Stories/Olivia Liddell

STORY

Meet Olivia Liddell

Tell us about yourself

I first became interested in technology when I was a kid and my mom got a computer for me and my brother to share. I fell in love with using AOL Press (a WYSIWYG editor) to build my first webpages, and then I discovered that I could click a button to reveal all of the underlying code. Initially, I had no idea what the code meant, but I started unpacking it piece by piece, teaching myself HTML and CSS before taking the leap over to JavaScript.

A few years later, I enrolled in my high school’s science and technology program. My dream was to become a doctor and biomedical engineer, and I carried this with me into my first year of college. However, I went from being near the top of my high school class to almost losing my college scholarship after I failed some of my first-year courses, including calculus and physics. I told myself that this clearly meant I was a failure, and so I gave up on the idea of ever having any kind of career in tech. However, I still kept writing code for fun on the side, such as whenever a friend or student club needed someone to create a website for them.

Throughout my career, I’ve worked in various roles within the education industry, such as leading gallery tours in the Brooklyn Museum and teaching middle school Arabic in Chicago Public Schools. Even when I didn’t necessarily have a “tech job,” I still kept working on side projects to keep my skills fresh. Additionally, whenever I saw an opportunity to use my technical skills at work, I immediately jumped on it. For instance, I once developed a computer game to teach my students how to recognize Arabic numbers. My students loved the game, because it gave them a way to learn that was fun, engaging, and a little bit competitive, too!

In my current role, I develop training courses to teach AWS customers and partners how to use the AWS Cloud. I enjoy being able to create content that can help people to learn new skills, achieve certifications, and use what they’ve learned to continue building better lives for themselves.

I’m currently working on the follow-up talk to “Becoming an Effective Mentor,” a conference talk that I first presented in 2018. In that session, I presented strategies for getting started with mentoring, such as identifying your own personal strengths and improving your communication skills. In the follow-up talk, I plan to present a toolkit that mentors can use for specific development and improvement initiatives with their mentees. I’ve been very fortunate to have had many inspiring mentors throughout my career, so I hope that this follow-up talk can help others to continue making positive changes in the lives of their mentees as well.

How did you first get started in your career in tech?

My advice for how to get your foot in the door: Start by identifying exactly what it is about technology that most interests you. Personally, I spent some time reflecting and realized that I enjoy educating others about technology --- what it is, how it works, and how they can use it to help achieve their desired outcomes.

Here’s how I got my first job in tech:

In 2014, my career was mostly focused around the education field. I had just finished teaching in Chicago Public Schools, and I had started a new position as a college student advisor. I knew that I had a solid background in teaching and training, but I needed a way to prove that I could transition from K-12 classroom teaching into technology training for adults. I started by looking at my company’s current processes and initiatives that had anything at all to do with technology, and then created proposals for how to improve them.

For instance, I noticed that all of the graduate students at the university received iPads to use throughout their programs, but they weren’t being trained on how to use them in general, or how to integrate them into their school routines. Many of the students were career changers who were brand new to using iPads. So, I developed a training program to onboard new students to the iPad experience. These “iPad 101 / 201” sessions offered differentiated training for students at beginning and advanced levels, and it went on to become a key selling point to help recruit new students into the graduate programs. I used my success with this initiative to support my application for transferring into a Learning Technologist position, which I consider to be my first job in tech.

Over time, I kept seeking opportunities to not only develop new technology training initiatives, but to specifically do so in ways that were scalable and clearly documented. I also continued to be a learner myself. The more that I took the time to learn new skills and refine existing ones, the more experience I gained with discovering different ways to present technical content.

My advice to everyone reading this is to spend some time reflecting on your own learning process. A major part of working in this field is the need to keep up with ever-changing technology, and understanding your preferred learning style can be immensely helpful with this.

What are the most important skills in your current position? How did you develop these skills?

In my current position, one of the most important skills is knowing how to develop training materials that are the right fit for learners, in terms of both breadth and depth. When brainstorming ideas for a course, it can be tempting to want to give learners all the information that possibly exists on a topic. But, it’s important to work backwards from the intended outcomes and ensure that the content you create aligns with what the learners are expected to be able to do as a result of completing the training.

I developed this skill by getting as much practice as I could with writing lesson plans, developing mini courses, etc., and then asking trusted colleagues for their feedback on what I did well and what I could potentially improve. Asking for feedback is an essential part of this learning process, because doing so helps you to consider what you have created through someone else’s perspective. I’ve found that when I know a subject particularly well, it can sometimes be difficult for me to take a step back and view it through the lens of a beginner.

Reviewing feedback from others has helped me to improve my skills in presenting technical concepts in different ways, depending on the intended audience. This has been incredibly beneficial for me in other parts of my career outside of curriculum development, such as when I’m working with a mentee or explaining a technical concept to someone in a meeting.

What are some resources that helped you in your journey in tech?

Whenever I need to learn a new programming language or brush up on one that I already know, I usually return to Codecademy. It’s usually difficult for me to learn and retain new information from watching videos, and I learn best by reading and practicing in small chunks. Codecademy has been a phenomenal resource for me, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn how to code.

I’ve also found a lot of great resources through the Learn Programming subreddit. Hearing about the experiences of other people who are at various stages of their programming journeys inspires me to keep learning more.

Finally, I recommend Meetup as a starting point for connecting with tech communities. I’m very introverted, so initially, the idea of going to a meetup event seemed pretty intimidating to me. But through these groups, I’ve built lots of meaningful relationships and also found ways that I can be a source of help and inspiration for others.

What are some difficulties you faced in your career? How did you overcome them?

Within the past year, I was diagnosed with both ADHD and Auditory Processing Disorder (APD). I’ve had depression and anxiety ever since I was a child, so initially, I thought that the symptoms that I was experiencing (both at work and in my personal life) were due to that. Receiving these diagnoses helped me to put a name to what I had been experiencing, but at the same time, I’ve had to figure out how to adjust to my new reality, and also not be afraid to advocate for what I need in the workplace.

For example, it’s usually difficult for me to process large amounts of spoken directions, or to understand what is being said when multiple people are talking at the same time. Initially, I felt that asking my manager for help with this would make me seem like a failure (especially because I was in the process of working towards a promotion at the time), but she was very helpful in asking for insights on any sort of support that I needed.

It’s usually much easier for me to offer help to others than to ask for it myself, but from this experience, I’ve learned a lot about the importance of advocating for myself and asking for help when I need it.

Looking back on your career, what advice do you wish someone had given you that would have helped accelerate your career?

I wish that someone would have told me that it’s okay to change direction, especially because the paths that you take can help to make you better at the work you eventually end up doing.

For example, one of my first jobs was working as a university financial aid advisor. The work that I did in that role helped me to learn data analytics skills that I still use today at AWS, such as how use pivot tables, how to present data in different ways for diverse stakeholders, etc.

If I could go back in time to when I was working at that job in 2010, I would tell myself, “You might not be working in this field forever, but it’s absolutely okay if you want to change. Figure out what you can learn from this experience, and especially focus on any transferable skills.”

© 2021 Blasterra LLC. All rights reserved. Illustrations by unDraw & avataaars.

Made with ❤️  by Veni Kunche.