Saron chats with Ronesha Dennis, Founder and Lead Engineer at Bergeron-Woodley. Ronesha talks about growing up and how tech played a role in her childhood (her first website was a fan site for Lil Bow Wow). She talks about how she ended up in another career for 5 years until she sat down and thought about things she liked doing as a child without being paid for doing those things. This led her to want to get into tech. She decided to leave her job, move back with her parents, and do an 8-week program on Ruby on Rails. She then did a fellowship with Code for Progress. After graduating, she landed a job as a consultant then advanced to an Engineer, a Senior Engineer, and finally to managing other Engineers. She has authored coding books and she has her company building applications for nonprofits and other small businesses. Ronesha speaks on the mental health break she took after making the switch to tech and how important it is to give yourself space and time to take breaks after a career transition.
[00:00:05] 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 making rest a priority with Ronesha Dennis, Founder and Lead Software Engineer at Bergeron-Woodley Company.
[00:00:19] RD: One of the things that I said to myself was I am not going to allow myself to fail. You’ve already overcome adversity in your life before. So this is just a stepping stone to get you to that next level of where you want to be. And if you don’t take this step back, what is going to happen is that you’re going to be five years later in this same position. So you have to take the step back if you want to move forward.
[00:00:47] SY: Ronesha shares when her childhood interest in code turned into a reality and how she’s hoping she can help others spark their passion for coding from a young age after this.
[00:01:05] SY: Thank you so much for joining us.
[00:01:06] RD: Thank you for having me. I’m so excited.
[00:01:08] SY: So let’s start all the way at the beginning in the early days. What was life like growing up for you? Was tech a big part of your childhood?
[00:01:16] RD: So actually it was, and it was very interesting. I grew up in the ’90s and we had a dial-up connection and we had one computer, which I believe my mom got from work. And fortunately, she allowed me to kind of take over that computer and take over our phone line so that I could kind of explore. And that’s what I did a lot of. So I spent a lot of time on the computer and eventually I found an interest in what I did not know at the time was coding. So I found an interest in doing HTML and building MySpace pages and just really kind of getting to practice different things on websites. Over time, I want to say I was probably 12 or 13 at this time, one of my favorite musicians at the time, I wanted to create a fan site for this musician because fan sites were becoming a really big thing. So I wanted to create a fan site for this musician. And I call this out because this was one of those times when I kind of really learned something about tech that I didn’t know was a thing to know. And he had a game on his website. This was rapper Lil Bow Wow. He had a game on his website and I really wanted that game on my fan site. And so I took some time so I could explore and I learned about iframes and using iframes so that I could put his game on my fan site. And the fan site actually ended up being pretty popular years later. Into adulthood, I would talk to people and I would tell them about this and they’re like, “I use that site before.” [00:03:09] SY: Wow! Oh my goodness! That’s so cool!
[00:03:13] RD: So it was really, really fun. But that was probably like the early interest into tech and learning how to code. And I have to tell you, at that point in time, again, I didn’t even know that this was called coding.
[00:03:31] SY: So if you weren’t thinking of your fan page and your iframes, you weren’t thinking of that as a career at that age, did you have any career-related aspirations? What did you want to be at that point?
[00:03:43] RD: Yeah, at that point in my life, I also really enjoyed writing poetry.
[00:03:48] SY: Oh, okay.
[00:03:49] RD: So I thought about, like, maybe becoming a poet, maybe doing creative writing of some kind, but I really didn’t know. I was not raised in a household where our career was really pushed on us. Of course, our parents would say things like, “Oh, I want a doctor and an engineer and a lawyer.” They definitely said those things, but in the grand scheme of like how we were truly treated and how we got to kind of take a deep dive into our own interests, none of those things were pressed upon us. It was, “Let’s find what you actually enjoy doing.” [00:04:29] SY: Okay. So at some point, computer science and coding became an interest. When did that happen for you? Was there a moment maybe in high school, middle school, where you started to focus a little bit more on those skills?
[00:04:41] RD: I did. So when I was in high school, I went to a great school where we got to focus on kind of different interests. I like to call them majors, but of course that’s not what they were called at the point in time that we were in school. It was just very much so like having a focus on a specific thing. I selected the computer technology path and I selected that because, oh, I knew I loved being on the computer, I had loved building that fan site and things of that nature. So I said, “Oh, this should give me a greater idea into what this can truly be,” because now I’m actually thinking about, “Well, what do I want to do and what do I want to major in, in college, and all of those things for my future?” But I have to admit that taking those classes actually made me question whether or not I wanted to move into computer science or computer technology.
[00:05:39] SY: Interesting. It had the opposite effect.
[00:05:41] RD: Yeah. Yeah. The reason for that was that we did not have a deep focus on coding.
[00:05:48] SY: Oh, okay.
[00:05:49] RD: Our focus was very much so on networking, IT, setting up routers, things of that nature, which I truly did not have an interest in. I understood it and I was able to do the work and piece things together. But in terms of it being fulfilling for me, it was not that at all. And so afterward, as I was thinking about what I really wanted to do when I considered what I wanted to study in college, it kind of made that a secondary choice for me.
[00:06:27] SY: Interesting. Was there something that was primary? Was there something that took over and caught your eye instead?
[00:06:32] RD: I think what it was, was that I had always had that childhood interest in writing as well and poetry and just kind of exploring myself creatively in that way. And so I decided in college to major in journalism. And I had a minor in computer science, so there was still that interest in tech there, but I decided to study journalism. And although looking back, because, again, hindsight is 2020, looking back, I think it was a great decision to do that. But at the time, I wasn’t the happiest with studying journalism because I really wanted to do creative writing with English, but a lot of people, counselors and whatnot said, “Oh, we don’t think you should study English because that’s not going to be good for going into a career.” [00:07:22] SY: I know you went to Howard University.
[00:07:24] RD: Yes.
[00:07:25] SY: And they have an excellent journalism program. I almost went to Howard, actually.
[00:07:28] RD: Yes. It’s an amazing program, but very, very rigorous. And so what’s so interesting about doing that program is by the time I was done, I said, “Oh my God, I absolutely do not want to be a journalist.” [00:07:43] SY: Oh, no! Why? What’s your job about it?
[00:07:49] RD: I enjoyed interacting with people. I enjoyed interviewing people. The amount of background research that you have to do, the amount of just really finding that good story and pitching that good story and then finding the angle that will truly work to tell that story, it was a lot and I wasn’t the most interested in it. And then one of the other things, I think one of the reasons that Howard has such an amazing journalism program is because you are expected to write a lot. We had to write 15 to 20 articles a week.
[00:08:31] SY: Oh my goodness!
[00:08:34] RD: And in writing those 15 to 20 articles a week, the expectation was that these are not just articles that you’re writing for Howard University’s daily student newspaper. You’re also writing articles for external news organizations either in the DC area or if you can pitch to somewhere else and get a placement there. So it’s an excellent training field for anybody who truly wants to be in the field. And for me, I decided, oh my gosh, no. I don’t want to do this. This would make me miserable.
[00:09:13] SY: Okay. So you graduate from Howard with a journalism degree, a degree that you have in an industry you don’t want to work in, but you do have this minor in computer science. What do you do with that? What happens next?
[00:09:25] RD: I ended up working in public health and I worked for a really great national nonprofit organization and I started off my career as an office and fulfillment manager. And it’s really interesting because I think as I tell you more just about like how my career progressed., I appreciate so much having started my career as an office and fulfillment manager with that specific company because I learned so much that goes directly into what I’m trying to do now.
[00:09:58] SY: Interesting. Tell me a little bit more about that job description because I’m not sure I’m very familiar with that role. What kinds of things were you responsible for?
[00:10:04] RD: So basically it was really two roles. One was being the office manager. So just making sure that the office was running smoothly, that everybody was happy, that we had everything that we needed, being the receptionist, being able to talk to people and engaging with people at every level, which I think is so important and was really a blessing to be able to learn how to do that because I’m having to interact not only with entry-level employees, but also having to work with the CEO, the COO, the CTO at the company as well. And then that was the kind of office management side. And then on the fulfillment management side, I’m working with buyers helping with purchase orders. I am managing the online store for this nonprofit. So just learning a lot about like kind of the business and sales process for the company.
[00:11:02] SY: Very interesting. And now obviously you work as a lead software developer, so you’re working in tech and I want to find out how you ended up making that transition. How did we end up going from that office manager, that fulfillment role working at that nonprofit to getting back to tech?
[00:11:20] RD: Well, I ended up being at that nonprofit for about five years.
[00:11:26] SY: Nice.
[00:11:27] RD: I did office and fulfillment management for about two and a half, three years. The last two years, I was a partnerships manager. So really getting to work with a lot of different organizations and doing a lot of different work there. But after that five years, I just felt like I wasn’t passionate about it. I’m like, “This is doing great work. I love what the organization stands for. I love what they’re trying to build, but I want to find something that’s truly going to fit me and that’s truly going to fulfill me.” And so what I did was I said, “Let me sit down with myself and truly explore what were the things that I did as a child.” [00:12:10] SY: Oh, I love this.
[00:12:11] RD: “That I did without having to be paid for them.”
[00:12:17] SY: That’s the key. Yep.
[00:12:19] RD: And once I realized like, “Oh, wait, you actually really enjoyed building websites, you really enjoyed building these beautiful interfaces for people,” and I would sit on the computer all night, trying to get things to work and I wanted them to be perfect. I wanted the lines to match and I’m very detail oriented, but I was so excited about doing that when I was younger. And I said, “Well, that’s what you’re passionate about because you did it for free and you did it when nobody was telling you that you had to do it. You did it because you wanted to do it.” So that’s what you need to explore. And what’s so interesting, and this goes back to the organization that I was working for, at the time they were building a web app. And I remember somebody mentioning, “Oh, we’re going to build this app using Ruby on Rails.” So I said, “Okay, I don’t know anything about Ruby on Rails, but I’ve heard it mentioned now three times. Let me go Google Ruby on Rails.” And that is when I made the connection. That’s when I made the connection between, “Oh, this is what I was learning when I was learning C++,” and I’m building these apps that aren’t really apps at the time that we’re learning them because everything was just being created in Visual Basic, or I don’t even remember what IDE we were using, but everything was being created and ran from there. And again, remember that I’m a computer science minor, so I don’t have that full kind of insight into everything that’s going on in some of those other classes. I’m just getting like a taste of what you can do. And so that was the first time when I’m looking at the Ruby on Rails code, I’m like, “Wait a minute, that’s what’s used to build this app that we are now paying all of this money for? Oh my goodness! That’s what I want to do.” This clicks for me. It finally makes sense. So being in the right place at the right time.
[00:14:27] SY: That’s the way. Talk about that timing. Yeah. That’s beautiful. Okay. So once you made that connection, you made that realization that this thing that you had done as a kid that brought you so much joy that you were up late doing, you could now do it again and you could learn to do it with this framework. Where did that lead you? Did that make you want to go back to school to get a computer science degree? Were you going to learn it by reading some books? What was your plan to get into that?
[00:14:55] RD: So what I decided to do was start looking into coding fellowships, coding bootcamps. I knew at that point in time this is something that people are doing. And I had never really cared to look too much into it. I knew that they existed, but I just didn’t look into it. But at that point in time, I had met someone who had done a Ruby on Rails bootcamp. So I said, “Okay, well, let me look into potentially doing that.” And when I make decisions, I make them quickly and I tend to stick to them. So I decided I’m going to leave my job. I’m going to pack up everything. I’m going to move back home with my parents. So I’m going to move pretty much across the country, back home to live with my parents. I did an eight-week program that focused on Ruby on Rails. And the reason I chose that program was because a fellowship that I had been looking at, Code for Progress, I’d been looking at this fellowship for, I want to say a couple of weeks, and I was waiting for the application to be listed and the application was never listed. And so I said, “You know what? Okay, cool. I’m going to do this coding bootcamp. I’ll move back home to do that.” And then while I was at home doing that coding bootcamp, they finally released the application for Code for Progress. So while I was in the bootcamp, I also applied for that. And I finished the bootcamp, like I said, it was eight weeks, learning Ruby on Rails. And I want to say maybe a month and a half after that, the fellowship started and I did get in.
[00:16:26] SY: Oh, congrats!
[00:16:27] RD: Thank you. So I moved back up to DC and started the fellowship and it was a yearlong fellowship, six months of in-classroom learning, and then six months of hopefully having a placement with a partner organization, so you could get that real experience, the real experience as a software developer. So I did that program and it was really wonderful.
[00:16:53] SY: Was it a paid program?
[00:16:54] RD: Yes. Oh, yes. Thank God.
[00:16:56] SY: Okay. I’ll say, “You have a long time to go without any income.”
[00:17:02] RD: Yes. It was still difficult. There wasn’t a lot of income. It was enough, pretty much just to cover rent. And I said, “You know what? I can work with that.” And so I had a side job where I would like work from a grocery store. And that is how I was kind of able to afford the other things that I needed in my life at that point in time. But what I said to myself was, “This is a career change.” One of the things that one of my mentors has said to me is, “Sometimes it’s like an archer and you have to pull your arm back. So it feels like you’re going backwards so that you can propel yourself forward.” And so I had so many moments of feeling like, “Oh my gosh, I can’t afford anything. I can’t do anything. This is so frustrating.” But I said, “Right now I’m pulling the bow back so I can go further.” [00:18:01] SY: I love that. I love that image of you just holding that bow and holding that string and pulling it back. I think that’s brilliant. Because I was wondering how it felt to move back in with your parents, because I feel like, I don’t know about you, but I remember the incredible pride I felt when I got my first apartment, just getting the keys. There’s a picture of me like signing my first lease. It was such a moment of adulthood, of graduating, of having something that I was responsible for paying my own rent, getting my furniture. It was such a moment of pride. And I’m wondering, after you’d moved cross country and I think your family was based in New Orleans, is that right?
[00:18:39] RD: Yes. Yes.
[00:18:41] SY: Yeah. And so I’m wondering how it felt graduating, having this stable job for five years and then having to pull that bow back, move back in with your parents. How were you just in your headspace at that time? Were you frustrated that you were taking a step back? Were you excited about this new adventure? How did it feel to be in that position?
[00:19:02] RD: One of the things that I said to myself was, “I am not going to allow myself to fail. I’m not going to fail.” And when I said, “I’m not going to fail,” it wasn’t I’m going to come into this career and be the best engineer in the world. It wasn’t that. It was I had to tell myself, like, “You’ve already overcome adversity.” I was in high school when Hurricane Katrina happened. You’ve already overcome adversity in your life before. So this is just a stepping stone to get you to that next level of where you want to be. And if you don’t take this step back, what is going to happen is that you’re going to be, five years later, in this same position. So you have to take the step back if you want to move forward.
[00:19:54] SY: Another saying that I remember reading many, many years ago that I keep in mind whenever there are moments where I have to take a step back is that the time will pass anyway. The five years are going to go by. Assuming we’re still here in five years, it’s going to happen. Time’s going to pass us by and we can either have spent a couple of those years building a new foundation, having a fresh start and moving forward or five years will pass and we’ll be in the same position we were in today and which one’s worse. So that’s something that I keep in mind whenever I get frustrated with where I am and not wanting to take a step back. I think taking a step back can be a really important way to step forward. So kudos to you for doing that.
[00:20:46] SY: What went into your decision to join a bootcamp rather than being self-taught or going about a different ramp? Why did you decide on the bootcamp?
[00:20:57] RD: So I think it’s really important to understand your learning style, and for me, even though I can be self-taught on many things, I can definitely sit down and read documentation and all those other things. I like the structure of being in a classroom and having assignments that are very specific that help you understand what it is that you need to understand to move forward. I needed that type of structure just for me. That said, I think that there are people who can do an amazing job being self-taught, but for me, initially, I have to have structure.
[00:21:36] SY: Yeah. I felt exactly the same way when I decided to do my bootcamp. I was like, “I need the structure and rigor of that classroom.” I needed to be in that classroom and to have that instructor in front of me. I really needed that guidance. So that’s a great point. It’s important to reflect on your own learning style and optimize for that for sure. So you did this fellowship, it took a year. What was the fellowship like, the placement part? I know you said the last six months was a placement. Was that kind of like an apprenticeship-internship situation or what was that like?
[00:22:06] RD: Yes. Yes. So it was an internship placement with partners. And it was fun. I was working with another nonprofit. And so they gave me the opportunity to create the website for their annual report, which was really great because it’s like that is going to be a living artifact for them for a very long time, which means it gets to remain on my resume as a link that people can click for a very long time. So I’m very happy about that, but getting the placement was difficult and I have to say, not everyone who did the program was able to get a placement. So I felt very fortunate that I was able to be placed with an organization, not only that I felt aligned with my mission and with my own values, but also that allowed me to create something that I get to hold on to and I’m very, very proud of it.
[00:23:04] SY: So you finish this fellowship, you graduate, what happens next?
[00:23:08] RD: So after that, it was the journey of trying to find a job by myself. And let me tell you, that was one of the hardest journeys I have ever gone on. It was probably even harder than leaving and moving back in with my parents. And what made it so hard was that I am now back in the Washington DC area and I have a rent to pay and I have all these other responsibilities of being an adult that I am so accustomed to managing on my own because I’ve been doing it and I don’t have any money coming in. And not only do I not have any money coming in. I don’t have savings at this point or what I did have, I had used. So it was really a time where I truly had to talk myself through it because I can be a very prideful person. And I think that part of me sometimes in being a little bit prideful, I don’t share with my friends, with the people around me who I know love me, but I don’t always share with them what’s going on. So I’m up here like trying to live and trying to still be around my friends and make things happen. And meanwhile, I’m like, “Oh my gosh! I can’t afford a thing.” So I went months in this job search process where I’m just consistently sending applications and trying to maintain the skills that I had learned, learn new things, and then also fight what I think, well, what I now know was imposter syndrome because I’d already felt that. I’d already felt like, “Oh, I don’t have a CS degree. I just don’t feel like I have the background that people would be looking for. I’m a black woman and this is not a field that is full of black women.” And that can also be something that’s really scary. So I just wasn’t certain what that experience was going to be like. And I spent, gosh, I want to say I spent five months looking for a job. Now in the in between time, I did do some teaching. I did do some volunteering where I was working with kids and helping them learn how to code and that was a really great experience for me, but also I was just very nervous, just about finding the right opportunity for myself. So I said, about five and a half months, maybe six months later, I was able to find a job with a consulting firm. And what was very interesting was that that consulting firm did not want to hire me as a developer.
[00:25:50] SY: Oh, why?
[00:25:51] RD: They felt like I did not have the development skill set that they were looking for. And I said, “Okay, well, here goes competitive Ronesha because I’m going to prove them wrong.” But I ended up taking that job and I took it as a consultant. About six months into that job, they were working with a client and I go into the COO’s office and here I go referencing the fact that I had worked with CEOs and with COOs and that nonprofit, I was comfortable doing that. So I said, “You know what? This is a small enough organization. I’m going to go directly to the people at the top and talk to them.” So I go to the COO and I say to him, “Hey, I know that they want this proof of concept and I’m fully capable of doing it and I can do it in Python.” And he says, “Okay, well, show us what you make.” So I take about a week and a half or so and I build a web app and I come into his office on probably a Monday morning. I come into his office and I said, “Hey, can I show you what I’ve built for the client because I think they’ll be really happy with it?” And I show him the app that I built for the client. And he’s like, “Oh my gosh! This is wonderful.” He gets up from his desk. He goes to the CEO’s office and he says, “Hey, you have to come see this.” And he shows him the app and he says, “This is something that we can sell as a product to multiple clients.” [00:27:25] SY: Oh, wow! Oh my goodness!
[00:27:27] RD: And that is what started the conversation and that is what turned into me going from a consultant at the company to then becoming an engineer at the company. And then from there, fortunately, it was just a challenge to myself to continue proving yourself. And so it went from being an engineer to then I became a senior engineer to then I grew into their lead engineer and then I was managing junior engineers.
[00:28:00] SY: Wow! That’s exciting. How long did that take you? How long was that career progression?
[00:28:04] RD: So that was five years.
[00:28:06] SY: Okay, not bad. Wow! That’s pretty fast.
[00:28:08] RD: Yeah. Yeah. It was five years and it was such an exciting experience. Honestly, like I got to work with government clients. I got to work with international clients. I got to travel overseas quite a bit doing development for clients. And then at the same time, I got to bring in junior engineers and really talk them through some of the struggles that I had and get them to a place where they felt confident too. That was probably the biggest and best part of the journey for me.
[00:28:45] SY: That’s really exciting. Wow! Good for you. So when you got that first engineering job and you’re hired, you’re doing the work of coding, how did it compare to what you were expecting? Because it feels like you’ve had so many touch points with tech up until that point. You had the websites you were building when you were a kid, then you had the CS minor, so you had a little bit of exposure to computer science in undergrad. And then you did the coding bootcamp and the fellowship. So when you got to the next destination, the job, how did it compare to what you thought it was going to be like?
[00:29:23] RD: It was very interesting. I have to say that one of the things was that I was, again, working at a consulting firm. So in working at a consulting firm, I learned that being an engineer is not just being able to do the job of coding, but at the same time, again, this is why the progression of the journey is so important because I so appreciate having studied communications, having studied journalism. I so appreciate having worked at a nonprofit because all of those things were things that I was able to bring into the experience of being not just an engineer, but being an engineer that had to do consulting. So not only do I have to code and be able to build applications for the clients, but I need to be able to talk to the clients. I need to be able to discuss with them what their business needs are and understand how that is going to go into the building of this application. And I think it’s so beautiful for people who are trying to get into coding, development, software engineering, for people who are trying to get into this field and they may have a non-traditional path. There’s so much beauty in being able to bring those experiences that you’ve had in the past into it, finding those transferable skills that you would never even think that they’re transferable skills. You would never even think that it even matters. But bringing those things in, it’s beautiful and it’s so helpful. And I think that that’s part of the reason that I was able to grow as quickly as I was.
[00:31:05] SY: Especially in a consulting type role. I mean, they always say that what’s harder than coding problems is people problems and the role of teamwork and communication and bringing together a group of people all on a common mission is just as important as skill set, as actually writing lines of code. So you got to see that firsthand, which is really great. And I’m sure your experience doing all of that in your nonprofit background really came in handy, which was really great.
[00:31:38] SY: Coming up next, Ronesha shares what she hopes to do next in her career and how she plans to get there after this.
[00:31:58] SY: So when you look back on your career now and you look back on where you started, your kind of tech roots, and then you’ve kind of found your way back there, what do the next five, ten years look like for you? Where do you hope to take your career next?
[00:32:12] RD: Oh, wow! That’s a great question. So recently, I’ve authored a couple of books about coding.
[00:32:19] SY: Nice!
[00:32:20] RD: And I think that I want to follow a path where I’m able to continue authoring coding books, coding books for children and coding books for beginners. But then I also want to continue doing what I’m doing now, which is, with my company, working with nonprofits and other smaller organizations that need applications built for them. And so I think if I can continue doing that, I mean, I think everyone would love, everyone comes into coding and says, “I want to be the next Mark Zuckerberg.” Actually, the person that I use as an example is not Mark Zuckerberg. I use the next Jewel Burks.
[00:33:00] SY: Okay. All right.
[00:33:01] RD: So maybe I want to be the next her. But that doesn’t happen for everybody and that’s okay, but also if in five years, that’s something that happens for me, I would love that as well. I’ve learned to be more just open to the journey as opposed to being very strict about the goals. So I set goals for sure. I set goals for the things that I want to accomplish, but I also leave space for there to be opportunity. So if something comes along or if I have a very creative moment and I say, “Hey, I want to try this path of something new,” then I’m going to go along with that. And that’s one of the things that happened even with me releasing my books, I ended up releasing four children’s books about coding. And that came as an idea after I started working on the beginner’s book for adults. It came after it, but it felt so right that I said, “I’m going to take the opportunity in my head. I’m going to take this thought that I’ve had and I’m going to follow along with it because that’s where you find beautiful things.” [00:34:13] SY: Wonderful. So I know that after making that career transition for you, working as a software engineer, I know that you needed to take a mental health break. Tell us a little bit about what happened there.
[00:34:26] RD: You know, as I was going through the journey, I realized that I was working really, really, really hard. And I think that this happens when people make career changes. You have to put so much energy, so much time, so much effort, really so much money into making this change that you don’t give yourself a lot of space, or at least I didn’t give myself a lot of space, a lot of time to take a break. So it was constant learning. It was constant, trying to connect with people and making sure that I’m just up to the best that I can be, and I didn’t give myself a break. And so eventually I said, “I have to take a break. I have to, because if I don’t, I’m not going to be able to bring my best self into this office. I’m not going to be able to bring my best self into the work that I’m doing.” The people that I work with are going to be able to see that. And I just don’t want that for myself because I felt like it would be a misrepresentation of who I am professionally and also how I want people to think of me. And so at that point in time, I said, “Let’s take a step back. Let’s walk away from working for a little while. You have done this five, really six years of just being very, very, very, very focused on getting into this field and doing well and now you have to hit pause.” Just for a minute. It doesn’t have to be forever, but you need to hit pause because your mental health and all of those other things are just as important. And if you don’t focus on them, you’re not going to continue to be successful.
[00:36:09] SY: So would you describe that as burnout or was it something else?
[00:36:13] RD: I think it was a combination. I think that yes, it was a burnout, but I also think that sometimes burnout comes from you not listening to yourself. A lot of times people will think that burnout comes from a company overworking you or things like that. But I can be so ambitious at times that I don’t always listen to myself and my body. And so what I have started to discover is the importance of listening to myself and listening to my body and knowing that that means that rest is necessary. I don’t need to work every single day for 20 hours out of a 24-hour day.
[00:36:58] SY: So when we talk about burnout, I agree it’s not always coming from external forces. It’s not always the company overworking you or pushing you too hard. Sometimes it comes from your own expectations and you know the goals you set for yourself and not giving yourself enough time. But I think the best explanation of burnout that I’ve heard is one where you are not able to fill your bucket. Everything is just taking, taking, taking, taking your energy, taking your space, taking your sanity, taking your peace, and you’re just not able to refill your bucket at the end of the day, at the end of the week. There’s like a leak and then it’s gone and then you have nothing left to give. Is that how it felt for you?
[00:37:43] RD: Absolutely. Absolutely. I don’t think there’s a better way to describe it.
[00:37:49] SY: And how did you make use of that break? I’ve heard people say, “Just veg out and do nothing,” which when I’ve burned out several times and I’ve tried to do that and that has not worked for me. But I’m curious, what was the best use of that mental health break for you? How long did it last and what did you do with your time?
[00:38:09] RD: So it started in August of last year, and I have to say for the first two months I slept. I just spent so much time just not even thinking about work. I didn’t want to open my computer. I didn’t want to do anything that required a lot of mental focus. I did not want to do it. And it was so strange for me because that is so the opposite of who I’ve been my entire life. I’ve always wanted to be a high achiever. I’ve always wanted to do the best and be the best of the best. And I just did not have it in me. So once I said like, “Let’s step away.” I set my computer on my desk and I did not touch that computer for a solid two months. I spent a lot of time just sleeping and I spent a lot of time just spending time with myself, whether that was in meditation, whether it was watching TV or taking myself out to dinner or lunch or breakfast or whatever. I just spent a lot of time just with myself on inward focus. There was no focus at all on anything else. And I’ve never done that. And it was wonderful to do so. But after that, I want to say two or so months went by and I said, “Okay, now you have to focus. Now you have to focus on what is going to be next for you.” So is next going to be writing? Is next going to be starting a business? Is next going to be teaching? What path do you want to follow? And eventually, what I did was I had already started writing, so I was continuing working on the book that I was writing. And then I said, “I think I want to start a business.” It just kind of came out of nowhere. I said, “I think I want to do this. I feel confident enough in my skillset that I can. People have been reaching out to me, asking me if I could do development projects for them. For the last couple of months, I’ve been saying no to everybody, but the resources are there. The interest is there. I think this is something I should do.” And so a couple of months later, I decided to start Bergeron-Woodley. And so through that, I’m doing contracting for other companies and then also creating small groups of developers to work on projects. And so far it’s been really great. That’s not to say that I won’t ever go back to working for a company. I actually really do think I enjoy working for companies. I enjoy building projects for other people and really kind of getting to take that deep dive with them. But for now, this is also a very fun journey for me.
[00:41:12] SY: So I’m wondering how you manage this logistically, because a lot of people would love to take two months off to sleep and recover and meditate, but they just can’t afford to. They got to pay the bills. They have to keep things going and keep the lights on, et cetera. How are you able to financially afford to take this break? How did that work?
[00:41:32] RD: So fortunately, I have always been a person who is a very big saver. So what I decided to do, I knew that at some point I was going to take the break. I didn’t know that it was going to land at being August of last year. In fact, I thought it was going to happen sometime this year. But I had planned, “Let me start saving a percentage of how much I’m making every month. And I cannot touch that. I can’t touch it because that has to be there so that when I’m ready to take this break, I can.” And fortunately, it was there. And like I said, the break actually ended up being longer than I thought it was going to be. The period between like me taking a break and me actually deciding to start my company and going into contracting and whatnot, it was longer than I thought it was going to be. So I’m very happy that I kind of had the foresight to start saving and not put so much of my time, energy, effort, and money into frivolous things that probably would have made this a much harder experience for me.
[00:42:47] SY: That financial planning is no joke. I think that that’s one thing that has really helped me out as well when I wanted to do CodeNewbie full time was having those savings for years, tucking it away, a percentage of your income if you can afford that, putting it away someplace safe, and then being able to cash in on that a little bit later to give yourself a little break I think is a great way to go. That’s really wonderful. I know we talked about how burnout isn’t always caused by the company and by being overworked. Sometimes it comes from just yourself or other parts of your life, other circumstances. But I’m wondering, what do you think could have been different either about the way that your company handled your workload or how you managed your own tasks, how you manage your day to day? Is there anything that would have prevented you from needing that burnout? Is there anything that we can learn from to say, “Here are the things that we can do differently in our lives so that we don’t have to take months off to recover and recuperate”?
[00:43:48] RD: That is a great question. And this is honestly something I’ve been thinking about a lot because it’s something that I want to be more aware of if ever I go back to working for another company. And I think what I could have done better was I could have closed my computer at 6 PM every day or set a time for closing my computer and saying, “This is done for the day.” And it was very hard for me to set that boundary with myself because I get into this mode of I want to solve the problem. I want to solve the problem. And wanting to solve the problem was really because it was exciting to me to see things fixed and to see things working, but that also led to nights where I would think about a solution at one o’clock in the morning and I would walk to my desk and then I’m on my desk until three or four in the morning because I found a solution to a problem. And I think that one of the things that I could have done better was saying to myself, “It’s okay to stop.” But it’s very hard to do that when it really is something that you’re interested in. And I think that that goes into when people say, “When you love what you do, it doesn’t actually feel like work because you’re actually excited to do it,” but that also can lead to burnout. And I think that’s a big part of what happened in my case. I should have learned better boundaries around the times that I want it to work. So if I’m working a nine-to-five day or eight-to-four day or even more than that, then that’s the time that I need to stick to and maybe stretch it a little bit. I mean, I know we all give an extra hour here or there if we do so choose to or have to, but I think I could have done better at saying I know I’m excited and I know I want to figure this out, but let’s hit pause because this pause is for you to get the rest and the rejuvenation that you need so that you can continue to do well.
[00:45:52] SY: Absolutely. Absolutely. How did your support system respond to your sabbatical? I know that, especially recently, it feels like mental health has finally gone mainstream and I feel like we’re much more open to talking about it and embracing it and we’re no longer embarrassed to have therapists. It feels like it’s very normalized, but that’s not necessarily true in some of our families, especially some of the older generation may not appreciate or take mental health seriously. And I’m wondering what did your parents say? What did your friends, your family, how did they view this? Was it hard for you to explain that you needed this mental health break or how was that?
[00:46:33] RD: Oh, that’s such a great question. So when we talk about my parents, they are complete opposites in so many ways. My mother was extremely supportive. In fact, she told me after I decided to take the break, she told me, “I had been concerned, but I didn’t want to say anything to you because I know that you are such an independent person and you want to do things the way that you want to do them. So I didn’t want to say anything, but I was concerned.” And my father was on the complete opposite end. And he said, “We don’t take breaks away from working.” This is a man that was born in Louisiana in the 1950s. He’s like, “No, we don’t take breaks from working.” And I said, “Dad, I have to. I have to.” But if we look at my friends, my friends were incredibly supportive. One of the things that I heard from them a lot was you’ve put in a lot of effort to try to grow the way that you have wanted to grow and you succeeded in that. And this is not a failure for you to take a break. It’s you saying, “I accomplished something. Let me celebrate that. Take a step back and then I’m going to come back.” This is bringing back that archer. I’m taking that step back again so I can propel a little bit further.
[00:47:57] SY: Love that. Love that so much. Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. So what advice do you have for folks listening who might be where you were six, seven years ago in that nonprofit job, looking to get out, looking to enter the world of tech, maybe a little, not having a lot of confidence on how to best do that, how to best approach it? What’s your advice for folks in that position?
[00:48:19] RD: Well, first, I would say figure out what’s your why. Why is this something that you want to do? Why is it a field that you want to get into? And I say that because there are so many pathways that you can follow in tech. And we hear a lot about these coding bootcamps, but that’s not always what people truly want to do or what they truly have an interest in. So number one, let’s figure out your why and let’s figure out if this is really something that you truly want to do. But once you do and you figure out, “This is a path that I want to follow,” I would say the biggest thing is just finding a support system, finding people who will encourage you along the way, because I can guarantee you there’s going to be moments of discouragement, whether that’s you being in a bootcamp and not fully understanding the material, which it happens to the best of us, or you finishing that bootcamp and there’s the struggle of finding a job. And it is hard. I would say find people around you that are going to motivate you in those moments where you may struggle motivating yourself. Make sure you have people that will say to you, “You can do this. You are capable.” You want to keep positive people around you and you also want to speak positive words to yourself, continue to be gentle with yourself because finding a job is not easy. Doing a career change is not easy and people are going to doubt you all along the way. So even once you’re in the field and once you’re growing and once you’re moving up, people are still going to doubt you. So you have to find that internal confidence to say, “I’m going to push through regardless of what anyone says to me.” [00:50:18] SY: Absolutely. I love that. I love that so much. Now at the end of every episode, we ask our guests to fill in the blanks of some very important questions. Ronesha, are you ready to fill in the blanks?
[00:50:35] RD: I am ready.
[00:50:36] SY: Number one, worst advice I’ve ever received is?
[00:50:39] RD: Don’t bring your emotions to work.
[00:50:41] SY: Oh, interesting. In what context did someone say that?
[00:50:47] RD: Oh, man. I have so many stories around this, but I’ll keep it short. I am a very emotional person, I’m a very sensitive person, and I think that lots of people think that that works against you. So I have been told by former colleagues or former friends, I say former for a reason. I have been told by lots of people, “You don’t have to bring that emotion in with you,” but what I have learned is that the people that become the best leaders. The greatest leaders are people that do bring that emotion into work. So when they’re angry, they know how to manage that anger and turn it into something positive. When they see that other people are hurt, instead of them ignoring that emotion, they turn it into an opportunity to be empathetic and they’re considerate people. And to me, like bringing your emotion into work, it really gives you benefits, like it allows you to fill that range of emotions, but also work with other people and understand where they are. And I think it’s actually been pretty great for me.
[00:51:56] SY: Good for you. That’s wonderful. Number two, best advice I’ve ever received is?
[00:52:01] RD: Always negotiate.
[00:52:03] SY: Oh, such a good advice. Number three, my first coding project was about?
[00:52:08] RD: There were so many times when I had my first coding project. So I will talk about my first coding project with a team. My first coding project with a team was when I was in that fellowship and we had a really great opportunity, which was to build an app that was going to be used by canvassers during the election season. And it was so scary building that app because we were like just learning Python and we’re just learning Flask and we’re just learning all this stuff. And they’re like, “Hey, just want to let you all know, this app is actually going to be used by people.” [00:52:52] SY: Wow!
[00:52:53] RD: And we’re like, “Okay!” And we only had I think maybe a week to build it. So not only was it like the first time working with the team, actually building an app that you know is going to be used, but also you only have a week and figure it out. But it was really cool. The app allowed us to basically manage the users that were in different vans that were canvassing and then it would send out text message blasts to them so that they could communicate while they were canvassing the neighborhoods.
[00:53:30] SY: Wow! That’s intense. That’s really intense. Number four, one thing I wish I knew when I first started to code is?
[00:53:39] RD: It’s never all in your head.
[00:53:41] SY: Interesting. Tell me more about that.
[00:53:44] RD: So I think when people look at videos, especially now because there’s more free resources available online to learn how to code, a lot of times you’re going to see people in these videos and they’re just typing out statements and typing out, “Hey, you need to install this module and this is how you do it.” Oh my gosh! It can be really overwhelming to watch because you’re like, “How do they know this?” It’s like it’s all in their head. And let me tell you, it’s not. It is not all in their heads and also it’s never going to all be in your head. You’re not going to know everything about every language or everything about every framework. And that’s okay because being in this field means that you have to be open to the idea of a lifelong learning because technology changes fast. So what you may have learned five years ago, conceptually, a lot of those things will still apply. But when we are actually coding like has how importing a module hasn’t changed, but do what we need to type, like, does what we need to type for this specific version of this framework, has that changed? Those are not things that are going to be in your head. And it’s okay that you don’t know everything. And also, people at the senior level, people at the lead level, people at the staff level, people at the managerial level, a lot of times it’s not all in their head either. So one of the things to just be aware of is like this is an opportunity for you to learn, but don’t be discouraged because you don’t just know it.
[00:55:31] SY: Love that. Absolutely beautiful. Well, thank you so much, Ronesha, for sharing your story with us.
[00:55:36] RD: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.
[00:55:46] SY: Want to be in the CodeNewbie Podcast? Know someone who I should interview next? Reach out on Twitter at CodeNewbies or send me an email, email@example.com. For more info on the podcast, check out www.codenewbie.org/podcast. And if you like the show, make sure to follow us and leave a review on your preferred platform so we can keep making the pod. Thanks for listening. See you next week.
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