Career Goals–Or, 2020: The Longest Year (Outreachy Blog Post #5)

(In which Maria gets real … and probably a bit emotional.)

NOTE: If you don’t want to read all the “how I got here” stuff, just skip down to the “Career Goals” heading below. I won’t judge!

When I woke up this morning, I had the stunning realization that I was, as of today, a month from the end of my Outreachy internship.

Nick Miller from New Girl, looking shocked.
Me, confronted with a calendar

And then I realized that March 2020 was also the month that I got sick with presumptive COVID and my life fell apart. (You can read about that in my very first blog post, if you’re curious.) One thing I don’t specify in that post–hadn’t even been able to say out loud at the time–is that by mid-April, I was still too sick to go back to my physically demanding job in healthcare. In fact, I had no idea if I’d ever be well enough to go back. (Don’t panic! It took some time, but I’m totally good now.)

And the truth was, I also hadn’t been happy in that job for a while. At heart, I’m an intellectual person that’s almost entirely driven by the need to learn new things and solve problems. I’m also empathetic and (sometimes maddeningly) ethical. I chose my past career in healthcare because I thought it would mean a stable path where I could help people, practice my values, and be curious, analytical, and creative.

Instead, my job was dominated by the demands of insurers and what they’d pay for. Most of my brainpower was spent trying to justify services and filling out forms so that the hospital would get paid. And, in the oddest conundrum, I had tons of responsibility–I often worked with medically frail patients, so the stakes were high, including injury or death–but almost zero autonomy. (Hospitals only get paid for billable treatment minutes. Time you spend on documentation or peeing or comforting a patient dying from cancer is not billable time unless you can find a way to justify it as active treatment. This leads to a strong pressure across the entire healthcare industry to work off the clock, round minutes, or just outright lie, a topic probably best left for another time.) (FYI, I also really hate busywork. Can we all just start being honest about when we’re being productive and not? Time to lean is time to clean is a mantra that just doesn’t work when applied to creative work.)

Nick Miller from New Girl, bashing his head into a leather pillow over and over.
Me at that job.

So, in April of 2020, I made the decision to quit.

I wish I could convey how terrified I was, or how agonizing this decision was. I’d spent years (and a lot of money) preparing for a career in healthcare–graduate school, exams, getting licensed, getting that first job, getting a better job, getting specializations. I didn’t grow up rich, and my mom is one of those immigrant moms that I’m fully convinced would survive an apocalypse. Walking away from a “good job” (even one, I, um, actually could not physically do) with no plan in my early thirties was … insane. I cried a lot. I spent a lot of time complaining on the phone, laying on the ground feeling absolutely paralyzed, and apologizing to my (very supportive) husband about how I was no longer pulling my weight.

Nick Miller from New Girl, saying, "This is rock bottom."
Add a bathrobe, and you get the picture.

Looking back, it feels like I spent months doing nothing, but the truth is, I was only unemployed for a month or so before I tapped into a value I didn’t really even know I had yet: entrepreneurialism. I am lucky, in that I’ve walked a few interesting paths in life, and so I already had some skills. I’m a pretty good writer (I actually connected with my agent two years ago), so I put feelers out for editing gigs and freelance work, as well as stuff like formatting for self-publishing. I had some (almost a decade old) experience with WordPress, so I brushed on CSS and drummed up business making WordPress display websites for authors. I learn quickly, so I … actually started to make money. (Not a lot of money, but enough to keep me holding strong when the little voice in my head started yelling for me to go back to my old career.)

(One thing I learned pretty fast about myself? I freaking love driving my own ship.)

I also had a friend that for years has been trying to get me to learn Python/Django–and so, in April?(May?) of 2020, I cracked open Crash Course Python for the first time and wrote my first “Hello World” print statement.

Nick Miller raising a fist in triumph.
python helloworld.py

Which brings me to why I’m telling you all of this: I am supposed to be writing about my career goals, but the truth is, the entire last year has felt like I was on some sort of crazy roller coaster. Anything too specific here is probably going to sound like a lie. A year ago, I was still neck-deep in treating patients in the hospital, trying to optimize things according to the eight-minute-rule. I had no idea that I was going to change careers, that I would learn Python. I had only a vague, second-hand understanding of what Django was (I honestly didn’t know what a CMS or a framework actually was.) I’d never heard of the request-response cycle or OOP or CBVs or MVPS.

I’m trying to tell you that a year ago, I’d never written a print statement–so the fact that we just launched an MVP that I constructed from the ground up and that WORKS and also looks kind of nice and plays nice with an API and has like a bunch of different views and incorporates some bootstrap and has like, 92 percent test coverage? Do you have any idea how crazy that is?

Nick Miller from New Girl, miming a head explosion.
print(“Hello world.”)

My mind is a constant symphony of imposter syndrome. I absolutely do not think I am a “real” programmer. But I am having the time of my life. I’m happier in my career (that I don’t think I have) than I’ve probably ever been. And as perfect is the enemy of good, I guess I’d better try to come up with some concrete career goals, because now that I’ve gotten a taste of this, I’m really not intending on going back.

Career Goals

Q: Are you looking for a job, internship, a grant, a volunteer position, or some type of other opportunity?

A: Yes!

Okay, jokes aside: due to how much of a whirlwind this has all been, I don’t have a super-specific concept of what this next step looks like.

I know that I 1.) would like to be paid, preferably in a currency that a bank would recognize, and that 2.) I really need to wind up somewhere where there’s the chance for active mentorship. I love having a mentor. I feel like every time my mentor opens their mouth, I learn some new concept–not just about like, code, but about the practicalities of launching a project, or about how people operate, or about the different directions something can take. Knowing there’s someone there willing to dispense their knowledge on me if I do my part and bring my A-game means I bring my A-game.

Q: What types of work would you like to contribute to?

A: I’m really pretty flexible here–part of being new is that my primary focus is on acquiring the skills I need to one day be able to make better contributions to the causes I care about. That said, there are a lot of things that I love and am passionate about–like the environment, green energy, human rights, worker’s rights, privacy, right to repair, small business and antitrust protections, entrepreneurship, LGBT/queer causes, improving overall public health, and just about anything involving the arts and literature. (Also, I really, really, really, really, really love public libraries. They’re the foundation of democracy, yo.)

Q: What tools or skills do you have that would help you with that work?

A: I hear I learn fast, and that I’m good at planning ahead. I have a background in both writing/editing and healthcare, including an active license in my state in a rehabilitation field–which means a strong understanding of science, people skills, communication, US legislation relating to healthcare, hospital and insurer policy, etc.

I, strangely, enjoy pitching things–and after a few years of being an agented writer, have a decent amount of practice at it. I’ve also worked in property management and as an educator–meaning I’m good at organizing, prioritizing, helping people understand difficult concepts, and also “keeping calm and carrying on” when everything’s on fire. (Sometimes literally on fire–remind me to tell you that story later, and be sure to specify “dumpster” or “air conditioner”.)

I love Python, and I’m getting pretty good at Django–and now have experience bringing an absolutely spanking new web-app that interfaces with an API from the early planning stages to beta testing (and there are still four weeks to go in this internship!) I’m also a fair hand at CSS (yes, I can flexbox! I can center your DIVs, people! Vertically and horizontally!), have some decent experience with Bootstrap, and have now worked with a number of collaborative tools in Github/Gitlab, including the KANBAN board! (Why am I so excited about that? Is it because the word “Kanban” sounds so fun?)

Q: What tools or skills would you like to learn?

A: Oh, man. Everything. But since I have to start somewhere, I’d say 1.) I need to get better at JS and probably a JS framework (React or Vue?). I actually, um, really like CSS, although I understand a CSS preprocessor like SASS is the way to go, so I definitely need to look into that!

I really would like to learn a new python package, either something data-science or neural-networky, although I think that’s more of a long-term goal, here–like in the short-term, I want to focus on furthering my ability to create web apps using Django.

Q: How might your background make you a good team member?

A: I really prioritize good communication–like thrive on it. Is there anything better than when two people manage to communicate complex information in a mutually respectful way?

I have a unique background (multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-lingual, lived in a few countries, queer) that I think really helps when trying to understand someone that thinks differently from myself. I do speak Spanish, as well as conversational Korean (and obviously English.) And although I like taking on projects by myself, I also really enjoy collaboration.

Q: When are you available to start work?

A: Uh… (checks Outreachy calendar) March 2nd!

Q: Are you able to move? Are you looking for a remote job?

A: No, and yes, please. I love working from home. I have three different “work spots” in my house and just float between them all day. This last three months as a remote intern has been amazing.

Q: Are you looking for a full-time or a part-time position? Are you open to being a self-employed contractor?

A: Honestly, any of these three options sounds pretty great to me–and I’ve been a contractor (technically) for the last three months and really had a blast with that. I really enjoy having some control over my schedule, especially since I’m a night owl–but as I mentioned earlier, I would really like to have access to mentorship at my next position, which could be hard to come by as an independent contractor.

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