I always wanted to be a scientist. Where I grew up — in a northern Indiana farming community with a heavy Amish population — all scientists are doctors. My choices were: Did I want to work at gas station/grocery store, or did I want to become a doctor?
But, there was also something else happening in my community — something more insidious and frightening than lack of choices. An epidemic of heroin was taking over our community, and I watched as many of my friends died from heroin overdoses.
Determined to leave behind the culture with which I could never identify, I left to attend college in the big city — Iowa City. Three years into my biochemistry studies of University of Iowa, I landed my first research job in the school’s chemistry department. It was a part-time unpaid job that counted as a grade. Even though it’s more like a class, it’s not easy to get a position like this. It was a special thing to be trusted with a nearly bottomless dispenser of THF, diethyl ether and toluene, and to have my own set of Schlenk lines. One misstep in handling this pressurized system could have hurt dozens of people. But I was a darn good chemist.
Out of My Control
It was also during this time that I experienced first-hand what sexual harassment looks like. First, one of UIowa’s chemistry professors resigned after being convicted of assault (two counts of assault causing bodily injury and one count of assault with intent of sexual abuse) against one of the few other females in the department. The incident made headlines.
During this same time, I was struggling in my chemistry class. When I asked the professor for help, he suggested I visit his fraternity — the one that he belonged to while attending UIowa — and “see what I need to do to get the answers” to his next test.
I was stunned. The class was almost all male, and almost all of its members belonged to this fraternity. Class conversations centered on the school’s football team, rather than chemistry. This was hugely disappointing for me. I had always been terrified of failure and here I felt like the outcome of my whole life was totally outside my control. It was the worst time in my adult life.
I needed to get out, so I left the chemistry lab and switched to cloning and sequencing rotifer DNA for the biology department. This was my first paid research job, at 45 cents above minimum wage.
During this time, I was looking into getting an internship in the biotech industry. The biotech industry just seemed more glamorous and fortunately, the University of Iowa was holding its first biotech job fair. I was excited about all of the career possibilities.
At the fair, I showed up in a business suit with a clipboard full of resumes. When I approached a company’s representative, she gestured a “give it here” motion for my resume without any greeting. Bright-eyed and ready to sell myself based on my previous work that had been well-respected and presented internationally, I introduced myself and expressed my interest in this unpaid internship. “You and a thousand others,” she said, tossing my resume into a messy pile. I got the same response when asking to volunteer at a nonprofit walk-in clinic. It was a demoralizing event.
Bye-bye Iowa, Hello Seattle
Later that same year, I decided again to change careers. This time, I was focused on another science: computer science. After taking one semester of programming classes and discrete math, I fell in love with CS, but soon realized that living in a state that had just one major tech company (Rockwell Collins) wasn’t going to cut it.
I needed to be in the center of a growing tech market — Seattle.
While we considered the Bay Area, the cost of living scared me. My husband (fiancé at the time) worked at Rockwell Collins, and he got a job at Amazon in order to get us to Seattle. We moved to the Emerald City in May 2013.
My goal was to get into the University of Washington, but the lead time to apply is almost a year, so I planned to take community college classes in the meantime. I had no job lined up, and it was a couple of months before the community college classes were to begin.
Shortly after moving to Seattle, we got married in a courthouse (best wedding ever!) and while waiting for community college classes to start, I got a job at Starbucks as a barista. While exploring Reddit one evening, I learned about an upcoming class at the Ada Developers Academy. Applications were due in 12 hours, and that’s literally how long it took me to apply. The application contained difficult logic puzzles and a coding challenge, and I had to make a video of myself answering interview questions that I then had to edit down to 5 minutes. The process involved having to learn markup language and use it to produce my resume for submission. Ada is very selective, and I was selected for its intensive, six-month program.
The Moral of the Story
My journey has been filled with heartache, amazement and finally, joy. I have been fortunate to land in an industry that is rewarding and fascinating. But, I’ve come to realize it’s hungry for more people like me. While there is outreach to girls, women and people of color to get excited about tech, there needs to be outreach to places outside urban centers, too. Rural kids don’t know what computer science is, and few people are trying to reach out to these kids who are dying of hopelessness.
The coasts put out knowledgeable students who went to computer camp at 10 years old, but passion comes from everywhere — even the “fly-over” states. Tech is for everyone. Tech is a pure and beautiful application of math, unlike life itself. Tell your daughters about tech. Tell your weird cousins in Alabama about tech. Be active in informing these marginalized and potentially very talented children, because the MIT-bound students are already made.
If you know a smart, but underemployed woman who wants to become a software developer, I highly recommend Ada Developers Academy. All 15 of the first group of graduates have left behind old jobs for this new career path. We are not quitters; we are high achievers who were willing to take a risk.
My Ada class graduated on Oct. 24, 2014 and so far, every single student received a permanent job offer, including me. Yes – I am now a full-time employee at Zillow, continuing my work on the Digs team as a full-stack software engineer. I am grateful to everybody here for making me feel welcome, buying me lunch and generally being awesome. Unofficial Karma points for everyone!