Finding My Path Toward Coding - Maritza Alas
My interest and fascination with computers was always there. My first computer was an old and used model that my dad brought home. I remember playing and customizing the settings because I liked the idea that I could control what the computer did. How does this feature work? What happens when I change this? I was following my natural curiosity. My early interests in computers would suggest that I followed my interests, studied computer science, and began my career as a coder, but that is far from the truth. I’m pretty sure that I took the long path, but I found my way. I’ve decided to share my story because I would like other aspiring Latina coders to follow their dreams! I realize that encouragement is extremely important to a curious and young mind. I didn’t have that support growing up and can imagine that there may be other young minds without such inspiration either. Just in case there are other young Latinas who are contemplating the idea of becoming a coder – I hope my story inspires you.
In high school I knew that there was is a field called computer science, but I didn’t know exactly what that meant. I strayed away from computers for most of my life because I didn’t think I was smart enough. I thought technology was cool, but I wasn't able to understand its connections to computers yet. Also, I didn’t know of any teachers, role models, or Latinas that were a part of the computer science field. No one around me was talking about computers. I made a simple, yet a very important conclusion - computers were not for me! My mindset was totally wrong. What I didn’t know was that coding is a discipline that can be learned, even as early as elementary school. I just didn’t know this at the time. I was an average student who paid attention and did my homework. I didn’t have perfect grades, but I knew I was good at math. I knew that math was somehow related to computers and technology, but I didn’t have anyone guiding my path or answering my questions. I was a good student overall, but I did not understand how I could link my interests to an actual career path.
"In high school I knew that there was is a field called computer science, but I didn’t know exactly what that meant. I strayed away from computers for most of my life because I didn’t think I was smart enough"
As a young girl I dreamed of being successful. My dream was always to work for a place like NASA. The idea of building robots to be sent out to study planets and solar systems is just amazing to me. Moving out and getting unstuck from where I was born was important to me because our neighborhood wasn't the best. My mom was and still is my role model because I always saw her as a strong and independent woman. She worked hard as a housekeeper to provide for our family. I knew that I wanted to be like her and help her as much as I could. Plus I wanted her and my dad to be proud of me. Although my dreams didn’t have much detail, they were important because they kept me motivated. I didn’t have the best study habits, but I did well in school. Mom always encouraged me to go to college because it was the best way to make something of my life. I began at the community college because I was still uncertain of what I wanted to pursue as a career. I did well in college because I was the type of student to complete assigned readings and assignments. Also, I gave myself enough time to avoid rushing homework and projects. I truly believe that time management is an important part to doing well in school. I was the quiet type who listened closely during lectures to absorb what was being taught. These strategies helped me complete two associate degrees while at the community college.
"Although my dreams didn’t have much detail, they were important because they kept me motivated. I didn’t have the best study habits, but I did well in school. Mom always encouraged me to go to college because it was the best way to make something of my life"
I decided to seek help from counselors to help me with the transfer process. I was on my way to a university, but still did not have computers and coding in mind. Deciding early on that computers were not in my future was a big mistake. I decided to attend the University of California at Riverside (UCR) as a theater and film major. I was interesting in studying post-production because I wanted to deeply understand the behind the scenes process of films. My transition from the community college to university was rocky because I moved into a quarter system. Quarter system moves along much faster and requires better study strategies. I adjusted by spending more time on reading assignments and core concepts covered in class. Simply listening to lectures no longer worked because so much was being covered and because the weeks went by so fast. Taking my time to read meant that I was processing information at my own pace rather than simply hearing the professor. Although I was being challenged, I was enjoying my time at UCR. However, I would soon find out that I was not going to pursue filming making as a career.
I could see my friends and classmates deeply invested in our work and projects. They were excited and passionate about what they were studying. I liked what I was doing, but didn’t feel passionate as they did. I always knew that I wanted to love my work. I knew that an important part of finding a career path was feeling passionate about everyday experiences that come along with work. Toward the end of my academic career at UCR I realized that I struggled because I was missing an important element to motivation – passion! It is much easier to study hard and spend countless hours on a project when passion is part of the process. I was nearing graduation feeling excited and scared. I was the first in the family to graduate. The anticipation was a reminder of an important accomplishment. I enjoyed my actual graduation because I attended the traditional ceremony that all students attend, but also a graduation that highlighted our Latino culture. I enjoyed the ceremony that represented my culture the most because my mom walked me to my seat. That simple walk was a special moment that we shared during such a special occasion. The scary part for me was what was coming after graduation.
"I always knew that I wanted to love my work. I knew that an important part of finding a career path was feeling passionate about everyday experiences that come along with work"
I spent months looking for work in the film making industry. I was being strategic by applying to positions that involved being an assistant with hopes to transition into management. I wanted to use my degree and was also thinking about future options. There I was with my degree, but still unsure of my career path. I went to my local WorkSource center a few months after graduating for guidance and help with finding work. I was hired at Youth Policy Institute, which is an amazing company that played a major role in pushing me forward and out of my comfort zones. With their help I decided to seek guidance at a workforce center, a decision that I’m so happy I made. This was the first time I told my case manager that I was interested in information technology (IT). I figured that I needed to honest with him and myself. He recommended a web development boot camp. I didn’t know what exactly that was at the time, but went to an information session where I gave programming a try and fell in love instantly. I had never seen actual code, but I was drawn to it immediately. That’s where my love of coding began. It was like being reunited with a long-lost love.
"That’s where my love of coding began. It was like being reunited with a long-lost love".
The boot camp was an intensive program that was three months long. I was learning to code for eight hours a day. I was happy to dedicate myself to something so cool and important! Coders are designers and writers for computers. We get to create and develop features and functions that make computers work, which provide endless capabilities. I was excited for my future when I learned of the possibilities as a computer programmer. However, there were major obstacles that I needed to overcome, which were that I did not have strong interview skills and I did not have experience in the coding industry. I was discouraged after several interviews that did not work out. In spite of that, I was determined to find meaningful work in the coding world. My first web development job was with Youth Policy Institute. I worked as a web developer and tutor for students who where going through the same boot camp I completed. When it was time to move on from that position, I dedicated time to seek help once again. After ongoing conversations with coworkers, I realized that I needed to work on building confidence at better describing my knowledge of programming during interviews. My coworkers helped me see what was difficult for me to see on my own. Interviewing skills are such an important part of the career world!
I was able to overcome this problem by constantly practicing interviewing techniques with my coworkers. I am very grateful to my coworkers at Youth Policy Institute because they pushed me forward through encouragement and they took the time to practice with me. Becoming a successful career woman who loves what she does for a living was still the goal. But before getting there, I needed to build my confidence and go through several mock interviews. I’m happy to say that it all worked out because I was finally able to find a place that would allow me to officially begin my career in coding. I now work for an amazing company called Age of Learning where I help build learning games for children. I like the idea that the work I do is so important. I was definitely challenged early on because I had to learn new frameworks and coding languages, but I like learning new things that help develop new skills. I enjoy what I do and look forward to getting much better. I didn’t know this early on, but the world of code is vast.
Coders work behind the scenes across all industries because computers are an important technology needed everywhere. And the future will always need computer programmers! I’ve learned this through my involvement with Techqueria, which is a nonprofit organization and the largest community of Latinx in the technology. I initially came across them while finishing up the web development boot camp. An organizer spoke to our group and I decided to join. I consider myself to be a shy person, but becoming a part of their organization was also instrumental in developing inner confidence and obtaining useful career advice. They offer mentorship and a space where we can get better at our expertise. The best part is that other like-minded individuals who support one another surround us. I feel fortunate to have had unconditional support at home from my family, through coworkers, and at Techqueria.
What’s next for me? I would like to gain more experience and continue learning new coding languages so that I can pursue senior level or leadership positions. I can see myself leading a project and working with other amazing coders. Importantly, I would like to encourage other young Latinas to pursue their dreams. It took me a while to find my path because I didn’t have clear direction early. I had clues along the way, but I didn’t know how to follow them. I remember tinkering with the computer that my dad brought home as a young girl, but never thought to connect that with career interests. Somehow, I held myself back from thinking that I could pursue a career in computers and technology. And lack of guidance toward my fascination of computers didn’t help. This made my dreams impossible. I didn’t grow up around Latina coders, which silently suggested that my interests were nothing more that insignificant curiosities. But I was wrong. Although I drifted away from dreaming big early on, I never gave up. I’m so happy to be where I am today! For this reason, I would say to young girls to try coding. There are several cool organizations and online platforms that can feed those curiosities, and they’re all free! And there are awesome career opportunities everywhere! I would like all of those curious minds to know that there is support out there. Go find it – it’s worth it!!