Joining Saron today is Michelle Glauser, CEO & Founder of Techtonica. Ever since joining the industry as a software engineer, Michelle recognized the glaring lack of diversity within the world of tech, which is why she's dedicated herself to addressing this issue. Techtonica is a nonprofit that provides tuition-free tech training with laptops, living stipends, and job placement or search support to women and non-binary adults with low incomes. Michelle shares insights she's gained through her coding journey and advice for those looking to start their path today.
[00:00:06] SY: Welcome to the CodeNewbie Podcast where we talk to people on their coding journey in hopes of helping you on yours. I’m your host, Saron, and today we’re talking about the tech gap and ways we can improve it with Michelle Glauser, Founder of Techtonica.
[00:00:20] MG: I immediately upon becoming a software engineer realized there was a huge lack of diversity, and I was seeing that diversity around me every day in the Bay Area and didn’t think it was fair that somehow people weren’t able to reflect the diversity of the local people within their software engineering teams.
[00:00:43] SY: Michelle talks about her coding journey and how she went from a bachelor’s degree in English to a bootcamp that helped her break into the tech world. She talks about her experience at Hackbright Academy and what led to her starting her non-profit, Techtonica, after this.
[00:01:06] SY: Thank you so much for being here.
[00:01:07] MG: Thanks for having me.
[00:01:08] SY: So I’d love to start off by learning about your coding journey. What inspired you to get into tech?
[00:01:13] MG: Yeah. After I did my master’s in digital humanities, I thought about doing a PhD, but I didn’t get into the program I wanted, and then I kind of was already thinking that I wanted to do something more on the business side. So I applied and was hired at this startup in San Francisco and pretty much did everything except for coding. And I kept looking at the software engineers and just saying, “What they do is so cool and they make so much more money than I do. How do I do that?” And it just happened to be the year that coding bootcamp started and I was googling around and found them. So I applied and got into Hackbright in San Francisco.
[00:01:57] SY: Very cool. So my understanding is that at the time, I think it was only just two bootcamps that were available to enroll in. What made you pick Hackbright out of the two options? What got you interested in their program?
[00:02:10] MG: You know, the other one was co-ed and I just really liked the idea of being able to learn with other women and it felt less intimidating to me, I think. I believe it was cheaper too. I can’t quite remember now.
[00:02:28] SY: Yeah. Okay. That’s totally fair. So what about your experience at Hackbright did you enjoy the most?
[00:02:33] MG: You know, I think software engineering was so much more creative than I thought it was going to be.
[00:02:40] SY: Ah, yeah.
[00:02:40] MG: It kind of opened up this world of thinking about how to solve different problems using code, and I just loved the different people in my cohort getting to know them and work with them and have their different perspectives when we paired. It was great. Honestly, I loved learning all of that, and within a couple of weeks of graduating, I had gotten a job offer and negotiated for like 30% more than they offered.
[00:03:11] SY: Oh!
[00:03:12] MG: So it was so empowering and amazing that my life clues in like three months.
[00:03:14] SY: Go, Michelle! Tell me more about that. What was your experience like finding a job, going through the interview process? What was that all about?
[00:03:23] MG: Yeah. So Hackbright kind of brought in different companies to talk to us, and I started going to interviews at those different companies. Oh, and that’s another thing that was cool, like everyone else in the cohort was interviewing there too. It could have been competitive and terrible, but it was really supportive. We really supported each other and cheered when someone got one of the roles. So I ended up being hired by Get Satisfaction, which was one of the companies that showed up. And yeah, it was so cool to have my first taste of what it was like in software engineering.
[00:03:59] SY: How did it feel like to go through the interview process? What steps were involved? What was that like for you?
[00:04:05] MG: Yeah. I remember that Hackbright had said, “You know, they might be asking about data structures and algorithms, so study up on that.” And they basically just, through that coding interview, looked at us, which was really overwhelming because we were learning Python and I think all of the examples in there were Java and just felt really like a totally different language, which they were. It was overwhelming. And so I was really nervous and felt like, “What if they asked me this stuff and I have no idea what I’m doing? What if they want me to code in Java?” Yeah. They were like, “Use whatever language you’re comfortable with,” and they threw a couple of questions at me. “How would you code this?” I believe there was one that a game, like Tic-Tac-Toe or something, and I talked it out while I was writing on the whiteboard and then eventually came up with some code that would make that game.
[00:05:02] SY: Very cool. So you started working in tech, but not as a programmer. How did your perspective change about the tech industry once you actually became a programmer?
[00:05:13] MG: Honestly, I feel like there’s kind of some bias in tech around the roles, right? So it felt like, “Oh, you’re like really part of tech now.” Like I wasn’t completely part of tech before and like I wasn’t on the end. I didn’t know all the cool things other people know. And it sounds kind of silly now, but I did see a tweet the other day that said, “Will you still like me if I get a technical writing role or something?” And I was like, “There really is this feeling of like the best people in tech are software engineers.” I don’t think that’s a good thing, but it definitely is something I’ve noticed.
[00:05:59] SY: And once you became one of the “the best people”, did that change the way you thought about those best people? Did that change the way that you thought about the tech industry as a whole?
[00:06:12] MG: No. I like to talk to Techtonica’s participants a lot about class straddling. And I feel like the tricky thing about moving from a blue-collar upbringing to this world of tech that is so privileged is that you are empowered by it, but you also feel some resentment almost because before when you saw all of the wealth and privilege that people in tech had, or when I did anyway, it felt like it wasn’t fair and that I had some dislike for people who were in tech. But then to be there myself, I had to kind of work through that, like, “How do I feel about myself now that I’m one of those people?” Like, “Am I a sellout? How do I manage that?” So I guess in a lot of ways I felt like, “Wow, this is special because it is a different world that opens up to you through software,” but also there are trade-offs, right?
[00:07:22] SY: Absolutely.
[00:07:44] SY: So the phrase “tech gap” is a very big phrase in your world and the work that you do and the company that you’ve built. What does that phrase mean?
[00:07:54] MG: Well, to me it means that there are a lot of people whose perspectives we are missing in tech, and we’re not extending the privilege of tech to those people. And oftentimes, we’re not recognizing that there are quite a few barriers that get in the way of people being able to join tech.
[00:08:15] SY: And how did you respond to that? Because you were responsible for an ad campaign that I remember from a few years ago called “I Look Like an Engineer”. Is that right?
[00:08:26] MG: Yes, that’s right.
[00:08:27] SY: Tell me about that.
[00:08:29] MG: Yeah, basically there was a software engineer in San Francisco who was in some recruiting ads for her company. She got these responses of people saying, “Clearly, she’s too beautiful to be a software engineer. She’s not a software engineer.”-[00:08:46] SY: Are we all meant to be ugly and hideous? I don’t understand.
[00:08:48] MG: Right? Oh my gosh. And like coding in a dark basement. Yeah. And I just felt so mad for her. She was also getting emails like, “Hey, you want to go out with me?”-[00:09:00] SY: Oh boy!
[00:09:01] MG: I was so angry for her. So I reached out and I said, “Hey, we should put up ads showing underrepresented engineers.” And she said, “I like where your mind’s at, but I think that would break the internet. Let’s just post pictures of ourselves within I Look Like an Engineer hashtag.
[00:09:18] SY: Yeah. Yeah.
[00:09:20] MG: So with this hashtag, we posted, I started sharing it in all of the different coding communities I was in, and it went viral in a few hours.
[00:09:30] SY: I remember that.
[00:09:30] MG: And we had so many people contacting us. It became clear pretty quickly that we could do the ads campaign because there was so much interest. So we raised several thousand dollars and put up ads around the Bay Area showing underrepresented engineers.
[00:09:48] SY: And what impact that have on you personally?
[00:09:51] MG: You know, I had been thinking for a long time about how to pay it forward and help underrepresented people become software engineers. And I immediately, upon becoming a software engineer, realized there was a huge lack of diversity. And I was seeing that diversity around me every day in the Bay Area and didn’t think it was fair that somehow people weren’t able to reflect the diversity of the local people within their software engineering teams. And I really kept thinking, because this is so empowering for me, I want to help other people have this experience and make sure that we’re building software that is for more people and that we’re thinking about all of the things that we should be thinking about. And I honestly spoke to a few different programs to see if I could like fund a scholarship or something. And it just wasn’t clear exactly how to do that. And with every program, I saw that there were still a lot of barriers. So for example, I spoke to some scholarship recipients who were like, “Yeah, it covered the tuition, but I had to quit my job and I couldn’t pay rent so I’m sleeping on someone’s couch.” Or, “I’m a parent. There’s no way I can just go sleep on a couch for a few months and I need to have evenings and weekends off to take care of my kids.” So I just felt like there wasn’t a program that really broke down all of those barriers. And then also over the years post Hackbright, I talked to so many bootcamp grads who said, “Yeah, I have been looking for a job for six months, eight months, ten months.” I heard people usually between six months to a year to find a job. And I just kept thinking, “If someone were to make a program that broke down all of those barriers, they should also make sure to place people into roles, because if you don’t already have that tech network, it is so, so hard to find a role and it takes a while to build that network. I guess I hadn’t really seen myself as starting a program like that. I didn’t think I could do that. But after I brought so many people together to make sure that this I Look Like an Engineer ad campaign came to fruition, I realized I have an amazing community of people around me who would totally support something like that. And clearly, I can manage something like that because I just did. So it made me realize that I could start something like Techtonica and I loved that it started a conversation and kind of inspired some people, but I didn’t feel like it actually changed anyone’s lives and I wanted to take it that next step. So I just felt so passionate about these things that were missing. And when I saw that no one had really built something to solve those, I was like, “All right, I guess I have to do this.”-[00:13:03] SY: And that’s what Techtonica ended up becoming?
[00:13:06] MG: Yeah, basically it’s a nonprofit and it’s six months of free software engineering training. We provide laptops and living stipends and mentors. And at the end, we place the graduates with the companies that sponsor them. So the business model is that the companies sponsor a participant. They don’t know which one they’re going to get, but they sponsor one and then we prepare them and then place someone with them.
[00:13:36] SY: That’s incredible. That’s so incredible that you’re able to get the companies to take on the cost because ultimately, I mean, they are the ones that benefit, I guess, right? Like at the end of the day, they get an awesome employee, an awesome person to help build their company. So they’re making the upfront investment and getting a return a little bit later on down the line. How long has Techtonica been around?
[00:13:55] MG: Since 2016.
[00:13:57] SY: Wow! Nice! Good for you. And how has it grown, changed over the years?
[00:14:03] MG: You know, I think initially Techtonica was mostly just me, like I was doing everything, which is fine for a little while. But after a few years, you’ll just completely bring yourself out doing that. So yeah, I had to learn a lot of things about nonprofits and how to pitch to companies. Honestly, the first little while, it was so hard to get companies on board. They were like, “You want us to pay for someone we don’t even know to do this thing and then you pick who’s going to work with us?” And I was like, “Yup.” And it was such an unfamiliar business model to them that I had a lot of people say, “Okay, well, come back once you’ve already placed people.” And I was like, “Oh, this is a terrible Catch-22 to be in because how am I supposed to start this program if I don’t have those sponsors?” Anyway, what I ended up doing is a crowdfunding campaign, which I had sworn the year previous I was never going to do again because it was really stressful and use that funding to take the leap of faith and start the first cohort. And it wasn’t until probably two weeks before graduation that I was able to get all of the sponsors. But after that, there were enough for the next cohort.
[00:15:30] SY: Wow! Nice! That’s amazing.
[00:15:32] MG: Like people signed on pretty quickly. Yeah.
[00:15:35] SY: And where did this idea come from? Because usually when it comes to a bootcamp type of program, usually the students pay, right? In this case you have the company pay. How did you come up with that idea, that business model?
[00:15:48] MG: Yeah. You know, I think it was kind of a combination of things. I heard of Ada Developers and they had something similar. And then I just kept feeling like, “If the tech industry really wants more diversity, why aren’t they paying for it?” Like, “It doesn’t make sense.”-[00:16:07] SY: Oh, interesting.
[00:16:08] MG: You put an additional barrier on people who are already facing a lot of them. The company should pay for it. And I still believe in that. I know a lot of programs have turned to income sharing agreements, but I still think that’s another barrier you’re putting on people, even if it’s later.
[00:16:27] SY: So I’m curious for those initial group of sponsors, what do you think they saw in what you were doing that made them decide to give you money, decide to work with you, especially without such a long track record at that point? You were just getting started. Why sponsor a bootcamp grad at all? Why not just wait until they graduate and then hire them then?
[00:16:51] MG: You know, my idea or my suspicion was that if hiring managers or recruiters were able to meet the participants of the program and have that personal connection, that they would then say, “We absolutely want to support them.” And so we did an info session for sponsors where we basically had each participant tell their story of where they had worked before, like what career they had before, and then why they want to get into tech and what barriers they’d faced trying to do that and why they think they would make a great software engineer. And it was such an inspiring event. And at the end, we had people come up and say, “We definitely want in on this. How do we talk to you about that?” And I think that was the turning point because a lot of the people I’ve been talking to just had this general idea of who a participant would be. And it wasn’t until they had heard their personal stories and like eaten dinner with them at this event that they realized, “Is there a person who really would be great in the industry and we could certainly invest in them?”-[00:18:15] SY: So you’ve been building and growing Techtonica for years now. What are some challenges that you have faced and maybe still faced while you’re building and growing the community?
[00:18:26] MG: Oh, gosh, so many challenges. Honestly, there’s always something new. I initially debated if it should be a non-profit or a for-profit, and I honestly had never thought I would work in a non-profit or even connected to that world really. I guess I just never really thought about it, so I had a lot to learn and it honestly felt really old fashioned in a lot of ways. So I think the main challenges initially were that the person doing it probably wasn’t the best person to be doing it. And I voiced that to people and many of them said, “Yeah, but you are the one who is doing it.” And that’s what is most important and you will figure it out. And so I just had that growth mindset and with each thing that we faced, I was like, “All right, who’s faced something like this before? Let me talk to them and kind of get some perspective or let me do some research and figure this out.” And honestly, to this day, Techtonica still has that attitude of like, “We know we’re not going to do everything perfectly. We always want to be making improvements. How else can we be better?” So it’s been hard because sometimes when you’re trying to help people and they don’t like what you do, it feels really terrible, right? But I just had to remind myself that it’s not about me, and that people have legitimate reasons to feel the way they do. And instead of looking at maybe the way it was expressed or taking it personally, I needed to figure out what the problem was and how to fix it. For example, we’ve had cohorts where sponsors pulled out in the middle because of layoffs, for example, with the current cohort.
[00:20:23] SY: Oh!
[00:20:24] MG: And that has been really stressful for the participants, and I initially was like, “Don’t worry about it. Just focus on your projects. I’m going to take care of this.” But that actually wasn’t helpful to them. What I needed to do instead was listen and thank them and validate and then say I’m going to do everything I can. So I had to learn to like slow down and focus more on the people aspect so that everything else could be better. But yeah, we’re facing that challenge now, which we also did in early 2020, and it’s hard, but I have learned as long as you are open to questions and open communication and you let people know when their updates, they can manage better.
[00:21:22] SY: Coming up next, Michelle talks about her experience building Techtonica after this.
[00:21:38] SY: So we talked earlier about the bias within tech of people saying like, “Oh, you’re not really in tech,” that whole nonsense. But there’s also kind of a different bias about people in tech when they aren’t themselves in tech at all. And there’s this idea that people who are in tech, they don’t deserve their salaries. It’s prestigious without real reason. It’s not earned. It’s not deserved and that they’re getting paid tons of money to sit around on computers all day. There’s kind of this bias against people who are in tech. And I’m wondering, did your students, did they have that kind of feeling about people in tech? And how did that affect what happened when they became those supposedly undeserving people in tech who were now better off and making more money?
[00:22:27] MG: You know, over the years in talking to participants and graduates, I’ve gathered this enormous database of stories or experiences that people have had and how they dealt with them and what they wish they’d known initially. And I’ve put that all together and I give this talk to participants of the program. And one big part of it is about being a class straddler and having to reconcile those feelings of like, “Oh, those privileged people, now I’m one of them.” And so, yeah, I think the best way to deal with that is to, one, talk about it, be open about it, and then two, to use that new privilege for good. Because that way at least one person who has all of these privileges is doing something to help the people who don’t. And that’s kind of what I encourage them to do.
[00:23:31] SY: Absolutely. So one of the other big transitions with breaking into tech, it’s not just about the coding, it’s the soft skills, the non-technical skills that come with it too. Especially if you’re coming from a job that is not in an office, doesn’t have the same like kind of manager or hierarchy, having to learn the dynamics of that can be itself, its own bootcamp, it can be its own learning experience. How have graduates of Techtonica, how have they dealt with that side of the career transition?
[00:24:03] MG: Yeah. So we do check-in calls after they start their placement.
[00:24:07] SY: Oh, wonderful.
[00:24:08] MG: And that way if they run into questions, they can ask and we can give some advice. Or even other graduates can give advice and that way they’re all kind of learning from each other about how to deal with all of that. Our last few cohorts, we’ve incorporated a lot more soft skills training. In fact, we’ve had people say they were surprised by how much there was. Every Wednesday, we have Soft Skills Wednesday, and we talk about all sorts of things, and one of the very first things we cover and that we continue to cover every week is giving feedback. Because we learned early on it’s really hard to give feedback and people are really scared about those conversations and that leads to really terrible interactions in the end. So we came up with a whole feedback framework, not just for participants, but the whole organization, and then we them on it during their first week, and then every Wednesday after that, we post an example situation in Slack and they have to respond to it using the feedback framework. And honestly, I love watching this because they just get so much better at it as time goes on and so much more confident. We even had one participant who said, “This has changed my personal life, too, because I didn’t use to draw boundaries with people I should have been drawing boundaries with.” And now I can tell them when I observe something and how it makes me feel and they clearly what my request is for them.
[00:25:49] SY: Right.
[00:25:49] MG: So I’m really glad we have worked on that and I’ve seen it make a huge difference for people.
[00:25:54] SY: That’s awesome. Wow! Feedback framework, I love that. That’s amazing. So what advice do you have to people who are looking to break into tech may not have that MacBook, that luxury of covering rent while they learn to code? For people who might be in the position that a lot of your graduates were in, what advice do you have for them to break in successfully and get the job that they want?
[00:26:20] MG: Yeah. I think what a lot of us don’t say is that you can totally become a software engineer on your own. There’s so many resources online, but the hard thing is when you get stuck and you cannot figure out the solution, and there’s no one around you who can answer the question. So I also, for motivation reasons, feel like you should find a community of people who are trying to learn and learn with them because that way you can say, “Tomorrow, we’re working through this module, and then we’re going to talk about it.” Or, “I want to pair with you. Since you’ve already learned how to solve that, can you help me get past this error?” I think community is just so, so important. Otherwise, you just kind of lose hope when you are troubleshooting for days on end and can’t figure something out. And of course, building that community means that you all support each other as you move into the industry or need job referrals in the future. So find a community. There’s freeCodeCamp. There are all sorts of things out there, especially since the pandemic, there are a lot more virtual study groups with Women Who Code and a lot of other groups. So Google around. Find out who you could meet with. It always helps when it’s someone you can relate to and set some goals for yourselves.
[00:27:48] SY: Very cool. Now at the end of every episode, we ask our guest to fill in the blanks of some very important questions. Michelle, are you ready to fill in the blanks?
[00:28:02] MG: I am ready.
[00:28:03] SY: Number one, worst advice I’ve ever received is?
[00:28:07] MG: Not to work on something that isn’t for most people. I disagree because you can really personalize and specialize, if it isn’t for everyone, and your passion for the work is what’s going to keep you going.
[00:28:19] SY: Yes. Yes, absolutely. There’s a really well known book by, I think it’s Seth Godin called “The Dip” that I really appreciate. I don’t know if you’ve read it. If you haven’t, you should. It’s a very short book. It’s very good. But it talks about how we hit our struggles and we hit some hurdles and we can’t tell if that means we’re at the end of the road for us, if that’s just it and we need to move on, or if it’s just a dip. And we’re going to come back up the other side if we just keep going. And I think that if we have passion, if we have interest, that can help us kind of push through those dips and recognize them as dips and not quit prematurely. So I think that finding your audience and your people and working hard for people you care about is a great way to go.
[00:29:00] MG: Absolutely.
[00:29:01] SY: Number two, best advice I’ve ever received is?
[00:29:04] MG: That if you have an idea you really want to work on, you should create a written proposal and get stakeholder feedback and buy in and then present it to the decision maker. Because if it’s officially on the doc, you have made it very easy for them to say, yes, you’ve already planned everything out for them.
[00:29:23] SY: Interesting. And I love this as advice for a business, writing out a business plan and kind of figuring out, just laying out, just for yourself. It doesn’t mean you have to do it. I mean, it’s probably not going to work the way that you think it’s going to work anyway.
[00:29:36] MG: Of course not.
[00:29:35] SY: But just having it on paper, having it planned out, but then also that advice on the job of like giving it to your manager, your stakeholder, even your peer. I think it’s a really great idea. I love that.
[00:29:46] MG: Yeah. I even helped the Techtonica grad write a proposal for a position shift she wanted to make over the next year, and she got it.
[00:29:55] SY: Oh, wonderful!
[00:29:56] MG: I’ve seen her be successful several times.
[00:29:58] SY: That’s great. Number three, my first coding project was about?
[00:30:02] MG: It was an app called Book Fairy and it took a list of books and showed you their Goodreads ratings and which ones were currently checked in at the local library because I was so sick of typing in every little book off of my list.
[00:30:18] SY: Yeah. I love that so much. That is brilliant.
[00:30:23] MG: Thank you.
[00:30:24] SY: That is brilliant. Number four, one thing I wish I knew when I first started to code is?
[00:30:29] MG: I already touched on this one, how vital community is. It is so vital. I don’t think people will make it as far as they don’t build a community first.
[00:30:41] SY: Absolutely. Well, thank you again so much for joining us, Michelle.
[00:30:44] MG: Thank you so much for having me. It was very enjoyable.
[00:30:54] SY: You can reach out to us on Twitter at CodeNewbies or send me an email, email@example.com. For more info on the podcast, check out www.codenewbie.org/podcast. Thanks for listening. See you next week.
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