Thinkful Mentor Profile: Bess Fernandez

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Location: Bloomington, Indiana

Current job: Developer at Buildium

Past projects: Starbucks e-gift cards, sites for Nintendo and Toyota

Language she loves: JavaScript

Hey Bess! Tell us about how you got your start as a web developer.

I started out 10 years ago by learning HTML — looking at the sources of web pages and piecing things together. I took one computer science class in college where we learned Java and was totally overwhelmed. It wasn’t very accessible! But I’d always been interested in building small websites, so I kept doing that. When I moved to Seattle, I took a multimedia course through the University of Washington certificate program. My learning process was a combination of instruction and banging my hands against a keyboard trying to get things to work.

Did you have a mentor while you were learning?

I did — it was my teacher for my certificate program. I would email him and say “I can’t figure this out, can you help me?” and meet with him outside of class. He actually ended up being my boss at Starbucks Corporate six years later.

Having a mentor was really important for me, especially without resources like Stack Overflow. Today mentors are available because we have the opposite problem: there’s too much information about coding online, and it’s really hard to navigate without guidance from an expert if if you’re a beginner. The technology is also changing faster than before, which means that the learning curve can be steeper, though ultimately more rewarding.

How did you end up getting your first job?

I kept building sites until I’d worked on my portfolio enough to get a job with an e-commerce company. I had been making minimum wage working in retail, and at first I wasn’t making much more than at that, but the experience was what catapulted me into my career. I got a job at POP in Seattle, and later at Starbucks Corporate. I’m now working at Buildium, which creates software for folks that manage rental units.

This is your second month as a Thinkful mentor. Share some highlights from your mentoring experience with us.

I love seeing students’ enthusiasm. It’s infectious, and it’s a great reminder that development is a really fun field to be in. I’ve also really been blown away with student’s work, particularly their Javascript projects. They start coding as beginners and a few weeks later they’re writing a dynamically scripted number guessing game.

How does a typical mentoring session work?

I let the student lead the session, so we usually start off with questions they have. Sessions are centered around reviewing projects and fixing bugs. We share screens, and the student walks me through their code. I teach them how to find the answers, rather than tell them exactly what to do. This sets them up for the day-to-day work of a junior developer.

Students also ask general questions, such as ”what’s position: relative?” or “what is responsive design?” For those we’ll do an example on screen, and I direct them to other resources to find answers.

There’s still a big gender gap in the tech industry. Only 25% of IT jobs in the US are held by women.  Based on your experience as a female developer, do you think closing that gap is an important goal?

Definitely! I have been the only woman on a team more times than I can count, and it can be hard. Things are changing for the better but it’s a slow process. I was recently at the Fluent Conference in San Francisco, and they had a diverse line-up of male and female speakers. But we’re not there yet. When bathroom lines are equal at a conference, then I’d say maybe. Right now I just kind of laugh at the long line for the men’s room and say ”Ha ha, I’ve got this one all to myself.”

I think the best way to fix is to encourage as many people as possible to try out programming. Women who are not encouraged to try it may never discover it.

You’ve moved around a lot, and live in Bloomington, Indiana right now. Is coding a good field to enter for those who don’t want to move to a major tech city, like San Francisco or Boston?

Yes, you might have to start out working in an office, but once you gain experience it’s more likely you can land a remote job. Stack Overflow has a special listing for hiring developers remotely, and so does Authentic Jobs. Developer jobs are also often pretty flexible; you can often work from home a few days a week.

I know you don’t code 24/7. Do your other interests intersect with your web development work?

I write fiction, and I’ve been working on a book for about a year now. I find that writing fiction and writing code aren’t so different. They’re both about trying to find the best way to express yourself. And they’re both that type of thinking that goes on in the back of your mind when you’re trying to do something else. ”Why isn’t this character interesting enough? Why isn’t this code running fast enough?”

Any final advice for those hoping to start a career in web development?

  1. Find out what you love. Whether it’s design, CSS, or Javascript, find a passion and work hard on that.

  2. Get really good at one skill. That can be helpful when you’re looking for a job.  It’s great to be comfortable with different aspects of web development, but if you want to focus on something like Node.js, you should. There are a ton of people looking for specialists in that right now.

  3. Build a portfolio. Build websites for friends, even if they’re small, one-page websites. If you’re not up to speed with your design chops, work with a friend who knows design, or find someone with those skills. It’s amazing what you can pick up from working together with a mentor or a friend.