14 June, 2020

My first month as a developer by title

It's been roughly one month since I started my new position as a Front End Web Developer--I'm now part of a clinical research lab at the University of Chicago. Although I'm still figuring out what this title really means to me as well as to my new colleagues and employer, the one month mark offers a great opportunity to reflect on the implications now that I completed onboarding process and learned my teammates' names.

To provide some context, let me start with how I got here.

My previous job title at ICJIA was Research Analyst even though my day-to-day work increasingly consisted of building web applications. I'd say it was largely accidental that I began to work more on web applications, which was not what I was hired for as the job title shows. My original responsibility was data analysis to support research efforts. In practice, this meant working with tabular data files and lines of (mostly) R code to clean and fit models to it.

Then one day I shared with my manager a Shiny application prototype to interactively display a dataset. She liked it and let me demo it to her supervisor, who then decided to make it an actual publication. While refining the UI and the internals of the application to make it presentable to the world, I realized that this could be my contribution to ICJIA's research efforts.

The small success of Uniform Crime Report Index Offense Explorer (originally published as Uniform Crime Report Data Explorer) later earned me enough trust from my manager and the Research Unit to be able to try other nonconventional projects by ICJIA's standards. Long story short, this led me to work on a more serious project, which is used by the Research Unit to manage their research publications to this date.

Throughout the process, however, I often felt limited by my job title as well as the expectations & environment that came along with it. As much as I was allowed to work on my web projects, I was still required to be part of standard research and data analysis efforts that were no longer my primary interests. Plus, there was only one other person in the entire workplace I could discuss and learn from when it comes to web stuff. While I had and still have much respect for him and his work, I wanted to be around more people whose professional experience could guide and help me to navigate the space of web technology and software engineering more boardly.

So I switched jobs.1

And here I am, finally with Front End Web Developer as my job title--a dream come true! Apart from completing the onboarding process and learning my teammates' names, my main task so far has been familiarizing myself with the ongoing projects, which includes understanding in detail an exisitng React application developed by another team as part of a general solution for building a data commons platform.

Well, I'm happy to report that it's been a very productive month for my growth and motivation. In particular, I had to dig deeper into my understanding of React and its ecosystem, which pushed me to look closely into Redux (which I have been avoiding for a while 😂) and introduced me to a few other important React-related projects including Relay and Formik. Getting closer to the React ecosystem also exposed me to many important and intersting conversations in the web technology space--such as this. It seems to me that the React community is having more fundamental discussions about the state of web since React currently dominates and largely defines the web technology.

On the other hand, I have certainly felt that pressure to prove myself as a developer. I have caught myself many times a week asking "Am I doing enough--to justify my title and increased salary?" I am well aware that imposter syndrome is a rather common phenomenon among developers--especially those who didn't go through college education in computer science. Luckily, at this moment, the answer to that question is: "It depends." I still have time to show what I am capable of and, at the same time, a chance to grow further in skills and knowledge to match--even surpass!--the expectations.

"Social scientist turned software engineer" is the tagline I use to introduce myself professionally. I came up with it about a year ago when I started this blog. That tagline was largely aspirational then, and still is today. But it feels good to see that I've made some progress toward the goal I set for myself. My first month as a developer by title is only one early step in that ongoing progress.

  1. It goes without saying that there were other incentives thet led to this decision, including a financial one. But the original motivation was 100% to work in software development/engineering professionally.