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Developer spotlight: Dora Militaru on the “traditional” developer career path myth

Developers have always paved new paths and unlocked doors — often changing the way the world at large stays informed, gets their news, and simply enjoys their free time and entertainment. But there are certain expectations that have lingered around the industry for when it comes to becoming a professional developer: like how if you don't have the "conventional" pedigree — someone with a B.S. or M.S. in Computer Science, or who has been coding since they were five years old — it can feel intimidating. But that's actually not the lived experience for many developers out there: 25% of devs all over the world don’t have a college degree, and just under 40% studied something besides computer science, according to a survey by Stack Overflow

With online learning experiences like Code Academy, boot camps from a multitude of companies like General Assembly, and an increasing number of certification programs from technology vendors like Google, AWS, and Salesforce, more pathways are opening for those looking to become a professional developer, as well as those looking to hire devs outside a narrow range of experience. 

Dora Militaru has thoughts on the dev ecosystem. She’s a developer advocate on our Developer Relations team — and she’s not only a champion for those using our platform, but also for developers who haven’t followed the “traditional” computer science career path. We sat down with her to learn more about her story and thoughts on the tech industry, and glean sage advice and inspiration for developers, hiring managers, and those with an unconventional story to share. 

Hannah: How did you get into programming?

Dora: It was all entirely accidental. Growing up, I was obsessed with visual arts, painting, illustration, and sculpture. And I always thought I'd wind up in arts or the humanities. Then, in about 2003, we got our first family computer. It was a Pentium 3 Desktop with a Coppermine processor that clocked in at about 600 MHz — my phone is a lot stronger than that these days. We didn’t have the internet, but I managed to get my hands on a Macromedia CD, which included Flash 5. Unbeknownst to me, everyone in the world was obsessed with Flash and major companies were building Flash-based websites to launch new products or build interactive portals.

But I just had it from this CD and I was curious. One day I came across something called ActionScript, which was completely new to me. I could do all these fancy illustrations, but make them interactive. And that seemed like the most exciting thing on the planet. ActionScript nowadays actually is an implementation of ECMAScript, also known as JavaScript. I didn't know any of this at the time. I didn't have a community around me — so I just poked around, and I made a whack-a-mole game. And that was my first programming project.

"Compared to all the other hobbies and careers I've had, it takes a relatively short time to go from imagining something to realizing it: to having something like a tangible working implementation, or a fun project, or a daring hack.”

Hannah: So how did you get from building whack-a-mole in Flash 5 to Developer Relations at Fastly?

Dora: Flash 5 spurred my interest in programming, but it was years until I actually became a programmer. So I've only been a “jobbing” programmer for three years now. In the meantime, I've had a bunch of other careers. I didn't study Computer Science, so I didn't think I'd ever become a programmer. I wound up in this job by sheer accident.

I did actually have a paid project shortly after I discovered Macromedia Flash 5: I was paid with a pair of silver high-heeled shoes, which were all the rage back in the day. Many, many, many years later, I wound up at a news-publishing company called The Financial Times. And that's where I used a lot of JavaScript, which was basically ActionScript with bells and whistles. My universe of languages has expanded so much since then: I'm really enjoying learning about Rust for Compute@Edge. I'm enjoying tinkering with VCL. I just try to find a project that I want to work on and that will drive the language that I next learn. 

When I was at The Financial Times, I was at the start of my career. There was a lot to learn, but what I realized there was that I was really passionate about making information available to a wide range of people as quickly as possible. Some call that web performance, but there’s more to it than that. The Financial Times was in the business of news — and it turns out that Fastly has one of the most important roles in news: making sure that it reaches people quickly and securely. So I learned about the platform, I met a lot of people in the web performance community, and it just so happened that I met quite a few Fastlyans. It was Andrew Betts, Fastly’s Developer Relations lead, who inspired me to apply Developer Relations role. And when I saw what Fastly was doing around WebAssembly and Compute@Edge, it became more and more tempting.

"It’s going to sound cliche, but programming affords you guaranteed lifelong learning, and all the humbling experiences that go with it.”

Hannah: How do you keep your skills sharp?

Dora: Working for a company that's spearheading a bunch of research and projects that shape the way we use and build the internet helps. It's certainly thrown some fun and fiendish challenges my way, and a bunch of very interesting people to guide my ideas and dreams and career. But, beyond that, I just really like being in the community. So going to conferences, attending meetups — be that in person, like the good old days, or online — I still try to keep on top of the pulse of what's happening. What cool projects are people working on? What do people want help with? Has anybody done any cool LED shoelaces lately? Things like that.

I think it’s going to sound cliche when I say this, but programming affords you guaranteed lifelong learning, and all the humbling experiences that go with it, so psychologically, it's very rewarding. And personally, programming makes me feel very powerful. So, compared to all the other hobbies and careers I've had, it takes a relatively short time to go from imagining something to realizing it — to having something like a tangible working implementation, or a fun project, or a daring hack. That makes it very, very addictive.

But it's also challenging. So challenging to maintain your focus. There are so many technologies that you can apply programming to. And there are so many areas that could benefit from programmers that it's very hard to choose something and stay on track. That can be especially true if you don't have a formal education because there are so many projects and so many ideas competing for your attention, and you don't have a specialty that you're already focused on. And I think, in some parts, the industry is still a little bit toxic and there's a nagging feeling, especially if you're a minority in the industry, that you ought to prove your worth, and very loose and arbitrary guidance as to what worth should be. That should just be abolished. Programming is a discipline. It's an art, it's a job. It's not anyone's business to gate keep it.

"Programming is a discipline. It's an art, it's a job. It's not anyone's business to gate keep it.”

Hannah: How do you think about making the industry and these communities more inclusive?

Dora: We can do many things for the industry. I work in Developer Relations at Fastly, which has vast recognition in the community. I go to conferences and I'm quite comfortable being there on stage, and I'm comfortable having technical discussions. That is not the case for everyone. So what I try to do is to advocate, especially for newcomers, who are less likely to have their voices heard or be comfortable voicing their opinions in the first place. And I think the industry, as a whole, could benefit a lot more from that. Also, if you work on an open-source project and all the other contributors look and think exactly like you, try and find some who don't.

"Coding is empathy.”

Hannah: Are there any programmers or projects that inspire you?

Dora: I’m excited about so many projects and technologies. One that's recently inspired me is Foam by Jani Eväkallio, a personal knowledge management and sharing system. It's an open-source project that's absolutely brilliant. It's a note-taking and organizing app that is inspired by RER research, which is an expensive, paid-for product. It's built on Visual Studio code, which is a very popular IDE, and GitHub. So it's immediately very accessible.

I also want to mention Suz Hinton for her sheer generosity with time and knowledge. She's noopkat on Twitter. She created this library called avrgirl-arduino, which is a node js library for flushing compiled sketches on Arduino microcontroller boards, which opened up a universe of hacking and tinkering that was previously inaccessible to most people. Someone else who inspires me is Tae’lur Alexis, who just has this magical ability to get people to care about programming and want to take it up as a career, because she's very badass.

Hannah: What advice would you give to someone just getting into coding and programming? 

Dora: Keep at it. It might be daunting, but you'll never look back once you get the bug. I think there’s a feeling that you need to be programming professionally to be a part of this community, like you need to have recognition. I just don't think that's the reality for the vast majority of communities. I really hope that our industry becomes more open to newcomers and more open to the world, in general. I'd like to see all of these barriers about what programming means and what you need to be a programmer dismantled, really.  

Try to keep abreast of it all, but don’t worry too much about it because there’s no way you can. And don't listen to the little voice in the back telling you that you failed. That is a daily challenge. There's just so much to learn. My coding goal — my goal as an individual who does programming — is to code as if you love the person reading your code in six months' time.  

Coding is empathy. When you go back and read your code, or when you go back and read code that other people haven't touched for a while, it immediately becomes obvious what I'm talking about.

If I can give a personal piece of advice to those interested in joining an open- source project: don't be afraid. You don't have to contribute code. If you love something, if you depend on it, if you use it, and there's a typo in the documentation — that's already your first open-source project commit. You'll be there on the contributor's list. Confidence is key.

Hannah: My last question: how many half-finished projects do you have right now? 

Dora: Too many to count. I'm a firm believer in having programming experiments and so-called silly projects — where the only purpose is to learn about something new. So I automated my curtains and I've made a camera that follows the cats around, things like that. 

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