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Mark Noonan - Civic tech, accessibility, holding the door open for other career changers

Season 4, Episode 4 | October 26, 2021

In today's episode, Dan and Bekah talk to Mark Noonan about how we can make space for career changers through Civic Tech while we make an impact on our communities.


Mark Noonan's profile photo
Mark Noonan

Mark is a senior engineer at Cypress.io and is a co-organizer at Code for Atlanta. He also works as a program developer for People Making Progress, an Atlanta-based nonprofit serving adults with developmental disabilities at home, work, and in the community.

This week we welcome Mark Noonan to the show to talk about how becoming a part of Civic Tech initiatives can help career changers to grow and help existing developers create opportunities for mentorship, support, and connection for those coming into tech.

Mark talks about his experience with FreeCodeCamp as well as Code for Atlanta, and the $40,000 Hackathon his group won and donated to charity! He brings his experience as a career transitioner to the conversation and we look at how participating in Civic Tech can help you develop skills to be a better communicator and programmer. And you might hear a little bit about how we prefer our breakfast foods too 🥞


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Transcript:

Bekah:

Hello, and welcome to season four, episode four of the Virtual Coffee Podcast. I'm Bekah. And this is a podcast that features members of the Virtual Coffee community. Virtual Coffee is an intimate group of developers at all stages of their coding journey, and they're here on this podcast, sharing their stories and what they've learned. And we're here to share it with you here with me. Today is my cohost Dan.

Dan:

Thanks Bekah. Today, we got to talk to Mark Noonan. Mark is a senior engineer at Cypress.io and is a co-organizer at Code for Atlanta. He also works as a program developer for People Making Progress ,an Atlanta based nonprofit serving adults with developmental disabilities at home, work and in the community. Um, mark shared with us how his background in music and theater informs his work as a developer, which I found really interesting. And then we spent the rest of the episode talking about his experience in civic tech, how working with local civic tech groups can benefit your community, uh, can benefit other developers and, and of course your own career as a developer.

Bekah:

We start every episode of the podcast. Like we start every Virtual Coffee. We introduce ourselves with our name, where we're from, we do and a random check-in question. We hope you enjoy this episode. Today's random check-in question. Is, would you rather be the funniest or the smartest person in the room? So my name is Bekah. I am a front end developer from a small town in Ohio. And I think I would like to be the funniest person in the room it, because it makes it easier to talk to people. And you're more likable, I think. And my grandma was funny and I always want to be as funny as my grandma. So I'm going with that.

Dan:

Uh, hi, I'm Dan. I am a developer from Cleveland, Ohio. And, um, yeah, I don't know. I feel like lots of times the funniest person often is pretty smart anyway, you know, um, like I don't want to be the person in the room that everybody's laughing at, you know, but, um, right. So sure. I, I would take a funniest person and then. that means you are absolutely not the smartest person in the room, you know? Uh, but like could still have second place or something. I think that's, I think that's good.

Bekah:

So now you're claiming second place. Smartest first Second place smart

Dan:

Yeah. Yeah. I mean, as long as that's in the realm of possibility, I'm not saying, you know, I'm not saying that's, I'm saying, you know, this, this exercise, you know, if I say I'm always the smartest or the funniest person in the room, you know, but it's not like saying that means you're also the least smart person in the room.

Bekah:

No, that was not one

Dan:

It's still open. Yeah. That's what I'm saying. So it's still, it's still possibility. I could at least still imagine that I'm the second smartest person in the room.

Bekah:

right.

Dan:

If I've made this choice.

Bekah:

You're the funniest you can imagine that you are the second smartest person.

Dan:

All right. That's it. That's my answer. Yes.

Mark:

All right. Um, and I'm Mark Noonan. I am a senior engineer at cypress.io. Um, I live in Atlanta, Georgia, and I'm mostly happy just to be in the room. That's good for me. Um, I probably would prefer to be the funniest person than the smartest person. Uh, if I had to make that choice, but in this specific room with the two of you, I will take first place, smartest person ahead of Dan and

Dan:

I mean

Bekah:

Gues I'm third place then,

Dan:

somebody had do it.

Mark:

if, this how the

Bekah:

I'm gonna fight for funniest. And then I'll be third place. First smartest.

Dan:

I mean, I called dibs on second place. I don't know what to tell you.

Bekah:

I didn't even know that was an option. wasn't an option. You made it up.

Dan:

That's it. Listen, I always gotta call dibs when its available.

Mark:

Everbody in a room of three it's. Okay. Everybody's walking away with something yet.

Bekah:

I I like I have lost in the, I got the participation ribbon I got purple ribbon. Welcome Mark, and is really good to have you here with us and being the smartest person in the room. so we'll let you do most of the talking today. Um, we always like to start off with your origin story, how you got to this point of where you are in your developer career. So you could give us your overview, we would love here it.

Mark:

Okay. Um, I'm going to try to remove some of the twists and turns. Um, but the short version is I kind of thought about doing this job really since I was a teenager, I started making websites and stuff like that. Um, but when I was like 16, 17, yeah. I was in Ireland where I grew up and I was learning bits and pieces of programming and hitting some problems. And I just hit a point where I was sure this was not for me. Like you had to be more into maths. You have to be smarter than I was to be good at programming. Um, and a lot of that had to do with what was available to me. Education wise, if you get stuck with a book that you got from the library, um, just very hard, like back then, this is right around the year, 2000, it's a little bit harder to get resources than it is today. So I ended up going to college for music and English and, um, did a master's in ethnomusicology like That's my education background loved all of that stuff, but I kind of kept getting sucked into making websites on the side. Um, and gradually like found more and more things where I'm like, oh, I wish I could do that. So I could make this for this reason, for this family business or whatever. Yeah. And eventually found myself finding things like free code camp and CS 50, um, using those courses to learn more. that kind of got me into the Atlanta Free Code Camp Community, which got me connected to Code for Atlanta, which is like civic tech code for America non-profit work, which really aligned with the, my day job, which was at a nonprofit, working with adults with developmental disabilities. Um, so I just kept doing more stuff and learning more things until like, it was kind of obvious. I was able to do this for a job and it was time to start thinking about switching. And so that led me to, being developer Twitter, following people, uh, connecting with people there. And that kind of introduced me to some places where I could interview and slowly get better at interviewing. And then, you know, I found a job.

Bekah:

That's awesome. I love the non-traditional backgrounds and I feel like we hear a lot of people that have come from music backgrounds and made the transition into dev world. And my background's in English too. Did you find like you were able to use any transferable skills or that background helped you in some way as you learned to code?

Mark:

I I think looking back, there are a couple of ways. Um, is like you practice music, you're able to get into flow as you play. Um, and so there's this. It happens with writing too, where you have this experience on your own of working on something and being in the moment of like, and stuff coming together. it can still be challenging, but it's sort of fun and you don't notice the time passing. Um, and it seems like when we're learning development or actually doing like the day-to-day work, um, being able to get into that state, um, kind of on-demand is really useful so that you can actually settle in and achieve something and a few hours. Without quite having a full plan going in how you do it. I think that's useful from playing an instrument. Um, also we used to have to read like big symphony scores or just lots of interconnected pieces. And you're supposed to be able to talk about how they work together. And I was never like really that into the theory part of what we were doing in college, but it did exercise a part of my brain that was like, and same with plays and with, with any kind of complicated structures you're supposed to get into, um, theater was a big thing for me in college. And so the combination of like thinking about a hour or two long play as a whole script and writing some and directing some as well as, we have this big, complicated thing but we have 48 hours to build all the sets and stand this show up and do it for a week. And there's a lot of rushing around as well as trying to maintain this complicated. Like, so all of that, at least I feel like it exercise some of the same stuff mentally for me that I'm using now being directly like how to write a form in HTML or something.

Dan:

I love that. Never really connected the flow state thing with you. You're totally right with me between music and, and developing. Um, I like the, I mean, I just really liked the way you described that and it is true. Like once you said it, you know, I thought I thought about it and it is the exact same way. Like, and you can feel when you're not in it too, you know, but you can feel when you're in it. And that idea of like, putting, just getting started on something and not knowing exactly how it's going to turn out, but you're, you know, and it it's like you're driving it, but it's still like you're in that flow, so you're not forcing it. And at the end, something, hopefully at least something, something has come out, um, I, I had never, I never connected those, those two, the music, like the music flows state and then developing flow state before. I, I really appreciate that. That was cool.

Bekah:

Yeah, I liked that a lot. And like, thinking about how all of the pieces are working together and whatever you're doing. that sometimes we think about transferable skills, like, okay. And how do they exactly match up? But you're talking about like exercising, the same muscles or the same part of your brain to learn new things. And you know, if you're breaking down a poem if you are matching patterns, is. When you're writing or playing music, those are all things that we're doing as coders. It doesn't necessarily mean that we can understand directly how that works, but I think it certainly helps to build those skills as we learn new things.

Mark:

Yeah. And I think it sort of, when I started to listen to specific podcasts, as programmers were talking, this is what kind of helped me go from learning on my own to being able to with others and interact with other developers. was like, I got quite far on my own, but I didn't know how to say any of the words out loud. So listening to podcasts, when called Coding Blocks and stuff like Code Newbie. And let me hear how developers were talking. And one concept was like levels of abstraction. And they're talking about not mixing levels of abstraction, which when you're new that's a complicated concept because you have, you're not sure what levels of extraction means. Let alone to know if you're mixing them or not. Um, but when I start to think of like, yeah, you can spend time looking at a single line in a, in a play or something or, uh, the conversation or the whole scene and zoom out further to see how things like structure really relate to each other. Um, and understanding what layer of the structure you're in, when you're doing something. Yeah. Like the ability to zoom in and out to a specific layer and understand its purpose and the structure connected above and below it. Um, that is hard to like articulate, I think, in programming because it's often so abstract. but when you're making art, you have to think about those layers all the time, because you're working on the details of a piece and on the whole, the whole piece and each script do it seamlessly without knowing that you're zooming in and out. Um, but I do think they kind of relate.

Bekah:

Oh, absolutely. And I love that that's, that was such a great description of how you kind of look at things together and, and have to break it apart at the same time and move back at that. It is it's like, um, I was gonna like, when. No, it's not coming there. was something in there about like being blurry and not being blurry, but.

Mark:

no, I think that you like, especially with your background in writing. There's a first draft where you cannot get lost in the details, or you'll never finish the first draft. Um, and that's a whole different layer of the work, trying to get something that has roughly the structure you want. Um, and it's, uh, it's so difficult to make progress if you get stuck on one paragraph or one sentence. Um, and I actually I'm bad at that. I don't write and never wrote novels or attempted to write a novel. Um, because cannot, um, sustain that first draft mode long enough to, to really produce something like that. So I ended up really liking, working in theater, really liking, working on poems and songs because that lives in the zoomed in world of a smaller structure where I feel happy, and I feel like it's okay to spend time working on sentences, paragraphs, words, line breaks. Okay. And uh, if I try to write a 400 page novel like that, I just would never, ever get it done. Um, so yeah, I think that that blurry not blurry makes some sense in that sense.

Bekah:

Yeah. Yeah. And you know, like when you're going there's, your rough draft, right. For no matter what you do, like you can have a coding, rough draft to where you're. Get it working. Right. But that you can make the code better. so I think even like, if you break down the process, you can pseudo code something and then you can code and make it work. And that's your second draft. And then you can go back and do those revisions that really make it do what you want it to do, but also like how you want it to do it in the most efficient way that you can. Um, I like thinking of that as part of the process. I don't think that I thought about that before, but that makes a lot of sense to me.

Mark:

Yeah, lately, I've started a routine where I will do that. Get it working past first, even if it's horrendous. Um, and then I will write the tests for the thing that I just wrote that's working so that, um, I can go through and refactor and try to make it right. Code-wise and you know, to think about reuse and thinking about readability and stuff. Um, and then at a certain point, I know it's still wrong, but I have to cut it off and make a pull request because there's, there's not much value in making it better to read or, or like more efficient to reuse something because we do have to actually complete work. Which also really reminds me of when I used to send poems out to magazines. I'm like, I know this is still terrible, but it's time. It's time to send it out. Um,

Bekah:

I found magazine, poetry magazine editors were the meanest people that I have ever met. They would the meanest rejections this. You are personally attacking me. What is, why, why did you do that to me?

Mark:

I used to, I think the, the framing of this that I heard was that, um, like poems are never finished. They're just abandoned, like at a certain point and you have to move on with your life and start writing the next one. Um, and so there's so many even great things that we love that people have made that you look back and you just see, these are, um, you know, The things somebody felt anxious about and hated and thought it was, it's still not finished when they released it. And like, luckily you don't get to actually experience that when you read the work.

Bekah:

Yeah.

Dan:

Yeah. I mean, I think that's true. And I, I mean, you were saying this, but I think that's true of pretty much anything you can create. Right. I mean, you can try to improve things forever, you know? And, um, I've heard that advice. You know, from a lot of other people too, is especially, uh, when it comes to maybe blogging, things like that. Right. It's like, just get it out there, you know, and then you can always improve it if you want to later, um, you know, Jono was on talking about the, um, was it the digital garden, you know, and, um, how you can kind of put something out there even in a rough draft. I mean, like it's up to your comfort level, but it's okay to like put, put things out there, you know? that aren't completely perfect because nothing is ever going to be completely perfect and accepting that it can be hard for sure. I've found myself deep in a hole spending half an afternoon on something that literally like has no effect on the world and nobody is ever going to notice or care if it's better or is, or, you know, and I'm just like, I know I could do the, you know, I can have, I know I can get better. I know I can like whatever and, it can be easy, be easy to step into that trap.

Mark:

Yeah. That's all. It was the stuff that ends up later on getting like cut from the roadmap.

Dan:

Yeah. And then that reminds me, that does, the other thing I was going to say is, is getting that poll request. So like, there is a, there is a, a level of refinement that you want to wait until other people maybe have looked at something first to, to confirm that it's even going to stay, that it's even going to be worth like the, uh, the extra time, you know, if needed or, or even if it's needed, you know? Um, and most of the time, I think when a teammate will look at something, they'll be like, yeah, This is good. You know, this is good enough. Like let's, let's keep moving. Cause we can put efforts, you know, in other places, but it can be hard to let go sometimes.

Bekah:

Yeah. And so, so we're talking about, you know, relating all of these different things from music and writing and coding. And so you have this non-traditional background, but you also, um, done a lot of work, helping other people from non-traditional backgrounds coming into the industry. Um, can you just talk a little bit about, you know, how you've done that and maybe share a highlight story?

Mark:

Yeah, totally. Um, so for, for me, Like the thing that really helped me about this as a job and change was starting to go to meetups in Atlanta. Um, and at my first meetup, it was a, it was a meetup for to think that pancakes might be about to arrive. No, maybe yes. Unclear. Okay. We're going to move on.

Bekah:

can go check for your pancakes.

Dan:

I are there pancakes for all of us?

Mark:

Let's find out.

Bekah:

I don't like pancakes.

Dan:

You don't like pancakes,

Bekah:

like a savory breakfast person. I usually don't like the sweet stuff.

Dan:

but Bekah,

Bekah:

Maybe crepes that are like stuffed with cream cheese, filling that I will take those.

Dan:

I'd do a savory crepe. A Crepe I would prefer to be savory then than sweet, like a, like a crepe with like cheese and meat or something in it, you know, but like, Pancakes, but Pancake you can like a pancake on its own if you make it, unless you're going crazy yet. It's not very sweet. Right. And so it's all about how much, like stuff you put on top of it. Right.

Bekah:

it was just like boring. I don't know.

Dan:

But I'm saying mix it in with some of your, some like meat and eggs and you know, and a little bit of syrup because you know, a little bit of sweet with a savory, you know, like really like helps everything kinda.

Bekah:

Are you telling me to mix up my pancakes with meat.

Dan:

not mixed. I mean, I'm saying eat them on a plate together. Not, not mixed not like mixed up next to each other and then eat them at the same time as if it was a meal

Mark:

they, they,

Dan:

with multiple points. Like.

Mark:

um, eitherway I have pancakes now I'm not going to eat them right next to microphone though, for, for everyone's benefit. Um, but, uh, so get back to this first meetup I went to, is, uh, like

Bekah:

Thanks for bringing it back, Mark. Cause I could've gone.

Dan:

I know I'm already spiraling on this pancake thing.

Mark:

So Yeah. So I. Part of Free Code Camp was your onboarding and Free Code Camp. And they tell you to go join the Facebook group for your city. Um, and if there's not a Facebook group in your city, you're supposed to start it. So it's really good. It was, that was how it was back then, at least. Um, I found the Facebook group for Free Code Camp Atlanta, and, uh, there were meeting at a certain coffee shop at a certain time. So my first tech meetup, I was pretty nervous. I didn't know how to act at a tech meetup. I didn't know too many people in Atlanta yet, or what even happened there. So I go to the coffee shop. And I see a group of like six or seven people sitting around a table with laptops and talking and stuff. And I'm like, okay, this is obviously the right group. And so I walk up and I'm talking to them for a few minutes asking people, what are they working on? You know, just they're like, Hey, what are you doing? I'm learning this and working on some Java script. And then at some point I mentioned Free Code Camp and they didn't know what I was talking about.

Bekah:

Yeah.

Mark:

This was a group of strangers. Who were just tolerating me, interrupting their meeting. And they were just too nice to tell me to go away. Um, and so once we figured it out, we had a little bit of a laugh and I was like, okay, well, the worst has happened. This the worse thing that could possibly happen with these meetups. So I'm through that. Um, but what it was was people were from code for Atlanta. And so they were like, we're, we're not your meetup that you came to, but we do run a different meetup and you should, you should come to that. I was like, there's no way I'm going to go to that. I can't live this moment down. Does no, just, uh, going to stay as far away from that as I can obviously. And, uh, so I went over to the other table where there were just two people sitting down there that was like, asked a crucial question. Are you Free Code Camp meet up, um, and who was sitting there was Nerando Johnson and our friend Krista, that's the two people that were there. And, uh, obviously that was a life-changing moment for me, cause me and Nerando and Krista had been friends ever since, um, and help each other. So the kindness of everybody at that meetup and through people showing up to just like. I realized that week after week, people were going there who were not just learning, but also people who had been through it and people who had jobs and were coming back just to hang out and answer questions and support. Um, and so I learned so much from those meetups, having specific people there who could say, oh, the problem you're having today, the solution is not. Continue hacking in the bad way that you're hacking the solution is you should learn Firebase so that you can users and have data stored properly. And that will solve like all of the pain that you're having, trying to something weird with cookies or write to the server in PHP or whatever. Um, so those moments were really helpful for me. And going to, when I actually did start going to Code for Atlanta, getting into the hackathons there, like just improved my confidence and improve my skills. So having gone through that, I think it's nice to sort of pay that back when are new in the industry as well. You always learn a lot when you're trying to help people. I vividly remember the sort of embarrassment and hesitation that you feel when you're starting to learn and trying to convince yourself that it's possible to switch careers. And, um, it seems ridiculous. So, uh, Yeah. I like those. I like doing kind of portfolio reviews, mock interviews. Um, since I've been on the hiring type a little bit as well, like those are really useful. Um, and you get to know people and, um, kinda make connections that stick with you.

Bekah:

Yeah, That's awesome. And I think that, like you were saying about learning Firebase rather than, than continuing hacking in a way that doesn't make sense. That's so hard to figure out if you're learning on your own, because it just really depends on what resources. You've read and how you've understood things. You know sometimes there are resources, there are blog posts out there that are not giving you the best information. And so recognizing that like, Hey, there's a lot written out there. Not everything is going to you the right ways or the best practices and figuring out how to discern between what is a good resource and not can be really, really tricky. On your own. So that's why meetups like that are, are awesome.

Dan:

Yeah, I would just, I would also say. This is true, even if you're not learning, you know, uh it's you can be very expensive, like be developing for a long time. Uh, but being kind of isolated and it's possible. And I say, this has, you know, person who I'm describing myself a couple of years ago, basically. Uh, but it's, it's like it that exposure to other people. And it's just, like mark said, like, oh, just use Firebase. Like somebody just saying that, and it doesn't have to. Somebody who's, you know, a mentor or somebody who is teaching or whatever, it can be somebody who's also just learning, you know what I mean? But that, those, uh, that, that exposure to other people who are, who are doing the same sorts of things as you are, it's, it's so important. And so, and, and useful, uh, just even on a, on a like tactical level, you know what I mean? It just, it just like makes you better. Um, osmosis, you know, even if you're not like, uh, actively doing talks or doing, you know, act that, you know, whatever, whatever, just like that exposure to people. Um,

Mark:

Yeah. and you could go to that group and just kinda hang out, um, kind of like the coworking room and Virtual Coffee, where, uh, sometimes I went to that meetup and I really didn't say anything to anybody because I was, um, some jobs. I would usually get there after work and have like some goal. I was like, I need to do this. And for some reason, being around all these people, even if they're really busily talking. It gives me enough energy to actually spend two or three hours coding do the thing I came to do. Um, versus if I went home, I would just be like, I'm tired after work not have that energy from those people.

Dan:

Yeah, it totally. And the other, the other part is, I mean, the other benefit of a small group like that, especially in person wants, which I know is like very, very hard right now, but, um, uh, you know, it's the kind of thing we're trying to recapture at least in Virtual Coffee. Um, but. You know, you, you can get exposure in on Twitter, like by following a whole bunch of people. Right. But you never know exactly what's going to happen. And if you don't know the people, then your last time following people that other people, you know, based on numbers and based on what Twitter's algorithm kind of pushes in front of you and you, again, you, can't always, you can't always know, uh, exactly like who people are or whether you can trust their information and stuff like that. And, um, when you're in a group of just people. Uh, as a small group, it's much more there's no, like he can't tell how many people follow, like follow that person. You know, everyone's just sitting in a room together. There's nobody has like a, you know, inherent value with air quotes is value, you know, uh, bigger than another person, you know, and one person has 20 followers on Twitter. Another has, you know, 10,000, but when they're in just the room together, talking to them, Sort of everybody's more on a similar level, um, think improves communication. Yeah.

Mark:

And I remember seeing Krista who is fantastic and was kind of years ahead of me in her development and like being along, learning. And seeing her, knowing that she knows more than me and is really good at what she does. And when somebody would bring up a topic that hadn't run into yet, she would just ask the question and she'd be like, oh, I don't know what that is. Tell me about it and not feel the need to like, um, I don't know, pretend that, you know, everything or like show off people aren't going there to show off. People are going there to like, Um, and so seeing somebody that I know is better than me still comfortable, I'm like, oh, maybe this is why better than me. Like, this is how you get good, is you keep asking questions and you don't try to bluff. and, and like use, use your curiosity to drive you. Um, so I do some of those moments kind of stood out to me that I think you can only witness when you're in a group and see a dynamic, um, and see different people handling situations in different ways. So Yeah. whether it's a virtual group or not, but, um, it's nice that we have these to other people.

Bekah:

Yeah, I think when you have that exposure, it allows you to build some sort of relationship of trust and understanding, and there's more of a comfort level. So there's a built-in credibility almost. And so can feel free to free or to ask questions in some situations to not like even people that I know from Virtual Coffee, I'm not a big, um, YouTube tutorial watcher, but if I know somebody from Virtual Coffee or if I've met them in real life, it's easier for me to watch their videos. I think because it's like, okay, yeah, this is, is my friend. And I know they know what they're talking about or I know that this person talks about this, so I'm going to go watch their video. And so it, it allows for that. I don't know, like, um, a step towards trusting that they will be a good resource for you. Um, so now that experience with Code for Atlanta was not your last experience with them, right?

Mark:

No, no. So this is good. This and this ties into another thing. That I try to communicate to new developers, um, which is how to put things on your resume that are like closer to professional work. Then even solo projects you do on your own. And for me, Code for Atlanta had a headache connection for me because they were running a hackathon series with Marta is Atlanta's transit agency and working at people, making progress, which I'm still connected with. Uh, I was working as a job coach and running supported employment programs where people would use the, um, Marta Mobility Service to get from home to work. So an example is somebody with down syndrome who works bagging groceries, or somebody who's working in a dish room or something that we use to support with schedule these rides. The bus takes you door to door. Um, but scheduling and everything around scheduling was done over the phone, which is pretty difficult for people with cognitive impairments or speech impediments, like challenges around judgment when you're sitting in a phone queue. So I had a lot of experience of the pain of working with Marta and Atlanta Code for Atlanta was running these events. And I saw it as my chance to like talk to MARTA. Not on the phone, but be in their face and say, Hey, here's a, here's a lot of stuff that's happening on the phone that probably could be happening through the website or something like that. And the hack my proposal for the hackathon was here's a better way to handle like booking and canceling rides and keeping people informed of when the van is coming. 'Cause they have a 30 minute window and sometimes it's Atlanta, there's always traffic. Sometimes the bus can be an hour late, be an hour and a half late, but if you're waiting for it, and they come, you only have five minutes to get to the bus before they move on. So people would just stand outside for as long as it takes the hot and the cold and the rain, whether they have to pee bad situation for people to just be waiting without knowing how long the bus comes. And I could get more into the weeds of that problem, but that's the general idea and the solution, because I knew when I would call on behalf of somebody and I would pick up the phone and say, Hey, when is Kevin's bus going to get here? I could feel that that person was just clicking on a computer and reading a line off of the sheet and telling me what the time said at like that field of the estimated time of arrival, which I could just publish that time on the website, we could read that ourselves and we wouldn't have to tie up the phones all the time asking about the late buses. So, um, I went to the hackathon there and, uh, met some people. I think I really wanted to go to the hackathon because in CS 50, they explained what a hackathon is. And I was like, I want to have that 24 hour experience of like, seeing what it's like to do it. Um, Nerando came along for that hackathon and we met two other people just chatting beforehand, who became the team. I learned about, uh, how to turn like that idea into a kind of app solution. So we had somebody who knew about iOS. He worked on actually building out an iOS app based on some wire frames that we made and some wishlists I had of what we would be able to do. Um, and that a three-part event. we actually had two more cracks at this. We convinced MARTA to provide some data to us about the disability support service they had, this was not a part of the hackathon dataset. This was like, something, we were bringing in that we wanted to work on. Um, we worked with them for awhile. We made a pilot for them that they actually used for a few weeks. And as it turned out, they were separately in negotiations to buy something that did some similar stuff. So on the one hand it was a bummer. We didn't get to like really ship our code. We were able to get into meetings with the third party provider who they were using to provide this service and give them early feedback on what their product did or didn't do that would be useful for the population we wanted it to help. So, um, it got us like in the room for those types of conversations and it, let me put MARTA on my resume as like I did a project with MARTA. not saying it was a paid project. Not saying I was a consultant or anything, but here's a project with an organization that you've heard of in your city, um, that is different to my calculator that's on code pen. is homework from Free Code Camp and like using civic tech to connect with nonprofits or other organizations that you can do work for so that you have something people have heard of on your resume that you've contributed to. Maybe you had requirements, you worked with a team, all this like benefits of adding to your resume beyond a project you came up with on your own, really strengthened that. And let me talk about something different in interviews. So I really believe like my purpose is Code for Atlanta now is not so much to support any specific project, but to like support people, building their resumes, who are new to the industry and have worked for them to do, uh, that's kind of what motivates me to stay involved and spend some time like helping to organize things I'm able to do that.

Bekah:

I love that. And I think, you know, we hear a lot of advice to early career folks to, you know, get into open source and that's a good way to build your resume, I liked this idea of civic tech. Because it seems like be a more intimate group of people communicating together. Whereas you almost feel a lot of open source contributions. Like you're an outsider coming in and if you need help, it's harder. Ask because there's not clear paths of communication or, or whatever, but you're working on something that's mission driven and that has a team of people that need to communicate, those are certainly all skills that can be utilizing and kind of building your own team. Right. So if you're involved in a community like code camp or code for Atlanta Virtual Coffee or whatever, You can turn to people and say like, look, there's a nonprofit in my hometown. And they could really use some help. I'd love to. Ask them, if I could work on a project for them, but I could use some support, is anybody else interested? And I think that's a really great way to show, like, look, you are taking initiative, you are working on a project and that is not a calculator or, you know, a to-do list app and really, really kind of own the project yourself is, is a great way to showcase you can do to learn a lot pretty quickly. Um, and yeah, to have something on your resume.

Mark:

Yeah, and Nerando will be annoyed if I don't mention this. Cause I do sometimes forget to mention this, that project extended into a different, uh, event. That was a civic tech challenge. That was run by GE and AT&T. And so our team kind of re rebuilt the project, added some smart city integration because it was a smart city thing. Um, and we won a $40,000 prize, Uh, which we didn't expect to win. So we had all signed in advance that we agreed to donate this to charity because we thought maybe we would come in third or whatever. So like, um, it's. uh, I think it's a better story that we gave away when we were all broke. This is the thing, like we were not, we didn't have jobs yet as developers. Um, but we agreed that so many people had contributed to this, that it would be kind of unfair for just the, the six people on the team at the time of that competition to walk away with the money, um, because it was a long project. 20 30 people who did something on it. Um, so we all felt good about that. And we thought maybe we would come in third, which was like five grand, not too much. Um, but you get involved in stuff like this, it does have potential. This won't happen to everybody. It has potential to snowball into a weird side effect of like donating more to charity. Then you make it a year. So, uh, uh, that was good. That was a good thing that we did and I still stand by it. But, um, Yeah. I, I also was wierd if I forget to finish the story with that detail.

Dan:

Yeah, no, he was, he, uh, he might've mentioned that when he was on the podcast as well. I think he pretty much felt the same way as you like. Well, I'm glad we did it... but also...

Mark:

Well, the thing, the thing I like about it is when that's the outcome of a project, it doesn't matter that like MARTA didn't use our prototype. We got money to charities that serve people with disabilities, which enables them to increase their mission and have impact. And like I, because I worked at one of those charities, I know what that money is spent on. So through the channel of civic tech, if you are able to enter and win prizes and donate prizes, have this other way of making impact. That's actually probably a little bit more effective than on any single project to really take off and be implemented. It's like a lot of the work in civic tech. If it's not tightly integrated with an actual organization or a nonprofit is more like proof of concepts. Here's how you could do your government. Here's how you could do your MARTA mobility service. And it shows the way to something, but it might not be, um, it might not be the technical solution that actually gets implemented, but if it gets the conversation going or you raise some money with it, like that's a valuable output, or if it helps someone get a job, that's a valuable output for um, the activity of civic tech that can sometimes seem like it goes nowhere.

Dan:

Yeah, I love that, you know, and it's is, uh, Like Bekah was saying. Yeah. Some people, you know, it's a little easier to conceive of going into, trying to contribute to open source, um, stuff like that, but that it's civic tech is it's a little more, um, so what I was gonna say was it is a little more, um, nebulous in my mind, if you, excuse me, if you were, if a developer was like one or two, start getting involved in this in maybe they don't live in Atlanta, uh, like where, where would I look like if I want to. Maybe, you know, try to get involved in civic tech a little bit more in Cleveland. Um, for instance, like, should I just Google civic tech, Cleveland and see what comes up or is there other like specific places, you know, that you might look first? Like what, what can we do to, you know, if somebody wants to do this.

Mark:

Within the US, there's definitely Code for America is like the umbrella organization. And Code for America itself is a nonprofit that, um, specific projects and has employees and often works with local governments and organizations like that, but it also supports the brigade network, which is, um, all around the U S there's there's many Brigades, I forget how many, but most states have at least one. Um, you can find your local project from there. And there are, there are also civic tech communities around the world. Um, so I guess I'll have to look up the address for that and we can it somewhere. Um, yeah, but I know there are communities in Ireland, there are communities, um, kind of all around that are United by the sort of social good impact tech work. Um, people consider the actual details of what's important to focus on differently in those communities, depending on kind of what their mission is. Um, obviously my point of view is like helping people get exposure. Um, very much I'm focused on the non-profit side of things, not as much on the interfacing with government entities. but so there are different roles. You can see a typical civic tech organization having, um, but it's, uh, it's really nice when. Most of the time, there is plenty of people to do the work. And there's also plenty of projects happening at once. So you can come in and find something where you can either learn or you can participate. Um, and the kind of people who do these things tend to be of the helpful variety. Like whoever's giving up a Tuesday night to go and work for free for a nonprofit they never heard of. They're probably nice enough to help you set up git do things like.

Dan:

Yeah.

Mark:

This is where I learned how to use git properly. It's where I learned how to install packages. Like just real basic stuff. Came from Code for Atlanta people helping me there.

Bekah:

I just want to follow that up and say that when you're working on you don't have to work on a time intensive project. Right. So I know, you know, there are people that are learning who have jobs and kids or other responsibilities, and they might say like, wow, that's just not doable. But I think that, you know, there are so many different options out there and, know, one, if you're working on a three-day project. are going to learn so much in those three days it might be more than weeks worth of work that you were learning by yourself. And so, ya know, kind of thinking about the benefits or, you know, look at a longer project, start something yourself with other people and say like, we're going to do this over a period of six weeks and then evaluate where we are and it's going to be five hours a week or whatever, you know, it doesn't it work for you, but those experiences are invaluable as you're making your way into the tech industry.

Mark:

Totally. And I agree it can be slow. Our, um, our MARTA thing went on for about a year, maybe more. Um, a lot of it is really incremental. Some of the projects I worked on only did anything twice a month at the civic hack night. So I would work really hard to prepare for a civic hack night because I would have people who wanted to come and work on something like Free Live Transcript.com that you guys have seen. Um, so a lot of the work that's on that now came from a civic hack night where I have like two hours of people I'm going to try to explain how the whole project works in the first few minutes and then figure out what everybody's good at and what they want to do. And come up with tasks and get them assigned out and like check on them. And sometimes that works beautifully and sometimes it's hard to get people going because the, the code is pretty ugly in there. And, uh, you need a certain level of experience to, uh, undo what I did when I wrote that project. But like, uh, sometimes it is effective and you can get eight hours of work done by four people in a two hour period, which really moves the project forward. Um, and now four people know how to work on it. And one of them might have like a bee in their bonnet and want to come back and fix it the next time. Or sometimes they just drift off. It doesn't matter. They contributed, they got something out of it. Um, I kind of liken it to being an a band in college where sometimes most people would show up to practice. And like you're relying on volunteers. Your expectations should be that things are going to be slow and every now and then a hackathon will come and they'll be really fast for a few days, but mostly you will try to set up your tickets and try to set up your list of tasks to be like, anybody can pick this up. And nothing's too big or too small for someone to take a crack at it at a hack night. And even the smallest ticket is really meaningful. If it's someone's first pull request, um, that they've made to an open source project or something like that. So fixing a spelling mistake or whatever, um, can be like, Hey, so my first time forking a repo and contributing to open source, just like we're doing what heck over Fest at this moment in time. Uh, those do that does kind of the mystery of how to do that.

Bekah:

Yeah, absolutely. I think that any step forward the momentum. Right? And so if you a typo or something small, then it's still moving you forward and getting you ready for the next time you create a pull request and feeling a little bit more confident as you do that. So I don't think that we should diminish any contributions. It's good to get started and to get in there.

Dan:

Yeah, and I mean, this is something we talk about a lot with Virtual Coffee. It is hard to get into opensource. You know, it's, there's a lot of, uh, uh, and this is true. I'm sure of civic tech just opens doors in general. Right? There's, there's a bunch of things to learn, you know? And so honestly, if you're doing something that is maybe a small contribution to the code itself, like fixing the, a typo, um, then it frees you up to actually just concert and learning about, get or learning about pull requests, learning about, uh, that process, uh, without trying to learn a mountain of coding stuff at the same time. Right. And, you know, it's a great way to, I like, it's a, I think that's the best way to get started in, um, you know, and get in contribute and, you know, open source, things like that is, is do, uh, you know, small, small contributions where you're not overshooting, you know, you're not biting off a big chunk of something um, code-wise to start because then you can just concentrate on the one thing, learning one thing at a time.

Mark:

I'm really struck by how, working in the industry for, four or five years now or whatever it is. Um, you're only using a tiny slice of your programming knowledge at a time. Um, to all that you have learned already, you're still on using a tiny amount of that. And relative to all the stuff you could learn, that's so scary when you're getting started, you're like using a little dot of knowledge. like, I work in a Vue code base and I use Tailwind for CSS and I do certain things that like, um, are their own little bubble and have their own documentation. it doesn't matter that I even know PHP from before. Um, I'm not using it. I guess I learned something from learning that, but like, When you actually see projects and action and talk to the people they're like, Hey, you can contribute. And here's the tiny area that you need to know about. Like, you need to know how to, how to, how to extract this thing from a loop and JavaScript and make it more efficient. And here's the tiny piece of documentation that will help you do that. And then ask me if you need help, like that reveals that we're still focused on just like really small areas of the overall practice of programming, um, at any given moment on any given ticket, we're not using the a hundred things that we could know about.

Dan:

Yeah. I, I mean, absolutely agree with that. And I think that's actually another benefit of getting involved in a project, like a civic hacking project where somebody else, you know, if somebody, if you have somebody like Mark who was sort of running the project, right. And you join, um, as, uh, somebody who is learning, um, you know, you can be provided. One of the challenges of learning when you're learning is that cloud of there's a huge amount of things that you could learn, right? So if you go to something like this, I want to contribute like you now, now you have, um, the thing to do set in front of you, and maybe you can just concentrate on learning just that one thing, you know, and it removes the choice, uh, which, and then maybe you'll find it they'll figure out, well, I hate this. I don't like JavaScript or something, or I don't like something and you can move on, you know, it, um, but the. That's just another, another benefit of get involved with groups like this, especially a civic hacking group that is going to have projects like it's going to have work to do, you know, and, and, and help, um, doing it. Uh, that's my, like my, my go-to advice for learning is just like, make, do a project, just do something, you know, and Obviously better, but it can't be bad advice. Cause like, well, what do I do then, Dan? And then I'm like, well, I don't know that this is like something that provides that,

Mark:

And I'll say as well, it, it provided me with leadership experience. I did not go in wanting to run the project. I was like, so if I have an idea, Do I also have to run it and they're like, Yeah, you have to do, if its your idea, you pitch it and you own it. will get join your team. Um, I was like, okay, I'll, I'll learn how to pitch a project. And I would be very nervous at first. And, um, I got feedback one night from somebody who was like part of the local Toastmasters or something, happened to be there.

Bekah:

it's a recurring theme here, toastmasters.

Dan:

Yeah, it was, was it Gant?

Mark:

I don't know, but it was just like, uh, he, offered take notes on me pitching and give me like he had three or four points. He's like, you move way too much. Your, your idea is good and your communications clear, but you speak too softly and you're swaying and it's distracting, but here's the good things, you know, and that was a, you don't have to remember much advice to be like, okay, I'm going to move less. Um, and try to slow down a little. Uh, uh, just from being at a hack night happening to run into people who are experienced, looking at how you're doing when you speak. Um, so a lot of benefits for me, random unpredictable benefits from being involved in Code for Atlanta.

Bekah:

When I want to follow up on that too, and say that that's a skillset, right. That you're learning. Not everybody can pitch. It's not a natural thing. I, well, maybe for some people it's a natural thing that you're born with, but a lot of us, it's a skill that we need to work on and get evaluation. And mean, it goes right along with interviewing, right? Because you are essentially pitching yourself and if you're using the wrong tone, I will never forget. I think I was 11 years old. It was my first science fair project. And the highest you could get was a superior. I got an excellent and I was like very upset with my excellent and the feedback I got was, um, inappropriate inflection at the end of sentences. Right. So what that means is when I talked, I would talk and, and like, it was a question than actually saying what. Actually knew about the project, And so there, you lose credibility. And I worked very hard to not do that anymore, but that feedback has allowed me to grow as a speaker and be more deliberate and think through how I'm doing things and. So maybe your tone is wrong when you're interviewing and you're not coming off as credible, or maybe you're not completing your sentences. There there've been times in my life where would just start a sentence and then would get overwhelmed with people looking at me and I would just stop. There was no end to that sentence. And usually I ended it with, so, and that was to me. didn't know where go from there. It's something that I have to think about still even, you know, if I'm in a situation where I suddenly get uncomfortable, like don't end your sentence with, so it's a complete

Mark:

implies that you're going to keep speaking. So it actually makes it take even longer for people to realize that you've stopped.

Bekah:

Just like once someone to pick it up for me. So who

Dan:

I've never done anything like that, except for every single podcast episode.

Mark:

Oh yeah. But But's another one. Sometimes I'll be like, so yeah, that's it. But, uh,

Bekah:

Yes. Yes. 100% do that.

Dan:

Well, you probably looked through the transcripts and just, just see all the times I've done that. even on the podcast.

Mark:

I'm very self-conscious about how much I may have done that in the last hour.

Dan:

Oh,

Mark:

We'll find out.

Dan:

Yeah, we have a, um, we're using, uh, what's it called, uh, Descript now for, uh, podcast editing, which is a really cool tool. But one of the things it does is highlights, filler words. And like, I don't like there, we could just remove them all or something, you know? I mean, I, I know that there, I'm sure there's some podcasts that will do that or whatever. Um, I don't do that both because it is time-consuming, but also I, you know, is pretty, it's a pretty chill, you know, podcasts in general, but it does highlight all of them. And I can see them in my, you know, in the transcripts for my, uh, paragraphs of talking it's.

Mark:

Published a stats Dan. Don't keep this from the people.

Dan:

I don't think I'm going to do that. It'd be too embarrassing, but I'll do it for, maybe I'll do it for just this episode.

Bekah:

But we have transcripts available for every episode. So if somebody would like to just go do a control, find, you will know how many ums we have had in every episode, you can publish it for us. Well, I think we're about at time Mark. This was really great to hear about civic tech. I actually am really excited to go find some civic tech projects and think about how I can involved in this more, is there any last piece of advice you have for listeners?

Mark:

Em, I think that it's. It's natural to not be sure if we're talking to listeners specifically who are learning development, which is not everybody like in the Virtual Coffee Community. Um, but like I remember so much hesitation and, and not being sure that this was the right thing or it was gonna work out, um, that does not mean that it's not the right thing or it's not going to work out. So I would suggest people find some way to live with that feeling. It may well be there for many years into your career for a lot of us. and, uh, it's just not a very useful feeling. So, uh, I would encourage people to let it be and, uh, keep working regardless and don't pay any mind to the part of you that's saying that, uh, cause it's not going to help you learn and, uh, Obviously from the amount of people who have come through the same journey, these people that are going on, uh, it doesn't, uh, hold you back.

Bekah:

Yeah, that's so great. thanks so much for being here with us today. And we will talk to you soon.

Mark:

I'm waving. goodbye.

Dan:

Thank you for listening to this episode of the Virtual Coffee Podcast. This episode was produced by Dan Ott and Bekah Hawrot Weigel, and was edited by Andy Bonjour at GoodDay Communications. If you have questions or comments, you can hit us up on Twitter at VirtualCoffeeIO or email us at podcast@virtualcoffee.io. You can find the show notes, sign up for our newsletter, check out any of our other resources on our website at virtualcoffee.io. And of course join us for our Virtual Coffee Chats every Tuesday at 9:00 am Eastern and Thursday at 12:00 pm Eastern Please subscribe to our podcast and be sure to leave us a review. Thanks for listening and we'll see you next week!


The Virtual Coffee Podcast is produced by Dan Ott and Bekah Hawrot Weigel and edited by Andy Bonjour at GoodDay Communications.