#162 Mark Noonan from roadie to accessibility problem solver
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Mark Noonan 0:00
important part of the interviewing process from the interviewer side is not to push somebody and see where the holes are. We all have holes. But it's to let somebody like shine at the things they're good at because it's so hard to get someone relaxed enough to show you how capable they are.
Tim Bourguignon 0:24
Hello, and welcome to developer's journey, the podcast, bringing you the making of stories of successful software developers. To help you on your upcoming journey. I'm your host, Tim bourguignon. And on this episode 162, I received Mark Noonan, Mark leads the front end dev team at next track, you're involved in communities around Atlanta, particularly cool for Atlanta and people making progress in previous lives. He's been an ethno musicology student, a nonprofit manager, a grocery store employee, and a roadie for trailing folk singer. Mark. Welcome, Dave. Thank you. But before we come to your story, I want to thank the terrific listeners who support the show every month, you are keeping the dev journey lights up, if you would like to join this fine crew, and help me spend more time on finding phenomenal guests, then editing audio tracks, please go to our website, Dev journey dot info, and click on the Support me on Patreon button. Even the smallest contributions are giant steps toward a sustainable dev journey. journey. Thank you. And now back to today's guest. Mark. As you know, the show exists to help the listeners understand what your story looked like, and then imagine how to shape their own future. So as usual, let's go back to your beginning all the way to your beginnings. Where would you place the start? The beginning of your dream?
Mark Noonan 1:56
Mark Noonan 9:48
So they turned out to be from Code for Atlanta, and they were like planning an event or something. And I was looking for a totally different table. But they were like wait, gradually, we realized that like Apparently it was okay to just wander up and interrupt these guys and talk to them. And one of the organizers was named brandy and she said, You seems like you're looking for tech meetups and you're learning programming code for Atlanta's a good environment for you. Come, come do something with us. So that got me aware of Code for Atlanta. And I went to a hackathon, which was related to Atlanta's public transit system. This started a whole spiral of events that we might talk more about in more detail. But the main thing about this was at people making progress, I was working with customers of Atlanta's public transit system. So I was working with adults with developmental disabilities who used Marta to get to work. And they had some real pain points using the Marta website using the phone interface, some real issues with these door to door trips that they would have to book every week to go to work or to go outside. So I was like, great, there's a hackathon Marta is going to be there, they have multiple events, I'm going to get to talk to people in Marta in person, and tell them all of my problems, and they can't go away. And it was so hard to get people on the phone, I just thought, this is a great opportunity. And that is the second start. That's the start that kind of keeps going to today. Because when I went to that event, I suddenly felt like, Oh, I am one of these people, I do fit in with this group here. And it really reminded me of the drama group that I was in, in college, the drama society called RAM SOC and UCV, in Dublin, that was part of our Yeah, part of our university where it was really, really busy. We did two plays a week, one in the evening, one in the in the lunchtime. So we had to swap out the set five days a week, we had to swap out the set in between two shows. And then each weekend, we'll be building the set for the next show. And I got into writing there and directing there and just like seeing how much you can achieve in a short space of time. And I really liked that. I think I thought what I liked was theater. And I still do like theater a lot. But I think I like the energy of that environment, just as much. So the fact that we were throwing these massive weekends to get a show together and working for a paying audience every week was was amazing. Even if the students in there paying $2. Like, it's fine, it was good. So when I got into the hackathon environment into civic hacking, generally, I was like, Oh, this is exactly the same energy that I liked from before. And my skills were all over the place. But civic tech is a place where no matter what skills you have, somebody can find a way to use you. So I was at like, a very low level, I think of technical accomplishment. But that's still really helpful to somebody who just has zero ability to put a website on a server, you can do something that helps them massively. Even if your code is not pretty. You can be useful early. So yeah, that started my involvement with Code for Atlanta, that led to experiences that made me feel like I could belong in the space. And that led to starting to build confidence to apply for jobs and stuff like that.
Tim Bourguignon 13:10
Stay with us.
Tim Bourguignon 13:11
We'll be right back. Hello imposters. If you work in tech want to work in tech or are tech curious in any way you'll want to listen to this. We've launched a community of professionals who come together to share information and advice about jobs, roles, careers and the journeys we all take throughout our lives as the designers, builders, fixers investigators, explainers and protectors of the world's technology. We call it the imposter syndrome network. And all are welcome. So find the impostor syndrome network podcast wherever you listen to find podcasts, and look for the isn community on your favorite social platform. Hashtag impostor network.
Tim Bourguignon 13:57
I'd like to go to come back to one of the things you said isn't you went into the you came into this room, and you felt okay. I'm one of these people. How did you feel then why do you feel that what are the cues? What made you feel this?
Mark Noonan 14:10
I suppose it was an incident when I got to the event, but it was okay. We have a hackathon has a lot of people moving around. I learned from CES 50 What hackathons were because that's a part of that course that you do if you're in person. So it's like I want to go and see what that's like. We split up into teams. And I had my project idea that I wanted to work on. So it was about the way of finding out if your bus is late if you're using this special service called Marta mobility for people with disabilities to get around. So I was able to talk to a few people about that just in the preamble to the event or two people join my team after that, which was Darshan, and Josh, and they both were just like developers in different areas. One was an iOS developer one was very Josh was very general generalist. My friend and a Rando who I knew from Freako camp joined our team as well. And so we had this like, Saturday to Sunday time together of, I did not know how to whiteboard and app idea, I didn't really know how to put any shape on what I had in front of me. But I was able to watch other people go, Hey, this is like, this is what we're doing. This is how we draw the screens that Darshan is going to make into an iPhone app. And I'm just like, one person can make an iPhone app, like Darshan had these magical powers, and he could show me stuff he was doing in in Xcode happening on his phone. And I was just like, blown away by that experience. But also, because I could describe the problem really well, because I've been living with this problem and helping people call into the phone system to get information that I knew somebody was reading from a screen, I was really well able to give them what request requirements we needed for the app, even though I didn't know the word requirements at that point. And so then it did feel like we were collaborating, I did a little bit of coding, I did some like, made some mock JSON for what the data would be. I did a tiny PHP script to simulate data changing over time. So the endpoint would like return different stuff, if you kept hitting it, something like that. So that's what I was like, okay, I can, I can contribute here. And also, I feel like I'm a part of this team, and struggling to like, identify what needs to be done and figure it out. And then put a plan together, and duct tape, some some ridiculous things into place to get something that functions correctly. Like this is definitely an experience I've had before back at the drama society, in college. And in being in bands and putting on shows in general was like, okay, and not only this, I'm able to actually communicate with these people, even though I don't know most of the terms and the concepts underlying it yet. I didn't know how to work in teams and know how to do Git or any of that stuff until I came to Code for Atlanta. But the welcoming nature of those people was so helpful to me to just be like, Oh, great, we have an app idea. That was something that the other two guys didn't have. So just show me a lot about like teamwork, and what it can be like to make a product and other people and how much fun it can be. So that's when I felt like, okay, I get what this is now. And maybe, maybe I could do a job like this. There was a long way to go before I made that change.
Tim Bourguignon 17:32
It's an awesome story. And I'm glad that you had this experience with very welcoming people. Did you have the opposite experience later in, in your in your career with our non welcoming group, and then you failed that discrepancy between the two,
Mark Noonan 17:44
I don't know. Atlanta seems to be lucky in in just lots of meetups, that people especially who go to a Code for Atlanta, Mita. It's like, who is volunteering to spend two hours on a weeknight after work to go and like give away their time and their expertise to some unknown nonprofit or something who might be coming there with a project, like you're already probably a pretty nice person, when you are wanting to take your time to do that. Likewise, at the meetups, you go there if you want to share your knowledge and meet other people and be approached and be friendly. And I don't find people going there to be mean, if somebody is at a meet up, typically. And I may just have been super fortunate Atlanta scene Free Code Camp or whatever, if they have a lot of knowledge. They're not there to act like they're fantastic. And they know things other people don't. They're there to see what they can do to help the other people who came who are earlier in the journey. So I had good experiences at a code newbie meetup that ran here for a while related to that podcast. And they did a couple of events that were really useful for me that one of them, I happen to randomly win the Big Nerd Ranch book for web development. It was great. And I just guessed the right number that Kim Creighton, who some people listening to this may know Kim Creighton, she was at this event and she was like guess what number I'm thinking of and I got the right thing. So I got a copy of the book. So a lot of good little things like that happened to me and meeting people who are still friends of mine from these events. So I don't know, there might have been people there who were jerks. And I just I didn't care because they're eclipsed by the friendly people.
Tim Bourguignon 19:25
This is exactly my experience as well. Communities like this have been have been a key in my past, really making real friendships in such events. So I'm glad you're saying this. I have I haven't seen in this context in these contexts. Any any negative experience to report it's really, really fantastic. When did you start feeling okay? Now let's say I'm changing direction. Now. I'm going to be a developer. You were still working for this nonprofit at that time, when did this shift?
Mark Noonan 19:56
Tim Bourguignon 26:22
did you cringe at the beginning of the first interview?
Mark Noonan 26:25
Yeah, I was like, Oh, my God, I'm not ready at all, I have to be Superman to go into these interviews, because they're going to just destroy me with their projector. So my other interviews, most of them were one or two, I just straight up didn't get. But most of them were fine and pleasant. And even though they didn't hire me, and walk out of it feeling bad, those were fine. And then one thing did work out, which was an agency where I learned a ton and got to do a bunch of front end developments got to get deeper into view, which was the framework I was learning. And I was nervous to make that switch. I wasn't sure it was going to work out. But I gotta say, I probably waited two years more than I had to to go and be a junior developer, I actually came along pretty quickly there. That was it, I was fully eventually, after six months working there, I let go of my part time second job. It took me that long to feel like it was a stable, actual completed career change, not like that it was gonna get pulled out from under me after a month when they realized that I, you know, they liked that I could do things quickly. So that was a place that I appreciated what I could do and was able to help me get some better practices as well. So yeah, that's the guts of the story. There's obviously other twists and turns in there. But unbelievable that first interview still to this day blows my mind.
Tim Bourguignon 27:47
Believe you right away. That is incredible. The first The first thing you said having an eight people in the room in front of you?
Mark Noonan 27:55
Yes, it might have been six, maybe it just felt like eight
Tim Bourguignon 27:59
more than more than two is already going. It's it's a trial. It's not a it's not an interview anymore.
Mark Noonan 28:07
Right. And they actually wouldn't one thing that did help me with that interview in that process, what they did tell me in advance, we think it's useful to make people a little uncomfortable. So we want to see how people act under pressure. And so just it's, you know, we're gonna push you in the interview. And I was like, okay, I can handle it. I obviously I couldn't handle it. But I didn't know what they meant by that advance. But it made me realize that other interviewers do this. And often when you're feeling under pressure in an interview, the person on the other side is trying to see what you do when you don't know the answer to something. So they're just gonna keep asking you questions until you're able to say, I don't know, and be comfortable that you don't know something. And like, they feel like they're supposed to make you uncomfortable. And I think that sucks. But also, at least that first company told me that was their plan. So now I was able to, in all my further interviews, step back and go, Oh, this is the part where you want me to be uncomfortable. So okay, we're at that part now. And I understand the reaction you want for me, so I'm going to provide that or I'm going to be like, This is your fault for running a bad interview and not making me able to tell you about myself. I had never been on the other side of interviewing people in the way that they did it before to understand the mindset that probably every other interview has seemed so much more comfortable and friendly, because you can't really how could you do worse than what they did?
Tim Bourguignon 29:39
Have you been in the in the interviewer seat since then?
Mark Noonan 29:42
Tim Bourguignon 33:19
And one of the things I've I've only taken the the habit to do is kind of what I'm doing right now is really starting with with the journey of the candidate, it really coming string stripping back the the questions I asked to, to the bare, easiest question where there's no wrong answer is telling me how you came to being here. And I've observed that even very nervous people start to come down and say, Okay, I can answer that this is this is something something friendly, I can talk about myself, and we stopped there. And this very small change in my process has, has had an immense impact on how interviews went after that. And I've been tweaking processes like this for for since 2014 When this podcast started, and it's amazing what you can do to really make people comfortable and then have have an honest discussion where you can learn something both on both sides of the table and or even better on both sides of the keyword if you're if you're pairing and doing something together. So interviews is a science in itself. It's really interesting when you get new
Mark Noonan 34:25
Yeah, absolutely. I had you know, come across writing about interviews in other books and like an in books and things that I'd read before. So I had even before I was doing them formally, I had read some of the caveats of like, don't just wing it, like have a formal plan. So one of ours was okay, everybody's gonna get the same test and we have a rough outline of questions. We asked everybody to try to get the same kind of information, so nothing's perfect. But yeah, there was I think what you've suggested will be a good thing for us to add as well because It is a nice open ended question like that. That reminds me of a good question that we were asked in an interview. So the virtual coffee community is sometimes I've been hanging out for the last year or two or year, I guess, since it's been created. And a lot of new folks there are, you know, doing interviews, getting into development, making the career change. It's not what the community is all about. So as developers of every level there, but one question that Abby Perrine from that community asked me, we did a mock interview, and we did a few other like, things like that together. And she asked, How did you get into development at the end of her interview? And I thought that was like when they say, Do you have any questions for us? It's not like, okay, what are your benefits packages? Like, what's this and that, but how did you get your first job in development? And I thought, that is amazing, because it makes everyone in the room, put themselves in your shoes as a candidate, and think about when they didn't have experience when they wanted their first job and wanted someone to take a chance on them, and how grateful they are to the person that did take that chance? It's a fantastic question. I wish I had asked in interviews earlier, because also, you'll learn a lot about the people in the room interviewing you. And suddenly, they have to tell you, Well, I studied this in college, or I did this or that. And you feel like all of a sudden, there's a more personal connection between the candidate and the interviewers. And everybody's thinking about something good at the end of the interview, because it was a, whatever got them into tech was obviously successful for those people. So just amazingly powerful question.
Tim Bourguignon 36:44
Almost a mind trick. But yeah,
Mark Noonan 36:47
and I don't think she might not be as cynical as me. To be like, this is a question that's going to have a particular effect. Yeah, you have the warm fuzzies at the end of the interview, and that's, and you mentally prepared to give someone a chance
Tim Bourguignon 37:02
to go also step in a different direction. When you're interviewing for a company, you're also interviewing the company. So you really have to ask some questions like that. Really trying to find out who are the persons that who are interviewing you right now? And how do they take in? What's their story? And sometimes you hear red flags when when you listen to that, since I don't not sure what to get there. And yeah, so it's very important as well, to get into these, this, these directions as well. Very cool, lyrical. What's what's in the future, Jeff, my dears, where you're heading,
Mark Noonan 37:39
there's always so much time, or not enough time, so many ideas, not enough time. And Code for Atlanta is about to start getting back into in person meetups, probably this this fall and get some more events going. I really want to do an accessibility themed event. So my background from people making progress and from like, training somebody who's going to do their job, you know, somebody with Down syndrome, or fragile X or some developmental disability, every job needs computers nowadays. So like even to go to the grocery store and bag groceries as your job, you need to know how to log in to your HR account, I need to eat a punch in at a certain machine and pick the shift that you're on and do all this stuff. So a lot of my experience of like teaching people to use technology was like, Oh, it's so frustrating, because the technology is set up in such a way that you sort of already have to understand the conventions of material design to know what stuff is to know that that pencil means edit, or that plus means new document. There's no any, like, it's so hard to train somebody who does not know how to read and does not have experience with their cell phone about how to do things. It's so hard to train with these abstract symbols. And I really miss sort of more skeuomorphic design where you can say click on the object that has a name that you recognize it's not a abstract shape. It's not a an outline of a floppy disk, that one, that one gets me so anyway, a lot of that got me thinking about accessibility and technology. I also used to work in the year before college or in between college and the ethnomusicology masters that I did. I worked with a guy named Gary toner. He was had a physical disability. So he was a wheelchair user and he ran the disability section of the college that he was in. So he was a disability officer for a college and he controls the supports for all the disabled students. So working with Gary, being maybe 22 years old at the time, had a huge influence on me. Even though I'm not directly working as an accessibility specialist or something. I've always been fascinated by it. And I keep learning more and more when I do conference talks and things I tend to pitch accessibility topics, because every, everything I want to talk about forces me to learn more and more real stuff, and even leading a front end team, we treat accessibility as a part of code quality. So it's not really an extra scope thing for us it is, as you're working on something, it's supposed to be accessible. That's no extra questions about it. No extra, like, tickets for accessibility things. That's just how we do for an ENCODE. And we do our very best with that. But we all know, we can always be better. So it do want to run an accessibility themed hackathon, we're looking at maybe a collaboration between Code for Atlanta and virtual coffee. So no real announcement of that as yet, but maybe by the end of this year, and it would be in a form that is not an intense weekend of work. I think those types of hackathons are really fun. I'm glad I did some. But I'm aware they're not in and of themselves accessible to people who have certain lives that they need to manage. So probably a hackathon style event that's over a longer term, will focus on accessibility, nonprofits, stuff like that. That's the main thing on my radar right now for the future. Because I say yes to so many things. And it's a problem.
Tim Bourguignon 41:21
I didn't know that. But that sounds like real fun and really interesting, interesting. opportunity to, to see a lot of projects and ideas in the eye and the accessibility space would be interesting. You say that you entered the industry probably two years later, as you could have, would you have a piece of advice for someone who's basically at this point in time in their on their journey, saying, Well, maybe you don't have to wait two more years? Maybe you're ready. Now a whole would be they realize this? What would be the advice you could give them?
Mark Noonan 41:53
Yeah, it's such a good point, I think that the device that I heard was like, just get out there and start interviewing and start applying for jobs, even though you don't meet all the requirements, and you're not ready, in principle is fine, it feels wrong to be doing that though, it feels like you're going to get laughed out of you know, you're going to be in a pile of resumes, and people are going to be like, Okay, you obviously you're not qualified, and also that they almost don't want to hear from you in the future, because you applied for a job you're not ready for one approach might be to try to get into a community, virtual coffee is a good example. They have an interview study group, where you can talk to other people who are doing interviews and making the same transition. And you can do some mock interviews, I've done mock interviews myself, and if anybody's listening and wants to reach out to me and do one, I'm happy to do mock interviews, especially for front end. But where I will look at someone's portfolio and interview them and just like, give them a sense of you actually have all this ammunition in your pocket for going into an interview and explaining how even though you don't have experienced yet, you've done these amazing things that make you a perfect candidate for junior front end position. There's a way of telling the story and a way of framing things that highlights that and compensates for the experience that you don't think you have. And somebody who is smarts to general world but somebody who's who's persistent and able to demonstrate they can get some work done. And that they can learn new concepts can be really successful in a development role with just a small amount of experience. And it's possible to be that way and not know it. So you do need somebody who's got a job in the fields to talk to you and like tell you that yeah, that thing that you made that MySpace page that you made counts, that, you know, all these things that you've done, as you've been learning to do actually make you stand out and give you a chance. And a lot of it from that point is just like gambling. It's just okay, I'm going to do everything I can to make myself presentable. I'm going to keep doing projects, but I will take the chance and say yes, when opportunities come up to get an interview, get a job and let them tell you no. So that it's not preemptively telling yourself that you're not ready for something. If anybody bothers to interview you. They're interested in hiring you. They already have not decided that your experience is too little. So let them inform you what they think and don't rule yourself out. And it's very low risk. If you apply too early, don't do what I did and stop applying for a year. There's a few bad apples that will make you feel bad, but that just cannot hurt to get out there. If you're doing any kind of development projects and you're finishing them and you're able to drive together a portfolio and you're trying to change careers. People don't know how ready they are.
Tim Bourguignon 44:57
Fantastic. I agree. Company Have you fully mark? Where would be the best place to reach out to you? You mentioned making mock interviews maybe, or just continuing this discussion?
Mark Noonan 45:07
Yeah. So I'm Mark T Noonan on Twitter, and I'm on LinkedIn, those are probably the only places that are useful to reach out to me. I don't post a lot on Twitter, but I am there. And I tend to read messages and reply to things. So yeah, that's a good place to reach me.
Tim Bourguignon 45:25
And I hope we'll hear or read about this hackathon idea you have on Twitter, when when it's when it's ready, you will publicize it there or where would be a place to to see this when it's happening?
Mark Noonan 45:36
Yeah, absolutely. I suppose it's, yeah, Twitter is a good place to watch out for that. It's still sort of formative. So I don't want to say for sure that it'll end up being a virtual coffee event and put them on the spot. And could you know, all sorts of things change. And, but I know there are other people, they're interested in doing this as well. And we actually kicked it off, because somebody in that community saw an accessibility theme talk that I did and was like, I want to do, or sort of civic tech talk that I did, and was like, I want to do some sort of hackathon and get some civic tech going in this community as well. gonna happen at some point. But let's not put too much of a timeline.
Tim Bourguignon 46:18
Because sorry about the pressure. Yeah. Anything else you want to plug in? Before we close today,
Mark Noonan 46:23
I suppose just Code for America, in general has been a fantastic resource for me. And there's a, you know, worldwide network of civic hacking, civic tech organizations that do work with nonprofits work with government data, and really interesting stuff. And it provides a fantastic avenue for people who are changing careers. Because your projects that you do there tend to solve concrete problems that someone's actually looking for a solution to, you meet people from all different levels of development, who are either you know, experts in something you want to learn or at industry, people in an industry you're interested in. And you tend to be able to find projects that are deployed. So in my case, that was my work with Marta through Code for Atlanta, I was able to go on my resume as granted, it was a volunteer project. But here is a project I've done in a development context, with an organization that people near me, who would look at my resume, they've heard of that organization, it is a little step up from a calculator app that you put on code pen, which has its place. But the implications of working through civic hacking for people changing careers is like, Oh, this is someone who knows how to communicate, get requirements, knows how to finish something works with a team. And here's a here's a project with users that they've made. And so to me, civic tech, hands that to you on a plate, you can probably find some civic tech activity in a city near you. And if not, everything's virtual right now. So you can attend hack nights all over the United States from anywhere in the world. If you come to Code for Atlanta. The virtual meetups are relatively small, so you can probably find somewhere to get into conversation. It's to me that we didn't talk too much about that. But I try to plug that a lot as a resume building job finding tool, that as much interesting to me as the actual good work that specific tech projects do. The other part of it is providing projects for people looking for career changes. That's a huge deal.
Tim Bourguignon 48:31
Amen to all this, and we'll either a lot of links to the show notes to all this so you can find it right away. Mark, thank you very much for the story. It's been it's been a delightful. Thanks for having me. And this has been another episode of Deborah's journey. And we'll see each other next week. Bye. Thanks a lot for tuning in. I hope you have enjoyed this week's episode. If you like the show, please share rate and review. It helps more listeners discover those stories. You can find the links to all the platforms the show appears on on our website, Dev journey dot info slash subscribe. Creating the show every week takes a lot of time, energy, and of course money. Would you please help me continue bringing out those inspiring stories every week by pledging a small monthly donation, you'll find our patreon link at Dev journey dot info slash donate. And finally, don't hesitate to reach out and tell me how this week story is shaping your future. You can find me on Twitter at @timothep ti m o t h e p orca email info at Dev journey dot info talk to you soon.