Saron sits down with Brittney Ball, Documentation Engineer at Meta. Brittney shares her experience going from being a homeless single mom living in a shelter to a Software Engineer. She talks about her journey to get to where she is today, the role a viral tweet played in kick-starting her coding journey, tips for those who are self-taught to stand out when job searching, and what a Documentation Engineer is.
[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 going from being a homeless single mom to being a software engineer with Brittney Ball, Documentation Engineer at Meta.
[00:00:20] BB: While I was learning and developing my skills, I was also bringing in other people who had similar interest and didn’t have access to certain things. I was bringing them in, we were studying together, and this created a pipeline for those individuals in the community that didn’t come from a university or didn’t come from this coding bootcamp.
[00:00:45] SY: Brittney talks about the Year Up Program and her coding journey after this.
[00:00:56] SY: Thank you so much for being here.
[00:00:57] BB: Thank you for having me. I’m very excited.
[00:01:00] SY: So you say that you got into tech because of survival. What does that mean?
[00:01:04] BB: At that time, I wasn’t really looking for a career, it’s more so like being homeless and having to find a career for my child. I was pregnant and I was in this shelter for women and children. And once I had the baby, they told me that I had to either enroll into college courses or get a job or something. At this time, like college wasn’t for me because I had to take care of a baby by myself. And so I didn’t have the time to go to college. And then with the shelter I stayed in, they had curfew. So I couldn’t work a night job. And so I had to choose something that would benefit my situation and that’s when I found a program called Year Up, which actually gave me a stipend while learning how to actually build computers. So it was more hardware. So that really benefited me at that time because I got a check and I was also able to learn something that would help me I didn’t know in the future get into coding.
[00:02:14] SY: You chose the path less traveled, decided to focus your time on learning about technology. Tell me a little bit more about how you picked the Year Up Program. What was that about?
[00:03:21] SY: Wow!
[00:03:21] BB: Yeah. So with my situation, living in a shelter with a baby, I was up to that because that meant benefits for my baby. I was able to get that job at the end of my graduation of the Year Up Program, which software engineering at the time was not even a pathway that they supported.
[00:03:42] SY: Yeah. Tell me a little bit more about what the program taught. You mentioned some certifications. What kinds of curriculum was it?
[00:03:48] BB: It was more of hardware, learning the ins and outs of the computer, how to build a computer. It wasn’t so much coding. It was more of like hard skills, some HR help desk type of training, customer service facing type of thing. It wasn’t like a coding or UX design or anything like that at that moment.
[00:04:22] BB: It was challenging. It was totally different. And at the time, I had created A+ study group at Year Up. We were all studying for our A+ certification, and so it was a bunch of my friends and I had booked different little cafes for us to come and hang out at and we would hang out there and study. But once I went over to the coding, I had maybe one or two people that were interested in coding and we would do like HTML or things like that. That was the introduction to that. Once my manager proposed that challenge for me, I found like one person that was also interested in, we made simple HTML sites together.
[00:06:14] BB: At the end of my internship, I was able to secure the position and I was there for I believe two years and then I got pregnant with my second son. And that was a very hard pregnancy for me. And I got really sick in the beginning of that pregnancy. And so I was put on bedrest really early in that pregnancy. And so I had to leave that company. With leaving that company, that put a lot of strain on me because I just broke into tech and now I’m about to have another baby. From there, I did a freelance work while I was working from home and throwing little side projects, but it wasn’t enough. And once I had my second son, Sebastian, it was really hard to find another full-time position with me not having any certifications with me, not having any kind of college background. Not a lot of companies would give me the opportunity to be full-time. They would hire me on as a contractor. But when it came down to getting benefits and things like that, because I didn’t have any kind of backing behind me, a lot of companies wouldn’t do it. So at one point, I just got tired of being a contractor and so I decided to, when I got my tax refund, to pack up my car, my little car and take my kids to North Carolina.
[00:07:47] SY: Wow! Why North Carolina?
[00:07:49] BB: I had heard that Charlotte, North Carolina was a new rising tech hub and all of the companies were eventually going to move there. And so I wanted to be where it was happening at and I wanted to have a company take a chance on me. And so I took a chance on myself. I went there with my kids and everything I had in my car and my dad lived there too. So I had someone there, but I basically had to depend on myself to secure a place and find a job. So I was there one day, I found an apartment the next day. After I was in my apartment for about a week, I went with my resume in hand and started knocking on these company’s doors and I Googled tech startups in Charlotte and reached out to people that work for them via LinkedIn and actually went there with my resume and started knocking on doors.
[00:08:50] SY: Literally?
[00:08:51] BB: Yes, literally.
[00:08:52] SY: Wow!
[00:08:53] BB: Yeah, I was like moved to a new place, really didn’t have a support system. We had these two small children. I didn’t have time to go through recruiters or wait for someone to call me. I had to knock on doors myself. That’s what I did. And I also joined a lot of meetup groups and things like that, and I reached out to people and someone, I think it was either a Slack channel or through LinkedIn, they told me about Charlotte Devs, a tech community in Charlotte. And so I joined that tech community and I introduced myself and I told them my situation, how I just moved to Charlotte with my two little kids, and actively looking for a job, and how I’m self-taught, but I’m highly determined and hardworking. Someone reached out to me and asked me would I be interested in coming in for an interview. And so I said, “Yeah.” And so I went in and he was very impressed with how determined I was to get a position. And so he offered me an eight-week contract. And so that eight-week contract, it was at a consulting company. That eight-week contract as a software engineer turned into an eight-month internship, which eventually turned into a permanent position. And that was what led to my viral tweet from single mom in a shelter to software engineer statistic to a success story and I’m just getting started.
[00:10:28] SY: Wow! Okay. Before we dig into that, I want to take a step back for a second and talk about what it was like for you to knock on doors with your resume, because I just find that just such a compelling image. I’m just imagining you going to businesses because no one goes door to door anymore for anything.
[00:10:43] BB: Exactly.
[00:10:44] SY: We’re so used to online communication and sending a message, a DM, an email. That was probably quite unheard of for those organizations. What was the reaction when you were coming up to front desk and saying, “Hey, here’s my resume”? What did they say?
[00:10:57] BB: They were highly surprised.
[00:10:59] SY: Yeah.
[00:11:00] BB: And highly impressed and had some people that didn’t want to take the resume, of course, but the people that took the resume, they were like, “People don’t do this.” Like, “Wow! You really came to reception and handed your resume and introduced yourself.” So that was one thing that got me noticed a little bit, but like still no job offer because no credentials to back me up.
[00:11:25] SY: What did you feel like was the main thing holding you back at the time in terms of being able to get that first opportunity? What was the thing that was missing for you?
[00:11:34] BB: I had a resume that said I was a software engineer, but I didn’t have any bootcamp proof or a college proof. I had these companies on there, but they didn’t know what I could actually do. And so I think it was that they’re nervous to take a chance on me because I didn’t have the education to back me up. But I think if given the chance, they would’ve saw my passion and they would’ve saw that I had it. It’s just certain resources aren’t available. And so I had to make it how I made it and that was the way that I was able to succeed.
[00:12:12] SY: Tell me a little bit more about this tweet. What inspired you to tweet it? What was the reaction like? What was the response like? Tell me a little bit more about that.
[00:12:21] BB: Oh yeah, that tweet. So I wrote that tweet the night before my last day on my internship with the company. And so I was highly nervous. I had this apartment. Life was really coming around. I really was enjoying the company, made friends and was starting to build community. And so I was nervous to lose it all because I didn’t hear anything from anyone as far as like making me permanent or anything like that. And so I was really nervous and trying to motivate myself like, “You did great and they want you.” And so I wrote this tweet before I went to bed and I was lying in bed and I remember was the last thing I tweeted before I went to sleep. And I woke up the next morning. I didn’t even check my phone. I woke up, got my kids ready and dropped my oldest son off to school and dropped my youngest son off at daycare and got in the office and everyone was looking at me. I’m like, “Okay, what’s going on?” Something’s going on. And so I pulled off my phone and I took it off of Do Not Disturb and all of these messages started flowing in from Twitter and people were texting me and saying I had gone viral and I went to Twitter. I went to sleep with like 800 followers and I woke up to like 8,000 or something like that.
[00:13:43] SY: Wow! Oh my goodness! That’s fun.
[00:13:45] BB: Yeah. Yeah. And people were texting me and it was like, “Oh my God!” And then they were having a meeting before I got there and they were talking about it. And so I already had a meeting on my calendar scheduled. And so I went into this meeting, super nervous, shaken.
[00:14:01] SY: Oh yeah.
[00:14:02] BB: Are they going to tell me that’s it, that’s all they could do for me? I didn’t know what to expect. And so I went into the meeting. He told me that they wanted to keep me fulltime and the first thing I remember is him handing me a handkerchief.
[00:14:17] SY: Aw! He knew what was coming. He knew what was going to happen.
[00:14:22] BB: Yeah. And the tears, oh my God, they would not stop. And then my phone was going off when he was like, “Do you need to get that?” He was laughing because I was crying and my phone was going off, but my phone was going off because everybody was responding to the tweet from Twitter.
[00:14:39] SY: Yeah.
[00:14:39] BB: I showed one of my coworkers the tweet and instantly he was like, “Why didn’t you tell us this was the situation? Nobody knew. This is amazing. You never gave off the impression that this was going on.” [00:14:56] SY: Why was that? Were you trying to hide it? Were you trying to keep that to yourself?
[00:15:00] BB: No, I think it was because I didn’t want the sympathy. I didn’t want people to give me things because of my situation. I wanted to earn it.
[00:15:13] SY: That’s commendable.
[00:15:14] BB: Yeah. And so I definitely wanted them to see that she’s busting her ass and she’s a hard worker and she’s good.
[00:15:22] SY: Yeah. Yeah.
[00:15:23] BB: You know, I wanted them to give me that. And once they gave me that and then they saw like, “You’ve been doing all of this, plus this is your situation, like it’s 10 times better.” And so I think I just continued to go up. I think that’s when the imposter syndrome started to fade and I started to notice my worth because I really took a chance on myself by moving to Charlotte and working my ass off. I worked hard and they saw and they gave me a chance and they saw who I was. Since then, I’ve been making sure that I’m paying it forward.
[00:16:00] SY: Absolutely. So you went from that position to documentation engineer at Meta. How did you get to where you are today?
[00:16:07] BB: Before coming to Meta, I did not know what documentation engineering was. I didn’t know that it was a career path or anything like that. And so like at previous companies, I worked as a software engineer, doing learning and development. And so I would create user guides and contribute to open source and help the community and do webinars and tutorials and guides and things like that. And so doing all of that, that was technical writing, that was documentation engineering, and tying that with a software engineer’s background, that was how I was able to get into Meta. How I got into Meta? Someone on Twitter actually reached out to me and asked me would I be interested in interviewing for Meta. And being self-taught, I had imposter syndrome. There were certain gaps in my education being self-taught. At that time, it was Facebook. I was like, “You know, this is Facebook. Do I want to take a chance on myself and do this interview when I know that I didn’t have the structured background that most of their employees have?” And I was like, “You know, YOLO. Why not?” [00:17:28] SY: Good for you.
[00:17:29] BB: I was like, “You know, YOLO.” Like at the end of the day, it’s either a lesson or a blessing.
[00:17:36] SY: A lesson or a blessing. I love it.
[00:17:39] BB: So I did the interviews. And after the first two, I was like, “Okay, they keep passing me through. Come on, sis. Let’s see how far we going to get with this.” So I got to the dreaded technical interview, and man, let’s just say I prepped… I don’t think I got any sleep that day before because I was so nervous being self-taught, those coded interviews are no joke, certain things we forget to cover sometimes. And so I was able to get through the coding interview. And once I found out like I passed that part, I was so proud.
[00:18:17] SY: Aw, yeah. Yeah.
[00:18:20] BB: It’s super proud moment and like I got the job interview and I think that was another crying moment because at that time I had hit a salary point that I had never thought was possible. That was the biggest salary I had ever seen in my life. And so like it was a life changer for my family, not just me, not just my children, but my family. I was the first in my family to do it. So it was huge. And once I got the offer from Meta, which was like end goal for me and my journey, people always talk about the two companies that if they had any company they could pick, it was only two companies that people pick and that was one of my companies and I was ecstatic. So yeah. It was a very proud moment.
[00:19:29] SY: Let’s go back to when that person reached out to you for the opportunity. What was it about your background, who you were that made you stand out that you think got the attention of someone from Meta?
[00:21:19] SY: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. So let’s talk about being a self-taught developer and some things you’ve learned along the way of not just getting that first job, but also building a career. So what are some things that someone who’s self-taught needs to do in order to find jobs and really stand out amongst their peers?
[00:22:59] SY: I really like that advice because I feel like, especially with people who are trying to get their first either internship, apprenticeship, their first job, there’s so much pressure to do a hundred things and to be good at everything. You know?
[00:23:12] BB: Exactly.
[00:23:12] SY: There’s exactly the technologies that you have to learn, but there’s also like, “Oh, you should blog, you should tweet, you should post on LinkedIn, you should network.” There’s so many things to do that it can be really overwhelming and it’s really easy to burn out too. So I think being a little bit more intentional, maybe even just slowing things down and choosing fewer things might end up helping you stick it out over the long run so that you can persevere and actually reach your destination.
[00:23:37] BB: Yeah, I totally agree.
[00:23:39] SY: What are some good communities that you have noticed over the years, over time that you recommend people join, especially if they’re self-taught and looking for that type of support system?
[00:23:52] BB: I would say open source communities. I completely adore open source communities because they’re open to people of all skill levels, people of all backgrounds. I love the open source tech communities. One growing tech community that I highly recommend, people that are newer into tech and trying to break into tech to is the YNA Tech Community. it’s ran by Sydnee Sampson and that tech community is highly supportive. They help you with resume. They help you with finding your first job, getting through bootcamp, and they’re so supportive to where it feels like a family. And I think when you’re first starting off in your tech journey, I think you need a community that feels like a family and a friendship because it gets hard, especially the bootcamps. It gets hard and the people don’t talk about the tears that people go through and it’s just really difficult. And if you’re the first in your family or you don’t have anybody around you in your circle that’s going through this, they don’t understand, you can’t talk to them about it. So it’s a little isolating. So you need other people in your corner that can actually relate to what you’re going through. So I recommend YNA because it’s very supportive. And if you’re working for a company and you’re newer in tech, I recommend joining your company’s ERG if they have those available.
[00:25:24] SY: And what does ERG stand for?
[00:25:26] BB: That’s the Employee Resource Groups. Employee Resource Groups are very, very, very, very, very helpful and I’m so glad…
[00:25:34] SY: Wow, that’s a lot of “verys”.
[00:25:38] BB: Because like when you get into tech, you need community. And so with Employee Resource Groups, like I’m a black, queer woman. My journey is different from some of my coworkers. And so having that community or that circle of people that actually are in your working environment who you can vent to or who you can talk to. That’s important. And so I highly recommend Employee Resource Groups. And if you don’t have them at your company, I highly recommend that you maybe start it, talk to HR and see how you can initiate that. But Employee Resource Groups, with everything that’s going on in the world these days, we need a community and I highly recommend that.
[00:26:27] SY: One of the things that we tell people to do is create content, whether that’s tweeting, being active on social media, blogging, speaking, networking, those kinds of things. How do you prioritize the way you approach that side of the career development journey? How do you know when you should be blogging more, trying to speak more, networking more? How do you kind of think about those types of activities?
[00:26:53] BB: Creating content was very hard for me. So sometimes I get overwhelmed. So before, I didn’t have a system. And with creating content, I think it’s best that you find a system that works for you, because if not, it can be overwhelming and you can burn out. So I like to schedule mines out on… I use Trello. I lock it off by week. So I give each week a title. And so like that’s what this week’s content is going to be based on. And so I create one blog post under that week and I create tweets in other like small content, small chunks, is what I call them, small chunks that I post throughout the week that I generate everything on Sunday. So my content is generated on Sunday and is scheduled to go out on specific days so I won’t get overwhelmed because I have to schedule everything out because I have… so I’m a mom, I have two boys, I don’t have the time to like sit to my nine to five and then try to push out content and then try to do all the things. So I have to have everything programmed. I think social media content managers are like a godsend because my monthly content is already programmed. If I pick up my phone and I may have a thought that I want to tweet right then, that’s good. But other than that, if I don’t tweet for a month, like my content goes out and I have tweets and content that’s already generated. So I think scheduling and working harder, not smarter. I mean, working smarter, not harder.
[00:28:36] SY: Yeah.
[00:28:39] BB: Because life gets hard and you don’t want to burn yourself out. And so just make sure you prioritize your core job, and the content, plan it out and schedule it.
[00:28:54] SY: absolutely love that. So once you have a job as a self-taught developer, you’re working at a company, how do you navigate your career from there? You’ve kind of done the hardest part, I would argue, getting that first job. Now you’re trying to get a promotion. You’re trying to get a raise. Did you feel as a self-taught software developer that you had to do something different or think differently about how to prove yourself and continue moving up given the fact that you didn’t come from a bootcamp or a college degree and had done it on your own?
[00:31:24] SY: I love that. Absolutely. Do you feel like you have any advantages as a self-taught developer? I think a lot of people, when they think about the process of teaching themselves, it feels like everything’s against you and you’re kind of fighting your way to prove yourself. But I have to imagine that there are some benefits as well. What are some of the advantages that you feel like you have by virtue of you teaching yourself?
[00:31:46] BB: I think a lot of people see things by the books and they have one way of thinking where I like look at things differently and my problem solving skills are a bit different. And also because I was self-taught, it shows employers that I’m hardworking and dedicated. It shows that like, “Damn, she really sat down and learned this without formal guidance. Imagine what they could do with proper instruction or the right mentor or the right manager.” It shows like you really sat down and worked hard to get here. It’s unique.
[00:32:33] SY: Coming up next, Brittney talks about her viral tweet, her role as a documentation engineer at Meta, and what to do to stand out as a self-taught developer after this.
[00:32:53] SY: So I want to get into this documentation engineer role because it is pretty different. I feel like a lot of people probably haven’t heard of it before. Can you talk a little bit more about what exactly a documentation engineer does?
[00:33:06] BB: Yeah, sure. So documentation engineering is like a fancier word for a technical writer, but how I explain it often when people ask me is if a technical writer and maybe like a data scientist had a baby, it would be a documentation engineer.
[00:33:26] SY: That’s funny.
[00:33:27] BB: Because it’s a lot of technical writing, but it’s a lot of like collected metrics and dashboards and querying and things like that. So it’s a very unique role. And if you are detail oriented and like to learn and also can teach, I think it’s a great role.
[00:33:50] SY: What made you want to pivot from software engineering to documentation engineering? It’s definitely related, but it seems significantly different in terms of your day-to-day responsibilities, what kinds of things you think about, what problems you solve. What made you want to make that switch?
[00:34:03] BB: I think it was because I wanted to get more into helping people. I think that’s my passion, like I’m really into helping others understand tech and understand code. And so I got into it through the job. But I think before I even got offered the job, I was doing a lot of blogging where I was breaking down certain methods and helping people understand it in a different way. And I think that’s where my passion for creating inclusive content came, because with being self-taught, a lot of the content that I was trying to learn I felt like wasn’t created for noobs. And so a lot of the time when I was watching YouTube videos, I would have to pause and like go look up an acronym or go define something or it wasn’t really inclusive and I couldn’t follow. And oftentimes when I couldn’t follow, I would become uninterested and bored or I would feel like really hopeless, like, “Why am I doing this? I’m not sticking. Why aren’t I understanding?” I didn’t understand until I started creating blog posts that it wasn’t me, it was that the content was just too hard to digest.
[00:35:35] SY: Yeah.
[00:35:35] BB: And so once I started learning and blogging, while I was learning and breaking down things in a way that I could understand, and I was getting feedback from other people that read my blog post and was like, “Wow, thank you for breaking that down, I’ve been looking on sites like Reddit, all of this all night and I couldn’t find anything that actually broke it down in a way that I could actually follow and understand, and your blog helped me understand it.” Once I got that type of feedback is when I was like, “Okay, this is something that I really like to do. I really want to help people understand technology. I want to help people get into technology. I want to help people understand that there is a need for more inclusive content that is accessible. I just felt like there was a gap that needed to be filled and I wanted to make it aware to others that were creating this content that they needed. So be mindful of certain words that they use that might invoke imposter syndrome, to be mindful of the pronouns they’re using, to be mindful of accessibility. I just felt like a lot of content creators sometimes forget those things, especially when you’re creating technical content.
[00:36:54] SY: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Is documentation engineer the kind of job you can get as a first job, or does it require having been a coder and having some of that software engineering background first that you can use to then become a documentation engineer? How do you get into that type of career?
[00:37:13] BB: It actually is a job where it can be your first job. You can understand the code, but you don’t have to be a software engineer. A lot of my coworkers aren’t software engineers or have never been software engineers, but they can look at it and understand it enough to know what it’s doing. But yeah, as long as you can understand how it’s functioning enough to teach it, you can be a documentation engineer. Having a software engineering background gives you an advantage.
[00:37:44] SY: Yeah.
[00:37:45] BB: But it’s not a necessity.
[00:37:47] SY: Absolutely. Now at the end of every episode, we ask our guests to fill in the blanks with some very important questions. Brittney, are you ready to fill in the blanks?
[00:38:01] BB: Yes, I am.
[00:38:02] SY: Number one, worst advice I’ve ever received is?
[00:38:06] BB: Oh. Your hair looks good, Britt.
[00:38:14] SY: Okay, so I take it that means your hair did not look good, Britt?
[00:38:17] BB: No, it didn’t.
[00:38:20] SY: Oh my God! That’s so funny. Okay, number two, best advice I’ve ever received is?
[00:38:26] BB: Go after speaking even though you’re scared.
[00:38:28] SY: Oh, I love that. Were you scared when you were first entering the speaking arena? Yeah?
[00:38:34] BB: I have a horrible stage fright. But someone told me to create an alter ego, you know a persona, and to use that persona on stage and to always remember that these people came to hear you and that there’s something that you are saying that someone needs. And so that persona and like remembering that people need this is what gets me through. Because when I leave off stage, my heels are soaking wet, like I am, oh my gosh, so scared, so nervous. But stage fright is a thing.
[00:39:15] SY: Well, I’m glad you found that strategy though. I don’t think I’ve heard of the alter ego being applied for like a tech speaking situation. That’s really interesting. I like that. That’s a good little tip. Number three, my first coding project was about?
[00:39:30] BB: My first coding project was about animal flashcards.
[00:39:33] SY: Oh, interesting! That sounds like fun. That sounds like a very nice, like kid friendly project to start with.
[00:39:41] BB: Yeah. It was very cute and it had like Hello Kitty & Friends.
[00:39:46] SY: Aw! Aw, cute! Did your kids ever give it a shot?
[00:39:50] BB: No. Actually, no. I’m actually starting them with coding now.
[00:39:54] SY: Oh, nice!
[00:39:55] BB: Yeah.
[00:39:56] SY: Very nice. Number four, one thing I wish I knew when I first started to code is?
[00:40:01] BB: Community is everything. You definitely need a support system. It’s a lonely journey and it gets hard and sometimes you’re going to doubt yourself and you’re not always going to feel like you’re good enough and you need that community support to remind you of your why and to help you push through and get through this because it’s not an easy journey learning how to code. It’s not an easy journey breaking into tech and having that community support when the imposter syndrome sneaks up on you. It’s very important. So I wish I would’ve had someone to tell me to find your tribe when I got into tech because I think it would’ve helped me with a lot of self-doubt and a lot of the loneliness that I felt in the beginning.
[00:40:50] SY: Yep. I completely agree. Community is everything. Thank you again so much for joining us, Brittney.
[00:40:55] BB: Thank you for having me. I really enjoyed myself. This was awesome.
[00:40:59] SY: Wonderful. 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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