Life as a Junior Developer

Rissa Jackson (an Apprentice Programmer at Tighten) joins us this week to talk about life as an apprentice/junior developer, tips for getting that first job as a junior developer, and a lot more.

Links for this episode:


Dave Hicking: Welcome to 20% Time, a podcast that takes you behind the scenes of Tighten, a web consultancy based out of Chicago, but entirely remote. I used to say spread out all over North America, but we are now spread out all over the place. We specialize in Laravel, a PHP framework, but we're often pairing that with any number of JavaScript frameworks and libraries. I'm your host Dave Hicking, and this week I'm joined by Rissa Jackson, an apprentice programmer here at Tighten. Rissa, how are you?

Rissa Jackson: I'm doing great, Dave. Happy to be here.

Dave Hicking: Awesome. So Rissa, you are pretty new to Tighten. So for people who don't know you or haven't seen you online, can you say a little bit about yourself? What do you do?

Rissa Jackson: Sure. So my name is Rissa Jackson, and I've been working at Tighten for about three months now and I have only been a professional developer for a year as of two days ago.

Dave Hicking: Wow. Congratulations.

Rissa Jackson: Thank you. Yeah, so that was pretty exciting. So mostly I'm learning and trying to become a better developer as an apprentice here at Tighten.

Dave Hicking: Yeah. So that rolls right into the first thing I wanted to ask you. So the title apprentice programmer, people know what an apprentice is kind of. I feel like we have this sort of almost like old school. Like, oh yeah, the plumber has an apprentice, or the seamstress as an apprentice or the electrician. But an apprentice programmer, what does that mean at Tighten?

Rissa Jackson: Yeah, that's a great question. I think a lot of people know this term as a junior developer in this field, but I think apprentice is a really lovely word for it. It's a person who is learning from the people who have experienced and they're growing into the role. They're going to eventually do the role. I think that's especially true here at Tighten because, as you mentioned, we're a consultancy and we're working with clients. So an apprentice developer, I'm not working with the clients yet. I am learning how to be able to work with the clients. So there's this really awesome opportunity to be at a job where I am being paid to learn and become a stronger developer so that I eventually can work with the clients. I think it's really fantastic that they appreciate learning and mentoring so much here, that they will have this role available, even though it's not really making tighten money right now. I'm not working on the projects that will give money to Tighten.

Dave Hicking: No, but I mean, that's part ... I'm going to editorialize here. I think part of the whole idea is there are lots of amazingly talented Laravel developers out there. We have a whole bunch of them who work at Tighten, but sometimes the best way to grow your company is to grow your company truly from the ground up.

Rissa Jackson: Yeah.

Dave Hicking: I think that's awesome. I'm glad we're doing it. So you mentioned you're just over a year into your programming career. What was your background before you got into programming and then as a follow up to that, what got you into program?

Rissa Jackson: Sure. Yeah, those are great questions. So I was in school for an international relations and Chinese degree. As much as I loved studying those things, they were really fantastic classes. It was not a career that I was excited about being part of. I'm not a morning person. I wasn't really excited about working a nine to five job somewhere. I just never really imagined myself as someone in the tech field, especially not a developer, but my partner is a developer and I saw his life and I was like, that's the life I want? He has remote job. He has flexible hours. As a person who is not a morning person and wants to travel, that is the career for me. So I was trying to do it. And I'm going to be honest. It was hard. My brain doesn't naturally think this way. I really was trying to self select myself out thinking, oh, I have to be good at math. As Samantha guides on the Laravel podcast talked about, there's a lot of reasons why women might not think they're good at math, are not just about their abilities, but then I realized like I am a good person for this. There might be ways that I can contribute new things to this field that are not always naturally here. I have strong soft skills and skills that are still useful to a developer. So it's been really awesome working on a computer and seeing how magical it is, like what cool things you can get it to do. I graduated in May, 2020, which was right when the pandemic was going. Scary time to graduate, but in ways that was helpful for me because I was able to get my first job as a developer remotely. I was able to get flex flowers way earlier in my career. So I am grateful for that aspect of the pandemic, although I would rather not have it.

Dave Hicking: Sure.

Rissa Jackson: Yeah. But definitely a winding journey to get here as a developer, just sort of taking classes while I was in school. I got basically a certificate minor when I was in school and then just kept going, never looked back.

Dave Hicking: Were you apprehensive at all about sort of the title of apprentice and what that might mean? So if I remember actually the way that you sort of heard about ... I don't know if you heard about Tighten this way or whatever it was, but sort of the way that we got intro together was we were advertising for another job.

Rissa Jackson: Yes.

Dave Hicking: And you just sort of reached out and said, Hey, and you sort of got ... you talked to Sara Bine, who's an amazing developer fro Tighten. You talk to me. Then we hired some wonderful devs who are currently working at Tighten. When we do hiring, it starts off as we're hiring for one, and then it tends to sort of expand because doing hiring as a company is it's a lot of work, to be honest, but it's also super important. If you can go through this interview process and find people who are great, then you want to get as many of them as you can, as you can afford reasonably for your company. So eventually I think Matt reached out to you and started talking to you about the idea of being an apprentice. When you got that first email or as you sort of mulling over and you're thinking about it, ere you like an apprentice? That's not really what I had in mind.

Rissa Jackson: Well, okay. So it was interesting because I think I was a little bit honest on my application for that job that I wasn't maybe the best candidate for it. I was like, you're looking for things that I can't quite deliver right now, but I really like this company, so I'm going to try to apply anyways.

Dave Hicking: Yeah.

Rissa Jackson: So I think I was already in the mindset of maybe they have a lower role that they will offer or have available someday. So I was excited that was a real option.

Dave Hicking: Yeah.

Rissa Jackson: But on the other hand, I was already working as a junior developer and I was actually about to be promoted to a regular developer. So I was on my way to being a full developer. So it's kind of potentially considered a step back or a sideway step. But I feel like Tighten was just so exciting. It was such a fantastic opportunity to really learn. I know not every company is like this. Some companies, they want you to learn on the job, but just enough to do the job. Whereas at Tighten they're like, we want you to be a great developer and share what you know with the world. That was exciting. I just know there's so much I can learn and gain as a developer here. So it was really a no brainer to join Tighten.

Dave Hicking: Yeah, so I guess, would you say overall, if someone's listening this and they're thinking about the idea, whether they're early in their career or not even in a programming yet basically, is it fair to say don't be scared of the title apprentice if you come across it? Depends on the company, but shouldn't scare you off hopefully. I kind of, I kind of wish more companies did this, had this explicit idea of an apprentice.

Rissa Jackson: Yeah. I do wish that more places were like this and even more so that mindset of wanting to help build up people so that they can be great developers in the company. But yeah, I would say don't be scared of it because you're always learning in your career and if this is the right place for you to learn, you should jump for it because that will only make you better later on.

Dave Hicking: So what does a typical day look like for you as an apprentice? You're not working on client projects, but you obviously have goals. You have things that you're kind of working towards. You talk with Matt and Keith and trying to set those, but what does a typical day look like for you? Are you sort of coming in and every day is brand new or do you kind of like, okay, I know today I want to ... as you're setting your week up, how does that go for you?

Rissa Jackson: Oh, that's a great question. I think that there's such a variety to how a day can go here at Tighten, especially as an apprentice. I feel like there's a lot of ability for me to say what my day looks like. So I really start every day by looking at my goals for the day and my goals for the week. I try to really narrow down what would I really want to get done today that would make me feel productive and maybe what are my goals for this week that will feel really productive. I think what I really try to aim for is having a mix of ... so we have internal work here at Tighten. We have our own repos, our own projects. So I have a mix of working on those projects because you run into problems and then those are great opportunities for learning and going down rabbit holes. They're great. But if you only spend your time on that, you're only learning those really specific, weird problems. So I want to have a mix of that and then structured learning. So I kind of think of it as there's the learning you do to fix the problem you're currently facing. Then there's the learning you do to fix problems that you don't even know when you're going to get them. You're filling in gaps of your learning and just generally rounding out your knowledge so that maybe you don't even have to worry about that problem when you get there.

Dave Hicking: Yeah. That's interesting. So those are sort of ... you've got these kind of very, very short term goals.

Rissa Jackson: Yeah.

Dave Hicking: Do you have sort of call medium and then maybe long term goals? Do you have sort of benchmarks for yourself where you're like, I want to be here by a certain point?

Rissa Jackson: I think it's not as concrete, but I'm figuring out what they are as we go along. But I would say yes, one of my long term goals is to pair with everyone or everyone I can at Tighten. There are so many different people have so much different knowledge and expertise. Maybe they have something they're specially good at. So I want to make sure that I have a list of who I've worked with so far and make sure I've covered everybody and get a sense for what they have to offer, who should I go to for what? So that's kind of a longer term goal. I also want to look at the things that ... I have a list of things that I'm weaker at. So just kind of working on building up those skills. Of course, my long term goal is, I would love to be a regular developer at Tighten.

Dave Hicking: So you sound like a very organized person who hopefully I think has a pretty clear eye about ... you have a pretty good understanding of this is what I feel strong in. This is what I don't feel strong in. Regardless, obviously we have two apprentice programs at Tightens, but beyond that, is a safe to say, if you're early in your career, definitely ... I love the idea that you have this list of people that you want to pair with. I bet if you're an early in your career dev at any company, if there's any kind of pairing culture, or maybe it's not quite the kind of pair programming culture you want, but whether it's collaborating or side projects, but to almost be like systematic and not just by chance or kind of keeping your head, but really write it down, go through it. That's interesting. I love that idea.

Rissa Jackson: Yeah, definitely because there's so much knowledge around you at the company and it's really important to try and tap into it if you can, if you have those opportunities.

Dave Hicking: Yeah. That's cool. Has there been anything about the experience of being an apprentice so far at Tighten that has surprised you?

Rissa Jackson: So I think I've touched on this a little bit, but I'll expand. I think the freedom at Tighten has been really interesting and a little bit surprising. I think there's a lot of control that I have over my apprenticeship.

Dave Hicking: Yeah.

Rissa Jackson: Like figuring out what I need to be working on, figuring out my plan, how to teach myself. I would say I'm not on my own. I'm not kind of drifting in the ocean just trying to build my own raft.

Dave Hicking: It's quite a metaphor we're building there. No, I get it. I get it. I get it. You're right. No, it's true. It's not like you came in and we're like, here's your 20 step plan for becoming a ... Matt and Dan and Keith have, I'm sure benchmarks that they want you to get to eventually. And you have your own benchmarks that you've talked about, but you kind of get to choose your own adventure on the way there.

Rissa Jackson: Yeah, definitely. I think it's really great. It's a Testament to their trust in us as the people that they were excited to hire. But I think that they're here to help, they're here to give advice. They're here to tell us we should be potentially working on something. They give us projects. There are definitely times where I'm like, I don't know what to work on. Then Matt just messages and is like, Hey, work on this thing. I'm like, oh perfect. It's like, he knew I just was looking for something, but I feel like overall, there's this sense of I can know what is helpful for me and what will help me grow and I can work on that. That's really awesome. I think.

Dave Hicking: Do you have any go to kind of learning resources that you always find yourself reaching for? Or does it really kind of all depend as you are sort of working through stuff?

Rissa Jackson: Ooh, good question. It does depend a little bit on what I'm trying to learn, but we work with Laravel of course. So Laracast is an incredible resource that I've tapped into a lot and will continue to do so for years. The Laravel podcast, especially season four is so fantastic. Really going over key topics, like databases and middleware and all these things that you should understand, but they're explained so well. And especially in the context of what we do. Then if I'm working on front end stuff, I really like West Boss. He's a fantastic instructor. So I've really been loving his React course, his JavaScript course. So I definitely think that those really awesome resources are great for that kind of structured learning I was talking about that is paired with just working through something and running to problems.

Dave Hicking: What's the most fun thing or ... could you take all six of ways? Fun, interesting. What's a really cool or interesting thing for you that you have learned so far since you've been at Tighten?

Rissa Jackson: Ooh. Okay. That's a great question. I'll have to think about that. I'm going to talk about Tailwind.

Dave Hicking: Oh yeah? We love Tailwind. I feel like there's so many podcasts that we do here where we end up talking about Tailwind. We love Tailwind.

Rissa Jackson: We do love Tailwind. And I get it now. I hated CSS. It was a confusing, strange world that I didn't know how to deal with. One of my first projects here, Matt was like, here do this Tailwind project. And I'm like, man, I don't really know this. I don't know any of this stuff. I certainly don't know Tailwind, but I feel like he really trusted me to learn it and take the time I needed to figure it out, and it was so fun. Oh my gosh. It's so fun to work with. It feels magical. It's really user friendly. I feel like I'm being sponsored by Tailwind or something.

Dave Hicking: We love Adam and Steve. They both used to work at Tighten. It's fine. It's all in the family. That's interesting. So when Matt gave you that assignment, did you feel as an apprentice, like it was a bad thing to tell your boss, Hey, I don't know this? Or did you feel free to be like, no, it's okay. I don't know this, so what are we going to do about it? Did you feel any trepidation?

Rissa Jackson: A little bit. Santoria did a really fantastic episode with you on imposter syndrome and that's so real. It's so hard not to have that. I of course had those moments where I was like, what if Matt's like, she doesn't know as much as I thought he did. Maybe we made a mistake hiring her or something.

Dave Hicking: Sure.

Rissa Jackson: But I think that Matt is a really lovely, approachable human. He's really empathetic and caring. So it feels a lot easier to be like, I don't know what this is, Matt. I'm not sure if I can do it. I feel like he's just very supportive. I'm sure you know this.

Dave Hicking: I've known Matt for a long time. This is turning into the we love Tighten episode of 20% Time.

Rissa Jackson: I'm sorry.

Dave Hicking: No, that's fine. No, that's great. You are still pretty new to Tighten. If you were like, yeah, Dave, it's okay. Apprentice life's kind of boring. I'd be like, okay, we need a new topic for the podcast. But yeah, no Tailwind. Have you had a chance to work at all with Tailwind UI?

Rissa Jackson: Not yet, but-

Dave Hicking: Oh, that's good.

Rissa Jackson: That project that I've kind of shadowing.

Dave Hicking: I was going to say.

Rissa Jackson: I got to see it and it was really cool.

Dave Hicking: Yeah. Tailwind UI is very cool as well.

Rissa Jackson: Yeah. So I guess I really love the opportunity to work with such new technology. Sometimes at other companies, you don't always get to work with the newest thing. You have to work with what they've been working with, which sometimes is frustrating and hard to work with.

Dave Hicking: Is there something in particular that you have on your list that you really can't wait to learn more about?

Rissa Jackson: Ooh, man, I really want to understand React. It looks really cool. I don't fully get it. Oh man. For my coding, when I was getting hired for Tighten, I had to do a React project and I had never touched it. So I was crash coursing West Boss, like wow. Working on the program, it was rough. I was definitely like, I barely understand what I'm doing. So I guess I'd love to understand actually what React is.

Dave Hicking: That's a good goal. There are plenty of, they would consider themselves non apprentice devs who are listening to this right now who are probably also nodding along and going, yes, I too would love to learn React better. So you are not alone. Don't worry.

Rissa Jackson: Good to know.

Dave Hicking: Don't worry. What else did I want to ask you? We're blazing through these questions. Is there something that I haven't asked you that you want to talk about in terms of life as an apprentice programmer?

Rissa Jackson: Yes. Okay. So I've kind of split this up into two little segments.

Dave Hicking: Oh, oh, you're prepared. I love this.

Rissa Jackson: Yes. You'll have to let me know if we're going too far or getting too much in the weeds.

Dave Hicking: It's all good.

Rissa Jackson: Okay. So I've covered some of these before, but I want to just quickly go over my top junior dev tips/apprentice tips.

Dave Hicking: Oh yeah.

Rissa Jackson: Okay. So I feel like this is said everywhere, but it's so true, so I'm going to say it again. Ask questions. Your job as a new person is to learn and is so normal to have gaps. Everyone has imposter syndrome, but everyone has gaps and it's so valid as a junior developer to have gaps. So just feel comfortable saying you don't know and ask those questions. Coming up with goals is so important, like short term, long term. Check in on them because it can just breeze by, and you're not really sure what you're heading towards. Then I definitely think that when you're learning as a junior developer, you have this fire hose of information coming towards you and you are not going to know it all. You're not going to understand it all. Just pick up what you can, maybe write down some of the things you want to look up later, but don't expect to understand it all, and pair with others all the time you can. Ask them what they recommend, ask them what they just think you should do to improve. Use those resources around you. So those are my top junior developer tips. I'd love to give some space in case you want to expand on that.

Dave Hicking: Yeah. I guess I'm thinking, so you talk about that fire hose of info. Do you have ... and this might be a matter of personal preference. I'm sure everybody is different. But in general you sound like someone who likes to write things down. Do you have a personal productivity system or do you just get in the habit of writing stuff down? How do you approach that? Because it's like, okay, great. I need to manage the fire hose. The next question people go is, how?

Rissa Jackson: I write some of it down, but I honestly think you shouldn't write all of it down because it'll get overwhelming. You won't even be able to recognize what all you have written down.

Dave Hicking: Yeah.

Rissa Jackson: So I think it's similar to the frog, maybe in the worm water, to switch metaphors. Just absorb what you can and, as the water gets hotter, you're like, oh, I recognize this one. It came by again. Try to pick it up the next time it comes by. Just let the water get hot around you and absorb it. Occasionally you'll notice this is a theme. My weakness on, for me, HTML and CSS is coming up over and over again. So I'm going to put a note to work on that. But all the little things, let some of them just drift by you.

Dave Hicking: I like that. That's good. That's good. I was like, okay. I was like, wait, I want to be the frog in the boiling pot of water, but I get it. I get what you're saying.

Rissa Jackson: Once I started that metaphor, I was like, I think I've made the wrong choice, but I'm in it and I'm going to keep going.

Dave Hicking: There's no way out. The only way out is through. I get it.

Rissa Jackson: Yeah. I'm going to make this work somehow by just talking more.

Dave Hicking: Yeah. You just gave some great tips, which are awesome. And you had something else that you had, is that right?

Rissa Jackson: Yes. I would really love to talk about getting a job as a junior developer.

Dave Hicking: Let's do it.

Rissa Jackson: It's hard out there, and I've been out there twice recently. I just want to talk a little bit about it.

Dave Hicking: All right.

Rissa Jackson: So, I don't want to get too general with job hunting tips. There's tons of resources about how to get jobs. So I'm not going to get too general. I'm going to try to keep it more developer focused. But first thing that I think is important is salary. It is rough getting a job as a developer. You hear back from hardly anyone and you feel a little crushed every time. But whenever you finally hear back from a company and you have that interview, do your research on what you should be paid and ask for it. I don't care if it's the only company you're talking to. You deserve to be paid a reasonable, good market rate salary, and you should ask for it, even if you think you aren't going to get this job.

Dave Hicking: Absolutely. We've spent a lot of time. We, I mean, Tighten has spent a lot of time thinking about how to approach this. We got to a point where when we have our job descriptions, our job applications, we put the salary in the job application because the other thing that happens there is, if there is a salary, but you don't know it, you get your hopes up. You get into the process, and then by the time you get to the end, you realize, oh, we're so far apart.

Rissa Jackson: Yeah.

Dave Hicking: And that's a different level of crushed.

Rissa Jackson: It is.

Dave Hicking: Yes. That is a great tip.

Rissa Jackson: So there are different places you can check for salaries. Glassdoor is great. What is it, Pay Scale. There's a couple different things. Look out for different ways that you can look at what normal salaries are, but do your research ahead of time and have a number and add a certain amount to that number before you ask for something. If you're a woman, especially ask a little bit more because we undersell ourselves all the time and it's not going to help. There's some really great podcasts out there I'd love to quickly recommend.

Dave Hicking: Yeah, sure.

Rissa Jackson: ChooseFI there's a, "How to Negotiate Salary podcast. I'll send you the link.

Dave Hicking: Yeah.

Rissa Jackson: Then there's ChooseFI "Negotiate Your Salary with Tori Dunlap." These women are really intelligent. They have scripts. They have tips. Really listen to them. I think at least one of them is a developer, so it's relevant. So that part is really important to me. Then make sure that you are practicing your programming, your algorithms. Leak Code is really fantastic for it. But I want to give some really quick tips on that. So the easy problems on Leak Code are hard. They're really hard. Even people with a degree say they're hard. So what you want to do is you want to do just the easy questions, you want to sort by acceptance rate and you want to start with those because there is a range. The easy questions can be really easy or really hard.

Dave Hicking: Okay. I never heard of that site.

Rissa Jackson: Oh, I think there's a couple out there, but Leak Code is pretty popular. So definitely recommend that. Then I really want to say this for the women out there, watch out for glue work. It is really easy to do. Oh, I see a question.

Dave Hicking: Yeah. Yeah. Could you define that a little bit more?

Rissa Jackson: Yes.

Dave Hicking: Okay.

Rissa Jackson: I'd love to. So there's a really fantastic talk from Tanya. She was a principal software engineer at Squarespace. So glue work is the work that honestly you do Dave. It is important work and it is work that makes things happen.

Dave Hicking: Sure.

Rissa Jackson: It is figuring out why things aren't working, talking to people. Why are people's expectations misaligned? What are people needing? Why are they not making progress. It's just all this soft skills of planning, organizing, talking to people, figuring out how to improve things around you. It's something that women do often pretty well at because we are socialized to do that. We sometimes do that early in our career when we're not going to get promoted for it or appreciate for it. So it's really important to make sure that what you are learning, what you are working on is promotable work and that it's work that will be valued.

Dave Hicking: Yeah. I hope that glue work is valued, but yeah, you're right.

Rissa Jackson: Same. I want it to be valued, and it is. Obviously in some roles it's more valued, but she does a really great talk about how this work is important, but it's not important when you're a junior developer usually.

Dave Hicking: I'll have to make sure that we get links to all of this stuff to put into the notes of this podcast. This is all really great.

Rissa Jackson: Yeah. Yeah. Thanks. So, yeah, I guess one other thing that I wanted to mention is Tighten is lovely. Tighten is a really fantastic company to work for. love being a junior developer here at Tighten and apprentice. However, not all companies have a great process for junior developers. I think do what you can to figure that out beforehand. Ask them questions up front in the interview, like how do they help their junior developers find success? What process plan and structures are in place for them to become regular developers? How important are soft skills like that glue work? What is promotable work? How do they measure their junior developer's success so that you can be as prepared as possible for if this is going to be a good company. And worst case, if you ended up a company that is not the best as a junior developer, gain all the experience you can, get all the support you can inside the company and outside, and just know that in six months or one year you will have experience that you can build off of to go somewhere else. It's going to be okay because this field is a really fantastic field. There are going to be some bumps along the road potentially, but I 100% say it's worth it. You may find a really lovely company, just like Tighten, where you are so happy to be.

Dave Hicking: Yeah. This has been great. Is there anything else you want to talk about before we wrap up today?

Rissa Jackson: I think that covers most of it. Is there any questions you have or anything that I could have explained better or expand on?

Dave Hicking: No, that was all great. So for people who are listening, if they want to find you online, is there a good place that they should do that?

Rissa Jackson: Ooh, so I am on Twitter. @Rissa_bubbles. There's a story behind that. I feel like that's the main place to find me. I don't really do ... Okay. I will plug it even though I'm really bad at Instagram. I'm on Instagram as duo_RandR. I do partner acrobatics and handstands, and I'm very bad at posting, but maybe if more people follow me, maybe I'll do a better job.

Dave Hicking: Okay. Rissa, thank you so much. This has been really great. Thank you.

Rissa Jackson: Thank you. It's been lovely chatting with you.

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