In 2016, I was mopping floors at a tanning salon in Houston, Texas. In 2017, I taught myself how to code and now I’m a Software Developer in Boston’s financial tech hub.
This may seem confusing and quite drastic upon initially skimming over the title, but there is a backstory that provides context to a unique problem and an equally viable solution that sprouted in my life for the past year, looking back, and looking forward into 2018.
I am your typical and atypical nerd. I grew up playing video games everyday, reading sci-fi/fantasy books, illustrating, writing stories, composing music, playing horn instruments obnoxiously loud in the garage, and studying any subject I found and deemed intriguing and significant to the human experience. These were all of my intrinsic interests and no one could tell me I was passionate about “too many things”. That concept of limitation was not in my paradigm and so I was unfamiliar with the verbally passed down constraints of how to spend one’s (valuable) time. All of those activities were imperative to my existence and molded me into the ‘nerd’ that I am today and always will be. Little did I know that by 2017, I’d be catching on to a career I hadn’t realized I’d been passionate about since I’d first allowed my pencil to touch a sketchbook. That being said, life has an interesting way of throwing arbitrary, unforeseen circumstances your way and you’re forced to decide on how to react to them, accordingly.
So I became a Tanning Consultant.
I’m not exactly sure what the statistics are behind what most college-aged students do for work outside of going to class, but I was in this quasi-retail position (okay, it was totally retail) in order to keep busy and put food on my table. I had nothing to my name, dwindling friendships, experienced isolation from social settings at universities full of continuing students. I felt like I was being left behind… I was in this strange mental space where I felt like there was a complete disconnect between me, as a consultant selling monthly tanning subscriptions and overpriced tanning lotions (some were upwards of $190), and the clients partaking in the luxury of a tanning facility I had to maintain.
A lot of the customers would make questionable statements like “I normally don’t see coloreds that often around here”. Yes, that customer had been referring to me. Or overt questions like:
“What’s a black girl like you doing, working in a tanning salon?” — a frequent customer’s abrasive inquiry, who’s tanning beds I had to relentlessly wipe down every time they popped up to do a 15-minute bronzing session.
Another customer, who had attempted to sign in to someone else’s account in order to steal a free tan, became frustrated when her made up name wasn’t pulling up in the system. The irony of her choosing a common name in order to increase her chances of checking in as a random person ended up working against me in my attempt to follow store policy.
“Can you even spell the name ‘Jennifer’? “— the lady asked me as a long line of customers formed behind her, waiting to get their tans and be on their way
The tone in her voice — the condescending nature of her body language and word choice — it confused me. What about who I was made her feel that that was how she should interact with me?
A job is a job and there’s nothing wrong with wanting a career in the tanning industry. It may be very lucrative for some, but it had nothing to do with all my talents, my passions, and my potentiality. It simply wasn’t conducive to me and I was losing far more than I was gaining in working in such an environment.
By August 2016, I was completely fed up. At that point, a bigger shift had to occur in my life.
You know what’s a weird feeling? When you can work 8 to 14-hour shifts, engaging in physical labor, and feeling like you’ve gotten absolutely nothing accomplished by the end of it all.
There was a day that I realized I was never coming back to work at the tanning salon (and at any tanning salon, ever again):
It was 11pm at night and I was in the salon, mopping and playing some music on one of the tanning bed speakers. I had to close the store and it was taking a century and a half. I sat on one of the beds and I began contemplating…
I was surrounded by nothing, but mopping water, a wooden broom, cold silence of the night, and darkness overtaking the dim light beams from the tanning beds. I felt ridiculous that I had profitable skills in so many industries, yet none of them were being utilized in my present life. I knew I had drive to self-educate. My discipline was unmatched.
And that’s when I knew I had to quit. So I called my aunt, an accomplished professor of Computer Science and Computer Information Systems in Boston, and asked her if I could stay with her. She said yes and I booked my plane ticket with the rest of the money I had left in my account.
How (& Why) I Began Teaching Myself How to Code
I remember my high school offering AP Computer Science, but I hadn’t taken it. My AP classes were more along the lines of AP Biology, AP Economics, AP Government, AP U.S. History, AP English Literature, AP Psychology, and several other advanced classes that were more along the lines of soft sciences.
Now that I had relocated to Boston, it was a chance to start over fresh with what I wanted to be for myself and do with myself.
There was a foreshadowing moment when I had reached out to someone I knew who had graduated from the University of Houston. He was a former AT&T associate and attended the Iron Yard coding bootcamp. He had a Bachelor’s degree in Biology, but saw himself getting into iOS development. His ultimate goals were accomplished and upon graduating from the Iron Yard bootcamp, he acquired an iOS developer position at a tech company. He was now living out his dream and didn’t need a Computer Science degree to do it! I was fascinated by this. It was encouraging to me as a person who was stuck without a degree and no funds to continue pursuing one at the time. I enjoyed teaching myself various subjects — it was in my nature! — so I wondered what the process would be like teaching myself how to make websites and programs. I loved designing products, but I’d never considered creating the software that’d fuel it — or sites that powered amazing platforms I utilize everyday on the web. It was a different approach, but an interesting one! But first, I needed to prod him for details on how he got comfortable with coding in order to sustain himself throughout the bootcamp. After all, Biology had been his area of knowledge. As previously mentioned, I’ve been a creator all of my life. From music composition to tech design, so how could this be that different from any of my other interests?
#1 — Codecademy.com: the ultimate coding platform to get your feet wet
If you have zero programming skills, this is the first site you may want to stop by. It hosts great introductory courses that provide sufficient (higher-level) context to the profession and gets you comfortable with how it feels to code basic things. It was suggested that I start here. So I enrolled in the HTML & CSS courses and immediately became hooked. Knowing that it could train me how to think like a programmer — how to translate my thoughts and ideas into functional projects — felt incredibly empowering! I began to realize how transportable this skill was. I worked through this in combination with freeCodeCamp for a total of 8 hours a day!
#2 — freeCodeCamp.org
#3 — Attending Meetup events in the area (can’t stress this enough!!!)
Communications, soft skills, pitching, and breaking through the technical terminology barrier are some of the most important qualities to be embraced outside of the literal physicality of programming. Joining Meetup groups and attending Meetups in the Boston and Cambridge area related to programming allowed me to network with the growing tech hub of Boston!
Having these conversations about tech with people in the field helped me gain more knowledge about opportunities for work, organizations to volunteer for, and tech or social events to attend that would be fulfilling. One opportunity always leads to the next via networking.
Some proof: I was able to learn about opportunities to work for the current position I hold as a Developer via the Resilient Coders bootcamp Demo Day where I showcased my full-stack application, called Epitome, a productivity optimization dashboard (think: Trello!). I learned about Resilient Coders from networking with students, developers, my programmer instructor, and tech entrepreneurs via Meetup events. Networking is an ongoing process that is truly effective for your advancements and interests!
#4 — Pushing coding projects to Github regularly
Coding is cool, but do you want to know what’s even better? When you can showcase that code, regardless of its level of complexity. It’s about being proud of your explorations. It is about interacting with deeper layers of the programmer lifestyle: by documenting the work you’ve done and making it public information, in the same way that you would utilize social networking platforms for your personal endeavors. Time flies and being able to visualize the data that has populated your experiences as a developer from the beginning feels very rewarding when looking back at the older work you’ve done. Not only that, but *potential* employers get to see view your consistency, versatility, and level of progression in the field. This may be a great indicator for how they see you being a great fit for their teams!
#5 — A Coding Bootcamp: Resilient Coders
One primary tool that glued all the pieces together in my journey to becoming a developer was joining the Fall cohort at Resilient Coders to become a Full Stack Web Developer. This 14-week intensive bootcamp was an experience I would have never anticipated that I needed, yet it was incredibly crucial for gaining the knowledge and skills I needed in order to understand where I saw myself being placed in the tech industry. Being taught by the incredible Leon Noel, a software engineer and entrepreneur from Philly who went to Yale, I was able to absorb large amounts of information in such a short amount of time. David Delmar, founder of Resilient Coders, and their team, facilitated students with the tools we needed to succeed in an industry that doesn’t always make room for people of color to thrive in. The face of the tech industry is changing because of organizations like Resilient.
The Epiphany About My Seasoned Passion for Tech
I My passion for technology was truly intertwined (and in some cases, doubly nested) within my passion for illustration — I had mapped out an entirely conceptualized tech company titled ‘Silver Pen’ that focused on epitomizing innovative tech product designs and bringing them into the reality of the ‘now’. Bendable-screen laptops, geometrically-curved TVs, cell phones disguised as makeup-like compact mirrors, tablets, smart pens, and more! And at that point, I was just 12 years old. I’d almost forgotten the child-like version of myself. The child that was passionate about bringing ideas into fruition. Ideas that manifested passion for the tech space.
Clearly, I was inspired, both externally and organically. And not only by the technology that captivated me and stole large portions of my attention on TechCrunch, Cnet.com, and YouTube channels reviewing the latest LDR cameras and quirky phones (remember the Helio Ocean!?), but also the unique concept devices I had swimming around in my creative mind that I wanted to bring into fruition.
Here I was, realizing that I was returning to my original nerdy self, but approaching and engaging with technology from a different angle. I wasn’t as much of a consumer and concept tech device designer as I was a producer of pieces of software that could program the experience of the technology I’d felt so passionate about as a preteen.
The Dichotomous Nature of Life’s Epiphanies
Sometimes, these epiphanies experienced in life about certain career directions may occur in moments of heavy mental and emotional distress. At other checkpoints, it occurs when you’ve reached increased happiness, freedom, and peace in your daily life. Both matter, because even though these two types of epiphanies may have opposing breeding grounds, they are equally as valuable to your progression in life; they’re both imperative to experience while on your journey to accomplishing every dream you have for your life, for gaining perspective about yourself, and understanding the world you live within.
Now, in 2018 and Looking Forward
What’s my conclusion? Well, this is only the beginning.
Sometimes, we don’t realize how far we have come until we take a moment to pause, step outside ourselves, and analyze our route and progress.
It feels like there is an overwhelming amount of information to learn still as a Developer. The process of learning never leaves the atmosphere of a developer’s environment. Instead of utilizing that standard as a reason to worry about not becoming an expert in the tech field, I’m using it as a tool — an opportunity — to acquire as much knowledge as I’d like to and accept challenges when they approach me. There is always a lesson in the challenge.
I am in the process of completing my Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science right here in Boston and I am currently working as a Software Developer @ Bison, a private equity financial software company. I contribute to a codebase that affects consulting firms in the investment world. I am surrounded by a brilliant dev team and inviting people, I join in on video call meetings with the team over in the Swedish office, and enjoy being in the presence of talented, ambitious people!
If you’re interested in keeping up to date with some of the things I’m cooking up this year, like my brewing YouTube channel, set to launch this month!), follow me on Twitter @nnennahacks, where I interact with the worldwide dev community! I am also active on LinkedIn!
Nnenna Ndukwe, 2018 RTC Fellow
Rewriting the Code-Empowering College Women in Tech