My eventual journey into programming

I am blessed to say I’ve had choices in life — and that I’ve continually worked to make that an ongoing status quo.

The choices I’ve made thus far have led me to live in eight cities across the world and enter three, very different industries, with programming being one of them. Now that I’m getting my feet wet, I think programming is an applicable extension of any industry. Everyone’s story is different — but this is mine thus far.


Early days

When I was an 8-year-old growing up in Seoul, my parents asked me whether I wanted to go to “America” to study English. I answered yes, and they let me go live with my grandmother in Houston for a year and a half.

Maintaining the perspective that one always has a choice requires work, but it is one that is rewarding — and has the power to make what seems improbable a reality. As real as an 8-year old learning English away from her parents.

I returned to Korea after that. Turns out I was the willing sentinel who went to scope out life in America. When my parents asked whether we should move as a family to Houston, I said yes. After another year and a half, we did.

I was in ESL for a semester and began learning Spanish the following year. I lived in Madrid on scholarship for a summer during high school, then began learning Chinese at Penn and studied in Beijing for 7 months. I studied international studies and business through the Huntsman Program.

My heart, however, was in education.

Post-college

I had stayed in touch with my high school teachers, and, as a conversationally-quadlingual immigrant grateful for everything the Houston public school system had offered me through high school, I applied to Teach for America in my senior year — and didn’t get in. So I went and worked in finance instead. I became a valuation analyst at Duff & Phelps in LA, and while writing in my journal one day, I realized my calling was in contributing something to education, specifically within communication. A language captures the essence of a people. I didn’t know exactly how I could contribute to the betterment of fellow Americans by strengthening some aspect of our communication, but I started brainstorming ideas and began taking a weekend community college course in early childhood development.

Living Abroad

Meanwhile, I was recruited to an equity analyst position for an LA-based fund’s Shanghai office. That was certainly a different direction from going into education somehow, but I had wanted to work abroad and equity long-short was the pinnacle of my interest within the finance industry, so I took the opportunity.

It was in Shanghai that I saw the importance of confidence and empathy and how they manifest in shaping people’s images of themselves — and their lives. From what I could gather, there were largely two groups of expats in Shanghai — those who left the comforts of home to pursue great opportunities, and those who left because they found none at home. The two groups mix at the same spots.

I knew all of two people in the 25-million people city of Shanghai, but one of them is a social butterfly, and I went out a lot. I would meet people, and would be asked, What do you do? Eventually we would arrive at my being an analyst on the buy-side — and two weekends in a row, I had guys whom I was talking to just fine until that point stop conversation abruptly and leave upon finding out what I do.

It was so strange. I asked myself, Did I say something wrong somehow? I really didn’t think so — I really wanted to make friends.

So the following weekend, in lieu of the truth, I answered, “I’m a flight attendant.” (I did fly a lot, between home and China, and to meet investor relations teams of our portfolio companies in Korea and Taiwan). I talked about the routes I had “flown” recently — and the conversation didn’t stop. In fact, I was asked about other routes I had flown and was told about the trips he had taken, the places he likes to visit…

Confidence and Empathy

To this day I don’t know the real reason behind the abrupt cleaving of the first two interactions. I wonder whether that was because the guys I was talking to were of the latter group I mentioned earlier and didn’t feel confident enough to continue getting to know me. Perhaps they thought I wouldn’t be interested in getting to know them? Maybe that sounds arrogant, but if it is true, I wonder what other paths they block themselves from even considering. I don’t know. I just don’t have a reason that makes much more sense.

So I came back to the idea confidence and empathy are critical to success. The next question arose immediately —

If they are such important values, how does one replicate and strengthen those in individuals? In young people?

It was then that I realized I wanted to help teach communication — because that’s what builds those two traits.

Listening, Speaking, Reading, Writing

My theory was that those who are critical thinkers are more likely to be confident in themselves and their beliefs — because they will have filtered through values that bombard them and have established reasons for why their values are their own. Critical reading develops critical thinking, and strong writing skills and critical thinking strengthen each other recursively.

I also hypothesized that those who are confident in their own values and thoughts are also more respectful and empathetic to others’ thoughts, because they understand the process through which individuals come to have their own beliefs.

Clearly my compass still pointed to education, and when the time came to recommit to my position, I made the choice to jump — to wipe my resume and start anew.

Education

I quit my job, detoured in the Philippines for two months, came home, and began teacher training the same time I began designing and teaching the seventh grade reading and writing curricula at a KIPP school in Houston. KIPP is a nationwide charter school network that builds schools in the most underserved areas to bring forth change, and I was (and am) aligned to its mission. I was promised a curriculum but wasn’t given one and learned to write a lesson each night. I slept 3.5 hours a night for 6 days of the week in the first semester — my manager apologized and revealed, after winter break, that she was supposed to meet with me weekly but hadn’t all first semester because she had had too much to do. To this day, I say that working at a hedge fund didn’t hold a candle to my first year of teaching.

The need

I taught at a title one school that served an 80% Latino and 20% black or African American population; I had to speak to most parents in Spanish, and my students couldn’t ask for help at home. Most of my students dreaded writing because they lacked confidence in it — understandably, as they never spoke or heard English outside school, let alone write it, and no one at home could help them on it, either. It was like pulling teeth to get them to finish their writing — and by the time they had completed their first draft, they were so worn out that they didn’t want to look at it again.

Shorter feedback cycles: Ideation

There are three common ways to get better at writing: Read great writing, practice writing and revising, and get feedback on writing. The last is one of the most effective and can cause change the most quickly, yet is the hardest to get, because it is so time consuming: unlike the solution to a math problem, writing feedback needs to be individualized. It took me 21 hours to grade and make suggestions on the first set of my 108 students’ essays. I eventually pared the process to 15 hours by designing a rubric where I could circle common feedback items, but that still took a full weekend.

I began wondering: “I get that I have no life, but how are other language teachers around the country — around the world — giving writing feedback?”

That’s when I began to devise ways to make the feedback loop shorter. Faster turnarounds. Agile, in startup terms. Or just faster.

Shorter feedback cycles: Validation

It was in November of 2014 that I pitched the idea of a feedback exchange platform at Startup Weekend EDU in Houston and got third place. That was the confirmation I needed. I told my principal before Thanksgiving break that I would be leaving the classroom at the end of the school year.

The more real validation came at the end of that school year after my students’ end-of-course exam results came out.

Many of the seventh graders I taught in the 2014–2015 school year had come to me writing at fourth grade level; their fifth grade English teacher hadn’t taught them any writing (because, in Texas, writing is only tested in fourth and seventh grades until high school), their sixth grade teacher had cancer and wasn’t really in the classroom much, and when I gave the diagnostic writing exam in mid-January 2015, only 53% was slated to pass the year-end state exam at the end of March.

My students that I had taught in the previous year, in comparison, had had practice throughout their middle school careers and had been touted in general as the best class to have walked the school grounds — 87% had passed the Writing STAAR exam, which was the highest middle school passing rate for KIPP Houston that year.

53% was unacceptable, at least not without a fight. This meant that my students had ten weeks to learn the basics of middle school essay writing while also learning grammar. To me, that meant: 1) a lot of writing, and 2) a lot of feedback.

The latter in particular was fueled by what a girl named Daniela told me: “Ms. Kim, this is the first time a teacher wrote me a feedback about my essay.”

Developing the acumen for feedback

My students wrote a full essay a week for the 8 weeks leading up to the exam — this meant completing prompt analysis, essay planning, drafting, revising, and editing before turning in a final draft. Ask any teacher in America whether s/he has graded and given feedback on 864 essays in two months, and s/he will tell you no — because I didn’t do that either.

Instead, I taught my students how I assess essays. They bought into the idea of learning together, and agreed to getting feedback publicly. This is nerve-racking for anyone at any age. (Imagine doing that in front of your peers at work.) Students would volunteer to read their essays out loud, one at a time, and I would assess their essays based on the rubric and model giving honest, kind, actionable feedback.

The class-wide change that resulted was incredible. Once my students began to hear snippets of strong writing versus weaker writing (and pointers to revise the latter), they not only began developing significant writing acumen (by assessing each others’ essays), but also started taking second looks at their own essays. This level of behavioral change is rare.

In the end, 88% of my students that year — 1% more than the previous year — left my classroom passing the state writing exam.

But my greater victory came when I asked, on the last day of school, “How many of you are no longer afraid of writing or feel better about writing?” — and almost 100% of my students raised their hands.

I left my classroom at the end of the year, as planned, to devote myself to building a feedback-exchange web platform and making it available for free to students across the country — then world.

Web platform for feedback: Development

Courage — and, by the same token, fear — can be a fleeting thing. An irrational thing.

After 3 years of continued attempts at building out my idea with the developer team from the pitch competition, then with one I found while traveling in Marrakech, then with a friend of a friend — and having to part ways for different reasons (some mix each time of mismatch in missional perspectives, financial direction, prioritization, and delivery expectations) — I am now onto building it myself.

Programming Bootcamp at Flatiron School

I am so grateful to have received a full-scholarship from Facebook (thank you, Ime Archibong!) to join Flatiron School’s full stack web development course, which is where I am writing this blog. We are six weeks in, and I can’t say enough about the amazing learning journey this course has been. I have felt brain-fried from studying each day, didn’t sleep before 2am the first two weeks doing labs, and the learning that takes place each day is like drinking out of a fire hydrant — but the most incredulous part is perhaps that I got to build my own simpler version of Instagram (with photo-uploading, sharing, commenting, tagging functionalities), and I didn’t know what VS Code was six weeks ago. The cohort and camaraderie is incredible, and the instructors are awe-inspiring. We have nine more weeks to go, and I am already dreading its end.

Onward —

Six weeks. My programming journey is still nascent.

But at the rate that I am learning, I feel confident that I am getting closer each day to making my idea a reality. I think of the students I taught and the increasing number of children in our country who cannot get help at home — and I am excited that I can only get better from here, to be of real help to them.

One of the classroom values at my school was persistence. Before I left the classroom, I promised a student named Yoselyn that I will build a platform so that every student can exchange writing feedback. She makes it a point to ask me about it every time we talk. I should let her know I’m now building it myself. We are all in progress — but I feel like I’m making leaps this time.