From Educator to Engineer: How the I/Own It Scholarship Launched my Career in Tech
Just over a year ago, I closed the door to my classroom for the last time as I wrapped up my sixth and final year as a teacher at an alternative high school in Philadelphia. I was about to take a leap from education to tech, from teacher to software engineer. It would be a big jump. It would be a lot of work. As I closed that door, I didn’t know that I’d be starting as a Software Engineer at Optimizely just one year later because I’d win a scholarship that would catapult me into the technology industry in San Francisco.
The I/Own It Scholarship from Optimizely and Hack Reactor @ Galvanize is a program that Optimizely has run for four years straight to support historically under-represented people break into the technology industry. This post is about how this program has changed my life and accelerated and supported my transition from being a teacher to being a software engineer.
Making the Jump
When I first told my friends and family that I was going to quit teaching and become a software engineer, they tried to muffle their surprise as they asked, “Why?,” or, “Are you sure?” I was certain. I was a good teacher, I loved my students, but I was burned-out. By year six, I could no longer teach with the same patience and grace required to be effective. I had to do something else. I spent my final year as a teacher trying on, like outfits, hundreds of professions and potential futures. I studied myself, explored different fields, interviewed people, and almost went to graduate school. In the end, I decided on engineering because I’m drawn to innovation, I love learning, I’m obsessed with making systems more efficient, and I want to work on teams that are formed with the purpose of building solutions. I was also enamored with software. As Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am” so software engineers seemed to be able to build the stuff of thought.
Engineering wasn’t completely foreign to me. My dad was a mechanical engineer and geeked out on computers for as long as I can remember, mostly as a hobby but ultimately to my benefit. His tinkering exposed me to the inner workings of computers, whole worlds within worlds of possibility, and gave me a small but memorable taste for the joy of programming. I realized I was passionate about innovation and software when teaching my science and technology class about how algorithms influence our daily lives and about the importance of data privacy in the digital age. My heart beat a little faster and my words flowed easily.
I had very little schooling in quantitative reasoning. I majored in philosophy at a small liberal arts college with near Luddite views toward new technologies, where the curriculum dropped me off in the 1930s with Heidegger, and left me alone to catch up on the 21st century. Nonetheless, I had gained at least one invaluable wellspring, and that was a deep love of learning. I was curious and knew how to teach myself new things.
Hack Reactor is exceptional at setting expectations. Three to six months of preparation was normal, sometimes more. I travelled a bit and then locked myself down at a farm stay in Thailand where I knew I would be able to focus. I spent my mornings doing toy problems until my brain hurt and then explored my surroundings in the afternoons. One Hack Reactor alumnus had recommended a book called Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, which enabled me to fully embrace the struggle of learning something completely new.
Having spent so many years playing with the more malleable concepts found in the humanities and doing the heavy social-emotional work of teaching, my mind strained against the rigid logic of coding. I kept throwing myself at the toy problems, knowing that as I grappled for a solution, I was forging new neural pathways, or strengthening the ones already there. I failed the first interview with Hack Reactor. So I threw myself back into the material for another six weeks.
At some point along the way, I discovered Optimizely’s I/Own It scholarship on Hack Reactor’s website and decided to apply. I took three weeks to carefully draft and redraft an application. I passed my admissions interview to Hack Reactor and I created a YouTube video about How to cook the perfect egg. I submitted my application and then waited.
Landing the jump for me meant an entry level job in the Bay Area, so when Optimizely called me to say I’d won, I was ecstatic. I swallowed tears as I tried to explain to the lady on the phone that this scholarship would be an acceleration of everything I was aiming for. A catapult. I would achieve my goals in half the time and at less than half the cost.
To be honest, when applying I didn’t realize what it meant to be a minority in tech or a woman engineer. My understanding of diversity and inclusion came from my work in schools and in my classroom, empowering and equipping students of all kinds and backgrounds to work together toward some common goal. Most of the places I’d studied or worked, I’d been one of the more privileged people in the room. I was transitioning from a female-dominated industry to a male-dominated industry. Women make up 77% of all teachers, compared to a scant 14% of software engineers. I was only beginning to understand what this actually meant.
Hack Reactor @Galvanize
Two months later, I was knee-deep in code and unfamiliar technologies, trudging one heavy step at a time through the great mental obstacle course that is Hack Reactor. Feeling and observing the assumptions beneath behaviors and the organizational habits of Hack Reactor, I couldn’t help but notice the ways women are at a disadvantage. Suddenly the default behaviors that had served so well in the education field for six years felt more like liabilities than strengths.
In Hardball for Women: Winning at the Game of Business, author Pat Heim likens learning to work in a male-dominated workplace culture to learning to write with your non-dominant hand. Building on this analogy, I would add that it’s also learning judgment for when to use which hand.
One example of this was in the way people communicated. To use the analogy of hands, my dominant right hand was open, collaborative, inquisitive (implying uncertainty and self-doubt) style, whereas my non-dominant left hand was direct, decisive, precise, at times aggressive, and always confident. As a teacher, my dominant hand served well in working with students to disarm and engage them in learning something new. As an engineer, I’ve found myself having to use my left hand more—doing cognitive gymnastics to repackage my thoughts into more direct and decisive statements so that my input would be taken seriously. This was frustrating and difficult. I was not only learning to program, I had to learn how to collaborate in a completely different way. I thought it was just me until I read that book and spoke with other women. This was the same kind of dilemma working women and minorities have faced for decades.
To be fair, there were many factors beyond gender at play in my transition, like going from a small non-profit-run school in relaxed Philadelphia to the fast-paced, competitive start-up center of SoMA district in San Francisco. As I adapted to my surroundings, I was especially grateful for the scholarship, the opportunity and support it has provided me in my transition.
Hack Reactor was one of the most difficult things I have done. It was also the most rewarding. It’s an exceptional program, finely tuned over the years to efficiently change the way one approaches and solves problems. As I submitted myself to their rigorous coursework, I could feel my brain changing, starting to work in new ways. Even my muscles were changing! At first, my fingers felt like elephants’ feet on the keyboard. Five weeks later, they danced lightly on the keys, never missing a step or beat. I attribute my success at Hack Reactor to their emphasis on mindset, process, and practice. Engineering can be learned.
Part of the I/Own It program is providing mentorship. During Hack Reactor, I met every few weeks with a Senior Engineer at Optimizely, Jessica Chong. She answered all kinds of questions about the industry, Optimizely, and growth as an engineer. This mentorship and support from outside Hack Reactor was essential to my success and well-being. She provided perspective and encouragement that helped ground me during the demanding (but fun!) eighty-hour weeks.
I graduated Hack Reactor on a Friday and I started as an intern at Optimizely on the Frontend Infrastructure team the following Monday. I was assigned a mentor, Michael Fields. With more than fifteen years in the industry, he was patient and a good listener, making sure I had what I needed when I needed it as I dove headlong into my internship project. The team placement was ideal. They’d recently picked up pair programming as a regular practice. I jumped right in and was able to quickly gain context and insight into every part of our codebase.
My internship project was meaningful and impactful. I used New Relic to instrument the frontend in order to create dashboards that gave insight into the application’s overall performance. I also added instrumentation to get our application’s performance by customer and project because our customers use our product in very different ways, and we needed to be able to analyze how different use cases affected performance. I then shared the dashboard with the engineering organization and created documentation to help other teams identify valuable metrics and build their own dashboards. It took multiple iterations to get the dashboards right, but once the telemetry was reliable, our team could then create custom dashboards to track our performance improvements as we made changes over time. The metrics I selected and the resulting custom dashboard then became the metrics of accountability for the team’s main project to address our frontend performance issues.
As an intern, my manager encouraged me to speak my mind. He told me my voice was just as important as everyone else’s on the team, despite being just an intern. This kind of encouragement made all the difference as I continued to throw my myself into unfamiliar technical and people systems. The culture at Optimizely is notably warm and encouraging. Senior and Staff engineers were open and willing when I approached them with questions.
I still think of my students every day. As their teacher, I learned many lessons that I hold close to my heart and carry into every part of my life. One of these lessons is that everyone benefits when you bring your whole self to work (or school).
In teaching at El Centro De Estudiantes High School in North Philadelphia, I did what all professional teachers do: organize, teach, manage the classroom, innovate, etc. But these skills were not enough to be truly effective. This particular school encouraged me to bring my whole self to work: my unique personality, experiences, and perspective. So I did. As I integrated who I was with my day-to-day planning, lessons and instruction, I noticed my students becoming more responsive and open. They came to school more. They did more work. Co-planning and collaboration with my colleagues became less of a task and more like doing a project with friends. I learned from this that I do my best work when I bring my whole self to the table. This is why I believe that diversity and inclusion initiatives like the I/Own It scholarship program are so important.
I have continued to bring my whole self to my work as a software engineer at Optimizely. The forty hours I spend with my team at work every week are more time than I spend with anyone else in my life. For this reason, I’m deeply invested in having a positive and empowering workplace culture. I believe that creating a working environment where everyone feels like they can bring their whole self to work is essential to our success as a company. I’m grateful for the opportunity and support that the I/Own It Scholarship has afforded me and I am proud to work in a place like Optimizely that continues to drive programs like I/Own It. The demographic breakdown of the tech industry is a reflection of the greater and more systemic issues of inequality in our society. This program is one effective and replicable way toward positive change in this industry.