The Untitled Life of Alex Rodriguez: Fall & Get Up Through the Lens of a Latino Coder
My experiences call into question what we can do better to make more Latinos successful in tech.
I am a Mexican American, first-generation student studying Computer Science at the University of California, San Diego. Before entering college, I knew nothing of code but was always interested in the intricacies of pixels in images and websites. Being a very adventurous, bold individual, I decided to take a chance on myself and switch into Computer Science. I enjoyed the classes, but soon realized I was a minority, and a rare gem amused by code, technology, diversity, and my own muses. At times, I was discouraged by the imposing microaggressions that I faced and doubted why I should learn coding when there are white cisgender men who have coded since they were ten.
These microaggressions have included male student attacking me on Facebook for my support for women in computing, remarking I was not qualified for a software development job, and was only given the job because I was Latino.
The pressure of the quarter-semester system, and that there weren’t any Latino students in the labs was a double burden. It was a burden I found motivating, but it was saddening not to see people of my culture having the opportunity to become software developers. So, I decided to take the matter of diversity seriously and applied to CODE2040’s Fellows Program, and I was selected to be one of twenty five students nationally to join their third cohort class for the summer of 2014.
CODE2040 is a nonprofit organization that creates pathways to educational, professional, and entrepreneurial success in technology for underrepresented minorities, with a specific focus on Blacks and Latino/as. Their flagship program, the Fellows Program, places top-performing Black and Latino/a college level computer science students from around the country in an intensive summer career accelerator in the San Francisco Bay Area. With the program comes a full-time summer internship, one-on-one mentorship by tech professionals, networking opportunities, and a speaker series.
The program itself was a huge growing experience, changing my illusions about Silicon Valley completely. From what I read in TechCrunch editorials and learned from “whiteness” culture in tech, I had viewed Silicon Valley as a place where everyone goes to advance new technologies and become big someday. But quickly I became aware of the many ongoing inequalities Silicon Valley still needs to fix. Problems such as the lack of diversity, not simply as a cause of the “pipeline”, but also answering questions about why marginalized people of color are not majoring in Computer Science and why people of color are not advancing in technology at the same rate they get in. Even more, I learned about the countless numbers of microaggressions and implicit biases women and underrepresented races face in many of the biggest technology companies. I came to realize that these are problems that need to be solved, and instead of being stagnant, I needed to advocate and not be a blank space.
The CODE2040 program gave four core components which aided my growth:
The author with mentor Tracy Chou.
Having one-on-one mentorship by tech professionals who were aware and supportive of having more diversity helped me develop a critical framework about tech and my career. Mentors like Danilo Campos and Tracy Chou advised that I should always measure my internal needs for myself before anyone, avoid burning bridges, move towards teams where I can succeed by learning quickly, take ownership and go beyond the norm.
Giving Back to the Community
The community has always made me strong and encouraged me to strive for my dreams. I enjoy volunteering and inspiring younger generations. During the summer, my community involvement was volunteering to speak to the Girls Who Code Summer Immersion group at Twitter. This experience brightened my summer because I connected with these young girls on a personal level; I felt their emotions of wanting to learn programming and the criticisms they faced at home or at school for being a girl interested in technology. I understood their constant doubts and the biases they face, people always wondering if you’re a “real” programmer. I understood what it means to not have the access to programming resources because you come from a low-income family. My talk to them reassured the girls — and myself — that anyone can do programming, despite all of barriers underrepresented races and genders face.
Photo from a CODE2040 retreat.
The CODE2040 network was enormously powerful in the connections I formed on a personal and professional level. CODE2040 has a huge backing of diverse folks and I took that seriously. I formed bonds with the past cohort of fellows; I still talk to some of them weekly and formed great friendships. These friendships allowed me to be strong during the summer with the constant stress and struggle of interning at a startup while trying to also take personal, healthy time for myself.
Full-time Summer Internship
I had never had an internship at a startup, and even more, a fifteen-person startup. I took the chance and opportunity to just do it. But in many ways, it brought struggles and challenges. I struggled with finding my identity as a hardcore developer with a keen interest for design, the changes the startup was evoking in my projects, having to work alone at times, and managing my time effectively while also needing to network at the many tech events in San Francisco.
These struggles propelled doubts in myself and my own coding skills, and not knowing whether I should work for a big company or small company. I was running on a huge amount of fear, sadness and mixed emotions. The more criticism I got, the more I tried to respect the feedback and improve. But, my passion for learning new technologies was not being harnessed by the projects I was doing. I was just not interested in the landscape of my role. This startup environment was not meant for me. I had challenges like not knowing when to speak up and provide my own valid input, with being assertive in the projects I wanted to do, and not feeling validated in my role as a Software Engineering Intern.
But with the active help of CODE2040, I learned to make the internship experience a positive learning experience. I began to understand what I wanted in startup culture, how to look at a company’s culture and engineering team, and what series of funding or level of startup I wanted to be at. I got a sense of the type of guidance I needed, the surrounding environment of talented engineers that I wanted to submerge myself in, and the city where I would be comfortable living in.
What Startups Can Do Better For New Programmers
The most damaging aspects of startup culture I experienced as an intern was explicitly being told I was not fulfilling the needs of the engineering team, even as I wasn’t offered the support and mentorship needed to succeed. I think one way we can address this issue is by offering junior software developers and interns a constant engineering mentor to code and aid side-by-side with them, keep a week-by-week habit of code reviews or project updates, and not look down on the student’s computer science fundamentals or development skills just because they are learning.
Startups should understand that interns are not full-time employers, they are new coders who have touched a tiny bit of the many development schemas and are constantly absorbing new things. Yes, most startups are all about that move-fast attitude, but should at least provide shielding, closely-guided engineering support for interns and new programmers.
There are many elements of startup culture that are important in making new, underrepresented developers successful. Startups need to move away from the very frat-like, bro-like, “ninja”-like culture and attitude. They need to be supportive of developers when they actively volunteer at community events, and make company events inclusive to all communities. Companies should not rely on programming stereotypes if the developer is not aware of the specific technologies in use — the developer could be someone who didn’t have access when growing up, or exposure in their education so far. In order to support new minority developers, startups need to have a safe, inclusive environment (culture, office, etc.), have a strong onboarding effort to get the developer up to speed, and not have any documentation with sexist, racist language and other hate speech.
Getting Up Eight Times
My experiences call into question what we can do better to make more Latinos successful in tech. To look to the near future, I want to see a startup culture that values and supports diversity because they care, and not just because it produces bountiful glowing articles about companies supporting diversity. I want startups constantly talking – and being transparent about – how they can improve diversity for recruiting and onboarding efforts. In addition, our engineering teams should have people of color, technical leaders that we can relate to.
I validated and thought about my entire experience this summer. To think about it, not many Latinos get the chance to intern at a startup during their college career. I was one of those Latinos that did and grew from it. I no longer am unknowledgeable of startups, and I am demanding and knowledgeable in the path I wanted to pursue next. As the quote says, you fall seven times, but get up eight.
I got up eight times. I knew I could be a great developer. Just me, writing for Model View Culture proves the point to anyone can do it. They can write about their struggles and inspire others. I learn from my mistakes and become more persistent in myself, that I am a technologist, a coder, and developer.
No one can ever take that from me.