Mariya graduated from the Grace Hopper Program in mid-2016, and has been working as a Software Engineer at Crisis Text Line for more than two years. We interviewed her right after she graduated, then caught up in 2018 to see how her career is progressing. Mariya tells us about all the new technologies she has learned, the project that got her a promotion, and why it’s so rewarding working for a company focused on social good. She also tells us how Crisis Text Line has grown as demand rises and offers her advice for contributing to good causes as a software engineer.
Tell me about your background before Grace Hopper.
What were your career goals when you first applied to Grace Hopper?
I knew that after graduation I wanted to work as a software engineer. At the time, I also really wanted to work toward social good, but I actually didn’t think it would be possible. I got very lucky that Crisis Text Line was one of Fullstack Academy and Grace Hopper’s hiring partners. The person who is now my manager had actually graduated from Fullstack Academy himself, which is why he was at the hiring day. So my job search ended up being pretty quick – when I saw Crisis Text Line on the list of hiring partners, I knew immediately that this was what I wanted to do, and I was lucky enough to get the job.
What about Crisis Text Line appealed to you?
Obviously suicide prevention is a really important cause. Originally, with my two humanities majors, I wanted to be a lawyer and work in human rights. I wanted to work at a company that prioritizes social good, but I didn’t expect it would be a tech company.
Last time we talked, you had been at Crisis Text Line for 3 months – what’s kept you there for two years?
There are so many things! I was first hired as an Integrations Engineer and I continue to be challenged technically. I’ve worked on many different projects, and I’ve also been involved in internationalization (launching in different countries). I’ve worked a lot on our main platform, building new tools, making it more accessible for different counselors, and adding more languages. I’ve also worked on building our CRM platform, doing Salesforce migration, machine learning, and APEX. As the company and our needs grew, I got to do a little bit of everything.
Now I mostly work on our platform. The platform was built 5 years ago, and we are now updating all our tech, and implementing React from scratch.
Another reason I’ve stayed at Crisis Text Line is that our mission hasn’t changed. We’re trying to get help to as many people as possible, and as an engineer it’s still very interesting. Plus, the tech team all gets along swimmingly and everyone has been receptive to my growth and has helped me become a better developer.
When you first started there, you told me you were the only female engineer in your engineering group. How has your team changed since then?
We’ve hired a second female engineer! But finding female engineers remains difficult. We’ve tried to diversify our funnel, we have definitely interviewed a lot of people, but haven’t been as successful as we would like to be. I was hired with two other people from Fullstack Academy and one is still here.
When I joined, the entire company was under 50 people and we were only live in the US. Now we’ve gone international – we are in the UK and Canada, the engineering team has 15 people, and our office takes up two floors in New York City. It’s been the perfect first job. After the November 2016 election, it was like somebody turned on a switch – we saw our greatest volume ever. It was crazy.
As soon as President Trump was elected, within 24 hours, we were just flooded with messages. People seemed like they felt they had permission to attack others, so we were just flooded that entire week, and volume hasn’t slowed down. It’s kind of wild, but to this day people still message us with worries and anxieties about friends and family – people who are not straight, white, or wealthy – who feel anxiety about the administration. That makes up a good chunk of our recent demand.
Can you share some of the projects you’ve worked on at Crisis Text Line over the past 3 years?
When I first joined, Crisis Text line didn’t have a CRM, and instead we were using scripts to keep data in sync, so I was mostly writing the back-end scripts that did that. My first big project was to do research and find the CMS we were going to use, then integrate it with our existing platform.
The project I’m most proud of is an internal scheduling app. When I joined we were using an app called When I Work, which wasn’t made for our high volume (1500 to 2000 crisis counselors per month). So we decided to build our own scheduling app from scratch. My manager and I built it, and it was very exciting to work on – it’s the project that got me promoted actually. I learned a lot by building an app from scratch – namely it’s how I learned React, which was really interesting and super rewarding. My team got to launch the scheduling app on stage at our annual conference Palooza, in front of our crisis counselors. Everyone was super excited, especially because scheduling was such a pain-point for our crisis counselors. It was rewarding to build a tool and see it actually solve the problem we set out to solve: counselors started using it and it reduced frustration immediately.
How have you grown as a developer since you started working in August 2016? Do you feel like you’ve grown into a Senior Developer?
I was hired as a Junior Software Engineer, I’ve been promoted to Software Engineer, and I’m hopefully on track to become a Senior Engineer!
I definitely feel like the breadth of my knowledge has increased so much since I started at Crisis Text Line. At the time I attended Grace Hopper, they were teaching the MEAN stack (they switched to NERDS shortly after I graduated), but here I write in so many different languages. Our back end is in PHP, I’ve worked on projects written in Apex and Ruby, and I’ve done a bit in DevOps.
As a team, we’ve also built out our workflow. We have always worked in Agile Methodology, but when I first started, people would just contact me to fix a bug. Now, our workflow is all formal, we do Agile by the book, and we are fixing issues in real-time. If our users can’t reach us, they could die, so there’s a certain pressure.
Along with the pressure in your job – how have you seen your work make a difference?
We focus on two things – one is crisis counselor retention, and the other is building tools that enable us to help as many people as we can. For instance, when we build things like the scheduling app, we see higher retention among the counselors. We have created machine learning bots which counselors can chat to in training, to get more comfortable dealing with certain types of texter issues.
Implementing React has enabled us to build a prettier and faster experience for crisis counselors, which increases retention. We’ve also made all the training materials available after the training, so that if a counselor hasn’t dealt with a particular issue in a while, they can access training materials while messaging with a texter, so they never have to feel like they’re letting texters down.
Helping take the organization international has also been rewarding, because it has helped us reach more vulnerable folks.
I hear you’ve spoken at a number of events recently, can you tell me about those?
I spoke at the Lesbians Who Tech conference about the machine learning project we have been working on with our data science team. It’s a triaging algorithm to figure out how severe each texter’s crisis is. While we acknowledge that all our texters need our help, we do need to differentiate between a person who is holding a gun and someone who is not in such immediate danger.
Originally the triage was super simple: Our algorithm looked for words indicative of high severity – such as “gun,” “bridge,” “overdose,” “kill myself” – and then flagged those as high risk. But the algorithm was not elegant, and more importantly, it was only about 53% accurate.
So we hired an incredible data science engineer, Ankit Gupta, who used deep neural networks to create Ava, a new triage algorithm with an accuracy score in the high 80s. It’s a long short-term memory algorithm, which can understand and build dependencies. So that was my tech talk.
The other event was an Out in Tech event, which was an LGBTQ+ event focused on health tech, so Crisis Text Line was invited. I spoke about how 46% of our texters identify as LGBTQ+, even though we have never marketed ourselves as service specifically for that community. It’s really telling that while so many texters identify as LGBTQ+, fewer than 5% cite their identity as their reason for reaching out. Our data suggests that LGBTQ+ people are a high at-risk population with a diverse array of issues.
Many people imagine that being a software engineer means working for a tech startup or a big bank or an Apple or Facebook. Is that your experience?
There are definitely other options. My CEO likes to say we are a tech company in the social good space, but our bottom line is not one of our KPIs. And there are a lot of not-for-profit tech companies that need software engineers. Obviously, as engineers, we are very lucky because we are in such demand right now. It might take you a little longer to find the socially responsible company you want to work for, but they are definitely out there and looking for you.
What is your advice to someone who wants to go to coding bootcamp to become an engineer and give back?
My first piece of advice is to just really know if this is what you want to do. Bootcamps tend to be cheaper than a college education, but still quite pricey. They are also very time consuming – I was there from 9am to 8pm everyday, and when I was building my projects I was there on weekends as well. And you’ll be so exhausted because you’re learning a bunch of new information every day. Because it’s such a huge commitment, you should make sure you test the waters to see if this is what you want to do. There are a lot of great free resources you can use before committing – I used Codecademy, FreeCodeCamp, and the Harvard X courses.
My second piece of advice is to talk to as many people as you can. People who work as software engineers are very usually very responsive, so just reach out to people on LinkedIn and ask to talk about their company and their engineering experience. Many people reach out to me because I went to a coding bootcamp, and I’ll often get coffee with them. Talk to as many people as you can and code as much as you can in your free time.
How can developers who don’t take jobs with nonprofits contribute to social good through technology?
Github hosts a lot of open source, social good projects that you can contribute to. There are also a lot of tech groups around New York City, and a lot of them have social good events. For example, Out in Tech hosts events and hackathons – in one hackathon, a bunch of NGOs submit tech requests, and engineers build them what they need. So there are definitely a lot of options, if you want to donate your time as a software engineer, because a lot of NGOs are underfunded.
What are your plans and ambitions for the future? Will socially responsible companies always be in the cards for you?
It’s very hard for me to see myself somewhere that isn’t socially responsible. Not only is it important to me, but I’m also just accustomed to it now after working at Crisis Text Line. Maybe I won’t always be with nonprofits, but the ethos of a company is very important to me. I don’t see myself working at a bank; I think I will always work at companies with a strong social justice and moral ethos.
Crisis Text Line is just one of many socially conscious tech companies. Check out this list to discover others. Find out more and read Grace Hopper Program reviews on Course Report, or check out the Grace Hopper Program website.