Impostor syndrome, women in tech, freelancing

When I was seventeen or so you would find me staring at lines of code, resolutely programming a custom CMS in PHP or designing yet another layout for my blog. I was that kid, the one terrified of speaking to people. Who had a bizarre fear of the telephone. Whose social circle was limited to playing D&D and who truanted from just one class – Physical Education.

By all rights I should have ended up a developer. Maybe a designer. The place I actually ended up was… communications and marketing.

It seems bizarre now, looking back on it. The kid who once let a store short change them rather than risk making a scene ended up managing relationships with people for a living.

The reason I didn’t study computers or programming at University is probably down to a combination of things. Neither of my parents went to Uni, I had a vague idea I wanted to create comic books for a living, my career advisor was crap. I ended up doing English & Creative Writing. It was a good degree. It even had a web design module, which taught us how to use Dreamweaver. (I sidestepped it and just wrote my code directly.)

My first ‘proper’ job after University — after a six month stint in a call-centre — was working for a Video Game start-up. I was super-excited! They hired me because I said I wanted to work in something that would use both my writing and my tech skills.

I used my writing skills. My tech skills were limited to copy&paste. Somehow I got pushed more and more into the marketing and PR side of things. I organised LAN sessions — but I didn’t play in them. I wrote peppy news-posts and managed the forum.

At some point, I got the chance to write a fiction blog detailing the lives of two ‘background characters’ caught up in the video game’s universe. I developed a character: an older woman, struggling with arthritis, a missionary in a strange land. The artist did a fantastic job drawing her.

Then our lead designer came back: “What is this shit? She looks sick! We need her to be SEXY.”

I quit not long after. For lots of reasons. I wasn’t getting paid even minimum wage, I was expected to be on call at 7am and 11pm. And I had realised I would never be much more than the peppy female face of the company, not someone who had any real input into the games.

All the designers, developers, programmers were male. The PR staff were mainly female.

After that I ended up in a part-time admin job, and decided to set up a freelance web-design business on the side. I worked pretty hard, coding up around twenty websites over the first year or so. I even built another custom CMS, this being before WordPress and its like had really taken off. I developed e-commerce sites. I learned Magneto’s templating system.

Then my part-time admin role went full-time. I couldn’t really afford to say no. I kept the freelancing up but on a very ad-hoc basis.

After three years or so doing the admin job, I eventually landed a new job. Digital Communications Offer for an environmental charity. Some of the essential skills included HTML, CSS, experience with Drupal, even Flash. There was to be a core coding component to the role.

But it was still a marketing role, not a tech role. It was the most ‘tech orientated’ of any of the jobs I have had. I built internal sites, including custom php scripts to manage an internal bulletin system. I built a localhost site for a touchscreen. I managed a linux server. But day-to-day? Producing fun graphics and running social media. Writing newsletters. Managing bloggers.

Don’t get me wrong. I have come to enjoy that side of my job — and I’m good at it. I tripled web traffic and increased conversion rates. I launched our social media strategy. I gave presentations to rooms full of people. But the days I really enjoyed my job were the days I spent picking apart php code.

I struggle with impostor syndrome — the feeling that I’m never good enough, that I’m out of place. When I meet ‘real’ developers I stay silent, unable to contribute.

Whilst working for this charity I liaised with a web development agency that managed our main website – one of the top London agencies, charging £750 a day — and discovered that many of their coders were no better than me. I frequently suggested solutions to the bugs I found. We had many problems that I ended up working around with code over-writes (a terrible solution, by the way).

I left that job, to try and move to the USA, and in the last couple of weeks I’ve launched myself as a full-time web developer.

I do know my stuff. I’ve been reading tech blogs for fun my whole life. I love learning about UX principles. I can solve css issues. I’m not up to speed on things like Ruby on Rails, but I can build a damn website.

But the voice that says I’m not good enough doesn’t go away.

Sometimes I wonder how different my life would be if I’d ever managed to get one of those developer jobs at an agency that I applied for. I applied to so many of them! Was it my skills that weren’t up to par? And yet my social skills, my marketing skills, they really were not ‘up to par’ when I started my career, and that’s where I ended up.

I guess I will never know.

 

 

 

 

Designing Pipettes in the Dark: thoughts on responsive design

I recently developed a custom ‘responsive design’ wordpress theme for new science blog Pipettes in the Dark. (I freelance in web design & development – you can see my portfolio over here at Monochrome Rainbow).

You should definitely go read the first post — about Lego and WOMEN IN SCIENCE.

It’s been a little while since I’ve developed an entire theme from scratch. One of the big challenges in web-design is crafting layouts that work on a range of screen sizes. We use a range of devices these days, from smartphones right up to smart TVs.

Don’t think a bigger screen-size is such a challenge? Well, you’re wrong. Text is easiest to read in columns of about 50-75 characters. This is why newspapers and magazines print in columns.

You have three choices on a big screen:

  1. Fix the max-width of your text areas so that they don’t grow (can often end up with ‘tiny website lost in acres of white-space’ syndrome).
  2. Make the font-size increase proportionally to the column width (actually not a bad idea, especially if you assume people are sitting further away from bigger screens).
  3. Or, final choice, you can ‘flow’ text into multiple columns using responsive design and media queries.

Native apps versus responsive design

There are two approaches to ‘solving’ the multiple screen-size problem. The first is by producing native apps for mobile, tablet etc. These usually work better, and can take advantage of mobile technology like GPS, notifications, etc. However they can be pretty expensive and hard to keep up-to-date.

The other approach, which works better for individuals and small businesses, is to use a responsive design. That way you can have one website that is fluid across different screens. You lose some functionality, but if you’re basically just delivering content then that’s no big loss.

Responsive design is mainly coded via media queries.

Media queries are awesome. Deliver different stylesheets based on screensize, and you have one website that works on multiple devices.

Media queries are used for responsive design
Media queries used for three breakpoints to create a responsive design

Pipettes in the Dark is a fairly standard blog, with no sales pitch or calls to action. I was able to stick to a tried and tested basic layout that everyone will be familiar with. The closer you stick to ‘standard’ layouts, the more familiar people will be with navigating and using them. Originality can be over-rated! Just remember the last overly-complicated flash website you tried to use. Frustrating, right?

So I went with the two-column site with a header and footer. I then adjusted the width of the columns once you hit the tablet size, enabling the sidebar to stay readable.

Finally, for mobiles, I got rid of the sidebar altogether. Sometimes, hiding non-essential information is the best way to go when you have limited space.

Designing for SCIENCE

The design elements have an interesting backstory. The header text or logo is meant to look like text spelled out with ‘PCR Bands’. Nope, I don’t know what PCR Bands indicate either, but I googled some images and was able to approximate the general look and feel in Photoshop.

The background texture is channeling the idea of pipettes in a box.

The colour scheme is grayscale, accented with hot pink. Keeping a limited colour-scheme can be challenging, but we kept enough contrast in each section to retain legibility. Hot pink is vivid and exciting, plus it is associated strongly with women. The blog itself will tackle some of the gender expectations/challenges within the generally male dominated field of science, and the colour scheme reflects that.

Pipettes in the Dark is also the first of one hundred websites I designed and deployed as part of my Forty Before Forty! I’m expecting almost all of the other ones to also use responsive design… unless there is a really good reason not to.

Want me to help you with your website? Get in touch with me suzie@monochromerainbow.com

Power and fear

Last week, journalist David Miranda was detained for nine hours under the Terrorism Act. In addition, some hard-drives were (pointlessly!) destroyed at The Guardian’s London offices. Both of these actions were spurred by the fact The Guardian and David Miranda were actively working to investigate and reveal the length to which the USA and UK governments are monitoring… everyone they can get data on.

All of this prompted my friend to ask on Twitter:

To which I responded:

Specifically I was referring to the Tor Project, but there are also other solutions. The article How to keep the NSA out of your computer discusses ‘mesh networks’, essentially an alternative to the internet. One of the most prominent of these is Hyperboria. Use Bitcoin for any financial transactions that you want to keep secret. You can use bitcoins for pretty much anything, including food in some cities.

Unfortunately, there is a ‘tech savvy users only’ gateway to this stuff – because the surveillance techniques are so heavily technical, the solutions are as well. The ‘easy’ internet, comprised of Amazon, Google, ISP’s… this stuff can be used by anyone, but is also monitored.

Josh responded to me:

Now this is a subject close to my heart, because someone I greatly love has been on the wrong side of an airport detention policy. Like many (completely harmless) people, this person was treated outrageously; lied to, kept in miserable conditions, denied food, denied telephone contact with the people worrying about them. They were detained for over 24 hours, and then denied entrance to the country and sent back on the next flight.

I, who had gone to the airport to meet and greet them, was also repeatedly lied to.

It was my first real experience with the power of the state government: and it made me realise that we enjoy our ‘human rights’ only with their permission. You can do everything right, fill out all the paperwork, break no rules, never claim welfare, pay taxes, vote for central parties, be white, middle class and not subscribe to ‘other’ religions – and still get fucked over. Should you do anything ‘wrong’, whether on purpose or by accident, I can only imagine how much worse it is.

And here we see despair and hopelessness. The apparatus of Government is insanely powerful. It manipulates the media, it controls the military, it works in partnership with the corporations that own so much of our lives. Meanwhile, ‘everyone else’ – without full access to the facts, and with many diverse lies that appeal to their emotional needs, and who also need to get on with the hard work of living a normal human life – is pretty much hopelessly unequipped to deal with the Government.

It is a David and Goliath set-up, except that David doesn’t even know what’s he’s fighting or why.

We are not powerless

This is a false set up. It is a popular one, and a beguiling one, but it is not true. The ‘Government’ may have power and wealth and military might, but it is also made up of people. Incompetent people! Read the stories of detainees and you swiftly realise that the airport security personnel are people, way out of their depth, dealing with situations in idiotic ways. Read the stories of big business owners and you quickly realise they are sociopathic, and just as likely to turn one each other. The Government loses briefcases full of important info, gets their secrets leaked by The Guardian, and destroys hard-drives – apparently unaware that data is rarely confined to a single, physical location. They are not some robot brain, committed to a single purpose.

We do make a difference

We may only have human rights with their permission, but they exist only with our collective permission. We do make a difference:

  • Slavery is now illegal in all nations (the last place, Mauritania, made it illegal in 2007)
  • There are now only two countries where women cannot vote: Vatican City and Saudia Arabia. Saudia Arabia plans to change this in 2015.
  • Global poverty is declining – and dire poverty could be eliminated in 20 years
  • Public health measures have brought global life expectancy up to about 67. This is of course unequal, but the level of inequality is dropping around the world. Medical advancements are making access to life saving devices cheap enough for all.
  • We have almost hit ‘peak population’ – since the beginning of time we have been shouting about the dangers of human overpopulation. Now it looks like in 2050 we will peak at around 10 billion, and then population will drop/hold steady. Providing secondary education to girls is the single most effective intervention to reduce population growth; and access to education is improving.
  • ‘Serious’ crime rates have been decreasing.

There are three serious problems that face us:

  1. Climate shift/environmental issues. Basically, we have fucked the planet. Any solutions will come from the the tech & science sector. As an issue, it will probably impact on everything from food prices to environmental refugees to large numbers of people killed in extreme weather incidents. There will be consequences (and already have been) – we’ve gone too far to prevent them – but we can mitigate the severity of those consequences and do our best to adapt and protect.
  2. Inequality. Whilst dire poverty is set to be eliminated, overall inequality is growing. The very rich are, well, getting richer. Oxfam are calling for a new goal;  end extreme wealth. An equal society is a happier, more productive, better educated, and more stable society.
  3. The repercussions of moving into a digital & global age. Every time in human history that there is a major upheaval the ramifications were massive and far-ranging. The fallout from the shift into a digital age is difficult to predict, but will definitely include issues about data protection, the right to privacy, and the difficulty of working, trading and governing in a global economy. Who pays tax and where? Which laws and cultural assumptions come out on top? Is access to internet a human right in the way that access to education is? Who stores the data? Who monitors the internet? What about hacking? What is money, once it’s been reduced to numbers in a computer program? How do we cope with possible pandemics which could easily spread globally in a few hours?

Here’s the thing: none of these problems are insurmountable. We’ve been saying it’s the end of the world almost since we had the capacity to project the future. But despair is not helpful. It is entirely possible that the rich could escape the ravages of climate shift, spying on us at will, whilst the poorer citizens of the world live and die horribly. But it is equally possible that rationality and compassion could win out, that we find a way to use our considerable ingenuity and problem solving skills to adapt to a changing climate whilst still equalising our lifestyles. That we can find a way to celebrate diversity and live together instead of clashing over political and ideological differences.

And if we don’t? Well, at least if we hope and work towards the best outcome we’ll be happier than if we just give up now.

 Make a difference

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

The only thing that we can do is make a difference on the micro level. We all have the ability to make a difference on a tiny scale, but those differences all add up to a whopping big change on a global scale. There are lots of ways you can help, and the best thing to do is pick the cause(s) you are most passionate about and do something relating to them.

  • Support a charity that does something you agree with. Run a fundraiser, donate, volunteer some time.
  • Look after your friends and loved ones.
  • Support local, environmentally sustainable farming methods.
  • Stop buying stuff you don’t need.
  • Pass on your skills (blog, teach, make a youtube video, share with your friends).
  • Do the research on internet memes. Don’t just share a picture because you agree with it, check the facts before you hit ‘share’. You are responsible for the spread of misinformation.
  • Go on protest marches.
  • Keep a (wild) garden. Grow veg. Give the veg to your local food bank.
  • Do your research on corporations. Whilst it is probably impossible to avoid buying from companies that have some unethical practices (particularly where IT, clothing, and food are concerned) you can kick up a stink about the worst excesses. Boycotts can work.
  • Dispose of your waste properly. Recycle or reuse it.
  • Stay informed. Use your vote.
  • Fight against welfare cuts; these are people who deserve to live, deserve to relax, deserve to have fun. Compassion is a wonderful thing.
  • Support a living wage.
  • Speak up against discrimination. Accept that you will discriminate. If someone tells you that you are discriminating, apologise and figure out why.
  • Keep an eye out for children. They need the support of everyone in a society, not just parents and teachers.
  • Do the right thing wherever possible.

B is for… business

The Letter BI’ve been a freelancer for over ten years, starting my career with a gig colouring comic books. Currently I’m focused on two areas, webdesign and writing. (I also currently work full-time, but in the past I’ve been completely self-employed).

During that time I’ve written articles and blog posts for money, taken commissions for artwork, and even experimented with things like Mechanical Turk. I’ve made some money – and also made lots and lots of mistakes. Here are some of the lessons I learned:

1. Always charge more than you think you should

There are an awful lot of desperate people out there. Students who build websites for free. Fans that colour comics just to get their name on the cover. People that fill out surveys for a few cents. Working for free is okay – sometimes – if it’s on your terms. I’ve done work for charities and the like, which has helped build my portfolio. But if you want to make a living, you have to charge. You have to charge enough to cover lean times, to save, to cover taxes. You have to charge enough to make it worth your while, so you don’t burn out out on a hundred tiny projects (trust me – I’ve been there).

I’m not going to tell you how much to charge, but I will give you some tips:

  1. The living wage in the UK for 2012 was worked out as £8.80 per hour. (The actual recommended wage was lowered, to make it easier for living wage employers to meet). Don’t forget to add National Insurance and Tax on top of that. I usually allow about 50% extra for all the additional taxes, pension, costs of running a business (e.g. software purchases) and unpaid time doing things like filling out your self-assessment form. 
  2. Whatever you charge, get it paid into a business account and then ‘pay yourself’ a salary out of that. Leave all the money ear-marked for other purposes alone.
  3. Figure out your desired annual salary, and divide it by the number of working hours in a year. (Don’t forget to exclude vacation time)
  4. Look at the industry averages.

If you sell a product, I’ve got less advice, but don’t ever underestimate the power of premium pricing.

2. Every project will take longer than you think

I have a little dream, where I can crank out websites and books at top-speed. After all, the work itself doesn’t take that long. I can type something like 50-100 words a minute. I’ve coded so many websites I can get a framework up in about an hour. Except… except…

Work doesn’t work like that. There’s those rabbit-paths, where you have what you think is a brilliant idea (I’ll make this website mint green! It will look so fresh!) and then it turns out to be a terrible idea and you spend hours and get nowhere. Writing is particularly prone to these. In my current WIP, for example, I randomly decided to have this strange romance-sex-scene with robots. I blame nanowrimo. Either way, it’s about 2000 words of complete rubbish. Then there’s that time when you have no ideas. The only solution is a long walk, a noodling session, or cleaning the house from top to bottom.

So I figure a book will take me six months, actually it will take a year. I figure a website will take 30 hours, actually it will take 60. Your mileage might vary, but when quoting for work it’s better to lean toward the far end of the scale.

 3. Choose your clients/customers

You know that advice about interviews, where it’s as much for the interviewee to check out the business and the job as it is for the employer to check out their potential new-hire? Yeah, it’s a bit bullshit when you are first starting out and are desperate to get a job (any job! I’ll lick shoes! Dance the cancan! Be on call for 29 hours a day!) but gradually it makes more sense. You start to have an actual career, and you want something more than just money from your job. Running a business works the same way. To start with you’ll take any old client that offers to pay you in shoe-laces, but you quickly realise this is a bad way to do business.

There are some terrible clients out there. Clients that won’t pay. Clients that have no idea what they want, and make you produce thirty thousand revisions before deciding to abandon the project altogether. Clients that will be rude, aggressive and over demanding. Clients that think they can do your job better than you.

Once you have a steady stream of business, focus on the good clients. The ones that pay on time, respect your opinion, and keep coming back. Those clients will be worth so much more than the nightmare client who might cough up £100 once in a blue moon. Remember, your skills are in demand. A good freelancer is much more than a dancing monkey.

4. Structure your day

So I work from home one day a week, and I don’t get dressed. It’s like, my dream, to work all day in my pyjamas  I love pyjamas  and would totally wear them all the time forever if it was acceptable. What I don’t do, however, is futz around. I have a set timetable to my day: I start at 8am. I take a break at 10am and then a lunch at 1pm. I finish at 6pm. It’s difficult, but there are things you can do. I use the pomodoro technique to keep myself focused for a solid chunk of time. I make sure I email my manager at least twice during the day with an update on what I’ve achieved.

If you’re running a business, you can do the same thing. Set yourself a chunk of time that you are going to work for. If it’s a writing business you’re doing in your own time that might be 4 hours on a Saturday, or a half hour every evening. Decide what you are going to achieve in that time, and then … do it.

Yeah, a lot of advice comes down to ‘just do it’.

5. Take regular breaks

The other thing I like about the pomodoro technique is that it forces you to stop for breaks. I spend those breaks making tea, stretching (try doing a search for five minute yoga on youtube), or stepping outside for some fresh air. The important thing is to step away from the computer and take five minutes to just recharge your energy. Let any frustrations and anger go, take a couple of deep breaths and then go back to the work feeling refreshed.

So those are my tips… but I bet you have a few tips of your own. Share them in the comments below (or write your own blog post and let me know about it) or let me know about them on twitter.