A few weeks ago, Techqueria hosted a fireside chat with senior Latinx engineers at Dev Bootcamp SF. Back in May, we had an event on non-traditional tech paths that was oriented towards how folks, particularly young people, could begin planning for the steps they’d need to take to make the leap into web development. Knowing that we have members of our community who are more established in their careers, we wanted our June event to be centered on experienced programmers sharing their knowledge with others.

Our panelists (featuring Adam Bossy-Mendoza, Kat Marchán, Kimberly Muñoz, and Victor Román) all spoke about what motivated their entry into the field of software engineering and were very open about issues as varied as mentorship and fair pay.

The documentary Code: De-bugging the Gender Gap spends a large portion of its narrative criticizing the myth of the genius programmer. It’s quite common, in job descriptions of software engineers, to see language such as “superstar” and “rock star.” When you consider the fact that larger social influence, including having role models with backgrounds that match your own, is pivotal to career choice, it’s not a surprise that many underrepresented groups don’t identify with tropes of exception. Furthermore, rhetoric stressing individual achievement might not resonate with communities of color, some whom might feel out-of-place in white, middle-class spaces where they are unlikely to see many folks like themselves present. Discourses of “genius” also, however unintentionally, present knowledge as natural, rather than as something you can work to develop, attain, and even share.

Kat, a CLI engineer, discussed the impact a discouraging math teacher had on their educational choices in college. Kat, who had majored in Film Production, said: “I did everything I could to not take a single math-related class in college…I was very intimidated by programming and Computer Science. My senior year, when I was doing my thesis on my film, I took a single intro to Computer Science class at Smith College. There was one guy in that entire class. And it just clicked really well with me.” After college, Kat did Linux system administration work and learned programming on the side (their first programming language was Lisp). Kat then worked as a QA, where they were given programming tasks and all of their subsequent jobs have been in programming. “You can be a programmer from almost any background,” Kim, a front-end engineer, pointed out.

A few panelists spoke about being exposed to computers at a young age. Adam, an engineering manager, spoke of his father early on understanding the value of having a computer in the home. Adam mentioned, as a ten-year old, finding software tools where he could create his own video games. Putting his spin on a tedious history project, Adam remarked on how surprised his teacher was that he was able to program and, at that point, began to see himself as someone who could utilize technology effectively. Victor, a web application engineer, credited the influence of his mother, a schoolteacher. Victor also said: “[Computers] were not only fun to write games on but pretty safe to interact with. It wasn’t always safe to interact with people but computers won’t judge you. They won’t treat you badly. So that began my love affair with computers.” Adam and Victor’s statements also evince the power of technology to re-fashion our sense of identity. The capacity to create, rather than only consume, has an indelible impact and is something that, if nurtured properly, can hold great power.

Kim’s question regarding the day-to-day differences between junior and senior engineer roles elicited many thoughtful responses.

Kat, for example, has witnessed hiring committees struggle with unconscious bias. Kat mentioned the fact that, in one instance, a committee had interviewed several candidates and “the evaluations I’d hear in response, would be along the lines of: ‘This woman seems more junior, this guy seems more senior.’ But when we looked at their actually experience, the woman in question had 10 years of experience in the field and specific experience with the technology we were using.” In contrast, the other candidate, though a good designer, had no experience as a developer. Nevertheless, the hiring panel was impressed by the second candidate’s presumed confidence and by behavior that seemingly had little to do with the responsibilities of the position. Kat believes titles are an “arbitrary thing that get slapped on the perception of experience.”

Kim mentioned that Hackbright, a programming bootcamp for women, encourage alumnae to not include the title on their business cards. Kim remarked: “They say just say engineer. If they are going to assign junior title to you, they will assign it to you. Don’t sell yourself short yet.”

Adam, when discussing the presumptions we make regarding senior engineers, pointed out that the title often seems to imply leadership and authority. As he stated: “A good, senior engineer is able to get that authority from their team members by demonstrating that they’re good at what they do. I think that could come from anybody, though.” He pointed to a junior engineer at his work who serves as a trusted point person, though the person doesn’t have a lot of experience. Adam stated that being seen as a leader does have to do with skillset but the ability to communicate well with others is also a key to gaining the respect of different teams.

Victor spoke of senior engineers in terms of their capacities as mentors. As someone fairly new to tech and who has always been a slow-starter, I often get intimidated by my perceived lack of speed. Victor’s comments really resonated with me. He stated: “A lot of the times I notice that people who are just starting out, one of the things that they want to do as much work done as possible and as quickly as possible. You’re not going to learn as much by speeding through. As a mentor, I’m trying to guide them and say slow down and think about your solutions a bit. Try to break something. That’s how I learned.” When Victor first started as an engineer, he tried to pump out features to prove himself to his manager. He then came to the realization that learning in a comprehensive way is how one can take the next step, career-wise.

The panel also emphasized the importance of negotiation and not being taken advantage of, especially economically. Sometimes, a company is willing to give an employee a distinguished title but at the expense of reducing one’s compensation. Kat had mentioned the fact that they were paid 28,000 less than their peers for the same job. In fact, they had been given more responsiblities and was mentoring their team. But, because of the junior title, Kat was paid signficantly less. Titles, Kat said, “tend to be about targeting groups that aren’t — to be blunt about it — cis, het, white men.”

At the tail end of the panel (and also during the Q-and-A), mentorship was a theme the panel and audience enjoyed exploring together.

One strategy Victor has to reach out to others is through creating groups for learning purposes. At Victor’s workplace, for instance, he helped lead a study group that focuses on the same topic or framework for months on end. At the moment, the group is studying the Scala programming language. One unexpected windfall from that gathering was being approached by another employee, who had wanted to re-discover programming. Now, Victor works with on problem-solving and whiteboarding with this person. And it all started from an open-ended invitation. For those interested in mentoring others, Victor encourages you to “make it obvious that you like mentoring and people will come to you and ask for it.”

Adam also advised mentors to focus on fostering a safe space for their mentee(s). I especially appreciated Adam’s comments on creating an atmosphere where it was OK to fail, as long as you learned from the experience and were constantly being challenged. One of the reasons teaching is so difficult is the fact that, because there are varied learning styles, it’s very challenging to effectively reach every student. I went to a programming bootcamp recently and, one point of frustration for me, was communicating with instructors whose teaching style did not complement my learning style but who didn’t know how to engage with this difference. Adam’s open-minded approach is something many people, especially pedagogues, could benefit from.

Kat suggested re-framing our language when it comes to the junior-senior debate. It might behoove us to think of folks in terms of being newer in their careers, rather than people who are junior. Kat stated: “Maybe they have questions on what’s the right track for them. Maybe they just need doors opened for them. I find by opening doors and pointing fingers at the moon is the most useful strategy for me in terms of helping bring people on board and, most importantly, giving them context.” There is usually more than one way to do a job and often times the perceived “correct” way of approaching something is highly subjective.

Several of the panelists emphasized the importance of a healthy work-life balance. Many workers in many fields toil beyond the typical 40 hours and burnout has a myriad of consequences. Seeking out counseling/therapy is one important way to do self-care. It provides a structured outlet to discuss personal obstacles and map out a sustainable plan for personal growth and advocacy. For me, one of the most important takeways from the event was discussion of the notion that advocacy for one’s self and others is crucial to maintaining integrity.

Historically in the U.S., unionization has been the terrain of folks in the industrial trades, with unions among the few steadfast advocates for fair wages and limitations on hours and demands outside of job descriptions. Historians have written about the wane (or, rather, outsourcing) of a manufacturing economy and the rise of knowledge-based industries, of which tech is a part. However, advocacy for the rights of workers’ in these particular fields — and discussion of equitable compensation in particular — is sometimes a fraught topic. I appreciated hearing others discuss the importance of guarding against potentially abusive work situations. Kim referenced the #TalkPay hashtag on social media, where folks have had frank and open discussions of salaries amongst one’s peers. Kat brought up the fact that you can, for instance, tell your co-workers how much you make and that it’s illegal for someone to tell you otherwise. The panel mentioned websites like GlassDoor and Comparatively, which can aid in research for employees to better negotiate for themselves. Victor issued a cautionary tale for those who fear asking for too much: “If you ask for less than you think your worth, [employers] might think you think you’re not worth very much. So it says something about you to ask for more…I didn’t know that from the beginning. The number you give them can have that kind of effect.”

The panel wrapped up discussion by emphasizing community-building with like-minded people and encouraged folks in the audience to get involved with groups like Techqueria. Many of us didn’t grow up with a network of folks advising us on the right personal and career steps to make. That’s why connecting with mentors and folks who “have our back” is key to making more informed decisions. I personally didn’t grow up in a household that discussed financial literacy, so hearing the panel and audience discuss issues like equity and stocks was very eye-opening. Lastly, several of our speakers discussed the importance of telling one’s own story. Victor commented: “Here in the Bay Area, there are so few people who have a story like mine. I feel it’s really important for people who are from underrepresented groups to speak out and share their story, whether it’s women, LGBTQ folks, people of color, people who grew up poor.”

Thanks to all the panelists for sharing their stories and for supporting many others in their journeys! Kim did an excellent job of moderating and steering the discussion onto these wonderful paths.

We can all learn from the struggles and experiences of folks in our communities and other underrepresented communities, as well. We welcome you to reach out and join Techqueria. We’d love to hear your ideas and how we can help with your journey.

An audio archive of the panel’s discussion is available below: