So You Want to Become a Developer? An Interview with Iris Classon


Iris Classon explains her decision to become a software programmer and shares the amazing amount she was able to learn in a very short period of time. Learn how agility played an invaluable role in the process and how you, too, can achieve software success.

Noel: Hello, this is Noel Wurst from TechWell. I am speaking with Iris Classon, who is going to be giving a keynote address at the Better Software/Agile Development Conference East in Boston, Massachusetts, on Thursday, November 14th, and the keynote is titled "Learning to be a Developer—From Day One."
How are you today, Iris?
Iris: I’m good, thank you.
Noel: Great! I was really excited about doing this interview because I feel like it’s not the normal keynote that they have. It’s not usually a tale that’s stretched out into an entire keynote, but I figure there’s probably a really decent story behind it, so I was really curious as to what made you specifically want to become a developer and how you kind of hit the ground running once you made that decision.
Iris: Oh, how long of a time do we have?
Noel: Oh, as long as you want to talk about it now, without spilling everything that you’ll talk about during the keynote.
Iris: Yes. I probably won’t say much about what I’m going to say during the keynote.
Noel: Sure.
Iris: In regards to how I made my choice, I’ve been working as a clinical and licensed dietician and personal trainer for several years. I get that question a lot, why I chose to get into programming and, well, software development.
The best way I can describe it is actually something I learned this summer. I was scuba-diving and I got my rescue diver certificate. I’m working towards master diver. I learned some new concepts that really, well, kind of describe my situation before I started programming.
What I learned during my rescue diver course is that there aren’t any accidents due to running out of air, because an accident is a mishap. It’s something unforeseen, an unforeseen event, and running out of oxygen is not unforeseen. You can certainly foresee that’s going to happen in various ways. All accidents in scuba-diving can be traced back to one first bad decision that in turn led to another bad decision and so on, and that kind of formed event. That’s kind of what happened to me.
When I was 15, 16, I’d been preoccupied with just getting into liking boys and just hanging out with my friends at the shopping mall and everything, and suddenly I had to grow up and just make a decision what I wanted to do with the rest of my life when it was time to decide on high school and college. I felt kind of forced to choose something. My options were, at the time, as I saw them, hair care or health.
Instead of exploring other options, kind of forcing myself to see if there were any other options, I just went with health. I was young, full of energy—I had plenty of oxygen in my tank and I had to use it for something. I kind of decided that, OK, out of those three options, I would go for health.
The problem is, it’s kind of like doing an unplanned dive. You dive in with your oxygen but you have no plan, you don’t know your equipment. If you don’t feel comfortable, you’re going to hyperventilate and you’re going to use all your oxygen, but you’re not going to notice. You going to notice at the end, but you’re at the bottom, and that’s when accidents happen.
For me, it was kind of a domino effect. I started studying nutrition and very early on felt like I didn’t fit in. I was a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. And instead of trying to find other places I could fit in, I was just trying to shave off the corners of the square, trying to fit into that round hole, and I started trying other areas in nutrition: "What about natural medicine? What about clinical nutrition? What about personal training? What about that?" because I didn’t want to admit that I had taken the wrong dive and I was completely unprepared. I didn’t want to go back up.
I stayed down so long until I literally ran out of air. I just crashed smack into a wall. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t talk. I just was completely burned out that I tried so hard to make nutrition be my thing, but I just didn’t fit in, not with the people, not with the job. I just didn’t fit in.
What I did is I sat down and said, When you have an accident, when something happens during a dive, you go up. Slowly, you go up. Well, even if you drown, sooner or later you will float up, you know?
You go up, you go up on the boat, you put down all your equipment, and you analyze what went wrong. That’s what I did. As I was looking through my equipment, my equipment is me: What am I good at, what can I do? I wrote everything down. That’s when I looked at, OK, which dive sites are perfect for me? That means what kind of jobs would fit me.
I wrote a list of all the jobs I could think of in the whole wide world, those that I could think of. Obviously there are quite a few, so it was a long list. I started matching what I was good at with the jobs, and at the end, I only had technical jobs left, something I had never, ever, ever considered before. You can do any dive with pretty much any equipment, but it’s going to make such a big difference if you had the right equipment and the right dive site and it’s perfect for you.
That’s what I found with programming. It was kind of random, while it wasn’t.
Iris: If that makes sense.
Noel: Yes, It does, definitely. I’m curious, when you did get started doing programming, what were some of those maybe early things that you learned or were introduced to that made you kind of, I guess, realize that this is a really good decision? Or was it really difficult in the beginning and it took awhile for that stuff to appear? Or did you know really early on, "This is great. I made a great choice in this career"?
Iris: Well, the first few days sucked. I mean—yes, you might want to beep that out. Because our teachers are doing, counting, talking about binaries, and I had forgotten all the math. They’re talking about binary numbers and doing all the calculations. They’re talking about hardware as well, which I didn’t know anything about. I know now, but not then.
I was so frustrated. On the second day, I was like, "I want to go home." I was kind of upset and stuff, so my teacher drove me home and we had a long chat, and he said, "Iris, come back. We kind of need a personality like that. You just come back. Give it the rest of the week and you’ll see."
On the third day, when I came back—I did come back—we started programming. We did our first little console application, and I just realized I just got it. I would turn around and look at my classmates. Some of them just seemed confused and I was like, "What is the problem? I mean, this is logic."
For the first time in my life, I understood what was written. I mean, it made sense, communication. There were no feelings, no analyzing like that, no. It sounds like when somebody says, "Oh, do whatever you feel like," and that means, "Don’t do what you feel like. Do what I feel like." It was nothing like that. It was just pure, pure logic and it made sense, and I just fell head over heels over it. I just fell in love with working with that type of logic.
Noel: That’s cool. I’m kind of curious, too, that I noticed that—you and I were talking before the interview and that you mentioned you’d been actually able to kind of take an agile approach in that past career as a dietician. Did you know what agile was at the time, or was it when you discovered agile doing programming that you realized, "Hey, I was already kind of doing some of this stuff"? Is that why maybe it made so much sense to you so early on, was that you had maybe kind of personally chosen that approach already?
Iris: It wasn’t a conscious approach I made with agile. It’s something that I had put a name to afterwards as I see it fits the agile set of thinking.
I remember when I was studying at university, just so many years moving around between schools and so on, it has a very nonagile approach. Usually the courses, what you’re going to learn, has been pre-determined maybe ten, fifteen years ago. The clinical nutrition in Gothenburg hadn’t had a single change for almost ten years—very small, minor changes.
We’re talking about nutrition. Nutrition, like technology, is an area that is constantly changing because we’re still learning so much. I was just shocked that our course literature was outdated, and then the teachers’ information, sometimes with some teachers, was outdated. There was no evaluation, and it was certainly not so that the students were the most important bit. It was the process that was important, that you start in one end and you finish in the other end, and everybody goes through the same tube being fed the same information.
I hated that approach. In fact, that was kind of what got me kicked out of high school, because I kept asking teachers questions and it was regarded as something being disrespectful if you question something.
But what happened later when I finished nutrition, there was a very big change in clinical nutrition. We started having a nutrition evaluation process with patients where the patient was in focus. You still have the process, but the patient was the focus instead of the process itself, and it was kind of iterative.
That was when I started seeing that this started having this agile approach. I was really fascinated that they haven’t had this at school, and they really should. I kind of adopted that idea with changing the focus from the process itself to actually the person you are talking to and treating and giving recommendations to. I made sure I had carried that on when I was working as a teacher, that I had the same approach.
In contrast, the school, well, in university where we did have evaluations but nobody read them afterwards, the evaluations I had with my students, I used those to change the material and make sure I was always up to date, because you need to discuss trending things. There’s always new studies and everything is happening really fast in the field of nutrition, and even moreso with technology.
Noel: That was almost like your retrospectives—using those evaluations to kind of determine how you would do things differently that following year.
Iris: Yes, absolutely, and not just for a whole year. This was a monthly basis, and sometimes you would have to change a course kind of in the middle of it. The most important thing I learned is that anything can change at any time, but it shouldn’t halt the whole thing, and you have to be prepared for that. That means you have to break things apart into pieces that kind of can work together, but you have to be able to separate them apart and treat each as its own little individual piece.
Noel: Would you recommend—as far as someone deciding to maybe follow this, maybe not your exact same path, but to go into development—to kind of have that … not be some agile expert, but just have some sort of understanding that that’s going to enable them to, I guess, grow quicker by knowing that this is the way it will be, and that by allowing yourself to be agile, you’ll have a much smoother, I guess, transition into that career?
Iris: I would say I don’t really see any other options, unless you have a lot of time and you can put the world on hold. The world is spinning a hundred miles an hour and you have to be able to keep up that pace, and you’re never going to be able to if you’re going to go through that tube from one end to the finish line—and there’s no finish line, by the way.
Noel: That’s true, that’s true.
Iris: It’s ever-expanding, so you have to view software development, in particular, as a store full of toys. They keep adding new toys every single day, and at first you’re like, "Wow, I want to play with them all! I want to play with that and that and that!" And then you kind of despair because you don’t have enough time to play with it all. You pick a couple of favorites, you chuck some out, some you keep forever, you trade toys with friends, but there’s always going to be a change. You can’t expect to go just through a tube from one end to another and then, "Ta-da! I am a developer now!"
Noel: Right.
Iris: That’s not going to happen.
Noel: I’ve always kind of marveled that when I’m speaking with these agile experts who’ve been doing this for ten, twenty, thirty, forty years that, even though they’ve had that long to come up with these ideas they’ve come up with, they never claim that it will work for everybody. They never say it’s a silver bullet, they never say, "This has to be the way you do it." It’s so open to, "This might work for you if this is what works for me. Ten years from now I may have completely dropped this and moved on to something else."
I’ve always thought that was really cool that no one has all the answers, no one’s reached agility. It’s like everyone is still on that path and hoping to continuously improve.
Iris: Agile itself is very abstract in its form. I think you can say that agile works for everybody, and then it kind of depends what you put into the word "agile."
Noel: Right.
Iris: Me, personally, I would say 100 percent that a strict, waterfall process in education is a bad idea in fields where things are changing really fast, and those are most fields today.
Noel: And then, my last question was, I know that there are a lot of people kind of like myself, admittedly, who want to be able to do everything as quick as possible, and I saw where you were—again, you haven’t learned everything in the time you’ve been a developer, but the accomplishments that you made just in your first year, and then in your second year, and I saw the certifications, the recognitions that you received—was there anything that you did personally to be able to do it that quickly? Was it just the amount of time and dedication that you put into it, or are there some tips that you could give people like myself who aren’t looking necessarily for shortcuts, but at the same time, if it can be done quickly and if it could be done faster, I usually try and go that route.
Iris: The first thing I would say: Don’t panic. Whenever you panic—say, back to scuba-diving, when you panic, you’re screwed, because you’re going to lose all sense of logic. Never, ever panic. Don’t allow yourself to get into that moment of panic because you’re going to lose time and energy and you’re not going to be able to think clear. A lot of people do that when they just feel that. They feel it is overwhelming—there’s too much to learn. You kind of have to slice it up into tiny bits and pieces and just take it one piece at a time.
The second thing would be never underestimate hard and efficient work. It’s not just doing your repetitive things. You have to constantly evaluate what you’re doing, if it works, and if it works for you, and then act upon the results that you get from that evaluation. That’s a lot of hard work. The easiest thing is to just go learn stuff and not think about how you go about learning. If you spend time on how to learn, it’s going to pay off in the end.
Those are the two most important things, and the third one, which I don’t usually say because it’s so obvious: You’ve got to have the passion. If you don’t have the passion, it’s kind of like baking bread without yeast. Of course, you can do a sourdough bread, but few people actually manage to do that and it takes forever, so you need some passion, you need some yeast to put into it and you’ll get the perfect bread.
Noel: Yes. I don’t think the best developers or testers would ever argue that they weren’t extremely passionate about their work. They’re so, so dedicated to it that they spend time not just learning all that they can, but sharing that knowledge with everybody else to kind of make the software world a better place.
Iris: Yes. You’re building the world. There is nothing today that doesn’t have technology involved in it, so we are a part of something really, really big.
And you can tell by the spirit. I mean, this is the best community I’ve ever been a part of, and I’m just amazed by the people, the creativity, and the sense of humor, and the sense of self as well. People seem very confident in who they are and where they want to go, and I really like that.
Noel: Very cool. Well, thank you so much for speaking with me today.
Again, Iris is going to be speaking at the Better Software/Agile Development Conference East in Boston, Massachusetts, on Thursday, November 14th, giving a keynote titled "Learning to be a Developer—From Day One." Thank you so much again.
Iris: Thank you.
With her tremendous passion for programming, Iris Classon has had a remarkable career path that proves that anything is possible. As a registered and licensed clinical dietitian, Iris decided in 2011 that she wanted to learn programming and rapidly accelerated from 0 to 100. Within the first year, she earned several certifications, landed a developer job, and after just six months, was a technical evangelist for the renowned international company Telerik. In less than two years Iris was awarded Microsoft MVP for her contributions in the C# community and is today known for her rapid learning and rather unique, creative, and uplifting teaching style.

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