Coming Out of My Shell at RailsConf2017

Navigating this new world of software conferences

The Summit Thursday by The Web Summit is licensed under CC BY 2.0

I am a female developer that doesn’t have a computer science degree. I’m self-taught with the help of my web developer husband. I have not felt comfortable enough to put myself out into the Rails community for fear of imposter syndrome. I know it is silly. I have been creating amazing products for many different clients, but for some reason I can’t shake this feeling of unworthiness. At work I try to keep a low profile. I may not be the smartest developer in the office, but I am one that truly thinks Rails is powerful, amazing, and magical (I’m still waiting for the day that everything is apparent and I’m proven wrong that Rails is not just pure magic). So I decided to attend Rails Conf 2017 to learn more.

This was my first time traveling alone and also my first conference. After nervously navigating through multiple airports, I finally arrived in Phoenix, Arizona. After an Uber ride to the Sheraton, I walked into the lobby to see the Apple logo gleaming from the coffee stand and bar. People on the elevators were excitedly talking and making plans to meet up with other groups.

I felt out of place due to the fact that I was alone, female, and not assumed to be a developer. When I asked some men in the elevator what they were in Phoenix for, they responded with RailsConf. I excitedly lit up with a “me too”. The looks of shock on their faces were priceless. It’s ok, I kind of expected this response. I didn’t get offended and kind of giggled, when after they got off the elevator, I heard one of them say “she is a developer?”. I guess I don’t fit the typical physical description.

When walking to the conference, I was met with zombies crawling the streets. They were a marketing ploy for another conference in town called ICON. Once I maneuvered my way around all of the zombies, I entered the South Phoenix Conference Center. The room was filled with smiling and welcoming people, as was the registration table. After receiving my bag and information packet, I couldn’t help but feel a bit overwhelmed and excited. I was ready to focus and learn!

Day One

People kept telling me that it really isn’t about the talks at the conference, it’s about the community of people you will meet. At this point I didn’t quite know what they were talking about. The opening keynote by David Heinemeier Hansson, the creator of Ruby on Rails, had everyone buzzing. He arrived on the stage and the audience was glued. When he was done, there was an overwhelming round of applause and then we were released to go to our chosen paths.

I really enjoyed Derek Priors’ “In Relentless Pursuit of REST” presentation. It’s an amazing talk that’s both easy to follow and relevant to anyone writing Rails. I caught myself starting to feel empowered. Maybe I am not the junior developer I thought I was. I easily understood everything he was saying and agreed with it. To be honest with you, I lean towards this structure he was demonstrating. That’s not because I had a theory about it, but because it seems cleaner and easier to read.

Vaidehi Joshi’s talk, “Goldilocks And The Three Code Reviews”, was very entertaining and well put together with a cute, creative way to demonstrate code review. I learned from this talk that at Collective Idea, we are doing things very similarly. In her talk she mentioned GitHub’s templates, which is something we have now started utilizing in our pull requests as well.

Another highlight was “Tricks and Treats for New Developers” by David Padilla. I felt the content to be very useful for new developers. I was already using many of the tricks he talked about, but I managed to pick up a few new ones as well. This was an easy to follow talk with useful information. Listening to this talk, as a junior developer, I started feeling like I have been labeling myself wrong. Maybe I am more of a mid-level developer. I can actually feel the self-confidence rising at this point.

That feeling changed, however, after going to Kevin Deisz’s “Practical Debugging” talk. He had a lot to cover so he talked at an incredible speed. I couldn’t help wanting him to slow down. I felt that his talk was filled with extremely valuable information. His method for debugging was one I hadn’t seen before. I made a mental note to watch his talk again later and have my notepad ready to take some mad notes.

The first day ended with a closing keynote by Pamela Pavliscak. I entered the South Ballroom feeling mentally drained. That didn’t last for long though because Pamela Pavliscak, founder and CEO of Change Sciences, was about to talk. She ROCKED IT!!! I can’t emphasize that enough. Her presence on the stage was amazing and the slides were great. I was absolutely engrossed! Her talk was about how the different generations use technology: the Baby Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y, and the Gen Zs. Pamela does a secret investigation of them, armed with a notepad and a secret encoded language. She respectfully “observes these creatures in their natural habitats”. This was the first time that I’ve heard someone put a positive spin on kids and their social media use. It really opened my eyes to how the different generations use tech and how it is changing us.

The evenings at RailsConf are filled with people making dinner plans to go chat about the talks and their careers. The dinner invites were very open: “Hey we are grabbing a bite to eat, do you want to join?”. It would be a hodge podge of people from all over the world, all on different Rails paths. Living in an area of the country that is very conservative and predominately “Dutch”, I don’t get exposed to very many diverse people. I found the different points of view of everyone I met to be very interesting and enlightening. They really opened my eyes to the bigger picture.

I also found it interesting that there is an “almost famous” group, or as some people call it, “internet famous”. There were tech celebrity sightings being buzzed about. I was pretty clueless about that because as mentioned before, I’ve lived a bit of a sheltered Rails existence. Many times when these internet famous people were brought up in conversation, I didn’t even realize who they were referring to. The people I hung out with were very gracious and understanding, and they would immediatly give me the update on what the buzz was all about.

Day Two

Marco Rogers’ keynote was incredibly powerful and eye opening as he discussed his journey as a black man in tech. Next I went to Nickolas Means’ “Warning: May Be Habit Forming” presentation where he talked about how he made health a habit. It wasn’t really a tech talk, but more of a soft talk. It was all stuff I had heard before, but valuable enough to hear again.

Here is the kicker though. I think I owe Nickolas flowers or something, because my entire world changed due to this talk. I have made so many changes to my day-to-day activities based on his advice. Nickolas gave the example of making a small short term goal and crossing it off the calendar when you follow through each day . For me I always took a big bite with goals, trying to follow through with my family and making sure that we all have to do our part.

This sounds vague, but with a simple list of who is responsible for what, everything gets easier. For example, there are so many times where I’ve caught myself with my kid’s deserted cup and I’m on my way to the sink to take care of it. Now, instead of taking care of it, I turn around and put it back and ask them to take care of it. It feels like I’ve had this huge weight lifted off me now that I am not doing everyone’s tasks. There was much push back from the kids and even the husband at first, but now that it is Friday and I don’t have to spend the entire weekend doing catch up, I am sure everyone will be pleased.

Patrick Joyce’s “Managing Unmanageable Complexity” talk was definitely helpful. I’ve merged the checklist recommendation with Nickolas Means’ talk, and now I’ve created an organized approach to coding and life. I am incorporating the checklist into all of my coding tasks to ensure nothing gets missed. I’m also using the recommendation of Vaidehi Joshi’s GitHub templates for my pull requests. At the same time, I’m including a checklist of all the things that need to be completed before the code can be merged. For example, when changing keys in production, I make a checklist which includes the migrations needed and then a reminder to inform the client of the changes.

Aside from all of the talks, the sponsored events and vendor tables were a lot of fun. The sponsor walk was a really neat way to meet the faces behind all the code. It was also a great way to add potential tools to my belt. Thanks to all the vendors for giving out really cool swag too. My cord organizer from Nexco is very useful! Now even my cords are organized. Engine Yard hosted an event at the Duce where conference attendees could break the ice a bit with Bago, pool tables, and ping pong tables. A much welcome drink and appetizer was provided by Procore on Wednesday afternoon. And a special thanks goes to Glassbreakers for hosting the diversity event at The Breadfruit & Rum Bar. I met so many new cool people and was able to hear about their Rails journeys.

I never would have been able to predict the immense impact RailsConf has had on my life. I never would have thought that going to a conference would change the way I look at myself, career, and home life. I can honestly say that this conference has empowered and encouraged me in all aspects of my life. Not only has RailsConf 2017 made me a better programmer and more valuable employee, it has made me a better person.

Photo of Denise Carpenter

Denise comes from a medical background where she was an x-ray technician. A career change and four years later, she’s now a full stack web developer for Collective Idea.


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