There has been a lot of talk about beginning your career in software development through code schools as opposed to getting a traditional and formal degree. While a degree can be helpful in many ways, it’s not always the best option for everyone who is interested in software development. We all come from different backgrounds, have diverse interests, and are at differing stages in our careers and lives. If you don’t have two to four years or more to put into a formal degree program, code school options are available. But, can they help you gain a step into the field of technology and ultimately your foot in the door to land your first job? Let’s find out.
Meet Sara Inés Calderón. Sara is a former journalist turned code school graduate from the Sabio code school in the Las Angeles area. Sara has a lot of great information to share about her journey from to becoming a software developer. Listen in or follow along as Sara tells all and describes her unique code school and software development experience.
Sara Inés Calderón is a journalist and writer who lives between Texas and California. Follow her on Twitter @SaraChicaD.
Episode Transcript and Show Notes:
Arsalan: Today we have Sara Ines Calderon with us. How are you doing today?
Sara: Hi. I’m doing well. Thank you so much for having me.
Arsalan: It’s exciting to have you here with us today because you went from being a journalist who transitioned into software development. You are going through struggles just like we all do, but you have your unique struggles. I want to talk about that and about your role with Women Who Code. But, before we do that, I want to know about you. How do you see yourself?
Sara: Sure, so I started out as a journalist and I’m currently a software developer. But, like most people, I have many layers. I grew up partly in Los Angeles and partly in Texas. So, I think that gives me a really unique perspective on culture and things like that. I work with Women Who Code and consider myself a kind of community organizer. A few years ago, I also started a platform to talk about Latinos who work in stem and technology called MasWired. I also love nail art and dangling earrings. I am currently a software developer in Austin, Texas and I freelance for different outlets like Bice and TechCrunch. In my spare time I do a lot of community organizing with Women Who Code. I have a really great group of awesome tech women here in Austin who keeps me on my toes.
Arsalan: I’m thinking about all the different things you’re doing currently. It’s one thing to say “I used to do this and now I do that,” but you’re doing all those things. Clearly, you don’t need to sleep.
Sara: I’m also super organized.
Arsalan: Well, you would have to be and that something that’s really amazing. I wish I could be that organized. How did you organize yourself so that you can do all these different things? Clearly, you have a secret that we would all like to know.
Arsalan: First, I want to talk to you about how you encountered programming for the first time. Why was programming even a thing that you wanted to do? How did you get started?
Sara: I think back to when I first used the Internet back in the 90s. That was when AOL was mailing all of those CDs so that people could get a dial-up Internet connection pretty easily. I was only 12. I think of all of these kids these days. When they are 12, they are often starting up million-dollar Internet companies.
Sara: Fast-forward to when I was in high school. I was a nerdy AP honors kid here in San Antonio. I had friends in my classes who were in AP computer science. I remember hearing them talk and thinking to myself “what is that?” Then, I went to Stanford for my undergrad and one of my jobs was to record proto-online education at Stanford’s Instructional online Television Network. So, I used to be a kind of booth operator for those cameras for these classes.
Sara: I was exposed to these different computer science classes and I was only half paying attention when I was trying to do my reading or whatever. I thought maybe I should try computer science. But, I now know that the number one major for women at Stanford is computer science. But, when I was there, my 18-year-old self was already far away from home and kind of on my own for the first time. I was trying to figure things out. I have this job and I need to pay these bills and all that kind of stuff. It really wasn’t all that realistic for me to foray into something so foreign and what I perceived to be unwelcoming at that point in my life.
Sara: Fast-forward more than 10 years later and I’m working at a digital media startup. I come to the conclusion after almost a decade of working in journalism and digital media that media had become technology and that was the direction that I needed to go. So, I started fiddling around with Code Academy. What I really wanted was a community where I could tap the resources and learned that way. So, I just had my eye on the prize in that sense.
Sara: Everything kind of happened in short order. I moved back to Austin and started establishing myself here. Some folks I had met from the LA tech scene circled back around with me in July, I believe. My friend Liliana Monque was the cofounder of a code school called Sabio. They are based in Los Angeles. She called me up and said, “Sara, we have a spot for you in our cohort. This is your chance to come learn how to code.” So I just thought, “Hey, an opportunity knocks.” Luckily at this point I had been able to sustain myself freelancing and I had been pretty good at saving. So, I packed my bags and moved to LA.
Sara: A friend of mine let me stay at her place. I subleased the space from her in her house and I did full-time school for three months. Last year, I came home to Austin and looked for a job for a few months and I’ve been working as a software developer ever since.
Sara: Part of what we were talking about earlier was the importance of community and culture when talking about technology. I was looking for a job and I was super frustrated. I didn’t know anyone in the industry. So, one night I was at my desk and super annoyed. I said to myself “Sara, you are annoyed right now and you need to get out of the house and go talk to people because sitting here being annoyed and frustrated with yourself isn’t going to change anything.” So, I went to my first Women Who Code event in February and I think I went to my second one in February also. I told Holly Gibson, who’s now a good friend and a co-director of Women Who Code of Austin that I would love to volunteer because this was great and wonderful. I told her that I would love to be able to support this and that I came from the digital media world and could help them with their social media stuff.
Sara: So, fast-forward about another nine months and I’m co-director of Women Who Code. We put on a hack-a-thon. We’ve increased our meet up and Twitter activity by at least double, and it’s been a great journey.
Arsalan: That’s fascinating. I think it’s inspiring for a lot of people out there who have different careers. They are doing other things and their jobs are eaten away by technology. They can join in. You chose the coding school path. There are other ways to accomplish this and you did that because of happenstance and somebody offered it to you. But, looking back, based on the experience you’ve had so far, do you think that was a wise choice?
Sara: You know what, because I do work in the space where women and men are kind of coming and going out of all these code schools, I would say that if you’re thinking about going to a code school that’s something that you need to research and figure out yourself. I’m certainly open about it. Ask me. Tweet me @SaraChicaD. I will have that conversation with you about my experience. I’ll answer whatever questions you want over email.
Sara: The thing is that it just depends on where you are in your life. If I was married and I had kids, obviously I couldn’t have dropped what I was doing and gone and done that for three months. But, I didn’t. The truth is it was just happenstance as you said. My original plan was to get a job and use that money to fund my coding education, whether that meant hiring a tutor or taking classes on the weekends. That was my original plan. Then this other idea kind of came around. But, I’m glad that I went to the code school and I have a couple of reasons for that. Let me tell you why.
Sara: Sabio is a code school that focuses on women and minorities in particular. So Gregorio is an immigrant from Columbia and Liliana is an immigrant from Mexico. Gregorio is an amazing man. He’s been a mentor to me and I have so much respect for him. One of the things that I really appreciate about him is that he could just make a bunch of money as a software developer in LA, but he looked around at his workplace and thought: “why aren’t there more Latinos here? Why aren’t I working with more women?” So he decided that he was going to be part of that solution.
Arsalan: That’s amazing. He started this coding school. Is that what he’s doing full-time now?
Sara: You can say what you will about code schools, but at the end of the day Sabio has been around for I think this is their two-year anniversary. It’s been two years, and just out of the people that I know, I think there’s like a dozen women software developers and half of those women are women of color in LA. There are dozens of Latino developers. I mean, that is amazing work, if you asked me because it’s hard to do the recruiting work to find those candidates. They’re doing the work to diversify technology in a way that’s meaningful to them personally.
Sara: What I also liked about Sabio was that it was a very community focused program. We all sat in a semi-circle all day long. Pair programming was encouraged. Collaboration was encouraged; and we did code review before we pushed up code. So, going to Sabio really helped me realize that having Latino developers is totally normal. Being in a room of non-white guys doing technology is totally normal. Being part of Women Who Code did the same thing for me. I am the only woman on my software development team and one of the only software developers who’s a woman at my company. But, I hang out with a bunch of women who are software developers so it doesn’t seem strange or lonely to me. That is just what I do and who I am.
Sara: So, the other thing is that I am in my 30s and the way I’ve lived my life in my 20s was very pointedly. I remember being 23. After I graduated from college I was thinking that I wanted to have an adventure. So, I approached my 20s that way. I wanted to try everything and I wanted to take risks because I didn’t want to look back and say to myself that I should’ve done this or I should’ve done that. Once I got to my 30s, I thought to myself that I tried everything that I wanted to try and took risks. Now I have to get a little bit more focused about what I want to do. I just didn’t have the years’ worth of time that it would’ve taken me to become proficient enough to walk into a web app or an enterprise application and start working on code. That wasn’t a realistic possibility for me because I needed to work to support myself. So, three months was more preferable to me instead of the year or two that it would’ve taken me to train myself. Everyone has a different situation.
Sara: So, just to recap going to code school was the best option for me because of the timeline, I knew the people, and I really appreciated the community and diversity. So, yeah, I think the answers your question.
Arsalan: Yes, it does. I think that’s really important for us to understand that everybody has different circumstances.
Arsalan: For some people it makes sense to go to code school. For some people, if you are 18, then maybe you should get a computer science degree.
Sara: Absolutely. Yes.
Arsalan: A computer science degree does not necessarily give you the skills you need to succeed. It may give you other skills or a lot of different skills. It can create a better version of you, certainly. But, in order to fulfill the gaps that an organization has in skills, for example, you could go to a code school or do it on your own. The problem you will face, though, is getting your first job.
Arsalan: How do you stand out? A lot of companies have hundreds of resumes per job. So, one of the ways they try to filter those is through the computer science degree. That way they have a smaller pool to work with, but not necessarily because it gives them better candidates. How did you get your first job? Was the code school experience enough or did you have to do other things?
Sara: Yes, so one of the other things that I appreciated about Sabio on a professional level is that they just won a hack-a-thon earlier this weekend. They are very serious about hack-a-thons. That code school has pumped out more hack-a-thon winners than any other code school I’ve ever heard of. Part of the reason that they do that is for the very reasons you described. They want to give every one of their students every advantage possible. So, now I have this code school experience and I have this hack-a-thon experience. That’s kind of another way they like to put their fellows out there.
Sara: I’m not going to lie. I actually wrote a post on this and I would be happy to send you the link after we talk. I wrote a story called “40 Interviews, Four Months, and Two Job Offers to Becoming a Software Developer.”
Arsalan: I’m interested in reading that.
Sara: Yeah, and I was talking to a friend of mine. Because I’m a grown up, you get to know yourself and that there are things about myself I really like and there are things that I don’t. But, one of the things that I like about myself is that I just have this ability to say “okay, this really didn’t work out; let’s move on to the next thing.” That’s kind of what it took with the interviews. I mean, 40 interviews weren’t all the in-person white-boarding type of interviews. Some of them were phone interviews and phone screens and some were through a web app where I can see you do your software development. Some were recruiter calls and some of them were in-person interviews.
Sara: I’m not going to lie; I felt so humiliated a lot of times and that’s what I don’t understand. I never lied on my resume or to anybody about the fact that I went through a code school. But, then you show up and they’re asking you all these complicated object oriented programming questions. I don’t understand. Why would you think I have a computer science degree when I don’t? Why wouldn’t you change your process when it’s pretty clear that you should probably change your process?
Sara: Like I said, I am a different situation. I had a savings and I had some freelance work while I was looking, so I was able to sustain myself. That being said, it was incredibly stressful and I did get to the point where I thought, “you know what, I have to be realistic and get another job.” So I had started applying to digital media jobs like content marketing and digital media. I mean, I was probably going to have an offer within a week because I have great experience in that. I’ve managed people in that. I’ve built startup ecosystems on that kind of stuff. So I have amazing expertise in that. Luckily, after four months and 40 interviews I had two job offers in the same day. I was like “why would you do this to me?” So, in the nick of time I was able to find employment. I’ve been working on building UIs in Angular, Bootstrap, and C Sharp ever since.
Sara: So yeah, that was kind of my journey and I have a lot of respect for anyone who’s trying to break in. That being said, I think that one of the issues, not just for me, but that lots of people are running into in Austin, is that companies don’t want to hire boot camp grads. Or, they say that you have to have this computer science background in order to apply.
Sara: I literally applied to one of the big tech companies here in Austin and two hours later they sent me an automated rejection email. It didn’t hurt my feelings, but what it told me was that they have a checklist. If you don’t fit the checklist, then they don’t even consider you. So, you’re in Austin and everyone here is having trouble finding talent and all they do is complain about how much trouble they’re having finding talent. But, it never occurs to anybody to consider alternatives and look outside their box.
Sara: So, I think that if you’re a code school grad in a big city and a big market like Los Angeles, Chicago, or some other place, then I think it’s a lot easier because there are quantitatively more jobs. But, if you’re in a medium-sized market or a small market…small markets might be easier because they have harder times finding candidates. But, I think its medium-range where it’s difficult because companies like the ones here in Austin keep holding out because they think they can get someone from San Francisco or New York to move down here. Or, that they are going to magically find this candidate when I don’t know that that’s necessarily the case. I’ve seen job openings linger for over a year. So it’s like how desperately are you looking for someone if you’ve been looking for over a year. Don’t you think that you would’ve found them by now?
Arsalan: This is a situation where the companies are losing because the candidates will eventually find something. It’s very hard in our industry, if you have any kind of skills, to be completely jobless. You can find a job. It may not be a great job, but it’s hard to not have a job unless you have unrealistic expectations about employment, or if you live in a very small city where there are no jobs. But, I think I’m in agreement with you there. Companies should think outside the box, because you never know who’s out there.
Arsalan: Why didn’t they do that? They get inundated with these resumes and job applications and they feel like they can’t go through all of them. So, they have to have a way, almost an arbitrary way or it could be a lottery by the way they do it. They’re okay with that because they don’t want to invest the time to actually talk to their candidates and go through their profiles. I mean, this kind of hiring is completely broken.
Sara: Absolutely. I think what I would say my biggest critique of tech hiring, as a boot camp graduate, is that it seems as though there is no real adjustment that takes place between a computer science Masters candidate, a computer science undergraduate, a 10 year seasoned veteran, and a boot camp graduate in terms of the interview. The only thing that changes is how well they expect you to do and that seems crazy to me.
Arsalan: I think that’s the whole idea. They want to treat everybody equally and they don’t really care where you’re from or what your background is as long as you can do the work. But, some of these questions are not really related to doing the work. They are theoretical. This is just another way to filter people out. So you have a list of 100 people and you filter out people who don’t have computer science degrees. Now, maybe you have 50. From 50, you want to go to 10. So, how do you do that? You ask them standard questions. I have empathy for their situation, but the end result is that they are losing out and everybody is losing in the end.
Sara: Yes. I think that is going to have to change. I think these companies are going to have to start hiring more boot camp grads because those are the candidates. That’s who’s available to be hired.
Arsalan: You have some other skills that you brought to your job. You worked as a journalist. It’s very hard to find people who have good writing skills and who are software engineers. It’s very hard. Communication is a hard problem. If you have somebody who is good at communication, I’d say the programming is the cherry on the top. I could hire you as a manager. I could hire you without any experience knowing that you would learn some of the skills and perhaps you would be a very good person to be a liaison between technology and management. Even if you were not a programmer yourself, you could represent programmers. So, you could be a good business analyst. You could be a good manager, even if you couldn’t do the programming. So, for me, a person who would communicate would be a person that I would grab. I’m surprised that you had so much difficulty.
Sara: I agree with you, obviously, and I really appreciate that perspective. That was something that I was confused about. I thought I would be a really great asset to this team. I’m bilingual. I speak Portuguese very well. I went to Stanford. So clearly I can learn stuff and I’m smart. I can speak to you about the fundamentals that you expect me to understand about the work that we’re doing. But, it was just really difficult. Obviously I’m employed now and I’m capable of doing the job, so the conclusion that I came to was just the size of the market. My cohorts from Sabio who are from Los Angeles were able to find a job in a much shorter length of time. So, that’s just my interpretation of the situation. That being said, I have a funny little story really quick.
Sara: So, I have a younger colleague. He’s wonderful. I adore him. I’ve kind of taken him under my wing a little bit because he’s so new to the professional world. I was not onsite one day and the next day I came back to the client’s site, and he said, “Sara, we missed you so much yesterday.” And I kind of jokingly told him, “Why, because you guys were all quiet and nobody talk to each other all day?” He said, “Yeah.”
Arsalan: That is funny.
Sara: I am not the only one. As I have mentioned before, I have this amazing group of women who work in technology here in Austin. One of my cohorts of Women Who Code here in Austin, Holly Gibson, just began working at a data science company called Black Locust. She said the same thing as a woman and a social person with this different background who didn’t come from computer science, but rather went to coding school. She also has this very bubbly personality and is very social. She came to the same conclusion as I did, which is that social currency really leads to better software development. It’s not because you’re so nice, or because you’re an amazing person, but if you talk more about personal stuff, you also talk more about business stuff. You get to know your colleagues better and you feel more comfortable with them. When we talk about gender inclusion, it was “diversity” or “gender inclusion.” I think about that stuff. It’s not so much that you’re thinking, “Oh, what’s fair?” Ultimately, I think you’re talking about having the best team possible.
Arsalan: I completely agree with that, especially if you have a team with a diverse background, not just ethnic or racial. Let’s say having a diverse educational background. A diversity of the ages and maybe abilities. Maybe you have diverse abilities, cannot see colors very well or are colorblind. Or, maybe there’s a person who is physically handicapped in some way. If you have a team of all these different people, you’re going to make software that’s going to be appealing to all these people.
Arsalan: That should be enough for any type of management to include many types of people and try not to have a monoculture. What I see and what I think you’ve noticed as well is that people don’t always recognize that as a need. They try to accommodate. Instead of reaching out and trying to find people who are different, they don’t feel that is something they should be doing. They should be focusing on the thing that they’re good at like maybe an archetype of the software developer. A new software developer is young, may be in his early 20s or may be a teenager or a white dude who lives with his mom. Or, perhaps he lives on his own and all he does is code and talk about technology and comics. That’s a very valuable segment of our population, but that’s not everybody.
Sara: Yeah, I agree with you completely and I would agree with you that there is this kind of accommodation that happens. I’ve seen the companies, the manuals, and their core values document written in all the sports metaphors. And, these aren’t bad people or badly intentioned people, but they’re not the kind of people who take a step back here say we value all perspectives, but all of their literature is not supporting what they say. So, which is it? Do we want our own status quo, or do we want to follow what we say? So, at the end of the day when you’re having this conversation about diversity, it shouldn’t be just about having a conversation, it should be about what you say.
Sara: What does that mean to us in our bottom line? For me, the most egregious example of this is Apple had their health application launch without being able to track menstruation. If you’re a woman and you go to the doctor one of the first things that the doctor always asks, regardless of whether you’re in there for a cold or if you have appendicitis, what was the first day of your last period? That’s what the doctor will always ask you. So, you think about Apple as being one of the biggest tech companies of the world launching this all-inclusive health application, but it doesn’t include women.
Arsalan: I’m going to guess that they probably don’t have a woman on their development team.
Sara: I would guess that as well.
Arsalan: I mean, even if there were, people who make decisions about how their application will work don’t think about their users. They think about technology too much. If you think about the needs of the users, you’ll think about their profile. If half of your users are women, go asked them what their issues are.
Sara: Absolutely. Talk to a person.
Arsalan: Absolutely. Talk to a person. Don’t always assume that the users are like you.
Sara: Exactly, yeah.
Arsalan: So, you got your job and you’re trying to make it there. Obviously you’re going to struggle. We all struggle regardless of whether you have a degree or not, what your background is or how old you are, you are going to struggle. If you don’t struggle, that means that you’re probably not coding.
Arsalan: If it’s your first job and you’re not struggling, you should question whether you are doing software development. You can quote me on that. So, given that you are struggling, how do you overcome that? Do you have a process to get yourself out of your struggles? Was it easy for you to be accepted as a valuable person in your organization as a person who is treated with respect and honor and not brushed aside?
Sara: Yeah, I get really frustrated sometimes. I think sometimes you look at someone and think to yourself that this is easy for them and I wish it were that easy for me. What I’ve come to find out is that it’s really just a collection of experiences, unlike when I was a journalist and doing digital media. You get to a point where you realize now that you kind of plateau because there’s only so many skills that one needs to acquire to excel. That’s unlike technology where the frameworks are always changing. It’s always the same basic concepts, but the recipes are always a little bit different. So, you kind of have to sniff around until you get the best recipe. It’s one of the most aggravating series of details one could possibly imagine, but over and over again.
Sara: That being said, I’m a very social and community oriented individual. For me what’s been really amazing about working with Women Who Code has been not only that I have met a bunch of other women who look like me and have similar experiences to me and who in some cases are way smarter than me, but who have also struggled. So, I think to myself that this is not about me. This is just a little roadblock and I have to figure out how to get around and keep going.
Sara: What I would say to anyone be they women, Latinos, or African-Americans, or transgender, is that we’ve come across a lot of different groups who are hungry for different types of technology. I think for me the thing that has really made technology and easier career transition is that I actively sought out other people. It’s not only other women, it’s also Latinos. It’s through in person things like Meetup.com and it’s through virtual things like Twitter. I have people who I talked to a regular basis who I now consider real friends and who I’ve met on Twitter. I knew them for years on Twitter and that I met them in real life and now we call each other and talk about our problems. So that’s what helps me.
Sara: Another thing that helps me is that my family migrated from Mexico and none of my grandparents graduated from high school with the exception of the one who was already in Texas. I think about how I was close with two of them. I remember them telling me the stories of their lives, what they wanted for their children, and the way they experienced their lives. None of them really spoke English that well either.
Sara: I see myself as being so far away from where they started. I went to Stanford University and they didn’t even graduate high school. So every time I start to feel frustrated or like I want to give up, I think about what am I complaining of. It could be so much harder. I’m not married and I don’t have kids. So, I just try to keep it real with myself and keep that perspective.
Arsalan: Was it easy for you to be accepted as a value providing person?
Sara: It was a lot easier in the previous fields that I worked in to prove value and gauge the perception of value much more quickly than it has been in technology. I already knew how to do stuff. So maybe I didn’t have the ball rolling 100%, but I had the ball rolling at 40% when it wasn’t rolling it all before. So, I can say “look at all I have done.” Since everybody was more social, it was easier to get feedback, and say “hey, that’s great, could you also do this? I like that, but don’t do this.” In technology when I first started, they literally told me here’s your desk and here’s the Wi-Fi and we’re going to send you an email to get the project downloaded so you can start stepping through it.
Arsalan: Off you go.
Sara: I didn’t know that there was a workflow. I didn’t know what they were talking about. I did know what the project was about. I did know what the expectations were. I would try to ask, but then I would be told that they were busy or had a meeting or to ask someone else. Some members of my team have barely warmed up to me and it’s taken them seven months. So, it’s been more difficult for me to gauge what my value is, what my contributions are, and what my learning is like. With that being said, I feel really lucky as a person because I have a good gauge of my own internal growth and development. So, I feel like I’ve grown a lot and I want to grow a lot more.
Sara: I’m trying to figure out how to make that happen outside of work because it hasn’t really happened at work. I found this mentor who has really invested in my professional development. So, I think about this phrase a lot, not because I’m a huge fan, but because I think it makes a lot of sense to me. Gandhi said, “be the change that you want to see.” So, every time I run into a wall, I say to myself why are you running to other people to get permission or make my life happen? When has anyone ever come over to my house and fixed my life? So what I’m doing now is considering all these projects that I want to do. I’m not 100% sure on how to do them, but I’m going to dive in and figure it out. Once I come out of the other end of these projects, I will probably have learned stuff. So that’s how I’m going to approach this.
Sara: There are gender issues and cultural issues that have been very frustrating for me in my entire professional journey, particularly to technology both at work and outside of work. Let me give you a specific example. I was going to a lot of Stanford alumni events before I went to code school. This guy who has a Masters in mechanical engineering from Stanford who I had never met before asked me what I did. I told him I was a digital media consultant, but I was studying for code school. I was studying to become a full stack developer. He asked if I was sure if that was what I really wanted to do because that was hard. I told him that I knew that it was going to be hard, but that’s what I wanted to do. He asked if I was sure though because it is really hard. I said “Yeah, I’m sure.” He’s like “really?” I’m like “Yes. How more times do you want me to tell you that I’m sure?” He just kind of looked at me. My friend was there with me and she was like “what was his problem?” I had never met anyone in my entire career who asked are you sure that you want to be a journalist. Do you think you can do that? Are you sure that you can work at the start up? I had never met anyone who had said that to me. From my proto-developer career I have that type of attitude happening.
Sara: So, I yeah I realize there are things that are happening, but I think about my personal resources. I think about my network and my social resources. At the end of the day, one of the things I admired about Sabio was that they said that anybody can be a developer. It sounds like a dream when you say it in this abstract context, but once you start to get into the nuts and bolts of what software development is, you’re fixing tickets and changing the color scheme on HTML pages. Maybe not everyone is going to be the best computer scientist of all time, but not everyone needs to be the best computer scientist of all time. I’m doing it and I’m not the most talented computer scientists of all time. So I really do believe that. If you can be a plumber, a teacher, a car mechanic, an insurance agent, all of those careers require some complex processes, then that’s much of what you’re going to be doing on your day to day job as a software developer. I feel that sometimes there are some challenges. Sometimes that I don’t feel like I’m accepted as a Latino. Sometimes I don’t feel accepted as a woman, but at the end of the day I like the actual day-to-day work that I do. I like the community that I’ve built around technology here. I’m really excited about the opportunities that this field is going to open up for women and Latinos as well. So, it’s worth it to me to continue to pursue it.
Arsalan: I think it’s important that you are charting this course and essentially that you are a role model for Latinos and you are a role model for women. You’re a role model for everybody. I have two daughters. When they grow up, I would love for them to be software developers. I think that this is the most exciting profession because it has creativity and logic and it has a lot of satisfying aspects. I would love for them to do it, but I don’t want them to be a software developer in the current environment. We need to be a bit more nurturing and I’m hoping that with your efforts from other people…
Sara: And your efforts.
Arsalan: Well, this podcast is very selfish because I want to create and make a very safe atmosphere for my daughters for when they grow up. My eldest is only five, so I have a little bit of time to get all that to work.
Sara: Well, that’s great. I really appreciate what you’re doing. I really appreciate the work that you’re doing. I have a friend who has worked in civil rights causes here in Texas for many years and that’s kind of what she said. She said that “sometimes people get frustrated because we don’t win, but back in my day we never won.” So that’s kind of how I try to think about that stuff.
Arsalan: Well the good thing here is that people are generally good and they’re not really trying to create a hostile atmosphere. They’re not trying to subvert a community of minorities or somebody who’s different. They are clueless. They just don’t know. What we can do is bring out these issues and highlight them. Let them know that there’s a problem with the way things are going and we can fix it. It’s not hard. As long as you want to, you can do it. That’s not happening right now. Do you think that in software development shops from your experience with Women Who Code and your friends and your personal experience that we’re creating this nurturing, enabling environment for new developers to grow and prosper? Is it a situation where some people do or some people don’t? Or is it a trend?
Sara: I guess I see a couple of different things. I think companies are getting to a point where they don’t really have a choice but to hire people who aren’t “traditional.” Certainly, there are some companies who are relocating to Austin from tech hubs like San Francisco and who just need bodies. They are putting people in and seeing who floats and then they’re going from there. There’s just going to be those types of folks. Then, there are smaller companies who can’t churn people out like that and they’re going to have to make their own choices.
Sara: My friend Holly spoke to a local Austin tech company the other day and this woman asked her “how do you measure progress?” And Holly said “how I measure progress is by the fact that I know of at least 15 people, women, since I started Women Who Code Austin who have successfully transitioned into careers in technology.” It’s the same thing that I was telling you about Sabio. It’s the fact that for me personally, if it hadn’t been for Sabio, I would’ve figured it out eventually. But, some of the folks that I met through Sabio wouldn’t have. So, that’s tangible change.
Sara: Sabio has cranked out all these women and minority software developers who might not have taken that path if they hadn’t been reached out to, nurtured, or pursued by this company. With Women Who Code, it’s the same thing. I have a good friend. She’s one of the organizers of Women Who Code. I just met her two or three months ago and she just moved here from Chicago. She just graduated from high school and she’s only ever had one job. She started working in tech support and now she’s looking at her second tech job and negotiating salary. She’s also trying to negotiate the role and say “hey, I want to transition into Devereaux.” So, I can ask “are we creating that?” I don’t know. I could say let’s start from scratch and create this industry, it would look different. But, since we can’t do that, we can say we can create the sub community or we can create this safe space. Within this space, these are the kinds of things that can and cannot happen.
Sara: In my own experience, I think I’ve done everything within my power to reach out. I hand out business cards like they’re candy. I have coffee with people in my spare time. I answer people’s questions about boot camp in my spare time. I volunteer a lot of time with Women Who Code. On Saturday we went to a girls’ conference and we talked to parents about technology. So, I’m doing everything that I can do on my end to create that space. So at the end of the day, it’s kind of like that starfish metaphor. Maybe I didn’t save all of the starfish, but I helped that one.
Arsalan: I think one by one we can affect change, and obviously there are not enough girls in software development. It’s a shame because they make excellent developers. A lot of women are just more organized. You’re very organized and we’re going to talk about that. But, I’m not sure if we’ll have time to talk about it today. We need to learn to be more organized and I think we could learn something from you. We talked earlier about how you have all these things going on and you’re able to do all them. A lot of us struggle. So, we could definitely learn from you.
Arsalan: So, let me ask you a couple of questions. We talked about all the problems that people deal with, certainly people of minority and other backgrounds. Everyone struggles with something. We talked about the good things: the creative part of it, the salary, and there being jobs everywhere. We didn’t talk much about it, but it goes without saying that it does pay good money. Given all that, how would you rate software development as a career for someone like your own self or maybe someone like you from two years ago? For someone who’s thinking about it, but not really entirely sure what it’s all about, how would you rate software development?
Sara: So, another thing that I really appreciated about Sabio was how they looked at software development in a very practical way. They really wanted it to be like job training for communities of color and that’s kind of how I look at it too. I was at this “We are Girls” Conference yesterday here in Austin. There were these young girls from all over the state who came to this conference and they were so cute and adorable. I was so happy that they were there. I was giving out stickers and they asked what coding was. So I said that it was this, this, and telling a computer what to do in different languages. They were like, “Oh, I’ve done that.” They do Made with Code or something like that at their school. I asked if they had all considered it. They said kind of, but not really. I said that they should consider it and why. I said that you can make a really good living. I worked for 10 years before I got into this industry and what I would tell them was that you can make more money easier doing this work and have a happier life, than doing other things. So I told them that if they were going to consider something, then they should consider this. They looked at me and asked how much did I make. That’s what you have to love about kids. They will ask questions like that.
Sara: I’ve been telling people locally, privately how much money I’m making because I’m flaunting it, but for the same reason that I was telling these young women, which is that I highly recommend software development. If you’re talking about software development on a scale of 1 to 5, then I would rate it as a five. If you’re talking on a scale of 1 to 10, then I would rate it as a 10.
Sara: It’s as you mentioned, you get to you so much of yourself in doing it. You can be creative. You could be analytical. You can plan stuff. You can reorganize stuff. You can see the totality of things. You can do all sorts of cool stuff that you never even thought of doing just in this career. If you don’t like software development, maybe you’d like project management. If you don’t like project management, maybe you’d like business analysis. There are so many things that you can do within this career path that not only will make going to work interesting but will also be very financially secure.
Arsalan: What are the struggles in your experience with talking to others? What are the top three or four struggles that you think people go through when they start out?
Sara: I can only speak from my own experience. The hardest part is finding that first job. For me, it took four months and as I’ve mentioned, 40 interviews. But, I’m not the only one. I just heard from one of our members today who it also took her four months, and she had interviews every week as well when trying to find a job.
Sara: So, the whole system is messed up. Learning how to navigate how to interview for tech jobs is a huge struggle because they are not like job interviews for other industries where you give a good professional, perhaps bragging response. It’s not like you’re trying to give a response to keep up with the responses that other people are giving. It’s like you can’t get taken seriously in software development unless you’re keeping up with the crowds in terms of studying for the interview questions and studying for all the whiteboard questions. Ultimately, if your interviews and new job pools are all pulling from the same interview and whiteboard questions, what kind of quality control is that?
Arsalan: Yes. I think it’s time that hiring managers start diversifying not only their candidates but also their ways of hiring people. Have some people do whiteboards and others do other things. Maybe have a day or half the day with somebody. As soon as I said that, I regretted it because what would happen is they would have somebody come over for a day or half a day and work, but not compensate them. It’s something that happens a lot. Companies will ask you to come over for a whole day and do part of the project. Obviously, when you’re doing that there is an opportunity cost and you’re not getting paid for that. So, some type of compensation to show that they appreciate their time would be valuable. In essence, we have a problem which is how to diversify our employees and how to be a more inclusive organization and industry. But, that’s a problem we’re facing at many different levels in society. I think that we are all changing in this whole microcosm of the software industry. Perhaps when people and companies see the benefits of that, hopefully, that will influence others to do the same. I think that it’s possible, but we have to keep trying.
Sara: No, I agree with you. I don’t want to say that it’s just technology because I was working as a journalist and I got laid off in 2009 during the financial crisis. These are numbers and anyone can go and Google it. The number of people who were let go in journalism, in particular, and in the media industry, during that time set back the diversity numbers in the media by like 20 or 30 years. Why? It was because of things like tenure. The kinds of games that were made in diversity in newsrooms were lost after the financial crisis and still haven’t been addressed. So, we have a less diverse media now that we need one than we did before the financial crisis. I feel like that is a United States issue. But, certainly in technology when you’re talking about making global products, the impetus or need for it might be a little bit more urgent, one would hope.
Arsalan: I think I’m really enjoying this conversation. I think it’s going to be really valuable for people to hear about you and how you got started. We have so much to talk about, but I have to end this interview with a couple of closing questions. I’m going to have you back very soon and will make sure that we don’t lose the thread of this conversation. We’re going to also need to talk to you about your organization. I still haven’t forgotten about that.
Arsalan: Okay, so let me ask you a couple of quick ending questions and give you a chance to let people know where they can find you and we’re going to continue this conversation. What’s your best advice for new and aspiring developers?
Sara: So, my best advice would be to go find a community. That might vary depending on who you are. If you’re trying to become a developer, go find a community. That might be a Meetup group. That might be an online group. That might be a Twitter group or a Twitter chat. That might be a Subreddits. That could be anything, but a place where you feel comfortable and where you feel like people are invested in your success. What’s going to happen is that those are the kind of people who are going to say “hey, my friend works at this company and they’re hiring and he could put your resume at the top of the pile” and things like that. So, it’s not so much that you don’t want to feel lonely. It’s that at the end of the day. You need people to help you out in order to get that first gig. Then, you should return the favor once you’re in.
Sara: The other thing that I would say is, unfortunately, put your resume everywhere. That’s how I got the two job offers that I did. I put my resume on Dice. I put my resume on Indeed. I put my resume on LinkedIn. I looked for jobs on Craigslist. I applied to jobs on LinkedIn. I looked everywhere and I applied to everything because I didn’t want to leave any stone unturned. So, that’s what I would suggest. I would say don’t leave any stone unturned. Go to every network and event that you can. Make sure you have business cards. Try to have a clean social media profile when you’re looking. Any hack-a-thon projects or side projects, that kind of stuff, you want to make sure that you’re working on it and you’re ready to talk about it when you’re going out to these interviews.
Sara: The third thing that I would say is you’re going to have to get to the point where you’re not shy. For me, it’s a really strange thing for me to ask people to help me or to ask strangers for help or to ask strangers to give me things like “Hi, my name is Sara and I’m looking for a job. Are you hiring?” That is just a weird thing for me to do. But, if you have dignity or self-respect, or if you feel shy, you just have to do what you have to do. Take a deep breath and get to the point where you can take a few steps past that because that is what you’re going to need to get your foot in the door. Once you get your foot in the door, you could conceivably not ever have to talk to anyone like that again if you don’t want to. But, if you want to get in, that’s what you’re going to have to do. So, those would be my pieces of advice.
Arsalan: That’s some excellent advice and I think that if I were a new developer, this is exactly what I would need to hear.
Sara: Thank you. I won it with hard work.
Arsalan: It shows that you care. You’re speaking from your heart and that’s what we like because we want to know what it’s really like, and that is amazing. I know that you’re working on a lot of different things. So, before we go, I want you to tell us a little bit about what you’re involved with. Are there any websites that people could go to learn more about that? Also, if you would like them to get in touch with you through Twitter or whatever then let them know.
Sara: I do have a website, but it’s terribly outdated. So, that’s one of the projects that I’m working on. I’m kind of working on a renewable energy finder where you can put in a zip code and it shows you what possibilities you have for your renewable energy in your area. I haven’t really started doing that yet, but that’s in the cards, hopefully in the next few months.
Sara: A girlfriend and I started a project at a hack-a-thon and have been working on a menstrual tracker. We don’t really have the full branding yet, but the tentative title of it is called “Vcal” because a lot of these menstrual trackers require you to download the app or create a login and it’s not really easy to export that data. So we decided that since we use Google calendar for everything else in our lives, why can’t we just use Google calendar for this? So, we’re trying to create a Google calendar integration that will allow you to set reminders for yourself and track and share your period calendar. This gentleman said that maybe if you had menopause, this might be great for his wife because she has menopause and he would like to share that with her. So that’s another project that I’m working on.
Sara: I work with Women Who Code. I am a co-director of Women Who Code of Austin and we do a variety of things here. I also run a blog about Latinos and technology called “MasWired.” All of this stuff can be easily found on LinkedIn or you can look me up by Sara Ines Calderon. Or, probably the best place is Twitter @SarachicaD. I blast everything out on Twitter from my adorable nail art designs that I do every week, the Latina entrepreneur meet ups that I organize occasionally here in Austin, the hack-a-thon’s, the Women Who Code things, and the awesome selfies that I take with my tech chicas. So, twitter would definitely be the best way. If anyone has any questions or if you want to know about boot camps or have questions about sexism in tech, whatever the case may be, I’m more than happy to chat with you, talk with you, or refer you to some resources.
Arsalan: Awesome. We will try to put all of this information in the show notes for this episode. So, Sara, if you would like me to include anything else, send it to me and I will include it. I am so excited to finally talk to you. You will have to come back again.
Sara: I will come back whenever you say and I’m going to tell the world about this podcast. It’s going to be awesome.
Arsalan: That’s great. That’s exactly what we want. We want to start a movement and it’s going to start with SarachicaD.
- 40 interviews, 4 months and 2 job offers to becoming a software developer
- Code Academy
- Women Who Code
- Made with Code
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