At the beginning of 2021, I was certain I never wanted to code again.
Road to Burnout
In 2020, like many others, I needed a new career path. After taking a community college career assessment where I got a 100% match with programming, I learned web development online from free resources. I initially enjoyed front end development so much that I hopped right into freelancing. Making websites look nicer is fine, definitely not a bad thing. But one of the constant advice I heard as a new person in tech was to find a problem you want to fix. Initially, I just wanted a better job than my pre-covid life, that was it, so I never really took this advice at first. That was a mistake.
Shifting Gears into Chess
I’ve since been working as a UX designer, which I love. I write and speak publicly about my fairly recent passion I gained from the Netflix show Queen’s Gambit–chess, how it relates to UX, to design. I even write in chess publications about user experience. I’m starting to get into competitive chess, and play in my local club matches online. People know me as “the chess person” on twitter now – talk about personal branding, I got that down pat.
For six months I didn’t open my IDE. I was initially relieved to not think about coding. I was sure design was it for me. However, the longer I am in tech, the more I see that nothing exists in a vacuum, and the more my nontraditional path had some value. I have a penchant for being a big thinker and love existing in the interdisciplinary spaces.
The itch to code came back.
Why? Because I finally found a problem I wanted to solve. I have a big problem with chess engines. I don’t think they are very usable. It’s a computer program, and built to think about how to play at a certain level, but I find it not very usable for humans. I spent a lot of time being frustrated with the what, how’s, and why’s of engines as a newer chess player. I find it demoralizing sometimes. It became one of those things where the need to fix it was greater than the fear of coding.
There were some days of existential dread - am I really going to go back to coding? The real question was - can I live without making engines more usable from a UX perspective?
That answer was a resounding no. I can’t stand by as a UX professional and not have a usable chess engine that won’t deter players from using it. Chess engines are an analytical tool as a player, but because computer programs are so advanced, I don’t see why it can’t be intelligence augmentation rather than strictly artificial intelligence. Machine learning is supposed to help us.
Time to hop into the deep end.
With that, I jumped in headfirst into Python, since that seemed to make the most sense with my new goals. I was so nervous to think about functions and loops again. But with this new scope, I had something resembling a plan - to be able to add to the code, I needed to be able to understand machine learning.
Right now I am building my UX research skills to gather data points from the chess community as I narrow down what kinds of usability to add to an open source chess engine. I am seeking to get as much quantitative data as possible. I’m using Twitter likes as a guide within the chess community to see what solutions people are interested in. It’s not the most scientific process but I am just doing this because I want to. Will it be perfect? No. Usable? I’m going to do my best.
Don’t doubt that your passion can get you places. Your hobby, or the thing you’re excited about, it can drive you to be a better programmer, data scientist, or machine learning engineer. I never would have thought I’d want to learn machine learning, or be excited about it, but you never know what’s going to energize or excite you about a project. You also never know who else might want to work on that project with you. Don’t be afraid to try something new and share it with the world. Maybe it might fail, but you’ll learn something valuable, and that might lead you to your next new adventure.