Front End Engineer Maia Lee

Maia Lee

The Starter Career

For some, the call to a new career comes as a dramatic light bulb finally turning on; for Maia Lee, it was the joy of coaxing a penguin into jumping over a snowball.

As an undergraduate English major at Bowdoin, Maia knew that she was drawn to education — but it turned out that the day-to-day life of a teacher didn’t gel the way she had imagined it would. This discovery didn’t dissuade her from pursuing education as a career, but it did prompt her to rethink how she might approach it. Not too long after, she was studying educational media and software design as a graduate student in Harvard’s School of Education.

It was there that she was first exposed to coding, mostly Flash animation, and was thrilled when she successfully animated a circle with googly eyes in it. Despite the spark, Maia says she didn’t have the basic skills needed to get a full-time coding job and continued a path that centered around tech even if she wasn’t in the developer’s seat. Maia began her career as a project manager for educational software at Scholastic, the world’s largest children’s publisher, in New York City.

In the meantime, Maia continued side coding projects, mostly in Flash, to keep up her skills and gradually add new ones. It was a pace that felt comfortable and fun, and ultimately, led to the penguin jumping over the snowball. “Before that, I’d mostly done front-end style animations in Flash, a little bit of action script. But this little penguin jumping over a snowball, this was the first time writing a function. It felt like getting over a certain hump of knowledge. This was the first time I felt like I could be an engineer.”

How She Made the Leap

As it does for many, a spouse’s move to the West Coast precipitated a change, and Maia took her project management skills to local digital agencies like Huge and Team One. She says both showed her another side to design and development that was invaluable, but after she was laid off, it lit a fire under her to learn to code in earnest.

But this little penguin jumping over a snowball, this was the first time writing a function. This was the first time I felt like I could be an engineer.

~ Maia Lee

Maia holed up for three days in the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs with her laptop and Code Academy, intent to jumpstart her coding practice. She got another PM job in the meantime and kept at dedicated self-teaching for 6 months. She read books, used Code Academy, watched YouTube videos, started following people on twitter (Chris Coyier, Ana Tudor, John Resig, Misko Hevery), looked at Github (a critical resource she swears by) and started creating her Github portfolio. For self-taught people like herself, Maia says a good portfolio of work is key.

“You have to have projects to show. That’s what matters.”

Maia later started sharing her work with a female engineer she knew from Huge, who ended up recommending her to a former boss at DrawingFromMemory.

The Beginnings of a Coding Career

Maia says DrawingFromMemory was the perfect place to start her coding career because it was a friendly environment and much of the work focused on creating sites using existing platforms like Magento and WordPress. This gave her the opportunity to get experience coding in a professional environment, while homing her skills.

Once she felt comfortable working on more custom builds, she made a shift to the other side of the table, moving in-house to work on the h2 Wellness core product. h2 Wellness bills itself as a cloud-based, digital engagement company that allows health and wellness brands to improve the lives of their customers and increase customer satisfaction, retention and revenues.

The Day-to-Day

When Maia describes her day-to-day now, it’s a far cry from simple animations in Flash: Coding in HTML, Sass and LESS, CSS processors, a lot of JavaScript, Angular JS, and collaborating very closely with the server side team. Their platform is Ajax heavy, connecting back to the server with APIs to present information.

Maia spends her time working on the platform with a team of front-end and server-side developers, designers and project managers to continually improve the platform, as well as to create custom builds for different clients.

“I feel comfortable in the technologies that I’m using, but things are always changing. I had a misconception before getting into it that engineers knew everything, but really you need to know the concepts. A lot of times you’re looking up things on Stack Overflow or blogs in order to find the right solution to a problem.”

The Wrap Up

Most Surprising Aspect of the Job
I know there are people concerned that they have to look things up a lot or don’t know the answer all the time. It’s rare you know the answer off the top of your head [in this work] — you have to look it up. A lot of the role of being a developer is estimating the time it will take you to do something, and then being able to hit those estimates relatively effectively.
Most Important Thing to Consider in a New Job
Do you feel like you would click well with your manager, and do you feel like you will fit in or click with the culture? Be choosey about the culture. You don’t have to work in a place where you feel uncomfortable. Second to that, I’d ask what technologies are they using and is it something I want to learn? Is this place where I have the opportunity to do that?
Best Thing She’s Made
That aforementioned penguin
Favorite Resources
CSS Tips and Tricks; Code pen; Surprising amount of stuff on YouTube; Twitter is really important for following people in the tech world, especially front end people. Must follows: Chris Coyier, Misko Hevery, John Resig; Stack Overflow a lot;Going on Github and looking at trending repository.
Advice For New Coders
I used to get so frustrated when I couldn’t figure something out. I’d try, and it wouldn’t work and wouldn’t work… Sometimes it would be really small: I made something as an ID instead of a Class, or there’s a missing colon. I took that as a reflection of me, like I wasn’t smart enough to figure it out. But what I’ve learned is that you’re always learning, you’re always frustrated when coding, and you have to have faith that you will be able to figure it out. Being an engineer has made me more comfortable persevering through challenges in general.
Next Thing To Learn
More server-side. I’m naturally kind of curious and now I understand conceptually how it work. Now I want to understand the server side, too.


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