Blog Post|#engineering

Choosing Your Path

Jenn Robison
Jenn RobisonFriday, September 18, 2020
a person standing in a corn field

We all know the saying “Hindsight is 20/20”, which is the ability to evaluate past choices more clearly than at the time of the choice we made. After many years in tech, I find myself evaluating how I landed where I am today and wanting to share some of the things I’ve learned along this path. It’s a bit like Choose Your Own Adventure; for those not catching the reference, this was an amazing book series in my childhood. In these books, you would read a few pages and have to make a critical decision about where to go next. There were many decision points throughout the book and you might even go back a few times to change the outcome. You might even try and peak at your choices and see where that path will lead, but that isn’t something we really get the option to do in our real lives. So for better or worse, here is the adventure I have been on thus far.

As of late, it is far more common to not have a computer science degree, but that wasn’t the case when I started in tech. I love seeing the articles shared on No CS Degree, normalizing self-taught, and bootcamp developers. Growing up I saw my mom go to trade school at night and become a COBOL programmer. After my parents divorced, my mom went to school at night and began her journey — which eventually led her to being a project manager for a large health insurance company during the Y2K craze. I was inspired, I dabbled with our Tandy computer early on, making it sing and change colors on our TV.

After high school I found myself choosing a harder path than I had originally planned. I entered the workforce doing data entry, and then got hired by a large tech company as an administrative assistant. In those early days, I knew this was a stepping stone, as it was supposed to be a short term stop while I went to school to be in the medical field. Not long after I started at this tech company I began taking on tasks like managing our internal department websites; this was in the days of FrontPage and DreamWeaver. We wanted to add features like employee look-ups, so I started to learn some very basic JavaScript. During this time I was working on my Associates Degree and taking courses for my EMT (Emergency Medical Technician). I started to see opportunities as a developer and with that I chose a few courses for my associates that included learning data structures and some Visual Basic. The team I was working with had a large eBusiness initiative and I immersed myself in this project and began working as a business analyst; although I was still an Admin. This went on for some time. I was nearly complete with my Associates Degree and I began to advocate for being recognized for the work I was doing. It was honestly frustrating, I was being asked to keep doing the additional responsibilities without the commiserate compensation. My manager at the time gave me three options:

1. Get promoted now
2. Get promoted in 9 months when my associates program was completed
3. Get promoted in approximately 6 months at the normal review cycle

I remember looking at him and saying something like “obviously now!”. Thank goodness I spoke up and advocated for myself. I had been doing that job for about 18 months before getting the promotion. I wish I could say that my experiences changed through the years, but I found I had to always advocate for myself and be the squeaky wheel to be recognized for the work I was doing.

I look back on those days and I wish I would have spoken up sooner, but I learned so much from those experiences. Recently, I was asked what advice I could share with another woman in tech, and what I wish I knew before. I was very candid with her, I shared my experience and that I can’t stress the importance of working with a team where you feel heard and valued. If you are not heard and valued, speak up, and do NOT let leadership brush you off.

My career continued. I had to learn to find balance as a developer and also feel like I belonged on teams that were primarily all CS majors. As I had children I knew I didn’t want to be working more than 40 hours so I had to find ways to ensure my balance. Looking back I probably stayed at my original tech company for many more years than I should have but I learned so much. I grew through all of those experiences and I took that all with me later. One constant was the need to advocate for myself, find new opportunities, and not allow my voice to be quieted.

When I got to a point where I no longer felt challenged, and the open opportunities didn’t seem to offer anything exciting, I knew it was time to move on. This was a very scary prospect and actually took me several years to take action. My years had been spent as an internal application developer and not experiencing products outside those four walls. I was waiting for a great opportunity that made sense; I felt comfortable where I was and worried I wouldn’t have the same success elsewhere. In reality, I was conditioned by those around me to think that the success I had was due to the environment I was in and I wouldn’t experience that elsewhere.

Fast forward to 2018, I experienced workplace sexual harassment. Harassment that was reported and invalidated. This experience made me sick! I no longer came to the office, I refused to be around the offender and ultimately this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I’m proud of myself for not backing down at this point, for not allowing this experience to prevent me from moving forward. If anything, it lit a fire within me.

An opportunity presented itself to move to another company and build upon the skills I had built over the years and jump over to mobile development using React Native. This frightened me, I talked to so many peers and mentors that I trusted and ultimately made the leap of faith to leave the company that started my adult life and brought me to this point. This decision allowed me to feel like I held my values and integrity and fought for what I believed in.

That mobile development role allowed me to spread my wings, see that I could be wildly successful in another environment. Through these experiences, I’ve learned that being opinionated is ok and that your success is a culmination of the effort you put in and the people you surround yourself with as mentors and advisors.

In my current role I have felt a tremendous amount of growth in a short period of time. A good part of this is culture — finding a team that values individuals for the experiences they have and listens with an open mind. Believe me, I know this can be hard to find, but treasure it when you do! Make it known what they are doing well, give feedback to those around you that help you feel included!

Never settle, don’t stop learning, keep pushing forward for the right change! We don’t get to peek and see what is ahead, we have to use the information and experiences from our past to make the best decisions when we are at the fork in the road.
I am very proud of where I am today. In all honesty, sometimes I want to pinch myself. It’s hard to believe that I’ve been able to share my learnings and experiences on stage and to virtual audiences. Your path might not be traditional and it will likely look different than everyone else’s around you; keep moving forward towards your goals!

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