After doing an internship of a month with Champs Libres, I was asked to write a little blog post about how I had experienced it. I gladly accepted and chose to make it a sharing of how my internship contributed to my impressions of the world of web development as a former social worker/teacher, as a rookie, as an idealist, as someone who loves the process of creating things, as a woman too maybe, as someone who wants to love her job, but not have her life dictated by it,… To this extent, let me elaborate just a tiny bit on where I was before I arrived at Champs Libres.

I chose to make a career switch about a year ago now. After several years working in special youth care and education I felt I needed a thorough change. I longed for a job in which I could express myself more, create things, and that could offer me a better work-life balance. With this in mind I took the step to start job counselling, ready to think outside the box. This turned out to be an interesting exploration, resulting in a rather unexpected career plan. I was (and still am) determined to become a web developer!

To make this happen, I started off teaching myself the basics through online tutorials. Ah yes, the internet is an endless source of knowledge (and other things, surely), but given the time that Corona suddenly gave me, it was easy to get lost in the abundance of courses out there. After the basics, it proved to be quite a challenge to carve out the ideal learning path for myself. So to keep focus I enrolled in the Full-stack Web Development course at Syntra. This offered a bit more back support and also the opportunity to do an internship. I always found internships to be invaluable experiences, so that in itself was reason enough to commit to a year of going back to school.

I got to know Champs Libres through my housemate and after six months of following classes from home, I was allowed to stretch my legs a little doing my internship with them. It does feel good to see people in real life from time to time, to experience a little of that co-working space vibe, and to not have to launch a video call every time you have a question, because plenty of questions I still had! (A little more on that later…) Web development jobs being as flexible as they are though, we quickly opted for half a day at the office and half a day from home. That was an immediate big plus on the work-life balance scoreboard! Surely, many of us have discovered the comforts of organizing our workdays a little different this past year. The kids have been happy to spend less time at daycare and well, my dog was happy I could still be there for her daily walks. In a world that can change almost overnight, flexibility is key and during the internship I quickly found out that the nature of web development jobs allows for plenty of that.

Getting back then to those many questions I had during the internship… Well as an intern you do often feel somewhat guilty disturbing your mentor’s work rhythm every time you get stuck, but it is inevitable that you should and it was really nice to be assured that he was there to help out when needed.

My mentor’s commitment to my learning process and Champs Libres’ willingness to let me work on something that would really be beneficial for my development (instead of considering me as free-labour) surely shed a different light on what I thought it might mean to work for a company. I was a bit apprehensive of the stereotype image of a predominantly male, achievement oriented, tougher business culture. Shortsighted, most definitely, but you know we grow up with all kinds of images and I guess they come from somewhere. Apprehensions have been swept aside though! I learned plenty about web development at Champs Libres, but also that not everything has to be geared towards maximising profit. Sometimes even that can take a back seat to securing a nurturing and balanced working environment. Nice!

Another thing that somehow surprised me was the non-hierarchical company structure of Champs Libres. I observed that they worked on an egalitarian basis and could still get things done. Certainly, a case could be made for bigger firms needing some kind of hierarchy to keep things efficient, but it’s still refreshing to see that a small company makes an egalitarian choice for itself when it can. Especially considering the challenges this comes with and the soft skills each team member needs to master to make this work well. I don’t know, I guess that woman, social worker/teacher, rookie, idealist part of me just took a liking to all of the above and found it comforting that running a business doesn’t necessarily equal hard-core capitalist values.

Right, so by now you’re probably thinking, ‘that’s all nice and a little mushy, but is she also going to mention anything about the actual content of the job?’ I understand, but because I still feel like we need to really go through a profound transformation when it comes to work culture/ work environment, I wanted to discuss those first. Champs Libres also just stood out to me as a company because they dare to be idealistic in these matters. This was important to me even in choosing an internship and gave me a positive outlook on where our work culture might be heading. That being said, let me get into the content of my internship.

The project I was designated to work on focused on back-end development. More specifically I was asked to change the backend of an application that was built with Symphony into one using the Django framework. Why you might ask? Well Django has a module called geoDjango and this particular module is a dream to work with when it comes to developing geo-applications, which my project was. With an eye on future updates of the app, the team preferred to make the switch. Furthermore it was an excellent opportunity for me to dive deep into Django and some geo, exciting!

As a full-stack developer I must admit, I hadn’t really acquired the skill of developing with a framework yet. Up until then I had learned to develop the backend in good-old vanilla PHP. Learn to walk before you start running is the credo of my backend teacher, fair enough. I was ready to embark on framework adventures though and learn some of that Django goodness. A steep learning curve is what followed and I am satisfied to say that I feel a little more like a fish in the backend waters after this internship (…though, admittedly not one of those deep sea fish yet). I became more acquainted with the extensive documentation of the framework, learned the importance of building step by step, but also using all means available to log and test as opposed to charging ahead with everything only to find out that somewhere along the way I had taken a wrong turn. We’ll call it rookie enthusiasm? Migrations sometimes got me in a pickle too and I must only have scraped the surface of what is possible with geo-spatial data. Certain, however, is that from now on I will no longer only associate Django with Quentin Tarantino and I can vouch for the likes of Django making backend development pretty cool rather than nerdy. I certainly enjoyed it’s magic!

This brings me to one last topic and that is Champs Libres dedication to working with and contributing to the open source community. Oh yes, the open source way is a very exciting aspect of web development! One that shows that also within a profit sector there is room a-plenty for voluntary contribution, transparency, free offering, and community-driven creation. The things made possible by the collaborative effort of so many developers around the world is amazing and considering how big a role internet plays in our life today, the impact of this is quite something. Working with Champs Libres has really sparked my interest in open source and again assured me that there is room for idealism in this field of work, yes!

Et voila, there you have it, a little account of my first web development experience and the contemplations it sparked. A big thanks to Champs Libres and my mentor specifically for all that you have taught me in so little time, the skills as well as the insights!

[written by Julie Lenaerts]