Isolation, Neopets, and a Coding Bootcamp

I was raised by crazy people. That’s pretty much what I tell people, it’s the easiest way to describe being raised be people who isolated my sisters and I in a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. (That farmhouse was owned by a family friend who was tired of seeing my parents get evicted from one place after the next, and my sisters and I sleeping in church parking lots.) I had no friends. I wasn’t allowed to watch most modern movies or tv. I wasn’t allowed to listen to secular music. I wasn’t allowed to cut my hair above my shoulder blades, or dye it more than one or two shades from it’s natural color (and even then, never with a permanent dye). In my tiny world, there was no Jurassic Park, Halloween, Taylor Swift, and I had never even heard of ABBA or Saturday Night Live. “Crap” was a swear word.

We lived right across the street from the airport, and next to a small warehouse. There was nothing else here but a red hawk who lived across the street. Apparently the area is now a huge industrial area.

I was homeschooled, and I use that word in the loosest sense. We didn’t always have books, and the books were very biased towards my parents religious beliefs. (My books taught me that evolution wasn’t real, and probably neither were dinosaurs.) I never had more than 1 book per subject per year. Sometimes I had less (one year in particular I had none). My Mom never helped with anything. She felt education was a waste of time, especially for women who were not “Called by God to lead.” In her mind, I should have gotten married, and been a good little submissive housewife who never went anywhere or did anything, and especially never talked back (this was a particular failing of mine). And I knew that life would never have made me happy. I was already miserable.

My whole world changed when my Dad brought home a computer and we got a dial up connection. The computer had a 40gb hard drive and less than 1gb of ram. At first I has dismissed the internet as some vague business concept. Then I saw my older sister playing Neopets, and I was hooked. The internet became my window to the outside world. I quickly learned to customize my Neopets page. I joined Myspace, Angelfire, I was drawing in Photoshop. I was building webpages with divs, frames (primarily using floats) and using www.flamingtext.com for everything.

You weren’t cool in the mid 2000s if your website didn’t have flaming text on it.

The thing that kept me hooked was the community. The internet was my portal. I learned who Avril Lavigne was. (Ironically a celebrity impersonator chose the wrong target and was very disappointed. I remember her saying “My name is Avril” And I said “That’s a cool name” And she said “I’m a singer” and I said “Oh I like to sing too” And she said “I live in Canada” and I said “Oh you shouldn’t tell people where you live online, it’s dangerous” looking back she must have been all kinds of frustrated. I had no clue.)

My community kept me hooked, but I began to get bored with making art (a product of my ADD), and quickly found I could make my art interactive with Flash (now Adobe Animate. Geesh I’m old.) The first thing I made was an e-card. The next thing I made was a simple whack a mole game, I remember it used a for loop, and I was baffled by the mysterious thing, but after a few more uses I quickly became hooked and was building small flash games that primarily relied on creative use of the for loop.

Bubble Bounce: A Flash game I built, drew, and animated start to finish

I had friends online. I had clients online. I had my own private world online, and I finally had moments to live for online. And I knew I wanted more than the life I had. Because all of these people talked about their family and friends. They would share pictures of their lives outside of this digital world. I had no life outside it to share.

With encouragement from my online friends, I utilized the library and studied hard,I got a .. not a great, but a decent ACT score, 21 if you are curious (nobody will be calling me a genius, but for being entirely self taught I’m allowing myself to accept it). My Great Aunt helped me sign up for the ACT, and paid for it since my Mom would have no part. My Great Aunt also helped me apply for the FAFSA and I got into college.

When I graduated college, I found a job almost immediately. I have been working there for 9 years now and in that time I have put my coding skills to use and even grown them. I built their ebooks, including multimedia and javascript books for Apple Books (my first jump into javascript). I used to build flash games for their website (before Flash pretty much died off entirely). I prototyped webpages for them using bootstrap, and even prototyped a couple apps in Unity.

This is a screenshot from Ups and Downs, an ebook made for Apple Books that uses javascript to incorporate interactive elements. On the left page there is a ghost hidden in the picture that will light up when you tap it (not the pumpkin ghost, there is actually a hidden ghost) on the right, there is a basket with a spaceship pumpkin sticker you can place anywhere on the page. Tapping the ghost pumpkin will trigger audio that tells you a Halloween themed joke. The text on the top is read-along, and not only will it highlight as the audio reads it, but you can tap it anywhere to start it from that point.

About 4 years ago I was offered an opportunity to teach an interaction design course at my previous college, the course would be using HTML5 canvas with javascript, and I would have the summer to fully prepare, I was so excited, and the class quickly became one of my favorite parts of my week.

I dove deeper into javascript for that class, I helped students build simple interactive projects, with more focus on design, and they would always gasp at how smart I was (haha). I had an independent study student sit in on my class and I helped him build a portfolio with Bootstrap. When something broke he would ask me to fix it, and I would say, “Hm lets try…” tap a few keys, not even sure if it would work, and his eyes would go wide, and he would look at me like I was some kind of super genius and every time I would laugh. It was honestly all really simple basic stuff, but the simple code was so new to them, it was a HUGE confidence boost.

After 3 years of doing that, I finally had to ask myself. Why am I not really pursuing this? I love this. I love building things. I love figuring out how to break down a project, and solve these problems. I don’t just want to design, I want to build!

That was the moment I started seriously considering the option. I joined groups on Facebook, started watching Youtube videos, I completed the entire HTML, CSS, and Javascript sections of FreeCodeCamp, I spent an entire year doing tutorials, practicing javascript, learning ES6, I even volunteered at a local coding conference, but I was having trouble putting it together. I was struggling with using a framework, and I had no backend skills, and found the resources for those to be less straightforward. So I looked into coding bootcamps, and scholarships. And after finding a scholarship specifically for women who had shown dedication and interest in pursuing a career in technology, I feel like I am finally on my way.

The internet created a portal for me, it gave me access to information, communities, and opportunities that I would never have been able to reach without it. I truly believe technology can help make the world a better place, and I am so excited to have even the possibility of being a part of building that better place.

The one thing I have learned, is even when people tell you that you don’t add up, and you can never be everything that you dream, that you just don’t have the qualifications, that there is something about you that means you will never qualify, sometimes, you just have to go for it anyway.

Jessica is a Designer who is studying Software Engineering at Flatiron School, she has 2 giant dogs, a love of javascript, and hates Papyrus (the font).

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