Up a River without Stack Overflow

If you grew up in America, chances are you know at least 5 words in Spanish, 15 if you count the numbers 1–10. For the purpose of the story, imagine you took about a year’s worth of Spanish class and towards the end they teach you a little bit about the history of the language and how it relates to Portuguese. You decide to go on a trip around Europe and visit Portugal. While exploring the country, a few wrong turns on your navigation app lands you in a rural area with little cellular reception. Now, you’re stuck relying on your basic Spanish to learn Portuguese enough so you can communicate with the locals to get home.

This summer, Microsoft has been my Portugal and I have been learning how to use my one year as a CS student to create something within the giant legacy codebase that is Microsoft Office. At first I was excited to try backend work. I have about 6 or 7 years of design experience, a few web dev experiments, but nothing extremely technical other than schoolwork. It seemed like a hearty challenge and I was eager to have a shot to dig in.

Most things seem to follow the principle of being much harder to implement than to understand, but I thought to myself, “How bad could it really be?” Two weeks later, all I had managed to do was somewhat successfully set up my debugger and realize I had misinterpreted one internal API which made all the work I did useless. I could only use internal data types. I could only use internal libraries. What I could find by digging through stacks of code rarely had any documentation. My mentors were gone for 3 weeks, and having a simple conversation with them could have saved so much time. In other words, I was up a river without Stack Overflow. I’ve always wanted to become more self-sufficient and this was probably the most brute force way of learning to be.

I learned to try a few times to build something before I really went out of my way to find someone to help. I learned that everyone has a different opinion on how to do things, so formulating my own idea based on what research I could do and then polishing it with others made everyone’s time more useful. My stubbornness is what got me through this project. I pushed through those three distinct times I was at the office well past sunset absolutely prepared to tell my manager the next morning that I couldn’t do it. I pushed through it to prove to myself that everyone who made me feel like I didn’t belong in a technical field was wrong.

When I remember my trip to Portugal, sure, I’ll remember the beautiful sights, the delicious food, and all the touristy Kodak moments. But what I’ll keep with me for a long time are the lessons I learned from the locals of their culture and the strength I found in myself to thrive in a foreign country.

Author’s Note: Thank you so much to my mentors at Microsoft for coaching me and supporting me throughout my internship. I learned a lot this summer, about what it takes to be in this industry and what kinds of things I want to build. To all the friends I was lucky to make this summer, I look forward to seeing what we do next.