From Educator to Engineer: How the I/Own It Scholarship Launched my Career in Tech

by koku_jin

Just over a year ago, I closed the door to my classroom for the
last time as I wrapped up my sixth and final year as a teacher at
an alternative high school in Philadelphia. I was about to take a
leap from education to tech, from teacher to software engineer. It
would be a big jump. It would be a lot of work. As I closed that
door, I didn’t know that I’d be starting as a Software Engineer
at Optimizely just one year later because I’d win a scholarship
that would catapult me into the technology industry in San
Francisco. 

Acacia-Pappas-Optimizely-Intern

At graduation with one of my first students, Ralph, to
graduate.

The I/Own It
Scholarship from Optimizely and Hack Reactor @ Galvanize
is a
program that Optimizely has run for four years straight to support
historically under-represented people break into the technology
industry. This post is about how this program has changed my life
and accelerated and supported my transition from being a teacher to
being a software engineer.

Making the Jump

When I first told my friends and family that I was going to quit
teaching and become a software engineer, they tried to muffle their
surprise as they asked, “Why?,” or, “Are you
sure?”  I was certain. I was a good teacher, I loved my
students, but I was burned-out. By year six, I could no longer
teach with the same patience and grace required to be effective. I
had to do something else. I spent my final year as a teacher trying
on, like outfits, hundreds of professions and potential futures. I
studied myself, explored different fields, interviewed people, and
almost went to graduate school. In the end, I decided on
engineering because I’m drawn to innovation, I love learning,
I’m obsessed with making systems more efficient, and I want to
work on teams that are formed with the purpose of building
solutions. I was also enamored with software. As Descartes said,
“I think, therefore I am”. Software engineers seemed to be able
to build the stuff of thought.

On a field trip to Temple University with one of my classes

Engineering wasn’t completely foreign to me. My dad was a
mechanical engineer and geeked out on computers for as long as I
can remember, mostly as a hobby but ultimately to my benefit. His
tinkering exposed me to the inner workings of computers, whole
worlds within worlds of possibility, and gave me a small but
memorable taste for the joy of programming. I realized I was
passionate about innovation and software when teaching my science
and technology class about how algorithms influence our daily lives
and about the importance of data privacy in the digital age. My
heart beat a little faster and my words flowed easily.

I had very little schooling in quantitative reasoning. I majored
in philosophy at a small liberal
arts college
with near Luddite views toward new technologies,
where the curriculum dropped me off in the 1930s with Heidegger,
and left me alone to catch up on the 21st century. Nonetheless, I
had gained at least one invaluable wellspring, and that was a deep
love of learning. I was curious and knew how to teach myself new
things. 

My curiosity in coding and algorithms led me to play around with
Scratch and
Javascript for Animation
. As I executed my first for
loop, I felt a rush of joy. The more I learned, the more excited I
became about the potential for creative problem-solving in building
and working on programs. I searched for ways to learn more.
That’s when I found Hack Reactor, a coding boot camp founded in
San Francisco, and an industry leader with good reviews and
reliable outcomes. I put my notice in at my school and created a
study plan. 

Hack Reactor is exceptional at setting expectations. Three to
six months of preparation was normal, sometimes more. I travelled a
bit and then locked myself down at a farm stay in Thailand where I
knew I would be able to focus. I spent my mornings doing toy
problems until my brain hurt and then explored my surroundings in
the afternoons. One Hack Reactor alumnus had recommended a book
called
Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning
, which
enabled me to fully embrace the struggle of learning something
completely new. 

Having spent so many years playing with the more malleable
concepts found in the humanities and doing the heavy
social-emotional work of teaching, my mind strained against the
rigid logic of coding. I kept throwing myself at the toy problems,
knowing that as I grappled for a solution, I was forging new neural
pathways, or strengthening the ones already there. I failed the
first interview with Hack Reactor. So I threw myself back into the
material for another six weeks. 

At some point along the way, I discovered Optimizely’s I/Own It
scholarship
on Hack Reactor’s website and decided to apply. I
took three weeks to carefully draft and redraft an application. I
passed my admissions interview to Hack Reactor and I created a
YouTube video about
How to cook the perfect egg
. I submitted my application and
then waited.

Landing the jump for me meant an entry level job in the Bay
Area, so when Optimizely called me to say I’d won, I was
ecstatic. I swallowed tears as I tried to explain to the lady on
the phone that this scholarship would be an acceleration of
everything I was aiming for. A catapult. I would achieve my goals
in half the time and at less than half the cost.

Visiting Hack Reactor @Galvanize two days after moving to San
Francisco.

To be honest, when applying I didn’t realize what it meant to
be a minority in tech or a woman engineer. My understanding of
diversity and inclusion came from my work in schools and in my
classroom, empowering and equipping students of all kinds and
backgrounds to work together toward some common goal. Most of the
places I’d studied or worked, I’d been one of the more
privileged people in the room. I was transitioning from a
female-dominated industry to a male-dominated industry. Women make
up 77% of all teachers, compared to a scant 14% of software
engineers. I was only beginning to understand what this actually
meant. 

Hack Reactor @Galvanize

Two months later, I was knee-deep in code and unfamiliar
technologies, trudging one heavy step at a time through the great
mental obstacle course that is Hack Reactor. Feeling and observing
the assumptions beneath behaviors and the organizational habits of
Hack Reactor, I couldn’t help but notice the ways women are at a
disadvantage. Suddenly the default behaviors that had served so
well in the education field for six years felt more like
liabilities than strengths. 

In
Hardball for Women: Winning at the Game of Business
,
author Pat Heim likens learning to work in a male-dominated
workplace culture to learning to write with your non-dominant hand.
Building on this analogy, I would add that it’s also learning
judgment for when to use which hand. 

One example of this was in the way people communicated. To use
the analogy of hands, my dominant right hand was open,
collaborative, inquisitive (implying uncertainty and self-doubt)
style, whereas my non-dominant left hand was direct, decisive,
precise, at times aggressive, and always confident. As a teacher,
my dominant hand served well in working with students to disarm and
engage them in learning something new. As an engineer, I’ve found
myself having to use my left hand more—doing cognitive gymnastics
to repackage my thoughts into more direct and decisive statements
so that my input will be taken seriously. This was frustrating and
difficult. I was not only learning to program, I had to learn how
to collaborate in a completely different way. I thought it was just
me until I read that book and spoke with other women. This was the
same kind of dilemma working women and minorities have faced for
decades. 

To be fair, there were many factors beyond gender at play in my
transition, like going from a small non-profit-run school in
relaxed Philadelphia to the fast-paced, competitive start-up center
of SoMA district in San Francisco. As I adapted to my surroundings,
I was especially grateful for the scholarship, the opportunity and
support it has provided me in my transition.

Cohort 110 in one of our last retros, raising eggs for our an
unofficial motto Eggs not Potatoes, originating from a pep-talk
about how in the heat of being boiled, potatoes get soft and eggs
get hard.

Hack Reactor was one of the most difficult things I have done.
It was also the most rewarding. It’s an exceptional program,
finely tuned over the years to efficiently change the way one
approaches and solves problems. As I submitted myself to their
rigorous coursework, I could feel my brain changing, starting to
work in new ways. Even my muscles were changing! At first, my
fingers felt like elephants’ feet on the keyboard. Five weeks
later, they danced lightly on the keys, never missing a step or
beat. I attribute my success at Hack Reactor to their emphasis on
mindset, process, and practice. Engineering can be learned.

Part of the I/Own It program is providing mentorship. During
Hack Reactor, I met every few weeks with a Senior Engineer at
Optimizely, Jessica Chong. She answered all kinds of questions
about the industry, Optimizely, and growth as an engineer. This
mentorship and support from outside Hack Reactor was essential to
my success and well-being. She provided perspective and
encouragement that helped ground me during the demanding (but fun!)
eighty-hour weeks. 

Internship @Optimizely

I graduated Hack Reactor on a Friday and I started as an intern
at Optimizely on the Frontend Infrastructure team the following
Monday. I was assigned a mentor, Michael Fields. With more than
fifteen years in the industry, he was patient and a good listener,
making sure I had what I needed when I needed it as I dove headlong
into my internship project. The team placement was ideal. They’d
recently picked up pair programming as a regular practice. I jumped
right in and was able to quickly gain context and insight into
every part of our codebase.

Mob programming at Optimizely with the Frontend Infrastructure
team.

My internship project was meaningful and impactful. I used
New Relic to instrument the
frontend in order to create dashboards that gave insight into the
application’s overall performance. I also added instrumentation
to get our application’s performance by customer and project
because our customers use our product in very different ways, and
we needed to be able to analyze how different use cases affected
performance. I then shared the dashboard with the engineering
organization and created documentation to help other teams identify
valuable metrics and build their own dashboards. It took multiple
iterations to get the dashboards right, but once the telemetry was
reliable, our team could then create custom dashboards to track our
performance improvements as we made changes over time. The metrics
I selected and the resulting custom dashboard then became the
metrics of accountability for the team’s main project to address
our frontend performance issues.

As an intern, my manager encouraged me to speak my mind. He told
me my voice was just as important as everyone else’s on the team,
despite being just an intern. This kind of encouragement
made all the difference as I continued to throw my myself into
unfamiliar technical and people systems. The culture at Optimizely
is notably warm and encouraging. Senior and Staff engineers were
open and willing when I approached them with questions.

Looking Forward

This July, I started full time as a software engineer on
Optimizely’s Frontend Infrastructure team. I’m currently
working with my team to continue improving our application’s
performance. I work primarily in Javascript and React, making
changes to the way our application dashboards load. We have also
been working across the stack to make adjustments to our APIs in
Python in order to load only the data we need when we need
it. 

I still think of my students every
day. As their teacher, I learned many lessons that I hold close to
my heart and carry into every part of my life. One of these lessons
is that everyone benefits when you bring your whole self to work
(or school). 

In teaching at El Centro De Estudiantes High School in North
Philadelphia, I did what all professional teachers do: organize,
teach, manage the classroom, innovate, etc. But these skills were
not enough to be truly effective. This particular school encouraged
me to bring my whole self to work: my unique personality,
experiences, and perspective. So I did. As I integrated who I was
with my day-to-day planning, lessons and instruction, I noticed my
students becoming more responsive and open. They came to school
more. They did more work. Co-planning and collaboration with my
colleagues became less of a task and more like doing a project with
friends. I learned from this that I do my best work when I bring my
whole self to the table. This is why I believe that diversity and
inclusion initiatives like the I/Own It scholarship program are so
important. 

I have continued to bring my whole self to my work as a software
engineer at Optimizely. The forty hours I spend with my team at
work every week are more time than I spend with anyone else in my
life. For this reason, I’m deeply invested in having a positive
and empowering workplace culture. I believe that creating a working
environment where everyone feels like they can bring their whole
self to work is essential to our success as a company. I’m
grateful for the opportunity and support that the I/Own It Scholarship has
afforded me and I am proud to work in a place like Optimizely that
continues to drive programs like I/Own It. The demographic
breakdown of the tech industry is a reflection of the greater and
more systemic issues of inequality in our society. This program is
one effective and replicable way toward positive change in this
industry. 

 

Read more: blog.optimizely.com

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