Leanne Kent: From Plato to Programming, My Journey in Tech

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I am delighted to be a recipient of a full one-year scholarship from LaunchSchool and WWCode which will enable me to retrain as a software developer.

Through a series of opportunities (sometimes in disguise) I’ve been able to live several kinds of lives. My first career was as a student and I ultimately earned a PhD in Philosophy. I then held a tenure track job at a small liberal arts college on a picturesque river. This was a great job, in many respects, but I eventually decided to leave in order to move, marry and start a family. The plan was for me to stay home until the kids were school-aged. The stay-at-home parent job was extraordinarily intense and exhausting, yet, at the same time, I craved intellectual stimulation. A friend suggested that I attend a Girl Develop It (GDI) event with her – it would get me out, allow me to use my head, and I could see if I liked it since that might be a promising career path to pursue once the children were in school. I continued to attend GDI events, signed up for TreeHouse and did some Codecademy tutorials. Then I took a Java workshop. This was my first exposure to back-end frameworks and this is the point at which I first saw myself becoming serious about software development.

Meanwhile, I learned that my marriage was a sham and, pregnant with my second child, I filed for divorce. I would now need to retrain sooner than planned in a career that could support myself and my children. After a long legal battle it was determined that any retraining would have to occur in a context of severely limited funds, geographical restrictions, with an irregular schedule of time to devote to retraining.

I spent a considerable amount of time researching options but couldn’t find the perfect fit. In July, I received the WWCode newsletter advertising a full scholarship to LaunchSchool –a program that had not previously been on my radar. As I explored their approach I breathed a heavy sigh of relief. Scholarship or not, this was the program for me.

Launch School wasn’t offering a quick and easy path to becoming software developer. Rather, the ‘promo’ materials espoused a simple, (un?)common-sense approach to learning: Learn the first principles slowly and deeply. Success will come through practice and exercise of good habits. Adopt a growth mindset. I was relieved to learn that the path I needed to become a software developer actually existed.

I have spent decades invested in formal learning as both a student and teacher. As I was drawn deeper into LaunchSchool’s website and as I listened to the webinars I was struck by how the pedagogical philosophy at Launch School is so thoroughly grounded in empirical findings on learning:
• Cognitive dissonance is your friend (update mental models)
• Embrace and love the problems
• Adopt a growth rather than a fixed mindset
• Develop good work habits
• Focus on fundamental principles
• Learn slowly and deeply

Thanks to being a member of the WWCode community, I found the portal into my next career as a software developer.

I did not receive the scholarship advertised in July. This is hardly surprising since I had not completed the pre-course work (strongly recommended to be eligible) and could not carve away time until mid-September to do so. I nonetheless started the pre-course work in September. Two months later, upon completion of the pre-course work, I enrolled in the program and began the 101 course.

I’ve found the work challenging and at times frustrating but also gratifying when I accomplish even the smallest of tasks. While LaunchSchool endorses slow and deep learning I sometimes worry that I am taking this to a new and unproductive level. Many days my progress is excruciatingly slow and there have been days where I’ve questioned whether I’m cut out for this at all. The learning curve is a steep one for me. I have never considered myself technically inclined and I find myself doing a lot of remedial work to understand what is probably basic to most semi-computer literate people. Some days I feel like the extraordinarily unfit person who cannot so much as walk one block attempting to train to win a triathlon. The key, I hope, is to just keep at it. Sometimes I’ll take a break to walk and clear my head and I find that coming back to the same problem refreshed makes it far less daunting than it was previously.

Through all of this I have learned that the path you believe you are embarking upon probably won’t look anything like what you had imagined or signed up for. And so I’m not sure where all of this will take me. But the employment prospects for people with tech skills is promising and, in the first instance, having employment that can adequately support myself and children is critical. But beyond that I hope that these skills I’m developing can be used in the service of something in which I can be whole-heartedly invested. I’ve always been interested in questions of living well and social justice. In my previous life as a professional philosopher I specialized in ethics. And there are some seriously interesting questions at the intersection of software development and ethics. The viral post “The Code I’m Still Ashamed Of” by Bill Sourour is a first person account of coming to appreciate the ethical implications of the code developers write. Signatories to the petition at neveragain.tech pledge not to contribute in any way to data collection that would facilitate the deportation of people based on their religious beliefs. I’ve also just finished a book, “Weapons of Math Destruction” by Cathy O’Neil arguing that many of the uses of data analytics is destructive and oppressive to the most vulnerable members of our society. While I don’t agree with all of her arguments, the questions and issues she raises are crucial to consider and may often be overlooked by developers ‘just doing their jobs’. While there is a lot of space to explore, it is my hope that the technical skills I develop training as a software developer can be used in service of or somehow mesh with these larger interests of ethics, living well, and social justice.

I am thrilled that my second application for the LaunchSchool scholarship was successful. And now back to coding!

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