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What I Have Learnt From Teaching

Jo Franchetti speaking at JS Monthly London in August, 2017
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About this talk

Jo will talk about how mentoring junior developers has impacted her life, and why she thinks that we should all give mentoring a go. Plus some tips on finding mentees.


Hello everybody, lovely to meet you. My name's Jo Franchetti, not Jo Frank as some people might think from my Twitter handle there. I'm a frontend developer at Ticketmaster and I'm also an organiser and a coach at Codebar, and I'd like to talk to you a little bit about how mentoring junior developers has impacted my life, and why I think that all of you should give mentoring a go, and also how I can help you find mentees. So when I started out my career, I was self-taught and I can imagine many of you are, and I have some quite painful recollections of how difficult it is when you're getting started. Before you have colleagues and friends in the industry, and in my case before Twitter was a thing. Yes, I'm old, and I often didn't know what I was trying to find out, like what questions to ask, let alone where to even ask them, and I could spend hours on a problem and I'd still not find the solution, and it's the memory of this initial frustration that sort of drove me to want to mentor juniors so that they don't have that kind of terrible time that I had when I was starting out. But I found that mentoring is just so much more than just passing on information, I've learned stuff about myself, I've improved my own skills, I've made really great friends and hopefully I've changed other people's lives for the better. So let's dive into mentoring, and learn about what I think it can do for you. So the first thing that you need to know is that you can teach. I'll admit that when, at first my friends and my colleagues were saying that they were starting out mentoring, they were teaching with Codebar, I really thought that I didn't have anything to give, and imposter syndrome really kicked in and I just thought like, "Oh gosh, "there's no way that I can teach other people." I'd certainly be the first in line to tell you that I don't know everything that there is to know about web development, but here's the thing, no one expects you to know everything. What you need to do as a mentor is teach your students what you do know, and then teach them how to find the answer when you don't know it, and it's that working together through a problem that really makes the information stick in their heads. If there's one thing that developers do know, it's how to find their answers on Stack Overflow. So this leads me onto point two, which is the discovery of information along with your student. Teaching beginners will help you improve your own knowledge, and I'm sure you've heard it all before, teaching helps you get a better grip on your own subject, but seriously, making a concept accessible to beginners forces you to consider it from different angles, to maybe explore nuances that you previously ignored. I tell you what, by the time you've explained how to use React to a handful of different students, each with their own problems, plans, questions, your knowledge will be so encyclopaedic that when you have a problem handling your own state, the answer's gonna be at your fingertips and not at the end of an hour long Stack Overflow dive. So moving on, this is a really important point and something that we really drive home at Codebar, easy is subjective. I've quite often stood in talks, or read articles online, or listened in lectures to people who have said things like, "This is really easy," or, "This is really simple," and I know I've been, I've done this as well, I've said to students, "Oh CSS is easy, you're gonna get it in five seconds," and the thing that you have to remember is by saying something is easy, you are instantly saying, "If you don't get this, "you're not as clever as everybody else," so what we want to make sure is that we are making all of our subjects accessible to everybody, we're making it safe and, what's the word that I'm looking for, we're making a safe and happy environment for people to ask questions of us. By saying that something's easy, we're not really allowing them that space to say, "I don't understand this thing, "I need you to explain it a bit more." It's something that we can all do when we're giving talks, consider the language that we're using. So at Codebar we tend to advise our coaches to assume that the person that you're speaking to, or the person that is reading your article has zero knowledge, but infinite intelligence. So encourage your students to ask about questions so that they have, they will gain familiarity with the subject and they will therefore learn better. Next up, patience. We live pretty impatient lives these days, everything that we use is available on-demand. We're told that impatience is a good thing in a programmer, the sort of need for instant gratification is what makes us more efficient when we're coding, makes us strive to build faster products and better tools, but it can also make us kind of unpleasant people to be around. So I don't know how many of you have had tech support calls from parents recently, and how many of you managed to keep calm the entire time? I know I've snapped at my family a few times on the phone, and I'm the kind of Londoner who tuts at people when they fail to get through the Oyster gates too quickly, and so mentoring has sort of introduced me to this internal well of patience that I didn't know that I had. I've learned that I have an absolute infinite tolerance for people who are trying to learn, who are trying to improve themselves, and that patience is really necessary to ensure, again, that your student doesn't feel pressured when they're learning. But what I couldn't have predicted is that this patience that I've sort of discovered has had a really humanising effect on the rest of my life, like I'm much lower to get angry, I'm better at dealing with frustration in a positive way, and when you understand that frustration is a means to an end, you're going to approach things like learning new things or maybe picking up a new framework, or just fixing a bug in your code, you're just going to feel a lot better about the work that you're doing, and your blood pressure level will thank you too. And perhaps most importantly, by mentoring people who perhaps are trying to break into the tech industry, perhaps are not the kind of people that we spend our day-to-day lives with, you can't help but increase your own cognitive diversity, and that is the ability to understand more viewpoints, and to consider things from new angles that you might not have thought of before. So an example that I'd like to share that happened to me when I was teaching a student, she was working on a website for an organisation called SisterSpace, who run meetups for women who perhaps don't get to leave the house very often, or perhaps don't get to hang out with other women very often, and she was just adding some finishing touches to this website. It looked really great, but the thing that she was adding was a giant purple rosette that followed you up and down the page while you scrolled, and it said, "Leave site," and when you clicked on it, it took you to the YouTube homepage, and I was like, "What, are you trying "to make people leave your site, like, "this is covering your content, "like, what is going on here?" And she very patiently explained to me that the website was for people who, I mean, yes it's for people who perhaps don't get to go out very often, but maybe we need to think about why that is. Maybe they're in an abusive or controlling relationship, maybe they're viewing the site to try and find a way to expand their own lives and meet other people, and perhaps their partner doesn't want that to happen, and if they need to quickly get away from the website, perhaps if their partner walks in the room or walks up behind them, that button is there to save them. Now that's something that I would never, ever have thought of as a developer, and it really sort of brought the point home to me that as developers, it's sometimes easy to think that nothing is more important than building the next feature, or using the most up-to-date technology, and we perhaps don't think about our users as often as we should. So user testing, and contextual research and all of that can feel like a sort of really painful pause in your productivity, but finding out who's actually using your product and maybe learning about different viewpoints can make a giant difference to what you're actually building, and you, you know, without it you might end up building things that your users don't want, or can't use. By just thinking about it a little bit, getting a few extra viewpoints in there, you suddenly open up to a whole load of new people. One of the other things that I think is really interesting at Codebar is the idea of gender diversity. So Codebar is, the students that we invite are women, ethnic minorities and LGBT groups, and therefore we like to make sure that our language is very inclusive, and I've noticed a few other speakers here using the word guys quite regularly to address the whole crowd. If we could increase our cognitive diversity to understand that perhaps the people that we are addressing are not all guys, I think that that would make a really positive change in the industry. So finally, the last thing that I think is the real takeaway for mentoring is just how much there is to gain from the joy that you can take in somebody else's achievement. That moment when your student goes from being confused to just totally getting it is just, it's so amazing I just can't describe it to you, you have to try it for yourself. My students have taught me that there is so much to gain from trying out new things, and very little to lose. Their passion for constant improvement has helped to drown out my own imposter syndrome, and since I've started teaching, I've given talks, I've ran workshops, I've started running an event, none of this I would have done if I'd not had that confidence given to me by my students, and there's a Hebrew word which is this word, firgun, which describes genuine delight or pride in the accomplishments of another person, and that is the best description that I can come up with for how mentoring makes you feel. Whether it's been school kids or people at the beginning, or middle of their careers, or even I have one 75-year-old student, watching them just have that moment of just grasping a subject is just absolutely incredible, and you've really got to try it out. So where can you find mentees? At Codebar, so what is Codebar? It's a weekly event for women, ethnic minorities and LGBT groups, although we encourage absolutely everybody to come as a coach. We run free weekly coaching sessions along with monthly lectures, workshops, we're actually running an unconference soon, which I will talk to you about as well, and so I'll just quickly explain how it works. We're hosted by a different tech company every week which means that you get to have a nose around some of the cooler tech offices in London if you come join. We start the evening off with socialising and food, very similar to here, and it's a really nice chance for all the coaches and students to get to know each other and for everybody to sort of talk shop a little bit and be shown the ropes. We then, we'll pair students together depending on what they want to learn, so two students who want to learn the same thing will be paired, and we'll then pair that pair of students with a coach. You can volunteer to teach whatever you're interested in, we have a wide range of subjects, so starting from absolute beginner's HTML, CSS, JavaScript, Java, Python, Ruby, Git, you mention it, there'll be somebody there who wants to learn it. We have a syllabus of tutorials, so if you aren't confident enough to run your own lesson, we have a whole repository of tutorials that you can work through, but we sometimes also get students who perhaps have a problem with a particular thing that they are trying to build, or want help with Carters. You will then work with the student for two hours, your students, sorry, for two hours, and we wind up the evening with socialising, usually in the nearby pub, although drinking is by no means a necessity, and the sort of, the after part of Codebar is just as important as the teaching part. It's a really great place to get to know your students and find out about their journeys through the tech industry, and it's sort of also great for coaches to meet, and socialise, and network, and get to know other people who are doing similar things in the industry. So I really can't say often enough that you should come along to a Codebar. The central London event is every Wednesday evening, we open up for tickets, so we open up for registrations on a Friday afternoon, it fills up pretty quick so if you are interested, make sure you're on on a Friday afternoon so that you can sign up. We've built up a really brilliant and enthusiastic network of developers of all experiences and backgrounds, so not only do you get to have a nose about all the offices, you get to meet other really cool people, you get to make a really positive change in the industry, and yeah, it's just brilliant. Definitely, you know, if you're interested in coming have a word with me, check out the website, check us out on Twitter, and the final thing that I want to say, that I mentioned very briefly earlier, uncodebar, yay! So uncodebar is our yearly unconference, this year we're running the third uncodebar that we've run so far. For those of you who don't know what an unconference is, it's a day-long meetup where the idea is that you turn up in the morning and pitch the session that you want to run, and the schedule kind of builds up from there, so anyone can run a session, you can go to any sessions that you're interested that people are running, and it's just a really lovely way to learn new things that you might not have expected, or perhaps if you've got a talk that you've been set on for ages, but you're just not sure about giving, this is a brilliant place to give it. The people who are attending are the coaches and the more advanced students, so the talks are quite technical. We've had talks that, you know, a lot of them are on web dev, but some of them are on like, getting started with an Arduino, or games development, or more sort of community-related things. There are a really small number of slots still available, so if you wanna go make sure you get on the website, but what i really want to talk to you about is sponsorship. So if you think that your company would be interested in sponsoring uncodebar, I would really, really love to talk to you. It's a great way to meet brilliant developers and to share ideas, and show that you really care about making a change in the tech community. So yeah, if you're interested in giving us some dollar dollar in return for a chance to speak at the event, and to have your logo splashed all across our media and our social media, then please do have a chat with me afterwards. If you are interested in Codebar in coaching or perhaps in writing tutorials, please have a chat with me afterwards as well. Thank you very much.