Getting My Swagger Back

There’s another side of the story I told in What is a Web Librarian, Anyway?, the guest post I wrote for Letters to a Young Librarian, run by the fabulous Jessica Olin. The story I told there was true, and I stand by it. But it wasn’t the whole story.

direction

It turns out, when you work as a web librarian, you are expected to master a number of distinct trades: design (including web design and graphic manipulation), user experience/usability testing, front-end development (HTML, CSS, JavaScript), back-end development (PHP and MySQL, in my shop), content strategy, information architecture (IA), teaching/training, social media outreach/marketing, and a few intangibles like leadership, project management, and the ability to sell new ideas to your coworkers. (Some web librarians have slightly different items on their lists, I’m sure.) In some ways this is great: there’s variation to the job. You aren’t doing the same thing every day.

But to be a master of anything, you need to focus on it. And you can’t focus when you’re trying to do it all. When I call those trades “distinct,” I mean it. People have entire careers in every item on that list, and, although there’s overlap, most web design/development shops have multiple people to cover all of these roles.

Now, it’s possible for me to sit back and be proud of the progress I’ve made on many of those fronts. I can look at where I was when I started, and I see how much better I am, now. I’m kind of good at some of those things—teaching/training, for instance, and social media. I might not actually be a bad web librarian. But I’m not a good web designer/developer/content strategist/information architect, and that bugs me.

In particular, I am haunted by not being the coder I want to be. I can get stuff done, but it’s slow going, and my code is messy—some of this is lack of practice, because I’m doing tons of other things, but some of it is lack of training, too — or old, not so good training, anyway.

I sometimes acknowledge this lack of confidence aloud, which is a problem: I’m half of the teaching team for Anchorage Programming Workshop (APW), which means I’m supposed to be modeling confidence to these burgeoning programmers—along with fallibility, of course. I’m also one of the few women involved in our local tech groups, and I’ve already had one of the organizers refer to me as “outside the strictly geek community” and seen people ignore me to talk to my husband, thinking he brought me to events. We need women to be more prominent and better respected, in Anchorage’s tech groups. Also, I am further along the tech track than the folks who come to APW’s workshops, and seeming at all doubtful of my skills will not help them feel good about their own; the context of “I’m not good enough at this for the job I have” is subtle, and all they will hear is “I’m not good enough at this [and neither are you].” I know that.

This problem is compounded, because not only do I feel unimpressive, but I have also been trained, in my current work environment, to downplaythe skills I have. (And this training was driven home hard, very recently.) It’s not OK to talk about your skills or knowledge or what you do well, except in your tenure file—at least if you’re a woman. If you say good things about yourself or your experience, people assume you’re saying bad things about everyone else. So, what little swagger I came in with—and I was a successful engineer, so I had a bit—is gone. I let it go in order to fit in, and I regret that.

swagger

My friend and APW co-host (and one of the best programmers in town) keeps getting after me to talk up my competence, instead of focusing on the things I don’t do as well. She’s right, of course. In the scheme of things, I think it’s more important that I build up my competence than that I talk it up, but for our purposes, locally, I’ve got to start really projecting confidence. I need some swagger.

The first part of getting my swagger back will just be faking it until I make it. I’ll work on mindfulness, in that regard.

On the competence front, I’ve realized part of my problem with JavaScript and PHP (and WordPress and MODx and…) is that my introduction to them was incomplete, and all I’ve ever done, in using them, was muddle through. That’s not the way I work best; I prefer to really understand something, if I’m going to use it. The last time I put time into really understanding a language was C/C++, as an undergrad, and I had a lot working against me: a combination of a poorly-designed CS minor, some bad pedagogy, stupid complexities in C/C++ that obscured the broader principles we should have been learning, and an unrealistic programming environment (we never learned how to compile C++ outside of Visual Studio or C outside of the emulator program we used, and the biggest project I ever did used some specialized classes built by my professors, so it didn’t feel “real”).

For all of those reasons, I have never felt like I was any good and never got confident in my programming skills. After my undergraduate experience I wrote off programming as a profession, thinking the problem was me.

duck-swagger

Now I’m smart enough to know I’m smart enough, if that makes any sense. And I can teach myself. So I picked up the O’Reilly book Learning Python and am reading/working my way through that. It will provide me the context to really understand the language(s – it covers 2.7 and 3.3), as well as some of the software engineering fundamentals that my undergraduate CS curriculum blithely skipped over.

Possibly in parallel, but certainly before too long, I’m going to work on building the Boston Python Workshop projects. I think, with what I learn doing ColorWall, I should be able to rebuild the Pong game I built using the Coursera Python class’s non-standard GUI module, but using TkInter. The Twitter project will help prepare me to build my own Twitter bot. And … I’m not that psyched about the “cheat at crosswords” project, but I might build it anyway; it might help with another project I’ve got in mind.

Eventually I’ll teach Python for APW. (I admit, having to teach it is a small factor in favor of going through the book, instead of just muddling through until I more or less get it. I feel a responsibility to get it right.) Helping other people learn is a good way to solidify principles in your own mind. And to build confidence.

And I’ve got a further plan, but this part is a lot less certain. There’s this program, where you can go spend 3 months in New York City, for free (except food and rent), and work on your programming skills with approximately 50 other people. Each batch of programmers is 35-45% female, which is a great ratio, considering. Admission is very competitive, so I can’t treat this as any kind of done deal. (Which means, if you’re one of my coworkers and are reading this, please don’t freak out and tell people. My odds of getting in — and affording it, if I do get in — are probably low.) But I’m going to apply for the batch that starts in February, because I really really want to be a better programmer. And three months to focus on getting really good — what could be better?

Failing that, I guess I’ll try to learn PHP and JavaScript in a more organized fashion and make up projects and teach those, too. That should be faster than the Python project, given my previous exposure.

So, yeah, I’ll fake it for now. And then I will earn that swagger.

About Coral Sheldon-Hess

Web librarian, Alaskan, tech teacher, feminist geek, crafter, former engineer, and Oxford comma apologist. Loves coffee and birds. "Kunoichi"=="female ninja."
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5 Responses to Getting My Swagger Back

  1. Andromeda says:

    HACKERSCHOOL OMG. You doing that would be so awesome. I hope it works out!

    BPW — yay! Note: I think the Twitter project assumes the old API. So you’ll have to do some yakshaving with the new API to make that work. But…how about you do that and report back? ;) I’d love for that to be a viable follow-up project option for our students.

    For teaching, here’s all our course materials: http://librarycodeyearig.github.io/python-preconference/ Most of it’s copy-paste from, or link to, BPW, but we expanded the lecture notes enormously. Also moved around the order of presentation so it isn’t math-first.

    • I really, really hope so too! I did some quick searches and didn’t see any other librarians who had gone, which strikes me as odd. Maybe they just don’t put it on their online resumes and didn’t blog…

      Hmm, good to know, re: Twitter. I’ll see what I can do to rewrite the instructions, as I go through it.

      And thanks for the teaching materials–especially the lecture notes! BPW’s are sort of like “and during this time slot we lecture.” :)

      • Andromeda says:

        Yeah, that was the part that was the most work to prep for :) And now you don’t have to do it! (although i of course have Opinions on how our work might be improved. :)

      • Andromeda says:

        IMPORTANT NOTE — we farmed that out among the TAs, a section each, so you’re seeing me/Eric/Becky/Carli/Shana there, not just me. github can fill you in on specifics :)

  2. Pingback: Impostor syndrome - Web Kunoichi

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