Understanding Complex Systems: How Emily Ashley Became a “Community-Taught” Engineer
I first met Emily Ashley at the New Orleans Hack Night meetup a few years back. Conversations at the meetup often became rants and rambles about strongly-typed languages, fault tolerance, non-relational-databases, and what not to do. It turns out that Emily was astutely paying attention and taking notes to figure out what it’s like to build systems.
Thanks to Hack Night and Operation Spark, Emily describes herself as a“community-taught” programmer. She went from being interested in software to joining a bootcamp, eventually becoming a pro and finally joining us at Team Revelry. And we’re excited to welcome her aboard. To help you get to know her, I thought I’d ask her some leading questions.
So, we often say someone is “taking notes” because they’re paying attention. It sounds like you were literally taking notes at all those meetups.
It’s true! I still have a list in my notebook of wildly misspelled names of technology and tools that I heard when I was first starting out. After these meetups, I went home to look up these terms and try to piece together the conversations I had heard.
And yeah, people definitely shared some strong opinions at those hack nights. Listening to those slightly drunk and very honest rambles was the most real introduction I got to what it’s like to build (hopefully-not-too-complex) systems. Shoutout to Operation Spark! I took one of their evening classes and learned so much. Probably the most important thing I learned is that I didn’t just want to “program” in order to make visualizations and clean data for maps. I wanted to build applications where people can input data and whatnot.
Honestly, took me a while to understand the difference between a website and a web application — and that’s kinda the difference between someone who can “code” or “script” and someone who needs to know how to “engineer.”
And that’s how I leaped into being a Software Engineer.
A “Community-Taught” Software Engineer, I’ve heard you say.
That’s right. Here come a few more shoutouts: To the #maptime and OpenStreetMap folks, and my realization after sending this simple tweet to MapBox from completing one of their tutorials that there are humans on the other side of software & JS libraries. And that maybe I could be one of them: all it took was a few <3s and a reply.
People really invested their time in answering my questions and guiding me into learning and mastering relevant technologies for the things I wanted to accomplish. Like, directly 1:1, people were willing to help. I could name names, but that’s just weird. It takes a village or whatever.
And here you are.
Honestly, it feels weird because I know I’m a Software Engineer at a tech company, but very few of the interests I can easily write about are related to building software. I dunno, it’s like asking someone why they are a plumber? BECAUSE I LOVE PIPES. Nah. I like problem solving, and deconstructing and understanding the structure and nature of complex systems.
And more often than not, I’m thinking about human systems and/or their built environment — which now kinda also includes the public internet-o-sphere.
The more our data is digitized (or generated) and stored and retrieved with computers, the more individual scripting/code is used to clean that data for analysis, exploration, or visualization. Some software does this, but the most flexible way –if you got the time to learn– is scripting.
Thinking programmatically is a skill that is needed in more and more domains. Don’t get me started on the difference between learning, for example, a particular GIS software at university and learning how to solve problems computationally in your field of expertise.
Wait, don’t get you started? Why not? Get started!
Haha, how about I move on for now and talk about why I joined Revelry. I admire that the team values and practices empathy, trust, and excellence. The surprisingly-not-so-usual usual. High standards. Highly opinionated folks — paired with that “be excellent to each other” bit. That’s good stuff.
OK, Maybe you’ll promise us a future blog post on the learning-software-and-solving-problems thing. What other non-software interests do you have?
Ahaha radio waves? I have a HAM radio license and just started getting into playing with amateur radio. We played a bit as children, but it came back into my radar recently with our reliance on the communication networks industry (cellular data, internet providers).
There’s a lot to learn and I love the amateur DIY feel of it all. You can’t stop the signal, Mal.
What else? Do you have any productivity hacks to share?
I’m a visual person, so I love to use a whiteboard, laid horizontally on the desk next to me. Add a mix of index cards, post-its, and dry erase markers. I use these both for short-term memory or cataloging tasks & thoughts, and to find & solve problems in tandem with onscreen work.
Visualizations can be an efficient way to communicate complex trends to the general public, and I value this for myself as well. I carry with me a quote that I can’t quite attribute, but it goes something like “solving a problem is as simple as visualizing it in a way that solution becomes apparent.”
I value structure: the arrangement of, and relations between, the parts or elements of something complex. I visualize the relationships I’m working with, so that I can offload that cognitive memory somewhere else. It becomes a short-term reference — but the more I look at it, the more I remember it and the more I might see that things are in the wrong place or inefficient.
This is a call-out: What color is your Jeep?
My Jeep Wrangler (LJ) is blue and I love it, but my original plan was to have a hot pink #barbiedreamjeep. One day, I’ll make the leap to get it painted- and then I’ll truly have it all.