Jeanette Head on Empathy, Being Ignored, and the Do-it-Yourself Future of Development

This is the third in a series of interviews with Atomic makers.

Meet Jeanette Head: snowboarder, Girl Develop It teacher, and software developer at Atomic Object. I recently sat down with Jeanette to learn what drew her to development, the special challenges she faces, and why she loves to teach people to code.

How did you come to be a software developer?

I’m a pretty unique story, especially for a woman. My parents exposed me to it when I was very young—they both work with computers and have Computer Science degrees. When I was in third grade, my science fair project was “How Computers Work.”

I had high school programming courses, then studied Computer Science at Michigan Tech University. I had internships at GE Aviation and Dow Corning, and working for big companies like that made want to work at a smaller company. So after graduation, I came right to SRT Solutions, and in 2013, Atomic bought SRT and I became an Atom.

So why do you like being a developer?

I like the creativity of it—that you can do really any sort of applications—and the breadth of it, building something beginning to end.

I really like the collaboration, working with people and being challenged. I didn’t expect development to be as social as it is.

I also really like the community that’s around software. I love the local community here in Ann Arbor; it makes me feel really supported, encouraging me to speak, and so on. I meet a lot of women who want to learn to code, which is really fun and interesting.

What do you find challenging about it?

When you’re dealing with clients and deadlines that they’re trying to reach, there’s a lot of high emotions and frustrations for everybody.

Another challenge is being part of an under-represented group; being a woman in tech makes you stand out. My first programming class in college was about 100 people, two of them girls.

What’s challenging about being a woman in tech?

A lot of clients (for example in the building and automotive industries) aren’t used to working with young women professionals. It takes you longer to prove yourself and gain their trust.

You encounter it where you’ll say or suggest something, but you’ll get interrupted or ignored—and then somebody else brings it up later. Or clients have questions, but they won’t ask you; they’ll ask the guys you’re working with. And that’s frustrating.

A lot of people at Atomic know that happens and they help redirect the questions to me: “Hey Jeanette, what do you think?” They back me up.

That’s why we’ve been talking about some kind of diversity training at Atomic—making sure that we all understand and can look out for those things. It doesn’t solve the problem 100%, but it’s huge to not have to do all the work of challenging that kind of behavior on my own.

What skills does a software developer need?

There are so many different skill sets that can be successful. Some people are very analytical, just staring at a problem until they have an answer. Some people are very flexible; they can try something, then throw it away and try something new. And some people are meticulous; they study the problem, articulate a solution, identify problems, and work through all the details before they start implementing. But I think good software developers do all of that stuff, using different methods on different problems.

I also think good communication skills are incredibly valuable—being personable—not necessarily being outgoing, but being able to relate to your clients and teammates.

Can you think of something surprising you’ve done that has made you better at your job?

Girl Develop It class. I was asked to teacher-assist with an HTML/CSS class, and I wasn’t expecting to get much out of it. Not only did I get much better at HTML/CSS, but I learned a lot from working with people with no coding experience. It’s why I keep going back.

It’s challenging for me to try and communicate abstract ideas that I “just know.” I’ve become a better communicator.

It’s also given me a lot of empathy. The students are trying to grasp something over a day or two that I had several years to pick up. It’s really cool and really brave that they do it, because you’re going to feel like an idiot. Watching people struggle with these concepts gives me a lot of respect for clients and everyone I’ve been working with who hasn’t had my experience.

What’s the most satisfying product you’ve ever worked on at Atomic?

The Scanning Wizard project for Koester Performance Research was very rewarding. There are people whose disabilities mean they have to interact with a computer using just one key. The Scanning Wizard is a “typing test” to find the best and most efficient settings for them.

The product owner was very invested in the project; she came on-site multiple times per week to answer questions. She did a lot of user testing and was very open to our style of software development. It was just a really cool domain.

Where do you think software is going?

The world is shifting to be more software-based. Software is in more and more things—and I think people will learn to interact with it on the back end. They’ll be expected to have some level of software knowledge. There’s still going to be a huge demand for software developers, and I think eventually people might be able make a lot of the simpler applications on their own.

What do you like to do outside work?

I like to be outside a lot: I love snowboarding, I picked up skateboarding last summer, I play disc golf.

I try not to do a lot of software outside of work. I feel like when I get away from the screen and completely switch context, I’m living a more rewarding life as a whole. And when I get back to software, I’m ready to try new problems and come back to old ones from a different angle.