LearnHow learning to code changed my life

Debbie O'Brien

Debbie O'Brien
writes on May 4, 2018

Debbie O'Brien, learning to code, Mallorca, Spain

How learning to code changed my life

My name is Debbie and I am 39 years old. I’m a Frontend Architect for Bluekiri, part of the Logitravel Group in Mallorca, Spain. Sometimes I have a hard time believing that this is real, that it isn’t just a dream — probably because I never thought I would get here, I never thought I would actually make it.

A year ago, I was in a very different place. I had come to the end of a very long journey and I just didn’t know what to do next. I didn’t really have the interest or the strength to continue and I believed that I didn’t have a purpose anymore. I was in a deep, dark hole and I didn’t know how to get out of it.

I took a step back from life. I left my job as an English teacher in a language school, where low pay, bad hours and unsatisfying work had me looking at the clock every minute. I just didn’t want to be there. I love Taekwondo but I even closed my Taekwondo club because I felt I had lost the confidence, energy and enthusiasm needed to teach it. I stepped back from life and reconnected with the things I enjoyed, like cycling, skiing, cooking, baking and going for walks.

Defining my dream

Then I took a Dream Builders course — to be honest, a friend told me I needed to do it and I knew I needed to do something, as I couldn’t go on the way I was.

The first question I was asked on the course was: What is your dream, if money or time were not in the way? I knew what my dream was — to work for Google as a programmer. I had freelanced for a few very small startups — building WordPress websites and working with css and html — but I found it difficult to get a job in a big, well known company where I could grow, improve my skills and be part of a great team.

I wasn’t strong in important front end skills (JavaScript, React, Angular, etc.) and every job advertisement I saw asked for programming languages that I didn’t know or had never even heard of before. I had tried to learn JavaScript and improve my skills, paying thousands of Euros for JS courses that unfortunately had no support or community. I was forced to give up and believe I just wasn’t clever enough to be a programmer.

No matter how much I wanted it, I felt it was just impossible. I also lived on a small island where there aren’t as many opportunities and there is no Google office, so my dream to be a programmer for Google was literally just a dream.

The second question of the Dream Builders course was: Can you define Google, what it means to you? I could, so I told my coach that, for me, Google is a really cool tech company where you are encouraged to learn, always working with the latest technologies and playing your part in a great team.

I was told to write down my dream every day, which I did for several months in the hope that it would one day come true:

My dream is to work as a Programmer for a well known company doing what I love every day, working with a great team of people where you constantly keep learning and improving, where you get on well with each other in and out of work, where work is fun but challenging, where you enjoy going there and are never bored. I would like to be good at what I do and be acknowledged and appreciated for it. I would love to earn a good salary so I don’t have to always have a second job just to survive. I would love to have a great timetable where I have weekends free to do the things I love doing. I would love to be happy, make other people happy and help people.

It seems so simple when I look back over it. I really wasn’t asking for much yet I had spent years trying and failing to make this dream come true, until I finally gave up on it.

Finding my dream job

During the course, my coach told me to find my dream company in Mallorca. Funnily enough, I found Trivago, who are quite similar to Google in how they work and in what their core values are — and they have Tech offices in Mallorca. I studied everything I could find about the company, reading their tech blog, website, twitter feeds, etc.

I applied for a job even though I knew I didn’t have the skills. It’s pretty standard that a company sends you a coding challenge to test your skills before they even call you for an interview. I received a challenge to complete that was way above my skill level. I was back to square one.

I told my dream-builder coach, “What’s the point? I’m not good enough. I’m not skilled enough. They want me to build a booking engine in React and I don’t even know JavaScript. It’s impossible.”

My coach said, “Okay, what do you need to be able to do this challenge?”

I said “JavaScript.”

She said “Great, off you go and learn it.”

I was like, seriously, you think it’s that easy.

I took tons of courses from different sites but I was getting confused. Some were using arrow functions and others weren’t. I couldn’t tell what was JavaScript and what was React. But, I put everything I had into learning and handed in the Trivago challenge on my six-week deadline. It was nowhere near finished but I sent them an email explaining that in order to complete the challenge I had to take a load of courses in not just React but also JavaScript, and found it quite hard to learn it all in six weeks. To be honest I was really proud of what I had built even though it really wasn’t very good.

Trivago told me they saw potential but I had some things to fix, so they gave me another two weeks and asked me to work on things like making my data dynamic and writing everything in a ReadMe. I was so excited that Trivago was taking a chance on me, giving me another opportunity. I worked so hard trying to learn as much as I could to improve my code before my two-week deadline.

When I handed it in, I was told that I was the most motivated applicant they had ever seen and to try the WordPress challenge in case I was a better fit for that position. I spent a week working on that challenge but handed it in saying that I really didn’t want to work with WordPress and would much prefer the position of a Frontend Programmer.

Everyone was convinced that I was going to get hired. I had spent seven full weeks working on these challenges, and put in so much work, surely they were going to hire me. Everything seemed so positive and then I got the email.

There it was, a big “NO.”

Another failure. I was devastated — yet I knew, deep down, that they were right. I wasn’t good enough for that position. I had so much more to learn. The good thing was that I then knew what I needed to learn, what they were looking for and what I was lacking. I had a goal.

Enter Treehouse

I was introduced to Treehouse by a mentor from another course I was taking. He told me that Treehouse had a great selection of courses and that it would really help improve my JavaScript skills. I fell in love with it straight away. The courses were fantastic but when I saw the Full Stack JavaScript Techdegree and read through the 12 projects you would build, everything you would learn, I thought, “Wow, imagine if I could do all that?” I signed up for it immediately.

I think the great thing about the Techdegree is that it slowly leads you up through what you need to learn. It gives you direction and it teaches you the right way. I had learned some things backwards when studying for the Trivago challenge, so Treehouse helped me to just start at the beginning and properly build up my skills.

The projects were just so cool and sometimes extremely challenging, especially as I always aimed for the exceed grade. At times, I would think, “This is impossible, I can’t do this,” but Treehouse has a great way of breaking the projects down into steps, and that helped so much. I constantly asked questions on the Slack channel and was amazed by how supportive the mentors and the community were. I even started to help out too, by giving other students some advice and reviewing their projects, and that felt great.

I went for a job interview when I was halfway through the degree. This one didn’t ask me to do a challenge but called me in for an interview. I was asked so many questions that I couldn’t answer. I thought, “That’s Project 9, I haven’t studied that yet.” I was also asked to run some code on a big screen with people watching me. I was still building my confidence, so showing off my half-learned skills was pretty terrifying.

It was the worst job interview I’d ever had, and I decided that it was never going to happen again.

Getting to a Yes, one peer review at a time

I was never going to be afraid to dive into someone else’s code, so I decided I was going to do one peer review every day until I finished the degree. In Techdegree, you get the chance to give feedback on other student’s projects as a peer review. I was very reluctant at first, questioning how I could advise or correct other people’s work when I was only still learning. Only now do I realize the value that peer reviewing provides, and not many courses or degrees give you that skill. So … okay, I didn’t do one every single day but almost every day. I made it the first thing I did before I started to code my own projects. It was my way of gaining more confidence, building my peer review skills and helping people, and it felt great. I earned my 100th Peer Review badge and later became the Full Stack JavaScript student with the most completed peer reviews ever. Wow!

While I was on Project 11, I applied for a few more jobs through LinkedIn and I received a challenge from a very well known company, Logitravel. What was interesting was that I could actually do everything they were asking for. They said they valued node, pug and gulp. I thought, “Cool, node and pug; that was Project 7. Gulp was Project 8 and a JavaScript search feature was Project 5.” The challenge was easy because I was prepared for it.

I handed it in after two days. They called me straight away for an interview and they offered me the job there and then.

I walked out of the interview and thought to myself, “What on Earth just happened here? I think I just got a job.”

After so many years of getting No, I couldn’t believe that I had finally received a Yes. It was unreal.

After a month working for Logitravel, I got promoted to Frontend Architect for Bluekiri. I work as part of the Software Architecture team where I make high-level design choices and dictate technical standards, including software coding standards, tools and platforms.

My team is currently building a custom framework for one of our clients, implementing best practices like peer reviewing and testing into their Frontend team. I am now doing things I never knew I could do: Analysing, building, programming, peer reviewing, testing and even writing articles for Bluekiri’s tech blog. I am surrounded by cool people in tech, I work with a great team and have an amazing CEO who believes in me more than I believe in myself.

Earlier this year, I was also hired by Treehouse as a slack moderator and peer reviewer for the Full Stack Techdegree, so I now get the chance to help people get to where I am today. It’s really rewarding and a great honor to be part of the Treehouse team.

I am learning something new each day — constantly challenged, never bored and I absolutely love going to work every day. Programming has made me feel alive again!


Debbie O'Brien, learning to code, Mallorca, Spain, International Women's Day

Debbie with the rest of the women in Bluekiri’s Mallorca office, taken for International Women’s Day 2018

Good things are going to happen

It’s now just over a year since I started studying, and a year since I handed in the Trivago challenge. I recently had the pleasure of attending an Agile workshop in their office in Mallorca. It was quite strange to be there, but I am very thankful to Trivago for encouraging and pushing me to be a better developer. Thanks to them, I now have an amazing job at Bluekiri.

So much has happened and it was a hard struggle to get here; at one point, I even bought myself a sign that reads “Good things are going to happen.” I looked at it every day for eights months, hoping that each day would be the day. The interesting thing is that what I wrote down every day in my Dream Builder journal is exactly what I have right now, word for word. It’s amazing.

Programming is hard work, but it’s so much fun. You just have to believe in yourself and give it your all and never give up. Learning to code has changed my life and made my dream come true.

What’s next? My aim is to keep learning. I absolutely love learning and then helping others by sharing what I have learned, but I will admit that sometimes it’s pretty overwhelming. Tech is changing so fast that you have to constantly keep learning in order to keep up. But, before looking forward at everything you don’t know yet, you can find the strength to continue by looking back at everything you have learned and feeling proud of how far you have already come.

Please feel free to follow me on LinkedIn, Twitter and Medium.

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3 Responses to “How learning to code changed my life”

  1. Debbie congratulate you for your attitude, perseverance and that desire to continue learning,

    I send you a greeting from Guadalajara, Jal. Mexico

  2. Jonas on May 9, 2018 at 8:10 am said:

    Inspiring, go Debbie

  3. Wow, Debbie! That’s an amazing story to tell everybody. I’m impressed. Congratulations!

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