Journey Through a Dev Degree Intern’s First Placement

This past April, I completed my first placement as a Dev Degree student. I was a back-end developer working on the Docs & API Libraries team. The team’s mission is to create libraries, tools, and documentation that help developers build on top of Shopify. Throughout my time on the team, I had many opportunities to solve problems, and in taking them, I learned not only technical skills, but life lessons I hope to carry with me. I’ll share with you how I learned to appreciate the stages of learning, dispel the myth of the “real developer,” combat imposter syndrome by asking for help, and the power of valuing representation.

Joining the Dev Degree Program

In February of 2019, I received an email from York University. Apply for Dev Degree! it read. As a high school student with disabilities, I’d been advised to look for a program that would support me until I graduated. With small cohorts and a team of supportive folks from both Shopify and York University, I felt I could be well-accommodated in Dev Degree. Getting work experience, I reasoned, would also help me learn to navigate the workplace, putting me at an advantage once I graduated. With nothing to lose and absolutely no expectations, I hit Apply.

An illustration of an email that reads "To: you. subject: apply for Dev Degree!" with an "apply!" button at the bottom
Apply to Dev Degree

Much to my surprise, I made it through the application and interview process. What followed were eight months of learning: 25 hours a week in a classroom at Shopify and 20 hours a week at York University. Alongside nine other students, I discovered Ruby, databases, front-end development, and much more with a group of knowledgeable instructors at Shopify. In May 2020, we moved on to the next exciting stage of the Dev Degree program: starting our first placement on a real Shopify team! It would be 12 months long, followed by three additional eight-month long placements, all on teams of varying disciplines. During those 12 months, I learned lessons I’ll carry throughout my career.

What We Consider “Foundational Knowledge” Gets Distorted the More We Learn

When I first joined the Docs & API Libraries team, there was a steep learning curve. This was expected. Months into the placement, however, I still felt as though I was stagnant in my learning and would never know enough to become impactful. Upon mentioning this to my lead, he suggested we create an Achievement Log—a list of the victories I’d had, large and small, during my time on the team.

Looking back on my Achievement Log, I see many victories I would now consider rather small, but had been a big deal at the time. To feel this way is a reminder that I have progressed. My bar for what to consider “basic knowledge” moved upward as I learned more, leading to a feeling of never having progressed. One good way of putting these achievements into perspective is to share them with others. So, let’s journey through some highlights from my Achievement Log together!

An illustration of stairs with label, "today" on closest and largest step, and "before" off in the distance
Stairs to achievement

I remember being very frustrated while attempting my first pull request (PR). I was still learning about the Shopify CLI (a command-line tool to help developers create Shopify apps) and kept falling down the wrong rabbit holes. The task: allow the Shopify CLI to take all Rails flags when scaffolding a Rails project; for example, using --db=DB to change the database type. It took a lot of guidance, learning, and mistakes to solve the issue, so when I finally shipped my first PR, it felt like a massive victory!

Mentoring was another good way to see how far I’d come. When pairing with first-year Dev Degree students on similar tasks, I’d realize I was answering their questions—questions I myself had asked when working on that first PR—and guiding them toward their own solutions. It reminds me of the fact that we all start in the same place: with no context, little knowledge, and much curiosity. I have made progress.

The Myth of the “Real” Developer Is, Well, a Myth

After familiarizing myself with the tool through tasks similar to my first PR, I began working on a project that added themes as a project type to the Shopify CLI. The first feature I added was the command to scaffold a theme, followed by a task I always dreaded: testing. I understood what my code did, and what situations needed to have unit tests, but could not figure out how to write the tests.

My lead gave a very simple suggestion: why not mimic the tests from the Rails project type? I was more familiar with the Rails project type, and the code being tested was very similar between the two test files. This had never occurred to me before, as it didn’t feel like something a “real” developer would do.

An illustration of a checklist titled, "Real Programmer" with none of the boxes ticked
Real Programmer checklist

Maybe “real” developers program in their free time, are really into video games, or have a bunch of world-changing side projects going at all times. Or maybe they only use the terminal— never the GUI—and always dark mode. I spoke to a few developer interns about what notions they used to have of a “real” developer, and those were some of their thoughts. My own contribution was that “real” developers can solve problems in their own creative ways and didn’t need help; it felt like I needed to be able to implement unique solutions without referring to any examples. So, following existing code felt like cheating at first. However, the more I applied the strategy, the more I realized it was helpful and entirely valid.

For one, observational learning is a good way of building confidence toward being able to attempt something. My first pairing sessions on this team, before I felt comfortable driving, involved watching an experienced developer work through the problem on their screen. Looking at old code also gives a starting point for what questions to ask or keywords to search. By better understanding the existing tests, and changing them to fit what I needed to test, I was learning to write unrelated tests one bite-sized piece at a time.

An illustration of the Real Programmer checklist, but criteria has been scratched out and a ticked box added next to checklist title, "Real Programmer"
The Real Programmer is a dated stereotype

At the end of the day, developers are problem solvers coming from all different walks of life, all with ways of learning that fit them. There’s no need to play into dated stereotypes!

Imposter Syndrome Is Real, But It’s Only Part of the Picture

As I was closing out the Shopify CLI project, I was added to my first team project: the Shopify Admin API Library for Node. This is a library written in Typescript with support for authentication, GraphQL and REST requests, and webhook handling. It’s used in accelerating Node app development.

With this being my first time working on a team at Shopify, I found it far too easy to nod along and pretend I knew more than I did. Figuring it would be a relatively simple feature to implement, a teammate suggested I add GraphQL proxy functionality to the library; but, for a very junior developer like me, it wasn’t all that simple. It was difficult to communicate the level of help I needed. Instead, I often seemed to require encouragement, which my team gave readily. I kept being told I was doing a good job, even though I felt I had hardly done anything, and whenever I mentioned to a friend that I felt I had no idea what I was doing, the response was often that they were sure I was doing great. That I needed to have more confidence in my abilities.

I puzzled over the task for several weeks without admitting I had no idea what I was doing. In the end, my lead had to help me a lot. It wasn’t a matter of simply feeling like I knew nothing; I had been genuinely lost and successful at hiding it. Being surrounded by smart people, imposter syndrome is nearly inevitable. I’m still looking for ways to overcome this. Yet, there are moments when it is not simply a matter of underestimating myself; rather, it’s more about acknowledging how much I have to learn. To attribute the lack of confidence entirely to imposter syndrome would only work to isolate me more.

Imposter syndrome or not, I still had to work through it. I had to ask for help; a vital challenge in the journey of learning. Throughout my placement, I was told repeatedly, by many team members, that they would like to hear me ask for help more often. And I’ve gotten better at that. Not only does it help me learn for the next time, it gives the team context into the problem I am solving and how. It may slow down progress for a little while, but in the larger picture, it moves the entire project forward. Plus, asking a senior developer for their time isn’t unreasonable, but normal. What would be unreasonable is expecting an intern to know enough not to ask!

Learning Will Never Feel Fast

My next project after the Node library was the Shopify Admin API Library for PHP (similar functionality as the Shopify Admin API Library for Node but a different language). The first feature I added was the Context class, comparable to a backpack of important information about the user’s app and shop being carried and used across the rest of the library’s functionality. I had never used PHP before and was excited to learn. That is, until I started to fall behind. Then I began to feel frustrated. Since I’d had experience building the previous library, shouldn’t I have been able to hit the ground running with this one?

An illustration of a backpack with a tag that says "Context" with Context class parameters sticking out
Shopify backpack full of context

As a Dev Degree student, I work approximately half the hours of everyone else on my team, and my inexperience means I take longer to grasp certain concepts. Even knowing this, I tend to compare myself to others on my team, so I often feel very behind when it comes to how much I’ve accomplished. And any time I’m told that I’m a quick learner, it’s as if I’ve successfully fooled everyone.

Determined to practice the lesson I had learned from trying to implement the GraphQL proxy in the Node library, I asked for help. I asked my teammates to review the draft PR occasionally while it was still a work-in-progress. The idea was that, if I strayed from the proper implementation, my mistake would be caught earlier on. Not only did this keep me on track, getting my teammates’ approval throughout the process also helped me realize I was less behind than I’d thought. It made learning a collaborative process. My inexperience and part-time hours didn’t matter, because I had a team to learn alongside.

Even when I was on track, learning felt like a slow process—and that’s because that is the nature of learning. Not knowing or understanding things can be frustrating in the moment, especially when others seem to understand. But the perspective others have of me is different from mine. It’s not that I’ve fooled them; rather, they’re acknowledging my progress relative to only itself. They’re celebrating my learning for what it is.

Valuing Representation Isn’t a Weakness

As a kid, I couldn’t understand why representation mattered; if no one like you had achieved what you wanted to achieve before, then you’d be the first! Yet, this was the same kid who felt she could never become a teacher because her last name “didn’t sound like a teacher’s.” This internalized requirement to appear unbothered by my differences followed me as I got older, applying itself to other facets of me—gender, disability, ethnicity, age. I later faced covert sexism and ableism in high school, making it harder for me to remain unfazed. Consequently, when I first started working on an open source repository, I’d get nervous about how prejudiced a stranger could be just from looking at my GitHub profile picture.

A doodle of a headshot with a nametag that reads "hello, I'm incompetent". It is annotated with the labels, "Asian", "girl", and "younger = inexperienced"
Are these possible biases from a stranger?

This nervousness has since died down. I haven’t been in any predicament of that sort on the team, and on top of that, I’ve been encouraged by everyone I interact with regularly to tell them if they aren’t being properly accommodating. I always have the right to be supported and included, but it’s my responsibility to share how others can help. We even have an autism support Slack channel at Shopify that gives me a space to see people like myself doing all sorts of amazing things and to seek out advice.

Looking back on all the highlights of my achievement log, there’s a story that snakes through the entries. Not just one of learning and achievement, which I’ve shared, but one that’s best encapsulated by one last story.

My lead sent out feedback forms to each of the team members to fill out about those they worked with. The last question was “Anything else to add?” Hesitantly, I messaged one of my teammates, asking if I could mention how appreciative I was of her openness about her neurodiversity. It was nice to have someone like me on the team, I told her. Imagine my surprise when she told me she’d meant to write the same thing for me!

Valuing representation isn’t a weakness. It isn’t petty. There’s no need to appear unbothered. Valuing representation helps us value and empower one another—for who we are, what we represent, and the positive impact we have.

There you have it, a recap of my first placement as a Dev Degree intern, some problems I solved, and some lessons I learned. Of course, I still have much to learn. There’s no quick fix to any challenges that come with learning. However, if I were to take only one lesson with me to my next placement, it would be this: there is so much learning involved, so get comfortable being uncomfortable! Face this challenge head-on, but always remember: learning is a collaborative activity.

Having heard my story, you may be interested in learning more about Dev Degree, and possibly experiencing this journey for yourself. Applications for the Fall 2022 program are open until February 13, 2022.

Carmela is a Dev Degree intern attending York University. She is currently on her second placement, working as a front-end developer in the Shopify Admin.