Jessi Shakarian

Jessi Shakarian

Once a developer, always a developer

How chess and AI brought me back to coding

Once a developer, always a developer

At the beginning of 2021, I thought I was done being a developer. I was having a really difficult time with JavaScript in 2020. It was just not fitting with me at all, and it was agonizing for me. In retrospect, I think I burned out. It was a weird place to be because I had spent 2020 learning how to code, hopped into freelancing and getting client work. I was happy being a freelancer, but if I had to deal with another for loop, I was going to lose my mind. I really did enjoy building things, though.

Building products from end to end, I actually much preferred doing UX work before it was time to code, so I switched into UX. I wrapped up all my freelance dev work and started doing UX work.

I'm now a junior UX designer. I also discovered how much I love chess pretty early into the year, after watching Queen's Gambit. The more time I spent in online chess, I began to see the UX aspects I was learning -- what works, what doesn't. One of the biggest things that stood out to me was the use of the chess engines for analysis. AI and chess really go hand in hand. As a new person in chess, I didn't understand the chess engines at all. I realized that wasn't a great user experience for beginners because the user has to understand why that move was a blunder or a great move. I made a mental note and put it on the back burner.

I started writing about these things on my Medium blog, and I got some great experiences out of it. I got to write for UX and chess industry publications alike, I got to do a conference talk about chess and usability, which was amazing. I didn't expect that my blog was going to open up these kinds of doors or allow me to start doing consulting work. I started working on a book about chess and design.

In May, I proposed a talk about chess and AI for a group of developers, which got approved. The history of chess engines is something that really interests me, and I started thinking about that user experience of chess engines that I mentioned. Chess and computer programming go hand in hand a lot in the history of computer science. The concept of fair play (catching cheaters) is a big deal in online chess tournaments. Lots to talk about!


But the siren song of coding was already starting.

Maybe I should start learning about AI, I thought. Just to get some more technical background on some basic concepts.

I started taking Infinite Red's AI Demystified mini-course. I hadn't thought about coding once in 6 months and now through chess, and now I felt like a door that had previously been closed to me was open. I realized my thoughts about the chess engines and every time I play against one of the many chess bots (some that are even built based on champions playing styles at various ages), I am thinking about the UX of AI and machine learning.

Huh, that's interesting.

I know I'm not the first person to think about these things, but it is an avenue I didn't even think about. I've taken up learning Python. I want to try React one day but I need a longer break from JavaScript. After a previously failed attempt, I am moving forward as a mentee for a UX and Research mentor program in the games industry. Chess isn't just a game, it's actually a widely popular esport on Twitch.

...Maybe there is something happening here.

6 months might seem like a long time, but it's important to take breaks. You never know what you're going to see with fresh eyes. If you had asked me 4 months ago if I'd be learning Python, I would have told you that was insane, I never want to code again.

Don't be scared of taking a break. It's necessary. When I play chess and I stare at the board too long, sometimes the pieces blur together in my head. I need to look away, clear my mind and regroup, and look again.

This is all to say, I'm dusting off this blog. I am a writer, I can't help it! I might as well share my learning adventures in python, AI, and chess.

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