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Interview with Jennifer Konikowski

Developers are people too! We all have different experiences and goals and talents, which means we all take different paths into and through our technical careers. This is the first in a series of interviews with developers to highlight how we bring our individuality to our work.

I'm talking here with Jennifer Konikowski. She's a ruby developer, organizer of PyLadies Boston, and generally awesome person. But I'll let her tell you about herself!

Where did you grow up? What was it like? What kind of stuff were you into?

I grew up in Huntsville, Alabama. It's the second largest city in Alabama, but it basically felt like one massive suburb and there wasn't a ton going on. I wasn't very athletic, so I spent a lot of time reading and on the computer. The web was just getting started when I was a kid, so I grew up as it did. I spent more time on message boards than I probably should have as a tween and also created the most ridiculous looking site on Angelfire. Since I couldn't add enough colors and sparkles using their templates, I learned a bit of HTML and CSS to further personalize my page. Think scrolling text and flashing everything!

I started becoming more interested in programming in middle school and high school. I started to get a few books and learn a bit of syntax, but had trouble sticking with it because I didn't have anything I wanted to build. We had an AP Computer Science class in my high school and I started trying to get into it from my sophomore year on. I was finally able to take it my senior year, only by taking precal during the summer, taking AP Calc junior year, and then having the period free because I was taking night Calculus classes at the local college. They did not make it easy to be an ambitious student at my school! The class ended up being a bit of a joke, which was a bummer, but it did give me my first overall exposure to Java. Unfortunately, that's also probably why I didn't choose to go into CS in college.

What did you want to be when you grew up? What kind of careers were expected of you/modeled for you?

When I was in elementary school I wanted to be a zoologist because I loved animals. As I grew up, I realized that I didn't like biology all that much and decided to combine my love of science and math and study engineering. My parents both had sorta general "business-y" jobs... my dad was a manager and my mom did a ton of work with Excel spreadsheets. From pretty early on, they made it clear that I could do anything I wanted, but they also were really against me getting any sort of liberal arts degree (what they had) because they didn't think I could get a job if I got one. I actually don't really feel like I had a lot of other jobs really modeled for me. I didn't even have a great idea of what most types of engineers did until after my second year at Georgia Tech.

How did you get interested in programming and decide to become a developer?

The interest started earlier, but I got interested in programming as a career during my last year of college. I loved all the classes I took for my industrial engineering degree, but when I was looking at who was hiring IE grads, the jobs I wanted weren't in the locations that I wanted to live. I still mostly applied to industrial engineering jobs, but I ended up taking a job as an IT Developer at Home Depot, which got me started on my path to become an actual software developer (that job was mostly project management).

How did you find your first dev job? What was your interview process like?

Oddly enough, my first dev job interview was also my easiest. I was looking to move from Atlanta to Boston (and switch from doing more operations work to software development), so I looked at a few job boards and applied to a few jobs that I thought sounded interesting. One of the first ones I applied to responded back and requested an interview that week. It was a contract position at a small consultancy that was working entirely at TripAdvisor. The owner of the consultancy didn't ask me too many technical questions, then gave me three simple, take-home technical problems that I could do in any language. I sent them back and he gave me an offer (almost double my previous salary) the next week. I actually told him I'd have to hold off until I met him because part of me thought it was fake.

What was it like to ramp up at that first job? Did you find you had some blind spots that your job filled in? Were certain things more or less important than you anticipated?

It was tough. I didn't get a lot of support from the other engineers, so I had to learn a lot on my own. If I ever ran into issues, usually they would just take the ticket themselves instead of helping me learn. At one point, I had almost no work, so I started taking online classes and working through programming books. I had never realized how important it was to have a team that supports you, which is definitely something I've looked for in every job since. Even as I move along in my career, I still want to be able to talk to my coworkers about issues that I am having without feeling like I'm wasting their time. However, I still feel like it wasn't a waste. It still enabled me to list myself as a software developer, have some actual production code that I could show, and really get my foot in the door. It's great to have a great job, but sometimes, especially if it's your first in a field, any job will do if you have limited choices.

Who has most strongly influenced your career? What did they teach you?

One of my former coworkers, Andy Hartford. Technically, he taught me a lot about Rails development... but what he really taught me was what kind of senior dev I want to be. He was always helpful, would try to lead me to answers (instead of just telling me immediately), and never made me feel dumb for asking a question. He really made me feel like a valuable part of a team, which is the best feeling when you are earlier on in your career.

Does your non-technical background affect your work? How do you bring yourself to your work?

This only partially applies to me. My background is still technical but not CS. I definitely have a more math-intensive background than most. I bring that aspect with me every day just in logical thinking. Industrial engineering also has a huge focus on process improvement, so I also end up being way more invested in optimizing the project management side than I should be as a developer.

What matters to you? How do you define success?

Seriously? Getting to spend time with my husband and pets. I've always put an emphasis on jobs that would let me actually go home at the end of the day and that didn't put a major focus on spending off-work hours with coworkers. To me success is being challenged, (relatively) happy, and fairly compensated. If I'm being challenged and I'm happy, hopefully I'm also doing good work!

What are you learning right now? Do you take a structured approach or just go with the flow and see where you end up when you're done?

My current company is awesome and actually reimburses us for education. So I'm actually taking the very structured approach and getting an undergraduate certificate in Computer Science, with the goal of going on to part-time grad school. At work, I just go with the flow and usually learn as I need to learn thing. With this job I've had to learn Perl, so I look things up as needed and have just naturally gotten better at writing and understanding the language.

What's an area of development you don't really know much about but always sounded cool?

Graphing! As a math dork, I love graph theory and have read a few books about it. But I've never actually explored it from a programming standpoint. Some day, maybe I'll have a job that actually deals with maps and determining the most efficient way to get from point A to point B.