There aren't many people out there who grew up dreaming of writing code. I definitely didn't. I wanted to design cars. But somehow I ended up building software.
I used to help my grandpa work on cars in the summer when I was growing up. And I thought one day I'd grow up to be a mechanic like him. But my mom and grandma had different plans.
We didn't have money, so they always kept me busy with something. Whether it was volunteering in the community, reading books from the library, or doing homework for "fun", they always had me focused on learning. I think it was mainly to keep me distracted from a lot of the chaos around me.
I grew up with my great-grandma, who is the mom I refer to throughout this. My family was all over the place and it wasn't the most stable environment. But with my mom and grandma shielding me from a large amount of that craziness, I was able to pretend to escape into my love for math and experiments.
There was one birthday present I remember as my first exposure to anything tech-related. It was a little VTech laptop and I loved that thing. I took it everywhere, playing whatever games were on it.
It stopped working eventually and I tried to go back out and help my grandpa with cars. But my mom didn't want me to because I was a girl. That kind of crushed my little hopes and dreams of becoming a mechanic.
There were times I would try to sneak out and work with him, but he knew it would only make my mom mad, so he'd send me back inside.
I'd go back in and start thinking of other stuff I could work on inside of the house. Eventually I got good enough to do minor plumbing and electrical work with a lot of tinkering and a lot of luck.
To this day I still don't understand why mom thought working with electricity was better than working on cars, but she never yielded on that issue.
From Mechanic to Engineer
I still wanted to do something with cars because of how much I enjoyed working on them so I picked the next best thing: designing the cars that mechanics get to work on!
That didn't seem like a real job at the time, so I satiated that desire by drawing pictures of concepts I thought were cool. Then I'd try to do some math behind them to see if I could build a prototype out of the junk we had around.
Luckily someone saw me doing that and they starting talking about engineering and that they get to design stuff like that. That's when I made up my mind to become a mechanical engineer. I was probably about 13 at the time and things at home were becoming more hectic.
Motivation for Mechanical Engineering
The immediate family I grew up around was largely elderly people. They had started dying. And that was a lot to handle.
Keep in mind that, by now, my mom was about 87 years old. At the time I kind of thought it was because we didn't have enough money. I learned that engineers make a lot of money, so I doubled down on my decision.
At that point, no one in my family had been to college and nobody knew what an engineer actually did. I think my mom thought I was going to drive trains for a while.
To be honest, I didn't fully understand what an engineer did until I was almost done with college.
From the reading I had done, I just saw you needed to be good at math and science and I loved those things already so it made sense for me to keep going. Then I joined a robotics club in high school and that's where I got my first whiff of code.
It was amazing getting hardware to respond to my commands from a computer. While it was fun, I still went off to college determined to be the best mechanical engineer, and to go design awesome cars because cars were one of the best parts of my childhood.
There was so much I didn't know about college. I didn't start talking to anyone at school about college until maybe the beginning of senior year of high school.
I knew you had to apply, but I didn't know you had to pay. Until I talked to a guidance counselor, I thought college was just what happened after high school if you wanted to stay in school longer. You just put in your application, get accepted, and go.
The level of absolute emptiness I felt when I first saw how much college cost almost made me give up immediately. We couldn't afford to keep people alive, so where would we get the money for college?
My dad is an army veteran, so he was able to help me use some of his disability benefits and that helped take a bit of the stress off. Thankfully, my counselor taught me about scholarships and a bit about financial aid. By now it was the spring and scholarship deadlines were around the corner.
After that I spent almost all of my free time search for and applying for any and every scholarship I remotely qualified for. I probably applied for hundreds of scholarships and I was actually able to piece together enough of them to get my first year completely paid for.
I went into my freshman year on a mission because I didn't understand anything. I thought that if you took out loans you basically die so I was terrified of them. I didn't even go to the financial aid office my first semester because I was scared of that place.
It definitely worked out for the best, because every semester I would spend hours searching for and applying for scholarships. I was able to get through college debt-free doing this. It took a lot of work, but it was some of the best work I had experienced up to that point.
I joined everything that would let me work with cars – from welding frame joints on the SAE team to designing body panels in SolidWorks. I did undergrad research in aerospace just so I could learn more about aerodynamics and materials to make better cars.
My journey into engineering research started out of both passion and necessity and it was an incredible time. I became a lab rat for years and most of it was hands-on work. We used power tools, created out own bills of materials, and built the things we designed on paper or in SolidWorks.
By this point I was half-way through sophomore year when I got hit with the first blow. One of my best friends died in a car accident. It hurt, but I was able to kind of "power through" and stay focused. Then the worst, most random news came.
My grandpa got diagnosed with cancer, and he was gone in less than 4 months. That shook me to my core.
I considered dropping out several times during this period, but my mom and grandma keep me encouraged. They pushed me when I didn't want to budge.
I was coming home every weekend at this point, so I basically went class, lived in the lab, and took my homework home every weekend. I wanted to help my grandma take care of mom because she was getting older and she couldn't drive anymore. So we teamed up and took care of her.
Throughout all of my home concerns, I still tried to escape into my coursework. Then code started popping up more and more in my assignments. And I took the one class that really shook my confidence in my path that had been so dedicated to cars.
We worked with PIC micro-controllers using C and I was hooked. I loved everything about getting those sensors to work together, and how you could use the data to make real world things happen. That blew my mind, and I started wandering down that path.
But cars were still in the back of my mind. Cars had always been in my life and they got me through a lot of hard times. So I wasn't ready to imagine doing anything else.
Ignoring my conflicting feelings, I jumped into a different research project where I could work with micro-controllers. That was my first real departure from the mechanical path. Then I hit a major crossroads when it was time to graduate.
My mom's health was on a noticeable decline and I wanted to stay close by. So I decided to go to graduate school for mechanical and aerospace engineering. That's when the big switch came.
My research ended up focusing on machine learning algorithms on-board an autonomous golf cart. I wrote more code than I ever imagined I would in my life. And I'm not sure if I'll ever write code that complex again.
While I was still working with hardware, my focus shifted to processing all the raw data and writing code that could handle that much information so fast. After spending 16+ hour days coding and still not completely hating it, I knew it was hopeless.
It got to the point that the car part of the research didn't matter nearly as much as the beauty of my code. That's where the final difficult decision came.
I had to decide whether to move – so I could keep working on cool robotics projects – or stay with family and try working as an engineer.
I made a decision I've never regretted and I stayed with my family. My mom didn't live long enough to see me become a "master" engineer. But I'm glad I was there to share the time with her I had.
She died a few months before I graduated. And the rest of that semester is still a blur.
Thankfully throughout all of this I had a very sweet boyfriend, who is now my husband, to attempt to keep me sane.
From Grad School to The Engineering
So I tried working as a mechanical engineer in oil and gas for a while. My first day, my boss came to show me what I would be doing. He plopped down this grotesquely large stack of oddly sized paper with these technical diagrams on it called P&IDs.
Then he sat next to me with a highlighter and showed me how to go through all of the P&IDs and find specific sensors. He gave me a smile and a pat on the back and said, "I've been doing this for 37 years and we haven't changed much yet! You'll get the hang of it."
I knew that wasn't going to work. I at least wanted to look at a computer pretending to do work. That's when figured I'd try aerospace engineering. I just knew that there would be plenty of opportunities to design things in aerospace.
After I got an aerospace job, I was introduced to CATIA V5 – which is considerably less friendly than SolidWorks – but it's an aerospace thing. That's when I found out there still wasn't any design involved!
Doing standards and tolerance analyses for FAA compliance was cool for a few months. Sure, getting 800 signatures on an eighth of an inch change on a 2 inch shim was exciting. But it still wasn't what I'd hoped for.
At one point I was working on nacelle analysis in FORTRAN on this super old box monitor computer setup.
This is what got me back into code. FORTRAN was so difficult that I started going back to some of the languages I had used before, like C++ and Python. After making a few useful tools for work, I knew software is probably where I should look next.
The jobs I had were so far away from cars or design in general that I knew I had to figure out how to get a job where I could write code that didn't have to involve hardware. Engineering didn't turn out to be what I expected, so I had to make that switch happen. That's when I learned about web development.
I still didn't want to move, because the husband likes his family and my grandma was all I had left. So I started learning how to make WordPress sites and did a little freelancing to get some experience.
Once I had a few projects under my belt, I applied for a software engineering job that still needed some engineering calculations, and that's how I got my first real software job.
Growing in Code
Then I accidentally ended up working as a consultant. But it was a great experience. I learned everything from front-end, back-end, database, DevOps, mobile, client management, and so much more.
That's where I really had to time to see everything and figure out what I really wanted to do. So I jumped into React and Node, and that's where I'm currently the happiest.
Engineering in Code
One thing I weirdly miss about being in one of the physical engineering worlds is the amount of structure around everything. No matter what you tried to do, there was always standard knowledge that had been established, researched, and tested.
Software doesn't have any type of enforcement like mechanical engineering, because most of the stuff we make won't kill anyone if it breaks. So I started taking some of the design principles I had never gotten a chance to apply to cars, and applying them to my personal software projects.
That's when I started finding amazing opportunities. I get to build projects that range from machine learning on the front-end to serverless apps and virtual reality games using the same methods I was taught as an engineer.
If you could see some of the ridiculous software equations and constants I've made up over the years, it would make you chuckle.
Going With the Flow
I never started out on this path and didn’t expected to go this far. It kind of happened in a lot of odd ways, just like most people that end up in this field. There are battles I fought and won throughout this journey that I’m still recovering from.
Even though software isn't as diverse as it could be, I've never really felt like people were trying to hold me back or pigeon-hole me into a position.
This was not the case when I was in traditional engineering. It was such a toxic place for a woman of color. I had people interrogate me on how I had gotten into the facilities for the parts I was responsible for. I had people try to belittle my accomplishments. And I ran into a few people who flat out told me they didn't want someone like me around for long.
Tech has never been that intimidating for me.
One thing I can say is that I've encountered so many friendly and genuinely helpful people over the years, despite the few jerks sprinkled in between them.
If you've ever considered switching to anything in tech from an engineering field, just know that there are a bunch of people who will help you at every step.