Episode 134 – Tap into the Power of Teaching Others To Become a Better Developer with Ali Spittel
Ali Spittel is Phil’s guest on today’s show. In Jan 2019, she became a Software Engineer and Developer Advocate for the DEV Community. Prior to this, she spent nearly 2 years teaching others to code as a Lead Instructor for General Assembly DC. Ali started her IT career working as a software engineer. Currently, she is Director of the DC Chapter of Women Who Code.
(1.00) – So Ali, can you expand on that brief introduction and tell us a little bit more about yourself? Ali explains that she started her career as a software engineer, focusing on the stack. Mostly working on data visualization and processing applications. Later, she became a full-time coding teacher at General Assembly. Recently, she has taken on a new hybrid role as a software engineer developer advocate for Dev.to.
(1.52) Phil asked her how she had ended up in that particular role. For Ali landing the role was a natural progression. She was already well known within the community, had experience of teaching, public speaking and writing. She had also worked as a software developer.
So, when the role came up she realized that she ticked all of the boxes and tried to land the job. The fact that, for a while, she had been an active member on the platform and was good friends with some of the DEV people also helped.
Interestingly, much of the material she published on Dev.to came from her blog. Cross-posting like this enabled her blog to gain traction and led to the DEV team to work on special projects with them.
(1.52) – Phil asks Ali how she ended up teaching code. Ali explains that she was a guest lecturer at the General Assembly. She was also heavily involved with the coding community. Plus, even in college she had written a lot of content. A habit that gets you used to crunching down what you are learning and representing it in a way that is easier for others to understand. Basically, teaching, so for her becoming an actual teacher was natural.
(3.24) Phil asks Ali how her new role came about. Again, that happened largely because she had decided to share what she was learning. She did that mainly through her blog, which she had never thought would amount to much.
At one point she stumbled upon the DEV website and started to cross-post her work. Gradually, her blog posts gained traction. She also did a couple of one-off projects for DEV and some workshops. So, when a position came along she was a natural fit.
(4.45) – Can you please share a unique career tip with the audience? Ali’s advice is to find ways to teach others what you are learning. Doing so benefits you and others in many different ways.
Firstly, you become a resource for others. You also make some great connections and really bond with those who are learning from you. Later, you are able to learn from them and ask them from advice about areas you have yet to explore.
Teaching enables you to establish yourself as an expert in your field. This in turn increases the rate at which your content is shared and makes it far easier to find work.
Working out how to explain something to others is also a great way to solidify your own knowledge. It was especially helpful for Ali because she was largely self-taught. She knew what to do, but, not necessarily why it had to be done that way. Repeatedly, going over the curriculum deepened her own IT knowledge.
She also found that her students came up with questions that made her think about things in different ways. This drives you on and pushes you to dig deep.
There are so many different ways to teach. It is not just about standing up in a classroom. These days, you end up doing it through public speaking, online, as a mentor, in the workplace and in many other ways.
(7.28) – Can you tell us about your worst career moment? Ali’s worst moment actually happened while she was still studying. She fell in love with coding and decided to take a double major in computer science.
But, for some reason, when she started taking the C++ course, things did not gel for her. It did not matter how many hours she worked at it she just could not get good results. After struggling through for a long time, she admitted defeat and gave up, which was a real low point for her.
Luckily, she ended up falling back into it about six or seven months later. It turned out that taking a break was what she had needed. When she came back to coding again it all clicked and she was able to pursue a career that she really enjoys.
That experience taught her that learning is a roller coaster. There are peaks and valleys, sometimes the valleys seem to go on forever. When that happens, it is important not to become disheartened. Instead, take a short break and come back to it with a fresh perspective.
(9.44) – Phil asks Ali about her best career moment. For Ali, seeing her students succeed is what she enjoys the most. She knows that, over the years, she has helped thousands of people to learn what they need to know to build cool things.
(10.44) – Can you tell us what excites you about the future of the IT industry and careers? The fact that what we can build using tech is limitless is very cool and exciting. Programming touches everything we touch. It really is a part of every aspect of our lives.
(12.10) – What drew you to a career in IT? Really, this happened by accident when she ended up taking a computer science class as an extra credit hour. She loved it, got hooked on Python and went from there.
(12.55) – What is the best career advice you have ever received? Always be learning. Keep staying on top of all of the new things that are coming out. Also, don’t be afraid of breaking things, that is inevitable when you are learning.
(13.34) – If you were to begin your IT career again, right now, what would you do? Ali says that she really wishes she had been introduced to programming earlier and in a fun way. It would have been really cool to learn how to code in a low-pressure environment instead of an academic setting.
(14.16) – What are you currently focusing on in your career? Ali’s new role means that she will need to get back into coding. Moving back into writing production code is going to be a big transition for her. She will also need to step up her public speaking and writing and get more involved in community outreach. So, right now, most of her energy is focused on settling into her new role and excelling at it.
(14.58) – What is the number one non-technical skill that has helped you the most in your IT career? Ali has found that having strong people skills has really helped her to progress.
For example, having good relationships with others in the industry has made finding work far easier for her. Often, she has been able to land jobs without having to go a formal application process. This is part of the reason she recommends that people take the time to attend a range of events. Doing so develops your people skills and makes it really easy to connect with others.
(16.31) – Phil asks Ali to share a final piece of career advice with the audience. Ali says her advice is– start teaching. Just start off in a small way and go from there.
Speak at a meetup, write one blog post or send out a tweet that teaches people something. It does not matter what it is, just get started.
(5.40) ALI – “When you teach, people start looking at your content and sharing it and seeing you as somebody that is really knowledgeable”
(6.44) ALI – “Teaching has been incredibly pivotal for me, career-wise, for so many reasons.”
(9.29) ALI – “Learning is such a roller coaster. There are so many peaks and valleys in it”
(11.39) PHIL – “As the industry matures, even more, the problems that we are able to solve are much more complex”
(13.03) ALI – “It’s so important in our field in general, to always be furthering your own knowledge, and staying on top of the new things.”