I’ll cut to the chase -- my origin story begins with money: the lack of money, the allure of money, and the pursuit of money. Unlike many of today’s software engineers, I didn’t know what programming was until I reached my early 20s. (In 2006, at age 11, I frequently and fervently edited the HTML on my MySpace page. I felt like I was in an unspoken competition with my friends to have the most aesthetic profile, but I didn't know that was coding).
Prior to that, when I thought of software engineers or anyone in the tech industry, I thought of television characters like Wade from Kim Possible. The idea of looking at a black computer screen with green letters for long periods didn’t seem enticing. The promise of a financially stable life is what initially attracted me.Wade from Kim Possible
I'm choosing to be this honest because I represent so many marginalized identities. The ugly reality is many individuals who share similar identities also got into tech for the money. Fortunately, tech reignited my love for constant learning and provided me with the opportunity to empower others.
The Lack of Money
I grew up poor. I understand that poor is a relative term, and I acknowledge that I had some privileges (everyone does). For example, I am able-bodied. I never really went to bed hungry (not sure how my mom did it, but I was always full), and my parents (especially my mom) were always invested in my education. In general, I have a very strong support system composed of my family, friends, and church members. My economic disadvantages were more evident in my living situations. Most of my childhood was spent living in homeless shelters, public housing, and attics. Sometimes, my immediate family shared a room in a home that belonged to an extended family member. Other times, we faced eviction from apartments we rented on our own.Rizel in her birthplace, Antigua
My biggest insecurity was my immigration status. I was undocumented because after coming here on a visa, my parents inadvertently overstayed their time, which meant I couldn't get a job, get a car, travel, or get federal financial aid.
Back in the early 2000s, people weren't as progressive or aware of the implications of living in America as an undocumented immigrant. Without knowing my secret, my classmates often made jokes about people who crossed the border and deportation. As a kid, I felt guilty and trapped by a stigma that I had no control over.Rizel at her kindergarten graduation
The Allure of Money
Among a myriad of other obstacles, I dreamed of getting a fancy job to finally achieve a financially stable (or even wealthy) lifestyle. From my perspective, the way to achieve this was to go to college, but first, I had to figure out how I could go to college for free.
The Pursuit of Money
Besides, the high academic expectations my Afro-Caribbean parents had for me, I was self-motivated to excel in school from a young age because I knew that people got into college for free with scholarships, and I knew I wasn't eligible for many scholarships due to my immigration status.
In 3rd grade, I made sure I was eligible to enroll in Boston's Advance Work Class program.Rizel in first grade
In 6th grade, I spent my summer studying for the ISEE -- an entrance exam that would allow me to attend Boston Latin School. BLS has a great reputation since it's the oldest public school in America. Admittance is based on good grades and high scores on the entrance exam, but once I attended, I realized that it was riddled with elitism, racism, and too much stress for a 12-year-old moving from homeless shelter to homeless shelter, so I left after two years.Rizel and her classmates at Boston Latin School in 2007
I switched to a different high school and graduated valedictorian of my small high school class of 13 students. I found and attended a free SAT prep program called Let’s Get Ready. I hoped by the end of this I would somehow receive a full scholarship, but my efforts were futile. I only received small scholarships that couldn't cover much. Understandably, my parents didn’t have money to contribute.Rizel at her high school graduation
Still, I was determined to attend college, so I unwisely traveled from Massachusetts to Alabama to attend Oakwood University on a partial scholarship. After the first semester, I had to return to Boston because I did not have money to pay for the next semester.
Back in Boston, I had no job, no money, no school, and all my friends were busy in college. I was devastated, to say the least, because all that work invested to avoid this situation as a child felt like a waste. I felt like I could've just put in less effort and still end up in the same spot.
My life changed when I finally got my DACA approval. I applied a year and a half before (or so) when the Obama administration introduced the opportunity for students who were undocumented to work, get a car, and live like an average young adult.
In true overly ambitious Rizel fashion, I started working at too many jobs. I worked at a non-profit called Let’s Get Ready, H&M as a Sales Associate, and Planet Fitness as a Front Desk Representative at the same time. Eventually, I realized that working at all three organizations was not sustainable for a 21-year-old girl with no car. I decided to focus my time and energy on Planet Fitness -- working a 5 am to 1 pm shift.
My friend told me about Phlebotomy, a job where I could complete a short certificate program and make seven dollars more than my hourly wage to draw blood. I completed the program while working at Planet Fitness.
At Planet Fitness I developed awesome relationships with the members. One of them, a woman of color, encouraged me to become a software engineer. She was the first female AND first non-white software engineer I ever met. She asked me what [programming] languages I already knew and embarrassingly I told her English, American Sign Language, and a little bit of Japanese (from my Japanese class in fourth grade).
Now, I had a new goal. Even though I was going for a new position as a phlebotomist, my ultimate goal was to join the tech industry. I almost enrolled in community college for Computer Science but felt discouraged by the heavy math requirements. Due to a poor foundation in math and a menacing high school math teacher who often made sure students sat outside of the class instead of inside the class, I was not confident in my math skills, so I decided to major in Computer Information Systems.
Let's fast-forward my journey a bit.
Falling in Love with Tech
- After completing my certificate in Phlebotomy at Roxbury Community College, I worked at Massachusetts General Hospital while completing my Associate’s in Computer Information Systems at Bunker Hill Community College.
- I landed an IT internship at the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston. This was the best, most empowering internship I’ve had to date. They made me feel like I belonged in the tech industry and helped me discover my love for empowering people through technology by demystifying tech. By this time, I had abandoned the idea of getting into tech for the money.
- I left Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston to join a program called Hack.Diversity because I was in search of a community of technical black folk, and I wanted to challenge myself with more cutting-edge technology.
- Through Hack.Diversity, I interned at HubSpot as a Data Analyst and then as a Help Desk Technician. At HubSpot, I was exposed to what programming looked like in the industry. I was tasked with accessing HubSpot’s web communications data with Zoom’s public API. Of course, I was intrigued, so I looked for free ways to become a software engineer without math and I came across the best coding boot camp ever — Resilient Coders.
- I enrolled in an amazing non-profit full-stack coding boot camp called Resilient Coders with my boyfriend. It was tough, competitive, and full of sleepiness nights, but I was proud of us. In the end, Leon Noel, David Delmar, and others provided me with the skills to create a web app using Augmented Reality for my final project.
- I interned at Formlabs as a developer on their Systems team.
- I interned at Veson Nautical as a Software Engineer, and I converted to a full-time role.
- I enrolled in Boston University after an coworker referred to me as a “Bootcamp kid”. I was feeling copious amounts of impostor syndrome, and I wanted to fill in any gaps that I had.
- Realizing I missed and loved start-up energy, I joined an insurTech start-up called Hi Marley where I got the chance to build impactful and complex features using React, Redux, Node, and AWS/Serverless. I completed my Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science at BU during my two years at Hi Marley.
- By this time, I was feeling drained, but I restored some of my dormant energy while I volunteered at G|Code House -- an organization aiming to provide housing and tech learning to women of color.
In January 2021, I reflected on my wonky career journey. I was burnt out, suffering from work/racial trauma, and I wasn’t even sure why I was in tech anymore. From my first internship to my most recent job, I realized I spent my time giggling at my coworkers’ offensive comments about black people or women to fit in. I skipped sleep, neglected my friendships, and forgot about my hobbies, so that I could catch up with my coworkers’ skill level. At one job, my coworkers groaned and rolled their eyes when I asked for help. People didn’t review my code thoroughly but blamed me when my code broke production.
Activities that were meant to encourage team building felt embarrassing for me. I couldn’t really answer questions like: “What was the [insert most privileged thing] you ever did?”
Whether they knew it or not, my coworkers often discouraged me with their seemingly harmless, yet hurtful microaggressions and unfiltered opinions like:
“One day, you will be a good software engineer”
“You need to start thinking like an engineer”
“I know you are trying to do all the hard projects because you are trying to prove yourself as a minority.”
“He’s not even a real diversity candidate, like you, because he already has a degree.”
“I don’t know how you got this job without a degree. Honestly, I’m impressed.”
I deserved better, so I wrote a list of things that I was looking for in my next job:
Mentorship or Sponsorship within the company: Technical and the kind where someone is advocating for me
Employees and managers that care about my growth
Work-life balance: the ability to log off and not feel guilty
A team that prioritizes hiring diverse early
Teammates that will help you without making you feel dumb
No obscenely late-night software releases
A team that values my opinions
No political conversations that were leaning anti-black
Opportunity to empower other engineers
Pay me my worth
To not feel isolated
To not feel forced to overshare certain parts of my life
Don’t have to constantly prove myself
A team that is easy to talk to
Remote, to avoid awkwardly forcing myself to fit in with my coworkers
During my search, I found Botany and it checked all of the requirements. The best part about Botany is that we are building an application that probably would’ve helped me in the earliest parts of my career. Botany’s application promotes visibility, engineering growth, and healthy team dynamics. Each week, I pair program with a coworker and my manager. Additionally, my manager encourages me to reflect, read, blog about the technical concepts I’ve learned. He even carved out time for me to blog biweekly. The majority of my career (mostly my fault) has been spent moving so fast and breaking things that I haven’t gotten a chance to absorb what I’ve learned. I’m excited to use this platform to reinforce my technical and career learnings as I aspire towards new goals. I’m overjoyed that I have the opportunity to learn and inspire women of color alongside my coworker, Maya Shende. Most of all, I’m relieved that I’m finally taking control of my career.
Reference to the Where Money Resides meme
-- Rizel B.