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How to become a software engineer… even if you’re blind

June 18, 2024
Author: AO Editor

Tanner Gers:

All right, great. Hey everybody. Good morning, good evening, good afternoon, wherever you are tuning in from. I appreciate everybody showing up and being here right now. It's really exciting.

AccessAbility Officer was founded in 2021 as a digital accessibility agency. And in 2022, we started the Certified AccessAbility testing program, which is what everybody here is a part of. And… You know… the whole goal of this, this whole thing that we're doing, is to provide career pathways for people who are blind or visually impaired or otherwise severely disabled to enter the digital accessibility field. Right, so that we can create a living, and independence, and financial abundance, and make choices in our lives, right? I like to say sometimes, every time a blind person gets a job, an angel gets its wings. Our vision at AccessAbility Officer is that the US disabled unemployment rate is the same as the US unemployment rate. And I think that experience says a lot. You know, you really can't manufacture it.

We're going to help you develop the hard skills, the soft skills, everything that you need to succeed in the real world. But there's something to be said about experience, and that's exactly what I wanted to bring to you guys today. Everybody associated with the CAT program is the voice of experience. Someone who has succeeded in their career, and is doing it in a competitive integrated employment environment, and succeeding. We can tell you guys everything, but I think it's also important for you to hear it from others and the path that they've taken. So without further ado, I want to introduce Jeff, who I'll let him introduce himself and his background here in a second, but Jeff is a blind software engineer who uses a screen reader and just happens to be in the digital accessibility field. So Jeff, thank you so much for sharing your time, your experience, your wisdom with us today. I'm really looking forward to the conversation.

 Jeff Fidler:

 Yeah, happy to be here, and really happy that we had the opportunity actually for our paths to cross. And I guess I can start by just sharing a little bit about myself, I've been blind now for about maybe 20 plus years or something, but I wasn't born blind. So I kind of had to learn sort of abruptly.

 I think my story is similar to Tanner's story. I wasn't planning on being blind, but it just kind of happened, I have what's called Retinitis Pigmentosa, and it was diagnosed as sort of gradual. It was supposed to be like a gradual onset. That didn't turn out to be the case. So, all of a sudden, I found myself in a position where my vision was failing, and I had to figure something out. I didn't even know about computers or any of those things until after I had lost my vision.

 So, prior to that, I was studying philosophy at University and was planning on… You know… starting some career as a, maybe a professor at the university level, in either philosophy, physics, math or something like that. I was really interested in things like that and I was also a professional musician. Right after that, my vision started failing, and I didn't know about computers, so I didn't know what else to do. So, I did music professionally, met my wife, and once I was she's also a musician, and I was in the studio one day, learning to… You know… to record some parts for a band that was in the studio, and they had hired me to do some recording for them. And one of my friends, who's a bass player, came in, and he was at the University at the time, and said, Hey, look at what I'm doing. I'm thinking of switching my major to this thing called information science, because it has like a 97% placement rate for… You know… in terms of a career opportunity after graduation. Sorry, my dogs are maybe going to make some noise in the background. Hopefully they won't disturb us too much. So that's what initially, though turned me into thinking about this technology thing, because… You know… here I am with this failing vision. Can't read anymore. And it turned out that I learned about screen readers and things, went through vocational rehabilitation, learned Jaws, learned NVDA, and before I even had a handle on that stuff, my wife started reading to me computer programming books from the university. We went up there and looked at that, what is this? What is this information science thing all about. And right next to it were all the computer science books. And I said, Well, these ones sound way more interesting. So, we grabbed some of those, and she started reading to me. So, long story short… You know… I was already blind when I started my path into this technology thing. Technology is really a blessing from the Father above, for sure. I mean, it gives us complete parity, really, with our sighted counterparts in the workplace and just in our personal lives too. And so the sort of the end of the story is, now I've been a leader, a senior level architect and software engineer for about 20 years. Really, since just shortly after I lost my vision. So losing my vision, I kind of gained access to the world through technology. And right now, I currently work for a company specializing in accessibility, very similar to some of the stuff you guys are doing here, all the great work that's being done at AccessAbility Officer, very similar. And, we actually have, I don't know, dozens and dozens of blind auditors that do manual auditing. And so I can share some of the perspective from my personal life as a software engineer, but I also have quite a bit of insight into what it's like to be out there on a daily basis, as you know, a blind accessibility auditor. So I'm happy to take those questions as well. So it's kind of a long winded intro, but I wanted to try to cover as much as I could in as few words as possible.

 Tanner Gers:

 Jeff, tremendous. And so for everybody, we're going to open it up to So Jeff can answer your question specifically later in the second half of the, later in the call. But Jeff, like… You know… you've been in the game for a couple decades now. What was the moment where you were like, Oh, wow, digital accessibility could be a career? We'll come back to earlier parts of your employment journey, but tell me a little bit about when digital accessibility was, like “Dang, I can make money doing this.”

 Jeff Fidler:

 Well, I think it was when… You know… my buddy walked in, and he had just changed his major over to information science. And when I saw that kind of employment rate… I mean, that was around 2002 or so, 2001, 2002, 2003, somewhere in that range… You know… within those few years… But when I saw that kind of level of placement, I mean, this was just placement for all their graduates, and you know, looked at the computer science stuff and that it was coupled with the knowledge of the fact that there are screen readers… And I didn't know what the heck a screen reader was… You know, but I knew that it was something that would give me access to a computer. So I kind of put those two together, connected those two dots, and realized there's got to be some opportunity here.

 Tanner Gers:

 Yep, Yep, awesome. So now, you went and you got your degree, and as you're looking for employment, how are you going about doing that? How are you preparing for employment? And what was that journey like?

 Jeff Fidler:

 So, what really opened the door, the game changer for me, was a company. So, I'm in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There's a company here called Bender Consulting, and they specialized in placing people with disabilities. So they already had some partnerships… You know… They had a network that they… You know… Had established for themselves, and that was the real door opening event for me. It was that. Once I learned about them, I registered with them, and they started getting me interviews. I mean, I think it was just the second interview that landed me a position as a consultant. And actually, at the time, it was purely accessibility driven. I wasn't there as a software engineer. I was there to help out with the accessibility of a website. This is way before we even thought of things like accessibility audits or anything like that. Because this was around 2005 and… You know… WCAG was a thing, and the ADA, section 508 stuff, had really kind of become entrenched at that point, and that was what opened doors. So, it's a very similar situation to what you're doing. Tanner, you guys are providing sort of that gateway that path to employment through your training and your network. So it's very similar to what you're doing.

 Tanner Gers:

 You know, that's awesome. Joyce Bender and vendor consulting, and everything that they're doing, is pretty cool. And I know, I know friends who have come out of that, who are in the digital accessibility field.

 How do you transition out of that? Like when Bendor Consulting services helps you… Kind of… You know… Get your foot in the door, get an opportunity to provide some value to an employer. But now, moving forward, and you having to source that job on your own, secure gainful employment for yourself… And then retain it… What are you looking for with regards to the company? How do you approach that and how do you position yourself as someone with a disability that can provide value? And, hey, I'm worth this job.

 Jeff Fidler:

 Well, one of the things that I always sort of walked in with was knowing that… Look, I mean, I'm here for this interview. You're interviewing me, but this is a two way street. I'm interviewing you as well and so I would often ask questions around their culture. I mean, is accessibility included in your culture? Or, even better, is there a culture of accessibility just sort of baked in? In the company's attitude… You know… Around everything from their operations… You know… In their facility in terms of… Like, literally do they have accessibility built in? For instance, elevators can be challenging for someone who's blind, if they don't speak… You know… If they don't beep… If they don't speak… All of those kinds of things. And… You know… so I would actually be interviewing the company as well to see… If they didn't have the culture in place, did they have the desire to bring that kind of inclusivity into their workforce, and could they truly appreciate what… You know… what anybody brings… Walking through that door? Because one of the things I've always done is, I… You know… I kind of include the fact that, look, when you're when you have a disability, you're essentially in a world that wasn't designed for you. The kind of the assumption is that you know, you're going to be fully able, whatever that might mean. But that's kind of how the world developed, and so sort of, intrinsically, people that have these kinds of disabilities, so called disabilities, we're the world's best problem solvers. We have to do it all the time. So you know, when you're in there for a job interview, you're there to help them solve a problem. And we have, inherently, the just the practice, the experience and the reinforcement of constantly having to solve problems.

 Tanner Gers:

 Jeff, real quick for everybody on here, are you on LinkedIn?

 Jeff Fidler:

 I am, but my resume is super, super outdated. I didn't really go that avenue. So, I mean, I am on LinkedIn, but I could be doing a much better job than I am.

Tanner Gers:

Yeah, so everybody on here, I would highly recommend connecting with Jeff on LinkedIn. Jeff, when you know… There's sighted analysts, there's sighted testers, there's blind testers, blind analysts, and… You still have to be competitive in the work. More than just having the hard skills and then, you have to demonstrate it when you're talking about working with other people who maybe aren't in in a situation like us. They aren't screen reader users. They aren't relying on assistive technology. How do you navigate that cultural component? How do you … You know… You're in a senior role, right. You announced your position. You're a senior architect. So how do you navigate those kinds of environments, those kinds of conversations, those people, and really kind of position yourself into a place where you can demonstrate your value?

Jeff Fidler:

 Verbal communication is critical. You have to be a really good communicator. But even more important, and a higher level of criticality, is being a good listener, you have to be a really good listener, and so communication is always paramount in any kind of professional environment. So what I generally do is explain to those who might not be familiar with it, that when it comes to computing and, especially like with a graphical user interface, I see with my ears, and I kind of give them a little preface and explain how a screen reader works. Usually, up there in the upper left corner, you can scroll from left to right, top to bottom. And that's how… You know… And of course, there are exceptions… You know… with being able to navigate with… various different keystrokes and things like that. But that's not the important part. The important part is helping to convey how I understand a UI, and then the rest is just really being patient, being a terrific listener, and learning how to communicate in ways that others can understand you. And those are pretty much skills that aren't particular to somebody who has a different kind of approach… You know… based on a disability. I mean, those are just common to anybody who's going to be successful in… You know… professional environment.

 Tanner Gers:

 What do you think is the difference between the people who succeed in digital accessibility and the people who don't?

 Jeff Fidler:

 I think the people who succeed in digital accessibility truly want to see accessibility realized in terms of usability and not just meeting requirements. That's always to me, the definitive aspect is that they want the accessibility to be really one to one experience with somebody who, say, has the more traditional, the more traditional approach, where you're not relying on a Braille display or a screen reader or some kind of special device to help you navigate if you've got, like, a physical deficit, or something like that, or even cognitive things. I mean, the those who really want the experience to be on par across the board, they're the ones that are going to get it done. And it's not just accessibility. It's making that accessibility usable.

 Tanner Gers:

 Love it. I want to talk a little bit about the day to day, some of the expectations employers have wanted from you in terms of performance, or maybe… You know… workplace applications. So right now, in your current role, can you talk about a little bit of your… You know… Not so much the higher level responsibilities, but what you're expected to do on a daily basis?

 Jeff Fidler:

 Sure. So I'm expected, really, to just be developing software, We're a small, very small, nimble team of four guys… You know… Four developers. And I use that term guys broadly as the four of us… But you know, all four of us are kind of tasked with the same thing. So we're given a… You know… a feature enhancement or a new feature that we have to develop, and or a bug that we have to fix, and that's pretty much my day, day to day. I mean, as a senior member of the team, I have every day a check in with upper management just to let them know how the health of the project is, things along those lines, any kind of impediments we might be expecting or encountering… You know. So, I'm involved in also a lot of the project management aspects as well, and I'm kind of the resident on the development team. I'm the only blind developer, so I'm kind of also the go to guy for accessibility questions. Anything WCAG… In terms of implementations, and best practices, and things like that.

 Tanner Gers:

Can you give me a list… And even if it might sound remedial… Give me a list of some of the applications that you use daily, week to week, in your job?

 Jeff Fidler:

Sure. So NVDA goes without saying. NVDA is my go to screen reader. We have one of those corporate shared licensing schemes for JAWS. We've only got five of them available at any given time, and just the sure volume of users… You know… If I have to test with JAWS, I'll save that for early in the day or later in the day, since we have auditors who absolutely have to have access to jaws to get their work done. So I'll use JAWS just for comprehension, like comprehensive testing, but I also use Visual Studio Code on a regular basis. I prefer windows for that reason, with NVDA and jaws. I find Mac’s voiceover is real good, but it's just so different than what I'm used to. You know… Being in this thing for a while now.

So I do use Windows. I use the subsystem for Linux. So I use the Ubuntu operating system most of the time when I'm developing on Windows, because our target deployments are always Linux boxes. So, I develop in Linux, and I like that quite a bit. So those are really the go to things.

We use a bunch of Microsoft productivity tools. So, Teams is our communication tool. We used to use Slack… I prefer slack… For like real time communication and meetings and things like that… But we're using teams now. We migrated over to teams. We use SharePoint for a lot of shared documents and the Microsoft tools like Excel, email is Outlook, Word, and things like that. So mostly Microsoft tools, plus Visual Studio Code, which is my code editor, which is actually another Microsoft Tool and open source tool, and I use Linux as a sort of layer on top of the windows host operating system.

Tanner Gers:

Great. Thanks so much. I lost track. I stopped counting after I think 37 tools. Obviously, when you're doing this day to day to day, or at least when you're onboarding, when you're training, when you're learning something new, you get hit with a workplace application. You probably have questions. How do you find the answers?

Jeff Fidler:

Well, I mean, you have to be persistent. For sure, you have to be persistent. You have to be patient, and you have to ask. I mean, usually the answer to those questions, finding those answers, like, is there a knowledge base. Or… You know… is there onboarding documentation in addition to what we're doing here? Are there video archives that I can refer to if I need to go back and in review? And once you exhaust those routes, is there somebody that I can talk to that can get me… You know… right to where I need to go at a moment's notice? But I mean… The big part of that is Ask, ask, ask, until you find the answer.

Tanner Gers:

Love it. So, how are you staying competitive as a developer? I mean, code's changing all the time… The programming languages… The way that we're designing things… Developing things… That's changing all the time. How do you keep your skills sharp? How do you stay competitive? How do you stay on the cutting edge?

Jeff Fidler:

You just have to keep up. So, I mean, I've bookmarked billions… It seems like at times… Billions of bookmarks… You know… and there's lots and lots of online resources. I mean, I also have subscriptions to pack publishing and O'Reilly. So those are good sources for great books and other training materials. But I mean, you really have to keep up. And that's… Again… Not just something that we have to do… As say, blind developers, or as somebody who has another kind of physical challenge, but that's just common to the field. I mean, you kind of go in knowing that this is a never ending thing, and you're just going to have to keep up.

Tanner Gers:

Is that something you do outside of regular business hours? like is this just the cost of doing business?

Jeff Fidler:

That's right, I do that after business hours. I mean, sometimes still there'll be that overlap where we're… You know… I'm doing something within that work capacity, like R&D, trying to discover if this tool is a good off the shelf solution. And so I'll have to learn as part of my actual work. But most of this stuff I do is after hours as well… Like… Keeping up with… like let’s say there's a new release of a JavaScript framework or something… That I pretty much do off hours. But there can definitely be overlap. I mean, if my boss says, “Hey, we're gonna be moving from this framework version to this next one. Can you tell me if there's any breaking changes?” I mean, then, clearly that's something I can do at work, but there's an awful lot required to do outside work hours, and that's just an understanding implicit in… You know… signing on to be a software engineer.

Tanner Gers:

Would you make that kind of commitment Ongoing? Learning and development, getting certifications… You know… Staying in tune with the field, regardless of the industry you're in… Do you think staying competitive today requires that kind of focus and ongoing effort?

Jeff Fidler:

Yeah, I think that's very common in almost any business domain, unless you're doing something that is… You know… super stable and established. I don't… I can't even think of a good example, because so much has changed.

I even had a friend who was blind, and he liked to do woodworking, and… You know… That would have been fairly stable. But even then, they… You know… they're always coming up with better accessible tools. And you have to kind of learn… You know… Those tools, or you have to learn other little tricks. Like even a lot of my musician friends, we used to have knobs… You know… they were very physical, so you could just kind of memorize from left to right. Okay, this knob does this, or this knob does that. But now, a lot of those are digital screens. So… You know… If they're not voicing that then you kind of have to remember, tap twice, swipe  to the right, swipe down three times, you know. So there are always new things… And those tools generally are making people more productive. So… You know… no matter what business domain you're in, professionally or even just personally, as a hobby or something, I think it's probably the case that you're going to have to continuously learn.

Tanner Gers:

Coming back up to a little bit of a higher level, and then I want to open it up to everybody here to ask questions… Jeff, what's something that you did wrong? And wish you could take it back?

Jeff Fidler:

Let me think. Well, one of the things I did wrong, for sure… and this was a biggie for me… And I think it's a mistake that a lot of us make… is that I was thinking of myself as a blind whatever… Blind professional, software engineer, blind fill in the blank… blind musician… Fill in the blank… That was a mistake. Actually, nobody is thinking of me as a blind software engineer. Whenever they're looking at my code… You know… they're not saying, is this code that Jeff put out? They’re just going to look at this as code. That, to me, I think was the biggest mistake I made, and I corrected that. I did a course correction very, very early on, because if you kind of approach things from that context, you'll find that it's a barrier to communication. You have to kind of remove that filter… And just remember that if you're working as an accessibility auditor, well, you and your sighted counterparts are doing the same thing. Your goal is the same. It's just how you do it that's a little bit different. So all the terminology is going to be in common, and the outcome… You know… is going to be in common. The only thing that's going to be different is… And… You know… actually, a lot of times the sighted auditors on our team will use NVDA or JAWS just to see… Well, heck… You know… with just by vision alone, I'm not quite grasping all this. I need to see what's going on here. So, they turn to NVDA to get… You know… a better feel. So… You know… that was my biggest mistake, was thinking, Well, I'm blind. And everybody needs to know that so we can continue to recognize that maybe I'm approaching things differently. But the real truth is, if you remove that barrier, things go much better.

Tanner Gers:

Love that. When you're thinking about your career path, what's in front of you? How much longer are you going to go if you're going to stay in this field? Like, what's your professional goal? Are you still climbing the ladder, or are you comfortable? Tell me about how you see the future of your career.

Jeff Fidler:

Well, I also have my own LLC, so I do sort of project work for myself as well. So I run a company, kind of on the side as putting as much time into it… You know… as I want and as time permits. I mean, my first responsibility is always to my employer. But there have been times in my career where I didn't have permanent employment because I didn't want it. I would work a three month contract or do a six month contract and then take some time off, To do my… You know… work on a product of my own. So… You know… based on those experiences, I really enjoy developing software. I still love playing music, and… You know… I just try to make sure I have work life balance.

My goals? Really, I’ve done so much already. I've been in architectural roles. I've been in lead roles. Probably one of my favorite roles was when I led the UI team, the client side team of sighted people, helping them design and implement the user interface that everybody was seeing. I was… You know… It was ironic, and we actually won an award that year internally at the employer I was with as that was considered the best application of the year. Yeah, so that was, that was really a sort of a fun one. But yeah, I think I'm happy doing things in around… I've always been a creative person, so I enjoy creating and sometimes I find it to be a bit tedious for me to do sort of like administrative type stuff, and that stuff is just as important, and needs to be done. But those are the kinds of the things that, in the end, end up motivating me in a particular direction.

Tanner Gers:

I love it. You know… definitely did not… You know… Coordinate the call to go in that direction. But yes, we're talking about creating together. I hope that works out for everybody. But do you want to share with everybody, briefly, how… You know… our paths crossed?

Jeff Fidler:

Sure. I was just killing some time, sort of decompressing, scrolling through my Facebook feed and I saw this post, sort of requesting potential names for a product… A manual testing product. And I thought, Hmm, well, I could probably throw something in that direction and one thing led to another…  And, and we've had some really interesting conversations ever since.

Tanner Gers:

Well, it's been… It's been a great journey. And I think that… You know… Jeff this conversation has been tremendous, but I really want to hear from the students, the apprentices, everybody who's been able to join and hear this kind of conversation. Thinking about your own experience, like where you're coming from and where you want to go, when you can ask Jeff anything. I want you to think about that and start asking your questions. But Jeff, my final question to you is that, if there was one piece of advice that you could give yourself when you were starting digital accessibility, if there was one piece of advice that you wish you knew then that you know now. What would you tell yourself?

Jeff Fidler:

I would tell myself, make sure you know your tools inside and out. Because it's going to either cost you a lot of time or you could potentially embarrass yourself. It happened to me several times when I thought I knew enough JAWS or I knew enough NVDA to do this or do that, and I'd say… Well, no, no, that definitely isn't accessible. And then only to find out after doing a little bit of digging 2 or 3 days later… Oh, wait a minute. There is a way to reach that particular screen component… Or whatever… And there are these key keystroke combos that can get me this… Or I can even… You know… create my own… Or I can even go in there and script jaws. So after discovering those things, that's what I would tell myself back in… Way back in the beginning… Know those tools inside and out, because they really are the bridge that allow you to use… You know… to interact with these machines in a meaningful way.

Tanner Gers:

I love that. I love that… Couldn't agree with you more. Jeff, knowing your tools and being the best tester is about leveraging your tools to their fullest capacity. Awesome, awesome, awesome answer.

I hope that resonates with everybody here and Heather, do you want to manage the room with the raised hands? Looks like we got Yael and Ariana.

Heather Burns:

So let's go Yael first, and then we'll go to Aryianna.

Yael Saperstein:

Okay, hi, I'm Yael Saperstein, Jeff, thank you so much for talking to us today. I really appreciate it. I also have RP, so a lot of what you said was very relevant, specifically about the part where you were making your transition. I'm transitioning from being a speech language pathologist for 22 years with a private practice, and it's getting too difficult for me, so I'm transitioning over. I'm in the cat program. I just had a specific question about the point that you made your transition. Did you still have a component of central vision? Or were you at that point of a full time screen reader?

Jeff Fidler:

Yeah, so I had some vision, but my central vision, my acuity was really very, very poor. So when I first began transitioning, I actually had a CCTV. That was one of the things that was issued to me when I went through the vocational rehabilitation program. So I had a CCTV, and it just got to the point where I was reading, like, maybe two pages an hour or something… I had to use magnification that was so extreme that… You know… I could only literally, like focus on one letter on the screen. And also my central vision became so poor too, that I would actually kind of look off to the side to use my peripheral vision to sort of see objects in my path, or things like that. So my acuity was was very, very poor. And so my focus, out of necessity, became the screen reader.

Yael Saperstein:

Thank you so much.

Tanner Gers:

Aryianna, I think you were next.

Aryianna Wyatt:

Hi Jeff. My name is Ari, and thank you for your presentation. It was awesome. I just wanted to say that I related to you a lot on several points that you made, between Windows versus Mac… I also lost my vision when I was little. So my question is… I eventually would like to have my own business at some point after I've had enough work experience under my belt… So how did you get started with that? When you started your LLC, like, where did you go and to, like, get that up and running?

Jeff Fidler:

Uh, Boy. I wish I could think of the name of the company. I mean… You can… There's the more well recognized one. It's called Legal Zoom. But there are others that you can just, if you just do a web search, you'll find online ways to incorporate and things like that. And it's not like absurdly expensive, a few hundred dollars and you can have an LLC going or… You know… and depending on the kind of corporation you settle on… Usually too… They provide a lot of documentation to go through to help you. Of course, you can pay for consulting hours, and they'll explain things to you if you prefer that route. And I definitely did a bit of both. I spent a long time just with web searches generally. And I wish I could think of the company it's been so long I incorporated back in 2007 so I honestly can't remember, but I would recommend… You know… First of all, just do web searches to learn about your different options… And then… You know… you'll also find these service providers. Use whatever resources they offer… And I paid the extra money for consultations… You know… just to make sure that I wasn't misunderstanding something. And I… You know… when it comes to something like that… I didn't want to make a mistake.

Aryianna Wyatt:

Okay. And when you first started out with that… Um… Like from working for somebody to working for yourself… Um… I'm a little bit nervous about that. So what kind of advice do you have for that?

Jeff Fidler:

I think… I think I'm understanding what you're trying to ask. So just stop me if I'm misunderstanding. But I think what you're asking is like… How do you make a transition from going from like… Say… A full time employment perspective, or even part time employment with an employer, to running your own shop?

Aryianna Wyatt:

Yes.

Jeff Fidler:

Okay. And the answer that I’ve given… The advice I've given to others that have asked me… And not just those with disabilities… But in general… I didn't want to take that risk. To just completely make it one clean cut and move into the self employed, running my own company thing. So, what I did is I drank a lot of coffee… And I built my business in the evenings… Off hours and on weekends… And that's what I did, because I did not want to take that risk. And then, once I got to a point where financially I felt comfortable… You know… with things, that's when I decided to do independent consulting. But almost always, I have had a full time gig. And then I do project work on the side. If I know I want to go on whatever, a three week vacation overseas or something, and I know it's going to cost X, then I'll find project work to make sure I cover X. That's what I've done a lot.

And then there have been other years. Like when I was younger, I would put an extra, whatever, 20 or 30 hours a week on the side project work… Just to make myself financially comfortable. But I never really did it at the exclusion of one to the other. I transitioned gradually with the security of… You know… the health coverage that came from full time employment, and 401K match, and all of those other benefits, and just… It's just great to learn in the… You know… The environment of an established business where they already have their operations down and you have co workers that are approaching problems in different ways. It's just such a tremendous learning experience. So I didn't want to… You know… to cheat myself out of all of that free knowledge and experience.

Tanner Gers:

Heather and I are super supportive of entrepreneurs and the entrepreneurial journey as we are… You know… Heather and I are entrepreneurs… If that's something valuable for us to do or provide you guys like a boot camp on… You know… entrepreneur best practices and resources… You know… let us know, And we can help out with that.

Awesome, awesome questions Ari.

Heather Burns:

Anyone else?

So then, I will ask my question to Jeff. So Jeff, thank you again for taking your time to do this. My question is, I have a similar computer science background, going to a four year university, getting that computer science degree. So we share that, but not all of our cat students have that deep of a technical computer science background. I've been saying it's not necessary, it's helpful, but not necessary… And, I would just like to hear your opinion on that and for you to expand on the experience that you've had with testers… And their success rate given their backgrounds.

Jeff Fidler:

Sure. So actually, I don't have any formal training in computer science. So my degree is in philosophy, and I was in graduate school when my vision went south. So that's it. I mean… You know… I had very little useful vision, very low vision at the time, and that's when I was doing music full time. And it wasn't until that day when Matt walked in and said, “Hey, I'm switching from journalism to information science because of the placement rate.”

I went… You know… with my wife, and we drove up to the bookstore to see these books he was reading… And the computer science section was right there adjacent to the information science… And I told her, Well, these books sound way more interesting… You know… So we grabbed the Kernighan and Richie C programming book, and we took it home, and she read it to me, and that was my introduction to C programming. So you don't have to have a formal background for sure. I mean, I am self taught all the way. And not even… You know… Not able to at that time… I didn't know enough about JAWS and NVDA to even find like a text file… You know… plain text file to actually read a copy of the book. She literally read it to me. And I'd ask her, Can you go back and read that sentence again, and can you spell that word, what's… You know… whatever it was. Like something… You know… Very sort of computer sciencey terminology… Like idempotent or… You know… something like that. I don't recall what it was, but that's kind of how it went. It was very slow, but it was interesting.

Heather Burns:

You know, well, there goes the point of making sure that you're listening. And I made assumptions, because you told that story, and I just assumed that meant that you were also transitioning your degree, so I apologize for that, but thank you very much for that answer. Appreciate it.

Tanner Gers:

I just want to pull back and say for me… I mean, you know that's coming full circle for me now. You know Jeff, like Jeff had indicated, we've had conversations and just his knowledge of how things work and his technical aptitude is tremendous, right. It's impressive. And to hear him say that he's self taught. I mean, if you if you knew what I knew, when he says that, you'd be like, Wow. Like, where's the books? I can do this! Incredible that you're self taught. Wow.

Jeff Fidler:

Yeah. And actually, in my experience, the self taught developers and engineers, they're actually, they're the most skilled from my professional experience, and even in my personal experience, I think… And I think a lot of the reason that is, is when you're self taught, it's because you really have… I mean… There is no such thing as the “right motive”, or something like that, but it clearly means that this is something you wanted to do, and you have an interest in it. I mean, nobody's going to teach themselves something they just absolutely despise. It's like trying to force yourself to eat food you hate or something. You know what I mean. So I think that's an important piece of the puzzle. Is that… when you're self taught, it's because you truly are motivated for… You know… the “right reasons.”

Heather Burns:

And Aryianna had their hand up for just a moment, so I'm not sure…

 Aryianna Wyatt:

Yeah, I just had one more question, and then I got to go and get ready for class. Tanner just brought up something that I just thought of. So given the fact that we have this, the current CAT program now, from so many for I can't talk today. I'm so sorry, um, but when you first started out in digital, digital accessibility versus what they've got now, do you wish that there was a program like this, like, do you wish that there was something similar to this back then, or…

Jeff Fidler:

Absolutely, yeah, if there was something like that, I would have been the first in line to enroll. Because, sure, you can learn so much from… You know… the if you can learn from the mistakes of others and how they gained their experience and their knowledge way better than having to learn from your own mistakes, right? I mean, it's much more difficult if we're making our own mistakes. A lot of times we're not even realizing that we're making a mistake until… You know… it reaches some sort of critical mass, and then we're like, Wow. I mean… You know… I've been doing it this way the whole time, and it finally came back to bite me in the rear, you know. So, just learning in the environment where people can bring their experience and their expertise… You know… they've already been down that road, and it's, I think, pretty, pretty wise to… You know… tap that knowledge if you have an opportunity.

Aryianna Wyatt:

Okay, cool, cool. Thank you so much. I really enjoyed your presentation.

Jeff Fidler:

Yeah, you're very welcome.

Heather Burns:

And Fredericks…

Fred Scott:

Hello, Jeff. Nice to meet you. I wanted to ask a question. Since you're self-taught, how did you basically express that you're capable of doing the job without having the degrees and certifications for it? So, in my personal experience, sometimes they just want to see the piece of paper. I think a lot of people know that self-taught people are really capable, and they're the best. But sometimes, depending on who you interview with, they're just like, Oh, you don't have a degree. They kind of like, see it as, like, a bad thing. Did you encounter that? And if you did, how did you get around that?

Jeff Fidler:

Yes, that is definitely a problem, and it's a very frequent problem. So it helps to be able to… Well, one of the things I did is I would carry a laptop with me with a screen reader loaded on it, because I actually had employers that would come in and say, How in the world are you even applying for this? This is a computer you realize… You know… this is a computer… You have to be able to see the monitor. And I was like, well, actually I don't. Let me show you. And so carrying a device with you these days, it's going to be a mobile phone. Just pop on talkback or voiceover and demonstrate how quick you can do things.

I mean, actually… You know… in my day, back in those days, using a keyboard, I was able to jump around the screen and navigate much more quickly than my sighted counterparts using a mouse pointer, because I just had keystrokes memorized. And bam, bam, bam. You know, I was able to just knock these tasks off, right? You know, one after another immediately. So having that device there so you can demonstrate how is invaluable

Another approach… I wouldn't say the other… But another approach… Is to make sure you've got a portfolio up so you can demo some of the project work you've done. You could just hand off a bunch of URLs and say, Here, I developed this or developed that. Or carry with you… If you can't keep it in your head… A list of the online tools that you use. So, if you're going for some sort of finance position or something, we'll say, hey, look, here's what I use, and I use it with a screen reader, and it's really accessible. So here, I can go over and I can view this bar chart, because this company actually makes sure that accessibility is a priority, and so I can actually gather all the same data and use that to formulate a strategy that my sighted counterparts can.

Fred Scott:

Thank you very much. That's very helpful. And I just, I have definitely done that, take the laptop to the to the interview before… And it did… It was interesting… It did spark a conversation, but I only had done that once, so now I think I'm just gonna keep doing it every time I get an interview.

Jeff Fidler:

Yeah, and it also just gives you the opportunity right there… That you get the opportunity to sort of demonstrate your skills too… So you don't just do the… You know… sort of an “introduction to screen readers.” You say, here's how I use a screen reader to do the job that I'm applying for.

Fred Scott:

Thank you very much.

Jeff Fidler:

Yep, you're welcome.

Heather Burns:

I think that's all the questions. Oh, wait! Jacques…

Jacques Franko:

Jeff, thank you so much for your presentation. I'm getting a lot from this, so I really do appreciate you taking your time to share with us. And I just wanted to ask, regarding the blind auditors that work for the company you work with, do you find that they have knowledge of developing themselves, or are they just more focused on usability and accessibility?

Jeff Fidler:

Both. It seems like the ratios are pretty much the same. I know my employer prefers if people can come in knowing about things like HTML, knowing really well, WCAG success criteria and all of those and how they work together. And if you've got a little bit of JavaScript skills and you can understand that…

 “Oh, well, yeah, actually… This company's implementing their skip to main link with JavaScript instead of using just an inline anchor element.”

Those things are all advantages. So, I mean, it's advantageous to carry that skill set in, but you know that, being said, a lot of our auditors don't possess that skill set, but what they do all possess is an extremely high level of ability when it comes to their screen readers and being able to manually test for accessibility. The more technical you know, sort of under the covers knowledge they have, just the more ability they have to pinpoint and to call out any kind of accessibility issues that might exist with a digital product.

Jacques Franko:

Tremendous. Thank you very much.

Jeff Fidler:

You're welcome.

Heather Burns:

Ellen also has their hand raised. I think this one might have to be the last question.

Ellen Bartlett:

Yeah, that's fine. Um… I'm wondering whether, like you just said, not everyone needs that kind of thing, but is there a way to just learn how to read HTML without, like, wanting to develop a webpage? Because I feel like that's what a lot of learning HTML kind of is built for.

Jeff Fidler:

That makes sense. Yeah, absolutely. And the answer to your question is yes, you can. Definitely. And actually, believe it or not, and I'm sure Heather can tell you that whenever you're developing software, you spend a heck of a lot more time reading code than actually writing code. I mean, you spend the vast majority of your time reading. So, yes, absolutely, you can learn to read the HTML and that can then help to inform your… You know… your analysis when you're trying to identify an accessibility issue… And can actually find online too from… You know… from the Web Accessibility Initiative website, lots of other even like Mozilla developer network, even though that's target audience is for developers. And as an auditor, you can learn an awful lot from that. And you can just sort of gloss over the parts that don't really apply.

But, I would say… You know… There's a WCAG around WCAG, there's just loads and loads of online content that can teach you how HTML maps to those success criteria and in reverse too. But I definitely would recommend doing that if you have the desire to do so, because it just makes you all that much better when you approach auditing.

Ellen Bartlett:

Okay, so you said web accessibility Institute,

Jeff Fidler:

Web accessibility initiatives, WAI. And you also want to definitely focus on things like ARIA, Access for Rich Internet Applications. Yeah, so that's a must know for sure.

Ellen Bartlett:

Okay? it still feels very strange to me, like I don't know how it works, but I know it messes things up a lot.

Jeff Fidler:

Well, this might be an avenue for you to follow, Would be to take the ARIAs, if, since you're already familiar with Aria, and you're kind of mucking around in ARIA… All of those ARIA attributes and roles and properties… They actually are just artificial ways of… Most of the time… Mapping back to a native HTML element’s function. You know the functionality is built into that, so that's a good way to reinforce your Aria and to learn your HTML is to take those ARIA attributes and roles, especially the roles, and map those back to native HTML elements.

Ellen Bartlett:

All right. I'll do a bit of poking around and see what I find. Thanks. 

Jeff Fidler:

You're very welcome.

Tanner Gers:

Jeff, thank you so much for today. It was super valuable for me and for I believe, for everybody here. What an awesome conversation. Is there any final words that you want to leave us with?

Jeff Fidler:

Yeah. I would just say that… You know… I can't underscore enough how important and eye opening it was for me to stop thinking of myself as a blind engineer and just think of myself as a software engineer… Whatever domain you're in. I think that is the best approach…

Just think of yourself as… You know… doing that thing, whatever that thing is. And don't think of yourself as a blind or low vision or limited dexterity person doing that thing. You're doing that thing just like everybody else. You just have a different approach.

Tanner Gers:

I absolutely love that you either win or you don't, right… Regardless of where the starting line is. So that is awesome. Awesome. Awesome. Thank you so much Jeff. I really appreciate it. Looking forward to our continued collaborations, and thank you guys all for your time and attention and for bringing your questions to Jeff. Thank you so much.

Bee Yang:

Jeff. It was a wonderful presentation. I appreciate you sharing your wisdom with us. Thank you, Jeff. We really appreciate it. 

Jeff Fidler:

Yep. It's my pleasure. You guys all have a wonderful day.

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