What’s good! Who are you and what do you do in the tech industry?

My name is Allie Nimmons. I grew up in Yonkers, New York (a happy little town outside of the city) but I currently live in Miami, Florida. I miss the seasons, so want to move back up north someday. I’m multiracial - my mom was born in Trinidad and my dad’s family is from England and Scotland.

I’m the Support and Community Outreach Coordinator at GiveWP, the leading WordPress donation plugin. My title was designed for me, as I currently straddle the tech support and content areas of our company. Half my day, I'm in the queue, talking to customers, solving problems, Googling errors, and troubleshooting broken sites. While I don’t write the code that makes up our plugin, I have to understand how it works from all angles.

The other half of my day, you can find me doing a myriad of other things. I project manage our technical documentation, write tutorial blog posts, and reach out to community members for collaborations.

Before I stepped into tech, I was on the completely opposite side of the spectrum: the arts. I was an actor for the majority of my childhood and teens years. My mom has been a stage manager and costume designer since she was 16. I got brought along with her to shows and rehearsals until it was natural that I join the process myself. I majored in theater at Florida State University. I wanted to be a director. But the hobbies you love don’t always make the best careers and I left school after 2 years.

What's your backstory and what motivated you to join tech?

I was 5 the first time I was in a show. As I grew up, I saw theater as more than an opportunity to dress up and play. It was a collaborative effort. You stitch together the talents and passions of many people toward a common goal. It was always larger than the sum of its parts and was 100% unique to the people who made it. Even a Shakespearean play, performed thousands of times, is never the same twice.

When I started college, I realized that while I saw theater as collaborative, many people did not. The competition that comes with a selective job like acting is intense. I wasn't willing to fight and compete for opportunities. I found myself disheartened by the cattiness, the competition, and the cliquishness that came with that industry.

In college, my mental health began to suffer. This beautiful thing that I loved didn’t bring me joy. I couldn’t relate to my friends anymore and I was unhappy. After dropping out of college, I felt lost.

I knew I wanted two things out of my life: to avoid being a “starving artist” cliche and be creative and collaborative. I landed on web design and development. It flexed the same artistic and process-oriented parts of my brain. And it was a more lucrative industry; in the arts, only a select few will “make it” and earn a real living.

The transition was extremely difficult, both emotionally and financially. I couldn’t afford to go back to school, now saddled with loans from a more or less useless 2 year endeavor. I began teaching myself code and design out of library books and from YouTube videos. While working part time jobs, I would go to Starbucks on my days off to work through a syllabus I made for myself. The process was not smooth, by any means. At one point, someone robbed me and stole my laptop. I lost all the early projects and sites I made. I had to crowd-fund online to raise enough money for a new computer.

The transition was frustrating and tedious and while no one told me I couldn’t do it, I had nobody in my life cheering me on. A lot of the people in my life looked at me differently after dropping out of school. I don’t think they believed I would follow through on this new goal and a lot of the time, I didn’t either.

How did you break into the tech industry?

When I was 23 years old, I got an internship at a small agency after a year of teaching myself to code.  That internship turned into a job and it's where I started working with WordPress for the first time. I worked on real websites and learned about things like hosting, security, and SEO.

Through that job, I was able to gain a larger understanding of the tech industry and surrounding fields. Through WordPress, I learned I could design, and build without actually needing to code. But that job took an enormous toll on me - physically and mentally. The leadership structure and style at that agency was, in hindsight, abusive.

Even though they hired me as a junior developer, I never wrote a line of code or built a website myself. They used me to fill positions they couldn't hire for. I still have nightmares about my boss calling me in the middle of the night because a typo went out on a social media post.

My employment was often used as a tool against me - “Get this right the first time or we will find someone else who will.”

I had to start seeing a physical therapist because I was getting excruciating pain in my right ear, down to my fingertips. The pain was a result of sitting at a desk with my hand on a mouse for 8 straight hours a day. I would cry in the bathroom, have panic attacks when my phone rang, and there was no one I could turn to.

I moved to be closer to my job and I shared an apartment with a girl I didn’t know. None of my friends were nearby and everyone I worked with was much older than I was. Perhaps worst of all to me was the fact that I didn’t feel I was growing as a designer or developer.

After almost 12 months, I quit. It was sudden. I gave zero notice. They gave me an ultimatum and I took the choice that allowed me to keep my mental health intact. High expectations for performance are a blight on this industry; it creates burnout and make people hate their jobs.

Afterwards, I was emotionally scarred. The idea of working for someone else terrified me. But the idea of taking a step backwards horrified me too.

I had nothing saved, so I started designing and building sites for friends and family for next to nothing. Photography gigs earned me extra cash, and I sold my car for rent money.

Over the next 3 years, I built or fixed almost 100 websites. Freelancing turned into something more. I managed to build a business that was entirely my own. It was all thanks to the the skills I’d amassed through my own education and second-hand through the agency job. Building my business was always scary, and always stressful, but it was mine.

My business was never incredibly profitable. I wasn’t ever able to grow it to where I thought it should be. But from March 23rd, 2016 and June 14th, 2019 I was able to say that not only was I a designer and developer, but a business owner.

What was the interview process for your first tech job?

I found the agency job on Craigslist. The agency posted an ad for a junior developer and I applied through email.

The interview process was not intensive. I did a coding interview where I got the mockup of a site and had to build it out. I suppose I did ok, but I don't have that project anymore. I remember sitting down in the office with the CEO and having a conversation about my interests. I specifically remember him asking me if I wanted to learn about things like social media and SEO. I told him that I wanted to learn as much as possible. While that wasn't untrue, I just wanted the job.

Looking back, I wish I had been a little more specific in what I wanted out of the job. I didn’t get to code at all in that position and I never got to design or build anything. Because I was eager to learn about everything and anything, I ended up working in more of a catch-all position than anything else.

Working there I made $500 per week. At the time, that seemed like a lot. But given that I was working close to $50 per hour some weeks, it really didn’t amount to much at all. I had no idea how to negotiate upwards and I don’t believe I would have been taken seriously if I had tried.

Since you’ve started your tech career, how have you dealt with imposter syndrome?

I have imposter syndrome all the time. When I worked at that agency, I was never treated as someone who had anything special or important to bring to the table. I was forever in learning mode; a student, not there to be listened to, but to be helpful.

When I started running my business, I wasn’t often taken seriously. I didn’t have offices or employees, so I don’t think most people in my life saw me as a legitimate business owner. A lot of the time my clients didn’t treat me as a legitimate business owner either. I always felt like I was hurrying to catch up with myself somehow. Even though I did technically design and build websites, I never felt like I was doing it at a level deserving of respect.

Because I’m not strong with code, I constantly doubt my right to say that I work in tech at all. Every site I ever got paid to build was created with a theme or page builder. I have always had to do so much learning on the job. I always thought that when I “became” a developer (as though there is a singular moment when that happens) that I wouldn’t need to learn anymore. I would just know.

Applying to do this very interview is a way for me to fight imposter syndrome. I have to remind myself daily that I know more and can do more than a year ago, two years ago, three years ago. Looking back at who I was before helps me reaffirm that I am worthy of the job I have. I work in tech, and that is valid even if I don’t spend all day coding and have to ask for help sometimes. Tech is more than code, after all.

What resources did you use to prepare for this journey?

I used the following online resources when to teach myself.

  • https://www.wpbeginner.com/ - I referred to WP Beginner a lot when I started getting familiar with WordPress. It a great way to understand the basics.
  • https://www.thinkful.com/ - I worked with Thinkful for a while until my laptop was stolen and I couldn’t afford to keep on with them. It was helpful to have a mentor, but I never felt like the person I got was a good fit.
  • https://www.codecademy.com/ - This is probably the best and most popular free online coding school out there. I still recommend it as a place to get real practice.
  • https://www.smashingmagazine.com/ -  I got a lot of my practical design skills from here. Even though I’ve always had an eye for aesthetics, Smashing Magazine helped me understand the rules of web design.
  • https://central.wordcamp.org/ - Going to WordCamps has been my ticket into the industry. I walk away from each camp with new friends, new knowledge, and a list of things to look up or try when I get home. While the content is usually specific to WordPress, there is a lot of value at these events for people in tech.

What advice do you have for others who want a career in tech or are early in their career?

A lot of tech is about finding the right answer. When you’re coding, the goal is to make the code do what you want, in as specific a way as possible. The tech works, or it doesn’t.

But so much of the process is not about the right answer. It’s about trial and error, finding what feels right, and finding your tribe. It's also about being fully-informed of the entire picture. I think designers are better if they have development knowledge and vice versa. I don’t want to box myself in and I don’t think others should either. My goal for 2020 is to get back to learning code, since it’s been on the backburner for almost 5 years now.

I believe that anyone can learn anything if they find the right path on which to travel. To someone who wants a career in tech, I would recommend the following.

Find what it is about the industry you love more than anything. Maybe it’s problem-solving. Maybe it’s creating something out of nothing. Maybe it’s the process. Passion for your work won’t make it easier, per se, but it will carry you through the hardest bits. And if you know why you're doing it every day, you won't lose sight of what's important.

Be well-rounded. New perspectives will help you solve problems. Taking a break from a problem is often the best way to kick your brain into gear. Have hobbies that take you away from your computer and friends outside your industry. Oftentimes, employers are not looking for a person with a pristine background and the "best" skills. They want someone who has something unique to add to the team.

Remember that things are changing all the time and even someone working in tech 20 years needs to Google stuff. If you’re focused on learning, not knowing, you’ll find yourself more knowledgeable than you thought possible.

Find your tribe. Find people who like you and who you like as well. Since starting at my most recent job, I’ve learned more than ever. It’s because there are people in my corner, willing to teach me and see me excel. They understand what I’ve been through and what I want. And I trust them to have my back.

Where can we go to learn more about you or keep in touch?

I’m most active on Twitter: @allie_nimmons. It’s where I keep in touch with my friends, follow tech news, share my reflections, and vent my thoughts.

When I have more in-depth things to share, you can find me at allienimmons.com, my personal blog. Even though I’m now employed full-time at an awesome company, I provide WordPress maintenance services to small brands and businesses at pixelglowmaintenance.com.