Episode 53 – Poverty vs. Dedication – The Man With A Mission

Andre L Witt

What does it take to make it in the world if you grew up in an underprivileged environment? Is less really more? Sometimes it is, but it all depends on the attitudes and influence of those around you as well as your own desire to rise above and find your own success. But, where do you start?

Meet our next guest, Andre Witt. Andre grew up in an area where the school did the best they could, but the hope upon finishing high school was to simply be able to gain a two-year college education and find a trade. That was not enough for Andre. He aspired to so much more. And he succeeded in reaching his dreams. Listen to his tale during episode 53 of Mentoring Developers and find out how Andre made it happen and how you can too.

Andre’s Bio:

Andre is a recent graduate of Tech Elevator coding bootcamp. Trained as a Mechanical Engineer before becoming a management consultant, he began his career at Accenture, a global professional services firm. He expanded his analytical background and gained broad experience in manufacturing, retail, healthcare, and pharmaceuticals while using data to support decision making across various metric driven organizations.

Andre has recently accepted a programming position at the Cleveland Water Department where he’s excited to combine his core-consulting foundation, passion for technology and his newly-acquired developer skills in a software development.

Episode Highlights and Show Notes:

Arsalan: Hi everyone. Today my guest is Andre Witt. How are you, Andre?

Andre: Doing very well. How are you?

Arsalan: Doing great and I’m really happy to have you because not only are you going to a code school, which is something that we can all learn from, but you also have a very interesting story. You grew up around adversity. You grew up in a situation where you didn’t have anybody else to look up to. You found your larger family in poverty. Moving ahead in life was hard and you didn’t know where to start. People were struggling all around you. Yet, you really wanted to be different. There was something pushing you to see yourself as not part of that system, but that you could do better than that. Tell us a little about that.

Andre: Absolutely. As you are saying I grew up interested in going to school and doing a little better than what my parents did and they were adamant about that. When I’m got the opportunity, I received a chance to go off to a university, where I studied engineering. From engineering, I went to work as a management consultant for a pretty large consulting firm. As I began to grow there, I discovered that I wanted to be in the technical realm. Programming and doing anything with the terminal or coding in the most basic sense, there is a fear in that and you immediately stop and don’t do anything in that regard. While I wanted to grow in that area, that’s what made me do a pivot at that end and enroll in a coding school.

Arsalan: What kind of adversity were you facing as a child?

Andre: If we go all the way back to being a child, my parents got me to a point where we were out of poverty. My appearance grew up in extreme poverty. They got me to a point of at least stability. Unfortunately, they did not know any of the steps to success that I was seeking. So, that really came from my observation of others, and by aligning yourself with those who reflect the kind of life that you want to have.

Arsalan: I think that’s really interesting. A lot of us have this kind of problem of not having role models. We don’t have our parents, uncles, aunts, older friends, or people who are successful and are on a path that we would like to tread. So, there’s no one for us to follow. Then, the circle continues from generation after generation. We don’t see a way out of our situation. Sometimes people are satisfied with the way things are, but there are also people like you who are not and they are looking for a way out and something better in life, a more purposeful life. How did you find it?

Andre: I hope this doesn’t sound dark but I’m an African-American male and I think you have to put that lens there because it has guided and directed so much of my life. What I realized as I was going from childhood to adolescence was that you learn about the differences and the expectations, specifically. That’s really the key difference. The expectations that are placed on you are so much different than so many others. They are lower. As I began to understand that, I began competing in the realms that I wasn’t expected to. That’s what led me into the field of engineering and science. So I wondered how to get over there. How do you get into those AP math and science classes? So, I just started asking questions. That’s what you have to do, you have to ask questions and align yourself in that direction. That’s how that goes as a child. That’s what I saw as a kid.

Arsalan: Do you think the school that you went to had a role to play in the lack of expectations or low expectations? I know that nobody around you has been to college or a lot of the people around you haven’t even finished high school.

Andre: Some.

Arsalan: So, some people didn’t finish high school and a lot of people didn’t finish college and you were not in a situation where you feel that there are all these people over there who seem to be doing well and why couldn’t you be like that. Did the school where you went help you to get the self-esteem that you needed or was it creating or adding to the problem?

Andre: I’ll give them credit. They did help me to reach a minimum baseline. The best thing that I can say for that is that the ceiling that they were helping me attain and get to was lower than the floor for other people. You can see that divide and begin to understand that there is a large divide there. They wanted to get me to the two-year college point, but I was aspiring for quite a bit more than that.

Arsalan: it’s interesting how people who love us and have our best interest in heart sometimes undermine us because they don’t want to see us fail. So, they might see you and think that the University is a very big leap for you and suggest you start with a baby step and go to college instead so that you can learn a trade and do some work to earn some kind of living. I’ve heard that from politicians before and I’ve heard that from a lot of people, but I think we’re doing a disservice to our nation and to people in general when we don’t let people dream. A dream as much as you want and dream as big as you dare to dream and aim for it. You might fail, but you might succeed half way. At least you will have a chance to compete and succeed and you are not inhibiting your own self.

Arsalan: It’s very inspiring for me to hear your story and the struggles that you went through. And obviously, you came through on the other side, which is great. You told me that people around you did not go to college. What made you think that you needed to go to a university?

Andre: I would say that my parents were the influencers. They would tell me that I was going to go to college. That was not even up for discussion. It was just the next step. So, that was always the expectation. What I saw, though, was that there was a difference between what people were being guided to, but that’s what I saw. Going to college in and of itself was an expectation since I was a child.

Arsalan: That’s great. You decided you wanted to make something of yourself and the most obvious way to do that was to go to college and get a good education because once you do that, it will allow you to apply for nice jobs and perhaps have some dignity. It’s not just about money. So, the question is, is that really true in your opinion, that if you do get a college degree, then you will get a job that has those qualities? After going through this experience, do you still believe that?

Andre: It would be unfair to just say no. That’s the best opportunity if you are directing a large group of people and you are trying to get them a base level of skills. That’s the best direction to send people. But as far as coming out of college and finding a job that’s going to give you dignity and happiness in your life, I wouldn’t be able to say that everyone is going to get that opportunity. I would say that probably the majority are not going to get that just by going to college, depending on the university that they go to.

Arsalan: Do you think that selecting a major is an important activity? A lot of people want to go to college but don’t know what they really want to do. So, they don’t select their major and they just take GE classes, and they take whatever classes that they can. They delayed selecting a major as late as possible because they’re not really sure. The question is, is it really important for you to have a very targeted college major and target your activities and career around it or is it just having a college degree in something?

Andre: The overall answer would be no. If you go to Oxford or one of the top three Ivey League institutions, then you could probably get just a degree in something and you’ll be okay because of what it takes to get into those institutions. Yet, I do believe that you do need to go to school and at the very least, regardless of your interests or what you want to do, you should be a to come out of college, and say I am a ‘blank.’ I have this skill set. I can do this. Otherwise, you’re in a position of extreme vulnerability where you’ve invested this time and money to go to school and there’s nothing tangible that you could go and do as a result. I’m an advocate of going to school and coming out with some particular skill set, but that’s me personally.

Arsalan: So, what the question in my mind about college is, it’s expensive. It costs a lot of money. From your background, your parents wouldn’t have had a lot of money. I know some of the answer that you’re going to give me, but I want you to think about it and let us know what you think. How would you finance a college education when you don’t have the means?

Andre: Well, there’s the obvious answer of mortgaging your future. You can always mortgage your future via student loans. That’s always an option, although it’s not the best option. If you can start out during 10th or 11th grade knowing that you don’t have the means to go to college, you can start taking steps to dictate your approach like starting out at a community college and then going to the university. It brings in additional barriers, but it’s better than mortgaging off your future. Another option is finding an alternative path like skills-based programs, like bootcamps. If you can’t finance your education, that should be at the front of your discussion.

Arsalan: Okay, so let me give you my take on this. There are a lot of colleges and universities that have very good scholarships. Sometimes you wouldn’t expect them to have it because they are private universities, but they have large endowments. If you have good grades and you can demonstrate that you have the financial need, you can get most of your tuition written off as long as you can show that you have the drive. A lot of universities like to have diversity on their campus. So if you are one of the more disadvantaged ethnic groups, you might have a shot at something, even if you don’t have the money. So don’t give up on college and university just because you don’t have money. After admission, you can talk to them about how they can help you.

Arsalan: That’s just an insight. College isn’t for everyone and it’s not fundamental to your being. We talk about this on this podcast a lot because we often know a lot of people who are very successful, but who have not gone to college or who did go to college but did not finish. It’s not a panacea, but it does give you the grounding for various different subjects. It gives you a moral compass. It allows you to interact with people from all over the world and it just makes you a better person overall just by going to college.

Arsalan: Going to college is not a ticket to anything specific. It is a goal in and of itself. So, you went to college and did something completely unrelated to programming. Was that biomedical sciences or biomedical engineering?

Andre: Engineering. It was the mechanical engineering track. That was my core education.

Arsalan: That’s hard-core engineering. That’s pretty good stuff. Then when you graduated, you got a job. Did you like that job?

Andre: I did. I actually liked the job that I was doing. It was management consulting and I enjoyed it.

Arsalan: But it wasn’t fulfilling.

Andre: Over time that was correct. I didn’t like what it took to remain competitive. You used that word earlier and I thought it was a really good word. Being competitive and learning what it means to not only be competitive, but to remain competitive led me to lose my passion for it. I was growing in a direction they couldn’t particularly dictate because consulting is client-based work and you are going in the direction of the market and what the clients are paying.

Arsalan: Okay. So, you did that for a couple of years?

Andre: A couple of years. It was three and a half or four years.

Arsalan: And after that you quit. And then what happened after that?

Andre: So, going back to your earlier question about skills-based training and having a specific skill, I decided that now that I had some work under me, I wanted to do something that was more skills-based. At the time I was growing more in the project management area. So, what happens to anyone who wants to do something different in this situation? One option is to try to develop the skills on your own. Another option is go to a university or some type of schooling, which is what I was looking at doing. Or, you could go to one of these boot camps, which is what I found and it is much shorter and more compressed. There’s a lot more work in a shorter span of time, but you have to get the skills that you need in order to move to the next step. I was stuck deciding between the University and the coding bootcamp. Those were my two options.

Arsalan: Why a coding bootcamp? Did you know about programming or software development? Is that something that you wanted to do?

Andre: The work that I was doing was data analytics. That was something that was interesting to me. I had gotten a little exposure to it and I wanted to do a little more. I liked the technical aspect of things and at the time I did not know that boot camps existed. I thought the only way to learn it was to go back to university, and I was kind of dreading that because the shortest programs there were one calendar year, or three semesters. Those were most of the masters programs, and you’re thinking about everything that you’re going to have to do to make it work, including living situation, finances, and everything else and whether or not you are going to get the skills that you need.

Andre: Every university program, even at the Masters level, has a lot of things that you may or may not be interested in. When I came across the bootcamp model and what it was designed to do, they used a comparison to a computer science degree, and showing you the aspects of the degree program that they are competitive with. In many cases, you are getting 15 to 20 hours more and that was very appealing to me.

Arsalan: That’s very interesting. Coding boot camps are very interesting in the way that they have just sprung up over the last few years. I’m a big fan of them, but this is not something for everyone. We should not think that if we go to a coding bootcamp or a code school that we will come out with a well-paying job at a great company where I would enjoy working. That’s not a given. You may or may not get there. So, buyers beware.

Arsalan: If you’re really dedicated to learning coding and you want to be a software developer, you have to have the commitment and the money, because most coding boot camps and code schools are not free and you have to pay out of your own pocket. They’re going to make you work really hard. You won’t be able to do this part-time. If you can do that and you can spend the next few months continuing on your own, then you have a very good chance to enter this industry. For some people it’s easier and for others, it’s harder, but everyone can get a start because there are so many positions available.

Arsalan: If you have a coding bootcamp education that is a lot better than nothing. If you are a recent biology major graduate and you are up lying for a coding position because you have some experience tinkering with programming, they might think twice about inviting you for an interview because they could probably get somebody with a formal education. Yet, if you are a recent biology degree graduate or someone who has recently graduated high school and you have graduated from a rigorous coding bootcamp, and you’ve demonstrated two or three different projects, they may see that you don’t have any background, but you at least have the basics covered. Everyone knows that coding boot camps are rigorous and many coding boot camps have a very good reputation.

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