3 Characteristics of Successful Student Developers
Our team this summer includes some familiar faces, but also some new ones! Sophia, Talia, and John are just three members of our team, but they reveal some important qualities of what it takes to be a successful student developer.
They Love to Solve Problems
One of the first things Sophia, our team lead this summer, shared about herself was that she loves to solve problems and learn new languages. While the thing that first drew her into the CATLab was her desire to get some hands-on experience, it’s really the day-to-day problem-solving that keeps her engaged, as well as the knowledge that these problems aren’t just abstract exercises, but they influence the school’s very infrastructure.
In the same vein, one of our newest developers, John, said that what excites him is the purpose behind the problem-solving. “I’ve always found that computers are boring,” he admitted, “but when you see that it has an actual outcome and you’re able to make someone’s life easier, that’s what really got me into programming.” It’s the human connection that makes coding worthwhile.
Talia, a senior developer who joined this last school year, connected problem-solving to our theme of tenacity, saying, “I think [tenacity is] always relevant for coding because you always have bugs in your code, you don’t know how to do things, and you have to find other ways around it.” She added that real-world software development is very different from classroom assignments because “there is no central authority with all the answers”—sometimes the questions you find yourself asking are questions that have never been asked before, much less answered.
Successful developers let their curiosity about the way things are propel them to meet challenges with unique solutions.
They Enjoy Taking Initiative
The CATLab is a unique program in that it trusts student developers as equal members of the team. According to our founder Zak, “there has to be a complete, full investment of hiring these students into the mission of what you’re doing.” He argued that only by such partnerships can programs like the CATLab allow students to contribute to their full potential. This level of trust, however, means that our developers need to embrace independence and take initiative.
What sparked Talia’s initial interest in joining the program was a phrase Zak says a lot: “We’re trusting our students to do what we couldn’t do ourselves.” One of the advantages of giving tasks like these to students rather than industry professionals is that students are already wired to learn new things. In an interview last summer, Zak pointed out that schools like Westmont prepare people “to absorb new ways of assimilating information.” Even when they’re handed “a completely new tool that they’ve never seen before,” they take the newness in stride and rise to the challenge.
Talia is just one such student. Rather than being intimidated by the responsibility given her, she was excited by the task, saying:
“It’s up to the students to pioneer and to push the boundaries of where Westmont is going with Salesforce and to discover how far we can go.”
Successful developers, realizing their unique ability to contribute, embrace responsibility and commitments.
They Pursue Collaboration
One of the strengths of the CATLab is the way it brings people together from across disciplines and skill sets. In order to take advantage of that diversity, we need to think of ourselves as a team, not just individuals.
Even though John has only been with us a few days, he said the CATLab already stood out from other coding experiences he’s had. Previously, he’d found it hard to connect with teammates about “anything that wasn’t hard science, programming, or planning.” Whereas at the CATLab, “it just seems very natural,” he said, “Everyone’s happy and wants to collaborate with each other and see how to make things better for the team, [as opposed to] everyone trying to make it their own thing.”
Similarly, one of Sophia’s hopes for the summer is improved communication. She pointed to technologies like Slack as a way to keep the conversation open, noting that Slack channels are especially good for asking questions because people “don’t have to ‘bother’ someone by getting their attention right away—they can just ask their questions to everyone, and whoever’s available and whoever knows can get back.”
Successful developers seek to be authentic members of a team, cheerfully seeking and offering help to others.
As much as we do have commonalities between us, it’s important for us to be open to the unique offerings everyone else brings. So remember that successful programs aren’t created by hiring fifteen students who all fit the same successful model, but rather by bringing in problem-solvers, self-starters, and collaborators of all gifts, passions, and backgrounds.
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