My Tech Journey: From Art to Engineering and Getting Started in Silicon Valley
Not all paths to the tech industry are the same. One woman's story of the heartbreaks and break-throughs along the way.
I never intended to be an engineer. I had always believed I was destined to be an artist.
Throughout my childhood I was encouraged to follow my creative desires. My mother and grandmother are painters, and it seemed natural that I follow in their footsteps. Yet it was frustrating in hindsight that, even at a young age as I was heavily pushed into art, I was given art supplies or an American Girl doll, while my brother got Legos, video games, parts to build his own computers. I often found myself playing more with his Legos than my art supplies, and getting in trouble for stealing his toys. No one ever considered this to be a sign of my future interests.
Before high school, all students were given a placement test to help determine what courses they’d enroll in when the school year started. I don’t think I really ever cared about school, and when I entered high school I had a very difficult home life. My family was middle class, but during high school both my parents became unemployed for over two years. I dreaded being home. There was often lots of fighting over money, worrying about trying to pay the mortgage, how to get food on the table. No one seemed to care what I was up to, and I often felt like I had to be strong for my parents – it didn’t seem like they could handle any more bad news.
On the placement test, I ended up scoring low in science. It was really hard to feel like I had a future when everything around me felt like it was falling apart, and I had no control over the situation.
As high school started, I decided to pour all my energy into being a good student. The idea of college was more of a means to get out of my miserable home life than to pursue a field I was interested in.
I did have one science teacher who thought I was bright. He would give me more challenging coursework, and helped me place into two AP science courses. It felt truly amazing to have someone believe in me, especially when I often felt ignored. My life felt too overwhelming to be able to explore anything else aside from what I was already good at. Despite doing well in my AP Chemistry and Physics courses, I never went on to take the AP exams.
High school overall was a miserable experience for me, especially because I went to a school in an affluent neighborhood. I barely had any friends and felt like I had to hide how bad my home life was. I even lost one of my few friends because their parents didn’t want them to hang out with me after people found out my parents were unemployed. I think their assumption was that I’d try to mooch off of my friend for money, a thought that never crossed my mind. I often felt hungry at school and miserable as I was surrounded by other students that got designer jeans and brand new cars for their birthdays.
Midway through high school I decided to switch into an arts school because I figured I might as well stick with what I’m good at and I badly wanted to get out of the other school.
When I went off to college I decide to major in studio art, focusing on drawing and digital imaging. College for me was an escape, and the first place I ever felt like I could start being my own person. Unfortunately, within my first semester of college I went through a traumatic sexual assault that completely redefined who I am now and my college experience. I reported what happened to me to the police and the man that hurt me was arrested.
This lead into a miserable year-long court case. I went into a major depression and constantly felt insecure; my only coping mechanism at the time was to make art. Not only did I end up withdrawing from school for the semester, in turn I suffered academically the following year. I had no idea who I was and didn’t really seem to care about anything.
Things did turn around for me, yet only after an unusual sequence of events: I decided to transfer into engineering school because of a bet that I couldn’t learn how to program. At the time, an acquaintance had made fun of me for being an art major. He said I would never amount to anything compared to him.
He was a computer science major.
After everything I had gone through, I felt motivated to prove that I would not let anything or anyone diminish me. So I made a $20 bet with him to prove that I was smarter than he thought and signed up for my first computer science course.
To be clear, I had no comprehension of what programming was before that bet. Without any prior experience (and being the only woman in the course), it started out being incredibly difficult. It quickly became apparent that I didn’t know what I was getting myself into studies-wise, and that I didn’t belong. Yet by the time finals week arrived, I did not need to prove myself to anyone. I genuinely began to enjoy the course material and the associated problem-solving.
I decided to transfer schools with the intention of being a computer science major. However, this is not what ended up happening. When I met with the CS department I had a very upsetting experience with the administration. Within 10 minutes of meeting with the CS faculty it felt like they were already expecting me to fail in their program and were very standoffish. It didn’t help that they had given me a “pep talk” that actively discouraged me from joining their department. I was treated as if the only reason I was interested in the major was just to make money.
Frustrated, I left. Yet in a serendipitous way, I ran into an administrator for the electrical engineering department who then convinced me that I should join her department. Even though I had no concept of EE, I decided to give it a shot. I took a big risk when switching majors into EE because I lost my previous scholarships and found out that was I ineligible for any engineering scholarships at the time due to my lack of prior engineering experience.
I received criticisms from friends and family for going into engineering, and many people predicted that I would end up dropping out, yet I felt like it was worth the risks. I went into engineering with the attitude that I could not fail, because it felt like everyone else was expecting me to.
For the three years I was an electrical engineering student, I absolutely loved the material I was learning. Not only did I learn so much, I realized that there was something special about how I approached problems compared to my peers – I had an eye for design. Hardly limited to a paintbrush, my creativity led to the discovery that working with hardware could be an artistic outlet.
Combining art and technology helped me understand, present, and explore different ways of representing material in engineering at a level I was familiar with. This included developing interactive paintings that lit up, with LEDs embedded into the canvas with re-programmable circuits and sensors. I found solace in my work, because to me engineering was a medium of art.
By the end of my third year of engineering, it was spring 2012. I hit a point where I was absolutely broke. I maxed out my credit cards to pay tuition and borrowed money from friends to make rent. Amidst the financial set-backs, I luckily landed a six-month paid internship in Arizona for a well-known tech company.
It really felt like I got my first break after years of struggling to keep at engineering. I used the money I made from my internship to pay back all my immediate debts. With what little extra money I had left, I traveled to the Bay Area for hackathons or free tech events, hoping to network and find a way that I could get an “in” into Silicon Valley. At this point in my career, I finally realized that the Bay Area was the epicenter of tech and a place that I wanted to be. But I didn’t quite understand how to approach it.
I craved to find a community of people that were both interested in combining tech and art and could help give me opportunities to learn and expand my interest. For me, this started with hackerspaces. The first time I went to a hackerspace, when visiting San Francisco, I attended a workshop to learn how to solder. It was a nerve-racking experience. I didn’t feel like I fit in with the crowd that was there and I was super intimidated. But within a couple hours, I not only learned how to solder – I became enthralled with the hacker/maker spirit. When living in Arizona, I joined the local hackerspace and would spend all my free time hanging out and working on my side projects. I picked up learning how to 3D model and print, and working with rockets.
When I finished my first internship I still did not have enough money to go back to school. At this time I found out I had been accepted into theCODE2040 2013 summer fellowship program in San Francisco. CODE2040 is a program for Blacks and Latino/as that provides tech internships, mentorship, leadership training and network development. So I made the logical decision: I took on a second internship, this time in Silicon Valley, and intended to save up money to go back to school in fall 2013.
Moving to Silicon Valley was a very difficult transition for me because of the cost of living. I moved to California with my bank account at a negative balance and barely knew anyone. For six months I couch-surfed and mostly ate at my internship or events that offered free food just so that I could save as much money as I could. I gained a lot of experience through my internship, and picked up loads of new skills including 3D designing/printing and acoustic engineering. On top of having an fantastic internship, I spent several days each week for three months running around to attend CODE2040 events hosted all over the Bay Area. Not only did I gain exposure to the ecosystem of Silicon Valley, I was given the opportunity to network with people I traditionally would never have imagined having the opportunity to meet.
By the end of summer 2013, I found out that my financial aid to go back to school had been slashed from $16,000 to around $100 because I made too much money from my first internship in 2012.
Anger doesn’t really begin to describe how I felt at the time. The majority of my experience of getting into engineering has felt like an uphill battle where I barely made it. Despite saving up so much money, I didn’t have enough money to afford school. It was even too late to apply for scholarships. So I made the decision I dreaded from day one: I dropped out of college.
Hackbright and My First Tech Job
As one door in my life closed, another opportunity opened. For fall 2013, I decided to take another risk and enrolled in Hackbright Academy, a three month programming bootcamp for women. I absolutely love working with hardware, but joining Hackbright gave me the opportunity to diversify into software. Compared to my first experience of trying to go into computer science, this time around I had a community of instructors, peers and mentors helping me and encouraging me along the way.
I cannot begin to emphasize how having a supportive community from Hackbright and CODE2040 has had a huge impact on my life in a positive way. I have had a very rough time trying to succeed in tech, and by the time I joined Hackbright I was at a burnout point in my life.
For me, Hackbright was a very humbling experience. I had a breakdown during the program because I was not used to the amount of support and positive energy I received. I’d spent so many years building an armored shell around myself to be a strong person that I lost sight of what I really needed in order to to take care of myself, to allow me to be well balanced and ultimately be more successful at achieving my goals.
Learning how to take good care of yourself is a hard lesson, but I feel very lucky I learned that lesson during a time in my life where I had a supportive community to catch me. Overall my experience at Hackbright was empowering. It was great to have mentors that would whiteboard with me to understand various algorithms and have friends that I could geek out with about what editor I was using, or feel comfortable doing a code review with. More than anything I love that I can quickly code up a prototype of an idea I have. Like hardware, programming became my new artistic medium and a new form of self expression where I literally can develop the world around me.
Upon finishing up Hackbright in December I began my search for my first real job, and recently signed to a full-time software engineering position with a well-known SF startup.
Everything up to this point in my life has taught me so many valuable lessons, of who I am, and where I want to be. I’m at the start of my career, and I know my potential. I am a valuable asset to the the Bay Area tech scene not just for my skills, but because I bring a unique perspective and set of experiences.
I am not just an engineer or artist, I’m a maker and doer that doesn’t give up.