Interview With a Person Who Changed Careers Without Quitting Her Job

I met Emily Reese when we worked together at Kickstarter. At the time, Emily, 24 and newly out of grad school, was working on the support team and struggling to find what she was great at and excited about doing. Fast forward to a few months ago, when I heard that Emily moved to the product team and was hired as a full-time engineer. WHAT. Luckily, Emily agreed to talk to me about how she managed to teach herself programming on nights and weekends and then change her career without leaving the company.

Okay so first off, we know that now you are working on the product team as an engineer (because I just said it in the intro). But what does that mean on a day-to-day work basis?

Primarily, I code in Ruby, which is a lovely, joyful programming language. Kickstarter itself is a Ruby on Rails app, and Rails is a framework for Ruby that makes it very easy to set up an application with a database, templates, etc. I work all over our tech stack though, including in our JavaScript files that control page behavior, in our stylesheets that make pages look nice, and in SQL, a language that lets me run raw queries that interact with our database. Basically whatever is required to ultimately build a thing.

Most recently on Kickstarter, I (along with another engineer and designer) built a page that’s not quite out yet, but speaking generally it’s a spiffy-looking feature, all Rails MVC stuff from scratch. The project also includes a cool admin content management system designed to make our admins’ lives easier. I’m also working on a few refactors of both admin and user-facing stuff and have some great projects lined up for the rest of the year.

Okay I just googled ‘refactor’ and it is indeed a real word (restructuring code in a way that doesn’t change the product, prob just makes it more elegant/efficient). So it’s pretty amazing to hear you talking about tech stacks, mostly because flashback to two or three years ago! What were you doing and what did you see yourself doing down the road?

Yep, three years ago, I began the process of earning my master’s in art business. Having just wrapped up an undergraduate degree in the history of art and architecture, this seemed like a solid next step in *applied* learning that would keep me out of the theory-laden cave of academia.

At the time I saw myself ending up at a nonprofit arts space.
And then you ended up at Kickstarter! I remember when Yancey, our boss, went to speak to your class. He came back to the office and told us about how someone came up to him after the talk and asked if he was hiring. Do you remember what you said to him?

Indeed, Yancey came and spoke in one of my grad school lectures. I remember feeling so enthused that I bolted up to the podium the moment he finished, complimented his talk, and (hoping my professors were out of earshot) asked pretty blatantly, “Are you hiring?”

He answered that only the engineering team needed spots filled but that I could come in and see the Kickstarter office anyway. Eventually, this led to a job offer to join the Community team! I still have the old notebook I scribbled excitedly in while getting the phone call from Yancey in late April, 2012 (pictured above).

I joined Kickstarter in May, 2012 and finished my master’s thesis on the side during my first six months of employment. It was a brutal and busy stretch of time, but all’s well that ends well.
Before I left Kickstarter you and I got coffee a few times to talk about your role at work and how you knew the work you were doing wasn’t what you ultimately wanted to be doing, but you weren’t sure what you *did* want to do. I feel like that’s a pretty typical experience for people in their first job.

Yes! I held a number of roles at Kickstarter before learning to code and moving to the engineering team. I did community support, reviewed project submissions, handled some of the site’s DMCA and trademark claims, helped with our creator open houses, and all sorts of random stuff when Kickstarter was still small enough that you just picked up slack where it was needed.

I still felt that post-grad-school lack of belonging and direction though. It’s endlessly inspiring to help people fuel their creative dreams, but when your own dreams just ebb and flow as thoughts, a brutally stark contrast can start to emerge, and you start to think, “Jeeze! I should really own a passion like all these people I get to hear from everyday.”
And now it sounds like you’ve found that! But what made you want to try coding, of all things?

I always love busting my brain, and “code” was this opaque, supersmart world with which I had spent 23 years of my life having zero familiarity. It hadn’t revealed itself as a world that I could be a part of, but it only took a bit of exposure to it at Kickstarter for me to realize, just MAYBE, I could start to grasp this magic. Being newly able to watch the growth from idea to iteration to product inspired such reverence.

At the same time this sentiment was burgeoning, I picked up the responsibility of handling our site-down communications. To see the professionalism, wit, and intelligence with which our engineering team handled the website not behaving like it should (rare, but it happens) made me feel like I had the privilege of being surrounded by geniuses. When you feel that kind of awe, it kicks off this childlike impulse inside of you that merrily yells, “I want to do that too!” So yeah. I bought a book called “HTML and CSS.” Gotta start somewhere!

I guess the beauty of making a career move within an organization is that there are other people in your new career that you can use as a resource.

Yes, I’ve had help every step of the way that I’ve actively sought it out. My dev co-workers strike an amazing balance between wanting to impart knowledge and letting me arrive at “ah-hah!” moments myself.

One of our developers, Aaron Suggs, heavily advocates the programming mentality of ‘scratch your own itch,’ and my initial foray into the Kickstarter repo was totally in line with this (without realizing it). I wanted to change something about our admin tools we used for my Community team job, so I emailed Aaron asking if I could *GET THE CODE* and make the change myself. He graciously helped set me up with the Kickstarter code base and I made my first code commit on Kickstarter. It was a watershed moment.

Now, if all else fails, and I can’t figure something out (having exhausted the Ruby doc, Stack Overflow, and programming blog posts route) I’ve learned who to ask when I have particular questions. We all make it a point to be resources and to explore learning outside our initial strengths.

After that first foray, when you decided you wanted to keep following the impulse, then what? Did you use any programs / classes / books?

My initial idea was to just read a bunch of programming books because that’s institutionally how I’d learned everything up until this point, but every engineer I know kept repeating, “Skip the books, just make something you want to exist in the world!” But how, I wondered, can you “make something you want to exist” when you don’t even know what you’re capable of making, or even what’s possible to do with code?

As a lot of frustrating wisdom goes, this actually turned out to be the best advice. Building my first shoddy Rails app that included image uploading, sign-ups, and commenting for a Hack Day last year fast-tracked my learning exponentially. It’s important to get armed with the basics — a spattering of HTML, some knowledge of how the internet/requests/servers work — but the answer to “What can I make?” is ANYTHING. You can make anything! Everything on the internet was made by humans, and none of this is weird wizardry.

The books I used as foundation were HTML and CSS and Ruby for Rails even though it’s a little outdated. I’ve also learned some one-off tricks and insights from flipping through books while sitting on the floor at Barnes and Noble in Union Square. If you want to know something, you can chance upon it pretty easily or find it on Stack Overflow and then integrate into something you’re actually making.

So after a lot of self-education and mentoring, this is your actual full-time job. How did you go from experimenting with the code at work and teaching yourself on the side to switching teams at work?

Brett Camper, our longtime head of Product, and I had been meeting every few weeks to talk about what I was working on. I kept asking similar questions about if it was ‘okay’ for me to be working in the code by night even though I did a different job by day, and he’d encourage me, and then the conversation would repeat!

After working hard on one particular feature on evenings and weekends and deploying it to production, Brett asked me to join the engineering team full-time. He did the legwork to clear it with the executive team and the Community team, and we set a date for me to transition fully.

I’m still an overwhelming combination of grateful and incredulous. Every professional decision I made for months indicated that I wanted this to happen, but Brett asking me (instead of the other way around) lent more legitimacy to something I may have questioned or felt I forced otherwise.

I think it was a smart move on their part, to hire someone from within who knew the product and the ethos of the company inside-out. Now that you are a few months into it — how are you liking the work? Do you see yourself doing it long-term?

This is my career. I love being able to get deep into a puzzle for hours without speaking to anyone. I love the ethics of personal responsibility in code. I love being able to solve my own problems and build things that work. If I build something user-facing, that’s a link I can send to my mom. If I build a Kickstarter admin tool, I get to watch all my friends on the Community team use it. I’m also excited to bring the amicability and enthusiasm of our engineering team out into the world. Even sharing it at conferences and through writing is as satisfying as programming itself. I consider this participatory element to be a major part of the job as well, even if it doesn’t always involve sitting in front of a computer screen.

That is pretty amazing! So now I have to ask: do you regret the time spent in school studying art — do you wish you came to programming sooner?

Yes and no. The arts mean a lot to me, and I don’t look back at the years I spent studying art with any sort of misgiving or regret that I wasn’t coding as well. Instead, this seems like a ‘have your cake and eat it too’ situation.

The best kind of situation! Okay so any final words of advice or encouragement to anyone considering making the switch or thinking about dipping a toe into engineering?

IF you want to learn, you CAN. Even if it never occurred to you before now, you can be a part of this world. I want coding to be like any hobby (like say, woodworking) someday, where everyone knows they could learn it if they wanted to. Then, if you choose not to do it, you simply decided it wasn’t for you, instead of avoiding it because of anxiety, imposter syndrome, or a lack of access.

Additionally, having a close friend who understands these anxieties can make all the difference. One of my best friends, Jessica Harllee, was formerly a product designer actively working in the code at Kickstarter (she has since taken a position at Etsy). She was such a rock for me during my initial insecurity on the team, and I owe a lot of my current strength to her. Pals who are just a Gchat away are super reassuring.

I do this as a job and feel imposter syndrome all the time — so does everyone on the dev team. It’s the nature of a technical job where the sky is the learning limit. But if you need that extra reassurance or a built-in community while you’re learning, drop me an email. I’m here. There are a lot of us in this boat, and it’s fun!

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