Instructor 1-on-1: Natalie Black

With our latest Web Development cohort (#TeamHopper) underway, we’re showcasing one of our instructors from the full-stack crew: Natalie Black! It was a particularly timely moment to chat with Natalie, as we’ve just recently celebrated her one year anniversary teaching at Bitmaker.

Prior to teaching humans, Natalie worked in a natural language processing research lab, teaching computers how to learn English (!). Here, she discusses what she gets up to at Bitmaker, her thoughts on learning, and how creativity permeates all avenues of coding.

Q: How did you learn to code? What elements of coding engage you most?

Natalie: I'm generally interested in different ways of encoding information such as human languages, programming languages, music notation systems, maps, et cetera. But, I also just enjoy the aesthetics of code itself.

I majored in Computer Science in university, so it was a very traditional educational experience. During my schooling I had a co-op position, which is where I learned web development, Rails, and all of the technologies that we teach here. I learned these tools on the job and not in school.

Most of what I do with code and technology in my spare time is art-oriented. When I’m creating generative art with code I generally use Processing, which is a language specifically for generating images and using the computer as a creative collaborator.

What is it about generative art coding that piques your interest?

I’m interested in going against the idea that code should be used to make something practical and instead try to be more playful with it. The actual process of this kind of coding is more experimental. You just try stuff out and often if your code takes an unexpected turn, the results end up looking cooler than what you were going for in the first place.

It's not really possible to make mistakes in the same way as in traditional software development, where you have a very specific set of behaviours that you're aiming to achieve. In the context of art-making, I like to think of my coding mistakes as the computer trying to collaborate with me by making artistic suggestions.

Leaf, one of Natalie's generative art pieces

I'm enjoying focusing on generative art right now because it lets me be both the creator and the audience of the art. After I write the code to generate the visuals, I get to sit back and watch them be generated over and over.

I get to linger in the best parts of the 'process' stage and never reach the 'final' stage, because the whole point is that the art never stops generating itself. I'm essentially ‘allergic’ to making decisions and choosing one option over others, so with the kind of art I make, I get to keep all options by generating all possible variations on a visual idea, one after another.

What does the day-to-day look like for you as an instructor and team lead for our immersive Web Development course?

During the afternoons, I work one-on-one with students – this mainly entails answering questions and making sure everyone’s feeling supported. I occasionally give morning lessons and make sure that things like break-out sessions and stand-up meetings are happening regularly in the afternoons.

As the course goes on, student projects begin and evolve. This scales up the complexity of the questions asked, so sometimes that means we need to learn together – to troubleshoot and find the solution to the problem at hand.

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What do you enjoy about a bootcamp-style learning environment? Do you think a math/science background helps or is that a myth?

One of the things that’s so great about bootcamp-style learning is that you get a much wider range of people that enter the program. We don’t require a strong math background because it isn’t needed for web development. There’s lots of programming that does require that stuff, and having an Engineering or Math background does mean that you are already familiar with analytical problem-solving, but the jobs that we’re preparing people for don’t require being a mathematician. To me, it’s more exciting when people come here to begin a big career shift.

We tend to attract creative thinkers – everyone who takes this course is straying from the path of traditional education already, so it's not surprising. Each person offers a fresh perspective on how they want to use the material we teach. The most exciting thing for me about the start of a new cohort is knowing that in a few months, all these people who you just met are going to be impressing you with the things they're making. And some of them are going to become your good friends.