a mentorship than software know-how alone? It’s true, just ask our next guest, Holly Gibson.

Holly has learned a great deal about mentorship as both mentee and mentor during her time in the tech field. In episode 64, she shares that knowledge with you and Mentoring Developers Co-host, Sara Ines Calderon. Be sure to listen in for all the juicy details.

Holly’s Bio:

Holly has over a decade’s experience in web development and server management.  Besides being a lead developer at Praxent, Holly is the Executive Director of Women Who Code Austin, where she leads a network of 2600+ women in tech.  Prior to software development, Holly served at a disability non-profit.  She an has expansive knowledge of the challenges faced by individuals and families affected by disability.  Merging her experience as a software engineer and disability advocate, Holly is determined to see software applications and technology in general become more accessible and inclusive.  She is leading the charge on her team to implement accessible features and also being a voice in the technology community for those who are underrepresented and neglected.

Episode Highlights and Show Notes:

Sara: Hi, everybody. This is Sara Ines Calderon, and you’re listening to Mentoring Developers. Today I’m here with my great friend and someone who I admire very much, who’s actually been a very great mentor to me and a mentor and inspiration to so many other ladies I know here in Austin, Texas, the one and only Holly Gibson. We’re going to talk to her about her journey into technology and some of the challenges she’s faced and where she’s at now. We’ll also talk about her work with Women Who Code Austin. So, Holly take it away and tell us a little bit about yourself.

Holly: Hi, Sara Ines. It’s great to be here on your podcast on Mentoring Developers. I really care about this topic so it’s something that I’m excited to talk about. A little bit about me, I am a developer at Praxent, which is a custom software agency here in Austin. I didn’t start out as a developer. I have a degree in theology, which is a very far move from software development. I went to a coding bootcamp about four years ago and having mentors along the way to get to where I am today was so important.

Sara: That’s cool. Tell us a little bit about your life. You said you got a degree in theology. So, how did you go from theology to wanting to do a coding bootcamp. Then, tell us a little bit about some of the jobs that you’ve had before this job, where I just want to say that you mentioned you were in charge of some of the job groups framework. You are a senior developer or architect. What step made you want to go to the coding bootcamp? How are your jobs before you got to this job? Also, tell us a little bit about how along the way you founded a chapter of women who code in Austin, despite having your hands full with code school.

Holly: Yes, of course. In college, they had a couple of classes in web design. I took them. There was one class in basic JavaScript. This was over 10 years ago. So, it is not the JavaScript that we use today. It is very far from it. I liked it. I liked the ability to create things. I thought it was a lot of fun to make the computer do things, but I didn’t know how to find a job with the degree and theology. So, I went to marketing and I did that for a while.

Holly: When I moved to Austin four years ago, I learned about code schools. There was one that was coming to Austin and it was perfect timing because I was looking for a new job and I wanted to do something different than I had been doing. I had been working in the nonprofit arena will, which is great and very fulfilling, but it doesn’t pay very much and I felt like I had mastered all the skills that I needed to run programs and be an event planner. I wanted something more challenging. So, I went to a code school, Makers Square, which is now rebranded to Hack Reactor.

Holly: It was hard. It was one of the hardest things that I’ve ever done. I felt stupid every day because you’re learning new things and there’s so much to learn that the information is so broad. Learning to program sounds daunting in a way, and it was. Through the code school, I was able to build a couple of apps and that felt really great, but I still felt that I didn’t know anything. So, I decided to start the Women Who Code chapter because I wanted to meet other women in tech. So, I would have friends. I was new to this city. I was new to the industry. I needed a job. I needed to network. I met some people from the San Francisco Women Who Code chapter and they wanted one to start in Austin, and they were looking for someone to help. So I agreed to help.

Sara: Little did you know that help meant doing it.

Holly: Yes, help meant a part-time job. It started out as a very small group of us. There were maybe 10 or 15 women and we would get together and hack on different projects and Google together because a lot of times you don’t know the answer and Google is your friend.

Sara: Sure. That’s awesome. So, you had a couple of jobs before this job. It sounds like you started in a kind of peer mentorship when you are first still in code school because everybody knows a little bit about something different. So, together, you know more. It sounds like you were doing that. I know that when she started to work. You were also consistently pursuing mentorship as well, which is something that I’ve always thought was admirable.

Holly: Yes. So, my first job out of code school was at a startup. It was an education startup. There were six employees and I was the only technical person. I was the only developer and I did everything for managing the server, the database, and the web application, and I had no one to ask advice from. The CEO barely know how to program her iPhone or set up her apps. I was helping her all the time. So, I had to find someone because I didn’t know anything about databases or servers. I barely knew the framework that we were using for the app. We were using Rails and I had just three months experience from the code school.

Holly: So, I went to the local Rails meet up, and I heard some of the speakers talk. Some of what they were saying really connected with me. It was very interesting. So, I went to the speaker after word and was asking questions and I explained my situation that I was working at a startup by myself and I didn’t have anyone to ask questions from and he said that he would meet with me on the weekend to explain some of the things with me.

Holly: When we met, it went really well. We really connected. So I thought, okay, I like this guy. He seems very friendly. He seems like he knows what he’s talking about. Maybe he’d be willing to meet again. So I asked him if he’d be willing to show me some more stuff. So he agreed and said he is usually there at this coffee shop on Sundays. He said that if I wanted to come there, then he could help me. So I went there every Sunday for four months just to get as much information as I could out of him. I’d buy him coffee. I’d buy him a taco or whatever he needed and I would ask him what books I should be reading. Which blog should I be reading and who should I be following on twitter? What are sources of information that I can trust? What should I be learning? So, it was really helpful to have him guiding me.

Holly: Mentors provide information and knowledge. They see where we need to improve. They also offer encouragement and help us keep going. There were a lot of times that I felt very frustrated at the start up. I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing, like I was an imposter, like I shouldn’t be there, and it was terrifying to be by myself. I like this quote from Oprah Winfrey: “A mentor is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself.” So, by meeting with the mentor I saw that I was learning and growing and that I could keep going.

Sara: I think that’s a really important point about mentorship. I think the best mentors are the ones who can point out how you’ve grown because you can’t always see that if you feel like you’re treading water and barely keeping your head above water. You’re not going to notice that you’ve just swam 5 miles. So, that’s a really good point. I consistently love hearing those stories. I certainly don’t wish that on anyone and I hope you never feel like that again, but it’s a great story now.

Holly: Yes. I survived.

Sara: That’s really cool. So, tell us a little about through Women Who Code, how you have the opportunity to meet all sorts of people, mentees and mentors. What are some of the things that you think are most important for someone who’s learning how to be a good mentee or how to look for a mentor? As you yourself are a mentor to others, what are some of the things that you think are important to keep in mind if you’re going to be a mentor?

Holly: So, I’ll start with the first question. How do you find a mentor? I think MeetUp is a great place to start if there is a MeetUp on a topic that you are wanting to learn more about. For me, being a software developer, Rails was the software framework that I using. So, I went to a Rails meet up. Now, I’m mostly doing Javascript and React. So, if you can find a React meetup, like Women Who Code has a React meetup. I know you’ve been mentoring women and learning React even if it’s just learning alongside them. You guys are mentoring each other. In your company, if you can find a developer who knows more than you do, you can set up office hours. We have a senior developer at my company who I meet with once a week. I gather the questions during the week that I want to bring to the meeting so that he can then help and explain things to me.

Sara: Is that a formal company process or did you ask to put that in place?

Holly: I asked to put that in place. We don’t have a formal process and I think that a lot of small to mid-sized companies don’t have a mentoring process. I wish they did. So, I kept going to them with questions because I knew that they have more experience than I did, but because they’re busy trying to meet deadlines and stuff, they couldn’t always answer my questions. So, I asked if it would be okay if we did office hours like once a week and I could bring my questions to them then and it’s all on the calendar. He said that was fine. I asked the supervisor if it was okay if I did this because an agency and we bill our hours. He said yes and that this was learning time and applies to what we are doing.

Holly: So, I did it and since then I started office hours for two other individuals  who I mentor because I saw that they wanted to learn things. One of them was a PHP developer who wanted to learn React and some of the Javascript framework. So, I suggested that we do office hours and I could help her learn. So, I’m always trying to find a mentor, but also willing to pay it forward.

Sara: That’s really interesting. I really like what you said about finding someone within your company and creating a process. Just because one doesn’t exist doesn’t mean that you can’t create one. So, that is one of the things that you think is important to be a mentee and how to find a mentor. Tell us about, now that you’re a formal mentor through your work, what are some tips on being a good mentor? As you mentioned, I do run a few meetups now. We have a React meetup through Women Who Code Austin. We have Rockin React. Holly started this theme at Women Who Code Austin where everything is alliteration.

Holly: Yes. We have Lightning Learning and Rockin React.

Sara: Rockin React. Was it Mobile Madness?

Holly: Yes. It’s memorable.

Sara: It’s memorable. So, why not? It’s fun.

Holly: Learning should be fun.

Sara: Yes, learning should be fun. So, I guess one of the things that I struggle with as a mentor, especially in groups, is how do you provide value in groups because there are people from all different levels and experiences? Like I learned last week, just because somebody knows something, it doesn’t mean that they are going to learn something new by going over it again. Sometimes having to explain it to someone else can help you formulate something in your mind. So, what are some things that you’ve learned as a mentor? How do you be a better mentor to people?

Holly: I learned something while I was mentoring through a code school here called General Assembly. They set up a mentorship program for their students. I was mentoring one of their female students and every week I would ask her “what do you need now?” That’s because things change. In my own experience, I’ve had a situation where the mentor had a curriculum of things for me to learn, but many of the times I came, he would ask if there was anything else that I wanted. There was always something else I wanted because usually, if your new, what you need is what is most pressing. My mentee was going on interviews. So, what was most pressing for her was to learn how to do coding interviews. If I’m on a project, the most pressing thing for me is how to get this project done. So, as a mentor, you need to be flexible and ask what the mentee needs because you are there to serve them. They are not there to stroke your ego.

Holly: So, it changes. Sometimes I did resume writing with her because she needed to brush up her resume. Sometimes we went over code challenges. Other times she just wanted advice. For example, sometimes she had different job offers and she wasn’t sure what she should do or how she should negotiate her salary. I just gave the best advice I could and knew that she had to make the ultimate decision. My advice may not have been exactly what she needed, but I could give her stories from my own experiences and from other peoples’ experiences and then leave it up to her to decide whether or not this was what she needed to do or if she needed to find something else. The thing to remember is that their situation is not your situation.

Sara: That’s a really good point. So, what do you do if you are mentoring someone and they ask you something that you don’t know? How do you deal with that?

Holly: I would say that I don’t know. That is so important. I think you should never set yourself up as the expert who knows everything because we don’t know everything. Also, they are going to figure out that you don’t know everything and their opinion of you is going to be lowered if you lied to them. It also teaches them to be okay with not knowing things themselves. You want to be able to say to them that you don’t know and suggest “let’s research that, let’s Google it, or let’s find someone else who has  an answer, or find a book that may have the answer.” That will teach them how to find the answer for themselves next time so they don’t have to ask you. Also, when they are on the job, they can go to a senior developer or supervisor and say that they don’t know how to do something and not worry about being shamed or something.

Sara: That’s really cool. I like that. So, let’s talk about how there’s mentorship in groups. I think that’s something that you have a lot of experience in. I have some experience with it since we started the React meetup. I’ve found that it’s different.  I don’t know that I’ve gotten a lot of one on one mentorship, certainly not as much as I wanted. There is such a thing as group mentorship where you can be around people who make you feel like you can figure things out and it actually makes you figure things out. The reverse is also true. You have people who tell you you can’t do stuff, or they ignore you, or they treat you like your not good and that can make you feel like you don’t know and so you won’t even try. How have you experienced that? You were Women Who Code for a few years where it was basically just you and you’ve been able to build a really cool board and group of people that have all been able to build the organization in their respected areas. How has that been good mentorship to you and what have you observed about mentorship since you’ve been involved with all these thousands of women over time?

Holly: With Women Who Code, specifically, I guess group mentorship, we have a variety of events. So, there are different offerings for people to decide what they want whether it’s React, Python or small topics like Lightening Learning, which is short, five to ten-minute topics. So, people can come to what they want. We always leave room for questions. So, all the women feel like they can ask questions and we do our best to answer them. If you’re going to do group mentorship, you definitely need a topic. All of our events have a topic of some sort. I think the best one for mentoring would be our Hacking Hangouts because people actually bring a project that they’re working on so they can ask for specific advice.

Holly: When I first started it, I knew I couldn’t answer everyone’s questions and help everyone at the same time. So, I would have everyone go around and talk about what they were doing and what they need help with. So, if one person had a Java question and someone else was a Java developer and I wasn’t a Java developer, I could match them. In group mentoring, if people are coming with individual needs, it’s great if you can match them up with someone and make it more one on one.

Holly: We have found through one of our events that people will meet each other and they have similar things that they’re working on. So, they will meet outside of the event, like at a coffee shop. For example, they are both looking for a job and they go over code challenges together or they are both trying to learn React together. So we’ve also seen informal mentoring or peer mentoring forms. So, that’s really cool. So, I would say to treat everyone friendly and make them feel safe so they can ask any question they want. Do your best to help them and if you don’t have the answer, try to direct them to a good resource.

Sara: Sure. That’s aweswome. That’s really good. One thing that I found really interesting about some of the stories you’ve been telling us is that it sounds like you’ve never really had a mentor who was another woman, necessarily. It also sounds like a lot of the people who have been mentors to you have been men. So, why don’t you talk a little bit about that? I’ve had a different experience. Like most people, I’ve worked mostly with men. It’s hard to find these senior folks who wanted to mentor me. Then, I did find one and then I had to find a new job. So, that was very short-lived. I did learn a lot when I was working with him. Is that something that people talk about to you or is it just something that people take what they can get in terms of finding mentors who are similar to them, demographically speaking?

Holly: I think most people take what they can get. Peoples’ time is precious. We’re all busy and stretched in our modern society. So, if you find someone who is willing to meet with you, jump on it. The first mentor I had, I didn’t like the first time I heard him speak. I thought he was really critical and a little disgruntled. So, I didn’t want to have him as my mentor. Then, I talked to him in person and I found that in person, he was actually very nice. He does like to play devil’s advocate, but I learned that over time. For example, he likes to critique and criticize, but he was passionate about teaching. So, I could set aside his critiques of everything in the world and programming and theory and things like that and learn from him because he did know software and he did know what gaps I had. So, for me, since he was willing to give his time, I learned to set aside my personal preferences.

Holly: The next person I found was a personal friend of his and I met him at another event. It was just an after hours drinking. We started talking about programming. He had some strong opinions and I asked him why because I find that mentors who want to teach, they do so because they care about the subject. They care about quality and they are passionate. They want to see the next generation of developers have good skills. He was really passionate about Haskell. It was a language I knew nothing about. So, I asked him about Haskell and how it worked. I told him that I’d be interested in learning it because I didn’t know it and didn’t know if I’d ever be able to find a job with it because it’s kind of an obscure language, but at least I could learn theory from him. So, he was really excited to teach me Haskell.

Holly: So we met every week for a year. It wasn’t easy. I had to drive across town in traffic after a really long day at my job. Yet, after that, I was able to talk about Haskell in one of my job interviews. Even thought the job wasn’t in Haskell, it really impressed the hiring manager because they liked Haskell and I knew that because I had Googled the hiring manager. So, I knew to bring up Haskell, but I also knew Haskell and it got me a job in Javascript.

Holly: Through that mentor, learning about this obscure language, I also learned about other things. I learned how to  and how to ask for a good salary because the programmer was a developer team manager. So, I asked him what salary range should I be looking for as I was job hunting? He said “Well, let’s figure out what your skills are.” So, he assessed my skills and told me the range that I should be looking for and here are all of the ranges and what the next range I would want to go for. I took that information and did a Lightening talk on it at Women Who Code. I told all the ladies what all the different ranges are and what skills are needed for the different ranges. So other women used that information to help them get better jobs.

Sara: That’s cool. I really like that story. Everytime you tell that story, it’s hilarious. I think that what it also illustrates is that you are going to get things out of mentorships that you don’t necessarily know about. It sounds like the young lady that you were mentoring, G.A., knew specific things that she needed. Yet, when you were learning Haskell, you didn’t necessarily know the specific things that you needed outside this nebulous idea of software theory. You ended up getting some very practical information and skills out of that too.

Holly: Yes, because I would ask questions and I think that’s another piece of advice for a mentee. When you have your mentor’s time, treat it like money. Bring your questions to them even if it’s not on that topic. We rarely stayed on topic. I’d come and he’d be ready to teach me how to profunctor optics, or something like that and I’d change the subject by asking how to my salary. So, I would bring some other questions and he was a passionate person, so he cared about helping me. He wanted to see me succeed, so definitely make sure that your mentor wants to see you succeed. They should make you feel good about yourself. Like you said, they should praise the successes that you have.

Sara: That’s cool. I also want to talk a little more about your experience working in software. So, I also wanted to ask you about something that we’ve talked about before because we’re friends in real life. It is the one thing that I think is really important in mentorship that you were talking about with this last person, in terms of very practical things like how much salary can I get. It is also figuring out where you are. I recently had a job interview that was the worst interview of my life, not because of me,  but because of them. The Javascript assessment was a train wreck, not because of me, but because of them.

Sara: At the end of the interview, he asked me where I thought I was in my career. I told him and he was really surprised that I was self-aware enough to know where I was. I can take a lot of things away from that response, but I think that one of them is that it seems that most people don’t really know where they are at. It’s something that I think that mentorship is really helpful for.

Sara: When you don’t know anything, you think a couple of things. You think that one day you will reach a point where you know everything and that will never happen. You also think that everyone knows more than you. So, once you get to be a little more mid-career, which is where I consider myself to be, you know that you’re never going to know everything and it doesn’t scare you. That’s the real knowledge gain there. They’re not terrified that you don’t know things. You’ve also figured out enough things to have a facility to figure things out. You also have a little bit of an idea of how to get to where you need to get versus when you are starting out when there are so many things and it is so overwhelming.

Sara: So, talk to me a little about how you as a mentor and the people who have mentored you have helped you figure out where you are at, how to get to where you want to go, and maybe assessing that those judgements that we get in the workplace aren’t necessarily tied to us, but are wrapped up in company politics or favoritism or whatever the case may be?

Holly: Yes. I had a weird juxtoposition of my skills in one job and then immediately in the following job. I got hired at a data science company and I was super pumped. I had been working for a year to get hired there because I had met some of the developers at a meetup and they were so smart and talented that I wanted to work with these guys. I wanted that on-the-job mentoring that I wasn’t getting at the startup. So, I taught myself Python for a year and I got through the interview. I got a job offer and started working there. The team that I was put on was so difficult to work with. They would give me the smallest tasks to do and would never respond to my questions. So, I couldn’t even complete half the tasks because they wouldn’t even work with me.

Sara: There was shockingly no documentation anywhere.

Holly: So, it was really frustrating because this was the dream company to work for. It was downtown with really cool offices, and great culture. Some of the other teams had really great people on them. I liked them, it was just the people who I worked with didn’t believe that I could do anything. They wouldn’t work with me and I was really frustrating. There was also a lot of politics and stuff going on as well. After I had been there for about four months, they had layoffs and I got laid off. I was just so frustrated because this had been the dream job and it wasn’t a great experience and I ended up getting laid off a week before Christmas. It was miserable.

Holly: So, I went on some job interviews and, thankfully, I was able to find a job in six weeks, which is pretty fast.

Sara: That’s pretty fast.

Holly: Pretty fast. So, I started this next job that I found out there, my current job at Praxent. Immediately, they told me that I was going to lead a team on a project. I was surprised because it was on a framework that I haven’t used before, but they were confident that I could learn it. This was the guy that I talked Haskell to. So, he just believed in me and believed in my skills. So, I went from being a junior developer that no one trusted to now leading this team, learning a framework I had never learned with a database I had never used before.

Holly: We got it done and shipped our product on time. The project manager told me that the last software company that this client had worked with had been six months late. They were so amazed that we made our target date. I did work pretty hard the last several weeks…I  worked about 70 hours, but I realized through that experience that I wasn’t a junior developer and I could learn. Like you said, knowing that you don’t know something, but not being terrified about that and knowing that you can learn and figure things out.

Holly: So, I’ve been at this job now for a year and a half. I’ve learned two more frameworks that I didn’t know. I’ve learned Angular 2 and React and I’ve been on some really awesome projects. I’ve built some desktop applications. I knew nothing about desktop applications and it’s been really exciting. Like you said, to be in an evironment where they believe in you and they believe in your skill is so encouraging. I love coming to work every day. I didn’t enjoy coming to work every day at the other job because I felt like no one believed that I could do anything. They weren’t working with me. Here, we are learning a lot and it can be stressful, but I also know that they believe in me and if I have an issue, I can ask someone for help. They are not going to look down on me when I say that I don’t know because they also know that they don’t know. We are all learning together. Nobody knows everything. So, it’s a complete polar opposite of the job that I had before.

Holly: I think that finding mentors and people who can assess your skills and believe in your skills is important because you might be at that company where they are not giving you a chance. So, just go to another company. If you’re stuck at this company, just keep asking for more responsibilities. Believe in yourself that you can figure it out because you will. You will figure it out.

Sara: That’s the kind of story that blows my mind. Before we decided to do the podcast that we’re having, you and I had discussed that I had also worked for a previous company where they didn’t really give me any responsibility or think that I could do anything. Now, I also started out as the only developer at this startup and everyone is so impressed with me because I’ve been able to do all this stuff. I think that is also something that I’ve learned because I’ve been building a team and we’ve been bringing people on and we’re trying to create infrastructure and procedures and stuff. Last week, I told our first hire that I was going to set the bar for him up here because I’ve learned that if I set the bar for him up here, in two months he will tell me what the better way for him to move forward on this is. I want him to be there. I want him to be better than me versus another place where I worked where you ask a question and the response is “you don’t know that.” That’s not helping people grow. That’s not helping the company get better developers. That’s something that I really appreciate about you.

Sara: The way that Holly and I became friends was that we met at Women Who Code and I was starving for mentorship. She said we could get together and she would teach me Javascript, but we ended up just becoming friends and gossiping a lot. We also learned Javascript, though.

Holly: We had a coding brunch.

Sara: Yes, we started having a coding brunch. A lot of good things came out of that. A lot of other people were able to re-negotiate their salaries and stuff. So, group mentorship is also a thing.

Holly: So, I paid it forward and she kept inviting people to join. I thought “Oh it’s just going to be me and Sara and we’re going to attack the Javascript and eat some tacos,” and she’s like “Guess what, I invited three other people.”

Sara: Yes, that was an interesting time. I remember waking up in San Antonio over a weekend and I had to get up early because I didn’t want to miss my coding brunch.

Holly: I feel honored.

Sara: So, that’s cool. Well, I am running out of things to ask you. Is there anything else that you want to talk about or any last points that you want to make about mentorship? Tell us about your career and where to follow you if they want to learn more or if they want to ask you specific questions.

Holly: The best way to reach me is on Twitter. My handle is @HollyGlot. It’s a joke for Polly Glot. Uber nerds. Get it? Sorry, I’m a nerd at heart. You can follow me there. I’m always tweeting about things that I’m learning, things in tech, and occasionallly, political rants, but we won’t go there. You can ask me questions there. We’re also at Women Who Code at most of the events. So, check them out or at MeetUp – Women Who Code Austin. As for any last advice, just breathe. What troubles you today will not be what troubles you tomorrow. There’ll be new troubles.

Sara: That’s a promise. Also, if you guys are going to be in Austin, come to our meetups because we’d love to meet you.

Sara: Well, Holly, thank you for being on Mentoring Developers. I know this was super fun for me and I hope for our listeners as well. If anyone has any questions, feel free to follow her on Twitter. Our Women Who Code Twitter is www.codeatx.com and you can follow us on Twitter @MentoringDevs as well. So, thanks, Holly.

Holly: Thank you. I really enjoyed being on here. Good luck everyone on the inter-webs.

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