How Working at Chalk Helped Me Appreciate Being a Software Developer

“For context…”

When I first joined Chalk, what I noticed right away was how often this phrase appeared in conversations within the office. At first, I brushed it off as a catchphrase, something entrenched between people who were always working together. However, as the term went on, I felt the onset of what I would call a “purpose block,” where I treated my time at work as simply checking off a task list of things to do. As the term went on, I struggled to overcome this feeling, which led me to begin to realize the importance of “context,” not only for understanding the platform decisions our engineering team makes, but also how necessary it is for me to appreciate the impact my work as a developer has on the lives of teachers using our Planboard iOS app (Soon-to-be “apps”! Email us at support@chalk.com to sign up for the Markboard and Attendance betas!)

First introductions…

For context (haha), I’ll start with a small self-introduction. My name’s Yeva, and I’m a student who has just finished my second year in Computer Science at the University of Waterloo. My first job was as a web developer, where I dealt with things like servers and web pages. However, since high school, I had been interested in getting experience in mobile development because I firmly believe that as hardware continues to shrink in size but grow in computing power, mobile devices, such as phones and tablets, will eventually be able to do almost everything a computer can and more. When I learned that Chalk was hiring interns for the summer, I decided to apply for the iOS developer position to try something new. I didn’t have any professional experience in creating iOS applications, and sometimes I even lacked understanding of why my own code worked, but I sent in a witty and personalized email, hoped for the best, and here I am!

I spent my first two weeks at Chalk throwing myself into learning Swift and Objective C, two languages integral to iOS development. As I became comfortable with the two, I began to start working on new features for our Planboard application, and the tasks were delegated to me by Aleem, our engineering lead. For the first two months, I worked hard to get features and fixes pushed out in a timely matter because as a small team, we move fast to get things up and running for our users. But as time went on, I slowly felt myself feeling less and less motivated to get things done, but couldn’t figure out why. To put it simply, I was in a slump with no idea of how to get out.

I knew that the cause of this sudden feeling of unproductivity was not because I wasn’t contributing to the product; in fact, I was adding new lines of code to Planboard almost every day, but it was the fact that I saw my contributions as just that – lines of code. To me, every feature or improvement was just another group of code, which I implemented by following the strict rules of a programming language. At the end of the day, every app is just made up of lines of code put together in a certain order. For me, as a rookie developer, it was easy to get lost in that world and become overly focused on the creation of a feature, but lose sight of the positive impact it has on the people using it.

For me, as a rookie developer, it was easy to get lost in that world and become overly focused on the creation of a feature, but lose sight of the positive impact it has on the people using it.

 Chalk it up to our mission

Luckily enough for me, Chalk’s mission and platform are aimed toward working towards personalized education while making a difference in the lives of both teachers and admins alike, which looking back, was why I wanted to join the team in the first place. After some reflection, I determined that the source of my demotivation was the inability to fully appreciate that I was creating a product to make teachers’ lives easier, which in turn allows them to have more time that they can spend to better educate students or inspire them to be excited about learning in the future. In other words, I wasn’t able to fully grasp the context of “why” I was implementing features, much like how I started off in iOS development not fully understanding “why” certain ways of putting the code together would produce the result I wanted.

Now that I had pinpointed the reason for my demotivation, I knew that I had to change my mindset about the work I was doing and why I was doing it but wasn’t exactly sure how to go about doing so. I started going through our product team’s feature request documents, which held records of what teachers have asked us for in the past, with quotes from conversations with them and the number of requests for it. While these gave me validation that we had users who wanted to use the features that I had created, it didn’t give me the feeling of satisfaction or drive that I was looking for, so I continued my search.

About a week later, I was set to run a usability testing session with one of Chalk’s longest friends, Andrew Bieronski, to test our Markboard iOS app, which I had built out earlier that month. The goal was to see how easily a user could navigate the app to do particular tasks and to improve upon the user experience based on what we noticed they struggled with or any feedback that they left us. It was also going to be my first time interacting directly with a teacher who had been using our applications, so going into it, I was quite nervous to see how it would turn out: what would they say? How would they react?

When the session began, I realized that my worries were unfounded; Andrew was analytical yet respectful, and professional yet easygoing. The testing went off without a hitch, and we were able to get good feedback for improvements in the future. But what left the largest impression on me from the session was not the actual usability testing, but rather the part where I got to know Andrew a bit better and learning about the kind of work he was doing with our applications to create a better education for students. Again, Andrew was the first teacher who I had talked to directly about our software, and during our conversation, I realized that the “context” I needed for why I was building applications was sitting right in front of me. It was nice to see how much he used our platform, but I was blown away by the amount of excitement he showed when seeing our applications coming to mobile and all the new features that were in the works. Suddenly my features were no longer just lines of code to me; in front of me was a teacher who genuinely enjoyed using something I had built, which my mind immediately extrapolated to the fact that other teachers would also appreciate our product, which our team had worked so hard to make as amazing as possible.

I was blown away by the amount of excitement he showed when seeing our applications coming to mobile and all the new features that were in the works.

As the week came to a close, I reflected on this moment and realized that the feeling of aimlessness and lack of motivation could not be unique to myself, which was why I decided to write my post on this experience. It was natural for me to see the big picture when I was looking at the company from the outside, such as when I was applying for the job, but as I became increasingly entangled and aware of the details and tasks associated with creating our software, I quickly lost sight of the “why” I was doing things and became overly focused on the “how” instead. I was lucky enough to stumble upon the fix for my aimlessness because of Chalk’s close ties with the community, which allows us to collaborate with teachers who use our software and see their reactions to our work. In turn, this gives us the distinct advantage of being able to understand that our users are real people who have emotional reactions to our software, whether that’s satisfaction, frustration, or what we aim for: amazement 🙂