Encouraging diversity in tech is an important part of Dev Bootcamp’s mission, and is a motivating force behind the new DBC Access Fund. As a middle school math teacher Arlene Perez had a similar goal – to encourage students to fall in love with STEM. While teaching math, robotics, and basic coding to her students, Arlene realized that she wanted to pursue a career in tech. She was awarded a full scholarship to Dev Bootcamp’s San Francisco campus, and landed a coveted apprenticeship at NBCUniversal in Los Angeles. Arlene explains how diversity scholarships help expose untapped communities to careers in tech and why she wants to be a role model for other Latina students.
What were you up to before Dev Bootcamp?
I studied political science and philosophy in college, and moved to Washington, DC after graduation because I was really interested in educational politics. I wanted to go into politics, change education, and bring more opportunities to students.
In DC, I worked as a middle school math teacher with Teach for America. I’ve always loved math, so I wanted to teach specifically middle school students to enjoy subjects like algebra and geometry, and fall in love with STEM before high school. I was a teacher for five years, teaching math, robotics and basic computer coding classes. My biggest passion was getting my students excited about STEM, help to increase the number of minorities and women in STEM, and push my students to do more.
What motivated you to change career paths and learn to code? Did you try to learn on your own?
Since I was a child, my favorite subject has always been math. My first language was Spanish, but math is universal, so when I was learning English, math was the only subject I understood. My high school didn’t offer computer science, so if you liked math they told you to be an accountant or an engineer, but they weren’t very helpful in terms of other opportunities. By the time I heard about computer science, and took some courses in college, it was too late for me to major in it. I’ve always loved computer science, but I never got a chance to pursue it.
When I became a teacher, I learned some basic coding on my own, and took my students through it. Because I was a full-time teacher, I never had time to fully focus on learning to code. However, the kind of logic and numbers involved in coding was a world I already knew and loved.
After doing some self-teaching, what made you think that a bootcamp was the best way to learn to code?
I considered going back to college and studying computer science, but I didn’t want to study the theoretical part of coding; I wanted practical, real-world skills. Because I had already taught some coding basics, the fact that a bootcamp is only a few months was appealing to me. I also thought that learning in an environment with other focused career-changers might make me feel more comfortable than just going back to school, and feeling like I’m too old. I also really liked that Dev Bootcamp focused on Engineering Empathy – teaching how to work as a team and other skills I wouldn’t have learned if I had majored in computer science in college.
Had you already applied to Dev Bootcamp when you found out about the F8 Scholarship? What motivated you to apply?
I’m originally from Los Angeles, so I was looking for coding bootcamps in LA. I knew about Dev Bootcamp but they don’t have a campus in LA, so I wasn’t considering them yet. One day, a friend’s Facebook post mentioned that Facebook was offering a full ride to Dev Bootcamp in San Francisco for women and minorities. I knew Dev Bootcamp was well-known, and had a great curriculum. The fact that I could use the scholarship to pay for it motivated me to apply.
Would you have been able to attend Dev Bootcamp without that scholarship?
No, absolutely not. The reason I took so long to consider coding bootcamps was because they cost so much. Between my teacher’s salary, high DC living expenses, and paying my college loans, it was too much. But with the F8 Scholarship, I got so lucky. It was perfect timing, and was exactly what I was looking for, so I applied and fortunately got in. I see that Dev Bootcamp is now offering more scholarships like DBC Access Fund, and I think that’s the best way to get people like me, who come from communities where computer science isn’t widely talked about, more interested in tech.
Without the scholarship, I would probably still be teaching right now, and saving money for Dev Bootcamp. I knew I wanted to do a coding bootcamp, but I couldn’t afford it and I didn’t want to take out a loan. I would have needed to save up for 4-5 years, so the scholarship made a huge difference.
Dev Bootcamp just announced the DBC Access Fund- how important do you think it is for coding bootcamps like Dev Bootcamp to offer diversity scholarships?
In my experience, outside of Dev Bootcamp there is barely any diversity in tech. I went to a conference and it was dominated by white men. I want more Latinos, I want more females, more African Americans, more people that look like me in the sector. Unfortunately, at least in my case and in communities like mine, finances are a huge reason why we don’t pursue technical roles or even get exposure to tech. If I’d have known about computer science in high school, maybe I would be in a different situation.
I think scholarships like Dev Bootcamp Access Fund and F8 Scholarship not only give a financial opportunity to people who need it, but also the opportunity to be exposed to a new world. Tech is definitely the future, and that’s what I’m constantly pushing for in my community; pushing for students to study STEM. These scholarships literally help people do important jobs.
What were the scholarship application and interview processes like for you?
First I had to apply to Dev Bootcamp just to get in, which involved essays about why I wanted to do Dev Bootcamp, and what empathy meant to me. Then I applied for the scholarship with an essay about why I deserved the scholarship, what I was going to bring, and do with it.They focused not so much on what you’re going to learn in the program, but what are you going to do with what you learned. Then after that you had to do a coding challenge.
What was your cohort like at Dev Bootcamp? Did you feel like it was a diverse place to learn?
It was very diverse, which I wasn’t expecting. I come from the teaching world, where it’s all female-dominated, and I worked in a school where a lot of the teachers were underrepresented minorities, and came from different cities. I had this image of the technology world – which is accurate outside of Dev Bootcamp – that it would be white male dominated. But when I went to Dev Bootcamp, I found that wasn’t true because of the diversity scholarships, and because the culture they’ve created is very diverse. There are students of different ages, different ethnicities, and when we started, 50% of us were female. It was good to see that diversity.
Every month Dev Bootcamp holds talks for women, Latinos, and for people of color. Building that community was really important to Dev Bootcamp, which I wasn’t expecting in the tech space.
Having graduated from a traditional 4-year degree, and being a teacher yourself, what did you think of Dev Bootcamp’s teaching style?
It was very different. I was used to working as a traditional teacher, where I would put notes on the board, and the students go and do an assignment, and we talk about it. Dev Bootcamp was similar in a sense, but it was more about hands-on learning and teaching yourself. It was uncomfortable in the beginning because you want the instructors to explain everything to you, rather than spend hours on something that they could have taught you in five minutes.
But I think the biggest lesson is that learning to be a developer is not so much about the language you use or the coding itself, it’s about learning how to learn. I didn’t really understand what that meant until I graduated. Now, in my job I’m learning something completely different than what I was taught at Dev Bootcamp, but I know how to teach myself. Dev Bootcamp teaches you how to teach yourself, how to be vulnerable, and how to debug code – all of those things are essential to being a developer. Technology is always going to be changing, so you need to know how to adapt.
How did Dev Bootcamp’s Engineering Empathy curriculum impact you?
At Dev Bootcamp, they put together 20+ individuals who are so smart, so driven, so ambitious, and it’s only natural that their competitive sides come out. As you learn to code, you feel like “I’m failing, they get it but I don’t get it, I must be dumb.” So that empathy, and taking the time to get to know each other to work as a team, was essential. There’s also the empathy of how to work with others, how to interact with others, and how to work through a difficult problem. When you have different personalities, and different skills, how do you work through that? That’s where the empathy, and teamwork curriculum at Dev Bootcamp really helped.
How did Dev Bootcamp prepare you for the job search?
They helped us create our LinkedIn profile, and they exposed us to algorithm interview questions. But I think the career prep is what you make of it. Our career coach, Sar, was amazing – I called her every week. She was also an emotional support coach; it’s difficult when you get rejected in an interview process, or when you’re going through negotiations with a company.
But at end of day, Dev Bootcamp can’t guarantee you job opportunities; you have to push on your own. Especially since I was moving back to LA, I had to find opportunities for myself. Dev Bootcamp’s career training was helpful in terms of how to talk to hiring managers, what to put on my resume, and how to act on the day of the interview.
Congrats on your role at NBC! What’s the role and how did you land it?
I was introduced to NBC through a Dev Bootcamp friend. She found it online and I applied through the NBCUniversal jobs website. I got so lucky. It’s an 18-month Full Stack Software Engineer Apprenticeship. The first 6 months are going through the different technologies to see where we want to work, then during the last 12 months, we focus on a project in one area for the rest of the year, whether that is iOS or tvOS, back end or front end.
What have you been working on so far? Have you had to learn new technologies?
The apprenticeship is really cool because you get to touch a little bit of everything and see the different technologies they work with at NBCUniversal, and then you get to decide what you want to continue and pursue. I wasn’t completely sure what I wanted to focus on in my career as a developer, so the apprenticeship is a great way to figure out what I really love.
The NBCUniversal office is awesome and the team is great and I just feel like I’m learning so much. I was excited to work with women – the digital team has a higher percentage of women than the average tech company. The other apprentice is also female, so I love that we can feed off each other. This team is not as diverse as my Dev Bootcamp cohort, but they are getting there. I love my boss because he’s always looking for feedback and how to help us.
What’s been the biggest challenge or roadblock in your journey to learn to code?
Because I’m a teacher, I needed to know the “why” behind everything I was learning. But sometimes in tech, you don’t have time for the “why” – if it works, it works. So those concepts took me a little bit longer to get my head around. I had to learn to focus on the “why” after I graduated.
How can you and other software developers encourage more women and Latino/as to get into STEM careers?
I feel like the best way to encourage other women and Latino/as in tech is by showing everyone that you’re working in tech. After Dev Bootcamp, I went back to visit my old classroom where I used to teach, and told my students about how I’m now a Software Engineer at NBCUniversal, and a lot of the students were shocked. Showing young students that people like you exist in tech is important, because students are used to seeing males and non-Latinos in those roles. They don’t see many females or Latinos in tech roles, so I wanted them to see a role model.
On top of exposing them to different roles, we have to show them it’s not as hard as they think, and that coding is not this magical thing. Before Dev Bootcamp, I got involved in organizations that focus on women in tech, and Latinos in tech, and for me, that was a good push. When I wasn’t sure that this was the right path, I would see others doing it, and felt like I could do it. I think that’s the biggest way to motivate others to get involved.
What advice do you have for people making a career change through a coding bootcamp?
Ask for help from your teammates, your cohort mates, the teachers, the mentors. We’d stay at Dev Bootcamp until 9pm or 10pm, so I got to know my mentors really well, and they are still my mentors today. My advice is to get as much help as you can!
Also, don’t compare yourself to anyone and remind yourself that this is your journey. You’re on your own, and if it takes you longer to learn a concept, then that’s okay. One of my hardest challenges was constantly comparing myself to others, and that definitely takes its toll in the first week. I wondered if Dev Bootcamp is not for me, or maybe I’m not smart enough. But I stuck to my own journey, at my own pace, stopped comparing myself, and asked for help.