The Starter Career
A biologist-turned Information Architect, Anita’s experience runs counter to a number of commonly-held assumptions about what it means to be a woman in tech.
Anita spent seven years as a molecular biologist researching cancer. The work was important and fulfilling, but she felt stymied by its pace and wanted a way to impact people’s lives more immediately. In school, Anita had studied both biology and fine arts, with a keen interest in medical illustration. As she tried to determine her next career move, she began considering design and technology.
In the lab, I felt like I was adding to the pile of knowledge. I wanted to help people in a very topical way, and I thought technology was the way to do that.
How She Made the Leap
Growing up with software engineers for parents, Anita had a general framework to understand computer science, even if she didn’t know any of the specifics. She says having a mother working as an engineer made her view the notion of women in technology as something normal and attainable. While she acknowledges that working in a Bell Labs department in the 1980s is a far cry from the startup culture of today, she credits it for boosting her confidence when deciding to make a transition.
I wanted to help people in a very topical way, and I thought technology was the way to do that.~ Anita Cheng
Anita was aware of immersive design and coding bootcamps, but her background as a scientist led her to approach her interest the same way she would many other topics in her life: research.
She knew enough to know that you couldn’t make a good web site without content, and so she started a few sidesteps from coding with trips to the library — the actual library! — to look up books on information architecture and user experience. This discovery took her to courses in graphic design at Pasadena City College and a UX program at CalState Fullerton.
The Beginnings of a Coding Career
Anita started coding with a personal project: a web site on an alternate reality game for Batman The Dark Knight Rises. As one of the game’s most involved players, Anita noted a lack of information about the entire campaign and wanted to provide a way for her and others to share their experiences. It was a labor of love, taking nearly 7 months and lots of learning to complete, but it validated that this was the kind of work she wanted to pursue.
When Anita decided to move from hobby to career, she told her friends and family all about her new interests and skills, and credits this move with her first freelance coding jobs.
“It’s really important for your friends and family to know what your interests and your skills are since they’ll be the most likely people to help refer you for new work.”
Anita says this period was also one of the most important aspects of her transition: proving herself. She says some people starting out make the mistake of thinking that just because you know how to code things, you’ll get hired. In reality, she says, you have to consistently do the leg work to network, put yourself out there and demonstrate both your interest and your skills.
In April, Anita made another leap in her career, landing her first full-time design/tech job with the City of Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety. Her title is Web Site Content Editor, and it encompasses a number of discrete skills: IA, UX, front-end coding to the .net-based templates the department uses, and working with a remote development team to implement broader changes.
In many ways, Anita says the variety of challenges she faces makes working on this small team more like a startup than people would expect from a governmental organization. She also notes that it was her interest in organizing content that opened doors for her: her willingness to wrap her arms around complex content solved a problem that many organizations struggle to deal with.
“When people are hiring you, they’re often looking for you to solve a problem they’re facing. Do what you can to understand what that problem is and convince them that you’re the person to do it.”
The Wrap Up
- Most Surprising Aspect of the Job
- Not just about the job but the tech industry — there are a lot of engineering-style jobs outside of startups. More established companies, governmental organizations (like her job) also need these skills. You have a lot more options than you think.
- Most Important Thing to Consider in a New Job
- Are the people working toward a common goal? It’s okay to have a lot of personalities and work styles as long as everyone is working toward the same thing.
- Best Thing She’s Made
- Why So Serious? Redux Website
- Favorite Resources
- The library, especially if you need the basics. Since Sitefinity is part of the department’s platform, I rely on Stack Overflow and the Sitefinity YouTube Channel to learn and troubleshoot.
- Advice For New Coders
- There are coding languages that are more relevant for certain industries than others. If there is a specific job in a specific industry you want, find out what languages are most used to help you choose what to start learning first.
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