so, make something

I’ve had a brilliant idea!

I mean, it’s Sunday. Of course I have had a brilliant idea!

For the last year or so, I’ve been dabbling with learning to code. I’ve gone through multiple online tutorials (some pretty good, some pretty bad), read a few books, taken a class, sat in mini-lectures from my colleagues (those are my favorite). And it’s all worked, to a point. My literacy is improving. It hasn’t been quick, but I have more knowledge now than I did a year ago and that counts for something. I’m not happy with what I know though, with what I would characterize as “how little in so long” I’ve learned.

There is this not-uncommon ethos in many aspects of computer science and programming: those who are best suited for this work will find a way to learn it on their own. I can’t say I particularly agree with this mindset. I think it’s dangerous and sets beginners up to fail. I don’t think our failure to teach beginners well is intentional, but I have yet to read a “getting started” guide or introduction to anything that has clicked with me. Many sighs were expressed this week with the lament that “nothing here is written for me.” I don’t have the answer here (that’s not my domain – I’m much more a student than a teacher) but I know I’m frustrated that I can’t learn to code the way I learned mathematics or climatology or chemistry or Shakespeare (that is: lectures + homework + tests).

I’m going on a longer aside here (sorry I’m not sorry). I’m sure I learned those things well in that combination because those were introductory explorations. I’ve never learned “a lot” about something without having hands-on work or interactive exploration. I speak about learning history in these terms a lot. History is not the memorization of dates and events. Dates and events can always be verified for accuracy. The order of events, the impact, the lessons, the story is much more important. Understanding why things happened or the implications of an event, the meaning, is the point of studying history. It does not matter if you know on what date we invaded Normandy, if you know the why and the impact. (However, having a knack for dates can come in handy for passcodes.) It wasn’t the lectures that taught me most in history courses; it was absolutely the conversations I had with other students, the conversations I actively listened to, and the interaction with my professors.

[While I thought I was having burst of clarity this morning, I now realize that someone much smarter than me already told me all of this. See Bob Holt‘s talk from jQuery Conference Portland: Home-Growing Top-Notch Developers. This should be required viewing for anyone (including developers) working with developers.]

All of this is to say that I’ve been struggling with learning to code. I want success here to equal lectures + homework + tests. There’s a structure there that is appealing, but I think I’ve hit the end point of where this structure supports success. While I am somewhat self-motivated (I certainly fall on the motivated side of the line, but not in the top 10%), I have a lot pulling at my time. I have a full-time job that does not neatly start at 9 and end at 5. I have friends I must brunch with and family I must Skype with. I need to be active and I have an insatiable itch to travel more. Weekdays are never long enough and weekends fill up quickly. (In the summer, I simply cannot deny the allure of the sun and shore. As summer ends, it’s practically a biological necessity that I watch hours of football on Sundays.) Simply, I cannot spend all of my time indoors and at a computer. This isn’t just priority setting; this is a simple fact of how I survive. I need all of those things in my life.

This all balances really well right now – my “work-life balance” (a phrase about which I have many thoughts for another essay) is nearly perfect. Nearly. What is missing from this mix is time to learn something new, particularly something which requires dedicated time at my computer. Where do I fit this in? Where is the online class I can take and add this skill to my repertoire in a few semesters? Teaching myself something I don’t know doesn’t make sense in my brain. Don’t you read books to learn things you don’t know? How do you even teach yourself something?

My colleagues have implored me to try this “learning by doing” thing and build something. I’ve been convinced, but even this simple concept has gone through several false-starts. First, I wanted someone to give me a project. You tell me what the goals and parameters are and I’ll figure out how to get an A on the project from there. (Yeah, I really liked school.) Then my colleagues succeeded in convincing me that the project had to be something I wanted to do. So I came up with a project far beyond my capabilities (for now) and perhaps set myself up for failure. I couldn’t stop seeing the whole picture and it was overwhelming. I just felt defeated and frustrated, and consequently, disinterested. This week, I scaled back and decided to just work on my personal website (an idea I had shot down multiple times; sorry, friends).

This is great, I thought; this is where I’ll start. I’ll do this simple task – I’ll create something which will feed a need to show what I’ve done, and I’ll surely learn as I go. Brilliant. I’ve spent the last few days investing a reasonable amount of time into this. It’s basically just html and css, right? How hard can it be?

Answer: not hard. This is great – I have learned enough over the last year to move through this. Sure, I move a little slowly and have to look things up a lot, but I’m at a point where I know how to find the information I need. That’s awesome!

I could be using this post to announce and point to a new cassieirwin.com, but I abandoned that project.

Wait, what? You just said how great this learning project is.

I did. I know. I found the catch to all of this, though. I already love the way cassieirwin.com looks right now and I am completely happy with using WordPress for this. Nothing I can build now will be better – because I don’t have a better idea. And I’m not going to try to recreate something that already exists and fills my needs. Because I don’t actually want it to be any different than it is right now. At all. As it became clear how pointless the result would be, this project became “not fun” very quickly. It felt like another false-start, until it led to something better.

I spent a significant amount of time this morning re-reading all of the blog posts and semi-organized drafts of essays I’ve written about the Boston Marathon bombings. It all got very emotional (I mean, it’s only been a few months), and then I got very frustrated that I can’t yet read these pieces as – well, essentially as sources, as historical documents. I have an intense need to write about this event, but I’m not a journalist. I’m a historian. I don’t write about the now; I write about the then. (Really ready for this to become a “then” type of event.) History isn’t just this thing I love, this side hobby; it’s obviously influenced much of my educational life and professional development.

I needed a deep breath so I switched to working on my website, despite my growing reluctance, and realized I have no place for this huge part of my life, nowhere to document the fruits of my efforts in studying history, nowhere to share with the world these stories I love. I suppose it never seemed important because it’s not my current career path, but it should be here. My website should have a place where I can share all the papers I’ve ever written, maybe as some kind of nod to the C.V. I would have had if I had stayed on the professional historian path.

Work on something you want to see exist… hmm, where have you heard that before?

[It turns out, of course, that this moment of brilliance did not happen in a vacuum either. And for this inspiration, I would point you to Jenn Schiffer‘s amazing talk Learn Code, Make Art at jQuery Conference Portland. Is an essay on the radicalization of Nelson Mandela a work of art? I say – for me, yes. I’ve made it; now I want to share it.]

Is it a tiny setback that I don’t have digital copies of any of my essays? Ah, yep. But not an impossible setback. The time it will take to have my papers sent to me (for everything still lives in Wisconsin) will give me time to play around with the html and css. (There’s structure there but it is uuuugggglllly – css is hard.) This is something that doesn’t exist, that I want to see exist, and that I’m capable of creating. That – that is exciting.

My last aside: maybe this is also an opportunity for me to keep working on history? I do miss it so much, you know. And I fully subscribe to this belief that I should be doing things I love. Maybe I love that learning to code lets me share the other things I love with you, too.

After Three(ish) Months of Quiet

I’ve been in Boston for awhile now, four months or so. I’ve been updating Tumblr and running rampant with Twitter, but nothing really seemed worth writing about here. I haven’t worked on any of my projects (though that’s not to say I haven’t been doing new things). While I really want to recommit to my three-month projects, there’s no possible way I can manage multiple concurrent projects. Finally, this website just doesn’t work. Why have a Word Press blog if Tumblr is my go to method of “hey hey look at me!“?

Today is a snow day in Boston. 24 inches of snow have accumulated, mass transit is steadily working to get up and running, and I’m happily cozy-ified in my new apartment where my roommate is baking an almond cake and I’m in my default winter costume of leggings and an oversized sweater. (Today’s lovely addition of boot socks is really just the icing on this fashion cake.) I’ve slept-in; I’ve read; I’ve shoveled. There is nowhere I have to be (for a few hours now). Consequently, today is a great day to start fixing cassieirwin.com.

Compelling reasons to to maintain this page abound. This should be where I point people. This should be on my hipster-cool personal card. This should take you to my Twitter and my Tumblr and my Facebook… I made a decision about six months ago that I was not going to live anonymously online. I’m easy to find anywhere – everyone user name I have is my name (or some variation if someone beat me to “cassieirwin”), but I could be easier to find. You could come here and then start your online research with helpful tips from your subject!

That’s the plan, simple enough. I’ll write up a quick project plan today (naturally), and start tackling the tasks I need to do to make this page a non-Word Press page, move my Word Press blog to something like cassieirwin.com/blog, etc. Did you catch that, the most exciting part? I’m going to code the main page myself! Now, there’s something to start writing about again.

P.S. Did anyone catch how ridiculous the tag “cassie learns to code: the first three months” is? Because we’re looking at this being a lifelong pursuit of knowledge. Three months is nothing. Nothing.

Bring It On, Boston

I am so excited to finally publicly announce some big news. On September 26th*, I will board a 1:55 p.m. flight out of Midway (with my two suitcases (thank you, Southwest), a carry-on bag, and a purse) to Boston.

A one-way flight.

I am moving to Boston.

I have told so many of you individually, but allow me the space to cheer about it online and to offer you some more details.

I have been slowly job searching since I chose to leave my graduate program last fall. It was not a serious or frantic search, as I have been satisfied with my employer and job in Chicago, but I felt like I needed something different, a new path for my career. If I was going to stay in tech, I wanted to really get into tech. A few small actions – reading more blogs and books about tech and project management, signing up for Path.To, revamping my LinkedIn profile, feeling antsy the day before vacation, all led me to apply for a “project management”-esque position with an Open Web development company in Boston.

In Boston?! What?!

I know!

It was not so long ago that I even started musing on the possibility, saying, “Well, I love Boston. If I was ever going to move to another city it would be Boston.” I’ve only been back in Chicago since February, after all. I think getting back to Chicago though was just what I need to get me back to myself, and able to figure out the next step. This is the right thing to do, and the right time for it – I am certain of this. Let the lesson here be that if you love something, let it go visit it a half-dozen times in less than a year and see if you can resist the allure of moving there.

Over the last six weeks, I’ve gone through this amazing interview experience, which honestly never felt soul-crushing, stressful or overwhelming. If I was ever intimidated, it was by the amazing work they do and feeling humbled by how much I have yet to learn (and can learn, and will learn). If I was ever nervous, it was always easily dispelled within the opening moments of conversations. Indeed, every interview really did feel more like a really interesting and engaging conversation. Have you been on many interviews where you talked about the democratization of the web and the need for an informed and engaged public? (I have not.) It just felt right the whole time.

This is a huge, big, scary, exciting, wonderful opportunity and I am ready. I am so excited about the work they are doing and I am ready for the challenge. I am going to be learning a lot, and pushing myself hard, and recapturing that elusive feeling of contributing to society, of making a difference. (Snippets of Cassie circa 2006-2008 rising to the surface again.)

I have to add here though that I have been happy in Chicago, and that if I hadn’t found any satisfaction in my work, I wouldn’t have had any hunger to do more, do different in this field. If I hadn’t found any happiness in my life, I would not have had the confidence and drive to pursue more. This is not about leaving Chicago, or anything or anyone here, but about going to Boston, and going to something new.

Oh, how I am going to miss you all, and that skyline! I am really, really, really going to miss my friends oh-so-very much but am grateful for social media, blogs, and Southwest’s multiple daily flights making it easy for us to all keep in touch.

Perhaps not surprisingly now, my next endeavor will be “Three Month Project: Becoming a Bostonian, 10/1/12-12/31/12.”

*The date of my flight is subject to change based on, you know, finding housing and other relatively important things that need to be done.

New Website (Again…)

Even though – or maybe because, this blog is still just a baby project, I’m moving to a new website. Many of you know I’m very concerned about what is connected with my name on the web. The obvious next step was to own my name in the most basic way possible, and so you can now find this blog at cassieirwin.com.

Right now, the site will be home to just this blog. Over the next few months, I will work to develop it into something a bit… more than that. I anticipate that will be a long process, with a lot of little bumps and tons of new information. (Exciting!)

As I am fairly certain all of you readers are people I have gone to brunch with at least once in my life (or would – hello Tumblrs!), I know you’ll be patient with updating your Google Reader or favorites bookmarks for me. And I appreciate it. A lot. Thank you all so much for reading and commenting on my little mini-adventures this summer.

I’ll be back with a post on urban kayaking later this afternoon!

WordPress 101

On Tuesday, Sabine and I took an introduction to WordPress class with Nicole Crimaldi of Ms. Career Girl through Dabble. (Whew – lots of moving parts there.) This class was $25 but Sabine and I signed up during a “bring a friend” special so it was really just half that for both of us. I had literally never looked at WordPress before, but assumed that there was something above and beyond about it that would require a two-hour introduction class. Turns out, WordPress is not hard. WordPress is actually really easy to use. WordPress seems kind of fun to use. However, this class was still a great experience and I do not regret going at all. If I did it all over again, I’d do it the same.

Nicole gave us a great overview with signing up for WordPress, yes, but so much of this session was discussion about how to use blogging for whatever your purpose. There were participants who were starting small businesses, some just looking for more information for the mental knowledge bank (me), and others unsure of the next step but ready to move on to something else. And it was amazing to hear Nicole’s story of fighting back against a job that made her unhappy by working really hard and really smart. It was motivating.

Additionally, she had great tips on how to grow your blog’s readership and how to think strategically about SEO and keywords. I would say most of the participants were interested in how to monetize their blogs, which makes sense if this is for your business or part of your side hustle. For me, my blog is just part of my web persona, if you will, but I am very interested in creating a healthy and interesting presence on the web. While I am really not concerned with monetizing my web presence, I would say it still falls into a “side hustle” category, and these tips were great.

I was thrilled with the class and thought it a great night. The space was comfortable and inviting. Nicole was engaging and interesting – and inspiring. I’m happy to add her to a list of entrepreneurs I admire. I feel ready to really make this blog something to be reckoned with (haha – that sounds intense). It’ll be a little bit, here and there, but by the end of the year, there will be some big changes here. That’s the best thing about these Dabble classes – they truly do give you a taste of something new, and empower you to take off from there. Money and time well spent.

Recommendation: If you’re new to blogging or social media or just less comfortable with tech, take WordPress 101. If you’re all set with figuring out how to set up your blog, do that, and take Nicole’s Start Your Side Hustle class on Tuesday (8/14).