Transition into Tech
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Syk Houdeib: ‘Front-end dev… I still have to pinch myself!’

Syk’s day to day, as a front-end developer

First up, how did you decide you were ready to apply for a job? And how did that go?

Syk is a front-end developer with Lola Market – a startup in Madrid, Spain – and to hear him describe his team & his work you’d think he has hit the jackpot. If you’re curious to see how he ended up in his particular position, you’re in luck – in this next piece he shares his take on how you can know when you’re ready to apply, and then goes on to describe how the whole process worked in his case. Let’s listen in:

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In the beginning you always wonder when is the right moment to start applying, and the answer is just start applying as soon as you want, really! You cannot wait until you’re ready because… you’re not gonna get ready before you get the job – I mean, you have to start somewhere and so going back to what I said earlier, my favourite thing that liberated me was that you apply for the jobs, they decide whether you’re ready or not. So, you know, you don’t need to take that decision – leave it to them! 

So, a few months in, once you’ve built a few apps, once you have a GitHub page, that is active and has a few projects on it, THAT probably is for me the main criterion.You have GitHub, you’ve stepped over all these hurdles and got to the point where you have an active page on GitHub and it has a bunch of projects – even if it’s only 2 or 3, simple things that you’ve built, now you have something to show and something to talk about. From that point onwards, you can start applying. 

And I did that, in the beginning. I did not do a kind of an exhaustive job search. I was much more focused because I was taking my time, and I sent a few applications, got into a few interviews, One of them led me to nothing interesting, I got a weird offer that I did not like, and I just kind of left it there. Another one was an interview process that lasted a very, very long time. and I talked to a lot of different people over the course of a couple of months, maybe – where they were interviewing me and talking and all of this – and then I saw the job offer and I kind of immediately connected with it – I liked it – the offer from Lola, Lola Market, where I work now, and I kinda of connected with the product. I understood it straight away, and all of this. And it was very strange because – really, they were not advertising for a junior job at all; they were advertising for quite a senior person, with years of experience and with a list of tech requirements that I barely understood. And I just wrote them an email, and I explained who I am, what I was doing and why I was writing to them and I was like: look, I’m a junior, I don’t meet ANY of these criteria, but I kind of like how your company sounds and I’m kind of interested and I need my first opportunity – here’s my GitHub, here are some of the projects that I’ve done… In retrospect, I’ve had conversations with the two founders who interviewed me, and they told me that my email was the kind of thing that got to them, because they thought they didn’t need a junior, but they were really intrigued by me – like, who is this guy that just sent us an email saying I have no experience but give me a job??! And so it was just out of curiosity more than anything else that they interviewed me, then they kind of liked who I am, and what I stood for and so I think they gave me the job not because of some technical skills that I was amazing at, but because they knew that I was excited about this and that I was gonna put in the effort and I wanted to learn and they wanted to make a difference in my life, and I’ll be forever thankful for that! And I had to do a take home task, and I did that, and I sent it to them, and then we did a kind of interview – a video call where we talked about my code, and saw how we could improve it, and what went well and what could be improved, and all of this… And eventually they invited me to the office to have a beer with everybody to see if we’re a cultural fit, which is a great thing that they do because (and I say they, but not it’s we 🙂 ), it’s a great thing that we do because it kind of ensures that everyone that’s coming into the team, while it’s still very small, fits and understands the vibe that we have… Yeah, I had beers with the team, and they all liked me 

Noted: just go for it as soon as you’ve got the basics done and stop worrying about your age. It’s an advantage if you learn to leverage your transferable skills, if anything at all! Don’t believe me? Here’s Syk:

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Maybe, maybe before I started thinking about it, I thought that it was something you had to start really young – I don’t know, like playing the piano or something, but this is the kind of mentality that I fight against – in me; you know – it’s something that I don’t like at all – the idea that we have skills that are natural, and you’re just born with them. And it’s not like that – anything that you is just a matter of getting your head into it and doing it – and then practicing and practicing; the more time you’ll dedicate the better you’re gonna get. And that’s the way it is, and if we’re not gonna compare ourselves to the almost mythological creatures in our culture that are the geniuses that have, you know, started playing the piano at 3, or could build an app by age 5, … forget about these exceptions, for whatever reasons, they are like that… The rest of humanity – we just learn by doing things, by practicing and practicing, and learning and learning, and dedicating a lot of energy and time to something. I figured that out because I started playing the guitar as a teenager, not from a very young age, but I started with nothing and then I learned how to play the guitar, and and then I learned how to produce, and then I learned how to do all of these things that I didn’t know how to do… I had that in my mind exactly like referring back to that skater person that I was hearing in the distance from my house…. It’s just a skill that you have to  to that skater person that I was practice and  practice, and then fall and get up and do it again, and when it feels really hopeless and hard, just keep on going… Persistence, that’s the main skill that you need. That’s it. And persistence can be learned, it’s not something that you’re born with. 

And so my age had really no significance on the entire process. In fact at no point did it become relevant. The only relevance my age had in the entire process was that when I did the interview it was very clear that I was a junior in programming but not a junior in life. I had plenty of life experience, plenty of work experience, things that are highly valuable in a team, apart from the technical skills – as you have knowledge, you have experience, you have understanding, and when you work in any field of software development, constantly taking decisions, and the more diversity you have in the team, the more experiences and the more understanding the people in the team have, team, the more experiences and the more understanding the people in the team have, the better the decisions you’re gonna be making. So that brings in a positive thing to the team. And that’s the only time my age played a factor – it’s that well, it’s a positive thing because you have extra experience in life. And yeah –  apart from that it was just getting there and working and studying, and that was it.  

Soooo… what does a front-end dev do?

One of the most difficult decisions you can face as you decide to transition to a tech role is deciding what to do; the options are overwhelming and it’s difficult to make a choice because often you don’t have enough information. With Syk, let’s discover together the role of a front-end developer, going behind the scenes to get an actual feel for the job.

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When I was preparing myself to become a front-end developer, I had very little what this whole world was like. I had never even worked in an office. So, in the early days, I had so many doubts about what was the job gonna look like… So what I do as a front-end developer in a startup: we have a product (website) and we’re two front-end developers at the moment; the tech team is still a very small team with I think 12 or 13 people in total. Front-end we’re just two, and we’re in charge of everything related to the website, and also for the tools that are used in the back office in the company. So our job is to take the new features that the design and product teams developed, they come up with ideas, they say we need to implement this new feature, and it’s our job to take it and analyse and understand it and come up with an idea of how it can be implemented in code, and then execute that – write the code that will make it work. It’s also our job to maintain the website, fix any bugs, make any improvements, do any changes in the design… Basically as a front end developer – if you’ve never heard about what that job is – anything that the user interacts with on our website,  whether it’s on a mobile device or on a desktop computer, everything they’re interacting with, everything they are seeing – it’s the job of a front-end to make it appear there, to make it work. 

All clear now: front-end devs are responsible for everything a user interacts with, everything they’re seeing on a website. They analyse requirements to find the best way to implement them in code, then go ahead and write the code and eventually maintain it so that the site runs smoothly.

What does a typical day look like for a front-end dev?

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A typical front-end developer day would be – well, my day: I’ll wake up, I’ll get my morning routine on; occasionally I’ll go in the morning to the gym because it helps wake me up and get in a good mood for the rest of the day. That’s actually off-topic but it’s really important for us as people who work sitting down at a desk – to do something and move around a bit. And then I will take the metro to work, and I will do a very short checking emails and any messages or anything like this… Us, as developers in my team, we really have very little distraction –  so I don’t usually have much to deal with on that front at all. And then I will get on with my work straight away. Early in the morning is my best and most productive time. So whatever task I’m working on – I will look at Jira, which is the task board that we use, and there will be a list of things that we have to do for this sprint. We do sprints that are two weeks, and within those two weeks we have a bunch of tasks that we have to complete. So I will take a look at what is the next one on the list that I have to do, and I will move it to the ‘in progress’ column -> so now I’m actually working on it. And the first thing is to really read the documentation, understand  what the task is, figure out what it means, what you have to do… and then I usually start writing down notes, drawing some things – some mind maps – just to think about it because the more I know – the more you think about the task BEFORE you do it – the better it is when you’re aware what you’re gonna be coding, really… And then it’s simply getting on – opening your text editor and start coding, figure out what needs to be done and work on it. And if I’m stuck on some problem talk to someone that can help me. I will do this until around 11.30 when we have our daily stand-up meeting; we all – the tech team –  we all gather together and talk where we are in our tasks, what we’re doing, what we still have to do, if anybody’s stuck or if anybody needs to communicate anything to the team. Then I’ll make a coffee and go back to my desk, and I’ll continue working on my task until it’s lunch-time; we’ll have about an hour break where we might go out for a meal or just have something to eat in the break-room – and then, after that, back again, take a little time to do any house-keeping that I have to do, clean things up, answer any emails or messages or anything that’s needed… Sometimes we have pull requests that anyone in the team has made and I will review those, leave some comments and deal with this, and then I’ll be back to my task again and I’ll be coding until it’s time to go home. And that’s what a normal day would look like – it’s an 8 hour working day which you then add to one hour for lunch, so it’s 9 hours. We tend to have quite a flexible time to enter and leave, which is a great, great thing – so we don’t have an exact hour to get to work. If you wanna come in early, you can, if you wanna come in later, you can; that’s a really good thing. And we tend to work 8 hours but occasionally you’re in the middle of a thought process that you cannot interrupt, and you need to finish it before you leave, or you need to put it down in code before you forget it so you might stay a little bit longer, but that’s…. We’re given a lot of responsibility by our CTO (Chief technical officer) officer) – and we’re responsible for our task and how we’re dealing with it and the time we’re spending on it but nobody’s expected to, you know, work 10 hours – that’s not the way, that’s not the culture that we have. 

Our weeks are pretty standard, really – the only variation is the two-week cycle of the sprint planning, so at the end of the cycle we will have a day which is mostly dedicated to doing the retrospective, where we discuss how the sprint went, if anything can be improved, if anything went wrong, if everything went well, and then we start direction, what are the main things that we’re trying to achieve and WHY are we doing the tasks that we’re doing, which is very, very important as we get to understand the context  and we see what all the other departments, whether outside of tech or inside of tech, what they’re doing, why they’re doing it and what’s happening… it’s a moment also for the team to come together, and kind of breathe, take a moment to wind down, talk about what things went well, what things didn’t go well, and that happens once every two weeks. And at the end of this, we’ll have a whole bunch of new tasks, for the new sprint, and then it goes on again, and a new sprint starts. The only other variation is that on Fridays we have a tradition of going out and eating together at some nice place in the neighbourhood, have a bit of fun and make it feel like it’s the end of the week – a tradition that I really like because I love eating!

Other than noting that Syk’s a foodie 🥗 🍺🍕☕🌮, we now know that the job comes with some flexibility embedded into it – which (as always) comes in with an equal dose of accountability. (I don’t need to tell you, after hearing him talk, that we actually did this recording pre-pandemic; this kinda says something about my process, but hey, no judging, ok? Pandemic hit where it hurts.) Anyway, Syk even gave us a brief 101 on Agile Project Management 🙂 – which is very helpful as many / most tech companies will use this, so we’ll look into that together a bit down the line. In the meantime, I wonder if it was straight sailing from day one for Syk….

What was your first day / week on the job like?

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My 1st day on the job was a lovely, wonderful day! My following two were terrifying! 

The 1st day lulled me into a false sense of security; I mean everybody was lovely The team was supportive, was very nice! I mean it’s such a warm & lovely  memory for me… That day I just couldn’t believe my luck that I was going in, I was starting this job. I got there and I started logging in to the different things, and they gave me the documentation of the company to read, the handbook, things like these… And we had several meetings with people in the company explaining to me what we’re doing, what are the objectives, what would be my main responsibilities and things like these. Everything was nice and easy and clear and exciting and wonderful!

Then the following two days we got serious. It was me and another front-end that came in at the same time, and the previous front-end was handing us over, basically. And he sat us down and we did a several hour meeting where he was explaining to us the entire project, showing us the code, telling us where everything was, the whys and hows – everything about this. And I promise you – I sat down in this meeting for hour after hour, thinking ‘I have NO idea what they are saying! I don’t understand ANYTHING!’ It was terrifying – I was just a word of something that I’d seen in any of the courses that I’d done… Something to latch on to and go, ‘OK, I understand THIS!’ Nothing!!! 

Everything was brand new, everything was weird and nothing made sense. I couldn’t even understand a simple CSS rule, everything was weird and it was terrifying It was really, really, really scary. However, I immediately had the support of the other front-end who was a senior and he just started helping me from the first moment He started explaining things to me, helping me set things up, when I got stuck he would help me and everybody was friendly! So in my mind, of course I’m thinking ‘Oh, shit, I don’t know anything!’, and now they’re tell me ‘What are you doing here??!’ – but, of course, they know. They know my level they’ve done the interviews – they know where I’m at. So it was just a… it was very… they They helped me out, they made it easy for me, and yeah – the first few days it got very scary. And then I got my first task and it was like ok, you’re gonna build this… and… off you go! And again, it was really, really scary.

But it was the best way, because immediately being productive, and even though I was very slow and I needed help every step of the way, I’d ask questions – I’d need to ask for things to be explained to me, for them to show me things, but it just got me working and I started getting productive the fear was there for a long time – the imposter syndrome was very, very strong in the beginning but it slowly started to fade away, as I started enjoying more and more what I was doing. 

Thanks to Syk, we now have a bit of an understanding of the front-end dev roles and of the day in day out of a person doing this. Join me in the next section as we look at the plusses and minuses Syk sees in his work, and get his best tips for succeeding in a front-end position.

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