Beth Soderberg is a self-taught Front End Developer and speaker, and in this episode I get to talk to her about how she learned her craft. It was fun exchanging stories of our different learning experiences. Beth offers truthful and encouraging words for if you want to start on your journey to web development.
- Beth Soderberg
- I Learned to Code Through WordPress and So Can You (slides)
- Joe’s HTML & CSS Course
- Web Hosting for Students
Intro: Hey everybody and welcome to another episode of How I Built It! We are back to our regularly scheduled episodes! I hope you enjoyed the mini series. Today, I get to talk to my friend Beth Soderberg about how she learned web development. I loved this interview because I love learning, but we both got to share our experiences – which were around 8-10 years apart. Fun show that we’ll get to in a minute, but first….
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And now…on with the show!
Joe: Hey everybody, welcome to another episode of How I Built It, the podcast that asks, “How did you build that?” Today, I have my good friend Beth Soderberg on the show. Beth, how are you today?
Beth: I’m well, how are you Joe?
Joe: I am fantastic. Well, as we record this, we are in the throes of fall here in the northeast. Thanksgiving is just a week or so away, so a week, exactly, away. I’m very excited, and I’m excited to have you on the show because we’re breaking from the normal format. We’re not talking exactly about a product, we’re talking about more of a process. I think it’s one that’s very beneficial to a lot of people. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?
Beth: Sure. My name is Beth Soderberg, I am an independent developer and digital strategist. I’m right outside of Washington DC. I work with all sorts of clients, a lot of non profits. A lot of agency work and small business work on building and maintaining their websites, and also making sure that they’re strategic vision of what they’re doing is sustainable for them. I do a lot of work in the community. I am a co organizer for WordPress DC, both the meetup and the WordCamp. I also do some stuff with DCFemTech, which is a local women in Tech collective. Some of the topic today directly ties to a lot of work that I’ve also done with the WordPress training team. That’s one of the contributor teams for the larger WordPress project. It’s just a brief little resume, but yeah.
Joe: You are a independent contractor, would you say that you do more … in this crazy, mixed up web design, web development world we have now, we have very specific titles, right? I would say I’m a front end developer. What would you say you are? Do you do a little bit of everything, or do you have one area where you say you shine the most?
Beth: I say that I’m a front end developer, but I also have to dabble in lots of other pieces. I do a little bit of everything, but I’m definitely a self identified front end developer and I think that’s where my strengths are. It’s certainly what I enjoy to do the most, so … but I’ve been growing to be more and more of a full stack, as they say, developer for quite some time. But I reside mostly in the front end, or try to.
Joe: Gotcha. Yeah, and so I’m really glad you mentioned that, right. I learned how to make websites, and that’s what … I don’t think I made it explicitly clear on the recording yet, we’ll be talking about learning how to code, right? That’s based on a WordCamp talk that you gave in 2016, right? I learned to code through WordPress and so can you, right?
Beth: Correct. It was WordCamp Baltimore 2016. The video is out there if folks would like to watch it.
Joe: Yes, and I will be sure to link that in the show notes. I learned how to make websites all the way back in 2001 and it’s just … that seems like eons ago on the internet. What I learned, it was a fairly straightforward process. I downloaded a version of Front Page, I made a website in it, I looked at the code to see what was happening as I made changes. Eventually I moved from using Front Page to just using Notepad or Notepad
Beth: Correct. I would say that I started learning in 2010 and then I really got serious, probably 2011, 2012.
Joe: Gotcha. The process was already pretty well changing by that point. Where, if I were to learn web design today, or how to make websites today, where should I start?
Beth: I have always thought, and I think it’s actually a little harder starting now in 2017, almost 2018 than it was starting in 2010, 2012 because we’ve got even more complexity, which is, I think, what you were alluding to a little bit in the difference between when you started and when I started. I still think, though, that you need to start in the beginning. Every web framework regardless of what you eventually specialize in, whether it’s WordPress or Python or something else, everything that you could possibly want to do is still based in HTML. Styling is still based in CSS, or should be, in my opinion. So starting with those base elements, and I’m assuming that … this is assuming that we’re talking about somebody who knows absolutely nothing about web development or the internet, right?
Joe: Gotcha. That makes a lot of sense, right? ‘Cause as you said, those are the kind of fundamentals. No matter what you do, HTML is going to find its way into your web based app, it has to. Starting there, and the really nice thing about that is you don’t need to compile anything necessarily, right? You can look at a website and say, oh, that looks neat, how did they do that? Right?
Joe: Right, right. It’s like saying I want to throw 100 mile and hour fast ball before learning how to play catch or something like that.
Beth: Exactly. Yeah.
Joe: Cool. I really like that, and again, when I first started, it was if I wanted to learn HTML and eventually CSS, which was like around, but not super popular if you can believe it. I just used Front Page as my guide. I would do something and I would inspect elements. Today, the landscapes a little bit different, right? If you’re learning HTML and CSS today, what kind of research do you think you would do in order to get up to snuff? Are there books or websites that you would recommend?
Beth: If I were to start completely from scratch today, I would start … I always start with books. This is a knowing what you’re learning style is part of the answer to the question. I don’t hear very well, I have a really hard time with video as a result, and so I just struggle to pay attention because it’s harder for me to listen than it is for me to read. I would go out and get a good book. I really like the, there’s a series of books and they have a diamond on the front.
Joe: Yes. John Duckett is the author, I think, of those books.
Joe: Like a brown cover with, yeah.
Joe: Yeah, I believe they’re combined into one title.
Joe: They’re on my bookshelf, but I have to do an awkward move to look at them.
Beth: Sure, sure.
Joe: I’ll definitely link them in the show notes, though.
Joe: Yeah, man …
Beth: Yeah, I have all sorts of books. I have a huge bookshelf of all these technical books that I’ve been absorbing for quite some time. When you read different things or you listen to different courses, or you do different exercises, you’re gonna learn slightly different angles on the same thing from each one. I wouldn’t stay constricted to one, but I would find one thing you’re comfortable with first and really absorb that before you branch out.
Joe: Yeah, that’s fantastic advice. First of all, those John Duckett books, I’ve used them in my in person classes, so I can totally vouch for them, but even more important is your point about knowing your learning style, right? If you are one that learns best from books, I feel like I’m very similar. I can’t … When I’m in front of a computer watching a video, there’s just a lot of shiny objects, so I’m easily distracted. But with a book, I can go away from my computer and my phone and read that book. Definitely knowing your learning style is best. There are a lot of great resources that you just mentioned that I will also link in the show notes. Before I get on to the next standard question I ask on the show, let’s say we now have the fundamentals, what’s our next step in learning to code? I know that this was specifically a WordPress talk and we have a big WordPress audience, so we can totally go through the next step based on your talk.
Beth: Sure. I fully believe that part of the fundamentals of learning to code is getting to know the larger community. Just as you mentioned, I did not know that I wanted to be a developer when I first encountered the WordPress community. I was lucky enough to be sent by my tiny little nonprofit employer to WordCamp Boston 2010. My supervisor had convinced them that I was the person who maintained all of the content on the websites at the time. My supervisor had convinced them that this WordPress conference was not just for technical people, it was also for content people, and it would benefit them if I went.
I showed up going to the content sessions, the user sessions, the website maintenance sessions, and I realized that I was actually pretty good at, I knew all the things I was hearing in these sessions and I just dipped my toe and went to one that was more of a developer session. Just on the fly, and I thought it was fascinating and interesting. The next thing I started doing when I got home, I bought cheap hosting and I installed self hosted WordPress on it, and I spent about a year just tinkering with it. While I was doing that, I slowly started going to other WordCamps. I started meeting other WordPress people. I started going to the meet up in my city, and I started to think, you know, this is interesting. I’m not really sure what I want to do with it yet, but I’d like to learn more. I guess for me it was a slow realization that it was even something I wanted to do.
I’ve definitely met people who have already gone through that and have figured it out before they find the WordPress community, and for those people I think it’s great because hopefully they show up at a meet up or a WordCamp and they meet somebody who says, “I’m so happy you’re here, here’s an orientation to the landscape. Let us know if you have questions. There’s lots of people here who are happy to help you. Here’s some pizza, come back, enjoy.” Getting to know the community even when you’re a beginner, is important to having resources. Real life resources where you can ask questions and having these little projects that I was experimenting with early on is important so that you know what the questions are. You can’t expect the phrase of, “you can’t build Rome in a day”, right?
You can build a little house in Rome in a day, and your house might fall down because you didn’t know how to build it, but it’s step one towards building Rome, right? Having people around where you can ask them questions about what you’re trying to do, and get their insights about how they’ve done it, and have them look at your code or what you’re trying to accomplish with this website you’re playing with, and cut out hours, and hours, and hours of your time that you would spend sitting by yourself angsting over what to do next. Those same people are gonna be the same people who can give you a little bit of a road map of, okay, these are the next three steps. Over here, this is not good and this is why.
That being said, it’s very vulnerable to show up and to say hey, I’m a beginning. I know that most of you are not, or even for a lot of people I think it’s that they show up and they assume that there are no other beginners, right? That they’re the only one that has ever begun and that there’s definitely no other beginners in the room. That is almost always not true. But it’s very vulnerable to show up and say that. I think what people need to know is that it’s a … that is okay to do. I have found the WordPress community to be a safe space.
Time and time again, in many, many different venues with different groups of people, WordPress, as a larger community does not tolerate its meet ups, its WordCamps not being a safe space for beginners. I think because that is such an intentional part of how the community has been fostered and has grown over time, it’s a really great place for beginners to just show up and absorb everything that they can, and get to know people. I think that’s the key next step, because then you have the support to move forward, technically, from a social level.
Joe: Yeah. Man, what a fantastic answer. Even though I’ve seen you talk, for some reason wasn’t expecting that answer. But it’s absolutely the best next step, right? You know a little bit and now it’s time to go out there and network, and meet people, right? I always like to ask on the show, I find talking it out with folks really help. Having that mentor, my friend in college Steve inaudible 00:18:57 was that mentor to me. He introduced me to Notepad
Beth: Yeah, I agree.
Joe: I think that’s a very cognizant thought in the WordPress community. We have our fundamental skills, we have our network of people. The title question is how did you build it, so let’s go with what should we build from here, or what should we do from here?
Beth: We should just start building websites. This goes to the start before you’re ready mindset that I’ve heard a lot of business people talk about. I am someone who also has entrepreneurial interests. Obviously, I’m independently employed so there’s a part of me that also listens to a lot of resources and podcasts and things from the business community. There’s this theme that comes up time and time again with them that is start before you’re ready. What they mean by that is you are not going to be a successful entrepreneur overnight. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t start a business. That doesn’t mean that you can’t start the process. Everything that you’re going to do is complicated and it’s going to have to grow over time so you have to build that base layer first.
When it comes to web development, what I mean by start before you’re ready is building websites. They might be really, really crappy websites and they might take forever for you to build, but that is how you learn. Learning by doing. I started with this website that I’d installed, and it never even really had that much content on it because I was tinkering with how do I change the background? How do you make this piece of content go over here instead of over here? Then I graduated to building these pretty simple websites for people I knew. I was on a community board for a local community group and they had a young professionals board and they wanted a blog.
I volunteered to build the blog, and I rebuilt that blog maybe three times because I kept getting better, and I kept seeing, oh, what I did six months ago, I can do that better now. They didn’t care. No one was paying me, I was volunteering for them and doing social media for them as well, and they didn’t care if I rebuilt the blog every six months. So I did, and I learned so much from doing that. I also built a website for my aunt, and I found people that I knew who were safe, who would understand hey, Beth is learning this skill, it might take her 10 times longer than a professional to build this, but that’s okay because she’s looking at it as a learning process and we don’t have anything to work with right now so whatever she does is gonna be great.
Finding opportunities like that within your social network, within your family, people that are safe to have it be an open fact where they know, hey, I’m learning and it’s going to be a slower process than usual. One of the things that I’ve done recently, I occasionally will end up in a situation where I find somebody that I think has a lot of potential and I just see the stars align in terms of how I can help them. I will if I can because people did the same thing for me. Obviously, I don’t have unlimited bandwidth, but there’s this one young woman who someone I work with introduced me to her and said, “Hey, could you go to coffee with her? She wants to learn to code. She doesn’t really know where to start.”
We scheduled coffee and the day before I went to coffee, someone else sent me an email and was like, “Hey, do you know anybody who’s trying to build their portfolio, because I don’t have any money, this is an entirely volunteer project, but I really … the website is all static and it’s getting to be a mess and I really just need something that my volunteers can manage but there’s no budget because no one is getting paid and there is no money.” I went into coffee with that in the back of my head, and I met this woman and she knew all the basics, but she hadn’t learned how to apply them. And so, I was like, okay, here’s the deal. I know this other person who needs this website and I don’t have the time to build it and I don’t really have the time to teach you how to build it, but I do have the time to point you in the right direction as you’re going.
To set you up, to answer the questions, and to guide you through it at whatever pace you need. Now, we’re at the point … that was almost 10 months ago and the website is now done, so it’s taken about 10 months to build the website, and I’ve spent, I don’t know, maybe four hours worth of time sitting with this woman in coffee shops going through her questions. It has not been a lot of my time, but she did it, and she’s learned so much. And she’s done it correctly because she’s had somebody to bounce the ideas off of. When she’s gotten really stuck, instead of being able to … just sitting there by herself and being frustrated, she’ll send me an email and be like, “Hey, I think this is probably a little thing. What am I doing wrong?” Right?
Finding the people and places, and in this situation she and I formally partnered up, right? But there’s lots of ways to get that support from people and to build that first website or first few websites. I know she’s building other ones, she’s told me about them. But she hasn’t asked me for help on the others, which is a sign of growth, right? All of that, I think, just getting out and building something, anything, it doesn’t matter what it is, is the next step.
Joe: Man, that’s … I love that. Learn by doing is something that I say all the time and even said what is literally my sign off on this show, which is get out there and build something. Just do it, right? I mean, you’re not building anything that is not allowed to break, right? You can build your own website in a safe environment and if something breaks, who cares? Right? You’re not affecting anybody by that, so it’s okay to be wrong. I really love that. You have the fundamentals, you have people you can bounce questions off of, now just build something. I always send my students to code inaudible 00:27:11, right? I say here, work this pen and make changes, and you see what happens in real time. It doesn’t matter if you break it or not. You have a saved copy of the original somewhere. That’s excellent, excellent advice.
Joe: I can’t believe I’m saying this, but we are coming up on time, so I guess the next two questions I’ll combine into one. As you’re building something, what should be your next plans for the future? Right? If I’m trying to follow the normal format of the show, we’ve built something or we are building something, what do we do next?
Beth: When you’re talking about something that is more ongoing, like learning to code, because learning to code doesn’t end, right? I’m not seven, almost eight years in, and I have this long list of things that I think I need to learn, right?
Joe: I feel like it gets longer, the longer you’ve been in the …
Beth: It gets longer, yeah, I don’t know how it’s ever gonna get shorter. But I think that when you’re talking about, I know usually on this show you’re talking about a product, or a website, or something that’s more concrete. Today, we’re talking about a process, right? And so, I think the key with the process in terms of what the next step is, is monitoring where you are, and adjusting your plan and methods moving forward because you can start with a plan. I really believe that everybody should always start with a plan and if folks want to look up at the slides for this talk, or the talk itself, I go into a lot more detail about very specific technical things you should learn and very specific WordPress related things you should learn, and the order that I did that in.
But one of the things that I think is important is to basically create your own syllabus and sit back every once in a while. I do it about once a year where I sit back and I’m like, okay, where am I now? What do I need to learn? How should I learn that thing? What resources are out there? What books are out there? Is there a course I should take? Should I go to a conference? Stepping back and taking a look at where you are, being honest with yourself about where you are. This should not be aspirational, this should be very realistically where are you? And being patient with yourself wherever that may be, because all of this is very difficult and you’re trying to put together … I think the reason you and I think that our lists are just never gonna get any shorter is because there’s so many little pieces that come together in terms of web development to get somebody to the point where they can do what they want to do.
Because there’s so many pieces and because the technology is getting more complicated, in terms of the minimum level of entry to do what you need to do, it’s hard to think that you could ever be done. But it is important to be patient with yourself that no matter where you are on that track, it is a process and you need to be able to step back and look at what you’ve done and make honest, objective assessments of where you need to go next, and trust the process because your code is never gonna be perfect. You’re always gonna want to learn more things, you’re always going to think, oh, if only I had focused on this technology over this technology, but I didn’t realize that I was gonna end up really needing to focus on this other thing later. It’s all good. That patience with yourself, paired with the ability to monitor what you’re doing and adjust it, I think that’s the key for sustainable, long term learning and true growth over time.
Joe: That is, I will agree 100% of that. As you were talking I thought of the building Rome or the build a house analogy, where when you build a house it’s basically done unless you want, I don’t know, every expensive renovations to the house, right? That’s not the same with your website. If you … I mean, a real world example for me is, I learned angular a couple years ago and now it seems like react or view is the new thing that I should learn. I’m not kicking myself for learning angular, I’ve acquired a new skill, but more importantly, I learned how to learn and the app I built in angular I can now iterate and rebuild in view or react, or whatever it is. You can keep iterating, as you said, on the thing that you built and get better. It might seem overwhelming, right? Beth and I have very long lists of things that we want to learn, but none of them is a hard stopper from keeping us from doing the thing we want to do. I think that’s really important. You can continue to build websites and learn at the same time. I just want to communicate that. It sounds more overwhelming maybe than it is.
Beth: Yeah, I think that it’s important to just break it into the tiny bite sized pieces. Like any large goal, you look at the end goal. I think this is true, like for people who would like to write a book, right? Okay, if you would like to write a book, books are long, and scary and intimidating, but what happens if you write a few paragraphs a day? Suddenly it’s not so scary and I think it’s breaking it down into the pieces that are not scary that make the larger goals achievable.
Joe: Yeah. Absolutely. I love that. That sounds like a trade secret, but I’m still gonna ask, do you have any trade secrets for us?
Beth: Hm. Well, I think … this is a pretty, I don’t think this is a secret, but I think it’s really important and at the end of the day, I think … I re watched the talk from this that inspired this conversation this morning and I always am afraid to watch myself speak because I always think, oh that must’ve been terrible, right? I’m always afraid to look at my old code because I think oh, it must be terrible. Every time I do either look at my old code or I look at a video of me speaking, I usually come out of it thinking, okay, there’s these few things I might change and do better next time. But I actually did okay with that, and this is what I learned from doing it.
I think it’s just that kindness and patience towards yourself that’s the most important thing because I think too many people get stuck in their head and they get stuck thinking that they can’t do something, and some people call it imposter syndrome, but I don’t know. I think it just might be human nature to think that when you’re trying to do something that’s hard and scary, that you’re gonna set yourself up in your brain to think oh, maybe I just can’t. It’s really hard. That’s not necessarily a trade secret, but knowing that you’re not by yourself when you are sitting there and thinking that whatever you’re trying to do with learning to code is difficult, is I think the key thing, because I’ve just met too many people who really think that they were the only ones who had a hard time with it. It’s just not true. That’s like the most obvious secret I think that you could have, but you know, it’s hard.
Joe: It bears repeating, yeah. And it bears repeating as often as possible. I tell my students to ask questions because if they have a question, there’s likely somebody else in the class that has that same question. Everything you just said, absolutely rings true. And so, we are a little over time but that’s okay, ’cause this is jam packed with amazing information. Beth, where can people find you?
Beth: You can find me at my website, bethsoderberg.com, or on Twitter at Beth Soderberg.
Joe: Awesome. I will have both of those as well as everything we talked about in the show notes. For season four we’ll have transcripts, so you can also read back this conversation because there is a lot of really great stuff that might not be represented in the links that are in the show notes. Beth, thank you so much for your time, I really appreciate you taking the time out of your day and coming on the show and teaching us.
Beth: Absolutely, thanks for having me, Joe.
Outro: Thanks again to Beth for joining me. Education is something I’m passionate about and I hope you found value in Beth’s journey! I loved seeing her give this talk and I loved that we got to dig a little deeper here.
And Thanks again to our sponsors – make sure to check out Liquid Web for managed WordPress hosting. I use them on all of my important sites – they are that good! They are at buildpodcast.net/liquid. They’ll give you 50% off your first 2 months just for being a listener! If you want to save your clients (or yourself) money through recovering abandoned carts, check out jilt. They are over at buildpodcast.net/jilt.
For all of the show notes, head over to howibuilt.it/74/. If you like the show, head over to Apple Podcasts and leaving us a rating and review. It helps people discover us! Finally, last week I published my brand-new Patreon page. It offers a lot better rewards, and great goals, and I’m really doubling down on it. So if you like the show and what to support it directly, head over to patreon.com/howibuiltit/. You can support the show for as little as $1/month.
And until next week, get out there and build something.