Mississippians Can Code, Too

When I was kid, I bought a learning kit from the book fair that taught me about electricity. It showed me how to wire an LED light and make a buzzer. I tried to set a trap to alarm me when somebody came to my room. Around the same time in life, I had a teacher who said I was lousy at math. I’ve avoided anything math or science-related as much as possible ever since.

Two things happened this week related to that math aversion. I started an intensive 10-week course to learn software development, with the end goal of finding an entry level job as a software developer. And towards the end of the week, another learning kit arrived in the mail to teach me about circuits and solar electricity.

I had a difficult time deciding whether or not to attend the coding class. But my first week of class is over and my, oh my, am I glad I did it. My decision makes sense now. I have clarity. I was right to attend, so far. I wish I had known this when deliberating my choice.

This isn’t my first exposure to coding. A bit about background: I graduated college from the University of Mississippi with a bachelor’s degree in Southern Studies, which is an interdisciplinary degree that studies and documents the American South. I focused on the history, literature, food, music, sociology, and political science of the region. Upon graduating, I worked full time as a bookseller in Oxford, Mississippi. I knew my career prospects were limited to being a teacher, academic, or bookseller, but that’s where I thought I wanted to be. I still like being in those places, but not necessarily as a full-time teacher or bookseller.

Oxford is a unique place. It’s a bit of an oasis in Mississippi. The small town is home to the best public university in the state, so there’s a concentration of intellectual activity in a state which is otherwise dull. The Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the university (the department from which I received a degree) is integral to the local academia. William Faulkner, who won a Nobel Prize in Literature, was born in Oxford. His legacy is the foundation for what is now a thriving literary community. My former employer is an important part of that history, too. Many writers have called the place home, and legions more have visited the town for readings and to pay homage to the ghost of William Faulkner.

Pictures of writers with connections to the bookstore

I found myself in a dream. I got to meet some of my writing heroes. I became involved with the local writing community, and was exposed to new literature and art. I loved my co-workers. The friends I made over the years — oh, such rich friends!

But I had spent my entire life in this region of North Mississippi and I was itching to move, so I relocated one state over to Birmingham, Alabama, where I currently live with my girlfriend.

At the bookstore, I was promoted to the role of graphic designer, which turned into a marketing role. I ended up managing the store’s social media, quarterly newsletter publication, email marketing, and website.

At the time, our website was terrible. Customers didn’t know they could buy books online and it looked ugly. I was embarrassed to tell people that I was responsible for the website when they asked about my job. Later on in my tenure, I had a chance to redesign the site. I taught myself HTML and CSS and redesigned it. I enjoyed learning web design and thinking about how a customer might use the website.

It was challenging, especially figuring out how to work around the quirks of the content management system. An intermediary business created a platform on Drupal to help independent bookstores deploy eCommerce websites out-of-the-box. They were incredibly helpful. They offer a great service to bookstores, but it’s a limited product if you only know HTML and CSS, like me. We had ideas to do more with the site, but I didn’t know PHP to customize it further. It isn’t perfect, but I’m proud of my first real website. We launched it at the end of July 2018, and online sales have an increased since then.

While all of this web design stuff was happening, I began prototyping an idea on a Raspberry Pi. My best friend is a small-scale organic farmer who had a problem. He was afraid the brutal Mississippi summer might kill his crops, since he couldn’t tend to some of his fields everyday.

Did the grass in the purple hull pea field at my friend’s farm adapt to match the color of the pea pods?

I wondered if there was a device that solved that problem. I did some research and found some similar projects. They’re all promising but need more development. I found some open source solutions, as well as some start-ups building agriculture technology. I’ve learned about the issues involved with this particular use-case and ended up buying a Raspberry Pi to tinker with an open source Python project I found on Github. This was my first true encounter with software design.

I’ve struggled with the electrical engineering side of the project. I don’t have the background, aside from a physics class in high school. Like I mentioned earlier, I had a bad encounter with anything math-related very early in my education. Those sort of pedagogical moments in our lives can be incredibly toxic and dictate our future in ways we might not imagine.

My father also never encouraged math. He always said he didn’t like math because it’s too precise. It’s hard to be perfect. But in such a chaotic and disordered world, I’ve found comfort in the precision of math, science, and computer programming. Paradoxically, when considering the idea of perfection, those fields are limitless.

So now I’m learning about electricity and circuits via the solar kit and other online materials. It turns out that I like learning about math, physics, and electricity. My grandfather was an electrician (among other things), and I think I might’ve gotten some of that.

Learning about solar-produced electricity on a cloudy day

One night I blurted out to my girlfriend that I wanted to go into space. She quipped back, “You should build a spaceship with your Raspberry Pi.” She’s made a joke out of how often I say an idea for something to do with my Raspberry Pi. Even though it was in jest, she’s not entirely wrong. It’s amazing how powerful that tiny little computer is. So nerdy.

This world is new to me. I had a tough time deciding whether to make this career shift. Before software in my life, came books and writing. Writing is probably my core competency at this point, as well as a favorite thing to do. I like reading, too. As a writer, I’m afraid the software excursion will divert me of my writing goals.

In all honesty, to me and what I know, literature isn’t very fond of the sound that “software” makes. Or at least not the reality of it — not the two worlds together (they’re such different and separate worlds) — but phonetically it’s a nice word. It’s just not literary.

I’m afraid to leave the world I know. I don’t want to lose touch of my interests. But I realized there are ways to stay connected to those interests through software. Software is everywhere. It could allow me to work in the industries I’m interested in.

Software development allows me to combine all the different parts of my brain that need to be fulfilled in order for me, personally, to have a satisfying and successful career. It’s similar to music, another of my interests. Music is creative. You get to make things. Music needs theory. It requires logic and rules — a good pop song needs a certain key and a certain tempo. However, the lack of rules can sometimes work, too (but that in itself is a rule — this reminds me of the book Godel, Escher, Bach). Music requires interaction between the right brain and left brain. Music can be solo or collaborative, but it’s often more fun, interesting, and beautiful when it’s collaborative. Music is challenging, and a craft. It needs control and finesse. Music requires patience.

One major influence for my decision to pursue technology is the problem of climate change. I’m no scientist, but there’s still an important place for software in solving this problem. I often wonder how high-tech farms will play a role without adding to the problem. Robotics and embedded systems would be one component of that farm. Satellites and software defined radio — there might be a place for that on a farm, too. Home automation and the internet of things are areas of tech that an automated farm sort of feeds into, particularly long range, low power networks. There are already projects solving some of these problems, and I’m hoping to contribute to the open source ones however I can.

Maybe I’m still young and optimistic, but I want to build software that makes a difference. I like how a software developer creates tools for business applications. I also enjoy making insight with data, like the conclusions you can make by studying the way users interact with websites and apps. At my part-time job, I deal with this in the form of YouTube analytics and SEO. It’s helpful to think about software from a user standpoint (as a user of YouTube analytics) while also learning how software is made.

Along my developer journey, I bet my interests and knowledge will change, and so will my opinions. Hopefully I will gain new perspective and insight. I’m a fairly private person and sharing some of this so earnestly and publicly is different for me, but I want to sort out my thoughts and aid with the learning process.

My girlfriend’s mom gifted me a black zip-up hoodie and said “I could just see you coding in this!” (It’s quite warm and comfy, thank you!)

In the months before attending the coding class, I began following a very good online curriculum for full stack web development. It helped me decide whether or not I wanted to pursue the software development course. Right before class started, I learned the basics of JavaScript. I was worried that learning this new language might negatively affect my learning experience in class and only lead to greater confusion, but it’s been the exact opposite. I’m so glad I spent the time learning JavaScript fundamentals because it’s helped me understand complicated programming concepts.

The class meets each weekday from 8am — 2pm. By the end of the session, I don’t want to leave. I wish I could stay and code but I have to go to work. This is a good sign. It would be great if I could find a part-time job in software instead of my current job.

We’ll see about my attitude at the first major struggle or while learning databases. I anticipate these long days in class and then work each evening will exhaust me at some point. I’m going to read these two books before the 10 week program ends, as a supplement. Then the course ends and I’m on my own. And after that I’ll learn more about algorithms, which sounds so daunting. And then after that I’ll learn more Python and JavaScript. And before that I’ll be better at Linux. And security. And while all that’s happening, I’ll have finished some projects, learned more about circuits and electricity, and learned to code. And I gotta finish writing some things.

I hope I’m not overwhelming myself with all of these tasks. Neurogenesis, which is the creation of new neural cells in the brain, happens in adult brains, too. The process happens in the hippocampus, where learning, mood, and emotion also take place. Scientists have found that neurogenesis in adulthood helps with mood and emotion. Learning is an activity found to increase neurogenesis, and thus help mood and emotion. Ideally, that will help me, too.

Creating things and learning — that’s really what it’s all about.

Mississippians Can Code, Too was originally published in Hacker Noon on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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