Michelle Garrett: the Software Engineer who uses the JavaScript language to create impact

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Michelle Garrett is among the young, bright and talented Australians who has pursued a career in STEM.

Having moved to London in 2015 in bid to experience the London ride, she’s now the Software Engineer at Conde Nast International. And sometimes, she wears a different hat, she’s the co-founder of Node Girls London – a dedicated learning platform for women, non-binary and trans people to learn JavaScript and Node.js.

And she’s making use of every opportunity to create a positive impact on the wider developer community as she speaks at conferences and meetups to support and facilitate the knowledge sharing within the community.

Interview by Tammy Lee, Marketing & Communications & Digital Manager, Advance.

Can you tell us what you do?

I’m a Software Engineer based in London, working for the international publisher Condé Nast. “Engineer” can sound quite abstract...what this actually means is that I help make the websites for fashion media brands like Vogue and GQ. If you’ve read British GQ or Vogue Paris online, then you’re looking at a website that I built with code.

What are the biggest challenges of your job?

Code is the easy part! People are the biggest challenge of software engineering. The stereotype of a lone genius programmer in a basement is not at all true. In reality there is a lot of talking required before any code is written, deciding what to build and why. Sometimes getting people to agree can be difficult. A good Software Engineer is empathetic, kind and listens to others.

What are your proudest accomplishments to date?

Every expat knows the struggle of visas, and I have been through all of them. I will forever be proud of qualifying for the “Exceptional Promise” technology visa that allows me to stay in the UK. There was a period where I thought I would have to return to Australia, but I was able to put together a case based on my contributions to the UK tech industry that granted me the ability to stay. Apart from the relief of not having to move continents, it was a really affirming moment that made me proud of all I have achieved over the last few years.

Why did you decide to pursue a career in software engineering?

I originally studied Arts, so I honestly never intended to end up software engineering. When I moved to London, I joined the tech industry as a content writer for a fashion tech startup. I loved being in the tech industry, but was increasingly creatively frustrated as I wanted to build things myself but didn’t have the skills.

I started teaching myself to code in my spare time. Eventually the opportunity came up to enrol in a full time program, so I decided to go for it and spent three months learning to code with a free program called Founders and Coders.

It’s now been four years since I learned to code. What I love most of all is the feeling of power that comes from being able to build any random app idea I ever have.

What do you do as a Developer Advocate?

A year ago “Developer Advocate” was added to my title at Condé Nast. This means that now along with being a Software Engineer, I work on initiatives for the wider developer community. This includes things like sponsoring tech events (with a focus on those that promote diversity), speaking internationally at conferences about our engineering projects at Condé Nast, and just generally trying to make the industry a better place.

You also run free JavaScript workshops with Node Girls. How did the idea come about?

When I was learning to code, I looked around at the events I was attending and saw a really homogenous crowd of white men in plaid shirts. It made me sad, and I wanted to do my bit to try and diversify the industry.

I set up Node Girls with some fellow women from my coding school. At the time there were no communities for gender minorities in tech with a specific focus on the JavaScript coding language. Our mission was to teach coding skills for free, and create an inclusive and supportive community...and we succeeded. Our first event had 50 attendees, and the program has now been running for four years with hundreds of alumni.

How do you feel about the future of women's participation in tech/code?

The challenges faced by women in the technology industry can seem endless, and sometimes I feel a bit dispirited by how much still has to change. Despite this, I am an optimist, and I do genuinely feel that things have been improving in recent years. I’m really encouraged by the new wave of diverse people entering the industry through non-traditional paths like coding bootcamps. I can’t wait for this wave to reach leadership. I hope we can reform the culture of the industry to the point where more women stay in the industry long enough to take up senior-level positions.

In your opinion, what more could be done to encourage more women to pursue a career in STEM?

There are so many things that can be done to encourage more women to join the industry, but I believe role models are important. I never imagined I would be a Software Engineer because I never saw anyone doing this job who looked like me. The intimidation factor of software engineering is real! We need to continue to diversify the face of engineering, so women can actually imagine themselves doing this job.

How was your study experience in Sydney?

I had a lovely time studying Arts at USYD. Although I ended up pursuing engineering, the skills I learned in my Arts degree definitely make me a more interesting and well-rounded Software Engineer.

If you could go back in time and start your career again, would you do anything differently?

No! I’m chuffed at where I’m at right now, and I’m very happy with the roundabout journey I took to get here.

Apart from the usual tourist attractions, what are your alternative suggestions for travellers to visit in London?

The Columbia Road flower market near Shoreditch is a delightful Sunday activity, and where I always take my parents when they visit me in London. It’s especially nice in the Summer. Wander the cute shops, have a glass of prosecco and watch people instagram themselves with huge trees and flowers on the cobblestoned streets.

Your go-to places for good coffee?

Maybe it’s cheating to pick an Australian café, but my favourite brunch spot is Brunswick East in Dalston. They do delicious coffee and have a very inventive brunch menu.