Women in Tech: Rachel Smith

Hello, Awesome πŸ‘‹,

Thanks for taking out time to read this interview. This series is all about talking to the awesome women in tech, understanding the current health of the tech industry and inspiring other women to become better.
If you want to share your story, please reach out to me on Hashnode.

Today, we'll be interviewing Rachel Smith πŸ‘©β€πŸ’» .
Rachel is a Software Engineer at CodePen and a big fan of SVG Animations popularly known for her amazing Pens.

I interview leading women developer every week and showcase their history, opinions and advice on the tech. In case you missed our previous interviews, check out the " She Inspires " series on Hashnode.
Also, if you find this interview useful, please don't forget to share with your friends and colleagues. πŸ˜ƒ


Please tell us a little bit about yourself. How and when did you venture into tech?

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Rachel: I have loved computers since the day I first used one. I was obsessed with using our home computer and did really well at my IT classes in Senior High school. I chose to study a Software Engineering degree at University but didn't have a good experience there, and dropped out. I swapped to study Business and gave up programming because I had allowed myself to believe I wasn't smart enough to do it. I graduated with a Business degree & thought I would pursue a career in HR when the 2008 recession/GFC hit and couldn't find work, so I ended up working as a full-time barista. I was really unhappy and my boyfriend (now husband) encouraged me to take another shot at development. I went back to study and found Front End development. I scored a job making Flash banners at an Ad agency and never looked back.

You work as a Software Engineer at CodePen, how long have you worked there and what has been your experience so far?

Rachel: I have worked with CodePen since January 2016. I had only worked in an agency environment before then so the shift to working on a Product, remotely, was an adjustment. My favourite part about working for CodePen is the autonomy I've been given to make decisions that effect the product and the direction we take as a company. Like many remote roles, it is a job where you have to be very self-motivated and keep yourself accountable, especially when it comes to communication with the team. For the better part of my years here, we've been working towards taking a very large and complicated jQuery + Rails app and moving it to a React + GraphQL + Rails app. It is very rewarding now to see this work pay off, there have definitely been days where I have envied the developers behind similar apps who started from a fresh modern stack πŸ˜†. The amazing CodePen community is what inspires me to keep trucking when the challenges appear to be insurmountable!

We see that you specialize in Web development and work predominately with animating interfaces using CSS and JavaScript. How did you decide to focus on this path?

Rachel: The first job I ever took in web development was to make Flash banners for an Ad agency. The tech lead there was really into animation and I caught the animation bug from him. Flash was already on it's way out so I had to scramble to learn CSS3 and JavaScript animations so they could run on agency client's iPads. Being in advertising, I dreamed of working for big name clients who paid for exciting campaign websites. That dream came true when I went to work with Active Theory, I learnt so much about UI animation and building JavaScript applications from the talented folks there.

How long have you been writing code and what word will describe your experience so far?

Rachel: 17 years, in some form or another (with some breaks). Empowering.

You are a big fan of SVG Animations, how did you get started and what inspires your amazing Pens?

Rachel: If I remember correctly, the first JavaScript animation library I tried out on CodePen was Snap.svg. I found the API easy to use and like how customisable SVG is so I thought, "why not?". Many of my Pen ideas have been sparked by VFX I've seen out in the real world, on TV, billboards, or screens behind the DJ in the night club. I will see something and wonder how I might recreate that with JavaScript. I've slowed right down on making animated Pens since I became a parent but I hope to get back to it someday.

What advice do you have for anyone learning SVG animations now?

Rachel: If you are looking for a good resource, get a copy of Sarah Drasner's book " SVG Animations " and follow her on CodePen. Then just start coding. Everyone is different, but I find the only way I make real progress is to just get in there and start creating something, rather than watching or reading tutorials. If starting from scratch is intimidating you could take a Pen you like, break it to modify it in some way and then try and fix it again. The important part is to try.

What advice would you give to aspiring programmers who look forward to speaking at meetups and/ or conferences?

Rachel: Wherever you are speaking, choosing to speak about a subject that you know really well and are passionate about is essential. Enthusiasm is infectious, and if the audience can sense your enthusiasm, they probably won't notice any slip-ups caused by nerves. If you can weave a narrative into your talk, like you are telling a story, that will make a for a more interesting talk than a list of information. If you can, try to give a talk at a local meetup for a smaller audience and then use this as evidence when you submit for larger conferences. I am a very shy person, and speaking still terrifies me even after doing it a number of times. Just thinking about it now makes me feel ill, but pushing out of my comfort zone and choosing to try it was one of the best things I did for my career and my personal growth.

What do you think needs to be done to encourage beginner developers to learn programming languages and continue learning?

Rachel: I am so glad to have come a long, long, way as a community since I started that Engineering degree 15 years ago. We still have major problems with gate-keeping in programming that we must all work towards overcoming. I think organisations like CodeNewbie are doing a fantastic job at providing resources and community for beginners. Organising is necessary, but sometimes you can have the most impact by focusing on your own little world and the people around you. How does your company treat early-career developers? Do your hiring policies inadvertently disadvantage marginalised groups? CodePen isn't at a scale where we can properly support early-career employees yet, but we do the best we can to make CodePen a place where beginner developers can thrive. It has been baked into our design decision process since day one.

Imposter syndrome is one problem developers face especially newbies, what is your experience with imposter syndrome, how did you manage yours and what advice do you have for anyone facing this currently?

Rachel: I wrote a whole blog post about Imposter Syndrome a few years ago, and I still feel the same way

Read the blogpost here.

I'll use the advice from there: You're going to be okay. What you are feeling is normal. Worries about not being good enough are natural, we all have them, and they keep us on task and aware of what we might need to learn next. As you grow in experience, you will close the gaps in knowledge, you will spend less of the day worrying about what you don’t know, and it will feel great. You will never know everything. The self-doubt will never go away, but staying humble is the key to growth, and one day you’ll feel more comfortable with these uncomfortable feelings.

Rejection emails is another thing that motivates imposter syndrome and depression amongst developers especially intermediates. How did you manage this effectively during your "job-hunting" days?

I have to be honest and say it has been a long time since I have been on a real job hunt, my last 2 roles I was approached by the company first. I was rejected many times as a contractor when I was a junior developer though. Because I went through a bad bout of depression while I quit programming, once I got back into it, I was so sure I was meant to do this that I didn't internalise the rejections when they came. I've always been pretty serious about managing my mental health by keeping a healthy lifestyle and seeking professional help when good habits aren't going to cut it.

You write a lot Rachel, what is your super power and what advice do you have for a newbie who wants to get started with technical writing?

Rachel: Correction, I wrote a lot before I became a mum, so maybe my super power was not having children? Haha. I wrote because I wanted to help people on their journey, and sharing knowledge was one way to do that. Writing about a technical subject is also a great way to ensure I actually understand it. As for advice, I could give some, but I'd just be repeating what Chris wrote here

What advice would you give to aspiring programmers who look forward to working for cool startups like CodePen

Rachel: It's hard to give advice on something like this when landing certain career opportunities has so much to do with privilege or lucky timing. I can share that my approach to landing that dream job is to research your ideal startups and find out what technologies they use and do your absolute best to gain experience in those technologies. In-person networking can not be discounted as an advantage, I got the job at CodePen in part because I had met the founders at a conference. Aim high. Don't discount your potential or what you are capable of doing before you've had the chance to even try.

What is the best advice someone has given you that has helped you in your career?

Rachel: I honestly couldn't tell you. I am not the sort of person who asks for advice and I don't appreciate people giving advice when I didn't ask for it πŸ˜‚. I am a 'Rebel Tendency' through and through.

What are your favorite programming tools?

Rachel: CodePen VSCode iTerm Chrome DevTools + React DevTools Apollo GraphQL VSCode extension

What does your development environment look like? Could you please share a photo? :)

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Rachel: I don't have a very fancy set up. When we first moved here I needed something to lift my monitor and found the kitten/puppy box, and then I never changed it. Some day I'll get a big monitor with a fancy arm like you see on those web developer Instagram accounts. I also spend a lot of time working from my computer on the dining table.

Finally, what would be your message to women trying to get into technology?

Rachel: You belong here, and you deserve to be here.


Did you find Rachel's story useful and inspiring?
Write down your thoughts in the comments section below and don't forget to share.
You can follow Rachel Smith on Twitter or check out her Pens.
See you next time and keep trailblazing πŸ‘‹

Comments (3)

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Moralist Festus's photo

I am greatly motivated and impressed with your Article. Thanks a lot. 😌

Bolaji Ayodeji's photo

Developer Relations @Hashnode

Thanks for the kind feedback and thank you for reading too.

Raghavan alias Saravanan Muthu's photo

That is really awesome Bolaji. Glad to know about the women leaders and thank you for sharing the experiences!