by Nicole Archambault
A different kind of home: how I found my community and my place in tech
An #InternationalWomensDay reflection
I entered the tech industry in 2015, when I was unexpectedly let go from my job at a mobile POS app startup. I stood outside on the corner, genuinely unsure of what my next steps would be.
I had attempted a major in Computer Science at Wellesley, but was ultimately discouraged because I just couldn’t keep up with the abstract information I was expected to retain.
After being let go, I decided to teach myself to code. I’d always loved dinking around on the web. I built my first online blog at 14 or something, and was over the moon when some random blog rating account gave me a 10/10. Ah, simpler times.
I decided to use a platform I’d heard of, based in Portland where I was, called Treehouse. They told me that I could learn the skills to get a job in web development, and I believed them. I had no real solid goal, but I knew I had to take action SOON.
I flew through the material, because Treehouse’s video-based learning platform allowed me to pause, go back, speed up, slow down—all features I’d never had available to me in a classroom setting.
I started a little blog called La Vie en Code. I wrote random things in it—what I was working on, thoughts on a particular technology. My early posts are hilarious. I was so damn happy just to be learning.
About a month later, I discovered a Facebook group called Ladies Storm Hackathons.
I was 30 years old by this time, but still so freaking excited to be in tech that I flung myself into this group of college students posting primarily about hackathons and tech I was nowhere near knowledgable (yet) enough to comprehend.
LSH was thrilling to me, because it showed that there truly were women in tech. Seriously—when you enter this industry and pretty much everyone you see online is a white dude, it’s overwhelming as a woman of color.
As a Black and Native woman, I had no idea where to even begin locating a community that looked like me. They were out there, though.
And after participating in (and winning!) my first hackathon, the We Code Women’s Hackathon hosted by Nike at Puppet Labs in Portland, less than 3 months after starting to code—it began to materialize before my eyes.
These women were not only here, but they were loud (seriously, the hackathon meeting rooms were ERUPTING with laughter every few minutes!), proud, and fun.
In fall of 2015, I was taken by surprise when I learned I’d been chosen off the waitlist for the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Technology. I lamented the fact that I couldn’t afford it (still an issue, but a topic for another post), and the Wellesley alum community rushed to my aid, covering not only the flight and ticket, but a place to stay.
The experience was life-changing, but it wasn’t easy. There were lots of Computer Science students there, and I felt out of place as a newbie, self-taught coder. Imposter syndrome kicked in, hard.
At one point, I was kind of throwing around my resume in the exhibition hall. A woman at IBM looked at it, then back at me, then kind of turned around like she wasn’t sure if someone could help her with this.
My resume pretty clearly showed that I was self-taught. However, I was a front-end developer and there really didn’t seem to be any opportunities for self-taught FE devs there. Plus, I was really shaky in my confidence.
After talking to her, I slinked off to an area behind a drape, and cried. I wanted to feel included so badly, but I just wasn’t feeling that confidence yet.
Building up not just my skills, but my confidence, became my #1 goal from that day forward. I had so much trauma to overcome, and rejection felt like I was being pushed out of the tech circles—even though the whole damn conference was a celebration of women in tech.
I went back, and worked even harder. I started talking to my new communities about my experience, and I was met with understanding and compassion. I even met several people I didn’t know were self-taught, and now had software engineering roles.
These women helped me to realize that there was a place for me in tech. Just by seeking it out, I was finding home. Bit by bit, I felt like there was hope for me yet.
But I made it into tech in one piece, and I’m so grateful that I did. After 10 months of hard work and perseverance, I made it through to the other side, and got my first web development job.
It was all dudes there, but I didn’t even care. My communities of women in tech online were beginning to truly flourish, and that was good enough for me.
Finding my home
After the hackathon, my world of women in tech became clearer and clearer.
I sought out women’s groups, and then eventually just started following prominent women in tech because they were what I wanted to be—and they knew people like them.
The newbie coder communities I joined, like #CodeNewbie, were one of my first exposures to actual women of color in tech.
I had to look back and realized that most of the women I’d gotten to know so far had been white. I hadn’t even really thought about it—I was just so happy and proud to be around women, period.
Since then, I’ve focused in on women of color in particular, and paid special attention to their experiences. I realized that they resonated more with me than anything else I’d read. I found Indigenous communities like Native American Women in Tech and AISES. It felt like I was home.
Podcasting was a challenge I made for myself: to get my actual voice out there, because as well as I could communicate via text… I had a lot of thoughts about tech, and people deserved more.
After my first developer job, I decided to freelance for a while. My communities of women provided my first jobs. However, I was still feeling like a square peg trying to cram myself into round holes.
I decided on entrepreneurship — I wanted to share what I learned with others, and learn alongside them.
I wanted to focus on the people who were looking to follow the same path I did.
I wanted to ensure they got to the other side, and didn’t give up.
I wanted to help them develop the same grit and passion that drove me when things got tough.
See, as much as my communities of women helped me, there were just some things they couldn’t help with. I had to do a lot of it on my own, and it was hard.
We are busy. We are focused on our own careers. As women, we’re already up against the wall and fighting hard. For some, it’s more of a struggle than others. We need to earn money, and not just our 70 cents (or often, far less).
For nearly a year and a half, I worked on my online course + coaching program, 30 Days to Web Development. It’s been one of the most challenging things I’ve ever loved. I poured my heart and soul into it. When I finally launched (mostly to crickets haha), I felt so damn proud of myself.
Since then, my base of students has slowly grown. I’ve worked with amazing people who have dreams they don’t realize are totally achievable. I learn from them as much as they learn from me. What they carry forward will help them for the rest of their lives as a developer, no matter what language they end up building with.
Getting to know myself
In early 2018, while in the midst of my course creation, I was focused in on entrepreneurship, which takes a lot out of you.
I had to address the issue of why my energy levels and mood fluctuated so much, creating issues with consistency for me. This had been an issue for me since my school years, and it’s been nothing but problematic.
I was diagnosed with Bipolar 2 Disorder in late 2017. I wasn’t surprised at all—my father is Bipolar. I was mostly like, ok 🤷🏽♀️ let’s get meds going then so I can get on with my life.
With this knowledge in my pocket, I could now start the process of moving forward and adapting with this new knowledge of how my brain worked. It seemed to affect me mostly in terms of my energy, which of course in turn affects mood.
But still, I had so many questions about my persisting learning difficulties. Why was I still so anxious about showing my true self to people out there? Why did I feel self-conscious of my communication style? Why would I bore people by rambling on about tech, causing me to feel weird about writing?
I was diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum (formerly known as Asperger’s Syndrome) with a non-verbal learning disability at 32 years old.
Extremely gifted… but with a major non-verbal difficulty that had made it particularly challenging to understand complex, abstract topics.
I realized that my neurodivergence had provided me with an intense, complex mind that was going to approach virtually everything differently from other people. I felt things differently from other people, and responded them to them differently.
And it turns out women express their Autism much differently, and often mask our individual Autistic behaviors to fit in with society. I had no idea what Asperger’s looked like in women… but I realized quickly that it looked like me.
This was why workplaces had been awful for me. Why my social relationships were so important to me, and I felt crushed if anything went awry with them. Why I was so self-conscious around other people. Why I could focus intensely on my special interests for hours on end… namely, programming.
This is why I had so much damn anxiety holding me back from true excellence.
Things began to fall into place. I damn near skipped home. Once again, my career and life were going to change — but this time for the better.
Where I’m going
While pushing through my entrepreneurship and the learning required to stay relevant, my non-verbal learning disability has made things hell. It takes me a long time to solve problems, the further I wade into the world of web development. I’ve had to work harder to understand and overcome.
Every day is going to be a battle, and that’s never going to change. This is going to be the rest of my life, and I’m a damn warrior for it.
My ultimate goal has always been to create a safe, healthy space for people to learn the fundamentals of programming—including problem solving and autodidactic skills—then build the skills they need to get their first job. With my support, they could prepare for the world of web development, and leverage my coaching calls to apply what they were learning.
Now, recognizing my superpowers of communication and vulnerability, I was able to see ways that I could help people with my own story. I can’t tell you how many folks have reached out to me with understanding and support. Tech is full of people with mental illness.
The women I admire most are the ones out there doing the hard work of helping people take care of themselves. Leveraging their compassion for others to help them avoid burnout. Giving tough love—but overall, love.
Even with a non-verbal learning disability and Autism Spectrum diagnoses, I had created something that made the world a better place.
I owe my success not only to my own hard work and determination, but also the support of powerful, intelligent, brave, courageous, passionate women who pushed me along.
The people who have never judged me, and have even reached out to connect, when I share my story with love and compassion.
To those women who have inspired and been there for me… my goal is not just to find a way to provide equal support to you, but to carry your mission forward. Because if I have you in my circles, I appreciate you and your mission, whatever it may be.
This list is by NO means comprehensive, but I have some shout-outs I absolutely need to give.
💜 Saron Yitbarek (Twitter): you inspired me to become a community leader. Your ability to draw people toward you is incredible. I deeply love and appreciate the #CodeNewbie community, and have made lifelong connections through it.
💜 Ali Spittel, you aren’t on Medium, but you’re literally everywhere else. 😂For real, how many conference have you done? You speak your mind, and share your knowledge freely. You’re seriously inspiring me to throw in my hat at lots of conferences in 2019!
💜 Sarah EchoHawk: You are a powerhouse. Your spirit is beautiful. Seeing you on stage setting GHC straight about Native Americans gave me goosebumps. I can’t wait to hang out with you at AISES!
💜 Andrea Delgado-Olson (Twitter): You are my auntie-mama! 😆 I love you so much. Thank you for offering me a home in Native American Women in Tech, and a stage on which to share my voice. I can’t wait to speak alongside you again this year!
💜 ♚ Digital Empress: You’ve helped me be myself. I see you, even if you don’t see me. I love to have fun, and tech cannot be serious. Plus, you’ve pulled together a community of bad Black women in CyberSec! 🙌🏽
💜 Emma Wedekind (Twitter): You’re such a supportive member of the tech community. You’ve created super valuable content over the years that helped me better understand both tech and the communities in it!
I know I missed people, I just know it. So I will probably be going back in here to update the list, but damn I know a lot of women in tech. 🤣
I’m looking forward to spending 2019 surrounded by healthy, supportive people in tech. Women have been such an integral part to my career success, and I look forward to being able to amplify y’all’s power. 🔥
Nicole Archambault is the creator of La Vie en Code, a blog, podcast, and online course brand dedicated to the unique experience of self-taught web developers. She has built her business around the intersection of technology, education, psychology, and the ways they affect self-educated web developers.
And, of course, she is a proud neurodivergent woman helping others find their own path. :)