It is Possible for a Young, Queer, Femme-Presenting Person to Successfully Navigate the Tech Industry
I ended up at a queer prom with a person who told me about Ada Developers Academy and it turned my world upside down.
It seems like from the moment I was born, the world handed me a strictly ordered checklist of behaviors, roles, personalities and goals I was expected to tick off as I grew up. My middle school separated kids into home economics class or technology class (and can you guess how we were dispersed between the two?). Teachers and counselors at my high school voraciously encouraged my peers and I to attend four-year universities, but were hush-hush about community colleges, and may god forbid you attend a trade school. When I was about 16 and asked by my assigned administrator what I’d like to do with my life, I expressed interest in designing video games and he said, because of my grades, it was unlikely. “That’s a tough field. What about something like psychology?” As if analyzing and interpreting the human brain would be simpler than making a computer do what I wanted it to do. Well, okay. If you say so.
Everything about my educational upbringing seemed as though it would prescribe to me this perfect, cookie-cutter, comfortable suburban life with a Bachelor’s degree (at minimum!), a nuclear family and a mountain of student loan debt by 25, with no help from anyone. The dream. (The debt would be totally worth it because by then I’d have reached the Ultimate Life Goal™ and now I can retire with my bread-winning husband and go on cruises or something while my two and a half kids do exactly the same thing I did.) I already felt like I was doomed since I didn’t want that whole “husband and kids” bit and femme folks didn’t exist in tech, apparently.
Now I’m 25, still queer, mostly femme-presenting, and—plot twist—my job is making computers do what I want them to do (for the most part). Not a single Bachelor’s degree in sight. According to what everyone that was supposed to provide mentorship and guidance in my life said, I reached my goals the complete wrong way. Is there a right way? Am I invalid because of how I got here? Am I invalid because of who I am?
I spent most of my late teenage and early adult years selling my artwork and taking commissions to stay afloat. I also got a job at a hotel in my California hometown doing housekeeping and front desk work for a few years, living paycheck to paycheck. I didn’t even think about college again until I was 20 or so, thanks to both those discouraging words from that administrator and some other, more private circumstances. I decided I couldn’t grow any more if I stayed there, so I packed up my little red Honda Fit with everything I owned, blindly signed a lease and moved to Seattle. I was feeling burnt out from taking art commissions at this point, but maybe the audience in Seattle would be different—you can only draw so many portraits of babies before the process of taking commissions understandably loses its allure and innate cathartic nature that I had initially fallen in love with. Turns out people in Seattle still have babies, and turns out making my creative passion my career choice was a mistake. Who knew?
I ended up attending Seattle Central College with the hope that I would have some sort of epiphany during my time there and I’d be on the “right track” toward a career that would lead me to the aforementioned Ultimate Life Goal™, though with less husband and children and with more wife and dogs. I even took more humanities-type courses, just in case it really was psychology that I was after. In the end, after having worked hard and earning my AA, I still wanted to fiddle around with computers. The computer science courses that I took at SCC were lackluster at best, however. I couldn’t connect with the teaching style, or the content, or something. “Disheartened” was an understatement in describing my feelings toward finding my “thing” at that point. Maybe I wasn’t actually cut out for software engineering and I just liked using computers and playing World of Warcraft. Am I really applying to another front desk position right now? Do I have to draw more babies? God, please, no.
In an attempt to unwind and alleviate some of that existential stress I was experiencing, I found myself going to a 21+ queer prom with someone who ended up telling me about Ada Developers Academy (shoutout to you, you know who you are) and it turned my world upside down. Since when did programs like this exist, and why didn’t anyone tell me until after I suffered through a Java course surrounded by a bunch of Chads (read: young white men) while the instructor taught us out of a physical book with no IDE in sight? It seemed too good to be true, this mystical program that provided a safe, supportive environment for marginalized women and non-binary people to learn all they’d need to know to enter the tech industry, which is historically plagued by inequality (see figure from Visual Capitalist below). After clumsily dancing into the night to “Gasolina”, “Oops…I Did It Again” and other iconic ‘00s hits, I took the bus home and immediately looked up how I could get involved in Ada, or at least another bootcamp. It felt good to finally have something career-related that I was actually excited about.
After weighing my options, I ended up choosing General Assembly, a program that offers a variety of immersive courses that cover paths like UX, data science and software engineering and prep you for a job in the real world. The price was pretty steep for an artist like me, but for three short months of in-depth instruction and career coaching that would result in me having the skills to become a developer and a portfolio to reflect it, I was determined to make it happen. I knew participating in and graduating from that bootcamp would be a rich and rewarding experience, but I didn’t expect it to change my life as much as it did, much less in all the ways that it presently continues to.
I met some of the kindest, hardest-working people at GA with diverse backgrounds and job experiences from all across the board. (I even met someone that used to be a magician and puppeteer. That was really cool.) A small handful of them became my closest friends here in Seattle, and I love them with my whole heart. The community that I’ve gained from attending was worth every penny, and then some. At GA, I was patiently, enthusiastically mentored and encouraged to reach the potential I always felt I had somewhere in this flesh prison, I just never had a proper example to work off of. The first project we made was making our own game, and I learned how to do it in less than three weeks. (...But this field is too hard for me, remember?) I was floored. I felt smart and capable, more than I ever did when I was in college.
I felt like I was breaking down barriers and proving it was possible for a young, queer, femme-presenting person to successfully navigate the tech industry. I was becoming my own hero.
After graduating from General Assembly, the job search was tough. It’s not easy for any green developer to get a foot in the tech industry’s uninviting, non-inclusive door, but especially when they’re a fresh bootcamp grad with a history in art and not being a straight, cisgendered man. As revealed by a study titled “Are women less likely to get hired?,” by María José González, Clara Cortina and Jorge Rodríguez-Menés from UPF's Department of Political and Social Sciences, cisgendered women are, on average, 30% less likely to be called for a job interview than cisgendered men with the exact same qualifications. Not only that, but regardless of gender identity, we all seem to need 10+ years of experience in a language that has only been out for five, a Master’s degree in CS and minimum eight years of job experience in order to land a junior position. It was discouraging to not meet any of the qualifications listed for these positions I was interested in, but after learning that men apply for a job when they only meet 60% of the job listing’s qualifications (according to a Hewlett Packard internal report), I was like, “Okay, well, no. Let’s change that narrative,” and just went buck wild. I started viewing the interview process as an opportunity for me to interview my potential employer. Where are some metrics reflecting your company’s demographics? What have you done to support your marginalized employees? Why should I pick you?
Despite the empowerment that came from those realizations, hearing “no” after “no” was more discouraging than I’d like to admit. Still, though, I persevered. Self care during this time, for me, looked like trying to build a new app and basking in the glory of the palpable progress I’d made in just three months of coding. It’s no small feat to go from not being able to write a single line of coherent, functional code to being able to whip up a full stack application in a week. It’s important to be able to sit with the joy of that, the pride of that, and while of course there’s always room to improve and learn, it shouldn’t detract from the strides I’d made so far. Sometimes, however, self care looked like taking my eyes off the screen and hanging out with my friends. Celebrating your delightful wholeness as a human is important and necessary to do on a regular cadence, especially when you find yourself fully immersed in the job hunting process, which throws us into some mystery algorithms that characterize us by our skills and likelihood of increasing a company’s productivity.
After a handful of interviews, I ended up getting a couple job offers at once: one that I turned down because they failed my interview, and one from my first company, a startup that created digital products to support those experiencing substance use disorder. I was, and still am, very passionate about their mission and I’m immensely proud to have worked with them on such an important product. I fully admit that I cried big, happy tears after receiving the offer because there I really was: my own hero, and I did the thing, and I did it my own way. I got my tiny foot in the door. I started a position as a teaching aide for General Assembly around the same time, too, so I got to see my friends from my time as a student at GA and a whole crew of my very own students experience the same joy I did when they got offers. It was surreal. It gave me a lot of hope.
I was edging on a full year with that startup, and finding I was learning so much more from the developers that we had hired to ensure the product’s success and (mostly) painless hand-off, and we were quickly approaching the end of our engagement with them. These software engineers worked at Substantial, and, with their zealous rallying, I applied there. I wanted to be a part of that, I wanted to learn more, and I certainly didn’t want to become complacent and dormant. I got the job. More big, happy tears ensued.
Even after the glowing endorsements and reassurances and a damn job offer, I was afraid I didn’t belong. I kept thinking that this had to have been a mistake, I’d only started coding a year and a half before joining the team. I was surrounded by extremely intelligent people, each with more years of experience than I could count on both hands. Was I in the right place?
After a few weeks on the job, it was clear that I most assuredly was. I feel safe at Substantial to express my imposter syndrome, and I am met with support and gentle encouragement when I do. (Apparently, it never goes away. Heck.) I find myself learning from and alongside my coworkers, both due to and in spite of the discordance between our years of experience. I am celebrated for my unique perspective that I bring to the industry as a queer, femme person. I genuinely like and care for my coworkers, and want to see that they find success and joy in both their work and their personal lives, and get this: I’m pretty sure they similarly like and care for me too. I am offered autonomy to pursue topics I’m passionate about, like digital accessibility, and the senior developers I work with on a day-to-day basis see my potential and suggest tasks that I wouldn’t have necessarily picked for myself, but would help me grow as a developer. Against all odds, I’m here! And I’m happy.
I’ve been here for nearly seven months now, and I think the secret to finding success and fulfillment in your career is not at all related to the individualist philosophy that is preached to us so often in our lives; instead, it’s community. With the support of my peers and mentors at GA, I navigated the job search in a way that put my needs and interests first. With the support of my wonderful coworkers from my previous company, I gathered the guts to make the leap to pursue more challenging endeavors, and with the support of my coworkers at Substantial, I had the skills to.
So, is there a right way to get on the career path that leads to the Ultimate Life Goal™? Nah, I’m not so sure, and though I did second guess nearly every decision that led me to this point, I don’t think I was ever fully convinced. Not just because our Ultimate Life Goal™s look wildly different from person to person, but because yeesh, that would be boring. Having this cookie-cutter ideology thrust upon me time and time again throughout my life may have slowed my process of self-discovery down, but I got there eventually, and it’s because I found a learning environment that fit my needs, a community that supports one another, and a sense of pride and assuredness that allowed me to find value in the unique attributes and interests that were previously deemed unfit for me to embrace and pursue.
So much of our self-identity and how we present ourselves to the world seems to dictate to everyone else what the “right” way to go about our lives is, but it seems to me, doing what you veritably want and finding a community that supports you throughout that journey is all it takes.