/ Developing Stories_

Why a Linguist Learned the Language of Programming

Anya Zakharevich is an experienced linguist who teaches English to programmers. That usually means covering a pretty standard set of concepts—vocabulary, verb conjugations, sentence structure, and so on. However, after some trial and error, Anya realized that her students' specific needs meant she needed to speak their other language—classes, objects, arrays, and so on.

She came to Codecademy to get more familiar with the language of programming, but a few months in, she was hooked. Now, she has plans to build a mobile app that will help her students stay connected.

Read on to learn about the challenges Anya faced early on in her coding journey, how her teaching has evolved since she started learning to code, and what she wants to build next.

  1. Tell us about yourself.
  2. Tell us about your work as a linguist and teacher.
  3. How has learning to code impacted your career?
  4. How do you use your coding knowledge on a daily basis?
  5. Did you find learning to code intimidating?
  6. What's your next step?
  7. Has taking Intro to Data Analysis helped your teaching?

Tell us about yourself.

Well, if I may I would like to start with a little background story.

Back in 10th grade, I had to deal a lot with my IT teacher's attitude that girls are only destined for washing the dishes and keeping the household nice, clean and warm.

It took me lots of time and effort to prove that I was worth something alongside my IT classmates who were mostly boys. So long story short, in the late 1990s and the beginning of 2000s I developed quite a strong interest in technology. Yet, seeing some sort of prejudice from my teacher towards the fact that girls are not as great in programming as boys are, I realized that I had little chance to finish school with straight As in IT, and I would not get great references from my teacher if I opted to major in IT when I entered university, so I dove deep into foreign languages.

Tell us more about your current career.

I got my Master's degree in foreign languages. I can speak several different languages and for most of my professional career, I've been teaching English and German.

What I've learned through my career for the last 10 plus years is that to better understand things, especially when it comes down to languages, it's best to teach them yourself.

At some point, I saw that I was lacking certain technical skills that would be of great demand when working with my clients. My company specifically has quite a lot of clients who are IT companies. They actually set pretty high standards with regards to me as a teacher, how am I supposed to teach them any specific thing. They know if I'm not too technical or I can only speculate on any kind of technical terms.

You have to keep up and grow along with your customers. Back in 2015, I came across a fascinating article about online programming courses. It reminded me of school times and how much I enjoyed programming when I was a kid, so I thought why not try again? It's never too late to learn something. Codecademy was the one that captured my attention.

How has learning to code impacted your career?

I would say, it’s been an immense help, in the way of figuring out what exactly I am interested in or to get a taste of a particular programming language.

Before that, it was a little bit two-way for me. I was just trying anything and everything and I had no idea what exactly I was up to. I grew a lot with Codecademy and my clients who I've been teaching, either German or advanced English, in terms of IT industry, just helped influence my learning and sometimes they even felt intimidated by what I was saying.

Getting to the Intro to Data Analysis Pro Intensive, that was just great at helping me understand what I'm actually doing, and that I want to just get better at that. Of course, it's pretty hard to make any kind of transition from the career I'm pursuing right now, to just diving into the IT industry or programming specifically.

But even small things like taking on vocational subjects, or helping with maintaining the school's website. It's all really fascinating to me.

I want to rewind a little bit and ask, how do you specifically use these new skills on a daily basis?

The people I interact with are immigrants and their command of English is not very good at times. They are great in technical terms, but sometimes they have trouble with certain terms in English.

My role is just to help them better understand anything and everything to do with English. For example, one of my clients is a Java programmer and it comes down to me helping him with any particular fascinations he doesn't fully understand in code.

For example, if he gets some kind of feedback from his team, like notes or suggestions on what he needs to improve, and he doesn't really know what exactly is expected of him. Mostly my work comes down to just simplifying understanding for that person.

So knowing the vocabulary of Java programming because that's what he uses in his career?

For me to be able to do that, I know the person may have a good understanding of Java in their native language. For me, it's also important to just have an idea of how exactly this particular language works.

Without an idea of what kind of objects or classes we’re talking about, it's pretty hard to have that conversation with the client. Basically convince the person that, what I'm trying to explain or what I'm saying, is actually right, because it’s not easy to develop trust.

They might think of you as a linguist and say, "Okay, you may know the English language or the German language, but you are not a technical person." You start speaking to them in technical terms, they just see that you actually understand what's going on. They finally start trusting you and our conversation happens.

I see. That's really fascinating. There are so many different languages working at so many different levels in those interactions. Back-tracking a little bit more, when you started with Codecademy, were you intimidated at all, based on those past experiences with programming and your teacher?

I would say no. Like I said before, it all started just out of curiosity. I'm that type of person, if I really feel like getting into something, it happens without any kind of force.

Every time I felt like I needed some sort of distraction or maybe I wasn't in a good mood, coding was kind of a thing for me to do to distract myself and do something that I like. Of course, sometimes there were days when I got tired or maybe weeks when I didn't really have time.

Every time I got back, it was like I developed some kind of addiction. I mean it in a good way. It's like, you really enjoy it. What I've always liked about the way Codecademy approaches the whole organization of theoretical and practical parts, there's lots of encouragement.

Something like, "Yay, you've accomplished another task. You've scored something." It felt like going to the gym and just letting your steam out. If you are full of any kind of negative energy, Codecademy was a place where I could just feel nothing but good about myself.

What are the next steps you'd like to take with programming?

I've encountered a couple of situations with my clients, whether individuals or corporate groups, where, for ease, a lot of us prefer doing things on the go. Sometimes you are old school with your students, in a room together with some kind of handouts or any visual aids you can apply in the classroom itself.

That's all good, but the clients also ask a lot of questions like, "Does your school provide any possibility of downloading an app to pull up everything we've acquired in class so far and maybe brush up on your vocabulary or grammar? On the go, with my cell phone or tablet." At this point, I've been thinking of trying to create some kind of app.

I still have no idea how exactly I'm going to do it because right now, it's all about my personal initiative. Based on what I've already experienced, it's too hard to actually create something all by yourself. Sometimes you need some sort of back up from a team or people who you can turn to. You may know a lot of things, but you can't know everything. Of course, you can do or create a lot, but it's always nice to have someone next to you, just some kind of support or assistance.

Have you used any of the skills you’ve learned in the Data Analysis Intensive in your teaching?

The Pro Intensive course has been really helpful. The people who take that course are not necessarily all technical experts. I didn't even have any kind of previous experience. What I noticed when it comes down to interaction on Slack, everybody was basically trying to help or at least, trying to be nice, if they didn't know the exact answer. It definitely helped me get some understanding of how I can build my relationship with clients, specifically from IT companies.

Every time you interact with people who are involved in the IT industry, and you are trying to have some sort of a constructive conversation or trying to build up some kind of business relationship, you have to think at that same level as they do.

Just like with everything else, you may just see things from your perspective, based on what exactly you're involved in. People on the other side may have a completely different perspective. You should always keep that in mind and just speak to their level.

At this point, I think another reason why I have taken the Pro Intensive course was of course because it was also a very good incentive for me to drive myself forward. I am that type of person who, when I am restricted to any kind of deadline, it's better for me.

I owe it to myself, if not to be more perfect but at least to be better at interacting with my clients. It will expand my experience and who knows, maybe someday, it will bring me somewhere else.

This article is an edited compilation of a live interview transcript and Anya's written responses to a survey.

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