In the four years since she arrived at Newfangled, Lisa has established herself as a terrific problem solver and an astute listener. She’s also a gourmand whose samoa cake recipe is second to none. I spoke to her a few weeks ago about her tech origins and life outside the office.
How did you end up at Newfangled?
I was the technical webmaster at a hospital in Raleigh, and a month after I started, my boss left. So I was left to figure out my own job. I worked there for about a year but the commute was wearing on me so I started looking for jobs and Newfangled came up on Craigslist. I was like, “It’s right in town. That’s so exciting!” I had zero PHP skills (one of the job requirements) but I applied and Dave Mello (our senior developer) sent out a coding task to build this little app that would search Twitter.
I built an app that I called S’weet (search tweets), because portmanteau words are very big in my family. I created a logo with the little Twitter bird saying, “S’weet.” I had never written anything in PHP before, but it was a really good time. When I went in for the interview Dave asked, “What do you feel is your biggest weakness?” I said, “Code. This is really the first thing I’d ever done.” He said, “You’re good with that. It’s okay.” Thankfully he took it upon himself to teach me PHP and let me learn when I started because I had been doing CMS (content management system) work, but nothing custom like what we do at Newfangled. It was a nice transition.
Now that you’ve been at Newfangled a while, what do you like most about your role?
Within the last year I’ve been focusing exclusively on maintenance work: projects, fixing things, adding things to existing sites, but no big project builds. That’s been very rewarding on a lot of levels. Project builds are fun and it’s cool to own the whole project and do it from beginning to end, but with maintenance work you’re everybody’s hero. You’re solving problems; you’re making something better.
The other maintenance developer, Adam Fairholm, and I have started doing some forecasting and looking across problem situations to see if we can be proactive and suggesting things to project managers. It’s been really lovely to have somebody in the room who you can just talk some of these things out with, somebody to back you up and check things.
Adam and I are also going to build a new search system for one of our e-commerce clients. Most of our sites are literature-heavy, lots of words. It’s content that people are searching. But with products and tangible things there are ways to access those that we don’t typically use, so we’re going to try to give them something faster, more efficient.
What is your most valuable skill in regards to your job?
In my long-ago past as a librarian I spent a lot of time talking to people coming to me with questions to find out what it was they really needed. They would ask for a discrete piece of information, but through a conversation, I could contextualize and understand what it was that they were really trying to accomplish.
Now I’m comfortable going back to the project manager and saying, “Look, I know that this single request is what came in from the client, but is it in fact just a single item or is it part of something larger? Is there something else we could be doing for them?” Then we can get them something that maybe isn’t what they thought of as a solution, but is a better solution.
When did you first become interested in programming and coding?
When I was in junior high we moved around a lot. We moved four times in three years. I moved into this school and joined the computer club. It was all boys and they all hated me. I learned how to program in C. I loved every second of it. Every chance I could be on a computer, I was. Then in college…
Just a second, why did all the boys in the computer club hate you?
I was the first new kid to join. They had been together since kindergarten. Then I joined and I was called neophyte in a derogatory manner because I didn’t know everything. I was like, “Whatever. You guys don’t have to like me, that’s cool. I’m just going to be over here, I’m going to make my little program that says ‘hello world’ and says it 20 times, and it’s going to be awesome.”
Then in college I was a major in every college except for the college of business. I had a little trouble deciding and librarianship fit because you have to know a little bit about everything. I went to library school because my undergraduate library degree allowed me to only be a K-12 librarian, which was not exactly what I wanted to do. And at that time I couldn’t get an accredited degree in information science, only in library science.
I did the library science track, but I took all the information science classes then took some classes on the side. I ended up as a catalog librarian. Cataloguing is the geekiest part of librarians; the classification of information and organization of systems, bringing together people and information by putting it in its place.
I was working at UNC in the North Carolina collection, which is one of the special collections in this fancy old marble building. As a new faculty member, I was offered the opportunity to take a tour led by the chancellor of the university. The very first day, the chancellor sits down next to me on the bus. We were talking about search engine technology, and he stopped me and said, “Why is it that you are working in a job that is almost exactly opposite what you want to be doing with your life?” I said, “Wow. That is an excellent question, and I will certainly get back to you on that.”
The programming field is still dominated by men. How would you advise girls who want to pursue tech careers?
To get more girls in programming, you have to get more kids in in general. I think starting young and having an emphasis on logical thinking, which is difficult now because Google appears to give you everything. You can put in two words, and you’ll get lots of results, but you won’t get quality back if you don’t think critically about what you’re putting in.
I was always comfortable asking questions. I was an autodidact when it came to acquiring new skills, and I think you have to be at least a little bit willing to take some of that on yourself and not look for somebody to hold your hand. If you have an inclination to improve something on the web, do it. Put up a web page, start writing a blog, set up a Tumblr account and throw pictures at it. Just figure out how it works.
There are also groups that offer support. I’m a member of a group called Girl Develop It, which offers classes and a weekly session called Code and Coffee. I just show up and can work out stuff or just hang out with other women who are doing similar things.
It can feel isolating sometimes, and women who want to be in this particular realm can be reticent to ask questions, which I think is probably the biggest hindrance. You don’t want to appear to be less knowledgeable, but the only way you’re going to learn is by doing things and asking questions.
What would most surprise your co-workers and clients about you?
I don’t like what would typically be considered to be female-centric entertainment. I hate romance movies; I don’t like to cry. If it’s explosions and car chasing, I’m all in. Animated robots, yes. Pride and Prejudice? More like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. That’s more my speed. Google thinks I’m a 25-year-old guy. I think the reason I had kids is so that I could go to see animated movies and not look like a weirdo.
What you do to recharge and find life-work balance?
I have my lovely daughters. I like to spend time with them. We have an appalling bubble-gum-pop taste in music and we dance frequently. We also have a Spotify playlist called Road Tripping that we take with us and sing at appalling volumes in the car. The good news is my mother is slightly hard of hearing so it doesn’t offend her too much.
I also have an anatomy coloring book and I’m learning structures of the body through colored pencils. I find it to be very soothing. I always dreamed that I would be an ink and paint girl. I don’t have any discernible talent but I can stay inside the lines plus I’m learning something along the way.
And I like to cook. I cook a lot. My mother is terrified by it, but I like to cook live, make a recipe that I’ve never made before and invite a bunch of people over. My house isn’t huge, but it’s predominantly kitchen. I’ve had all of Newfangled with their families over here, and it works. I cook with the kids and my mom, and we’ll do some big productions. We parmigiana’d every eggplant at the Farmer’s market one weekend. We made four huge trays of it. We filled up the freezer.
What’s your dream project?
I think my most satisfying project of the last couple of years was the TABLE site build, because it was an organization that I was involved with to begin with. I love their mission. You and I got to work together which is always great, and it was a flawless project build because I had a lot of freedom to do what I wanted to.
I enjoy creativity within certain parameters, because limitless creativity is terrifying to me. I don’t have the resources to put behind it. But if I’m given a target and told, “OK, here is your goal. Get there however you think is best,” that’s an ideal situation for me. I thrive under those circumstances.
Also, I want to get another Roomba in the house, and if I have to refurbish one from the ground up, that’s how that’s going to happen. I like the idea of a robotic companion, and, frankly, many of us shed a crazy amount, so that would be both useful and fun at the same time.
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