Jenny Lustig is an alumni of, and is currently a front-end mentor at The Starter League, a web development school in Chicago.
Jenny, why don’t you begin the show by telling the audience a little bit about yourself.
I recently finished up at The Starter League. I was a student in the Fall 2012 and Winter 2013 class. I took the beginner HTML CSS class in the Fall. In the Winter I took the Advanced HTML CSS and UX class.
I’d like to make this interview for people learning to program, and a little bit about The Starter League itself. So, why did you decide that you wanted to learn front-end development?
I was doing the corporate thing for a long time — to be quite frank — about 12 years. I just felt like it was wearing on me. I wasn’t really enjoying the job I had.
I was living out in San Francisco, which is obviously the hot bed for tech. Everyone knows about the huge startup scene there. But I actually came to Chicago for the tech scene. People think I’m crazy, but I stand by it 110 percent.
My background is in traditional marketing, which is print ads, packaging, in-store displays — which is quickly becoming a dying breed. A lot of people are moving away from that type of stuff when it comes to marketing and advertising. I was realizing that that my skill sets were not as sought after by HR managers. I started to really notice that, and that I needed to change things up. That ultimately led me to classes at The Starter League.
How did you hear about The Starter League?
It was actually very random.
I was a happy hour about a month after I moved here. A friend of a friend is an entrepreneur here in Chicago, and we were chatting. He was like “Have you heard of this place called 1871? Have you heard of this school called Code Academy?” Then it was still called Code Academy.
As soon as he told me about them I was immediately intrigued. 1871 sounded like the coolest place on earth. I raced home from that happy hour, googled code academy, and signed up immediately. I’ve been hooked ever since.
You were in the UX and front-end dev class. Could you talk to us us a little more in-depth about your experience at The Starter League?
I started out in the beginner HTML and CSS class. I’ve never coded a day in my life. I have no sort of tech — any sort of engineering tech background. What I really liked about The Starter League is that they truly cater toward beginners. They appreciate that — they want you to come in with a clean slate.
So I started taking Shay Howe’s class. He was really great starting with the basics — things like how to close your tags. When I started taking the class I knew it was going to be a challenge. I got stretched completely out of my comfort zone. But I think that is the best way to learn — when you are fully challenged.
Shay Howe is fantastic. He is the former UI engineering master at Groupon. He joined The Starter League to teach the front-end development class. I wrote about his open source guides earlier this year.
What made your experience valuable? Are there any things that you would change?
I didn’t sign up to take a few classes. I signed up to join a true community of people who really want to learn and grow.
I think that community access really separates The Starter League from other development schools. You can take an HTML and CSS class online, you can take it at a community collage, you can read HTML for Dummies. There are a wide variety of options to teach yourself. The Starter League is different because it is a network of amazingly talented, like-minded people who want to change the face of tech — that is truly what makes it different.
My experience there was different, because a lot of front-end development students have full-time jobs, and take it during the evening. I wasn’t working while taking classes, so I got to interface with teachers and other web development students during the day. It gave me more of a full-range perspective than front-end students tend to get.
In terms of what I would change — honestly, not a lot.
I tried to get as much as I possibly could out of my time there. I met with my mentor very regularly. My mentor winter quarter would spend hours at a time with me. We had a lot of great speakers come speak with us, and talk about what they were doing with the tech community.
Well, what are some of the speakers? When I was there we had Jason Fried and the founder of Open Table.
I saw Troy Henikoff. He was really amazing — formerly of Excelerate Labs, now of TechStars. He’s very well known in the Chicago tech community. I was really pleased that he took the time out of his day to meet with us.
What do you think are some of the major hurdles to learning front-end development?
Are there any specific resources that have helped you learn to program?
Yeah, I’ve utilized Code School to learn jQuery. They have some great video tutorials, and practice things afterwards. I also like the fact that it is free.
I would also recommend Smashing Magazine to aspiring front-end devs, definitely check that out.
Honestly, the best way to learn is to shadow front-end devs. And if you’re a back-end dev shadow back end devs. Talk with them about what they are doing, see the types of things they are working on. It is good just to get your feet wet.
I’m a little bit interested in talking about women in technology. Why do you think there aren’t many female developers?
Thats a good question. You know, personally I never considered a career in tech. It never crossed my mind. I think part of it is that there aren’t a lot of older female developers to look up to.
It is 2013, and people are getting more tech savvy, but there still aren’t that many women in the field. I think the best way to overcome that is to get girls in high school and college interested in computers and tech in general. We need to show them other successful women that are doing it.
One other side note. Sam, I know you know a bunch of people that dropped out of college to join The Starter League. I think more and more people realize that to become a developer you don’t need a four-year degree, you don’t need a three year-degree — don’t need a degree at all. I’m still an advocate of going to college, but things are changing.
That is also one of the unique things about The Starter League. They don’t offer a degree. It isn’t an accredited program. And that is hard for more traditional people to stomach, because most people are used to a career path where you go to college. I think people are starting to take note, because schools like The Starter League are becoming more popular. You can get a good education, and a good job without having to go into a crazy amount of debt.
I feel like there aren’t many people who know that programs like The Starter League and Dev Bootcamp exist. It was such a good experience, it was such a change. With that said, where do you think higher education is in five years?
The Ivy League schools are starting to offer online classes. I think non-traditional forms of education are becoming more popular.
I still think people gravitate toward getting that four-year degree. Again, I am still an advocate for college, but I think it has to change a lot, because there is such a problem with student debt. It shouldn’t have to be that you have to scrape away to get a good education. I think Starter League is proving you don’t need a four-year degree to get an awesome job.
However, there are many great things about a four-year degree. Extra curricular activities, living in dorms — there is so much education that comes from outside the classroom that might get lost in the shuffle if people only do a program like The Starter League.
Socialization is a huge reason for college, but I always wonder if you have to pay $40,000 to get that experience.
So, who do you look up to?
I don’t have a specific role model, but I think moving to Chicago and seeing all the people that are passionate about their startups has been great. And just coming from a very standard, cookie cutter, corporate background for many years — to seeing people thinking outside the box, and creating amazing things has been a mind-blowing experience. It changed me a lot. I don’t think I want to go back to a boring corporate experience.
I really like to go to a lot of different tech events around Chicago. For those of you not familiar, a couple of big ones here are Technori Pitch and Built in Chicago. Both are amazing events once-a-month events where about five different startups come in and give a short pitch on their business. The first Technori Pitch I went to I was hanging on the edge of my seat.
I also joined a group called Ms Tech, which is a group for females in tech in Chicago. It’s a Facebook group, and there are so many super-talented, educated, successful women who are really making waves here in Chicago. It is a very encouraging, engaging environment.
A few last things. Do you have a favorite book or movie?
My favorite movie is Good Will Hunting. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon were total unknowns, and that was the movie that made them. It blew everyone out of the water, and they got Robin Williams to star in it. It is a total rags to riches story. I was in awe of that movie when I first saw it.
Do you have any last comments? Are there any questions I didn’t ask you?
If you are considering joining Starter League, I would definitely check it out.
I would say look up people on LinkedIn who are in Starter League now, or are alumni like myself and Sam. Feel free to reach out to us there. Ask people questions. There are about 500 of us, and everyone has a different experience. Checkout The Starter League website. Reach out to Mike and Neal, they are the guys who co-founded The Starter League. They are both amazing people. You can talk to them any time, and they will give it to you straight.
Where can people follow you?
You can follow me on Twitter @JennyLustig.