Reflections of a CODE2040 Fellow — Asking for Help

I came to San Francisco as a CODE2040 Fellow to intern at Must Win, LLC as a Software Engineer for the summer. I was excited to explore a…

Reflections of a CODE2040 Fellow — Asking for Help
“Please, sir, may I have some more?” | John Howard Davies as Oliver Twist in the 1948 film. Photo: Rex

I came to San Francisco as a CODE2040 Fellow to intern at Must Win, LLC as a Software Engineer for the summer. I was excited to explore a new city, meet the CODE2040 staff and the other Fellows, and to hit the ground running at my internship. I had spent months anticipating and preparing for this summer. I knew why I was here, and I was ready. Or so I thought.

CODE2040’s flagship program places top performing Black and Latino/a college level computer science students from around the country in an intensive summer career accelerator in the San Francisco Bay Area. Students intern at top tech companies and participate in a series of career building sessions on evenings and weekends.

In the beginning…

I started my internship a week before meeting many of the CODE2040 staff and Fellows at our Welcome Weekend. During that week I was on-boarded at Must Win, and I completed all the training activities my manager Tenji Tembo had assigned to me. I felt great. I was glad that the hours I had dedicated to learning and creating toy projects with the tech stack I would be working with for the summer had made my training relatively easy.

Shortly into the first day of Welcome Weekend, I thought, “This summer is going to be great. I am a part of a really supportive group, and things at work are off to a great start.” There was one session in particular that made me feel equipped to deal with one of my more pronounced demons, a session on Impostor Syndrome. It manifests itself when I am faced with some challenge after accomplishing an amazing feat. I would think I didn’t deserve to be where I was and that sooner or later someone would notice that I am just a pretender. More often than I should, I would listen, but somehow I’ve always kept going. Karla Monterroso, who led the session, prompted us [the Fellows] to think seriously about all the times we had “won” and to use all our past achievements as a mountain of evidence to prove to ourselves that we deserved to be in Silicon Valley working in top tech companies. After all, we worked our brains and fingers off to be here, but sometimes we forget.

My Real Day #1

On the following Monday, I was being caught up on one of the projects I would be working on for the summer. I read all the related documents, cloned the project’s repository, and brought up the project in my code editor. I browsed through the code-base looking for similarities between this project and the ones I had built in preparation for my internship. There were some, but they weren’t nearly enough for me to start working on anything significant. This, I thought, was my real first day.

Konfused Krabs — “What is going on?”

Fortunately, I knew which engineer to speak with — kudos to Tenji. I reached out to Dosty Everts over Slack and asked him to help me gain a better understanding of the problem the application under development was solving, how the pieces of the application connect, and to guide me through the code-base. As my questions were being answered, I was conscious of my understanding of the words being used and concepts being explained. But, transforming that understanding into working code was difficult. I did my best to not become overwhelmed, and I voiced this challenge I was faced with to both the engineer and my manager. I was met with understanding, encouragement, and positive feedback. This reinforced the efficacy of one of my takeaways from Welcome Weekend, to be transparent about my challenges.

As the day went on, I warded off thoughts of inadequacy with the reasoning that there is no way I could expect to be as knowledgeable and skilled as someone who had been honing their craft for a significantly longer time than I had been doing the same. It also helped a great deal when I remembered the job description on Must Win’s offer letter. It began with, “Your primary focus will be learning…” Everything else came after. So much had I learned throughout the day from asking questions and asking for help that I felt empowered and ready to face the challenges ahead. I looked forward to the next day because I anticipated learning a lot more.

The Next Day

On Tuesday, I started the day by tackling one of my assigned Issues. When I got stuck I reached out to Dosty. Thinking that I did not want to waste his time, I started our conversation by going over what I learned the day before, what I was working on, where I was stuck, what I had tried, and what I needed help with. It seemed like a good framework for asking for help as I had remembered some lessons from an essay I’d read some years ago by Eric S. Raymond on “How to Ask Questions The Smart Way”. I repeatedly did this whenever I got stuck throughout the day. In the evening before leaving work, I looked at my Slack chat history, and I felt terrible. It looked as though I was just chatting away most of my work day. It seemed as if I was dependent on Dosty’s help. Despite the encouragements I received throughout the day, I now felt unfulfilled, thinking that I hadn’t accomplished as much as I probably should have.

[No problem] dude, just keep at it. Tackle a little at a time, and always feel free to ask questions, or tell me to slow down [if] I’m getting [too] far ahead of myself — Dosty

How to be An Effective Engineer

After work I attended a CODE2040-organized workshop titled “How to be An Effective Engineer” hosted at Carbon Five’s SF office. A panel of engineers including Phillippe Siclait, Aston Motes, and Pamela Martinez shared what they thought being an effective engineer meant. They shared a lot of insights and being aware of my discomfort with asking for help, I paid particular attention to those insights that could help me become comfortable with asking for help sooner rather than later.

I took everything I heard and decided to become an overnight expert on asking for help. Pamela had mentioned Sasha Laundy’s Your Brian’s API: Giving and Getting Technical Help video, and I devoured it. I put everything I learned into practice in the following days. At the end of the week, I expressed to Tenji that even though I could make the rational decision to ask for help when I needed to, it still didn’t feel comfortable. He encouraged me and reassured me that everyone asks for help.

I brought my lessons from those two weeks with me throughout my internship, and I’m now perfectly comfortable with asking for help and voicing my concerns. Realizing that I worked in an environment where asking for help was simply holding a conversation to leverage two or more minds to solve problems was both unburdening and empowering.

Asking for help is a sign of commitment toward your goals — Christian Simamora