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  • Writer's picturekatherinemello8

Drinking from the Garden Hose

Updated: Jan 13

A musing on learning modalities vis-a-vis Software Engineering and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

26 de agosto

TL / DR: Learning Jiu Jitsu is like learning to code; it’s flipping overwhelming until it starts to make sense. And sometimes you still have bugs that take you days to fix…and it was literally a typo.

Growing up, my parents had a little vegetable garden with peppers, tomatoes, and some herbs. The produce was to die for, but we quickly developed a squirrel problem. My dad tried fences, a scarecrow, and even some stern words if I remember correctly — all to no avail.

Until finally he stumbled upon the panacea: chili peppers. One full, greedy bite of a chili pepper and those squirrels would avoid our prized vegetable garden like the plague.

Problem was, my dad had four curious and experimental pre-teen kids on his hands. It was inevitable that we would one day dare each other simultaneously to try a bite of the chili pepper. What an experience! If I were a sadist, I’d recommend it enthusiastically! We spent the next 30 minutes taking turns rapid-fire pointing the garden hose full-blast into our mouths.

So that — voluntarily drowning yourself with the garden hose — is what learning jiu jitsu is like.

I’m five months in and I think I can somewhat-reliably execute:

  • two sweeps (chair and tripod),

  • one joint submission (americana, though people’s bralic shoulders and biceps are usually too strong for me to actually get anyone to tap like this)

  • a couple chokes (ezekial, baby… and maybe a bow-and-arrow).

(For those who are not in the BJJ (Brazilian Jiu Jitsu) world, those moves I mentioned probably encompass… like…0.3%... of what there is out there to learn. And I’m likely overestimating too.)

Point is, I’m learning at least two new techniques literally every training session, and they’re not sticking. For now.

But luckily I have some experience to draw from — experience that gives me a comforting feeling and an optimistic perspective:

Turns out learning BJJ is a lot like learning to code, complete with imposter syndrome (Professor Gustavo, why did you give me a green belt? I still can’t do a triangle and I only earned how to tie my belt a few weeks ago) and being overwhelmingly (okay not actually overwhelmingly, just notably) surrounded by dudes.

Your first competition is like your first job. You can’t sleep the night before and you’re convinced your competitor (boss) can see your incompetence in every footstep (painstaking keystroke); but you need to do it — you want to know what you’ve learned — and a competition setting (workplace) is the only forum that can really tell you where you’re at.

You see, when I enrolled in coding bootcamp, I didn’t know a god-damned thing about coding, just like when I stepped on the mat: all I knew was that it was like wrestling but more clothes and a cooler name?

I literally asked on the first day of coding bootcamp: “what exactly is an application?” I wasn’t the type of kid who built computers for fun, so I decided to leave my ego at home and be the girl who asked the stupid questions in class, with the hope that one other person was silently benefitting from the answer. [I do the same thing in BJJ btw…I don’t have a nickname yet, but it might be Question Kat if I keep it up.]


My entire 3-month education at Fullstack was like this: the garden hose. I distinctly remember “learning” CSS one day in class and it was no more than 10 minutes into the workshop assignment that I started bawling, completely lost and overwhelmed by my incompetence. And those weren’t my only tears in those 3 months, to say the least.

As with every education setting I’ve ever been in (French Surrealism) it was easy to “hack the system” and get good grades on the test (to be clear, I wasn’t hacking into the grading system and changing my grades; remember: I didn’t know how to code yet. I just mean if you’re a good test taker, you can get straight As with little true understanding of the material.) But at the end of the 3 months, I had nothing to show for my coding education besides a crummy app and a little white certificate.


Luckily, after graduation, I was given the opportunity to be a Teaching Fellow. Essentially, I was hired by the coding school (along with 6 others) to stick around for three more months to be a T.A. for the next cohort of ~35 students. My day-to-day was a split between contributing to the in-house software and attending all the lectures (again) but this time acting as a mentor and Socratic question asker (life hack: The Socratic method is super convenient when you actually don’t know the answer.)

And this is when I started to actually learn the material:

  • Being a student in coding bootcamp: Mere exposure to the material

  • Being a Teaching Fellow in coding bootcamp: some things (not nearly all!) actually start to sink in.

I really don’t know how I would have survived my first job without this stint as a Teaching Fellow. Turns out teaching helps you learn, who knew? [This is my bid to Nick to allow me to help out with the kids classes, maybe when I know a bit more 😳 ]

The Teaching Fellowship ended in July 2016; since then, I’ve had a handful of jobs as a software engineer. And truthfully it wasn’t until ~ a year ago that I started feeling actually confident in my abilities and capacity to teach the people I informally manage. If nothing else, when I feel like I am never going to be able to build this, at least I have several examples in the past where I felt the same way but somehow figured it out, made it work, and delivered it on time (okay, maybe on time).

So that brings us to...


This is the part in my career when I start to see how everything fits together. I finally get why CORS is a thing. I can competently use git (I have thusly jinxed myself, and there is an unrecoverable git reset --hard in my near future). I can (mostly) talk the talk…when it comes to Javascript anyway.

And my day-to-day at work is less :

WTF how do I do this? I’m never going to figure this out! I wish the Lord would take me now.

and more:

Oh! I don’t know how to do this. Let me look it up on Stack overflow and see how people have done it before, and weigh the pros and cons of the various solutions.


Needless to say my coding journey is not complete. In fact, like any journey worth taking: the more I learn, the more I realize what I don’t know.

And trust me, I still have my moments (and weeks) of self-doubt.


When it comes to BJJ, I’m still in the INITIAL EXPOSURE phase, and likely will be for a while. If I stick with it (barring emergencies, I’m going to, of course — in case having a blog about it wasn’t evidence enough of my infatuation with the sport), I will hopefully reach the RETENTION and CONNECTIONS phase.

Until then, you can catch me watching matches on youtube, following people like Heather Morgan on Insta; and lurking on the /bjj subreddit too of course.

Just as I’ve specialized in Data Visualization over the course of my software engineering career, I’m excited to see how my jiu jitsu game evolves and what kind of unique style I’ll develop. And I’m also excited to look back at the videos of my early competitions, just as I cringe when I look at the apps I built 7 years ago, literally* querying the database millions of times because I don’t know how to chain Javascript Promises correctly.

*[I told you the word would come up again]


I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the people who’ve supported me along the way, whether through celebrating the victories or brushing off (and learning from!) the defeats.

Looking at you:

  • Seth, Rafi, Jess, Teacher Joe, Victor, Baby Dan, ex-boyfriend Dan

  • Jacob, James, Esra

  • Erin, Grant, Brain Pie 🧠🥧, Ari, Leah

  • Professor Gustavo, Professor Leo, Rooster, Pinball, Mistahhh Butlahhh, EdBeast, nickviciouss, Amer, Nadeem, Coach D, Vanessa, Caitlin, Adrian, Dave, and more!

  • Last but not least: Robby, Willy, Betsy, Gabi, Buzz


for the freshly minted white belts or software engineers out there

  • Show up without an ego. You know nothing. The higher belts know that you know nothing. Embrace that.

  • Ask the stupid questions (unless people seem to be itching to roll and it’s your 100th question of the evening); who knows? some other white belt might have been wondering the same thing

  • Stop caring about how you look. Yeah, we’re adults wearing nightgowns while simultaneously holding each other in extremely sexual positions. Get over it.

  • Figure out what you learning modality is, and embrace it. (Are you a visual learning? Auditory? Kinesthetic?) Do what you need to to learn: read about it. ask your Sensei to show you the triangle choke steps one. more. time.

… OR if you’re like me, nerd out and put everything you learn on the wall, color-coded of course.


I would love to hear what everyone else’s experience has been, whether in BJJ or software engineering or anything else:

  • Does this process resonate with you, or are you faster on the uptake?

  • What have your challenges been along the way?

Drop your comments below and smash that like button like you’d smash a competitor’s guard into oblivion.

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