Elke Heymans, Front-end consultant

Elke Heymans

Name: Elke Heymans
Title: Front-end Consultant
Education: Computer Science at VUB

Elke is a front-end developer with a strong interest in a variety of web technologies and who’s currently focusing on everything Vue related. In her spare time, you can find her taking photographs at events, training for half marathons. She also enjoys music by collecting records and attending concerts. (when there’s no pandemic)

Can you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your background?

Hi, my name is Elke! After getting a degree in Computer Science, I’ve been in the IT business since 2013. I was always fascinated by computers and technology so choosing what to study was trivial. After graduating, I first worked 4 years as a full stack developer. After that, I took the leap to become a front-end consultant which I’ve been doing since February 2018.

What is your job and what does a typical workday look like for you?

As a front-end consultant, I help clients with developing the front-end in their applications by joining their team. This is a typical 9-to-5 job, mostly on-site at the client’s offices. Due COVID-19, I have been working fulltime from home since mid-March 2020. I will probably work from home for the rest of the year.

My day starts with our SCRUM stand-up meeting where I notify the team of the work I did the day before, the work I’m planning to do that day, and if I would need any help with certain tasks. Oftentimes, I take a task from our board which is about half of the time bugs and the other half new features. These “new feature” tasks go through the cycle of defining the requirements, communicating with all parties involved (Do we need a change from backend? Do we need certain decisions from the business?), defining a budget, deadline, and actual implementation. Sometimes there are days that I’m barely coding but luckily most of my days are filled with working in the code of the project.

Throughout the day I keep in contact with colleagues, both from the client and from my consultancy firm to share news, discuss ideas, get feedback, and more.

How about when you’re not working? Any hobbies or interests you’d like to tell us about?

Photography is my passion. It’s a creative outlet that allows me to do something totally different than having to sit behind a screen all day. I enjoy all kinds of photography but I focus mostly on street photography in my spare time. From time to time I enjoy doing wedding and event photography.

I try to stay fit by going for runs. Most of the time I’m training for a bigger event like 10 miles or half marathon. One day I hope to do a full marathon, it’s an ultimate goal that will require lots of training. For now, I focus on staying fit enough by running 10kms or more. Running is also perfect to wind down after a frustrating day at work or to get my head clear before starting work. With the whole COVID-19 situation I’ve been running a lot more in the morning before work.

In my spare time, you can find me playing games in all kinds of forms: video games, board games, … At home we have a nice collection of board games that keeps on growing and (in our opinion) has not reached a size big enough although the shelves are getting filled quite nicely.

What or who got you initially interested in coding and / or pursuing a career in tech?

VTech Precomputer 3000 SL

My first experience in coding started with one of those old VTech kids laptops. We had a VTech Precomputer 3000 SL.

At first, it was just something to play games one: small puzzles, some word games, … You couldn’t really do much with such a small screen, it could display 2 lines of text and that was everything you had to work with.

That small kids laptop included a manual, which explained certain games and how you could code on it. Coding on this?! I had no idea what coding was! It had a very simple version of BASIC that you could use to code your own little programs on it. It was a dialect of Unstructured BASIC, you had to code with line numbers and you could GOTO certain line numbers. The most you could do was ask some input, calculate something, and output it. But I found it fascinating how I could create something that would react to certain input, even if it was just adding two numbers.

I started out with writing HTML and JavaScript, in high school. In our IT class, we got a very basic introduction to JavaScript; It was limited to showing a prompt, calculating something, and then showing an alert. Nothing noteworthy but it brought back memories to my little WhizKid Precomputer. During this time I started playing around with HTML and JavaScript. It didn’t take long before I started creating basic websites and started dipping my toes into the world of PHP.

This was the time of PHP4 and the introduction of PHP5. It opened up a whole world for me of more complex applications. I learned on my own about MySQL databases, I started using CSS instead of those inline font tags, I tried drawing some stuff in Photoshop, … By the time I had to choose what to do after high school, I was almost certain that I wanted to choose Computer Science as an education and a career.

At some point you seemed to have 2nd thoughts about specialising in IT, would you mind telling what held you back and what motivated you to keep on going?

Photography was my other passion and was the reason why I sort of had my doubts if IT was going to be my best choice. I loved taking photos but I also loved programming, I had to decide what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

One of the main reasons why I wanted to go for IT was the fact that I was afraid of losing my photography hobby. Going into photography would mean that I could turn my hobby into a profession but it was also a risk. I could end up in situations that I would have to take photos of certain events when I didn’t really want to. That I had to take certain jobs just to pay the bills…

IT looked like a more stable option and would allow me to keep my photography more as a hobby. The fact that I was interested in programming since an early age cemented my choice. If I could have fun as a kid trying to program and writing HTML, CSS and JS, it surely looked like an interesting job to do. And having a job in IT looked like a good way to fund all kinds of camera equipment so I could have even more fun in my hobby!

Looking at the future, are there certain career opportunities or paths you would like to explore?

Since I switched jobs and moved from being a full stack developer to a front-end consultant, I am getting various opportunities that extend the role I am already in. I have the opportunity to coach and guide people while still having lots of development to do.

At my former job, I explored a few career paths, all of them were a combination with development. I did analysis, some project management and so on. But they resulted in having less and less actual time to implement code. This made me realise how important coding actually was for me. Having in-depth knowledge of the technologies that I am using and having a major impact on implementations while also coaching other developers is what appeals to me the most.

I recently started with a bit of public speaking, which challenges me on many levels. I want to be able to really be on top of the idea, technology, or concept that I’m presenting. Just like becoming a senior level developer, I want to do my very best to ensure that I give the best coaching or best presentation that I’m capable of. So this is certainly going to be a career path I’ll be exploring more in the future.

In your career you have probably worked on all kinds of projects, what’s your favourite project so far?

My current project is my favourite project so far. The past year I’ve been focusing a lot on Vue. Being able to work with Vue fulltime has provided me a lot of learning opportunities. Learning via tutorials, going to conferences and following workshops are all very good to gain more knowledge, but working on an actual application can do so much more for me in terms of getting a good grip on the technologies involved.

It’s a project with already a bunch of features fully implemented before I joined. With the arrival of new features and even a whole redesign of the application, I had the opportunity to refactor a lot of the code to something that’s more stable, more robust, and easier to maintain in the future.

The client also values my opinion a lot. As a front-end consultant, I’m not just a code monkey to write HTML, CSS, and JS in a JS framework. I had the opportunity to give UI feedback, UX feedback, discuss certain new parts of the application, and more. Front-end devs are not just writing code that runs in a browser. We need to be aware of what good UX is, how certain parts can be improved for better results in search engines, whether certain elements will work well on all kinds of screen sizes, and so much more. This challenges me on multiple levels, it keeps the workday exciting.

Are there any particular women in tech who have inspired you?

A lot of women in tech inspire me. There are no particular people that I would highlight as it’s such a diverse group of people that inspire me: from the ones giving amazing conference talks to the ones fighting for equality to the ones just trying to enjoy their work in tech and tweeting about it.

Do you have any favourite resources or projects you like to follow?

I follow a plethora of people on Twitter. Mostly front-end devs, currently focused on Vue and React devs. I sometimes read https://news.vuejs.org/ and I have some blogs that I follow such as cassidoo but most of the time, it’s via tweets that I end up reading those blogs.

At some point we talked about pair programming, do you have any tips to get started with this?

Getting started with pair programming takes a bit of initiative. In the past year, I’ve done pair programming regularly. I worked on a project where I had the more senior front-end role in my team. I sometimes took an issue that had been lingering in the Jira for way too long and I tried to tackle it together with one of the other front-end devs. Pair programming doesn’t have to be something you do for a whole project, it’s not necessarily a full time task: it can be split up over many short instances.

To start with pair programming it’s best to be vocal about how you would solve certain issues. There might be somebody interested in learning about the solution or they might be able to help you. Is someone else going to take up a certain ticket to be solved and you have no idea how to solve it yourself? Ask them if you can follow along. Be proactive. Are you going to tackle a big issue? Ask around in the team who wants to help. If there’s a difference in knowledge, that’s even better. Seniority doesn’t always equal better solutions: someone quite new to a certain technology can ask lots of questions which might trigger a brainstorm about other solutions.

What do you think are the benefits of pair programming?

The first benefit is the ability to get or give direct feedback. I have introduced the use of pull requests with code reviews in this project. But instead of having to wait for approval, I often want to get feedback directly. If I know a colleague is focusing on a certain issue, I propose to work together so they could have direct feedback. I let them handle the typing, let them take initiative in proposing solutions. This way we eliminated a lot of overhead of opening a pull request, me giving feedback, them changing code based on the feedback, me having to review again, and so on.

A second benefit is that we could discuss certain solutions. I might have some idea about how to solve a certain issue, but maybe there is a better solution that I just didn’t see. The fact that at some point I was still relatively new to the project, could lead to instances where I didn’t know about certain architectural choices. Having a colleague who can shed a different light on a solution could help to avoid implementing bad solutions on the long-term.

A final and very important benefit is knowledge transfer. For certain issues, we had to change something on the configuration side of our front-end code. If a colleague doesn’t have prior knowledge of the configuration of a project, pair programming is a good opportunity for them to learn about it. Let them follow how you solve the issue, let them ask questions. It might turn into a small teaching moment for everyone involved.

What made you join the women.code(be) community?

I started following Claudia on Twitter when she tweeted about starting a women in tech group in Belgium. This was in a period that I was doubting my job and was starting to get interested in switching jobs. So it looked like a good network opportunity. But as soon as I started going to the meetups, I continued going because of the amazing people that I met and the great tech talks that I saw.

How could the tech industry be more inclusive for women and minorities?

Let everyone have a voice and actively let everybody speak. The one who speaks the most and the loudest in a meeting is rarely the one you should listen to. A hostile environment can be countered by letting the new one on the team speak and feel welcome. Get to know them, show genuine interest, let them be themselves. This can be done on so many levels: in your own team, when interviewing candidates, when selecting speakers at conferences,…

Also: drop the jokes that target women and minorities. It’s 2020, the edgy jokes aren’t impressing anyone. Even if a company claims to be inclusive, it can still feel hostile if the people working there aren’t actively trying to be inclusive. Creating an inclusive environment is a task and a responsibility for everyone, no matter the age, gender, race, experience,…

If you look back on when you first started out. What advice would you give yourself?

Yes, coding is your passion, don’t doubt yourself. 8 years old you had fun trying stuff out in BASIC, 14 years old you enjoyed writing HTML, and 18 years old you had already made complex stuff in PHP and MySQL: your passion lies in coding. Keep learning, keep challenging yourself with new technologies, and don’t be scared to continue building a whole career coding.

We hope you enjoyed Elke Heymans's story, feel free to share this article with your network. ❤️

You can find Elke on twitter and check out her website or just check out her website.

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