057: Demystifying Software with Liz Baillie
In this episode, we talk to Liz Baillie, of Tilde Inc., about demystifying software: understanding programming, coming to peace with ignorance, math and programming, and getting involved in Open Source.
- 01:32 - Becoming a Developer
- 07:54 - Website Building
- 12:03 - Understanding Programming
- 17:34 - Coming to Peace with Ignorance
- 22:25 - Systems Programming
- 26:46 - Making Goals for Yourself
- 28:57 - Math and Programming
- 38:08 - Open Source
- Wicked Good Ember
- Liz Baillie: Journey to the Center of Ember Test Helpers
- Fibonacci Number
- Freewheel: Volume One by Liz Baillie
- The Flatiron School
- Impostor Syndrome
- Letter to a Young Haskell Enthusiast
- Hello, Con!
CHARLES: Hello, everybody and welcome to The Frontside Podcast Episode 57. My name is Charles Lowell. I am a developer here at The Frontside and with me is Stephanie Riera, also a developer at The Frontside. Today, we have with us Liz Baillie, who is a developer at Tilde.
I am actually really excited to have Liz on the show. I saw her at Wicked Good Ember back in June of 2016 and her talk was definitely one of the more memorable ones. You come away from a conference kind of only remembering a certain number of talks that stick in your mind and as time passes, the messages may fade but some of the message just stick with you and the one I got from her talk was a feeling of empowerment that, even though I have a lot of experience, I could approach any code base and try and grapple with it and understand it. I came away thinking, "There are a lot of code bases out there that I don't understand but if I apply a certain set of techniques and a certain level of fearlessness, I will actually get there."
You know, if I want to go attack something like I don't know like Kafka or something like that, I would feel better about that. That was actually a great feeling coming away from that, a feeling of great power so thank you very much for that, Liz.
LIZ: Yeah, no problem.
CHARLES: Why don't we start with a conversation of how you came to be a developer? Everybody’s got kind of a unique path. What's yours?
LIZ: Well, I went to art school and I studied comic books. I actually have a bachelor's degree in comic books. I was a cartoonist for a number of years and at some point, maybe like 10 years ago, I had a friend who was a programmer. He’s a web developer. But I didn't even what's a web developer was. But I knew he worked at home and he made his own hours and he made a lot of money. It seemed like an awesome job so I was like, "How did you get into that?" And he's like, "I don't know. I just kind of mess around and figured it out." And I was like, "Uh... I don't know what that means." Like how do you start? I have no idea. I went to the bookstore and I look at the For Dummies books and I got Programming for Dummies or something and it was like Visual Basic, I think.
CHARLES: All right. What year was this?
LIZ: That's 2004. I guess, it was a little more than 10 years ago. But it didn't say that on the cover. It was like 'Programming' and I was like, "Oh, cool. I'll learn programming." I don't even know what the difference of languages was or anything like that. I did a couple of exercises in that book and I had no concept of how this would become a website ever. I was making 'Hello, World' and little things that spit out Fibonacci numbers or whatever.
I kind of gave up on that and I was like, "I don't care. I don't mind being poor." I'm used to it so I kept being a cartoonist, putting out books and stuff. I did a little PHP and HTML type of stuff in making websites for myself in between but I don't really consider that programming. It didn't feel like programming.
CHARLES: Did you ever put any of your cartoons on the web?
LIZ: Oh, yeah. Google me. They're there.
LIZ: I might have some stuff like my web comic, I'm not sure if it's still up. But I had a web comic called Freewheel, which was about this girl who runs away from home and joins a band of magical hobos.
CHARLES: That sounds like a career change to programming. It was oddly prophetic.
LIZ: Yeah. It’s out there. Anyway, I got to a point where, long story short, I was tired of being broken for all the time and I have to figure out some way to make money that I like doing so I thought, "I would go back to school," so I went back to school. I didn't start out with computer science but I took some math and science classes and I got really into math a lot. I really enjoyed math so I started looking into what careers can I do that are math-y.
Somebody said, "If you enjoy the problem solving aspects of math, you'll love computer science," so I took a Computer Science 101 class or something like that and I got really, really into it like I just killed it. I just loved it. It was awesome. But I still didn't understand how you made that a website. In the back of my mind, I was like, "We did this thing --" We learned Python in my class so there's some program we had that like move a little turtle around and do pictures or something. I was like, "I don't understand how this makes a website."
CHARLES: You got to move that turtle around a lot, especially like account for the kerning in the fonts and stuff.
LIZ: Yeah. I have no idea how you make that a job, like the stuff that we were doing like spitting out Fibonacci numbers and making a little adventure game or something but how does that translate into anything else. That was in 2014 and that was around the time that web development bootcamps were starting to be more of a thing. I heard about a school called the Flatiron School in New York which is right at the time and I thought, "This sounds great. In three months, they'll actually teach me how this makes a website and finally know how does this make a website?"
I applied in kind of like on a lark. I don't think I'll get in, I didn't know how can I afford it or anything and I applied and I got in. I was really lucky that my stepdad help me pay for it so I don't have to worry about it. I did that in three months and then I got a job. In November 2014, my first web job and now I know how those codes make a website so here I am today.
CHARLES: What a journey.
LIZ: Now, I live in Portland, Oregon and I make websites. Not really, I work on web apps, I guess is more accurate.
CHARLES: So you actually went straight from the Flatiron School to working at Tilde?
LIZ: No. I was in New York at the time and my first job was at an ad tech company called SimpleReach and I worked there for a little over a year before I got the job at Tilde, then I move to Portland. A year ago yesterday was my first day at Tilde.
CHARLES: Fantastic. Knowing that company and knowing what they do, they must have you doing some really, really fascinating stuff.
LIZ: Yeah, I do a lot of typical web stuff. I work on the Ember side of our app, Skylight. I also, more recently have been working on Rails engine that's also a gem that spits out documentation automatically, which is pretty cool.
CHARLES: Now, is this documentation for the product or is it just documentation for any real site?
LIZ: No, it's for our products specifically but I don't think it would be very difficult to alter for someone's personal needs, other than ours. But it's basically like if someone can write a markdown document, then we'll parse it and spit it out into HTML and all these different places so that it just updates the whole documentation site around our products.
CHARLES: Basically, there's an infinite amount of stuff that has to happen to make a website because there are literally so many moving parts. What's been your favorite kind of area, I'll just say the whole website building because that really is like the tip of the iceberg. The actual iceberg goes way, way, way beneath the surface. But what's your favorite location on the iceberg so far?
LIZ: I kind of like the middle, I guess. I always feel bad saying it because everybody talks badly about CSS but I just don't like it. I tried it really hard. One of my resolution this year was I'm going to try really hard and I'm going to like it more. But what I like the most is whenever I get to do pure Ruby. I learned Rust in the last year or two and anytime I get to make the stuff behind the visual aspect work or kind of like meta stuff. I'm saying this and it's totally wrong but I did my first meta programming the other day or last month. The metaprogramming that I did ended up getting cut out of [inaudible] but I got to do it before it got deleted. It was pretty cool.
CHARLES: That's generally how it works. Metaprogramming is the program we do that we end up hating ourselves later for but it's really fun.
LIZ: Yeah, they're like, "This is cool but this is not the most efficient to do this." It's like, "I guess, we don't have to dynamically create methods based on all our filenames.
CHARLES: As far as the CSS goes, I actually see CSS like raw kale. It's actually really good for you, if you like to it eat in large quantities and it's like fantastic but it's not always the most pleasant going down.
LIZ: It tastes bad. It has a terrible feel. It's like eating rubber. I am really lucky, though that I worked with a couple of people who are incredible at CSS and when I get to pair with them, it's like watching magic happen.
CHARLES: Yeah, you realized, for all its quirks and strange ways that you approach it, is an outlier but it is kind of a fully-formed programming model that has a lot of depth and a lot of people have really, really generated some pretty neat abstractions and ways of dealing with CSS. But it is like, "I just want to fix this one thing," and it's basically a sea of things that I have no idea how to navigate.
LIZ: It's one of those things. I always think it's funny, anyway that I come from a visual art background but the thing I like about programming is anything visual.
CHARLES: That is actually really is fascinating.
LIZ: Yeah, when they hired me here they're like, "You're going to be really good at design," and I'm like, "I just want to do programming."
CHARLES: Like never the temptation, like this is just because you've actually kind of drank your fill of that in a past life?
LIZ: I think I've talked to my coworker, Kristen about this because she actually has a design background and we paired together all the time. She’s one of the people that I was talking about who are geniuses at CSS. She’s a genius at it. She has a design background. We’ve talked about this how art and design are kind of different, like the brain stuff that I use to make a comic is really different from designing a book cover or designing an experience. It's all part of the art side of the brain but it's different compartments of the art side of the brain. I don't really have a design background as much as I have like a narrative and a drawing background.
STEPHANIE: That and your interest for math that probably has a factor.
STEPHANIE: Going back to your journey, I wanted to ask about it seems like it took you awhile to knock on different doors and finally feel like, "Now, I understand. How do I work with what I have to create a website?" We have similar backgrounds in that. We didn't start off in programming and I also went through a code boot camp. But mine was a little different where when I finish, I didn't really feel I understood what programming really was. I still felt like I understood a primitive level like just building something, just a 'Hello, World' using HTML CSS. When I finished, it took me a year and a half to actually get a full time programming job, like a legit job.
Before that, I was scrambling doing three part time jobs and lots of WordPress grunt work. Even though I thought it was actual experience, it was enough experience but I feel like a lot of the programming concepts that I've had to learn and just basic functional programming, I've learned it on the job. I don't yet feel like I am a legit 'real programmer'. We were talking about the Pinocchio thing like, "I'm a real boy." But I want to be a real programmer.
STEPHANIE: What I'm curious about is at what point did that happen? When did that click and when did you stop having -- I'm sure at some point you had -- impostor syndrome? When did that just evaporate and you're okay?
LIZ: I still have impostor syndrome all the time. It’s weird that it's like I have a sense of, "Oh, I can figure anything out." At this point, I know who to ask or where to look and I could figure anything out if I really wanted to. But I also feel like everyone else is better than me. I get impostor syndrome in that sense, not that I'm not a programmer but that everyone else is better than me.
When did I start feeling like I was a real programmer? Definitely not at my first job. When I started my first job at SimpleReach in November 2014, I had two months in between bootcamp and the job. In that time, I made some weird little apps but nothing super serious. I made an app that I use the Twilio API to anonymously text Seal lyrics to people. It sends either lyrics from Kiss From A Rose or a fact about Kiss From A Rose. You can choose which one. I made stuff like that.
CHARLES: [Singing in the tune of Kiss From A Rose] There's was so much in app can tell you so much it can touch. Okay, I'll stop. I'll stop right there. I promise.
LIZ: Yeah, so I did stuff like that and I sort of wrote my own crowdfunding to go to RubyConf because I gotten an opportunity scholarship ticket that year. But I couldn't afford to go otherwise. I did a little crowdfunding thing but I did little things like that. I didn't really feel like I understood everything so I was looking on other people's code and forking stuff to make all that happen.
Then I got my job and it was small-ish start up at the time and they didn't have a whole lot of on-boarding at all. It's kind of like I showed up, they gave me a computer and it took me three or four days to get their app running locally. It was just a lot of leaving me to my own devices a lot of the time in the beginning and I was kind of like, "I don't know what I'm doing. What do I do?" It took a while.
As the company matured and as I matured as a programmer, they kind of develop a little more infrastructure, I guess for supporting junior engineers. As time went on, I became better and they became better at mentoring me. I don't know when I felt like a real programmer, probably sometime in the middle of that job. I gave my first technical talk, I guess or conference talk at EmberConf in 2015. I gave a lightning talk at the behest of the Leah who is now my boss. It was a five-minute talk on why testing an Ember sucked at that time. It sucked for me to learn and it was really hard. I wanted to learn it but it was really hard.
Then after that, people started talking to me. They came up to me after and they are like, "Oh, my God. Blah-blah-blah." I was like, "I don't know half the stuff these people are saying. I don't understand what you're talking about." I'm going to smile and nod. But maybe a little bit after that, I kind of started feeling more that I could solve problems. I think public speaking actually helped me a lot with that like when I realized that I had something to say and that people want to hear it, then I could help other people feel empowered to learn stuff, I think that was part of it as well.
CHARLES: Yeah, I really like that. Obviously, I'm going to push back a little bit on Stephanie, just in terms of the day-to-day. You definitely deliver daily as a programmer so you can look at that. You've mentioned this at the very beginning of your answer and it almost really sounds like what you came to be was more of a kind of a peace with the things that you didn't know, rather than feeling confident about the things that you did. You said something and I'm going to paraphrase it but it's like, "I got to the point where I became sure that I would be able to figure it out." Or, "I had strategies for being able to figure it out."
Maybe we can unpack that a little bit because I feel that's actually very, very important and that's a skill that's important to have at any level of experience in your career, whether it's one year or whether it's 20. Certainly, that message when I saw you speak that's something that I took away as a very experienced developer. I felt actually empowered by it. What are some of those mechanisms to feel at peace with your own ignorance?
LIZ: I think part of the problem for me, I started learning how to program before I went to dev bootcamp or whatever, that I was really good at stuff. I actually think that was a problem because I was used to succeeding immediately or like always doing everything right so it's hard when you start learning something and you don't realize when you first start learning programming and it's not supposed to work immediately, like you're starting with something that's broken and you're making it work.
CHARLES: Right. In fact, 99% of the experience is like every time I look at a piece of software, I'm like, "Someone sat with the broken version of this for a year and then it work and that's what I got." They got to live with the working version for two seconds before it came to me and they spent the rest of the time, totally broken.
LIZ: Yeah, totally. It’s hard when you're used to creating something from scratch like doing comic books and like writing stories and stuff. It’s never broken it's just blank and then you add to it so I'm used to that sort of workflow. Then I started in this new field where Rails is new or whatever then it's just errors as far as the eye can see until you fix it, until you configure it, you made it work. It's hard to change your mindset into that. It's easy to feel like a failure when all you see is errors and you don't know that that's normal. I helped a couple of my friends to learn to program and I think the biggest hurdle is just mentally overcoming that it's not you, you’re not a failure. It's just that everything's broken until it's done.
STEPHANIE: I can definitely relate to that. I was always one of those overachievers, straight A, AP class. I'm not even kidding. In my high school, they called me Hermione, which for those that don't know, that's the girl from Harry Potter. It’s like you take it really personally when you feel like you're a failure. You feel like you can't deliver, you don't pull your own weight. For me, it's actually so overbearing that it can even inhibit you from doing things like public speaking or other activities. But one of the reasons why I do like to teach whenever I can is because that's when you realize, "I do know a lot of things," like how to do stuff on Git and just basic things that you don't even think twice about.
LIZ: I think talking to beginners when you're slightly above beginner-level in helping other fresh beginners is one of the best things for you as a new developer because you realized, you're like, "I actually know stuff."
STEPHANIE: Yeah, that's usually the type of advice I like to give to other aspiring junior programmers. I also wanted to ask about it seems like now you're going through something similar because you tweeted or you're asking about systems programming. What's that like?
I wrote like a little adventure game in Rust and it was almost exactly the same as when I first started learning about web development, it's similar to how does this become a website, instead of like, "How does this become a computer thing?" I don't even know what systems programming is but I hear Rust is a systems programming language so I want to learn that stuff, like what is that stuff?
A couple months ago, I think it was, I tweeted like, "Anybody have any probably three systems programming resources so I could learn more about systems programming?" And I got huge amount of responses. Everybody was super kind and helpful but a third of the responses were like, "Well, what kind of systems programming?" And I was like, "I..."
CHARLES: "The kind that happens on a system?"
LIZ: I don't know. It was kind of the same thing. I think I used this metaphor earlier but it's similar to when I first started learning programming it was like I was standing at the front of a forest and I knew that the stuff I want is in the forest but I don't even know what a tree is, you know what I mean? Eventually, I learned what a tree was then I learned what a map was and I learned how to get through that forest. But then in the middle of that forest, I was like, "Oh, there's a tunnel," like there's another stuff. "I want to get on to this tunnel," but I don't know anything about living underground, you know what I mean? Like, "What do I need? What even is there?" I have no idea so that's kind of how I feel about systems programming. At the moment, I'm trying to go into this tunnel but can I breathe down there? I don't know. Where does it lead?
CHARLES: I feel like at that point when you're about to enter into the tunnel, can you intentionally apply filters for information that at that point is not useful like the difference between a stalactite and stalagmite is not useful when you haven't even gone into the cave yet and you're just like, "How do I actually just get down there with a flashlight?"
How do you go about deciding which information is useful and which is not at your particular stage? Because obviously, it's all going to be useful at some point but at what point it becomes useful and what point do you just catalog it and put it for later? I feel like that's very, very hard thing to do. Do you feel like you're able to do that?
LIZ: I'm not sure. I think I said this earlier but I feel like I can figure most things out at this point like if I really want to. One of the things I learned just from talking to people on Twitter about systems programming is like, "Oh, some examples of systems programming are operating system," or like a browser engine because I'm still learning Rust and I gotten to write as much lately but I know that there is servo which I believe is a browser rendering engine written in Rust, it's something like that.
CHARLES: Supposedly it's going to powering Firefox at some point.
LIZ: Yeah, stuff like that, I think is really interesting but now I know a little more about what to look at in terms of as far as I understand, there is probably an infinite amount of different kinds of systems: operating systems is one, maybe a browser engine is another. I can't remember the others but I'm sure people tweeted it out to me.
STEPHANIE: I feel like we touched on something which is it can get overwhelming when you're starting off in something new. Trying to understand what you don't know that you don't know.
LIZ: Yeah, that's the hardest thing.
STEPHANIE: How can you make tangible goal marks for yourself if you don't even know what you don't know? When I first started off, when I would pair with someone that was more advanced, I remember having a realization that every time I would look for an add-on or I'm looking at someone's repo, I would take my time to read everything about it, all of the Ember documentation and I need to know everything.
Then later I realized that is totally not the case. Like Charles said, people develop this filter for noise and only focusing on not the entire tool box but that one tool that they need for that one specific thing that they're doing and I realized it only when I was pairing with people and seeing that. They go to this repo, skim it, "No, this is not what we need. Let's go to the next one. Let's try to find a method that what we need," and then they would just search on the page. "Oh, this looks kind of similar. Let's plug this in," and I'm just like, "What? You can do this? You can just copy/paste someone else's stuff?" and it was amazing. But when you're starting out, you don't know all of these things and unfortunately, kind of waste a lot of time thinking that you need to know everything and you don't.
CHARLES: Yeah, Cheating is totally a virtue in so many cases.
LIZ: Totally, for sure.
CHARLES: Just being like, "I don't need to understand this," but I just know that it works. You pushed at what point that happens like further and further back but that boundary of understanding is just simply always going to be there. No matter where you are, that kind of veil of ignorance, you can push it out but it's just can be further away. I am actually curious, you mentioned you got really into math, this is when you went back to school. What drew you to that and how have you applied, if you've applied? Have you found it to be an asset in your development career?
LIZ: For sure. When I first went back to school, it was with the idea that this is totally different now, obviously. I thought I might become a veterinarian --
CHARLES: You need a lot of math for that, right?
LIZ: Well, it's like a lot in biology and there's a lot of math and science and stuff. I had to take a bunch of science classes and take biology and chemistry so that involved taking some pre-calculus and calculus and more calculus. What I realized, though was that I hated biology and chemistry but I love the math that I was learning. I loved the process of problem solving and just figuring out puzzles.
When you get into calculus, how you solve problems, they're similar to how you solve problems in programming where you have sort of a framework like I have this certain language which would be the different theorems or whatever in math and you can just pick and choose which ones will fit your problem and if you're taking a calculus test, you could be sitting next to the same person and you might come to the same answer in different ways so it's similar in programming where you have all of this documentation, you have these languages, you have use other frameworks and you can solve the same problem in a million different ways.
But in terms of how people talk about needing math for programming, I don't necessarily think you need math for programming but if you already like math, it's definitely sort of a happy path, I guess because you get the same joy out of programming that you get out at solving calculus problem. But if you don't like calculus, it's okay. I don't think it's necessary.
CHARLES: One of my favorite blog posts of all time is this letter to young Haskeller, I don't know if any of you guys have ever read that. It’s fantastic and it's an experienced person in the Haskell community talking to someone who's just coming in and it's incredibly empathetic and wonderful. I think it's a message that needs to be heard more generally. I think it's ironic coming out of the Haskell community as it does because they definitely have a reputation for being a little bit salty and a little bit exclusive. But it's actually a very inclusive message.
One of the great points they make is they say we've got the whole equation reversed. It shouldn't be, "Math is hard, therefore programming is hard." It should be, "Programming can be really fun, therefore math on which programming is based, can also be really fun." You can go both ways. If you find math fun, you can find programming fun and if you find programming fun first, you can later go and have fun with math. You can pick and choose which parts you want. I think it's a great message that needs to get out there.
LIZ: I think it's also really, really important to note for anyone who might be listening that is getting in to programming, that is scared of math or has had a bad experience with math that it is not necessarily to love math. I think that scares a lot of people away and a lot of the stuff that people learn when they're first learning programming are math based. When I was in the Flatiron School, Some of the exercise we did in the beginning with just pure Ruby were Fibonacci sequence. They were sort of math-y and that turns a lot of people off and makes people scared. If someone is hearing this and has experienced that, don't be scared. You don't need to worry about it. But if you love math, then it's great but you don't have to.
STEPHANIE: I'm one of those people that always had this mental block of like, "I'm not good at math." I was good at everything in school. I excelled at everything except math. I think a lot of it came from my struggle when I was a kid so you have this self-perpetuating thought that you aren't good at something. Every time you take a final or something, you blank out because you have this mental wall in your mind.
What I found weird was I was doing the exact same thing. I was taking calculus for bio-sciences and physics too at the same time. In physics, I loved that class. It was so awesome and I realized that half the stuff I was doing was going backwards in all of my problems and it was fun for me. Eventually, I was taking a final for my calculus class and I didn't remember the equation that we needed for that class so I took out all the variables and I solved it as if it's a physics problem and I got the same answer and I was correct.
I realized at that moment, if you just remove the negativity from your mind and you try to apply yourself in the same fashion as you would in something that you enjoy, you'll just forget for the moment that it's math, that it's something that you 'suck at'. You actually could do good in it and not get stuck. I realized I actually do like math when it's veiled as chemistry or physics.
LIZ: I think a lot of people have that experience with math. They have a really bad experience when they're young and then they get stuck and they feel like they're just not good at it like somehow, on this subatomic level, you just can't change it or you're not good at it. It’s not really true.
CHARLES: I actually love that example because it is, it's all integrated. We are constantly doing things like math without even realizing it. Actually, one of the things I love about the Montessori education is that's the way they actually teach it. They have all of the different great lessons, they want to convey to the children which is things like courtesy and grace, things like taking care of your things, things like music. But for all, I think they've got a bunch of different categories but they make sure that they always intersect with each other and you get that in surprising ways to make sure that if a child likes music, use the music as a way to introduce them to arithmetic.
If they like arithmetic, use that as a way to introduce them to music. If they have things doing design, I don't want to say, interior designer or clothing design but practical life stuff and if that's something that a child really is drawn to, then they'll use that as an introduction to music or geography. There’s all these parallels that are constantly there and you can ride whichever rail works for you to whatever area that you want to go. There is no set way to approach math. You literally can find a way that works for you.
STEPHANIE: The subjects aren't mutually exclusive, "Because you're not good at this, probably you shouldn't become a programmer."
CHARLES: It's not expected that every child will grow in one subject at the same rate that they'll grow in every other subject. They just let the children explore the area that they're interested in and let them go crazy. If they're really into art, they just let them explore and learn as much as they can and then slowly entice them and just show them the connections that art has to courtesy and grace to math to music to other things and let them see those connections and then follow them on their own.
That’s why they call it -- the kind of grown up in there -- the guide. It's really there. The way that they push is by showing them the connections but then using the kind of internal motivations of the children to move. I actually have some pretty strong feels on this. I feel like our education does leave a lot of people behind because there's this expectation that in every single subject, everybody will goose step forward at exactly the same rate and that's just a fable. It's not real. It’s not how the human mind works.
CHARLES: But yeah, I actually think, certainly for me and my connection to math has been helped by the fact of programming and now, later on after having done a lot of programming, so much more is interesting to me about math and I can see beauty in it, I think where I didn't see beauty in it before.
STEPHANIE: For one of the projects that we've been working on, we have been doing an Ember upgrade. I basically needed to get some changes for one of the dependencies and I have no experience in open source, whatsoever. That happened for the past two weeks. I was making a lot of PRs to two different dependencies and that was my first experience with open source. It was less scary than I had imagined and I actually got a lot of great feedback from it. Now, I realized that it wasn't as hard as I thought it would be and most people are very receptive to your PRs or if you have questions about their open source because they need help, they need people to help them tackle all the issues that they have so I'm curious, do you have any advice for people that are interested in contributing to open source but they may find it daunting and they don't want to look dumb or do things the wrong way?
LIZ: One of the things I've been interested in since I started learning programming is open source because I enjoy collaborative atmospheres and just the idea of a big group of people coming together to solve problems. It was something that I wanted to do since the beginning but it's super intimidating because when you think of people who are open source maintainers, at least to me in the beginning, they seemed way above me like Gods so I'm like, "How can I possibly be useful to these Gods?"
At my last job, my manager was like, "I got a couple of goals for you and for your career." One of my goals was I want to contribute To Ember CLI Mirage. That was a goal. I just thought, "This is a great add-on. This is a great project and everyone uses it and I love it and I would love to contribute to that." I made it a goal but then in that in the middle of that time period, I got a job here at Tilde and I went to Portland. Shortly after that, I went to the repo and I was like, "I'm going to do this thing," because one of the reasons why I chose it as a project to contribute to is because I heard Sam is a really nice guy. One of the things was that I was really intimidated by the people maintaining projects is like, "Well, he's not intimidating." I feel okay about this so that's a good first step.
The second step is let's find a thing to do so I look at all the issues on the repo and I find something super simple which is just adding in-line documentation. That’s what I did and I was like, "Can I pick this up?" I was feeling super shy so I didn't even want to put it on the issues so I think I just pinged him on the Ember Slack and just like, "Can I help with this?" He's like, "Yeah, yeah. That's great," so I made a bunch of in-line documentation additions to the project and I made my first PR and it felt like such a way that it's not as scary at all as I thought it would be so I started contributing to other projects, things that just came up. Not so much like in your situation where it was a dependency I was using but more like I saw somebody tweet about it and like, "I just made this project and I think there's a bunch of typos. Can somebody just spell-check this for me?" I'll go in and do a couple of typo fixes.
Another situation when I was reading through a repo because I want to learn and there's a project called intermezzOS which is Rust operating system, like a tiny operating system. I was just reading the code and I was like, "There's a couple of typos. I can fix this," and stuff like that and I found, through that experience, that open source maintainers are super happy to have you help in any way that you can, even if it's a little things.
In the last couple of months, I started my own project which is like an app -- it's not an add-on or anything. I actually got my first couple of PRs from other people and other people are helping me build it. I don't think I've ever met but every time I get a PR, I feel like I won a prize. Every time someone contributes and I'm like, "Thank you." I cannot give you another --
LIZ: I love that you're helping me. You know, like I only have one hour a day to work on this thing so anything, anyone people can do to help me is so great. Now I have the experience of being on the other side and I can attest to the fact that most open source maintainers are incredibly stoked for any help they can get. Even if you're new, just find someone who's nice and ask them how you can help.
STEPHANIE: Yeah, that was a realization that I had because I was communicating directly with this person in the Ember Slack as well. I had submitted a PR and later he was like, "Hey, while you're at it, do you mind adding in this one property that's missing?" And I'm just like, "All right. Sure." Later he offered if I wanted to become a collaborator because I was putting in so many PRs and like you said, he hasn't had the time to cut out a new version or to fix the things that you keep in your head, "Okay, I'm going to go back and fix this," and then someone else is like, "I want to fix this thing," go for it. That's the best.
LIZ: Yeah, totally. It's a great way to learn more stuff too.
CHARLES: I like the point about choosing a project that you know is not intimidating because unfortunately, there is a lot of negativity that happens out there.
LIZ: Totally, I knew that and that was a big blocker for me, for a long time.
CHARLES: Yeah but knowing that there are actual, I would like to say, a majority I don't know if that's true but it can feel like it's enclaves, just because negativity has a way of clouding everything and propagating but there are certainly areas where we put that way and it's very healthy, it's very collaborative and welcoming and making a definitive effort to first know that they're out there because if you have a negative experience, you make sure that you don't bounce off of that and then define them. I really like that, how you were deliberate about that.
LIZ: Yeah, it seems like the most important thing, if you're a new programmer and they're like, "How do I get involve in open source," and your first advice is like, "Find someone who's really nice." It doesn't sound like the right advice but I think it is the right advice.
CHARLES: That's because that's where you'll stick.
LIZ: Yeah and you'll want to collaborate with that person and that project because you're not scared of being insulted or something.
CHARLES: Well, that was fantastic. We can wrap it up.
LIZ: I have two talks this year so far coming up. One is going to be in Toronto at the end of this month at a new conference called 'Hello, Con!' I built a type space adventure game in Rust and I built it side by side with the same game in Ruby so I can learn Rust by doing the same thing on both sides. I'm going to be talking about the similarities and differences and things I came across learning Rust as a Rubyist.
I also have a similar talk in May at OSCON in Austin about learning Rust as a Rubyist but at a slightly different, longer talk. I did a version of it at RustConf last year. It's kind of in comic book form so it's all of drawings and it's sort of a story about going to a place called Rustlandia as a Ruby person and how you literally navigate that world, not just everything is sort of a metaphor. I'm getting that talk again in a longer form at OSCON in Austin in May.
CHARLES: Well, fantastic. You have to stop by the office and come see us.
CHARLES: But thank you so much --
LIZ: Thank you.
CHARLES: -- Liz for taking the time to talk with us. This is a great conversation again. You know, I feel like I'm going to come away feeling that I've got more tools to deal, certainly with my daily struggles --
LIZ: Yeah, get pumped!
CHARLES: -- In programming. Yeah.
LIZ: Programming! Yeah!
LIZ: -- One of the Mortal Kombat music comes in -- Tun-tun-tun-tun-tun-tun-tun-tun-tun...
CHARLES: I remember actually seeing Mortal Kombat in a theater and I actually getting up and dancing in the theater and then the rest of the movie just sucked. It was like they spent the whole budget on the first 20 seconds of that movie. Anyhow, all right. That's it from The Frontside. Remember to get in touch with us at Frontside.io, if you're interested in UI that's engineered to make your UX dreams come true.