JS Party – Episode #299

Helping people enter, stay & thrive in tech

featuring Valerie Phoenix from Tech By Choice

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Valerie Phoenix from Tech By Choice joins Amal & Kball to tell them all about her non-profit that’s passionate about helping people interested in technology, no matter their experience level.



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Notes & Links

📝 Edit Notes


1 00:00 It's party time, y'all
2 00:41 Sponsor: Appwrite
3 03:27 Welcoming Valerie to the show
4 04:37 Getting to know Valerie
5 10:37 What Tech By Choice offers
6 17:50 Making obstacles visible
7 25:37 Solving the leaky pipeline
8 31:22 Sponsor: Changelog News
9 32:43 Common themes of success
10 39:07 Open source & track records
11 43:11 Success stories
12 45:04 How people can help
13 46:55 The tech industry is hard right now
14 51:32 How Valerie has grown
15 53:45 KBall's closing thoughts
16 56:26 Connecting with Valerie
17 56:45 Closing time
18 57:03 Next up on the pod


📝 Edit Transcript


Play the audio to listen along while you enjoy the transcript. 🎧

Hello, JS Party listeners. It’s me, your host, Amal Hussein, and really excited for today’s show. So as always, this is JS Party, a weekly celebration of JavaScript and the web, and with me on the show today is Kball. Hello, Kball.

Hello, hello.

And our very special guest, Valerie Phoenix. Hello. Welcome, Valerie.

Thank you. Excited to be here.

Yeah, we’re excited to have you. So today we’re going to be talking about a pretty big and heavy and important topic, which is really kind of how do we get folks from underrepresented backgrounds especially to kind of enter tech, stay in tech, and thrive in tech. And so we’ve invited Valerie Phoenix here to join us for this discussion, because she’s an engineering manager who also, I think, in all for free time started an organization… And I say that sarcastically, right? …called Tech by Choice. And Tech by Choice is a nonprofit that kind of really aims to foster and facilitate getting folks, that are underrepresented minorities into tech. And they host workshops, and events, and all kinds of things, and share resources… And we’re gonna learn all about that today. So before we get started, Valerie, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Yeah, thank you for that intro. So again, my name is Valerie Phoenix, I’m an engineering manager. I started in tech about 9-10 years ago, and self-taught developer, didn’t know much about JavaScript… I kind of still remember a meetup where I’m like “Yeah, I know Java”, and started showing lines of JavaScript, and people were just like “Oh, I don’t think you know Java.” So that was my first introduction into tech. And over the last couple of years I transitioned into engineering management, and just have been having a really good time navigating the space and figuring out what I really care about, and how I can bring different parts of my skill set coming from a non-technical background, bringing in psychology and art into everything I do to create these very human-centered, secure and accessible environments or products is just a really great experience… But I’ve only been having a good time because I’ve found a really great community to support me along the way. So that’s a little bit about my journey into tech.

That’s great. Thank you for sharing that. And I’m not surprised to hear that you have such a, I would say, a – diverse is the wrong word, but I would say it’s a non-technical background…

Non-traditional background…

Non-traditional. There we go. Thank you. That’s the word. Non-traditional background. I feel like all good ideas in tech come from people that didn’t start in tech, I feel like… So thank you, Valerie. But I would say, how was your own journey influenced by the eventual creation of Tech by Choice? What kind of led into that?

Yeah, so I’ve always been really big on doing community work, even through like being really young, in like high school, and middle school, and things like that… I kind of didn’t do that much in college, and when I started making the transition to realize tech is where I was going to go, I wasn’t going to go to grad school, I realized I was missing that. I missed that sense of community, of the shared goal to make things better… And I started to go into more identity-focused tech groups, women in tech groups, and that’s where I found my sweet spot. But there was still something really lacking. I felt like I was still really struggling to break in, despite these groups talking about diversity, about inclusion, about really being a space that I could learn and not struggle and feel accepted in.

It was to the point that I sometimes would say, “Oh, I just won’t pay my phone bill this month, because I want to take this Java Script class. And I can’t afford”, and there was no more scholarships available for me to take the class on my own, so I was constantly making decisions like that. Or if I wanted to go to a meetup group, just to understand and to network I had to make the choice of “Am I going to pay for parking, or am I going to pay for gas?” And just hope I don’t run out on the way there or on the way back. And a lot of the times I opted to pay for gas and hope I didn’t get a parking ticket, that I probably wouldn’t have been able to pay for.

[00:07:54.24] And for my first year and a half I kept having to make those choices, and they kept getting bigger, and the consequences kept expanding. It got to the point where I got a really good apprenticeship program, and I got accepted into it, but the pay I think was $12 an hour, and I was working 20 hours, so I had to cut my full-time job into half, and I took out this really bad loan that had super-high interest rates… And that was my first step into tech, and that was the way that I was doing it. And I still was relying on those communities to provide that extra cushion. There was some support, I did get some scholarships here and there, but that was still my experience with the support.

And so after going through that and after getting my stability in the industry, I realized that we could do more. And I kept pushing for those organizations to do more, and they were just not – I don’t know if they didn’t really understand my experience, or if they did understand that this was common for a lot of people, and that’s why people didn’t make that jump to make the transition into tech even if they were interested… And so that’s where the idea of Tech by Choice came from. I had to make a lot of choices that didn’t benefit me, but in the long run it made a huge difference in what opportunities I had. And so that’s where the organization came from, and why I’m still so passionate about it now.

I feel like you had so many different things pushing against you there, and some of them I have heard a lot about before and some of them I actually maybe haven’t heard as much before, and it might be worth breaking them down a little bit. Because I think this is a challenge anyone faces coming into the tech industry, of like how do you find your first position? Even if you have a traditional “I got a computer science degree”, whatever, that first position is really hard to find. That entry is even more challenging if you are in a marginalized group, whether you’re a woman, or black, both… Like, the intersectionality comes in, and there’s a whole piece of there, and I think there’s stuff to sort of expand about the uniqueness of that experience, and what makes that challenging and how we bridge it… And then you had a whole third area here, which is “What if I’m coming from a background where I’m scraping to make ends meet?” I don’t have the money to take an unpaid internship. I’m making these tough financial choices just to be able to educate myself and try to learn these things. And that’s like a whole other class of challenges. And you managed to overcome all three of these, and I think that’s amazing.

I’m kind of curious, is Tech by Choice trying to attack all of these problems? Is it trying to attack particular ones of these problems? What sets of support are y’all offering?

So I think, to break down what Tech by Choice supports, is to talk about our three pillars. And I say it all the time, it’s enter, stay and thrive. So for our enter pillar, we are really focusing about making sure that people can bridge that gap of understanding a little bit about maybe Silicon Valley, about these tech startups… But finding ways to explain it so that they can see themselves in these roles. And a big thing that we have always talked about is that tech is so much more than coding. I always joke and tell people, “Imagine if all the developers came together and we were the only people running the whole entire industry.” I’m like “There would be problems.” Things probably wouldn’t get shipped.

It would fail on day zero, I think, because we’d be arguing about whether SQL statements should be in – I’m just kidding. Um, yeah, it would be a disaster.

No, we’d all just be rewriting our blocks, right?

Yes. Lots of refactoring. Lots of refactoring, and conversations if TypeScript is important. That would be a big thing. But I use those things as examples to show people that you could take the skills that you have to enter in this industry and still do well. And so that is how we address the Enter.

[00:12:05.10] Then we also do things that are like either completely free for our members, or extremely subsidized… Our ticket prices are anywhere from like $5 to $10 and we’ve never gone beyond that. And so that is how we focus on our Enter.

When we talk about the Stay - and this is the part that I think sets us apart the most… We are really focused on creating content that will go beyond like “Oh, learn these skills, get that first job.” We actually create content that helps you get that promotion, that helps you level up, and so we are always looking to partner with companies to have them come and do demos of how do you use your product, or reaching out to dev advocates to come and talk about how to use this framework, like Angular and things like that.

And so we do these deep-dives to talk about the deeper, more technical topics. We have product folk from Netflix come through and say “This is how you think about building products. This is how you work in Sketch, this is how you work in Figma.” So we do more than just how to learn the basics, but instead we talk about how to go deeper with those skillsets, but we also talk about more so how to thrive… Because I think that’s also a big part that I was missing in my journey.

So when we talk about how to thrive in tech, we’re addressing a lot of the things that you pointed out, that I struggled with. Scraping by, living paycheck to paycheck. Just because I entered in tech, I didn’t have that financial literacy coming from my family. And so we talk about things like financial literacy, we talk about mental health… Because again, being at that being that intersect of woman and black, it’s hard to navigate this space. And so we have conversations around that. And then of course, workplace discrimination, because unfortunately, we are in a space that I think is better, but it’s not perfect. So we need to have that space to talk about what do you do when things go wrong. So that is how we try to attack and support those different themes that people will go through.

That’s absolutely brilliant, Valerie. It wasn’t until actually just listening to you right now that I realized how much of your story is my story as well. I’ve been financially independent since I was like 17, and I had to really kind of pull myself up by my bootstraps in many, many ways in my own life. And I am woman identified, I’m a black person, and just kind of the sheer number of obstacles that you have to overcome in this industry, not just from the financial aspect… Because there’s this interesting thing that happens where you are kind of moving across social classes, as you kind of enter this industry, and all of a sudden you’re making real money, and then there’s like – like you’ve mentioned, even just the financial literacy aspect of it, and how to save well, how to invest well, get out of debt… Whatever it is, all those things are really important all of a sudden, and you’ve never had to think about those problems before.

But then just even going back to your point earlier, the amount of assumed privilege there is for technologists. The entry cost of this is not cheap, right? It’s like a soccer versus skiing, or soccer versus hockey analogy, right? Like, you need a $3,000 laptop, you need this, you need that, and you need all this time to be able to learn… That’s just a lot of assumptions that are baked into that. And so yeah, I mean, I think it’s definitely a self-select group of people that manage to kind of pass through all these hoops, and kind of still come out of the other side sane.

[00:16:00.03] So I think there’s something interesting in that to explore. So you mentioned the moving between classes. And I think this is something that a lot of people in the industry don’t think about, because there are so many people coming from that sort of upper middle class, traditional background, even if they have a non-traditional path into tech… And engineers tend to be a little bit – we’re not always the best at understanding what other people are going through, and seeing those, and we have this idea that tech is a very meritocratous environment, and that we don’t see class, and we don’t see these different things… And so I think it might actually be worth kind of exploring some of the ways those assumptions get broken when you’re coming from a very different background… Kind of making it visible for those folks, of which I include myself, who weren’t kind of coming from a place where – I was not self-supporting from the age of 17. I feel very blessed and privileged to have not had that kind of situation, but there’s probably a set of things that you had to overcome, that you each had to overcome, that were invisible to me, because I wasn’t coming from that background.

Yeah, yeah. You’re also like a white dude in tech, right? And no hate at all to my white brothers, in the sense that for me personally, speaking as a black woman, I also just want to make the statement that white men have helped me in my career more than anyone, just to be clear, right? So we’re going to use the word probably like white guy a lot throughout this podcast, but it’s, you know –

I will be your representative white guy.

…not necessarily in a derogatory way, for what it’s worth. But yeah, I don’t know, you should go first, Valerie, because I have a lot to say on this.

Yeah. Do you mind rephrasing the question one more time?

Yes. So what I’m trying to get at is – and we can use me as a white guy as representative for this. I think actually the barrier that I’m looking at is more the economic one. So I know people who have a variety of racial and gender backgrounds, who are coming from kind of upper middle class. I think if you were raised in an environment where you’re never having to make those decisions around “Do I pay for parking or gas?”, or those types of things… The types of things that you described in terms of the financial literacy you have to learn, thinking about money in a different way, thinking about class in a different way - those are just invisible. You’ve never had to deal with it. So you don’t even know what that means. So I’m kind of wondering, as you talk about “Oh, we have to educate on financial literacy”, what is what is it that you get into your first tech job and you’re like “Oh, this is different. This is holding me back that I didn’t have this”, or “This is something I need to learn”?

I’m just trying to make that – the premise here is that there’s a whole set of people, yourselves included, who have to overcome these obstacles that the sort of majority of folks in tech didn’t know about. How do we make those visible?

Yeah, I think a better way for me to say this is there are people who haven’t had this experience, and for people who don’t have anyone in their circle who has gone through this, I don’t know that there is a way for you to learn about this outside of like doing extra reading, or just like being in communities with people who are maybe not your normal network, and just talking, and not really going to network, or try to network up, or anything like that, but just be in community with people. And then you start to see “Okay, so people have to think about childcare.” I think that’s a really more tangible topic for people to understand, to make that jump to say “Oh, how can I think more broadly about different experiences?” Because we do have co-workers who may be single and do not have children, or we have co-workers who are married with children, or single with children… And so you can see the different things that those folks have to do in order to show up at work.

[00:20:01.24] And so it’s a little bit easier for us to start to have that mental model of “Am I thinking and building something that is going to help those folks make sure that they can think about childcare, about having enough space and time to do different things?” And so when you start to think about it, and you expand that mental model to something that may be super unfamiliar for you… So like in this topic, like financial literacy - think about everything that you have to make a payment for, and expect that person or anyone in your group, or anyone at the company, expect at least one to two people to not have a credit card. Or if you want to even get into a better mental model, expect one person on your team to not have a bank account. Because if I’m being honest, where I grew up, that’s very common. A lot of the friends that I still talk to from high school and things like that, they just recently got their first credit card.

And so that is just a different restriction for how you can navigate something as simple as a company off-site. I think the first time I had a company off-site where they flew us out, I did not know how to do anything; I think I had only been on a plane one time before that, and I didn’t buy my ticket… And so all of that was so new to me, I didn’t know what to do. And on top of me supporting myself, I’m also my mom’s 401k. So even those first few jobs in tech, it still didn’t feel like I was making a tech salary, because so much of my money goes back to my family to help support and make ends meet.

So I think having that mindset of possibly someone not having a credit card and not having a bank account would have helped my first experience in my first off-site, because I was expected to pay for all this stuff, and then get reimbursed. So that meant even though I had this nice tech salary, I had to juggle a couple of bills and figure things out in order to wait for that reimbursement.

I think, again, just using what you have as context for your first mental model, and then starting to expand that, and just expect and use the framework of “What is the most marginalized experience someone can have?” or “What is the experience where people have almost nothing, and how would that person be able to feel equal to other people around them?” and that’s how I would go about it.

That’s such great insight, and it’s such a good reminder… I hear about those stories every once in a while, where someone is being flown out for like the last stage of an interview, or an off-site, or something… And they’re kind of asked to kind of front up a lot of money; and they’ll get reimbursed, but that’s assuming that someone has the money to spend, has the time to wait for that money to come back to them… Lots of assumptions are baked into that. And being in an industry where most people are upper middle class, there’s a lot of assumptions baked into kind of the way we operate our businesses, our HR, or whatever it is. There’s just a lot of those assumptions, and so thank you for kind of shedding insights into some of those.

Full transparency, for me personally, I’ve definitely struggled with some of those issues in the past… And my parents – I grew up upper middle class, and then my dad, when I was 15, his business tanked when the market crashed, and it just never came back. And so all of a sudden, I was starting college with no money. I literally started college – I know people say this all the time… But I literally, literally started college with $6 in my bank account… Which I’ve only started to publicly talk about with friends and family, kind of unpacking my own trauma… But what it was like to kind of be around people who were getting money from their grandparents to go to college, and all this stuff… I don’t know, it was so different than my own personal experience.

[00:24:15.16] And then to your 401k thing, thank you for giving me an analogy for that, because I also am my mom’s 401k. I financially support my family, and it’s such a – the burden on me versus someone who’s actually getting help from their family… It’s just night and day. And so even though I’m a high-earner, upper middle class now, I’m still not as “wealthy” as my friends who don’t have that burden on them… And then to go back to the friction thing, to go to your enter, and stay, and thrive kind of principles, when you’re a person of color or you’re an other in this industry, there’s just a whole other tax on you. And then there’s like the class aspect is just kind of like another layer on top of that.

For example, something I always give to my friends as an analogy is “Hey, think about how hard it is to just be in this industry, and now imagine if you were a woman, and now imagine if you were also like a person of color. Imagine if you were also LGBTQ+. Imagine if you had a physical disability.” All these things, they all kind of like compound. And it kind of creates that leaky pipeline problem in our community, where we might have people entering, but they just kind of never stay too long… And I’m just curious, Valerie, how are you all kind of helping tackle that specific issue, where there’s just like a leaky pipeline, or people are just like “You know what - after this, I’m out.”

This may not be the answer you would have thought, but we support that. We support people leaving the workplace, because sometimes it’s just not for us. I think at the beginning of the pandemic a lot of people started to think “Oh, I have these skills, I’m able to build these things for these companies. Why am I not investing in myself and starting to build products? And why am I not working with my community to find different ways to be a consultant, to have more freedom, to be able to be in more control of what my income looks, despite whatever is happening in the world?” And so while we talk about “Yes, we want you to land a tech job”, I think a part of us, our mission and how we support the communities shifted during the pandemic and we’re like “You know what, we just want people to feel empowered to use tech in whatever way that they feel suits them.” So that means you’re learning about tech to get a nine to five - great. We’ll have resources to support you with that. But we also help people figure out if a business is something that they want to start. So we partner with other nonprofits that are focused on helping founders and small businesses, and we do partner content, and we’ve done things like that to help people figure out “How do you build something that people will actually pay for? What does that process look like?”

We came up with this 30-day challenge that helps people find an MVP of an idea. And just with that idea, without building anything, they try to find different ways to validate it, so that they know they’re going in the right direction, versus spinning in circles.

So while it may not be fitting for everyone to work in the industry, I still think it’s important for people to learn those skills and be able to navigate that. And then for people who feel like they’re struggling, and they feel like they’re stuck in the industry, and they still want to have a nine to five, we have a lot of programs and support around, again, building your skill set to help you build the skills you need to do well on your own, and help you level up. And then when it comes time to trying to find a new job, we even have programs around that.

[00:28:04.09] We have a new program called Talent choice. It’s a community-driven recruiting service, so that way your friends are hyping you up and giving you support, and walking you through the interview process. And we call those folks our community-based recruiters, and they are with you and they partner with you, they’ll go back and forth and help you negotiate your salary… And once you land and get that offer letter, you’re able to get a good salary, your recruiter also gets their commission, so they get paid out from the company. And so we have this network and this community that is able to support each other, find a company that suits them, and they’re able to do it in a way that money is flowing through our community, so people are really engaged with finding their friends good jobs… Which takes out that weirdness of having those LinkedIn recruiters hit you up and just throw anything at you. So there’s a lot of different ways we try to support people for whatever path that they want to go down.

Yeah, there’s a couple of things you said there that I love. So one, I don’t think we talk about enough how many different possible career paths there are with technical skills. If you can do software development, you can be an entrepreneur, you can be a freelancer, which gives you all sorts of different – if you have time constraints because you’re caregiving or other things like that, freelancing can be wonderful for that. You can be in-house at a tech company, you can be in a tech department of a non-tech company. Technical skills will help you if you are in like a product management role, or something like that. Like, there are so many different ways in which these skills have become useful in our world. And I think from the outside, sometimes you say “Oh, if I want to do software, I’ve gotta go and get an engineering job at Google.” Well, there’s not that many people who get an engineering job at Google. And

if you set that as the bar for yourself, you’re gonna probably be disappointed, and miss out on a lot of other really powerful opportunities.

Oh, yeah, 100%. And Valerie, I loved what you – first of all, amazing answer. Points for you, in the sense that I love that you’re kind of encouraging folks to think outside the box in terms of how they can be in tech, right? Most of us think, like Kball was saying, tech is kind of limited to FAANG. That doesn’t even include Microsoft, you know? It’s funny.
So just the sheer number of people that kind of miss out on incredible opportunities in lots of other industries, including starting their own business, like you said, and serving their communities - it’s just astronomical. Everyone’s kind of fighting for the same jobs, when there’s so many underserved industries, like education, government… You name it. Every single industry needs software engineers, right? So how do we now kind of spread the wealth, and uplift all these other industries that could use the talent? For me, I find that’s one of the other ways, especially for junior folks trying to break in. I always kind of tell them “Hey, consider other industries. Hey, Home Depot needs software engineers, right?” Your local hospital needs software engineers. And so it’s just really great to hear that you’re encouraging folks to kind of think outside the box.

And so once they kind of get their first job, going into your Stay pillar, what do you see as common themes for success, or kind of common pitfalls that people hit?

So I think one of the big things that everyone tends to run into is just like what do you do? I think people tend to hyper focus on “Let me build these skills. Let me learn how to do this as an independent individual, on a solo project.” There’s this disconnect between what it’s like to work and the actual workplace. So that is something we see often, and then once they get over that hurdle, it’s just like “Oh, reviews are here. How do I talk about my work? How do I advocate for myself?” Which I think is huge, especially for folks from marginalized backgrounds. We do not know how to talk about ourselves in a way that really speaks to our accomplishments. And so I think one of the things that we’ve started doing is we have a weekly career prompt, because we tell people, we tell our community “You have to take control of your own career. These things just don’t happen.” And so we help people understand how to create a brag sheet, how to tie that to the workplace KPIs; how do you then talk to your manager about the work that you’ve done? And these weekly prompts just help you navigate and help you figure out what it is you are good at, what do you like to do, how do you talk about it, who do you work with, and it just helps you create this track record of what you’ve been doing in the workplace to help you get to that promotion. Because that’s the next big thing, and the bigger reason why I see a lot of folks in our community start to leave tech, is because it’s like they hit this glass ceiling.

I see a lot of people move up, and it’s a lot easier to move up and you’re like going from junior to mid-level… But sometimes people stall out with senior. They find that there’s these different hurdles that they have to jump to get that senior title… And there’s really no clear reason why. And because our industry is setup that senior at one place means

something completely different than senior at another company, it’s this huge gray area that just allows all of the negative self-talk, the doubt, all of that starts to seep in and people start to question if they’re good enough. And so we also have stuff to just – again, talking about mental health and things like that, to help people navigate and move through those different spaces.

Yeah, that’s really fantastic. And everything you shared I feel is just generally – I mean, this is great for anyone, but I would say especially folks that are marginalized, like you said… Because those are the folks that really need to kind of like take that advocacy to the next level, where they’re advocating for themselves. So that’s really fantastic. And those are all resources available for free, I’m assuming, right?

Yes, all for free.

[00:35:49.04] So that gap from - whether it’s mid-level to senior, or sometimes it’s senior to staff, that is a place where engineers across the board tend to get stuck, because the types of things, the type of work changes, and the type of skills you need change. And it’s not well – there’s nobody teaching it necessarily, so you need to have a mentor, or a manager who’s guiding you through that. But to kind of your point, if you are disadvantaged, one of the ways that that shows up is you are often less likely to have a direct mentor at work, where your manager is less likely to give you that hands-on guidance, or help you get through that transition that is hard for everyone, and requires a mentor for everyone. But if you have fewer role models, and less access to those sorts of mentorship folks, you’re much more likely to get stuck. And to your point, getting stuck feels bad. If you already have self-doubts, if you already have people talking down to you in one way or another for whatever reason - that’s going to compound.

Yeah. And I think the other thing to touch upon that growth area - sometimes you are just offered different stretch projects and things like that. And depending on the company, especially if it’s a startup, or maybe it’s just a really large company, there’s not a lot of those. So people have to go outside of the workplace to try to get that experience. And if I’m being honest, that’s how I moved into management so quickly; starting a nonprofit, funnily enough, makes you really good manager. But not everyone’s going to start a nonprofit, nor do I think everyone needs to start a nonprofit to be a manager… And so another thing that we started to implement in our programming is giving our senior folks and our folks trying to get those stretch projects opportunities, but through our open source project, as well as our mentorship program, to be able to build that leadership and be able to talk about architecture in a very different way than they may have been able to in the workplace, because they don’t have access to those projects.

And so a big part of our open source project is that folks – we do it in a cohort. It’s usually a small cohort, we’ll build a small project, but we’ll pair folks up with mentors from the industry. And these are people who, again, are looking for those stretch projects, to get that experience that they can take back to the workplace.

So even though our programs are targeted sometimes more toward entry level or mid level folks, there’s always this other component that we build in, so that people who are looking to grow from senior and higher can still build those skill sets, and they can come to us as a place to fill in those gaps and figure out what the next steps are. And we also have mentors for them. So I think it’s just a really great way to be in community, and support each other throughout whatever stage of a tech journey you’re on.

Yeah. I mean, that sounds like a phenomenal thing, that I feel like every engineer needs in their life, really… But especially the folks in your community. And so can you tell us a little bit more about the specifics of this open source project that you all meet up?

Yeah. So this is one of the honestly first programs we launched for Tech by Choice. Funny enough, our very first open source project was a design project, which is not very typical for open source… And so what we do is we get a cohort of a small team, like 8 to 10 people, and you’ll have developers, designers, a PM, and depending on what the project is, you’ll see a dedicated accessibility person, or different roles pop in and out, like security, and we will just build out like a mini project together over a span of three to six months. And throughout that program, by the end of the program, folks get a stipend for their work, and completing it, and they also get paired with mentors on the way…

[00:40:00.19] So we get to have check-ins, to have someone who’s doing a code review with you, and because it’s scheduled check-ins, we can hop on a Zoom with them and have them review your code and explain things in real time, which we’ve found to be the biggest benefit. Same with design feedback, having that Zoom session makes such a big difference in people’s ability to grow.

And throughout that project we try to have as much fun as possible, but it’s also really exciting to get to the end of it, and have people put in their portfolio… And we’re now able to be references for people for work, because they got the experience of working on a team, and we can say “Yes, they’re really good at that, and this is what they need coaching on, and this is how you can support them” once they start that first day of work.

I’m going to start crying…

I mean, I have a coaching client right now who is a career switcher. So they’re not in a financially disadvantaged state, because they’re coming from a different career. So they were able to pay for coaching, for example. But we have essentially been manufacturing what you’re talking about here; he’s been going out to meetups, finding people to work on projects together… Basically, what you’re trying to do getting in is build a track record; build some sort of demonstration that “Yes, I can do this work”, because that first job is the hardest job you’re ever gonna get, because you don’t have any sort of track record. And it’s a tremendous amount of effort and work doing that.

And he’s been paying for a coach to help him through this process, and he’s been doing all of this – he’s able to take a bunch of time and dedicate to this and figure it out, because he has the money from a previous career, which is great; that’s good. But if you have all these different sort of barriers that we’ve been talking about in place, how do you do that? Well, it sounds like how you do that is Tech by Choice.

Yes, yes.

Yeah, I think you just got your little ad. Just like, bottle that up, put that on the website… That’s like your 10-second pitch. Yeah, Valerie, honestly, there’s just so much to that project. There’s so many layers that you tackle… Like, experience, collaboration, open source contributions… Getting that one on one mentorship time, that most people get in their first two to three years of working in a job… For every hour you pair with someone that’s a junior engineer, that’s such a world of difference to them. It’s just kind of like a game-changing thing, because they’re just absorbing and learning and growing at such a fast rate that anything you throw at them is just – it’s gonna be insightful, it’s gonna move the needle for them.

I remember my first professional job as a software engineer, getting that mentorship experience, and being able to sit one on one with senior engineers - it really helped me level up, like drastically. And so I’m sure you see all kinds of serious leveling up for folks by the time they’re done with that project. Can you share some success stories from that?

Yeah, I think my favorite one is actually our very first project… And again, our very first open source project was a design project; I still don’t know how or why we thought that was the coolest thing to do… But it was, and it worked. But I taught a UX bootcamp a couple years ago, I think it was right when I was starting the nonprofit… And I had one student that – a couple of my students from that course ended up joining the nonprofit, and one of them ended up joining that Open Source Initiative. And I think it was the perfect example of when you would want to join a program like that, and what the outcome could look like. So she was able to go through that program right after the boot camp, and working with a few different folks from the industry, getting feedback rapidly, and we were building, and prototyping… And actually, if you look at the Tech by Choice website, all of our branding - that came from the open source project. I get so many compliments on that. They always want to know what agency we worked with, and things like that, and I tell them that it’s our community.

[00:44:20.24] And so we were able to put that into her portfolio, and she was able – I think it was just a few months after we wrapped up that project she landed her first job in the industry, doing product design work… And it was the best example of how just having a dedicated hands-on working experience in a team can make a really big change, and help you land that job and continue to grow. She’s still in the community now; I just had a Zoom with her the other day, we’re helping her look for her next role… So a great story, a great example, a great person… Just my favorite experience from that program.

That’s incredible. And so how can people help? Because I’m sure people are listening to this like “Wow, it sounds like Valerie and her team are doing really great work at Tech by Choice.” The website’s techbychoice.org, by the way, a website that was built by folks in her community. And so can you share some insights on how folks can get involved, and help you in your mission as allies?

Yeah, I think there’s a – our biggest need is always going to be funding. So any resources or connections to sponsorships, if there’s any companies who are listening and want to get involved - we’re a really great community to work with… Especially if you want people to be your spokesperson in these companies, to use your product or your framework. I would love to do any partnerships that way. We’re always looking for mentors… We really need folks who are experienced, especially with the downturn within our industry right now, with hiring just not being that great… We need folks who are currently working in the space just to be there and be mentors for folks, to let them know that things will get better, they’re going to get better, and that they have a support system to get through all of this.

So if you’re open to being a mentor for a community, definitely check out our website. We are looking for volunteers as well. Running all of these programs is pretty hard on our small team, so we have a number of volunteer openings on our site that you can take a look at. And donations. Donations are always great, and they help. Right now, if you donate $25, that will cover two people to come to one of our free events. So you can see how small donations - huge impacts. So those are a few other ways to help. If anyone has any ideas, feel free to reach out through the website.

Yeah, I think – not to jump on this, but something you said there I think is really important to re-emphasize, which is that the industry right now is tough to break into. I know people with over a decade of experience, who are looking for new jobs, and they say it’s the hardest they’ve ever seen it in their recent experience.

And anytime, anytime I’ll say to people who are new, saying “The first job you get is the hardest you’ll ever get. Don’t give up.” It’s hardest to find that first one; it’s the biggest barrier. And once you get that first one, things get a lot easier. That’s still true, but now that barrier has gotten even higher, because the tech industry is in the doldrums. That won’t be true forever. It really won’t. And to the point that you both have made, the tech industry is one where the money can be life-changing. It’s one of the few places currently in the economy, where you don’t need a particular degree to come in and end up making six figures. And if your family has struggled, if you’re coming from a place where that’s a lot of money, that can be so life-changing for you and the people around you.

[00:48:13.03] So yeah, it’s really hard right now, it’s really hard for everyone, but if you persevere and get through it, it will get better. You keep showing up and doing the work, and eventually you will get that opportunity, and it can change your life.

We need the people who are building the products to represent the people who are using the products, right? And so we need all kinds of people writing software, right? Because all kinds of people are using software. And so until we close that gap, there’s always gonna be injustice in the software. There’s gonna be bias, and all kinds of things. And so we need you. We need more people that are different, in all capacities; not just race… All capacities.

So I really thank you, Valerie, for taking this work on, and honestly, I’m just – I’m very emotional right now. I really am. Because it’s just like, you’re someone who came into this [unintelligible 00:49:01.21] through struggle. You entered, you stayed, you thrived, and now you’re… I’m sorry.

It’s okay.

And now you’re helping others.

And the reason why you’re so emotional is why I do the work, because the change that I’ve seen just within my own life… I remember the first time I got a good paying job. I was highly underpaid for a very long time. I almost crashed my car because I answered this phone while I was driving… And when she told me my salary, I couldn’t believe it, I didn’t think it would ever be possible… And I think that week my mom had just went into the hospital, and I didn’t know how I was going to make anything work. Because that meant she wouldn’t be able to work anymore, and I didn’t know what to do. And that’s the type of life-changing things that can happen by getting a salary that can relieve stress from you, but also your family. And I try not to think about it this often… I know that means that I’ve changed the direction for my own life, because I was gonna be an artist. So much different, way different than tech. Right? I changed the direction –

You can still do that. [laughs]

On the side.

On the side, yeah.

But I’ve changed the direction of my life, and I’ve changed direction of my family’s life… Even my mom, even at her age. So anyone I can help have the same experience… I had my own barriers, but got through it, so I want to see as many people come along and do the same thing, and have the same emotions that we both have.

Amen to that, and just thank you for everything that you do, really. I mean, I think the conversation - money in particular, is one that we don’t really have often enough in this industry… It is such a barrier, it’s such a burden… It’s such – it’s so many things, and we just don’t talk about it. And so thank you for shedding light on this issue. Thank you for everything that you’re doing.

For folks who are listening, please donate money, donate time, donate expertise… There’s lots of ways for you to become an ally and make a difference in people’s lives, so you can help support the next Valerie.
And so I guess, to kind of close this out, Valerie, can you share some insights for how you’ve grown, and what you’ve learned, and what’s kind of next for you as a leader, as an engineer, as so many things?

I think one of biggest things I’ve learned is that I don’t have to do it all, and that this mission that I’m very passionate about doesn’t require just me to make it come through, make it something that is real, and that it takes a whole community. And I think I had a very difficult year this year, and I thought that meant that the nonprofit would have to possibly close, because I didn’t know how I would balance all the things…

[00:52:16.00] And as soon as I shared with the community what was going on, they instantly showed up and they said “Oh, you’ve done all this work. We’re here to support you. We need this, we want this, and so tell us what to do.” And I think that’s a testament to – it’s not just me, and I’m not the important person in this whole entire organization; it is the community. And we always say “Forget test-driven development”, because that is complicated sometimes, and I hate when my code doesn’t pass a test… Our community is 100% community-driven development. And to me, that’s what I’ve learned to be the most important, and it’s the thing that has kept me going with the nonprofit, that has made me continue to be passionate about it… But it’s also the thing that has made me not leave this industry. I haven’t always found the best workplaces; I’ve worked at very toxic places. But being in community, and knowing that we can also step up and support each other makes the biggest difference.

So well said. And yeah, it’s surprisingly difficult to find places that are not toxic in tech. Especially the more people know about the company, it seems like the more toxic it is, surprisingly… But yeah, so well said. Thank you so much. And Kball, anything else you want to kind of add, or close out, or any questions before we kind of wrap up?

I mean, I think the overwhelming message coming through to me here is the importance of putting your hand down, as you climb up a ladder, whatever that ladder may be, wherever along it you are, whether you have just broken into the tech industry from a disadvantaged background, or you’ve been in the industry for 20 years and climbed up to some high level - put your hand down to help somebody else climb up that ladder, because it is life-changing for them, and… I mean, to your point about like doing the work, one of the reasons I got into coaching - the thing that is most meaningful about the technology work we do, the work in tech, is the people we impact. The code that I wrote 10 years ago is not still in production. I’ve been working in this industry for close to 20 years, and pretty much everything that I wrote has been transient in one form or another. Some of it has lasted longer than others, but it’s pretty much all transient. That is the nature of the work. What is not transient is the people you meet along the way, your ability to help them change their lives, and the relationships that you build out of that. And so I think looking at this, Valerie, you’re doing incredible work on this, and I think you have the background to bring a perspective that most people in tech don’t have…

An important perspective, too.

And an important perspective. And we should listen to that. But I think the message also coming out of this is no matter where you are in tech, there is someone who wishes they could get to where you are. And if you can lend down some advice, mentorship, sponsorship, a hand, buy that plane ticket, or tell your HR “Hey, when you’re we’re interviewing folks, we need to actually either interview them remotely…” Do some sort of advocacy to help them get that hand up to that first opportunity. That’s what I think we’re asking for here, and that’s one way to make a huge difference in a lot of people’s lives.

So well said. And so Valerie, again, I just – I’ve never cried on this podcast, and I’ve done so many shows… I’ve never, never cried on the podcast, and that’s just because I’m so – I see myself in your story, I understand how much effort goes into doing something like this, and how much leadership I think you bring to this project, and just what kind of impact this is having on people’s lives. So really, just… Thank you, thank you, thank you. Again, please donate your time, your money, your expertise. TechbyChoice.org. Valerie, if folks want to connect with you, where can they find you on the internet?

I believe I’m on all social media platforms, and my handle is @digitalblkhippy. It’s fun, it’s cute, it’s something I had way too young, and never let it go.

It’s a great handle. Alright, well, I guess that’s our show for this week, everyone. Thank you so much again, Valerie, and I hope everyone has a lovely rest of their day.


Our transcripts are open source on GitHub. Improvements are welcome. 💚

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