Stumbling to CTO: My Journey Becoming a Developer

I’m perched up against a cushion with my legs splayed out on a super soft grey sofa.

On my desktop I have 5 terminal windows messily scattered around, two Atom code editors lying around, and a pull request yet to merge. A few years ago I wouldn’t have known what any of these meant. What do terminals have to do with atoms? Who’s pulling what?

Now this is my roosting place. I’m happy switching between windows and tend to warp into code mode, letting my fingers do the tapping writing git commands while my brain thinks about what else needs doing.

But it’s been a long journey. I never thought of myself as a developer and always wanted to pursue design (luckily they go together pretty nicely).

I wrote my first line of code at around twelve. Now 13 years later I’m building product here at HelpDocs. Let me explain how it all started and how I got here—eventually.

A virtual hotel, some virtual skills

As a twelve year old, I (embarrassingly) spent way too much time on Habbo Hotel, a pixeled world. I used to run home from school to chat with online friends and place pixelated furniture in a fake room.

Habbo was (and still is) a sort of public chatroom for teenagers to chat, waste money buying pixelated furniture, and generally explore others’ rooms. Although I suspect they aren’t all under 40 years old. ☹️

One of the strangest things about Habbo was its loyal fanbase. From prepubescent DJs playing queued up songs to hundreds of fansites, us “guests” in the virtual pixelated hotel took things pretty seriously. It was on one of these fansites that I wrote my first line of HTML.

Inside a table with fake airport timings. Yep, you read that right.

I was honoured with the task of updating these regularly for our incoming passengers (i.e. people entering the room and going past a set of virtual furniture).

Although this was a strange way to enter the world of development, helping out with fansites did give me some insight into how websites were set up, maintained, and built—back then, anyway (wow, I feel so old).

I learnt how you had to buy a server from a hosting company, you made websites with Dreamweaver, and you hosted radio using Winamp. All in the pursuit of being popular on Habbo.

While I learnt all this, the furthest I managed to get was change a dog’s color purple using HEX codes, DJ for literally tens of people while altering my voice virtually to make me sounds less squeaky, and create a site of iframes.

“I can’t be a developer”

Fast forward 10 years and at the ripe age of 23 I’d barely touched code since my teen years. I’d followed the design route creating pixel art and vector illustrations in my spare time rather than focusing on development.

So when Jake (my awesome co-founder) suggested I could become a developer, I immediately scoffed. “What, me?!”.

We’d already founded a few startups together and I felt bewildered that they suggest I change paths. Besides, their development ability was great and mine was nonexistent. Though looking back, my marketing skill was pretty much on the same level, I found it preposterous.

I’d failed miserably at maths. I was awful at problem solving. I just didn’t have the brain for that. But they continued. “Yeah, why not?” they said encouragingly. I listed my reasons above but they persisted. “Yeah, and? You can learn all that along the way”.

I started my journey on CodeSchool, going through various courses. JavaScript fundamentals, AngularJS, HTML, CSS, jQuery, and Git.

Then I proceeded to buy a book (Eloquent Javascript—it’s a goodie). Then React and JavaScript on Treehouse. And back to Eloquent Javascript again. And again. And again.

I’d fallen into a trap I hear many newbies at development do.

I was so worried about actually writing any code on my own that I’d limited myself to only learning through courses. They’re great and all, but self-directed development is just as important.

Being in the thick of things, getting annoyed, blaming the compiler, then realizing it’s always your fault. Writing a function from scratch, organizing your folders, and getting a “Hello World!” up on the screen are all frustrating but ultimately rewarding.

Practice never makes perfect

After many failed attempts of “becoming a developer”, I’ve come to realize that you never truly become one. No matter my skill level, I’ll never think of myself as good enough. I think that speaks true to every position, particularly in a startup that’s constantly trying new things.

Over the course of HelpDocs my role has changed drastically. I’ve been a salesperson, a marketer, a developer, and a success rep. As we grow it’s time to define each of our roles.

That’s why I’m excited and terrified to be taking the lead with development as Chief Technical Officer. We’ve come so far with our product and I’m thrilled to help move it forward. There’s some fantastic things in the pipeline I can’t wait to release.

Let the journey continue! 🚢