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CCATP #620 — Eleanor Mazzarella on Moving from Musician to Programmer

This week we’re joined by Eleanor Mazzarella, a musician turned programmer. She gives us her background in music from finding a clarinet on a bookshelf as a child to a career as a classical performer. She then walks us through how and why she decided that programming sounded like more fun. She’s a funny, delightful storyteller as she weaves in her love of the arts with her love of everything nerdy.

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CCATP #620 for December 30, 2019, and I’m your host, Allison Sheridan. This week our guest is Eleanor Mazzarella.

When Steve and I went on the SpaceX tour, it was part of a Women Who Code event. The format was unusual. The room was filled with women and men, all with an interest in coding. Many of the people were there as mentors. Liz Krane, who ran the event, had all of the mentors come up to the mic one by one and they simply gave a one or two-sentence long explanation of their knowledge. After all of the mentors were done speaking, she simply said, “Go!” and everyone in the room started milling around moving to speak to the people they thought would be of most interest to them.

In the (enjoyable) anarchy, I went directly to Eleanor Mazzarella who said that she was a musician turned programmer. As I suspected, her story was fascinating and so I asked her to be this week’s guest on Chit Chat Across the Pond. Welcome to the show, Eleanor!

When we met you were wearing a very interesting t-shirt…

  • Here’s a link to information about “HyperFace”, the textile pattern designed to confuse facial recognition algorithms and in some cases crash their programs due to the overwhelm of detecting too many “faces” at once. About Hyperface: http://altfound.com/hyperface/
    • Example shirt: https://www.bryce.mobi/hyperface-anti-surveillance-shirt/
    • I’ve been fostering a pet interest in privacy and the idea of artwork that defies unwilling data-collection is just too fun to resist!

Eleanor’s story, the rough outline version:

First career in classical music – went to music school for undergrad, conservatory, and a master’s degree. Had some degree of success in my early 20s, won scholarships to a few prestigious programs and freelanced with a few larger orchestras like the Las Vegas Philharmonic and the Pacific Symphony. Also enjoyed chamber music and contemporary music with smaller ad-hoc groups as well as a few indie films and game studio recording sessions. Taught clarinet and worked in a boutique music store to help supplement my income.

Found music rewarding but extremely competitive, athletic, and often unfair – when you leave school you realize that most of the choice freelance jobs are tightly held by musicians who refuse to die or retire, and the 2nd and 3rd tier jobs are scarce and fiercely competitive but not accessible via traditional audition – it’s almost solely through reputation and social network. As a result, you needed to have work to keep getting work, and the overall atmosphere was like being on a treadmill.

Somewhere in the beginning of a masters of music degree that I pursued mostly as a way to “hit snooze” on the real world for a little longer (I was offered a full scholarship), I began to feel a little bit two-dimensional. I felt like I need to explore more things completely unrelated to music because music, like all art, is never about itself, it’s about the human experience. I started hearing about 12-year-old kids who would make iPhone apps that made money and thought “wow if children can do this, how hard can it really be?” Previously my impression of programming was everything mainstream pop-culture told me it was – mouth-breathing socially inept ungroomed men snidely declaring that they began programming at the age of 5. I thought programming was some kind of genius activity that only savants could pursue and that it was probably also boring and tedious. But with this news, and the fact that I enjoyed Apple products so much I thought “hmmm, maybe making apps for the iPhone is different.”

I set out to “make an app” (which I thought was a task that could be done in one fell swoop), learned that you can’t just “make an app” but have to learn how to program, first. I eventually found an iTunes University course called Programming Methodology taught by Mehran Sahami at Stanford University in 2008, CS106A https://itunes.apple.com/us/course/cs106a-syllabus/id495054181?i=1000109392924. The course was a recording of this class, viewable years after the fact, so I never had any interaction with the teacher or help setting up my environment. But it’s testimony to how great a teacher he was, how much he loved teaching, that it was infectious and I devoured the course. It became my favorite thing to do in the evenings and it also got my mind off of music for a little while too. Eventually, I enjoyed it so much I realized I would rather do programming homework than practice for my next audition. In classical music auditions, you end up playing “excerpts” which are soloistic passages from major symphonies – the more auditions you do, the more you end up playing the same excerpts over and over again like an Olympic diver trying to perfect the same dive again and again. I realized what I was doing in music was tedious, whereas every program I got to write was different.

It took another year or so of studying programming as a hobby while simultaneously becoming disenfranchised with music before I decided to make the leap. I was putting so much more into music than I was getting back from it and remember the feeling of joy when, looking back at a program I wrote a few months prior, it still worked. When you put a piece of music down for a few months it takes time to dust it off and get back to the prior level of excellency you were a few months ago. Not so with programming – all the effort I put into it the first time was still there in the file. Looking back I think this was the thing that clinched it for me – I could build further and faster on programming and have more creative flexibility than I was getting out of music, and also not need to spend 4 hours a day to make progress!

Ok wow this turned into a novel! Rough outline of what happened next:

I asked everyone I knew who was already a software developer how to be a junior developer, what they would look for, what I could bring to the table.

I studied morning and night, before and after work and sometimes on my lunch break. I set daily quotas for studying just like I did for practice. All of my discipline for practicing 4 hours a day made it extremely easy to study for 2-3 hours a day – I had built these muscles over years and years. I built stuff, I moved on to other free online courses.

Open source programming instruction: The Odin Project – theodinproject.com/…

Eventually got connected with a friend of a friend who happened to be the CTO of a startup in Burbank. He “trojan horse’d” me into an interview – I had no idea it was an interview until I got there, but at the end of the day he made me an offer. Everything about this first job was unheard of to me – surprise interview, quick offer, but it was my foot in the door to software development.

I struggled at this new job – I interviewed almost entirely in Ruby and then joined the front end team doing React / javascript. Also ES2015 just came out so what little javascript I knew was already a little bit behind. I had imposter syndrome and didn’t feel very welcome on the team. Other developers would sometimes say dismissive things – once when I made a pot of coffee in the kitchen before work another developer say “Great! You actually did something useful!” (I later learned that this person was rude to everyone, not just me, but it stung all the same)

After seven months the company laid off 30% of their employees, but not me. In hindsight this was probably because I was a much less expensive employee than their higher-level developers. A few months later another huge swath of employees were laid off, including myself. A few months after that, the company laid off almost everyone and from what I understand it no longer exists.

Greensock library for animation: greensock.com/…

A month later I joined the front end team at an advertising agency. Advertising is beautiful and exciting but ultimately disposable — the code under the hood is typically held together with duct-tape and prayer – it only has to last three months and is never reused or maintained, so why worry? I felt I was becoming a worse engineer by working in this kind of mindset, so after a year and a half I decided to interview with companies who had strong engineering principles. This is how I found Versus Systems, a terrific startup in the Howard Hughes area building video game middle-ware for in-game prizing. They’re a wonderful team and I learned a lot there but yearned for more growth opportunities and expertise. At this point I decided to cream the Data Structures and Algorithm type interview questions, bought myself a whiteboard and started interviewing at competitive big companies. Eventually I got connected with Credit Karma, which is where I work today.

If people wanted to follow you online, how would they do that?

@EleanorClarinet is my twitter but I’m not very good at keeping it “strictly professional.” I’ll just share things that make me laugh or causes I care deeply about like increased awareness of the concentration camps in China and the second holocaust quietly continuing because of our economic reliance on them.

Eleanor’s Github: github.com/…

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