Ai Santos

@asantos3026

Becoming An Engineer: the non-traditional path

My blogs chronicle my experience as a technologist making my way into Silicon Valley. I am a queer person of color, gender non-conforming, immigrant, and ex-foster youth. I come from a non-traditional coding background. I studied a few CS courses in college and ended up majoring in the humanities before becoming a teacher. Teaching web development to under served teens turned me on to coding. After finishing coding school, I began working at start ups in San Francisco. Half of my blogs will be about technical subjects and the other half will be about equality, and tech access.

Legos Not Barbies

Growing up in the Philippines in the 1980s, I was inundated with natural beauty, the love of my grandparents and American pop culture. At the same time I was memorizing my multiplication tables, I was listening to Michael Jackson. My parents already in the US would send me presents.

I was an explorer, adventurer and builder from an early age. For my 5th birthday, I asked for Legos. Instead my parents sent me a doll. I did not realize it at the time, but I was inadvertently discouraged to pursue my bourgeoning curiosity in engineering.

Passion For STEM

In high school, I became interested in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math classes. While living in foster care, I took on two jobs to afford owning a car, spending money for clothes, outings with friends, and normal high school age activities. On top of that, I was not “innately gifted” at STEM and with such a busy schedule, it was challenging to do as well as students who were able to rely on their parents for financial support.

Whomever said institutionalized academic education is a fair “race,” lives on the side of class privilege. Financial disadvantage plagued me for most of my academic career. It was hard to accept that the reason I did not do well in college was not due to skill. I made decisions based on survival which did not always lead to academic success. Still, I did well enough to graduate high school with college credits in Calculus and got accepted to all three colleges I applied to. I was accepted into a small, private college for Pharmacy education. After attending for 6 years, I would have had the equivalent of a Pharmaceutical doctorate degree. Again, financial disadvantage played its role, I received sixty percent scholarship, not enough to pay for living expenses, books, and school needs. It was also an out of state school which made it more difficult to find financial aid. I set my dream of becoming a pharmacist aside to attend a state university on a pre-pharmacy track.

In college, I continued my hustle, with two or three jobs while juggling 16–18 credits. Most of my courses in my freshman and sophomore years, were what has been labeled as “weed out” classes. There were often few women or people of color, who were not East or South Asian students. Courses were scheduled as early as 730 or 8 am in the morning, sometimes on a Friday and comprised of about 200–300 students crammed into dimly lit lecture halls. Not necessarily built to support the success of under privileged students who already doubted their own abilities and also juggled multiple work / school responsibilities.

There were academic support programs available for students like myself. The Educational Opportunity Fund is a great example, except it required the one thing most difficult to sacrifice and manage due to economic hardship — time. It did not however deter my passion to pursue STEM. I continued taking courses in the pre-pharmacy track. Unable to focus only on my pre-pharmacy pre-requisite classes and because they were already set up to weed students out, I ended up doing poorly or retaking them. By mid-junior year, I faced a difficult decision of either changing majors or continuing to fight an uphill battle of academic success in STEM.

Following A Different Path

I found myself in English courses. Literary theory to be exact. I found myself analyzing, criticizing, and thinking deeply about ideas found in fictional literary text. I excelled in my new major. My classes were much smaller, twenty-five to thirty. The requirements less rigorous. I had to read novels, write papers, and be prepared to discuss assignments in class. However the requirements allowed me to maintain multiple jobs, support myself and still do well in college. Even though my life seemed to have gotten better and academic success was within reach. I felt a pang of loss unable to pursue a career in STEM. I would often talk in job interviews about studying STEM. My first “adult” job was at a non-profit medical research institution as an administrative assistant. I carried this dream deferred and pang of loss for most of my young adult life until I became a teacher.

Teaching Is A Science

I was bored working admin assistant jobs. I punched into my nine to five job day in and out. It afforded me to live in one of the most expensive cities in the world — San Francisco. I was not worried about losing shelter, food, and basic needs. I was accumulating debt but at the time I did not see this as an immediate danger. But I was losing a tiny piece of my soul daily. I felt less and less like myself working without purpose or engagement. My self-esteem around intelligence, critical thinking, and analysis was beginning to fade.

A monumental tragedy caused me to move from the bay area and serendipitously allowed me to quit my job. Both of my parents passed away during the same year. I decided to move to Florida to support my family and began taking education courses whilst living there. I received my teaching credential and applied to teach in the bay area. Six months later, I was teaching at a public high school in deep East Oakland, plagued with socio economic blight and gang violence. I knew I needed more training. Teaching is a science. It requires both high levels of emotional intelligence (EQ) and academic knowledge (IQ). When teaching and learning fails in a classroom, more mechanics are involved than simply self-blame, student motivation, and environmental experience. I went back to school to get a Master’s in education. The depth of knowledge I needed to teach at schools where I taught required that of an excellent and not a novice teacher.

Meanwhile, all of the learning, iterating, and innovating I was doing in and out of the classroom was getting my critical, analytical, and empathetic mind active again. I was never bored in the classroom, except when giving standardized tests. I used an immense amount of technology because adolescent students gravitated towards it like fish to water and it allowed me to individualize my curriculum.

My last year of teaching, I was asked to teach web development as part of a gender study in an after school program. As I was teaching, the curriculum intrigued and excited me. I was exercising my analytical mind while teaching / learning technology. It was an exciting time for both myself and my students. We were all learning by doing. At the end of that school year, I was contemplating applying to coding schools, which were becoming popular in the bay area, and becoming a software engineer full time.

Becoming An Engineer

This was a leap. I had taken one or two computer science courses in college. I had programmed using WYSIWIG tools like Dreamweaver. I had never taken linear algebra, in depth courses in computer languages, algorithms and foundational concepts in software development. I had made leaps in my life before this time but this one felt like an Olympic long jump. I was intrigued by coding schools. They promised to teach skills that would allow me to become employable in the technology industry within three months. Is this real?

Part of me knew there was a “pie in the sky” mentality being sold to me by coding bootcamps. Coming from traditional academic background, I knew what it took to learn / excel in a subject matter. I did well at coding school. I was in the top 25% of my class of 40. Unfortunately, in technical interviews, I found that I had only glossed the surface of software engineering. From failed interviews, I knew I was not quite ready to enter the technology industry.

So I enrolled in another program. A lengthier program 10 months, where I would be paid a stipend to learn. The program was super new. It was not established and basically an experiment. Having been a survivor / warrior / thriver for most of my lie, I was able to glean what I could from it and landed an internship at an early stage start up in San Francisco.

Learning By Doing

I was learning at a fast rate. I was being asked to write production ready code that would be shipped every two weeks to users. I was on the Front End team so I was working on high impact features. Learning in this way was beneficial, fast, and highly stimulating. It is also a way to fail — A LOT. I was not quite used to this iterative learning strategy in an industry setting so battled and got defeated by imposter syndrome often. At the end of three months, the CTO had decided not to convert my internship to a full time position, a hard failure to face.

Finding Success

Fortunately, my tech access story does not end there. Because of my drive, work ethic, tenacity, the support of family, mentors, tech access activists, and queer, trans people of color community, I was recently hired as a full time Associate QA Automation Engineer at another start up, one I am exceptionally proud to be part of its engineering team. So how did I make it happen in spite of obstacles, loss and failure? What sage advice did I follow during trials and tribulations?

1. Switch Up Your Mindset

Find your inner engineer — believe in yourself. Surround yourself with a network of people who unequivocally believe in what you are trying to achieve. Let go of anyone who contributes to self-doubt. Stay positive. Understand that failure, hard work, tenacity, and perseverance are what we learn from the most and what makes success so sweet.

2. Level Up With People In The Same Community

“Out of a great need. We are all holding hands and climbing.” — Hafiz

Build community with folks of similar identities who are trying to reach the same goal. Attend meetups to learn and build with relationships not just network. Find a mentor, become a mentee and later become a mentor. Encourage, support each other and search for community who already work in tech who want to open doors for you. These people exist!!! Think of this process as an awesome system that supports under represented people to gain access into the tech industry. Give back.

3. Let Go Of Ego

Know that engineering is a team sport. The best solutions are found when discussing / working on problems together. Learn how to take feedback with grace and openness. Learn how to give feedback with grace and openness. Let go of negative, self-defeating habits like gossiping, creating unhealthy rivalry with coworkers, and yes, even let go of sarcasm at work.

I am still on my journey to growing my engineering skills and knowledge. For now, I know I have reached a good foundation to begin, one that seemed unreachable at first. You can reach out to me via comments to let me know your story and if you are interested in tech access activism. Good luck. Don’t give up.

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