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From Oceanographer to Programmer

Atualizado: 4 de jul. de 2020

By Letícia Portella

Original post here

This week I was asked to tell a little about how I became programmer (or at least, I’m in the process). I wrote this text to tell a little bit more about my story.

Let’s start from the beginning: I am oceanographer graduated from the Federal University of Santa Catarina (Brazil) in December 2013. Well, only that is usually enough to scare people. Oceanowhat?

Oceanography is beautiful and exciting. I learned many interesting things and I fell in love with some disciplines that were frightening. To begin with, we studied calculus, physics, etc. When I started working in the area, I hesitated between geological and physical oceanography until 2011 when I entered an internship at a Navy Research Institute and, finely, I decided by Physical Oceanography, which is the area closest to the exact sciences.

It is usual for oceanographers to work with matrices and arrays, thus it is very common to use a software called MATLAB. Therefore, during the college course I ended up learning a bit of MATLAB which is similar to a programming language with logic loops, conditionals, etc.

However, when I joined the Navy, I met two oceanographers working with Python. Python? What is it? We had several discussions about how MATLAB was a paid software and at the university we were using a pirate version, which was not cool nor legal, right? Surfing this this wave, they started telling me about how Python would be the future of oceanography, thanks to its flexibility, ease application and, furthermore, it was free! Cool. Let’s learn, right?

And so I had my first contact with a real programming language, so to say. My colleagues were very smart, you know why? Every day they challenged me to do something new. “I doubt you can read this txt”, “Now do this activity with the least possible amount of lines,” and so on. I thought it was fantastic! How they were creative! Later on I found out it was all online. OK!

In the meantime I also had contact with Linux, remote access, Ubuntu, terminals, etc. A new world was opened to me, and it was very interesting!

Coming back from internship, I fell into the real world: nobody was working with Python, nobody used Ubuntu / Linux and things can’t be changed. Okay, then, back to MATLAB. Things quite demotivating were that I had to learn by myself, become stuck with my doubts and, moreover, to learn something that people saw as useless (for our area).

At the end of college I started working with a multinational which deals with port and coastal engineering. MATLAB and Windows full-time. But I’m stubborn; I started using Python wherever I could. Although away from further studies, I liked the language and wanted to continue learning (provided that I could do something useful). So I used Python to automate the production of maps in a software called ArcGIS. Afterwards I developed a software to calculate the size of a ship based on international tables and I even entered a brief adventure in the Web with Django.

All of a sudden, I decided to enroll myself in a master degree course and I decided that all pre and post processing data would be made with Python. Also I chose a numerical model that could only be used in Linux environment. This time I actually challenged myself. Thus, I decided to get out of laziness and start learning! Even if I would have to do it by myself (But it was not so!). A very close friend helped me a lot and so I’ve been learning more and enjoying it more and more.

Floripa Python group was formed by this time. I asked a friend to go with me in the first meeting because I was afraid and ashamed of not knowing enough. But he canceled at the last minute! I didn’t give up and attended the meeting anyway. I was the only girl in that first meeting, and as things can get worse, the discussions were exclusively about web. I did not understand anything, but I thought that was a fantastic world.

I decided not to go to the next meetings since I was scared by the contents and because I did not understand anything. But then, the “magic” of the Python community happened. The boys noticed my problem and called a person to give a speech that was more “like me” (less web and more data analysis). When the lecture was going to happen, many of them sent me warning messages saying that I should go. Fabulous, right? After that, I engaged myself and actually started to get involved with the organization of SciPy Latin America 2016, Python Brazil 12 and mainly with Pyladies. In addition, Anitas (a group to empower women in technology and entrepreneurship) was being structured and I met some wonderful and inspiring women. Finally, in 6 months everything changed and I had completely changed my life.

And so I realized that I liked that. Very much. I loved programming Github, Python, Ubuntu, etc. I could spend hours studying it. As I got involved, I realized it could be a second option. However I did what most of us do: I thought I would never get into it. “I’m not good enough”, “I could never get fully involved in this,” etc. I really thought that. We know we usually think little of ourselves. But even thinking that way, I did not stop trying to learn and getting involved. That was not my goal! Then, suddenly I decided to show to that web folks what an oceanographer was doing attending to those meetings. After all, I programmed? Why? So I presented some of my master degree’s results, what kind of data I was working with, and a little video with a tidal wave being propagated which I achieved with my numerical model.

On the same day, the project manager of a company told me that there was a vacancy for a backend position in Python at the company. At the end of the evening I found myself next to her and decided to learn more about the job she had mentioned and we started talking. In the end I said: “very nice, but unfortunately I cannot apply for this job.” She asked me why and I said — I know Python, but this work is in a completely different area. And then I got an answer I did not expect to hear: “No problem, what you do is as complex as we do, come talk to us in another moment!”

And I did so. Thus, in three weeks my life was changed, I quitted my job to become a backend developer, where I am now entering my third week.

When I told people that I was changing area, I was expecting to hear “you’re crazy!” But that was not what happened … I got a lot of support and encouragement, especially from the nearest people who endured my insecurities throughout the process from the first conversation until my first day at the new job.

I will not lie. The night before my first day I panic. I cried a lot. What was I doing? I wouldn’t make it! It was crazy! What I had was not rational, it was purely emotional and out of control. I called who I knew would calm me down and I just threw myself into the next day, with a huge fear and a strong desire to make it work.

So I would like to say a few things I learned in the process …

The first thing I learned is that I did not make this change without fear and uncertainty. Those feelings can’t stop us of doing things ever! I received several comments saying that my courage was inspiring and I was an example. I do not consider myself as an example of anything! You can’t imagine how scared I was! But then I realized that people that are examples to us also are afraid and that’s no problem. Do it with fear, but do it anyway!

The second thing is: do things with passion. Find out what you like and do it! Apart of having further prospects, even if you think you do not know and you won’t get there. The most important is to love something.

And last but not least: surround yourself with and make sure you appreciate people who support you. I would never have achieved so much or would have courage to change my life if I wouldn’t count on the support of numberless angels, as from the first ones who challenged me to the present ones who support and continue supporting me.

This is a place where I decided to share my story and try to help girls who want to learn programming. Come in, make yourself comfortable and I hope you fall in love as much as I do.


Letícia Portella.

Oceanographer, passionate developer and addicted reader.

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