We chat with Annabel Bligh, an associate software engineer at Contact, a London based startup that works a bit like an Uber for models. Bligh recently graduated from Makers, which describes itself as a full time, intensive and immersive bootcamp to learn the essentials of full stack development
Bligh explains her love for front end and the simple pleasure of bringing a designer’s vision to life
We also talk about making the transition from journalism and digital media to the world of software development.
You can find her on Twitter here.
You can check out Contact here.
Learn more about Makers here.
Our lifeboat badge winner of the week is Rami Amro Ahmed, who answered the question: What is the difference between Model Factory and a DB seeder in Laravel?
Annabel Bligh My limited experience of the industry so far, I'd say, I would say anyone can do it. I mean, you sort of just need to have the desire to do it really. I mean, there's always going to be banging your head against the wall moments. And I guess it's just whether or not you want to persevere with that.
Ben Popper MongoDB.live is the data conference of 2021 featuring cutting edge technologies, keynotes from thought leaders, crash courses to build your skills, and more! Sign up today to get a head start on the future of data. To register, visit trymongodb.com/live21.
BP Hello everybody! Welcome to the Stack Overflow Podcast, a place to talk about software and technology. I am Ben Popper, Director of Content here at Stack Overflow. And today I am joined by Annabel Bligh, a former journalist like myself, now a software engineer at Contact. Hi, Annabel.
BP Welcome to the show. Thanks for coming on today.
AB Thanks for having me.
BP So tell us a little bit about yourself. Before you got into software, you're working as a journalist, how many years you do that for and what made you decide to leave besides the obvious reasons that why would anybody want to be a journalist, honestly.
AB So I was a journalist for about eight years, I think. I stumbled into it. I guess. I did an internship at a magazine called Monocle after university.
BP One of the last remaining sort of glossy, thick paper, read it in first class on the airplane magazines.
AB Yeah, and then they just kept me on. So I was like, oh, cool. Someone's gonna pay me to read the news all day and bright stuff and talk to interesting people.
BP What did you like to cover? What was like your favorite beat or topic?
AB So I worked mostly on their radio output, which is kind of less well known, but essentially, it was a podcast. And they had a lot of daily news shows. So I was working on kind of current affairs, but also got to do a mix of design, arts and culture, business. So it's pretty varied.
BP Okay, so you're, you're happily going along as a journalist, just like I did you get to read the news all day, you get to look at Twitter and say you're working, you get to talk to new and interesting people about different topics. What made you decide to leave that behind for the wonderful world of banging your head against the wall, writing code and talking to other engineers?
AB I guess, like, ultimately, I hit a ceiling with journalism. I don't know if you found this yourself. But you know, it's an industry that does not exactly expanding from its, you know, journalists are getting laid off all the time. And newsrooms are getting smaller and smaller. So—[Annabel laughs]
BP Yeah, I did, I hit the same—I mean, you could you could look into, you know, a position I think is like a TV personality. Or you could be you could start being one of the first to start a substack. But except for the lucky few sort of find that that off ramp that sort of like, yeah, channel to go down. Yeah, it's a tough career after 8, 10 years to get to much more upward mobility. I think I found the same thing.
AB Yeah. I mean, I never had a strong desire to become famous. Like I was never a big tweeter myself. I wasn't really obsessed with getting bylines. And that kind of made me question my own hunger, I guess, to continue. So I switched into I was an editor for about five or six years. So kind of mostly working behind the scenes commissioning other people. And again, it was really fun. You know, you get to, you get to cover new topics every day, learn lots of new stuff. But I didn't have anyone really investing in my future career. And you don't ever cover stuff at a surface level. So you kind of learn interesting tidbits for dinner party conversation. But yeah, in terms of getting to get really deep into something, I guess that's where I was lacking a bit for me.
BP Okay, so you sort of saw a ceiling emerging, you wanted to take a different tack? What was it that brought you to the world of software?
AB It was a fairly logical decision, in some ways, maybe a little bit Machiavellian, you know, it's like, going to make a career switch. Having been in an industry that's, that's, I don't want to say in decline, but struggling, where are there opportunities? Yeah, I guess I just had hunger to learn new things. And I think I'd always thought coding was cool. And perhaps it was something that I'd never really considered. You know, I did an arts degree at university. So yeah, so I'd kind of ruled out anything like engineering as a part of that I just found myself talking to develop a friends and they were just like, no way you could you could totally do it. Told me about the kind of boot camps that are out there to make the switch relatively easily. Yeah, I was just, I kind of just gave it a go and really enjoyed fiddling around.
BP I guess, you know, that brings me to, yeah, sort of like I think what is it sort of deciding question for a lot of people which is like yeah, if you don't see yourself as an engineer, maybe if you never, you know, found that you had a you know, affinity for the hard sciences or for math or anything like that. You know, when you were doing school, are you going to be able to handle this career or enjoy this career or excel in this career? So you sort of said you self identified in a way that you thought you wouldn't, but friends encouraged you to try. What did you find, yeah, going into the boot camp? I mean, were you coming from a background where you particularly didn't like, you know, some of the hard sciences or just you weren't sure that that was something that you could do as a career?
AB So I don't know if it's like, a thing about the the English, as I'm based in the UK, but the English education system kind of makes you specialize quite early on. I did actually really enjoy maths at school, but you basically have to choose four subjects at the age of 16 to carry on studying and then at 18, you have to choose your major, or 17. Compared to like, I know, the American system, particularly with like liberal arts colleges, you tend to get to do a much broader variety.
BP Yeah, yeah, they let us doddle on forever. You get to do it all through high school and they get to college and you do like one or two years. And then you pick a major and then you're after that you decide you screwed up and you switch your major. So yeah, you got lots of time.
AB Yeah, so it's not like that at all over here. But yeah, I did, I did enjoy maths. But I was always just quite good at reading and writing, I suppose. So that was the route that I took. And then I guess in lots of ways, I found my previous role as an editor quite transferable to the coding world. So just in terms of like, how you structure an article or a podcast, used to make podcasts as well. You know, how do you digest the huge amount of information and like, take the bits that are crucial to telling that story that in some ways was a bit transferrable in terms of kind of, I guess, logical, breaking down of problems and presenting that information in a cogent way.
BP So the format, the flow, the syntax, those were things that sort of made sense to you, and you had some experience in?
AB Yeah. And then you just get like, the pure satisfaction of solving a problem. And seeing a result on a page.
BP So tell us a little about the bootcamp you went through, sort of that journey, yeah, and you know, what, what you ended up, I guess, specializing, and when it comes to the work you do?
AB So the bootcamp was it was called Makers Academy, I think it's probably, I don't think it's in the States. But it's, it's pretty big in the UK. It's like a three month super intensive course, they just kind of throw you in the deep end, you start building projects from scratch from the off. And yeah, it was kind of overwhelming initially. And I was like, what have I done? I have no idea how to do this. But I guess there, the course's emphasis is on sort of teaching us to teach yourself, because I guess, you know, in a career as a developer, you're constantly going to be learning and new technologies, new languages evolving all the time. So there, instead of just teaching you like, here's how to build a website in React, that it's much more like, here are the fundamentals of software engineering, and go away and teach yourself how to build these things.
BP Okay, so as you were teaching yourself, aside from Stack Overflow, what were some things that you were able to rely on? Were there like tips and tricks that friends had given you who are already in this line of work? Or did you just start googling around and bouncing until you found something that, you know, sort of worked for you?
AB Probably one of the best bits of advice I had was, which, like developer friends have mentioned, but also they would talk about on the course, it's just like taking regular breaks, and stepping away from something. I mean, I think you mentioned banging one's head against the wall. [Ben laughs] Certainly a common a common theme, which I experienced on the course and currently continue to experience now that I'm a developer.
BP Yeah, it's interesting, I've been watching some sort of like developer focused YouTube channels, people who are becoming content creators, or working as software developers, but are cultivating, you know, kind of a second, you know, career as online content creators. And one of the videos I see repeated, and that gets a lot of plays, like, how many hours a day do you really write code? And how many hours a day should you be like sitting down and writing code? And it seems like, you know, the, the prevailing wisdom is kind of like people who tell you that they do it, 8, 12 hours a day, are either lying, or they're, you know, kind of the exception to the rule. A lot of people feel good about having done three or four hours a day, and a lot of the rest of the time they're researching or digesting a problem, or doing something that's sort of like getting them towards a solution, but not like actively, you know, typing commands, typing characters onto a keyboard. So I think that that maybe is a really interesting part of the, the job, the idea of like giving yourself the time to allow the problem to sort of unwind in your mind and to, you know, work towards a solution without like, actively working.
AB Yeah, I mean, the concept of like how long you spend working or doing a job, I think is a fascinating one across industries. And one that like my husband and I talk about a lot because he's a freelancer. And it's like, how do you quantify what you're getting paid for? And particularly, you know, since everyone's gone remote, what does it mean to be productive and how is all that measured? I think it's super interesting.
BP Yeah, I remember my days as a freelancer. And that really sort of like, is eye opening, you know the amount of time that it takes to research and write an article and get edits and turn it around and finalize it and then see it published and then get paid as a freelancer can be very demoralizing, because so much of the time is spent, you know, doing things that you aren't getting paid for such as a freelancer, like your job is to deliver the article, there's a certain word count where you're getting paid by the word. That doesn't, you know, how many phone calls should you make, you know, to get that done? How many people you know, should you reach out to? Do you think that, yeah, like this idea that anyone can do this, you know, your friends, like you said, you worked in this world, encouraged you to do it, you didn't necessarily see yourself as an—Do you think that that is a valid—I guess, I guess I get to a point where it's like, anyone can do this. Anyone can do this. Should anyone do this? Are there people for whom this is not a good career? Having gone through this recently, yourself and I hope you found yourself, hoping liking your new career, would you say like, but if you were like this, I wouldn't do it?
AB In my limited experience of the industry so far, I'd say, I would say anyone can do it. I mean, you sort of just need to have the desire to do it. Really. I mean, there's always going to be banging your head against the wall moments. And I guess it's just whether or not you want to persevere with that. But you know, in terms of like, were you good at maths at school, there were people on my course, who were like, hated school, and didn't didn't go to university, but you know, coming at this a bit more mature and can totally do it. And there are people who would say, you know, I was terrible, I was terrible at maths. And they might have different challenges in terms of like, how they approach problems, but I definitely think they probably, they are at an advantage in terms of like, the way that their brain thinks.
BP So what do you do day to day? What do you do at Contact? Maybe tell us first, like what that company is all about? And then yeah, what you do day to day?
AB Yeah, so Contact is a startup, the it's basically a platform for fashion models, and anyone who wants to book a fashion model to book them. So it's Yeah, leveraging technology to kind of disrupt the fashion industry, which is very traditional in terms of generally small agencies, lots of hand holding between agents and models. And basically, through, I guess, the technology, models get to be paid more, and have basically greater control over the jobs that they do, and how they're booked. Yeah, it's kind of it's expanding to cover different elements of the creative industries. So it's gone from just like two engineers last year to six of us now. Because basically, what we're introducing photographers, it's like the next group of creatives that are joining the platform.
BP This is trying to cut out some of the the middlemen at the agency level. And just say, like, you make yourself available, people need you for a job, or they need a photographer for shoot. And so it's a marketplace, a two sided marketplace there. And I guess you have to sort of, yeah, you have to build that up to a point where like, people know there's going to be quality talent and quality opportunities on there.
AB Yeah. So we do still have quite a big operations team who work with the models and work in terms of curating the photographers that are on the site, but it kind of reduces the probably the boring workload that they would previously have to do.
BP And so yeah, what's your job on this team of six? What role do you fill?
AB So I'm the only junior engineer on the team. And I'm basically a junior full stack engineer. So the back end is built on Ruby on Rails and front end's React with TypeScript. And I mean, I'm basically doing a lot of learning. So this is my first job as an engineer. I'm about three months in. But yeah, it's really cool. And basically learning on the job getting to do a whole variety of stuff.
BP And so do you have like a mentor/mentee sort of thing with with seniors on the team? Or how does that work?
AB So I'm in a sort of squad with two other engineers, and they're basically on hand to help. I do a lot of pairing with them when I get stuck. But I guess kind of the the nice thing about being in a small team, is I'm sort of just got thrown into doing tickets fairly quickly. And then I've just got to have a go at doing stuff and shout for help when I get stuck, which is fairly often. [Annabel & Ben laugh]
BP Right. Braver than I, though. What are the things you enjoy most? What are the either languages and frameworks or like the kind of problems you like to work on?
AB So I've mostly been doing front end stuff. And we have like a, let's say, a really talented designer on the team who, you know, produces these great designs and figma. And it's pretty fun, just like turning those into code, and then seeing them on the page. And yeah, again, I guess a benefit of being in a small team is just like seeing that code deployed. Really quickly. Yeah, pretty much from my first week, I was kind have done tickets and seeing it seeing it go live. I think just that sort of satisfaction, maybe it's like the journalist in me that, you know, likes to see like, articles getting up quickly. But yeah, just sort of seeing that immediate effect.
BP Yeah, the immediacy of it and the, you know, seeing designs come to life and things be part of, you know, the, the UI/UX that people actually get to touch.
AB Yeah, exactly.
BP You know, you mentioned a recommendation earlier, which is like to take breaks, I thought that was great advice and kind of jelled with some of what I've been hearing from content creators. But for folks who are listening to the podcast, you know, who may be software adjacent and are thinking about getting into this world. Any other suggestions? I guess taking the leap, going into boot camp, not being worried about your math scores from high school anymore? Knowing that, yeah, I guess like, you know, part of I guess, one of the things I would say, maybe that defines people who want to be a software developer, but don't is like being able to live with a certain amount of frustration. And always, you know, that sort of working towards the reward that payout for solving the problem. But what else would you say like, for people who might be interested after hearing this feel a little bit inspired any other general advice on good pathways or on ramps to this career?
AB I mean, I guess for people who have never tried out coding before, there's like, kind of really good intro websites like Codecademy, just to teach you the basics. But also, just YouTube has so many tutorials for you know, if you actually want to just build something from scratch, you know, whether it's like a simple get like a rock, paper, scissors game, or some random, simple app that you can send your friends to do. Like, right, you can like, just search that on YouTube. And there's just so much stuff on there, which I think like that whole world was really opened up to me in the last year, like, I just had no idea that just people giving these tutorials. Well, I mean, there's a lot of bad ones as well, but there's just so much out there.
BP So at the end of every episode, before we sign off, I read out the winner of a lifeboat badge. That is somebody who came on to Stack Overflow, and found a question that had a score of negative three or less, and then they went on to receive a score of three or more—an answer score of 20 or more, you can get this badge multiple times. Awarded May 28, to Rami Amro Ahmed, "What is the difference between Model Factory and a DB seeder in Laravel?" Okay, well, we've got the answer for you in the show notes. I am Ben Popper, Director of Content here at Stack Overflow. You can always find me on Twitter @BenPopper and you can always email us email@example.com. If you're listening the show and you enjoy it, please do go onto your podcast platform of choice leave a rating and review it really helps. Annabel, I will popcorn over to you. Who are you? Where can you be found on the internet if you want to be found? And if people are interested in Contact, where should they go to check it out?
AB I'm Annabel Bligh. I'm on Twitter handles at @kabligh. And check out Contact's website. It's contact.xyz.
BP Alright. Well, thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing your journey. And yeah, I'm glad it worked out for you and that you're enjoying this new career.