Since Jenny Chan graduated from Lighthouse Labs in 2015, the lack of women in tech has become increasingly apparent to her. Her first developer job was at a company where women only held 10% of technical roles. Now Jenny is a freelance developer, and runs a Women in Web Development group where women support each other’s careers online, and share opportunities. Jenny tells us why it’s important for the tech industry to become more diverse in the wake of new technologies like AI and how employers and education providers like Lighthouse Labs can help solve the problem.
Jenny’s alma mater, Lighthouse Labs, is offering new scholarships to support exceptional individuals in underrepresented groups in technology as they pursue a career in development. Lighthouse Labs is committed to $150,000 worth of scholarships in 2019 in addition to external funding for students who want to jump-start their careers in technology to become a professional developer. Learn more about eligibility here.
What’s your background and how did your path lead to Lighthouse Labs?
At university I was an English major, but I took a Web Design class as part of a professional writing program. I really enjoyed the class and I was able to help other students with Dreamweaver, a web development tool.
When I graduated, I carried on with coding in marketing roles – I always volunteered to build email templates or make landing pages from scratch. I also kept learning with Treehouse in my own time, and volunteered to mentor at some Ladies Learning Code workshops. I kept my learning going through whatever means I could.
When I found out about Lighthouse Labs, I thought the bootcamp concept was really interesting – spending two months immersed in a new field and then working in that field. After finishing my English degree, I thought that if I could re-do my university education, I would pick web design or development, so Lighthouse was perfect for me.
You could have kept coding in marketing roles – what made you want to switch careers entirely into web development?
At the time, I was searching for marketing jobs in Vancouver, and I was feeling that the compensation didn’t match the demand of what the job expects you to deliver. I wanted to be in an industry that rewards me for keeping up to date. Going to a 2-month bootcamp, becoming a web developer, and starting a new career with a higher earning potential – it just made sense. I liked the idea that Lighthouse Labs would be able to connect me with that career.
What was your learning experience like at Lighthouse Labs?
It was really good. There is a lot of hands-on learning at a bootcamp, so it was more interesting than just sitting in a classroom and listening to someone else talk at you the whole time. At Lighthouse Labs you’re spending most of your time learning how to solve problems, which I really appreciated. Also, if you’re going to bootcamp, all of your classmates want to be there, and that’s a huge difference between studying for a university degree and going to bootcamp.
Our final project was a travel planning site based around music festivals. We pulled in information about how much it would cost to travel to each music festival. So if it was in Los Angeles, you could see how much it would cost to fly to closest airport, or how much it would cost to catch a bus there, or to drive. And then once you Favorited different festivals, it put all your favorite festivals in a grid to compare the costs.
What was your cohort like at Lighthouse Labs – how diverse was it in terms of gender, race, and backgrounds?
My cohort was 20 people. Around five of us were women, and we were all between ages 20 to 30. Everyone came from really different backgrounds and career industries and had diverse life experiences. Because we are in Vancouver, our cohort was ethnically diverse too.
How did Lighthouse Labs prepare you for job hunting?
They helped us with our resumes, and throughout the program we had regular practice answering technical interview questions with mentors. Lighthouse Labs has speed employer interviewing where students can go and meet really keen employers. The Lighthouse Labs careers team is really great at matching students up with potential opportunities and helping arrange interviews. And Lighthouse Labs continues to provide career support for a few years after you graduate.
How has your career grown or changed since you graduated from Lighthouse Labs?
Lighthouse Labs connected me with my very first job, which was more like an internship. A small e-commerce startup needed a Junior Rails and Angular Developer who spoke and understood Chinese – I was a good fit for that.
A couple months later, I went to an open house at a company I was interested in called EventBase. I wanted to see what they were about and whether I might want a job there. They were doing speed interviewing, so I met someone on their team for 5 minutes, then they invited me back for a second interview. I went through the hiring process and they offered me a job as an API Integration Specialist. I really enjoyed working at that company, but left after about one year because the position and nature of the work didn’t fit my own working style. I decided to take time off and try freelancing, and I’ve been on my own freelanding ever since.
What is life like as a freelancer – what sort of projects do you work on?
I found my first freelance job on Facebook for a Contract Wordpress Developer. I knew wordpress and PHP really well, so within two weeks of quitting my full-time job, I had a part-time freelance gig without really even looking for it! This first project was great because I was working part-time, but I was earning the same amount as the salary I received at my full time job – that was really amazing.
I can’t imagine going back to the office in the near future. I feel like once you’ve tried working from home, you become more self-aware of the conditions you work best in. It also gives you a new perspective on the tradeoffs between working in an office and working freelance. Being an employee is nice for the stability and the built-in social network – your network is one of your most valuable assets. I’m able to find that network through a lot of Facebook groups. For example, I’ve been part of an awesome community called Digital Nomad Girls. I had always dreamed of working remotely one day, even before I went to bootcamp, and I knew that to achieve that role, I should see people doing it every day. Those groups help me see what other remote employees like me are thinking, what they are worried about, and what their challenges are.
How do you feel you’ve grown as a developer since you graduated 3 years ago? Would you consider yourself a mid-level or senior engineer now?
I definitely think Lighthouse Labs changed my life because it helped me become a web developer. I feel like it was the start of my journey as a developer, and as a community advocate for female developers.
Today, I definitely consider myself an intermediate-level back end developer. The difference is that I am now able to solve most problems on my own. I’ve noticed that more senior level people are actually designing the infrastructure of an application – that’s almost a different job. As a Senior Developer, you’re the architect versus the builder.
In addition to freelancing, you mentioned that you’ve become an advocate for other women in tech – what’s the story behind the Women in Web Development Facebook Group?
I’m part of many great communities on Facebook, but about one year into my career as a developer, I realized that what I really wanted was an online community for working female developers. I thought that would be an easy find, but found nothing in my research. There are a lot of “women in tech” and “women who code” organizations, but most of the women in the women in tech organizations are not actually technical, so I feel like I’m a minority being a developer. I wanted more online connections with a community of working women developers, so I started Women in Web Development.
The goal is to provide a community for female developers and to show women that we may be scattered around, but that there are lots of other female developers! The community is a safe place to ask your technical questions or your career questions, without feeling like there are men present who might not understand the challenges of being a female developer. I share articles, conference opportunities, scholarships, and sometimes job opportunities with the group. Recently we tackled the Lighthouse Labs 21-day coding challenge together. I made a team, we had 150 people sign up, and about 30 of us completed the challenge. We had our own Slack group, where we talked to each other about the problems, and our team won the overall leaderboard which was really exciting.
Why do you think it’s important to push for more women in tech?
First, because there are just so few of us! At my last company, I think women made up less than 10% of technical roles. I was recently in Toronto for a big tech event with hundreds of people. I did a community shout out, and when I asked who else is a female developer, I swear, fewer than 10 people answered me.
Technology impacts us every day, in ways we don’t even realize, so it’s important to get more diverse groups involved in the creation of that technology. Especially with artificial intelligence on the horizon. If you consider the social biases that we have right now, it’s like 100 times worse with AI, because it just magnifies the existing social bias. If we don’t get more diverse teams building these products, we’re only going to increase social inequality.
Having worked in tech for a couple years now, how have you seen the industry change or become more diverse?
I’ve been working for 2.5 years, and that’s not really enough time to see major change. Over the last year, I’ve seen so many women who want to learn in my Women in Web Development group, so there is definitely interest from women who want to get into the industry. Now the challenge is how we get those people who are interested in the industry to be in the industry.
What can education providers (like coding bootcamps) and employers do help transition those women into the industry?
Diversity scholarships like the ones Lighthouse Labs offers are definitely important to lower the barrier for women. Bootcamps need to show women that they realize that someone might have the desire to be a developer but maybe due to life circumstances, they don’t have financial resources. Women also face many unique challenges, like childcare making it difficult to commit full time to a bootcamp. So flexible learning options, like online bootcamps, are important.
If employers want to encourage more diversity on their teams, they have to be willing to hire junior developers because the reality is, most women who are aspiring developers are junior, or they haven’t started the journey. Employers need to foster those people, and also create a safe environment for women to work in and speak out in. You hear so many horror stories, where a woman has proven herself, becomes a developer, then goes into a hostile workplace, which makes her drop out of her technical role.
It’s a tricky question, though, because the challenges that a lot of my members face are actually internal, like self-doubt.
What is your advice for aspiring developers who are facing that self-doubt?
First, believe in yourself. Second, understand that it’s not going to happen overnight. You just have to be patient. The nature of being a developer is that you have to be persistent at solving problems and you’re going to fail many times, but that’s okay. The amount of women who say they have imposter syndrome in my group is astounding. It’s so common, but despite that, lots of us have become developers!
What is your advice to other developers who want to become advocates for women and diversity in tech?
Speak up and talk about the problem. I recently wrote an article about how our all-female team won the 21-Day challenge, and someone commented “Why does it matter that your team is all women?” Just acknowledging that it’s a problem is going to help because when you're the group experiencing a problem, and someone denies your experience, it can be more demoralizing than experiencing that negative thing itself. A lot of people don’t believe that there is a problem – but the stats are there if you’re willing to accept them. We need more voices talking about the lack of women in tech so it becomes common knowledge.