Breeshia Turner, April 1, 2015 | 7 min read

From Writing Prose to Code

I graduated from Stanford University this past December with a degree in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. Upon completion of my undergraduate studies, I decided to attend a tech boot camp with the intention of using software development to fund my writing and non-profit career goals. Although Stanford has one the best Computer Science programs in the country, I often felt a strong divide between “techies” and “fuzzies” (i.e. non-technical people). There seemed to be an unspoken assumption in Silicon Valley that a knack for tech is predisposed–only the most elite minds were truly capable of grasping the art of software development. A few years ago, I attended a “beginners” workshop on building iOS applications in Mountain View, but after about an hour I began zoning out because the instructor consistently used technical jargon, such as “setters” and “getters,” without explanation, which I—someone with absolutely no prior exposure to software development—was unable to follow. I felt that many technical spaces, including those reserved for “beginners,” were often constructed with assumptions regarding students’ prior exposure to technical concepts. Consequently, looking back on my initial experience compared to where I am now, I have a greater empathy for how barriers of access and privilege perpetuate the lack of presence of “underrepresented” bodies (and identities) within the tech community.

When I came to Tech Talent South, I was prepared for a difficult journey. Although I have a bit of a technical background from my high school exposure to advanced math, science and engineering via a Science and Technology program, I solely identified as a “fuzzy” prior to attending Tech Talent South since creative writing was a skill I developed rather early (i.e. five years old). Initially, I began writing poetry, but over the past five years I’ve expanded my genres to include playwriting, non-fiction, children’s books, short stories and comic strips. Through my own experience dabbling in seemingly tangential pursuits (e.g. learning Chinese) I’ve learned that skills are often cultivated through exposure and repetition, even in the most subtle ways, via early exposure. For example, I really wanted to learn Mandarin for personal reasons, but I struggled much more than many of my classmates. After a few quarters, I realized that the majority of my classmates either had exposure to Mandarin via a close personal contact or they’d studied another East Asian language, which allowed them to pick-up both Chinese language structure and characters more easily. I knew that living in Silicon Valley and being surrounded by so many people studying Computer Science would (positively) impact my ability to pick-up on coding, possibly in ways that I could not anticipate, but I was still bogged down by the idea that one is either born with the mind of a techy or a fuzzy–I couldn’t possibly have the skill and ability to occupy the position of both. Some people are impressed by my ability to alternate between writing research papers to composing a full-length play, but I believe that my early cultivation of writing skills has allowed me to develop more fluidity in my style. The same can be said about the development of technical skills. Also, since Stanford sends each incoming freshmen class a set of books to read prior to our arrival on campus, my freshman cohort received three books, one of which was Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. From providing detailed background into success stories like Bill Gates and The Beatles, Gladwell does an excellent job providing concrete examples of how opportunity and exposure influence success more heavily than innate skill.

I believe that Tech Talent South was my first introduction to the human side of tech, meaning that previously I had never been able to interact with techies and/or instructors who truly remembered what it was like to grasp a concept or struggle with syntax. My instructors at TTS weren’t seasoned, experienced senior devs, yet they have reached a level of skill that has allowed them to not only teach software development to absolute beginners, but develop their own beautiful applications and websites. Having instructors who were not too far removed from my own experience allowed me to see concrete evidence of where I could be in a year or so, thus giving me more confidence in my ability to be both a techy and a fuzzy. At TTS, I was never treated as if I was not born with what it takes to become a software developer–instead, I was able to watch my instructors make mistakes and learn from them, I was able to hear stories about how they have sat in front of their computer for hours trying to figure out a mistake, sometimes feeling like they should give up. TTS taught me the importance of empathy and relatability in both the teaching and learning process, so by connecting with my instructors via their humanity, I was able to envision myself accomplishing my goals.

My experience at Tech Talent South has been illuminating, both personally and in terms of employment options. I’m in awe by the fact that I’ve not only completed an intensive software development program, but I sincerely enjoy front-end development. Since this program has ended, I have spent my time reading books on JavaScript, Ruby on Rails and WordPress. Within three months, I have every intention of teaching myself Python. Also, about halfway through the program I began submitting applications for both grad school and jobs at non-profit and tech companies across the country. My newfound skillset has expanded my opportunities–for the past five weeks I’ve had about four interview requests per week (each with multiple rounds), and I even caught the attention of ThoughtWorks, a pretty awesome consulting agency that uses software development to facilitate social justice and radical social transformation. I was pretty shocked to learn that ThoughtWorks has the second most difficult technical interview in the country (according to Forbes), yet I was able to code well enough to complete their challenge. Nevertheless, through a bit of unscripted exploration, I’ve recently decided that at this point I’m much more interested in finding ways to bridge the gap of technical access in low-income communities and communities of color, especially for women and queer/transgender people within these communities.

When I initially began TTS’s intensive program, I solely intended to use software development to support my art. However, I not only discovered that I enjoy coding, but I began to recognize the power of technology to facilitate social change. Since I am interested in identity construction, personal narrative and community healing, I have a desire to figure out ways to use creative writing to lower acts of violence–not just physical violence or macro-aggression, but microaggressions and indirect, often unintended forms of violence–committed against marginalized bodies, both within and outside of our communities, by allowing youth to use creativity to construct their identities beyond socially constructed frameworks. However, TTS has exposed me to a more diverse skillset, thus allowing me to take a more intersectional approach to addressing issues of violence, access and restriction. Now, I am able to extend the question of “how to get more women involved in tech” to considering how to break down barriers of access across boundaries of race, gender, class, sexuality and citizenship–barriers that are more rigid for individuals whose bodies (and/or identities) are at the intersection of any of the aforementioned divisions–not just within technology, but using technology as a possible solution for creating alternatives. Consequently, I have discovered that I am primarily interested in working with children in underserved communities.

Life is a journey of constant exploration and development, and I view myself as a traveler on what I hope will be a long journey. I do not necessarily see myself choosing software development as a set career path nor do I anticipate that I will ever be decisively set on one goal. However, I will likely stick with software development for a year or two in order to cultivate my skills. This is not the story of a woman who attended a software boot camp with the primary intention of making a career change; TTS did not secure my prospect of earning a six-figure salary in Silicon Valley. No, this program gave me much more–TTS gave me hope, it gave me hope by abandoning barriers to access of skills, thus allowing me to construct a future that before now, I could only envision in my mind. When I came to Tech Talent South I merely had a dream, now I have the tools to build the change I want to see.