Emily Jirles: “Embrace failure, and with time, persistence, and humility you’ll eventually grow gills”

Q: Tell us a little about your background. What kinds of things did you work on before your current role?

A: I wanted to be a diplomat or ambassador, travel the world, so I majored in International Relations with a concentration in Peace and Security (what does that mean? I honestly couldn’t tell you anymore). After graduation I moved to D.C. to work for some government bodies. First I had an Admin Assistant position at the National Institutes of Health where I was in charge of travel bookings and office management. The people were nice, but the job was boring.

Later I secured a job at the State Department as a Special Assistant to the Chief Political Officer at the Office of the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator and Health Diplomacy. Essentially, this meant I was a PA and helped coordinate some projects. I loved my coworkers and my boss, and I even got to travel a bit to places like Durham, South Africa and Geneva, Switzerland. But after a year and a half, I had to face the fact that there were no opportunities for advancement at this position and, moreover, I wasn’t interested in continuing down this particular career path. In fact, I had fallen out of love with my ultimate goal of being a diplomat/ambassador/government worker altogether. 

At this time I started looking at other options, one of which was making the transition to software development. I was heavily leaning toward this option when I heard about a junior analyst position at a firm called Spatial Networks, Inc (SNI). I am a big reader, especially of news publications (my devotion to reading The Economist has spawned numerous inside jokes at my expense among my friends and family). The idea of a career as a domain expert where I could read, learn, and write all day appealed to me.

But like many things in life, what sounded ideal in theory turned out to not be as thrilling in practice. Within a year, I ended up submitting a proposal to make the transition to SNI’s Engineering team as a Junior Software Developer.

Q: What is your current role?

A: Mid-level Software Developer.

 

Q: Like many in the geospatial space, including me, you don’t have a geography background. What has it been like to work at a place so closely identified with geography?

A: It’s been infectious — their enthusiasm and the enthusiasm of our clients makes me want to dig deeper into GIS. In a way, it almost seems like an emerging field in that I’m constantly hearing and reading about new ways people are harnessing geography and spatial data to analyze, optimize, and create. Makes you want to get in on the action.

Q: How do you see geography relating to your background?

A: Considering my background was in political science, history, and economics, I was well aware of the tyranny of geography. Working at a GIS company modernized and atomized the idea of geography for me. No longer was it simply a deterministic factor in a country’s historical and economic development. Now it was how the Department of Transportation was tracking the potholes on my street and how Amazon was going to track me as I peruse the aisles at my local Whole Foods.

 

Q: You started at Spatial Networks as an analyst, but you made a career transition to software development. What motivated you to make this change?

A: Everything that I thought I would like about being an analyst was a component of software development: problem solving, the opportunity for lifelong learning, and the chance to create something. So in one sense, the change wasn’t really a change but a redirection of my interests.

At the time I joined Spatial Networks, we were looking to improve our analytical products and, in addition to hiring analysts, that meant ensuring our data was ready for analytical consumption. Tellingly, I was more interested in the conversations and work surrounding this problem than I was in the analysis of said data. Moreover, I really liked and admired the folks on the Engineering and Data teams. They were knowledgeable, fun, and always happy to help. I knew I wanted to work alongside them.

Q: The transition to development can seem intimidating to some. How did you map out your path? Did you have any previous experience? How did you acquire the skills to become a developer?

A: No prior experience, except maybe some online Intro to Coding/Data Science courses that I never finished.

First, I had a few conversations with supervisors about the transition I wanted to make and the technology stack SNI employed to make sure I was studying technologies and languages that would benefit SNI as well as myself. Then it was a matter of doing some research, seeing what was available online as well as looking into coding bootcamps. I ended up selecting a combination of free and paid options. I found free online courses on relational databases (in general) and an intro to computer science and algorithms, but then paid for a subscription to DataQuest (data cleaning, data science basics, Python, and Postgres) as well as attended the online software development bootcamp at Flatiron (Ruby, Rails, JavaScript, React).

 

Q: Were there any factors that helped ease your transition into development? Were there any that hindered it?

A: What was most helpful in my transition was support from my coworkers and SNI. Everyone was really pushing for me to succeed. They were always willing to answer questions and it was always nice when some of them just asked after how I was doing. Then, soon after I officially joined the Engineering team, I was entrusted to take control of a project to update the Data Events editor for our Fulcrum product. It helped me hit the ground running and gave me a hands-on opportunity to get more familiar with our product.

 

Q: What advice would you have for someone who is contemplating a similar career transition?

A: I’m a big fan of plotting and planning, so I would recommend doing research beforehand. Figure out which area you want to work in and then look into the resources available to make sure they fit your goals, profession and finances. Next, make sure you are consistent with your learning. Like anything else, you get better at coding the more you do it, whether that’s on the job or building an app as a side project. Just keep coding.

And if you get stuck on something, don’t give up. I’ve talked to others who have completed bootcamp programs and their observation on who finishes and who drops out is a matter of persistence. Even when the solution to their problem wasn’t immediately clear, and maybe took hours to figure out, those who graduated were those who kept with it. If you feel like you’re drowning when you first start, that’s normal. Embrace failure, and with time, persistence, and humility you’ll eventually grow gills. At least that was my experience.

 

Q: You recently ran your first marathon. (Congratulations!) Please tell us about it. Have you always been interested in athletics? How did you go about training for your race?

A: Thanks. Technically, I won (because I finished), but the marathon put up a good fight. My joints are still recovering.

I’ve always been into athletics, I played volleyball and basketball as long as I can remember, but I was never a runner. In fact, it was well known — by coaches, fellow players, my family — that I was awful at endurance. I needed multiple subs during a basketball game, for example. In fact, the main reason I adopted running last year was to prove younger me (and everyone else) wrong — I could run for a long time without stopping. I just needed to work at it. 

The other reason was that it was cheap. That was very important to me.

To train for the marathon, I joined a training group at a local running store. They gave us a training plan to follow and hosted group runs twice a week. Probably the hardest thing about marathon training, besides all the running, is finding time to do all the running. On my weekend long run I was running for 3+ hours every Saturday morning, in addition to making sure I was running during the week in the morning. But the payoff was worth it — I got a beer and a nice medal at the finish line. 

Next year, I’m going to focus on getting better at the half marathon distance, improving my speed and aerobic base. But the year after that I’m going to focus on the marathon again, this time to break 4 hours (~9:09 min/mi).

 

Q: You also foster dogs. How did you get into that and are you currently fostering any? (Pictures of dogs are completely acceptable and encouraged here.)

A: I had always wanted a dog and fostering looked like a great way to test drive dog ownership, so to speak. Unfortunately, my cat never really got with the program. I’ve since taken a break from fostering, but I may look into fostering again in the future. Maybe some smaller breeds so she doesn’t feel so intimidated.

 

Q: What are you currently reading?

A: The Firecracker Boys (recommendation from a fellow engineer at SNI)

Educated

Q: What does the term “geohipster” mean to you?

A: That you all were into geography before it was cool.

 

 

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