Tips on Developer Advocacy, Coding Without a Degree, and Imposter Syndrome

For February’s Ask Engineers Anything event (aka office hours for our engineer community), I invited GitHub Star and community favorite, Debbie O'Brien, to share her experience as a woman in tech who is making a huge difference in the ecosystem.

Debbie O'Brien has over ten years of experience in front-end development. Not only has she worked as a Tech Lead and consultant, she's also a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) in developer technologies, a Google Developer Expert in web technologies, and a Cloudinary Media Developer Expert. Most recently, she was the Head of Learning and Developer Advocate at Nuxt.JS.

Read our recap of the conversation below. Get insights from Debbie on how to deal with imposter syndrome, pursue a tech career without going to university, and getting recognized by companies like Google and Microsoft.

Missed the event and want to make sure you make it to the next one? Check out our Events page to get details about our next AMA, technical workshop, or webinar.

Q. Tell us about developer advocacy at Nuxt.js?

Debbie O'Brien: It's about helping people learn about Nuxt.js (a free and open source web application framework, inspired by Next.js). Previously, we relied heavily on conferences for advocacy; but since the pandemic, we've gone fully remote and can reach more countries than ever before. I even started a YouTube channel. You can do more community work virtually than you can by just going to conferences and meetups.

Q: You became a software engineer without a college degree. Can you share how?

Debbie: I left all my jobs and took nine months off. I knew the only way I could do it was to learn everything that gets mentioned in a job listing.

I used OpenClassrooms, which is based in France. They do an online tech degree where you have a 1-on-1 mentoring session every week. I also did the Treehouse tech degree, which is a full-stack degree. I'm now a mentor for both programs.

Q: What do you recommend to junior engineers who want to stand out when looking for their first job?

Debbie: Make yourself known. How does someone know you exist? The Internet is such an easy and free way to showcase yourself. Make a website, start a YouTube channel, or write a blog post to share what you've learned.

Contributing to Open Source is another way to make yourself known. When you're applying for a job, people look at your Github, Twitter, and LinkedIn profiles. Show the world that you exist and that you're doing cool things…because you are.

Q: How do you get better at time estimation?  

Debbie: It gets better if you're doing the same thing. But I'm never doing the same things and time estimations are always difficult. At an agency, we dealt with this by working as a team to determine who would build what feature. Breaking things down into stages is really important in figuring out how long something will take. Also, as you grow more confident, you'll be more comfortable being honest about how many hours something takes without worrying what someone else will think.

Q: What advice would you give to an individual contributor who hopes to become a technical team lead?

Debbie: Being a tech lead is not an easy task. You'll know when you're ready because you're the one who is going to say to a company what they should use and why. You have that kind of knowledge—not just programming knowledge—but knowledge of why to use different platforms or frameworks.

You also need to know how to lead people so they feel supported. People usually just need guidance and someone they can trust when they don't know how to do something.

Q: What's been your most challenging engineering project?

Debbie: Definitely building our own framework. We had to do this for a massive client who had a massive problem. They had no time to upskill their developers, so we had to create something the developers could intuitively use right away. It was a crazy project, and it was very scary, but I learned a lot from it.

Q: What drives you to be recognized as an ambassador by companies like Microsoft, GitHub, and Google? 

Debbie: I suffer big time from imposter syndrome. I failed many times, so I thought I wasn't good enough to be a developer. Even though you give up on yourself over and over again, you also ask yourself "how can I become a Microsoft MVP by the end of the year?"

The answer is to write blog posts and get involved with the community, but what are you really doing? You're pushing yourself to an uncomfortable place, and you won't grow if you don't push yourself. I set goals and go for them even though I am scared as hell.

It's about proving to yourself that you're good enough, and when you get that validation, it's *hands to her heart*.

It's also great for your career. When you're moving to another company, you can think, "well, Google thinks I know what I'm doing, so maybe I do know what I'm doing." 

Q: How can an engineer get started if they want to contribute to Nuxt.js? 

Debbie: Always contribute to something you're passionate about. I'm passionate about documentation, so it makes sense for me to contribute to documentation. You might be passionate about something else, so find something you love and contribute in that space.

Q: Who has been your major influence in your tech career? 

Debbie: The person I most look up to is Sarah Dranser who is on the Vue Core team and works for Netlify. Everything she does is amazing, but it's really about how she reaches out and shares her work. I always look to her and think, "If she can do these things, then I can too."

Q: Any final words?

Debbie: You're capable of doing anything. Nobody was born coding. Some people learn faster than others. I, for one, am a slow learner, and that's ok. Remember: it's never a race: take your time and take breaks. Make sure you're doing what makes you happy. If it doesn't make you happy, then do something else. It doesn't matter where you are, and it doesn't matter who you are. You are all capable of anything. More than anything, just believe in yourself. 

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