Laura Eagin is a teacher and co-organizer of Girl Develop It Detroit, a non-profit organization that brings affordable hands-on instruction to students eager to learn web development skills. By day she works as a freelance web developer and web designer for a dozen small businesses ranging from retail to real estate, tech startups, and non-profit organizations. She specializes in building beautiful, easy to use WordPress websites.
Sarah Worsham: Please tell us about your typical day…
Laura Eagin: No two days are alike and I love it. My office location, project and co-workers steadily rotate throughout the day. My time is divided between coffee shops, co-working spaces, a desk in a digital marketing office, and my home office. On a few evenings a month you’ll find me teaching a Girl Develop It workshop too or planning our next GDI event. I take my laptop with me wherever I go and I’m constantly communicating with clients via email, phone and Skype. It feels like a big juggling act and it puts all of my tech and communication skills to use. To top it off, I learn something new every day. In essence, I work my dream job.
Sarah: What’s the highlight of your day?
Laura: The highlight of my day is when I solve a difficult problem, and my second highlight is when I can respond to the client with the positive news. That’s because I have two relationships that I’m constantly managing: my relationship with the code when I’m molding it to do the exact thing that I need it to do, and my relationship with the client who has trusted me with the task.
Sarah: What’s the most difficult part of your job?
Laura: The most difficult part of my job is saying no. One of the surprising things about being a web developer is that people think that I can solve every problem ever. In my client’s eye I’m a superhero with limitless capabilities. Who am I to tell them otherwise? I have learned an incredible amount while working my way through new languages and tools, but I will admit that occasionally it would be best if I simply said no. Thankfully I can often also say: “…let me connect you to someone who may be better suited to help.”
Sarah: What’s been your favorite job or project and why?
Laura: After working with WordPress sites for several years, Girl Develop It gave me the chance to plan and teach my first WordPress workshop. My problem solving and communication skills went into overdrive. How could I convey the things I’ve learned the hard way, but make them easy for a beginner to retain? That first workshop showed me that there is an application for my technical skills outside of a day job where I fix client websites. I love teaching what I am passionate about and I love making those first few steps easier for the person learning it.
Sarah: Was there a particular event or moment when you decided to pursue a career in STEM?
Laura: To be honest, I fell into the technical side of web design rather unintentionally. I was always a graphic designer. But because I cared about how a design looked, I would find tools to modify the templates to my liking. I started out by customizing everything from MS Word templates to MySpace profiles and HTML newsletters. I broke it, fixed it, swapped out the graphics, and soon became the go-to person for technical troubleshooting. I can’t imagine getting started in tech any other way. For me it has always been about curiosity, trying new things, and finding a way to bend the thing until just before it breaks. As it turns out, that’s the dictionary definition of the term “Hacking.” Who knew?
Sarah: What has been most important in terms of getting where you are today?
Laura: The most important thing that I have benefited from is being location-independent. I’ve stepped away from a desk job several time throughout my career and I’ve never regretted it. I’ve met loyal clients who have continued to work with me while I lived in one place, or another, even while I was on a road trip for the better part of two years. The people I work for care about the work that I do, not the location that I do it from, or the degree that is on my resume, or a company name on my business card.
Sarah: Did you have any mentors or role models growing up that led you to this career?
Laura: I’ll admit that I watched a lot of TV in my teen years, and one of my absolute favorite shows was called Trading Spaces. If you haven’t seen the show, think of it as a mini version of “Extreme Makeover : Home Edition”. During an episode you’d see an interior designer lead an ambitious overhaul of one room in a house. The team would use some elbow grease and creative thinking to completely redecorate a room on a minuscule budget. Most importantly, they’d take risks!
I know it may sound silly, but seeing strangers come together under a tight deadline to deliver a project like that, well, it was inspiring. While it might have seemed like pure entertainment at the time, it was also motivation to me to “think big” and make something with my two hands. It also motivated me to produce, direct, design and star in my family’s own Trading Spaces mock episode during the summer of 2002. As a result, I taught myself video editing software and I learned how to install a hard drive on my family’s computer.
Sarah: Have you ever had any difficulties in your career due to your gender? How did you handle them?
Laura: I am thankful to be able to say that I have not yet encountered a career roadblock due to my gender. But everyday I tiptoe closer to this reality. I am growing my business and hiring help, I’m also an entrepreneur, and my work is now squarely in the “web developer” category in a male-dominated industry. I’m aware that there may be a time when I’ll have to stand up for myself against a gender bias.
Jessica Valenti puts this moment into words far better than I can: “Sexism operates more like a pickpocket than a mugger. You don’t always get punched in the face – instead you’ll be happily halfway home before you realize you’ve been robbed.” I hope that I’m ready to honestly speak up, if I ever realize that I just got robbed.
Sarah: What advice do you have to anyone interested in a similar career?
Laura: You can learn the very basics of a programming language in a few days, really. After that, the hard part will be to continue to use it. Practice! Use your newfound skill on a lot of different projects and learn something new from each one. Volunteer to build a website for your favorite local charity, or create a new internship at a company – the worst that they can do is say no! The best that can happen is that you’ll build a small portfolio and with your valuable skill you’ll soon have a career. In your career you’ll find that there are many opportunities to add another skill to your portfolio – do it!
Sarah: In your opinion, how can we get more girls interested in STEM careers?
Laura: Success looks different for everyone, but we need to be careful not to paint it differently to boys and girls. If a girl is inquisitive and great with math, we may quickly put her in a box that conforms to our ideas of what a woman would do with a skill set like that. A teenage girl who babysits four nights a week may not be a future mom or nanny, she may be an self-starting entrepreneur! A young girl who mixes mud, water and crushed leaves in a play kitchen may not be a great chef – she may be a future biochemist! The possibilities really are endless.
Note to the adults too: We listen to the gender-biased opinion of others and we put ourselves in boxes too. Let’s not do that as much!
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Thanks Laura! We hope you found her story helpful, interesting and inspiring. If you would like to share your own story, please submit your information and we’ll be in contact soon!