Interview with our Frontend Developer, Ali Klein, and her journey to programming as a second careerFeatured

This interview is brought to you by our partner company, Rival.Hi everyone, I'm Julia from the Rival team. I'm excited to interview my colleague @aliklein for Elpha! I'll be sharing more with you about why I love working with her and what makes the Rival team super exciting.Hi, my name is Julia Joung and I’m the Marketing Lead for Rival, a SaaS technology platform for the biggest live events in sports and music. But this article isn’t about me. It’s about my incredible colleague, Ali Klein, and the lessons she has to offer through her journey into becoming an eEngineer later in her professional career.Ali is a badass frontend engineer at Rival and helps us to bring the consumer user experience to life on our platform. Ali made an immediate impression on me when I met her. She emanates this almost visible grace and thoughtfulness, but it’s wrapped up in this strongly rooted confidence and sense of self. When I asked her and other technical female employees to be featured on our company website in an effort to attract more female engineers, she was the first and only person to pull me aside to challenge the initiative. She asked me to critically think about whether or not our efforts support a true and fair representation of the employment experience. We’ve certainly got a lot more men and I was making a deliberate choice to over represent the female voice. I’m so grateful and humbled to have a colleague like Ali who is willing to slow down, think critically and hold me accountable on these kinds of initiatives that are bigger than just our company.Ali isn’t a career engineer and actually went back to undergrad a second time to pursue programming later in her professional career. I was so inspired by her journey that I asked her to share her experiences with me so that we could share with the Elpha community for anyone else who is interested in making the same transition. Below is her story.Can you tell me a little about yourself?My name is Ali Klein and I became an engineer 10 years into my career. Currently, I’m a Software Engineer helping build the frontend of our Rival platform in close partnership with the UX team. Prior to Rival, I was a Senior Creative Developer at Deutsch Advertising Agency. But unlike my peers who for the most part started their careers as engineers, I discovered engineering later in my professional life. Originally, I majored in political science as an undergrad and had planned to go to law school. But through a series of disenchanting jobs, the guidance of a couple key mentors, and arduous journey of self reflection and discovery I was able to find something that I am deeply passionate about and love to do everyday.Where did you begin your career and what made you want to look for something different?At first, I was drawn to studying politics because I started New York University the year after George Bush Jr.‘s contentious win for the presidency and the year of the 9/11 attacks. The political climate in New York was heavy, palpable, and also intoxicating. But the more I learned what being a lawyer meant and what getting involved in Washington politics looked like, the more I was put off by it and didn’t feel passionate about practicing it. So I graduated with a political science degree but then got a job in publishing. I kept searching for something I could get passionate about and have worked jobs spanning PR for magazines, advertising sales and event planning.A few years into my career while I was working in event planning, I felt like I was sitting on the sidelines by putting on events for great companies that were building great things. I was missing creating something myself. I think I always had the desire to create which surfaced when I found myself playing what felt like a support role to the players rather than being a player myself. I wanted to play. I wanted to find something that I was passionate about. After ten years of not finding a career that excites me, I left New York.What made you want to go into engineering? How did you go about pursuing it?After I left New York, I was living on Cape Cod and started a photography business that was mildly successful. During that time, I was in touch with an old boss from Surface Magazine, Lance Crapo, who suggested I learn to code. He thought I’d like it, that I’d be good at it, and that it would’d be useful for me. I was 27 or 28 when he encouraged me to start learning HTML and CSS. So I started to teach myself and managed to learn a good deal on my own. I eventually hit a wall where I had a thirst to learn more, but needed guidance, so I enrolled back in undergrad.Towards the end of 2011, I moved back to Pittsburgh, where I grew up. I enrolled in the Art Institute of Pittsburgh because I lived close to the campus and they had a program for web development and interactive media. Along with peers that were ten years my junior, I was learning graphic design, user experience design, animation and web development skills like CSS, JavaScript, PHP, and so on. The school had a program that allowed me to only take courses for my major because I already had a bachelor’s degree. With an itch for change, I moved to Los Angeles where I finished my degree at the Art Institute of California, Los Angeles in about a year and a half.Was the process difficult? What was it about web development that sparked your interest and kept you going?The process was invigorating. Perhaps, in part, because I spent a lot of my savings on going back to school, so I was personally invested in it. But more notably, it was so different from my liberal arts education in that in programming, there is always a clear answer. Political Science has a lot of moral gray areas, insufficiencies, and injustices that had no simple answers and I had difficulty grappling with the ambiguities. With programming, it just clicked. Everything is a puzzle and there may be thousands of ways to achieve something, but there is almost always a way to achieve it. This kind of process matched my personality and satiated me in a way nothing ever had before.I also met two incredible mentors at the Art Institute in LA. They were two of my engineering professors, Pete Markiewicz and Russell Burt. In school, I was pretty eager to learn, so they spent a lot of office hours with me. I’d bring them something I’d seen, like a certain application on the web or page transition that was new or different, and tell them I want to build it. They’d then send me off to build it and I’d come back with questions. They never gave me the answers but were constantly supporting and encouraging my learning.So then how did you go on to getting your first engineering job and what did the job entail?It was a pretty fortunate and quick process. I graduated in 2014, and as a part of the graduation process, we were asked to put on a portfolio show during which we displayed the work we’d done along with business cards and resumes and such to potential employers. An alumnus of our school, who worked at Deutsch, came and looked at my portfolio I went into the Deutsch office for an interview the next day and the day after that, I was offered a job as a Junior Creative Developer.At Deutsch, I worked on some platform sites and a lot of marketing sites for various clients like Volkswagen and Taco Bell. I got promoted to Software Engineer. Then in my third year, as my experience grew and I got more and more involved in the creative and strategic conversations, I was promoted to Senior Creative Developer. I had finally found something I was really passionate about. I was learning new things everyday and I was not only becoming used to new challenges but thriving on them.Being on a collaborative team and learning together was so much fun. Failing together, finding solutions together, and implementing fixes together, and then realizing a month later, the solution didn’t really fix it, to then ultimately solving it together is such a satisfying process. In politics and philosophy, you’re collaborating on very loaded ideas, opinions, moral and ethical questions and there are so many sides that lead to so many destinations. In engineering, there seems to me to be a unique collective collaboration with a singleness of purpose to it. Of course there are still egos and you can absolutely argue with teammates for months about design systems or frameworks or whatever, but the ideas are less abstract and much more tangible. And at the end of the day, we’re not saving lives here. It’s just an effing website, it’s just an effing app. I’m much better off and much more pleasant to be around when I remember that.What was the rest of your journey to becoming a frontend engineer at Rival after Deutsch?I wanted to move on from Deutsch because I felt I had, in some respects, plateaued there and wanted to be challenged again. After four years, I was working on a lot of similar projects using the same stacks. I was getting too comfortable. I decided to look for other jobs and got a few offers. Some of them were great career opportunities where I could lead and manage a team but the development work wouldn’t have been very challenging for me.When I got the offer from Rival, it wasn’t as flattering of a title but I knew the work was going to be more challenging and that I would learn a great deal. I was scared to take the job because I knew the transition from web developer to software engineer could be uncomfortable and that I had a lot to learn and still do. But I knew I wouldn’t be bored. And I knew I would regret it if I didn’t accept a position out of fear.It sounds like you have a very daring mindset. Were you always like that or did that grow through programming?I don’t know that I was always like that, but as I got older, and started to take myself less seriously, and became less afraid of looking stupid or being wrong, it freed me up to ask questions and learn. And fail. And learn from failing. When my ego is present in my job, it only gets in the way of my learning, progressing, and having a good time. I think this was me in my early 20s: I wanted to learn a lot and I didn’t know much, but I also didn’t want anybody to know that I didn’t know a lot. So I was scared to ask the questions I needed to ask to learn what I wanted to learn.What is something that you learned from failing?I’ve learned a lot from failing and figuring out why I failed, both technically and emotionally. I learned that failing doesn’t make meI learn that I failed and it’s OK. That I’m not any less of an engineer., I’m not dumber and, I’m not any less of a person. And when I fail gracefully and not judge myself for it, I come out the other side with many more questions and in a better position to figure out how to succeed.And when I say succeed, that doesn’t mean to make more money or become a c-level executive to me, but that I get to learn something new and have a new experience. My boyfriend says that he thinks a sign of intelligence is someone who asks a lot of questions because it shows they‘re curious. And for a lot of my life, I was just someone that had answers. In engineering, a big lesson I learned was that I’m going to have a much easier time if I stop pretending to know the answers and stop being afraid of asking questions out of fear that I’m gonna sound stupid or someone’s going to think I’m a fake. We are all always learning.Do you have any reflections or lessons from your transition you want to share? Would you do it all over again and are you glad you did it?Yes! I’m having the most fun I’ve ever had in my life. I learned something not only about development and engineering, but about myself every day, whether it’s from a reaction to a problem, or a way I handled a situation, or let go of an attachment to an idea of how I thought something was supposed to be done.Do you have any advice for someone else that wants to transition into programming?I suggest to just build something. Find something that you think is really cool and try to figure out how to build it. There’s nothing like the satisfaction of having an idea and going through the process of having that idea realized into an application, or a website, or even just a widget. There’s a wonderful sense of fulfillment in knowing that you created that; that it didn’t exist before. It may be the ugliest code in the world and have a ton of errors, but it works. And if you loved that process, maybe you’re an engineer. And if you didn’t, you’re probably not, and that’s ok.
As someone who is also transitioning into programming as a second (third?) career after studying international affairs and anthropology in undergrad and later doing an MBA, this really resonated with me. It's really encouraging to hear from other women with stories similar to my own, particularly those who took the leap from another career later in life.I also really appreciated the way that Ali put into words why she decided to make the transition, what she enjoys about programming, and why it clicks with her personality. They are definitely very similar to my own reasons, and I've found that finding the words to explain those things (particularly as I look for my first job in the field) is one of my biggest challenges in telling my story to potential employers. I will be taking some inspiration from this for sure!Thanks @JuliaJoung and Ali!
What an amazing journey! Very inspiring!