Sep 5, 2017

Acclimating

A few months ago, I left my job and moved to Berlin. This has brought a lot of changes in a short period of time. I have a few advantages: I studied German in school, my girlfriend moved here with me, and my siblings and parents are already used to me living far away. So far, I’m learning a lot, but it’s definitely taking some time to adjust.

Können wir vielleicht auf Deutsch reden?

Honestly, the language barrier has only been an issue in my head. Everyone at my office speaks English (many better than I do) and I rarely find myself in situations where I absolutely must use German.

But part of my desire to move here came from wanting to practice German, which has been too easy to avoid. So far, I use German in most situations outside of the office. I get a little kick every time I order food without switching to English. The face I make while I’m concentrating to understand looks like I’m confused, so I’ve been trying to listen without squinching.

I’ve grown the most in my ability to listen to other conversations and grasp more of what is being discussed. For the past few years, I’ve been making an effort to improve my active listening skills. Being around German conversations has been a great help. Typically, I’m talkative in meetings, often to the point where I accidentally talk over others. But now I find myself spending more energy working to understand those around me, and less trying to think of what I want to say. It feels really nice.

Still, I hope to work on my confidence in speaking German over the next few months, and to use it more at the office. This will require overcoming the embarrassment of sounding like an idiot in a language I barely know.

Back to Work

Getting back to work after teaching for the past few years has been the most challenging and interesting transition with this move. Don’t get me wrong—teaching is a significant amount of work with more than enough rewards and challenges for a lifetime. But when I started teaching, I always knew I would have to return to professional practice, to keep my skills sharp and to stay in touch with the day to day challenges of designing and building digital stuffs.

I couldn’t imagine how much things have changed in web development since I set it aside. I’ve dabbled off and on while teaching, and kept up reading the usual blogs. I’ve also been fortunate to be around teachers and students of web development.

I knew that front-end JavaScript frameworks have exploded, that JavaScript is increasingly used as a backend language, that so-called “single page apps” are increasingly the norm, and that tooling on the front-end has become much more sophisticated and complex. But knowing that and experiencing it first-hand are two different things.

I’ll have more to say about this as I tackle more projects, but this past week one particular experience stands out. I’ve been working on a reusable component using React, and I spent some time figuring out how to add some tests to it.

For the uninitiated, tests are essentially small programs that developers write to check whether their code is doing what’s expected. For instance, you might be writing a calculator, and write a test to check whether the calculator correctly evaluates the sum of 2 and 3 to be 5. When a program gets large and complex, having these automatic tests offers a nice sanity check that everything is still working as expected when you (or someone else) make a change.

In my experience, front-end web development has not always been a very hospitable environment for testing. The last time I wrote front-end tests in JavaScript was 2010, and there was tons of setup and boilerplate code needed in order to test fairly rudimentary things. Given the difficulty, it usually didn’t make sense to me to spend twice as much time writing tests as it took to add a new feature.

This has changed since I last worked with JavaScript. At the suggestion of a colleague, I tried out a testing framework called Jest. Of all the JavaScript things that I’ve seen set up for the project I am working on, the testing framework was by far the simplest. I ran into some initial hiccups trying to figure out this particular framework, but it took only about an hour to get a couple of basic things working. And from there, it’s been a pleasure to work with Jest. I’m delighted to say that I am looking forward to writing more tests and learning more about effective ways to use them in projects and with teams. I never thought I would write that sentence.

Homesick

There’s a lot to like about Berlin. Everything operates at a much more relaxed pace here, maybe even more so than in Austin where I grew up. I have a balance between work and life that I’ve never enjoyed in my entire career. I don’t check my email after work or on weekends. Public transit here is great, there’s plenty of good food, and because it’s still new there are tons of places to explore.

Place is one thing, and community is another.

I wouldn’t say that I miss New York exactly, but I do miss being able to call up my friends to get together. I’ve been making time to talk to people on the phone, and have been fortunate to have some friends visit me here already. I imagine as I settle in more, it will get easier to forge new and meaningful connections. This is the aspect of living somewhere new that is always the most difficult for me, because I tend to deprioritize it. It will also take the most time to get comfortable enough with everything else to start focusing on spending time with new people. I have to remember to be as patient with myself as I usually am with others.

It takes time to acclimate.