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The Making of a Development Team: Mariah Hanson

Welcome back to The Making of a Development Team, where I get to interview my teammates and show what Detroit Labbers are made of. I rounded up 14 fellow Detroit Labbers to talk about what they do, what they love, how they got here, and what makes them tick. Today, we are talking to Mariah Hanson!

I first met Mariah during the Gamma Apprentice Class (JavaScript) interviews. I remember asking her something about microscopes (she was a scientist at the time), and her face lit up like a Christmas tree. I could tell at that time that if she poured as much fascination and hard work into her apprenticeship as she had into her career in science, she would be successful.

Hello, Mariah! Tell me a bit about yourself.

A few months ago, I transitioned onto one of the newer internal teams, and I was previously a developer in Detroit Labs’ OnSite business unit instead of Services. I went through the Apprenticeship Program at Labs as a Gamma (JavaScript-focused), and I have been here almost two years. I’ve been developing for about that amount of time, a little over a year and a half now.

You started your STEM career in science, what drew you to that and what was your focus?

My degree in science is technically in Biomedical Sciences, and I specialized in genetics and molecular biology, which my lab called “indoor science.” We had a running joke that people who studied things like ecology or went outdoors were “badger people.”

I knew since I was young that I would be going into science. I was always interested in it. I read a bunch of books, had science kits, and when the internet came around, I spent a lot of time looking up what I would find in the backyard. Looking up what things were and why certain things happen. I would ask a lot of questions. Throughout middle and high school going through science classes, I gravitated towards the biology classes.

There are a lot of stories that I could tell from my studies, but there are two that I will share. One is that something I’ll always remember. In middle school, I found one of those mushrooms that puffs out spores, a puffball. They are little round white mushrooms and they are hollower on the inside. I found one that was the size of a basketball, and I brought it in for show and tell and I wrote up a huge report on it.

The other one is more to the point of solidifying bio for me. For course credit in high school, I took an independent study in biology and one of the main things I did was prep for the labs. That meant preparing samples and solutions and dealing with microscopes. I learned how to take care of microscopes, how they worked, cleaning, the nitty-gritty. That experience made me want to go into lab research biology.

In the STEM field, there are statistically a lot less women. What would you like to do or see to help get more girls and women into STEM?

I think we need to do the same things for getting girls and women into science that we do for tech. Part of the problem is the pipeline. It exists for women in STEM in science and math. I remember when I was in fifth grade, one of the very first memories that I have in science, is that on the standardized science test I scored the best in my district. I got an award, which was awesome, but the person who came and awarded me said, “You know, you’re really good at math and science for a girl.” So not only is there that issue of discouragement, there is also the issue of the culture that is cultivated by the people that are in science. There has to be a twofold approach to fix the pipeline and culture, which has historically been dominated by white men, similar to tech, but even longer than tech. This goes back hundreds of years. We hear about some of the historical scientists that were women, but there were not many.

Through your years of research, what are you most proud of?

I would say I am most proud of being able to do research as an undergrad. The most valuable aspect was the help I had from my principal investigator/mentor, she really drove home that research needs to be good, quality work. Because of the work that I did under her, I was able to travel and present my research at national and international conferences while getting funded. These were great opportunities and opened up my eyes to both how big and how small the world of science is.

What brought you back to Michigan?

Really the big thing that brought me back was coming home. I’m originally from Michigan. When I left my PhD program at UNC-Chapel Hill, I knew that I had wanted to leave for a while, and the only logical and emotional choice was to come home because it’s where my family and friends are. I wasn’t going to stay there without a support system after leaving my program.

Moving down the STEM Acronym to T (SO cheesy), what got you interested in development?

Twofold answer. First, I wanted to get back into STEM. I always wanted to come back, but I just wasn’t sure of the path to take when I left to come back. That was the biggest driving factor for me getting back into STEM. Beyond that, coming from my heavy science and data background, tech drew me in because there are a lot of similarities between the two. I was taught to think in a way which is more traditionally how someone would think of development. Logical flow, like how I was trained in science. It was comfortable, yet also uncomfortable because I didn’t know any programming yet. It fits my personality, but it is what got me back into my overall goal of going back into STEM. I could have gone back to school but it wasn’t what I wanted. Being able to go through the apprenticeship program costs time. Not as much as school would, and school also costs a lot of money.

What was the best part of the Apprenticeship Program for you?

The best part of the program for me was that it was not only a great opportunity to get into tech, but it was the way I saw to get back into STEM for myself. There are not many programs out there like the Detroit Labs Apprenticeship Program, which takes you on, pays, trains, and gives you an opportunity to work for them, in tech, afterwards. I know it was life-changing for me and a lot of other people to be able to do that, and I find developing very fulfilling.

Erika Carlson would always ask us during classes to give one word of how we were feeling each morning: scared, stressed, excited were pretty frequent ones. However, a couple of weeks into the program, I used the word cathartic, and it was really at that point that it solidified in me that this is what I wanted, and what I needed to do, and what I would be doing.

What has been the most interesting problem that you’ve had to solve?

I thought it was really interesting when I was working with one of our clients on a head unit with very specific constraints, building web applications. It was really hard; there’s a really big learning curve working with a specific set of hardware, but I was able to come out of it being able to really drill down to exactly what an app would need, versus what is not needed, because of working in such constraints. Making the best MVP possible made an app the most optimized, really just made an app together as a package the best that it could be. Really hard but really rewarding to see. It’s very, very stringent, similar and more akin to mobile than web development. It was a mind-bending exercise on how to figure out the best way to get what clients/customers wanted while also delivering a product that you know will work within the constraints.

What is something that you think you could teach someone right now?

Seeing as last night I just did my first Girl Develop It TA session, and I am not the most proficient at it, but I could teach version control. I am eventually going to be teaching some JavaScript courses. I have a really good handle on Angular as well. I think the biggest thing is, though, it could be considered teaching, but it could be more like mentorship, working with someone to figure out how they learn best. The one thing in software development that you always have to be doing is learning, and helping someone learn how they learn best will help them grow. That’s a big thing.

What are you hacking on?

I have something I am about to start hacking on, now that I am fully on the team and will have some hacktime eventually. This is really great. So I have fought with the idea of doing it for a while. It involves getting my DNA sequenced. One of the reasons I am doing this is that the project that I want to hack on is using a JavaScript server to help parse genetic information to help determine different genetic traits that you have, things that you may be more prone to, specific diseases, etc., etc. You can write a program to help you figure out your genetic fingerprint. Which I think is really cool because genetics is what I studied and I geek out about.

Yeah, that sounds pretty amazing! Goals for the future?

Specifically on the team I am on, now I am transitioning from front-end developer to full stack and I have to learn middleware, server-side, and database type of programming, and also get better at JavaScript and front-end stuff.

Other goals, more in the future, is to learn mobile. But I think I have a lot right now.

Advice for junior developers?

It’s hard to give general advice because everyone’s situation is different and unique. The reason I am saying this is because people have given me advice like, “Just keep going, just keep doing it,” and it’s not quite the same as when you give that advice to a stereotypical developer in tech. Giving general advice isn’t going to take people’s backgrounds, culture, or how they are feeling and interacting with other people currently in the tech world into consideration. You can tell someone to keep going and persevere, but some of their issues may not be tech-related, and if they are, that doesn’t give specific enough advice to help. The issues may be socially or interpersonally related, which general advice doesn’t work for. If I did have to give advice, it would be to find a support system of people that you know are going to have your back, and use that support system when you need it for whatever issues you need it for.

[Lightning Round]

What did you eat for breakfast today?

Filmjölk. It’s an Icelandic cultured milk drink that’s similar to kefir. Oatmeal, almonds, and ginger tea.

What was the last movie you saw?

“The Handmaiden.”

If you had one item in the zombie apocalypse, what would it be?
The cure.

Best decision you ever made?

The apprenticeship for sure.

Best advice you’ve ever gotten?

My principal investigator told me a quote when I first started in science at 18, “You change as much from the time you are 10 to 20 as you do when you are 20 to 30,” which at that time, not having passed the first time span, I thought … ok whatever. .. but now in the middle of 20 to 30, being able to look back and think about it has helped a lot. I have had a lot of life changes and there are so many changes from 20-30. I have found it very useful as a young adult to look back on.