Saron talks with Africa, a former Occupational Therapist specializing in virtual therapy and assistive technology. Saron and Africa talk about transitioning from Occupational Therapy to working as an Accessibility Engineer testing government software and teaching developers how to build more inclusive web applications. Africa also talks about her journey teaching herself how to code, what stretches are useful for Software Engineers, and how important coffee chats and networking are. Be sure to listen for the mini-guided stretch break during the episode as well!
[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 occupational therapy to code with Africa Mincey, Accessibility Engineer.
[00:00:41] SY: On this episode, Africa talks about how she escaped burnout from her previous career by following her creativity and taking the leap into code after this.
[00:00:58] SY: Thank you so much for being here.
[00:00:59] AM: Thanks for having me.
[00:01:00] SY: So you started your career in occupational therapy. Tell us a little bit about what that is. I feel like I’ve heard it a lot, but I don’t have a good sense of what that job actually does. Tell me about it.
[00:01:10] AM: Sure. It’s a pretty big field and there are different specialties, but in general, occupational therapists help people who have suffered from injury or mental health issues. We basically help them gain independence through different modalities. So some of us work in hospitals and clinics and schools, and we’re basically creating goals for people who do have these injuries and helping them step by step gain independence through physical activity, through different daily living skills, like putting on clothes and cooking and things like that.
[00:01:44] SY: Very cool. And how long were you doing that before you started thinking about getting into tech?
[00:01:49] AM: I was doing that for about eight years.
[00:01:51] SY: Oh, wow! That’s a decent amount of time. Yeah.
[00:01:54] AM: Yeah.
[00:01:55] SY: Very cool. So was there anything in the occupational therapy field that connected to code or connected to technology in any way?
[00:02:03] AM: Yeah. Towards the end, what I was working primarily on was helping people access technology. So working with like assistive technology. A good example of that would be for students who have autism or ADHD or any fine motor impairments, helping them use specialized equipment, like different types of keyboards and speech to texts and different programs that basically help them be more independent using technology. So for a lot of my patients, maybe they broke their arm or something and we’d be rehabbing their arm, but also showing them different things that they can do to maybe type a little bit better. And for people who have like autism or who are blind, we’re showing them how to use things like screen readers to communicate or to kind of just listen and see what’s on the computer. So there’s a lot of different interesting things that we did as far as technology goes.
[00:02:58] SY: And was that the spark that made you want to look into tech a little bit more? Or what was it that got you interested?
[00:03:03] AM: I would say I’ve always been kind of technically minded. I’ve always been interested in like learning about how computers work and learning about different technology. So what I was doing before was kind of like building websites and building like different classrooms for my patients’ digital classrooms to help them use different applications for mindfulness and things like that. So I was already doing a little bit of like technology things on that front.
[00:03:32] SY: And what made you decide to take a leap of faith and actually start learning how to code?
[00:03:37] AM: Well, I did have a business doing occupational therapy and yoga therapy, and one of the things that I wanted to do for my patients was create a digital home exercise program. So I had this idea of kind of building a website where they could go and access different exercises and different yoga poses and I wanted to build it, but every time I would ask like software engineers if they could build it for me, they kind of told me outrageous prices like $50,000 and I was like, “You know what? Maybe I could just do this myself and figure it out.” And I kind of went down a rabbit hole of learning how to build a web app, but realized that it was a way bigger undertaking than I could have ever imagined. So that’s kind of how I was like, “Maybe I should learn how to code.” And the more I learned about it and the more I started kind of building my own things, the more I realized like, “I actually like this way better than occupational therapy.” And at the time, I was already pretty burnt out from occupational therapy and direct patient care, working for like different therapy tech companies online. And it was just a lot of paperwork, a lot of stress. And when I was building and doing things on that front, like it just felt like I was hitting flow and it really just felt good.
[00:04:55] SY: What was it that felt so good?
[00:04:57] AM: I will admit, I’m an introvert. So I really love just being on my computer and getting lost in like looking up how to make things. And I really liked the process of having idea and then seeing it kind of come alive on the computer. So I was making all of these like little yoga virtual rooms and doing like little simulations because I was also teaching at a university. During COVID, we were using AR and VR to kind of like simulate different, I guess, patient interactions because we couldn’t do it in person. So as I was learning more about like VR and AR and then also building these little things that I was trying to build for the components of the web app, it just felt like way more interesting than kind of the rote things that I was doing, which is just like, “Okay, we have these goals that we have to hit for the students that I’m working with in these virtual schools, and I have to see them directly every day for 30 minutes at a time.” It didn’t feel as meaningful to me because of the way that like education and healthcare is just structured. You can’t really like build something and then see it kind of manifest in that way. It’s a different kind of labor, I would say. So I just enjoyed like being on my own and building something and then like having a product to show people. It was really exciting to me.
[00:06:16] SY: Yeah. I think that coding and being able to build something with your own two hands and your one brain is just such an exciting feeling and I’m really glad you got to experience that and that really drove you and led to where you are today. That’s great.
[00:06:29] AM: Yeah. The other thing that really I think pushed me over the edge of being like, “Okay, this is what I really want to do,” was the fact that I had already been working in accessibility and environmental accessibility, so kind of like looking at how classrooms and how buildings and how homes are built and making sure that people who do have a disability or suffered from an injury are able to use their homes or their environment in the best way possible. So that looked like things like widening doors or putting grab bars or moving furniture in certain ways, and doing that virtually, like looking at a website and thinking about how a blind user or a deaf user, or a user who may not be able to use their hands, how they use the websites, I don’t know, I found that really, really interesting and exciting that I could transfer that skill of something that I’d already been doing, but like transfer it to the web. I thought that was super cool.
[00:07:28] SY: Absolutely. So how did you learn how to code? What tools, what resources did you use? What was your strategy?
[00:07:36] AM: Yeah. So actually when I was trying to figure out how to learn how to code, I Googled my life away. I went on all these different boards and stuff. I tried freeCodeCamp, I tried Coursera. I also did The Odin Project, a little bit of it and I also did a little bit of CS50, the Harvard course, and those kind of like piqued my interest. But I actually stumbled upon a Reddit post about 100Devs, and like most people thought it was like way too good to be true, but instead of spending the 15,000 that I was thinking about spending on a bootcamp at this university, I was like, “You know, this is free. I’m going to try it. And if I’m not good at it or I can’t do it, at least I didn’t lose anything.” So I ended up doing 100Devs a hundred percent of the way through and learned how to code through that. And I still can’t believe it because it didn’t feel like something that I could do. It just felt like something that I said I was going to do, and I was like, “You know what? I’m probably going to fail. I’m not smart enough for this.” Like, “I don’t know how to do math.” And then like the course was just set out so perfectly that I was actually able to kind of quit my job and go full-time with it and build projects and that’s kind of how I got where I am, literally through 100Devs.
[00:08:52] SY: Wow! What was the best part of that program for you?
[00:08:55] AM: The best part was that it wasn’t only about coding. Leon does a really good job, and I know you interviewed him as well.
[00:09:03] SY: Yeah, he’s great.
[00:09:04] AM: But I think he’s just a great personality. He’s really encouraging and he spends a lot of time talking about how to build a community and how to kind of leverage your community to move forward. So I really enjoyed like the community building aspect the most for sure.
[00:09:21] SY: I’m curious, how did your friends and family, people you were close to, how did they respond when you told them that you wanted to get into tech?
[00:09:28] AM: I don’t know. I think my friends are just like, “Africa is going to do whatever Africa says she’s going to do.” [00:09:34] SY: Okay. Not bad.
[00:09:37] AM: Yeah. I’m always doing something different and thinking about creative ways to do things. And I’ve always been like the friend who will build you a website or help you like figure out what’s wrong with your computer. So I think people thought that that was a natural progression. However, I think people were pretty shocked at me moving away from occupational therapy in the way that I did because I had built myself up as like a person who was online talking about therapy and doing yoga therapy, and it was just like my whole thing and I like literally just dropped it pretty suddenly, even though it’s something I still incorporate and I’m still an occupational therapist. I think they were just surprised that I really got completely away from the field because I’d been doing it for so long.
[00:10:21] SY: I think that’s such a tough decision for many folks to make, especially if they’ve already built a reputation. They have a bit of a personal brand. They have this notoriety in this thing that they’ve been doing for a long time. It’s really hard to see themselves doing anything different, even if they’re unhappy, even if they’re not fulfilled, and I think it’s really incredible that you took that leap and you just started over again. Being a beginner is not easy, not always fun. What made you decide to do that? How did you get past the potential fear, the doubts, the voices that may have been there? How did you get past all that and decide to take that leap?
[00:11:03] AM: Yeah. I did have a lot of feelings of fear, feeling like I went to grad school, I’m heavily in debt because I went to grad school and it took so much to get licensed and get through all the practicals and all of the field work and then build up a whole brand around yoga and occupational therapy. That was enough for me to live off of through my own business, which took a lot of time. So I think for me, I was just so burnt out and so at the point of like, “I have to do something different or I will not survive like physically.” So my stakes were pretty high and that I knew that something had to give with the stress, especially after the pandemic hit. Healthcare and education, it was a mess, really, and everyone was kind of feeling it. So there was this mass exodus and a lot more people were talking about, especially in healthcare and education, talking about burnout and talking about pivoting into new things. So for me it was very scary, but I think the motivation was like, “Okay, you either got to do something different that you actually really, really love, or you’re going to be here for another couple years and have a heart attack probably.” [00:12:16] SY: No, no. What was it about occupational therapy that made you burn out? Was it the job itself? I can just feel how hardworking and how much you must push yourself. Is it part of your own drive? Like what was the source of that burnout?
[00:12:30] AM: The source really, I could talk about this for ages, so I’m going to make it really short, but I got into occupational therapy because I had a passion for helping people and working with disabled people, and working with people who’ve gone through something in their life that has caused something to happen to where they’re needing the help that we give as occupational therapists. I enjoy that work. It really wasn’t like the job. It was all the other parts that came with it. The paperwork and the billing and running around, trying to talk to doctors and talk to like insurance companies, dealing with caregivers who are a little abusive, and then working with directors who are really money focused. It kind of just takes away from the field itself. And since I had my own business, all that fell on me. So I was doing therapy and trying to make sure that like the bills were paid. So it sucked the life out of me, kind of.
[00:13:27] SY: Yeah, I completely believe that. I’ve heard people say, “If you like baking, don’t open a bakery.” Because if you open a bakery, you’re not going to be baking. It’s going to be the smallest part of your job. You’re going to be running the shops and buying the flour and keeping the lights on and negotiating with vendors. You’re going to do all the not fun stuff of baking. So that’s kind of what that reminds me of.
[00:13:47] AM: That’s exactly what it was like. And also like I had gone to India a couple years ago to get certified as a yoga instructor, and my whole thing was like, “I’m a yoga therapist and this is amazing and I’m going to share it and do all these YouTube videos and do all these talks about it.” But then when it became like my 100% job, like this is what I was doing full-time, therapy and the yoga part, it just kind of sucked the fun of yoga away from me when for me it was a very personal practice that I wanted to share because it changed me. But in changing me and making it my full focus, it just made it less fun.
[00:14:27] SY: I completely understand that. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense to me.
[00:14:47] SY: So tell me about 100Devs and your experience with it. You mentioned that Leon is great, but I’m curious to hear a little bit more about the community. You mentioned the way people talk about 100Devs. It’s almost like a cult because people are just so obsessed with it and they’re really into it and I see the tweets going on all the time. What makes the community in the space special?
[00:16:31] SY: Right. Right.
[00:16:33] AM: The fact that I had like this group of amazing people to do it with and we were a very small group of maybe about 15 of us who were active along with the general 100Devs community, it just really made it feel special and fun because we were all kind of just like on Twitter or on Discord just racking our brains, trying to figure out what we’re doing, but we’re all doing it together with enthusiasm.
[00:17:00] SY: Beautiful. That’s absolutely beautiful. I want to switch gears a bit and talk about your web application, Your Stretch Break. What is that application?
[00:17:09] AM: Yeah. So Your Stretch Break, it was supposed to be My Stretch Break, but someone bought that domain. Boo!
[00:17:16] SY: Boo! Boo indeed.
[00:18:28] SY: Where did the idea to create it come from?
[00:18:31] AM: So that idea came from all of my patients that I had, trying to give them something that they could use when we weren’t in session. So I had both occupational therapy and yoga therapy patients. The yoga therapy was just pure yoga, mostly for ADHD and depression and anxiety. And then the occupational therapy was for my patients who had like upper extremity injuries or disorders like Parkinson’s or multiple sclerosis, so different physical things going on where they needed some type of movement. So this was really like an idea where I was like, “Okay, I just need something that I can show them of me walking them through the specific exercises.” But this is like a very dumbed down version of that, simply because of my skill level of like”, this is what I can build right now.” [00:19:24] SY: Yeah. That’s what I'm trained.
[00:19:25] AM: I want it to be more elaborate, but I’m having fun with it.
[00:19:28] SY: Nice. Nice. I’m curious if you can maybe describe some of these stretches. I’m sitting, I’m sitting right now. What’s the stretch that I might be able to do, or listeners might be able to do as they’re listening in, in a seated position?
[00:19:42] AM: Yeah. So one really easy one that I like to do is you can clap your hands in front of you, like steeple your fingers together and interlace them and then stick your hands out directly in front of you so that it’s like chest height and your elbows are straight.
[00:20:01] SY: Okay.
[00:20:03] AM: Reverse your hand grip. So instead of like it facing outwards, your palms are going to be facing outwards.
[00:20:10] SY: Okay, got it. Yep.
[00:20:12] AM: Okay. And then you’re going to just lift it over your head with your elbow straight and reach for the ceiling.
[00:20:20] SY: Oh!
[00:20:21] AM: Oh! Take a deep breath here and then let it go. And then just slowly inch those hands to one side of the room. But keep your body relatively straight, so only like your shoulders and your hands are kind of moving to the side. Deep breath in and out and then just take it to the other side. And then you can let it go and then shake your hands out.
[00:20:50] SY: Whoa! That was nice.
[00:20:52] AM: Yeah, that’s my favorite go-to…
[00:20:54] SY: That was good. Oh, I hope people got to do it along. I love that. That was needed. Ooh, I was stiff.
[00:21:00] AM: Yeah, like maybe we could have a podcast just like a different…
[00:21:04] SY: Yeah. Yeah. That was lovely.
[00:21:07] AM: Stretch Break Hour.
[00:21:08] SY: The Stretch Break Hour. Yes. I love it. I love that. I love that. Is that your favorite one?
[00:21:14] AM: I don’t know if it’s my favorite one, but it’s definitely like one that I do every day.
[00:21:20] SY: So what are some of the benefits of doing these kinds of stretches throughout the day, especially as we work? It’s so easy to just be cooped up in front of our computer for hours, not even realize how much time has passed. What’s the benefit to us of taking these breaks, doing these little stretch activities throughout our workday?
[00:21:36] AM: Yeah. The main thing I would say is just to mitigate pain and stiffness. I think a lot of us are pretty sore and our money makers are our hands and our ability to use them and sit down and work. So for me, one of the game changers, an easy way to kind of make sure that your body’s healthy and your circulation is moving and you’re getting oxygen to your muscles, and they’re not cramping up and shortening from being seated so long is find like a really cheap, if money is an issue, like a really cheap standing desk. Before I was doing accessibility engineering and I was working part-time and not making a lot of money during the pandemic, I actually just used a dresser drawer and put my laptop on that with like a stack of books along with my other desk, just so I could have something where I’m standing. So really just standing like 30 minutes at a time and sitting down if you want makes a huge difference in how your body will feel at the end of the day. And if you take those breaks at the top of the hour and you reset and you get your eyes off of the screen, A, you’re going to feel a little bit better. You’re going to be less stiff, and you’re not giving your body the opportunity to kind of cramp up into these positions where you’re going to put extra stress on your body. So it’s just like a mental check where it’s like, “Okay, it’s the top of the hour. Let me at least look away from the computer for one minute and like move my body around so that I’m not cramped in these positions that are going to cause even more issues later on down the line.” Like right now we feel all good, our bodies feel great, but in a couple years if we’re continually like doing these repetitive motions, you’re going to run into some issues. Like me, myself, I have carpal tunnel, which is so embarrassing. It sounds like such a silly thing to have, but it’s just from repetitive use of sitting at the computer and doing paperwork and doing online therapy for 12 hours a day for many years.
[00:23:35] SY: And where does yoga fit into this? When we think about the kind of flexible, not sore, we want to be in good shape and we want to be able to go through a workday without putting extra stress in our body, where does yoga fit into that picture, if at all?
[00:23:51] AM: Yeah, I’d say yoga can be so many things. I think we have like an idea of yoga being like the thin woman who’s doing a back bend and really yoga could be as simple as just taking a few deep breaths. Take three deep breaths right now and you’ll feel your body relax. And that’s yoga, right? So I think yoga comes into play in that it’s a structured way of allowing your body to have a moment to itself so that it can relax and be taken out of these positions of like great tension because at every moment we’re holding our bodies in really specific ways that feel normal but are filled with tension. And a good example of that is if I told you right now to remove your tongue from the top of your mouth and then relax your jaw and then pull your shoulders down, you’d be able to do that because your shoulders are like near your ears and you’re kind of inherently clenched up. But then when you let it go, it just feels so much better. And yoga’s just kind of a way to teach our bodies to let go of that tension so that we’re not going around with like this back pain, this neck pain that really could be helped by just stretching a little bit more throughout the day. So I think it’s a beautiful thing.
[00:25:14] SY: So do you still do any occupational therapy, any yoga instruction, any of that stuff from your past career?
[00:25:22] AM: Yeah. So I have a few patients. I’ve been slowly whittling away at my caseload because I spend so much more time now on coding projects and just working full-time doing digital accessibility work. So I have a few, and they are mostly students that I used to have. But yeah, I only have a few. And by the next couple months, I will probably have no more. These are my last people who I just felt really bad about saying goodbye to.
[00:25:56] SY: Coming up next, Africa talks about her experience booking coffee chats with other coders and tips that she recommends for people starting their journeys after this.
[00:26:16] SY: So I want to switch gears and talk about coffee chats. You hear a lot about coffee chats in the tech space. What are they and how do they benefit people in tech?
[00:26:25] AM: Sure. I love a good coffee chat. Coffee chats are pretty much just a way for you to reach out to people that you may be curious about or admire or even just want to connect with and asking them pointed questions about what they’re doing in their career and kind of just a way to build your network as well, especially for those who are looking to break into different industries from different careers or just like a way to learn about what you want to do and how to get there.
[00:26:56] SY: And how do you go about that? If there’s someone interesting that you want to meet, you want to connect with, you want to reach out and grab coffee with, or a virtual coffee, how do you make that happen?
[00:27:07] AM: Well, I’ve learned over the years, I’m a little bit older, so it’s a little less nerve-wracking for me to reach out to people, but usually it’s people that I’m following either on LinkedIn or Twitter and that I’ve interacted with a little bit because they’re doing something that I’m interested with. And honestly, all I do is I just send them a DM and ask them, “Hey, could we meet and could I ask you a few questions? I’m really inspired by what you do and want to learn more about it.” And honestly, everyone that I’ve ever reached out to has said yes because people love to talk about what they’re doing and will be generally, I think, flattered if you reach out to them. Myself, I have people who reach out to me and ask for coffee chats, and I almost always say yes, especially if they seem to be interested in what I’m doing, which is such a niche thing. So if you reach out to people about something very niche, like, “Oh, I’m really interested in, I don’t know, learning about backend,” whatever, or something really specific that they’re doing, they probably want to talk about it. So my advice to people is to meaningfully engage with the people that you want to talk with and then just ask them and they’ll probably say yes.
[00:28:20] SY: Were you ever nervous reaching out to people and asking for coffee chats?
[00:28:24] AM: Oh my gosh! When I first started asking people for coffee chats, I wanted to throw up every single time.
[00:28:30] SY: Oh no!
[00:28:34] AM: It was awful. But what I did, and I think I got lucky, so I got like a really huge jumpstart on coffee chats because I was so scared to reach out that I tweeted like, “Hey, if you’re a black woman or a person of color or LGBTQ in tech, I’d really love to speak with you because I want to do X, Y, Z.” And like 30 people, I don’t know, maybe it was 30 or 50 black women just like responded to this tweet.
[00:29:00] SY: Wow!
[00:29:01] AM: And I ended up scheduling like 30 coffee chats.
[00:29:04] SY: Oh my goodness!
[00:29:30] SY: Oh!
[00:29:30] AM: So I think it’s just amazing because we are minorities in this space and in general, but especially in tech. So if you are a minority in tech, reach out to the people who look like you because they want to help. And now that I’m in the space to do the same thing, I want to get back in that way.
[00:29:51] SY: I love that. That’s such great advice. What final piece of advice do you have for career switchers, people who are going from an industry completely unrelated to tech, like occupational therapy, and who are trying to find their way, navigate that journey into the world of code?
[00:30:06] AM: The first thing I would say is Google everything. Like every question that you have, write it down in a Google Doc, and really figure out the steps that it takes for you to get where you want to be, and then reach out to people who are already doing it to see how they got to where they are. I think a lot of people get really stuck on the first part of just like not knowing how to do or where to go. And I was there too, but the first step, especially if you want to career switch to tech or do something in this realm is like that self-initiative of like, “Let me see what Google can tell me, so that I can ask very direct and specific questions to the person that I want to reach out to.” When someone reaches out to me and they’ve done their homework, I’m so much more willing to give them the blueprint versus when someone wants me to give them like everything from step 1 to step 100, which I’m willing to do and happy to do. You can feel the difference when you come to someone with like, “I’ve researched all these things, I’m just stuck on this specific thing and I would really love to hear how you navigated it.” [00:31:19] SY: Absolutely. I completely agree. I think that it means so much more when someone has come prepared, done their research on the person they’re talking to, right? Like they know your story, they’ve looked at your tweets or your blog, and they come with specifics, things they can’t find on the internet. That just makes you take them more seriously and it makes you really want to invest in them. They invested in the conversation. You invest in helping them. So yeah. I think that being prepared is such great advice. Now at the end of every episode, we ask our guests to fill in the blanks of some very important questions. Africa, are you ready to fill in the blanks?
[00:31:59] AM: Yes.
[00:31:59] SY: Number one, worst advice I’ve ever received is?
[00:32:03] AM: That you have to be good at math to learn how to code.
[00:32:07] SY: Oh, that’s such a falsehood. It’s ridiculous. I have never thought about math while I’m coding I think ever.
[00:32:15] AM: Yeah. I used to want to be a computer scientist when I was like in ninth grade, and then I got to I think it was Algebra II and was so bad at it that my algebra teacher laughed when I said I wanted to do computer science.
[00:32:31] SY: Really?
[00:32:32] AM: Then I was like, “I guess not.”
[00:32:32] SY: Oh no! Oh, that’s so sad. I’m sorry you had that experience. Well, you can show them now where you are.
[00:32:40] AM: I know. Yeah.
[00:32:42] SY: What you’re up to. Number two, best advice I’ve ever received is?
[00:32:47] AM: To not look for a mentor, look for a community. Funnily enough, the person who told me that ended up being one of my mentors.
[00:32:55] SY: Oh, funny.
[00:32:56] AM: But it was great advice because now I feel like I have a team. You know?
[00:33:01] SY: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
[00:33:01] AM: Like kind of cheering me on.
[00:33:04] SY: And it’s also nice because when you have a community, they’re most likely on your level. See, there’s a lot more you can relate to, but also you can kind of trade roles, right? When one member’s may be feeling a little bit down, the others can lift them up. The burden of support isn’t on one person. You can kind of share that load amongst the group, which I think is very nice too.
[00:33:23] AM: Yeah. And I think when you rely on just one person for their one piece of advice, they’re going to give you one way to do something. and there are like a thousand ways to slice an apple. Yeah.
[00:33:34] SY: Number three, my first coding project was about?
[00:33:37] AM: Oh, it was a tarot of the day web app that I made with a friend, Brandy. She’s actually a physical therapist. Basically, you click a button and it flips the card over and it shows you like a tarot card randomly. It’s like a bunch of random tarot cards and an array, and it pulls it randomly and then tells you if you flip it on the other side what it means. Such a good project.
[00:34:06] SY: Very cool. Number four, one thing I wish I knew when I first started to code is?
[00:35:00] SY: Absolutely. Well, thank you again so much for joining us, Africa.
[00:35:03] AM: Yeah, thank you for having me.
[00:35:11] SY: You can reach out to us on Twitter at CodeNewbies or send me an email, firstname.lastname@example.org. For more info on the podcast, check out www.codenewbie.org/podcast. Thanks for listening. See you next week.
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