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Spotlight 74: the story of Lauren, Senior Full Stack Engineer @ Netflix

It’s Friday and time for the perfect start of your weekend: a brand new Spotlight interview (number 74!). This week we’re going to meet Lauren Tan. Lauren is Senior Full Stack Engineer at Netflix. She is also an active contributor to the Ember.js community, editor of Emberway.io and a regular speaker at meetups & conferences. Want to learn more about Lauren, how she learned to code and the (really cool) projects she’s working on? Read her story this week!  

Name: Lauren Tan
Job: Senior Full Stack Engineer, Netflix
Favorite website, app or gadget: Dash, it’s a desktop app that lets you download documentation and search through them offline really easily. I use it every day, especially since I’ve been trying to learn how to use my keyboard for everything instead of reaching for the mouse/trackpad. Dash and many other developer apps have great keyboard shortcut support, so it fits right into my workflow!
Favorite book: Right now it’s the Imposter’s Handbook by Rob Connery. I don’t have a CS degree, and I think it’s pretty common to feel like an imposter when confronted with intimidating-sounding concepts like Big-O notation, monads and so forth. This book has been really great at explaining these concepts on a high level, teaching you more about what you know (and don’t know). I highly recommend it!
Twitter: @sugarpirate_
Site: http://www.sugarpirate.com

What inspired you to pursue a career in IT?
After college, I worked on a startup full-time with a close friend of mine. Prior to this, web development was a hobby that I dabbled in from time to time. When we first started working on our startup, neither of us could code very well, so we had to hire someone to build it for us. It turns out if you don’t know how to code you probably also don’t know how to hire a developer, and we ended up wasting a lot of money. That whole process spurred us on to learn and do it ourselves, and here I am today. It’s been an amazing experience, and I’m always grateful that I’m fortunate (and privileged) enough to be able to do what I love doing for a living.

What does your working day look like?
At Netflix, I work on internal tools that directly help produce Netflix Originals like Stranger Things and Orange Is The New Black. Our team has a startup-like culture in the sense that we’re really product focused and move & iterate quickly. My typical day has me pairing with other programmers on features and bugs, as well as attending the occasional meeting. We also work really closely with our designers to make sure we deliver an exceptional product. I also get to bring my dog Zelda to work, so that means about 3 dog walks a day :)

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
Before Netflix, I worked at a real estate startup in Australia called homely. Previously, the client-side app was built-in jQuery (without any tests 😰) and was getting very unmaintainable. I was brought on to kick-start the effort at incrementally rewriting the app using React and other modern technologies, complete with tests. This was probably the project I learned the most from since I essentially had to build a framework from the ground up and make sure it was well documented and easy to maintain. Implementing your own framework exposes all the problems that maintainers of frameworks like Ember.js face in designing a solution that works well for a wide variety of use-cases.

Do you have a hero or someone who inspires you?
Yehuda Katz inspires me a lot, both personally, as well as professionally. He’s one of the smartest programmers I’ve ever met, and he is also very encouraging and friendly towards newcomers. Yehuda, Leah and the rest of the Ember core team have been the driving force behind Ember’s very diverse and welcoming community. For example, if not for Leah’s encouragement, I wouldn’t have even applied to speak at EmberConf 2015, which was my first ever conference talk.

My mother has always been my role model. Despite coming from a poor family and struggling with a hereditary hearing problem, she made her way through medical school and raised my sister and me with incredible love and selflessness. I wouldn’t have been able to do many of the things I now do today without her. I love you mom!

Why do you love working in IT/Tech?
Being able to work in tech has been a dream of mine for a long time, so I’m always very fortunate that I was able to turn what was once a hobby into a full-time career. The tech community is home to some of the most diverse and accepting people I’ve been fortunate enough to meet and work with. I wake up each day thankful I get to work on something that helps our studios create amazing stories for millions of people to enjoy. Besides that, it’s also really satisfying to me to be able to take something that was once very abstract and bring it to digital life.

Do you have a degree in IT? If so, what taught you the most? And if not, did you miss some important knowledge?
I don’t! I learned development on my own, and I’ve found that most software engineering concepts can be picked up over time. For example, when I first started learning I didn’t want to write tests, but now I try to make sure the code I write is backed by good tests. The best way I’ve found to learn is to be curious about things and to try and then fail.

Many CS concepts can be learned on your own as well. For example, there are really great (and free) online courses on Coursera and Udacity. Plus Rob Conery’s book (linked above) is also a great resource for a high-level introduction to learn more about what you know and don’t know.

What would be your advice to everyone who is interested in a career in tech? (or learning to code?)

“Promise me you’ll always remember: You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” — from Winne the Pooh

Don’t be discouraged or intimidated by people with more experience. Everyone has to start from somewhere, and to be quite honest, learning to code is not easy! I think telling everyone that it’s easy is disingenuous and makes people feel worse when they’re not getting something. Sometimes people can make things sound more complicated than they really are, and that’s okay. It’s not always easy explaining something in simple terms.

As for a career in tech, generally speaking, I think the community is quite welcoming to beginners who are eager to learn. There are so many resources online these days about everything from web design to SEO, to learning how to code – the barriers to entry have been lowered and there is no better time to get started.

You’re editor of emberway.io and you write a lot about Ember.js, what made you fall in love with this framework? :)
Firstly, Ember has a really great and welcoming community to newcomers. Leah Silber especially has been really focused on getting more women involved with Ember. For example, the Women Helping Women initiative first started at last year’s EmberConf, and was instrumental in the conference having 10 women speakers, which is an amazing number! Many of the speakers were first-time speakers as well, and they did an amazing job.

Next, the technology itself is very well thought out and prevents JavaScript fatigue – or the phenomenon where you spend more time configuring things / figuring out what micro-libraries to choose instead of focusing on your actual app. The community very much encourages against bike-shedding (arguments about inconsequential things) and instead on supporting community-led conventions. For example, this philosophy gave rise to things like the Ember CLI and addon community, which today have become a core part of the framework.

Extra question from Rebecca: What was your first job? And what was the hardest part about starting out in the world of tech?
I studied Accounting & Finance in college, so my first “real” job was an internship at a Big 4 accounting firm. It was actually that experience that made me decide to take the plunge after graduating from college and working on my own startup for a while. The hardest part for me was hearing how others describe learning to code as easy, while I would struggle with certain things and feel like I was not meant for a career in tech. The truth is that learning anything new is hard, and takes a lot of effort and grit to master.