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Who Codes: From A Psychology Major to a Physics and Math Lover

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A version of this article previously appeared on Skillcrush, an online education program for creatives, thinkers, and makers that gives total tech newbies the tools to make major career changes.

Scott Morris and Haele Wolfe, Skillcrush

We've all seen the stereotypes: that coders look exactly one way—and it's not the most inclusive description. (In fact, there's a pretty high chance that if you're reading this, you don't look like the coders we see on TV, in movies, and in the media.) But that's simply not an accurate representation of the tech world—which is growing more diverse as people find ways to join the industry that don't involve slogging their way through Silicon Valley. Welcome to What Makes a Coder?—a monthly column that spotlights two people with tech skills and the diversity of their careers.

Today, we have an educator-turned coding student/consultant with a passion for using tech to help people feel less alone in their mental illness and a self-taught test engineer at a major company who has been playing with computer since she was a kid (she also makes pickles and jams that sound pretty drool-worthy).

Bee Martinez, 32, Laredo, TX

What do you do and where do you work?
I'm an Educational Aide by day, code student by night, and home-maker in between. Since my background is in teaching, I'm a tech consultant for an education company. I do content management and design for a WordPress website that I built while taking Skillcrush classes. We also launched a newsletter recently!

I have a remote, part-time job with a designer/developer team. This looks like a steady weekly check in with the developer (who is my mentor), and I connect with the designer about once per month. I've been tackling increasingly larger and more complex bits of projects, but more importantly, I've been learning so much! And it's not only about code—it's also about workflow and being part of a team.

Finally, I contribute to the open source project if-me, a community for mental health experiences that encourages people to share their mental health stories with trusted allies. I focus on content creation/organizing and social media, but my first contribution was translating the website to Spanish.

Did you start out your career as a coder?
No way! I studied to be a psychologist. I started working in Special Ed, then I taught ESL in kindergarten, and at the same time I obtained a Master's Degree in Bilingual Education. This gave me the opportunity to be an Associate Professor for a while. I also taught ESL in Elementary school. Then, my husband and I decided to move to the USA, and I wanted to try something new. Skillcrush had been in the back of my head since I heard about it on Stuff Mom Never Told You podcast, so, I finally decided to join this amazing community when we moved!

How did you learn to code?
Through Skillcrush, of course! I'm currently wrapping up my Visual Designer coursework and working on improving my JS skills.

Tell us about a favorite project you've worked on.
My favorite project is if-me. Along with code and education, mental health is one of my passions. With if-me, I found a safe space to combine all of those. I work with people from different backgrounds who advocate and dedicate their time and resources to improving access to mental health resources. And it's all thanks to code! How amazing is that?

Were you always interested in tech? What sparked your interest?
I took an IT workshop in middle school, and one of the things I learned was to not be afraid of it, and that I was the one in control of what a computer could do. In my teaching days, I relied a lot on technology, from finding resources online to creating my own. I always liked to do things differently, but also finding easier ways to do and customize my lessons, making them more engaging. Tech was the way! As [Skillcrush CEO] Adda said in the #zerotodevsummit "Tech is not a thing. Tech is a way of doing things."

Do you have any advice for people who are considering learning to code and might have some apprehension?
I started a year ago. I haven't reached all my goals, but I'm really proud of what I have accomplished, which includes so much I didn't foresee. So… do it! Learning doesn't take up any space :) You can absolutely do it. It may seem daunting, but you won't do it alone. Instructors —and Twitter—are there for you! The tech community is wonderful, diverse, and welcoming. Join us!

What do you do outside of work?
All things media: podcast apps, streaming services, e-books…

How would you describe your work/life balance?
It takes work. Sometimes I want to do all the things! Learning to code is a commitment. So is maintaining work/life balance. One has to be as deliberate with self-care as with external obligations. Put yourself first.I highly recommend hanging out with pets, watching your favorite shows, going to concerts, and scheming to smash the patriarchy.

Maryanne Sweat, 40, Charlotte, NC

What do you do and where do you work?

I'm a Staff Test Engineer at LendingTree. I'm responsible for development of automated test cases for APIs and UI utilizing JAVA (among other languages and frameworks).

Did you start out your career as a coder?
No, I started out as a hardware tech. I was installing memory and configuring servers as a part time thing at a Borders Books & Music. I wanted to get into software, but I didn't have the coding skills. I started my software career as a test technician executing manual test cases written by other people, and I quickly took to Quality Assurance—I interpreted it as running experiments on software. As a Mathematics and Physics major in college, I was steeped in the scientific method traditions and I quickly recognized the testing process as a variation of the scientific method. In fact, I wrote a blog post about it last year.

How did you learn to code?
My first foray into coding was when I was in elementary school. My father bought the family a Commodore C-64 and its command prompts were written in BASIC. My dad had a subscription to a C-64 enthusiast magazine that always included programs. The first one I transcribed was a program that generated a game representing the Towers of Hanoi. However, once I had transcribed the code onto my local PC, I found there were errors in the code. It was my first introduction to software testing, although I didn't know it at the time.

I took programming classes in middle school and high school. My high school Calculus professor applied for a grant during the early days of the internet and was awarded a DEC-Alpha UNIX workstation for his class room. This allowed me to venture into UNIX and exploring the early days of the internet.

In college, I took two semesters of Digital Electronics, including assembly coding, and two semesters of FORTRAN. At the time, number crunching via computer was cutting edge.

I use JAVA, SQL query language, C#, Selenium, VBScript and HP QuickTestPro for work, and I taught myself these languages.

Tell us about a favorite project you've worked on.
My favorite project was building an automated test case which handled dynamic HTML field display for user form data collection. The application under test was configurable so the automated test cases had to be smart enough to inspect the page for what questions were shown and answer them accordingly. The real challenge was if one of the answered questions added a new question to the page. An example would be "Do you have a bankruptcy?" If the user answered "yes", the application under test would present a question asking when the bankruptcy was discharged. So, the script had to inspect the document object model in the browser, determine what questions were displayed and answer them accordingly. It then inspected the page again to see if new questions were added and then answered those.

I knew I had developed something pretty cool when during the demo, the UI developers exclaimed, "That's cool! Is it going to get that extra question that was added…OH WOW it did!"

Were you always interested in tech? What sparked your interest?
Yeah, pretty much always. Like I said, I had a personal computer at a young age—and I've been playing with them ever since.

Do you have any advice for people who are considering learning to code and might have some apprehension?
Don't let anyone tell you coding isn't for you. If you like solving puzzles, writing code is just like that. Be humble. Ask for help. Remember everyone was a newbie at one time or another. Once you feel comfortable writing basic algorithms, consider checking out Project Euler. It has a huge archive of algorithm problems that you must write a computer program to solve. While I was teaching myself JAVA this Spring, I used this site to learn various coding methods and tricks to solve a huge range of puzzles here.

What do you do outside of work?
I am a band booster volunteer with my son's band program and an avid video game player. I'm also a foodie—this summer, I have made a variety of pickles and jams to save the summer bounty to enjoy in Winter.

How would you describe your work/life balance?
My job is demanding but I make time for the important things in life. I try to limit my overtime unless a crisis erupts at work. My job also gives me the flexibility to work from home if needed which really helps keep things in perspective. The family tries to have dinner together every night and we have a no electronics at the table policy so we can focus on each other. Since my son is 16 and getting a teen to open up about his day can be challenging, we have a standard conversation prompt where each of us goes around the dinner table discussing three good things and one bad thing that happened that day.

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