"How Computer Science Changed My Life" - Itzel Martinez

EARLY LIFE - GROWING UP IN POVERTY

Hola mi nombre es Itzel Martinez, I am a Software Engineer at Pandora and this is my story.

In 1995, I was born into the beautiful city of Oaxaca, Mexico, which is where I went to school up until the second grade. At the age of seven, I made my journey to the United States alongside my older brother who crossed the border with me. In 2002, my parents decided to move to the United States, like many other families, in search of a better life and educational opportunities for their children, but life did not get easier. We ended up living in a neighborhood in Downtown Los Angeles, surrounded by violence and poverty. At the age of nine, my parents separated, which left my mom to raise three kids on her own. Life as an immigrant kid without my family around, not being able to speak English, and living in a single-parent household within a dangerous community was tough. Growing up, I would rarely see my mother as she had to work two to three minimum wage jobs to put food on the table and a roof over our heads, which meant that my brothers and I had to learn to take care of ourselves. Yet, every night at 9pm, when my mom returned from work she would kiss my forehead and remind me to keep doing well in school because that was the only thing that I could do to help her and would make her happy. At a very young age, my mother instilled in me the value of education, and even though my grandma never learned how to read and my mom only graduated from middle-school, I knew that the only way to help out my family was by pursuing an education.

"Growing up, I would rarely see my mother as she had to work two to three minimum wage jobs to put food on the table and a roof over our heads, which meant that my brothers and I had to learn to take care of ourselves. Yet, every night at 9pm, when my mom returned from work she would kiss my forehead and remind me to keep doing well in school because that was the only thing that I could do to help her and would make her happy".

EDUCATION - THE KEY TO A WHOLE NEW WORLD

Growing up with the mindset that graduating from college was my end goal, I began looking for public high schools that would prepare me for college, which is how I ended up attending a school that was STEM focused. The bad news was that the magnet program was an hour and a half away from my home. It was a sacrifice, but it was during high school where my teachers, who were my biggest role models, exposed me to the idea of pursuing engineering, and it was my Math teacher, Mrs. Hernandez, whose advice had a lasting impact on me. She said, “If I could go back in time and choose another career, I would have picked engineering.”

High school planted the seed of pursuing engineering, but it was not until I began college at UC Berkeley, that I got exposed to the career that would change my life forever - Computer Science (CS). My first exposure to Computer Science was through an introductory course that I took my first semester titled “The Beauty and Joy of Computing.” This intro class opened my eyes to the limitless job opportunities that studying CS would bring me. With a CS degree, I could work in any industry that I wanted to be part of - Technology, Education, Media, Health Care, Travel, and Finance. By learning coding skills, you wouldn’t have to stay in one industry throughout your professional career because technology is everywhere, and that was an important reason for deciding to pursue Computer Science. Another reason why I was so drawn to the idea of learning technology was because growing up technology was a luxury that my family could not afford, and so tech became a black box I didn’t understand yet. I became dependent on my older brother who was the only one in my family who knew how to use technology. The independence that studying Computer Science would bring me was another reason why I wanted to major in CS. Ultimately, by studying CS not only would I learn how to use technology, but I would also learn how to create it, which to me was like gaining superpowers.

"Ultimately, by studying CS not only would I learn how to use technology, but I would also learn how to create it, which to me was like gaining superpowers".

Pursuing an engineering career is one of the best decisions I’ve made because I was able to receive support in the form of scholarships from the College of Engineering and the Alumni Association at UC Berkeley, that granted me a full-ride to attend the College of Engineering for 4 years. Being a first-generation college student, low-income, and a DACA recipient I would not have been able to afford going to UC Berkeley without the help of these scholarships.

BECOMING A SOFTWARE ENGINEER

By pursuing a degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, I learned the skills needed to become a Software Engineer. My first and second years of college, I came across opportunities to participate in two research internships (my freshman year I interned at the International Computer Science Institute (ICSI) and my sophomore year, I worked at the Berkeley Lawrence National Lab) which provided me the initial experience I needed to land a Software Engineering internship at Pandora my junior year. When I interviewed for internships, it was really helpful to have these two research internships, in addition to the projects I completed in my engineering classes, to share with recruiters as experiences that demonstrated my coding skills, my ability to work in a team, and project execution.

Pursuing engineering was not easy as it required a lot of patience, persistence and practice (3 P’s). I organized myself in order to learn how to manage my time well every day. For example, I made time to attend office hours, complete all of my homework assignments, labs, coding projects, and still spend 4-5 hours studying in the library daily to make sure that I understood all the concepts that I was being exposed to in my classes. The rigor of my classes prepared me well for the technical interviews that I needed to pass to land engineering roles in the tech industry. A technical interview is a 45-minute session with an engineer from a tech company that tests your technical problem-solving skills. Every day during my sophomore year, I applied to as many internship opportunities as I could, attended career fairs and on-campus recruiting events. On the weekends I spend 6-8 hours practicing my problem-solving and coding skills by reading “Cracking the Coding Interview” book. Fortunately, my hard work paid off and I landed my first Software Engineering internship at Pandora Media the summer of 2016, which would go on to become my full-time job once I graduated from college.

"The rigor of my classes prepared me well for the technical interviews that I needed to pass to land engineering roles in the tech industry. A technical interview is a 45-minute session with an engineer from a tech company that tests your technical problem-solving skills".

LIFE AFTER COLLEGE - GIVING BACK BY MENTORING YOUNGER STUDENTS

Going to college and pursuing engineering was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done in my life, but I can say with 100% confidence that it is the best decision I could have made for myself and my family because it gave us the financial stability that we’d never had. College exposed me to a world full of opportunities where I met Latinx professionals who became my mentors and have influenced who I am today. After graduating from college I decided that I wanted to share my knowledge with Latinx students who are interested in studying Computer Science, which led me to launch the Latinas Engineering Leadership Program, a 4-month virtual mentorship experience designed to inspire and prepare more Latinas to enter the tech industry via 15 workshops, with the goal of helping them successfully land their first technical internship

I learned many important lessons throughout my educational journey, if you are a Latinx student going into college or curious about Computer Science here is my advice to you:

  • Find mentors and surround yourself with good people - reach out to professionals for advice or to learn more about their career journey.

  • Don’t be afraid to make your voice be heard - if you have a question, always ask.

  • Work hard - Do the hardest things first, be willing to sacrifice the fun times for now, and always prepare ahead of time.

  • Please care for yourself - Physical, mental, and emotional health is always a priority.

  • Practice leadership - taking on leadership positions is a must, please do it as early as you can. It will help you during internship and job interviews and in the professional world.

  • Be proud of who you are - Don’t forget where you came from, embrace your story, and share it with others.

  • Give back - It takes a village to help anyone succeed, remember who helped you along the way and please help those that come after you.

To close, I want to share that I would not be here without the help and support of my familia, community, and mentors who supported me and cheered me on every step of the way. Every pick-me up and advice kept me going through the hard times and helped me get to where I am today. I hope that my story brings you hope and inspires you to keep moving forward because nothing is impossible as long as you keep on dreaming. In addition to sharing my story, I would like to share with you all that I launched a YouTube Channel last year to reach and help more students around the world to have access to career advice and exposure to different opportunities available to them. Here are a couple of the videos I recommend for students in tech or curious readers, I hope you enjoy them!

  1. Resume Tips 2019: 5 Tips to Make Your Resume Stand Out!

  2. 15 Careers in Tech – What opportunities are there for me in tech?

  3. A Day in the Life of a Software Latina Engineer at Pandora