Today, Saron sits down with Natalie Davis, who shares her experience pursuing software engineering after climbing the ladder in the retail industry for 15 years. In their conversation, Natalie talks about what she has learned navigating the tech industry, how she's navigated layoffs, and why she has grown to be more selective and intentional with prospective new opportunities.
[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 empowered self-advocacy with Natalie Davis, Software Engineer.
[00:00:19] ND: It’s scary. It feels like if you can get a job offer, take that, but I don’t want to put myself in the position to be right back here in six months again. And I know that it’s very little that I can do to control whether or not that happens, but I can control which opportunities I’m pursuing, which conversations I’m having. So I’m looking for that perfect role.
[00:00:39] SY: On this episode, Natalie shares why, after climbing the ladder for 15 years, she decided to leave the retail industry to pursue software engineering, and now she hopes her story can help pave the way for others after this.
[00:00:55] SY: Thank you so much for being here.
[00:00:56] ND: Thank you for having me, Saron.
[00:00:58] SY: So when did you first learn about code?
[00:01:01] ND: Let’s see. I was working as a retailer and looking for a way to escape that. And I turned to Twitter and I saw people talking about coding bootcamps and I really didn’t want to go back to college for another four years and have another a hundred thousand dollars’ worth of debt. So that’s when I started researching like, “Is this something that I could be happy doing?” And I found that I could.
[00:01:25] SY: What about it made you feel like you could be happy doing it?
[00:01:29] ND: Well, during this period of time, there were some articles out. The one that I remember most predominantly was hand dryers, not recognizing darker skin. And I understood, I’m an ’80s baby, so I’ve seen the world move from like card catalogs to Google, and I understood that the impact that tech was having in the world around us, and that was a clear indication that there weren’t enough people like me in those rooms. So I wanted to show up in them.
[00:01:56] SY: And so when you were reading those articles, what came up for you?
[00:02:02] ND: It felt very much like I was watching every inequity that I and the people I come from had experienced, being baked into something that was very opaque and that my community couldn’t necessarily recognize in the same way that we were used to recognizing these things. So it was able to fly under the radar much more than the kind of overt things we see in our physical lives.
[00:02:27] SY: And when you thought about getting into tech, was it with this mission of writing some of those wrongs, or what was your goal? What was your intention when you thought about yourself getting into the industry?
[00:02:40] ND: I think there were a few things that I thought about. I was definitely first and foremost thinking about how I wanted to spend the next 20 years of my career. Did I want it to be doing something that I had lost passion for and didn’t feel like I was using the best of my talents in? Or did I want to take a leap into something new and really be challenged and really get opportunities to grow? So I was thinking about that. I was thinking again about the lack of diversity in tech, and I was also thinking about compensation. I knew that I would never be able to achieve the kind of compensation I can in software engineering that I could in retail management.
[00:03:22] SY: Tell me a little bit more about where you were in your life at this point? You mentioned that you were working in retail. What were you doing? What led you to that point?
[00:03:30] ND: So I was in retail management and I’d also just gotten married and I married into a wonderful family that was very different than the family that I came from. So my husband is a firefighter. He’s doing the thing that he dreamed about doing since he was a child.
[00:03:46] SY: How many of us get to say that? That’s fun.
[00:03:47] ND: Right. Right. Both his brother and his wife had very professional careers that they had intentionally chosen, and it opened up kind of a new existence for me. You hear that you can do anything, but I hadn’t seen that modeled in real life. I hadn’t seen people intentionally driving their careers to be something other than just a paycheck.
[00:04:11] SY: And what did that mean for you?
[00:04:12] ND: If you show me that a thing can be done, I have no doubt that I can do it. And once I saw that it could be done, I knew that the future was just a matter of me deciding what I wanted it to look like and moving forward.
[00:04:24] SY: So I know that at the time you mentioned you were working in retail management and you were studying fashion and apparel design.
[00:04:30] ND: Correct.
[00:04:31] SY: Very different from tech, using your hands in a totally different way. You’re dealing with materials and people and human bodies. It just feels like such a different world. What were your expectations going into fashion and apparel design?
[00:04:46] ND: To be honest, when I enrolled in that program, I was at a very chaotic period, time in my life, and I knew that I needed to do something if I wasn’t going to continue to live the way I was living. So it felt like an easy transition because I was a stylist, young lady, and that was something that innately kind of came to me. But it’s interesting that the thing that appealed to me most in that field was the technical aspect of it, the pattern drafting, the precision of measurements and things like that. So that’s what I was hoping to do long term, was to be a pattern drafter.
[00:05:27] SY: Pattern drafter. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard of that profession. Is that the people who make the patterns? I assume that’s what that is.
[00:05:32] ND: It is.
[00:05:33] SY: Okay. Very, very cool. And what led you to decide to not pursue that anymore? What made you go away from that and into tech?
[00:05:42] ND: You know, life’s really hard and I was in a long-term relationship that went very poorly and it led me to pick up my life and move across the country to Oregon. And in that survival mode state that I was in, re-enrolling in school wasn’t my top priority. I was just trying to gather the pieces of my life. And I also got my first good paying retail management job around that time of my life. And it was just an easy progression to keep getting promoted and getting those pay bumps rather than going back to school.
[00:06:19] SY: And so you’re on this trajectory of continuing to move up the ladder and continuing in retail management. What was the thing that made you say, “You know what? I’m done with this, I’m done with this life, with this profession, I’m going to take that first step, not just think about it, but actually take that step to get into code”?
[00:06:37] ND: So when I was first interested in knowing what it might be like to be a software engineer, I reached out to a company that produced software tools. That sounded very interesting to me. I just sent them a blind email like, “Hey, I’m Natalie. This is some of my backstory. I’m wondering if you have any kind of mentorship programs.” And I actually got a response from the CEO of that company who was very impressed with what I had written, told me that he didn’t have a formal mentorship program, but he did have a software engineer, her name’s Brittany Braxton, who was a black woman who had went to a bootcamp and was now working as an engineer. And he offered to connect me to her. And when I met her for a coffee date, I just knew, like I’m looking at myself, she did it, I can do it, I’m going to do it.
[00:07:32] SY: Oh, that’s beautiful. I think that being able to see other people realize amazing dreams is such a great source of inspiration and empowerment for us. So it’s really great that you have this opportunity to see your future modeled for you.
[00:07:46] ND: Yeah. Yeah. I don’t know that I would’ve gotten here without that.
[00:07:49] SY: So you’re looking at her and you’re seeing all that she is and wanting the same thing for yourself. What’s the next step? What’d you do?
[00:07:55] ND: I signed up for a bootcamp.
[00:07:58] SY: What went into that decision? I know that bootcamps, it’s one of many ways that you could have learned to code. As you mentioned, you were not interested in the four-year degree, but you could have maybe done self-taught or maybe there were some online options. What made you pick up bootcamp?
[00:08:10] ND: I needed structure and I needed community. If you leave me to my own devices, I will get lost in the weeds of something I find completely engrossing and very interesting. But I’ll get so lost in that, that I won’t cover the fundamentals. So I needed like a kind of curriculum laid out, and then people who were going through what I was going through to be able to talk to them as well.
[00:08:35] SY: And did you get that from the bootcamp that you attended?
[00:08:37] ND: I did. I was really, really fortunate. Not everyone who attended the bootcamp I did have the same experiences, but I had a team lead who was very much all about seeing us win.
[00:08:49] SY: And how did you decide which bootcamp to do? Because there’s tons of them out there, especially, you know, these days there’s many to pick from. How did you pick the one you attended?
[00:08:57] ND: So the one that I attended at the time was one of the most recommended bootcamps. And I hesitate to talk about this, but it was an ISA-based program and I think that those can be very dangerous and very exploitative, but I didn’t have the money to pay for a bootcamp upfront. And I did the math and looked at what my earning potential was and was willing to kind of sacrifice a couple of years of income for the long-term benefits.
[00:09:27] SY: So that payment situation was important to you as well, that payment plan?
[00:09:31] ND: It was.
[00:09:32] SY: It’s interesting to see, and I’m curious to hear your thoughts on them now, kind of looking back on the history of ISAs, but I remember when they first brought on the scene, it was really cool. It was a really cool idea to not have to pay upfront, to be able to pay over time. And then eventually they became this exploitative tool and kind of got a bad reputation. I’m not really sure where they stand today. I’m not sure how people feel about ISAs, but I think there’s a general level of discomfort around them. And folks listening, ISA stands for Income Share Agreement, which basically says that you don’t pay upfront, but you pay a percentage of your salary for the next X number of, can’t remember if it’s months or years, whatever it would take to essentially pay back what would’ve been your tuition. And I don’t know how the people feel about ISAs today, but what was your experience like having gone through it and done it yourself?
[00:10:22] ND: Again, if I look at the math and I look at the long term, it was the right thing for me to do.
[00:10:28] SY: Okay.
[00:10:28] ND: I think that ISAs have the potential to be a really empowering tool. But for instance, the way mine was set up, the percentage of my gross income a month, it was more than my mortgage… [00:10:44] SY: Oh, wow!
[00:10:44] ND: Each month that I was paying to this. So I think I would’ve preferred to see a longer set of terms at a more reasonable, more palatable percentage.
[00:10:55] SY: So you did a bootcamp, was it full-time? Was it part-time? What did your kind of day-to-day look like?
[00:11:01] ND: So the bootcamp that I attended was part-time, which made it an 18-month program. And I think I was about three months into that program before I decided to quit my full-time job and take a role as a team lead for a full-time student. So my day-to-day would look like at 10:00 AM I log in to be a team lead until about 7:00 PM.
[00:11:26] SY: Wow!
[00:11:26] ND: And then from 8:00 PM to 10:00 PM, I was a student.
[00:11:30] SY: Oh my goodness! That’s intense. That’s a lot.
[00:11:34] ND: But you know, it was the best decision that I could have made. There’s no better way to learn than to teach.
[00:11:42] SY: What was that like, learning and teaching at the same time? Because it feels like just three months of learning, I wouldn’t think that you’d be in a position to be teaching at that point.
[00:11:51] ND: You know, I probably was ill prepared with the exception that… I mean, I do think my leadership experience really helped me to be the best team lead that I could be. Now I had completed the portions of the course that the students were going through at that time, and I put in a ridiculous amount of self-study on top of what my curriculum was offering. So I was as prepared as I could be, but also one of the great things about me not necessarily having all the answers was it really got reinforced to the students that I was with early that you might not know everything, but we can figure it out, let’s do that together.
[00:12:35] SY: Yeah. Yeah. That’s very true. What are your thoughts on teaching while taking a bootcamp? Is that a scenario that having gone through it, you’d recommend to other people?
[00:12:44] ND: If someone has the privileges that allow them to be able to do it, I don’t think that they could make a better move. Thankfully, my husband was able to support our household while I was doing this because I went from making like $65,000 a year to $13 an hour.
[00:13:02] SY: Yeah, it’s a big jump.
[00:13:03] ND: And that hurt. But again, because I had those resources and because I was again looking at the big picture and the long term, it was the best decision that I could have made. And if someone else can do that, I recommend it as well, but also understanding that it will consume your entire life four months at a time.
[00:13:26] SY: So you mentioned that your program was 18 months long. How did you feel about that time length? Did that feel like enough time? Did it feel too long? What did you think about the year and a half that you spent focused on learning?
[00:13:39] ND: For me, I think it was the right period of time. It gave me a chance to really make enough mistakes and then learn how to fix those mistakes that I did feel prepared for an entry-level role when I left that bootcamp.
[00:13:56] SY: That’s wonderful. That’s great. So let’s talk about that entry-level role. Tell me about the job hunt, the process of going from student to employee. What was that journey like for you?
[00:14:07] ND: Well, I am very thankful to my career in retail, particularly the relation-based selling portion of it, because it did teach me how to network. So I began networking maybe six months into my bootcamp career. So a good year and a few months before I was looking for a job, I was intentionally sharing what I was learning so that people could see progression in me, so people could get glimpses into my thought process. And what that meant was by the time I told the world I was ready for my first role, within a week I had three interviews.
[00:14:45] SY: Wow!
[00:14:46] ND: Within two weeks I had an offer.
[00:14:47] SY: Oh my goodness! So you were networking for basically a year.
[00:14:51] ND: I was. I was. I think if you wait to network when you’re looking for a job, you’ve waited too long.
[00:14:57] SY: What does networking look like when you’re not yet ready to get a job?
[00:15:03] ND: For me, it was just getting people to share their expertise in addition to sharing what I’m learning. So it can feel like when you’re first learning, why would I share how to write an arrow function? All software engineers know how to do that. Well, first, there are people who are just behind you who might not know that. And then second, I gave people a chance to see me go from, “Wow, this is how you write an arrow function,” to, “Oh, binary trees, I get this.” Like they could see that I was growing and I was putting in time and I was doing that consistently.
[00:15:41] SY: What did you say to people when you reached out to them? Were you saying, “Hey, I’m a student, check me out”? Or what was the message that you used?
[00:15:50] ND: I did this networking on Twitter primarily, which means that I didn’t necessarily have to target any particular individual. But there were times when I had an interesting question. So I would just shoot a DM to a member of like the React Core team. And surprisingly enough, I would receive responses and I would kind of build relationships based off that.
[00:16:14] SY: I think one of the hard parts about networking, especially when you’re networking online, is turning a one-off Twitter moment or a one-off email exchange, or a one-off call into a relationship. How do you go from, “Hey, love your repo, love your code, here’s my question, getting an answer to, okay, now, 12 months from now, I can reach out to you again and get a referral or tell you that I’m job ready”? You know what I mean? Like how do you make it more than just that one-off? What was that experience like for you?
[00:16:46] ND: I think one thing that really served me well was understanding that none of these relationships could be transactional based. I would do best if I wasn’t focused on finding a mentor or building a network, but instead looking to be a part of the community, which meant showing up for other people, supporting what they’re doing, celebrating them, and then sharing what I’m doing as well. So removing the like “I am networking” or “Will you be my mentor” from it and just focusing on people in general and being a part of the community really served me well.
[00:17:19] SY: And what does that look like? What are some things that you did to be a part of the community?
[00:17:23] ND: There were certain people that I was very interested in getting a chance to learn from their expertise. For instance, Angie Jones.
[00:17:32] SY: Absolutely.
[00:17:33] ND: Wonderful. Like we all know her. She’s iconic. And I wanted to learn how she got to be that way. So that meant when Angie was doing something, I was on the timeline supporting her. I was blowing her up. And then I would ask her questions privately and I had to learn how to properly ask questions privately because these are busy people. They don’t have much time. So I send them a five-paragraph essay. I’m likely to get left on red, but if I’m very concise and very specific in my ask, then more often than not, they’re happy to extend themselves.
[00:18:22] SY: So you got your first offer within two weeks of graduation, which is absolutely incredible. When you were ready to go hard on the actual job hunt, you moved from student to potential employee, you were ready to make that transition, how did you activate your network? How did you go back out to those people that you’d touched base with, supported, cheered on, and let them know that it was time to get to work? How did you do that?
[00:18:49] ND: It’s so wild to think about it because I remember the tweet that I sent out and I didn’t expect so much to happen from that tweet. I tweeted something along the lines of, “Well, friends, it’s time for me to get to that part of the game where I have to promote myself and I’m not very good at that. Can you all take a look at my…?” I think GitHub READMEs were relatively new at this point. So I wanted to create my GitHub README that was like about me, and I just dropped a link to that and asked the community to give me a feedback. And literally from there, connections just, “Oh, you’re ready to work? Let’s go. Let’s get you to it. The README is fine, but here’s this job opportunity.” [00:19:28] SY: Oh, beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. And what did you say about yourself? What was in that README?
[00:19:34] ND: It was nothing incredibly phenomenal.
[00:19:38] SY: Okay. Are you just being honest?
[00:19:41] ND: No. No. It feels like you have to do so much, but sometimes it’s really not that. You just need to be authentic. So my fun fact was everything’s fun if you try hard enough. I had my pronouns in there, and then I had a list of the technologies that I had used. And my pen projects were like my capstone projects from bootcamp.
[00:20:03] SY: And what do you think it was that got people so interested in you and got them responding within weeks, within two weeks you had an offer? What was it that you think made people excited to meet you and hire you?
[00:20:17] ND: Well, I think I had made it clear that I had done the work from a technical perspective to be ready for that first junior developer role. But I also think my intention around people and understanding that we’re building tools for people, we’re using code as a tool to do that, and people are the primary motivation and the way that I carry myself in the world. And I try to treat others with kindness, dignity, and respect. And I think that people want to work with someone who’s like that.
[00:20:52] SY: How do you show personality like that online? When you talk about treating people with dignity and respect, how does that translate? What does that look like?
[00:21:02] ND: It took me a while to find my cadence. I think I was a lot more terse or wearing like a professional mask when I first started the Twitter account that built my network. But as time went on, I began to show who I am. So instead of just always like, “I learned what an object is today,” like maybe I crack a joke or maybe I have fun or maybe I just share a part of my day that has nothing to do with tech, which allows people to see you as a whole person. But then I think the way you engage with others really matters. Like I’m not going to tell you what to do on your personal social media site. You are free to do whatever you like. But for me, if there’s a troll in my comments, I’m not likely to respond to that. I will respond to support and uplifting. If I do respond to a troll, it’s usually going to be a, “What does that mean?” Or something like that.
[00:21:57] SY: Yeah.
[00:21:58] ND: But I’m staying out of beef because there’s too much beef in real life. I don’t need it with people I don’t know.
[00:22:06] SY: So you got your first job offer two weeks after graduating, which is very, very impressive. Congratulations to you on that accomplishment. What was the offer that you ended up taking?
[00:22:15] ND: It was such a perfect first engineering role for me. So there is a company here in Chicago called Foxtrot Market, and they are a brick-and-mortar store, but they also have… [00:22:26] SY: Oh, Foxtrot.
[00:22:27] ND: You know Foxtrot?
[00:22:28] SY: Yeah. I know Foxtrot. I don’t remember how I first came across them, but they have great social media. I’ve never actually been to a Foxtrot. I’ve seen it just online and seen the photos. I think I even subscribed to the mailing list, but it’s a beautiful little upscale. It was like a bougie bodega.
[00:22:43] ND: Exactly. That’s the perfect way to describe it.
[00:22:43] SY: That’s kind of how I understand it. Yeah.
[00:22:47] ND: But it was also the perfect marriage of retail, which I know like the back of my hand.
[00:22:51] SY: Very true.
[00:22:52] ND: And my new engineering skills.
[00:22:54] SY: Such a good point. Yeah. I didn’t even realize they had like a technical component to them. What does a tech at a bodega look like?
[00:23:01] ND: Well, first there’s like the consumer-facing app. And in that consumer-facing app, you can place an order for pickup, you can place an order for delivery. And they also in-house their retail tools as well.
[00:23:14] SY: Oh, okay.
[00:23:15] ND: Yeah.
[00:23:16] SY: So they’re not buying off the shelf square and things like that. They’re doing it all themselves?
[00:23:20] ND: I think they’re integrated with some payment services.
[00:23:25] SY: Okay.
[00:23:25] ND: But in terms of managing orders and…
[00:23:28] SY: Oh, inventory, that sort of thing?
[00:23:30] ND: Correct.
[00:23:30] SY: Oh, that is a perfect first job for you with all your retail management experience. You probably knew exactly what they were talking about and how things were supposed to work.
[00:23:38] ND: Yeah. It really gave me the ability to focus on becoming an engineer without having to understand an entirely new problem space.
[00:23:48] SY: What kinds of things did you work on when you were there?
[00:23:51] ND: So during my first stint with them, I worked on the consumer-facing app. So we were going through a redesign, so brand new homepage. We were adding like recommended aisles, which was just kind of a row on the homepage that showed items that were recommended for you or that you had previously purchased. And then my big feature, the first time I got a chance to own a feature that really kind of touched the application significantly was I implemented the 2FA to it.
[00:24:21] SY: Oh! Ooh, that’s kind of a big one. That’s important.
[00:24:23] ND: Yeah. Yeah.
[00:24:24] SY: Wow. Very exciting. Okay. So you were at Foxtrot, first developer job. What was it like emotionally? How did it feel to get that first job?
[00:24:37] HD: Terrifying.
[00:24:38] SY: Oh, terrifying. Okay. Tell me more.
[00:24:41] HD: In your first job, you’re convinced you’re the only one who doesn’t know everything and everyone else is so much smarter and annoyed by your silly little questions. They might find out at any moment that you don’t know what you’re doing at all and just constantly battling those. And I think it was particularly difficult for me. I’d spent 15 years in an industry and I was an industry leader at that point. And now I don’t know anything.
[00:25:10] SY: How much of what you felt was a reflection of reality, people were actually annoyed at your questions and thought they were silly? And how much of it was just you being self-conscious about being new in a space?
[00:25:24] HD: It was 100% in my head. No one ever mistreated me or behaved in a way other than like accepting and wanting to help me grow.
[00:25:36] SY: That’s beautiful. That’s really reassuring because I think that we go into things full of fear and anxiety and it’s important to note that most times it’s just us, like it’s just us in our own heads thinking about the worst-case scenario. But in reality, people are excited when we figure things out. They want to help. It makes them feel useful when you ask a question and those are all positive things. I think it’s important to keep that in mind.
[00:25:59] HD: Exactly.
[00:26:02] SY: So was being a software engineer everything you hoped it would be? When you imagined, you know, looking at that article about the skin color and it being not recognized by these machines, and you thought about what role you might play in technology, what it might feel like to be a coder, how did the reality of that compare with what you had in your head?
[00:26:25] HD: So I don’t think the work I was doing had the social impact that I was dreaming of. But as a career, it surpassed everything I had ever dreamed of. One of the most challenging things for me in the beginning was everyone kept treating me like a human being, instead of a number that needed to be clocked in and demonstrating productivity for every single moment that I was clocked in.
[00:26:51] SY: What do you attribute that to?
[00:26:53] ND: It’s almost like because a software engineer is paid more than a retailer, they are more valuable, which means we should treat them as valuable. Whereas a retail manager might feel to society like, “Well, you can plug anyone in that role,” trust me, that’s not the truth. Not if you want to be successful. But we don’t, as a society, tend to respect the people who do service work.
[00:27:20] SY: I think it is a very, very good point. It’s very sad that that’s true at the end of the day.
[00:27:24] ND: Yeah.
[00:27:25] SY: We’re all people, all trying to make a buck, trying to move forward in our lives and careers, provide for our families. So it’s unfortunate that we see people that way, but I think there is some truth to what you just said unfortunately. Yeah. So you were at Foxtrot as a front-end engineer, loving it, doing your thing. What happened next?
[00:27:43] ND: Well, next, before we get to like the reach out that caused me to leave that job, I have a lot of friends who are in developer advocacy and I see them making it feel so much more possible for the rest of us who are out here trying. And I’m like, “Gee, I enjoy people. I wonder if developer advocacy could be something that I could be good at.” So I reached out to a few people who I know, who do it well, Angie Jones, Mark Thompson, Cassidy Williams, and just was like, “Hey, I think this may be a path I want to go down to. Is there anything you can share with me that might help me in the long run?” Got wonderful responses. A few months go by and Cassidy had an opening for her team on Netlify, and she reached out to me. I went through that interview process and I joined Cassidy and the team at Netlify as a DX engineer.
[00:28:42] SY: Very exciting. And what was that role like?
[00:28:45] ND: So when I was going through the interview process, I was asking questions and I wasn’t being misled, but I didn’t understand the questions that I should be asking.
[00:28:54] SY: Oh, okay.
[00:28:55] ND: So one thing that I knew had to keep happening for me at this stage in my career is my fingers needed to be on the keyboard and I needed to be building products and going through that whole product life cycle so that I could really understand that. So I asked, “How much of my role is going to be coding?” I was told about 90%, but I didn’t ask, “Would I be working with a product manager? What would the day-to-day look like?” I just took that 90% and ran with it and that’s perfect. That’s exactly what I need in my life. Well, that 90% in DX is very different than a product team. So I wasn’t seeing features fully from conception to implementation. Instead, I was doing things like maintaining starter templates and a lot of dependency updates and just a very different kind of work.
[00:29:48] SY: Yeah, because you’re doing more marketing engineering than product engineering. Is that fair to say?
[00:29:55] ND: Very fair to say. And I think I was in that role for about a month when I realized I had made a mistake.
[00:30:02] SY: Oh no!
[00:30:04] ND: So we had a new VP of engineering named Dana, who is one of the most dynamic women I’ve ever met, like if you’re on a call with her, you feel her energy through the camera, through the microphone, just blew me away. So I reached out to her and presented the opportunity to her to mentor me. So I shot at DM. She scheduled a call with me. I hopped on this call. We’re talking about my career progression. And I hadn’t yet admitted to myself how large of a mistake I made, but she honed in on it instantly. “What are you doing in DX? You should be in product.” And when she said that, I kind of opened up and was like, “I think you’re right. I think I made a bad decision.” And she gave me permission to pursue what I wanted without worrying about disappointing anyone else. So I had that realization. And I just had to reach out to Cassidy and share what I was feeling and you couldn’t ask for a more perfect response. She told me she understood. She thanked me for my honesty. She thanked me for my vulnerability. Then next thing I know, I’m on a call with Dana again. She puts me in connection with engineering manager on the observability team.
[00:31:32] SY: Okay.
[00:31:33] ND: We meet and greet. About a week later, I am on a product team working on product.
[00:31:38] SY: Wow! Good for you! Oh my goodness!
[00:31:41] ND: Thank you.
[00:31:42] SY: You make this tech thing look easy, girl.
[00:31:44] ND: Well, I’m pretty laid off. And it was not easy anymore, let me tell you.
[00:31:53] SY: Okay. So when you got to the observability team, did it feel right? Did it feel better there?
[00:32:00] ND: Oh, it felt so much better.
[00:32:01] SY: Okay.
[00:32:01] ND: I think I was back to feeling scared and feeling like I didn’t know anything because I was working with engineers who, and like no disrespect, no shade to the engineers I was working with at Foxtrot, they are wonderful skilled engineer, but these problems we were working at Netlify because I didn’t understand the problem space in the same way, felt so much more abstract and complicated. And then I’m working with staff level, principal level, like I’m the only mid-level engineer around anywhere. So it kind of reintroduced some of that imposter syndrome that I might have been feeling, but shout out to that team because they never once let me forget that I was absolutely killing it for someone at my level of a career.
[00:32:47] SY: That’s beautiful. So I noted that you called yourself mid-level. How long had you been coding at this point?
[00:32:54] ND: At that point, I joined Netlify nine months into my software engineering career.
[00:32:58] SY: Wow! So you felt like a mid-level developer nine months in. That’s incredible.
[00:33:02] ND: Yeah. I think there’s a wonderful, wonderful benefit that you get when you become a software engineer later in life. Everybody’s like, “I’m 20. Am I too old?” Well, I got my first offer a month before my 40th birthday.
[00:33:15] SY: Wow. Yeah.
[00:33:16] ND: Which meant that I had a whole host of not only world experience, life experience, but also leadership experience, and many of those skills are transferrable. If you understand how to work, you’re not fighting that part as well. So I was able to just really focus on being an engineer and I think being a team lead at my bootcamp, I mean that meant I went through the curriculum, I’d say at least three or four times, in addition to the time that I was enrolled in for free, and I was teaching that. And I was… I’m not encouraging this, I was unhealthy. So I told you what my work days would look like. But then I didn’t tell you that after I would get out of class at 10:00 PM, I would still be in my computer till about 3:00 AM just doing self-study.
[00:34:03] SY: So I want to go back to Cassidy reaching out to the DX position. That ended up not working out, but it must have been so flattering to be recruited. I feel like that’s everyone’s dream to be reached out to and to be thought of for an opportunity. I assume it was largely your social media presence, but what do you think it was about your presence, your skills? Who you were as a person that made Cassidy interested in you?
[00:34:29] ND: You know, I wish I knew the answer to that because you’re right, it did feel like a dream. It felt like a fairy tale. If I had to attribute it to anything, I think it would be just what I spoke to about earlier. Like I understood that I needed to be a community member. I needed to treat others with dignity, with grace, with understanding, and with kindness. And I think that people are always going to be attracted to that. Someone who is genuinely trying to be a part of the community and not just looking to like leech resources off the community. And then it doesn’t help that Cassidy’s a Chicago girl. So we were able to bond over that. So I guess maybe treating her like a whole person instead of someone who could potentially do something for me in the future also helped. But yeah, I don’t know. Let’s call Cassidy.
[00:35:20] SY: Let’s call Cassidy. Let’s bring her in. Let’s find out. I think that it is very admirable that you were able to advocate for yourself. I know you got some help from Dana, kind of encouraging you and supporting you to own where you were in your DX role and that you weren’t happy and you needed a change. But I do think it says a lot about you, that you found your voice, that you stood out for yourself and said, “This isn’t quite working out. I need something different.” Where do you think that strength came from?
[00:35:51] ND: So I had already gone through an incredible life change, leaving a career that, again, it might not be the most lucrative career out there, but I knew that I could go anywhere at any time and get the job that I wanted in retail. I was an industry expert in that field. To walk away from that and then just let myself be directed by the waves of the ocean felt wrong. It felt like a disservice. Like I didn’t go through all of that, not to be in control of my destiny.
[00:36:22] SY: Beautifully put. So you are on the observability team, you’re doing your thing, you’re, you’re getting back to product. You found your happy place. Then what happened next?
[00:36:32] ND: My old boss from Foxtrot reached out.
[00:36:35] SY: Oh, you got recruited again? Look at you! Okay.
[00:36:38] ND: Well, he and I have been talking about my experiences there, and he knew how passionate I was about being able to be impactful. He continued to be a mentor for me. You don’t burn bridges. You don’t leave people in a place where they don’t want to engage with you. So when he had a role on a different team. So I used to work on the consumer-facing app. He had an open role on the retail tech side. So this would be working on the tools that the actual retail employees use to do their job. Now I spent 15 years fighting against tools developed by people who didn’t understand the job that I was doing. So when he described this role to me and I thought about the impact that I could make on everyday people’s lives, it just made sense that I had to go back and try to do what I can. I got so much joy out of that role to get messages from store managers saying, “Hey, after you stop by and talk, I see you made these changes in our application and my day-to-day life is so much easier now.” [00:37:51] SY: Oh, that’s beautiful.
[00:37:52] ND: You can’t beat that.
[00:37:57] SY: Coming up next, hear what Natalie’s taken away from recent layoffs and how she’s grown to be more intentional and selective in what she calls a quiet job search after this.
[00:38:19] SY: So you did mention that you are currently laid off. So how did that happen, if you don’t mind sharing where you are today?
[00:38:26] ND: Sure. Sure. So at Foxtrot, we went through one series of layoffs and I survived that. And then the entire React team on the retail tech side was let go and I did not survive that. But because networking is king, I got laid off officially on Friday and I had another job offer by Monday.
[00:38:50] SY: Wow! Oh my goodness!
[00:38:53] ND: So I joined an early stage startup using different technology than I’d ever used. So they weren’t using React. They were using a framework called SolidJS, which caused me to think about code in a very different way. And I’m very thankful for that. And again, I was the only mid-level at that point in time. And I was doing my best. I was learning, I was growing, I was putting out bug fires left and right, and trying to really just be as impactful as I can when they went through a series of layoffs.
[00:39:27] SY: Oh no!
[00:39:29] ND: Unfortunately, if you weren’t senior, you were automatically reduction in force.
[00:39:36] SY: What has it been like for you emotionally to go through the two layoffs? I know that layoffs are hitting second industry pretty hard and even for people who are not affected by it, they’re scared. They’re emotionally spent and burnt out and kind of always on edge I feel like, of like, “When is it going to happen? Is it going to happen to me? Is it going to happen to my company?” What was it like for you to actually go through that process twice?
[00:40:01] ND: You know, I’m still trying to come to terms with the impact that it’s had on me. I can’t pretend that there isn’t a part of me that’s wondering like, “Why me for it to happen twice?” It feels like a criticism on me, although like I’ve gotten glowing recommendations on my LinkedIn from my last EM, like I was shocked at the developer he described me as, and like intellectually, I understand that this is the environment that we’re in. However, emotionally, I’m questioning myself and I’m trying to fight that, and that’s part of the reason why my job search looks very different now than it did the last layoff or when I was looking for my first job because I understand that I need to fix whatever’s going on with my confidence. In addition to, I had a really tough nine months outside of tech. My father was hospitalized, which eventually led to him living with me. So I was a first time caretaker. A few more hospitalizations, another stroke. I’ve now had to move him into a nursing home.
[00:41:11] SY: Oh, no.
[00:41:11] ND: I’m really, really just trying to get a hold of myself and make sure that I’m pursuing the right opportunity. Like it’s scary. It feels like if you can get a job offer, take that. But I don’t want to put myself in the position to be right back here in six months again. And I know that it’s very little that I can do to control whether or not that happens, but I can control which opportunities I’m pursuing, which conversations I’m having. So I’m launching a very quiet job search. And I can tell you at this point, like I’ve ended more conversations with, “I think you’re looking for someone with X, Y, Z skillset, and I don’t currently have those. I don’t think it makes sense for you to hire me for this role. However, if you’re in the future looking for A, B, and C skillset, you should absolutely reach out to me.” And I think that shows so much growth for me because a year ago, I would’ve looked at those same requirements and understood that I could loosely meet them and then would’ve just been willing to put in the extra eight hours of work a day it took for me to get there. Now I’m really trying to create balance in my life. So I’m looking for that perfect role.
[00:42:23] SY: So in looking for that perfect role is the idea that if you found a role that was a tighter fit, the chances of being laid off as you mentioned six months from now are less likely. Is that what we’re trying to optimize for?
[00:42:39] ND: I don’t think I can control the layoff situation, but I think what I can control is how much of myself I feel I need to pour into my role. So I’m having people who are wanting to have conversations with me about these senior level roles, and I understand that because I think there is a lot about me that presents as senior level. But I also understand where I’m at technically, and I’m honest with myself about that. So in some situations, it might make sense that I join an organization as a senior level, but if you’ve only got two other engineers and you’re looking to add another senior level engineer, I know what you need. You need someone who can own things that I don’t yet have the skill to own, because you don’t just need someone who can build out a component library at that point. You need someone with some DevOps and some really strong system design skills. And I don’t have those yet. And if I put myself in a position where that is the bar for whether or not you’re doing well, I will work myself to death in order to meet that bar. And I don’t want to be in that position. So it’s not that I’m looking for stability. I’m looking for a role that I can feel balanced in, one that challenges me without stretching me to my limit.
[00:44:01] SY: That makes sense. You mentioned that your job search this time is quieter. Why quieter?
[00:44:10] ND: You know, I just feel a lot more quieter in general right now. I’ve been through so much turmoil. I can’t manage six different interviews in a week right now. I just need for everything to slow down a little bit and that means having conversations with different kinds of companies. So I’m not going for big tech. I want to find that small company that’s working on a practical problem that I can just settle down in for a few years and put my head down and really, really up my skill level. So most of the connections I have are connected to the bigger tech companies. And let’s be honest, they’re not hiring right now anyway. And if they are hiring… [00:44:54] SY: Right.
[00:44:54] ND: So for instance, I had a referral from one of the larger tech companies, and I was able to get the interview, but I was one of 3,000 applicants.
[00:45:04] SY: Wow!
[00:45:05] ND: I didn’t get that role.
[00:45:06] SY: Yeah. Geez!
[00:45:10] ND: And I’m not saying that that competition doesn’t exist on a smaller scale with the smaller companies, but I think a smaller company understands that they’re not getting the X Google engineer. I think I make more sense in a role like that.
[00:45:25] SY: Yup. Yup. Yup. I understand. Yup. So what advice do you have for folks who are navigating their first job? They’re maybe fresh out of bootcamp, or they’re wrapping up their self-study program and they’re trying to get that first role. What advice do you have for them?
[00:45:43] ND: It’s hard right now, and it’s hard because it’s hard. It’s not hard for them or because of them. It is hard for everyone right now. You have to have a network. You have to have people who are going to talk you through, what this looks like, who will support you as you try to figure this out. You’re going to have to do something you haven’t done. I’m hoping that the last interview process I went through is going to result in an offer. But if it doesn’t, I know that I’m going to have to approach this job search differently than I have in the past. Can’t just send a tweet out to the network. I’m going to have to buckle down. I’m going to have to send application after application. I’m going to have to live on LeetCode, which I have so many issues with. But I’m going to have to do it. I’m going to have to join the resource groups that are out there, like Brilliant Black Minds. I’ll probably have to start joining the Twitter spaces that happen. I will have to approach this differently. I will have to work harder. And unfortunately, they’re going to have to as well. Like I don’t want anyone to hear me talk about the journey that I went through without understanding that two years ago things were very different.
[00:47:01] SY: One other thing I’d like to touch on before we move into fill in the blanks is your age and how old you were when you first broke into tech. I think you said you were 39, and I feel like so often when we think about starting a new career, we’re thinking about people in their 20s, right? Right out of college or early 20s usually. What was it like for you to break into a brand new industry at 39 not just the fact that it was new, but after having built a career, after having been a leader in that career and moving into something completely different? What was that like for you to kind of start over again?
[00:47:35] ND: It was so exciting.
[00:47:36] SY: Yeah?
[00:47:37] ND: I am almost delusional in my belief in myself and what I can do.
[00:47:43] SY: As you should be. Good for you.
[00:47:43] ND: I was just like, “Wait till tech gets a low to me.” Like, “How are they not going to want me in the room?” But I mean, I was aware that there are these ageisms that exist and there are other isms, sexism, racism, and I’m a 40-plus-year-old black woman. So I’m used to isms. They’re not going to hold me back.
[00:48:08] SY: And did you experience ageism in particular firsthand?
[00:48:12] ND: I have not experienced it. I’m sure that many people have, and I don’t want to belittle their experiences. But I also don’t leave room for it. Like you could try that one if you want to, but why would I be concerned with the opinion of someone who hasn’t lived enough life to understand what it is yet?
[00:48:33] SY: Oh! That’s a good one. Now at the end of every episode, we ask our guests to fill in the blanks of some very important questions. Natalie, are you ready to fill in the blanks?
[00:48:49] ND: I’m ready.
[00:48:50] SY: Number one, worst advice I’ve ever received is?
[00:48:53] ND: This one was hard because I tend to ignore bad advice.
[00:48:56] SY: Good for you. That’s great.
[00:49:14] SY: We don’t like that advice. I don’t like that.
[00:49:15] ND: No. No.
[00:49:18] SY: Number two, best advice I’ve ever… Actually, I’m curious, what did you say in response to that when he said that to you? What’d you do?
[00:49:24] ND: I laughed at him.
[00:49:25] SY: Okay, good. Good answer. Number two, best advice I’ve ever received is?
[00:49:32] ND: No one will ever let you do anything, but they cannot stop you from doing it.
[00:49:37] SY: Oh, interesting. Tell me more about that.
[00:49:39] ND: So this was actually a religious mentor that I had at the time, and we were talking about how. X, Y, and Z doesn’t want to let us have A, B, and C and all of the systems that were put in place to make things more difficult for us. And he simply said, “You are talking about who won’t let you do anything. No one’s ever going to let you do anything in this life.” It’s up to you to decide whether or not you’re going to do it. And if you decide that you’re going to do it and you pursue it, how are they going to stop you?
[00:50:13] SY: I like that a lot. That’s powerful. Number three, my first coding project was about?
[00:50:19] ND: So this one was really hard for me also because I can’t remember like the first one, but the first one that made an impact on me was like a text-based game that I had to make, and I remember it so well because my nemesis in this game was curly brackets because when you can’t find… so no one told me about the extensions that would help me, like the color pair bracket.
[00:50:42] SY: Yeah. Yeah.
[00:50:43] ND: So like I would lose a curly bracket and like there were three hours of my life trying to figure out.
[00:50:47] SY: Oh my goodness! Yup. Yup. Number four, one thing I wish I knew when I first started to code is?
[00:50:55] ND: You will never know it all, but you will become so much more comfortable in not knowing.
[00:51:00] SY: Oh, that’s beautiful. So true. So, so true.
[00:51:02] ND: Yeah.
[00:51:03] SY: And do you feel comfortable now in the things you don’t know?
[00:51:06] ND: I still get frustrated, but it’s no longer a company with that feeling of, “Well, I might as well…” Like I’ll never know that. No, I’ve been here before. I didn’t know. I’ll do my research and then I will know.
[00:51:19] SY: Beautiful. Very well put. Well, thank you so much, Natalie, for joining us.
[00:51:23] ND: Thank you. It was absolute pleasure. Saron, you are iconic. We appreciate you. We love you. We’re so happy you’re here.
[00:51:32] SY: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much for joining us and sharing Incredible, very, very inspiring story of networking and self-advocacy. Thank you so much.
[00:51:41] ND: Thank you.
[00:51:52] SY: You can reach out to us on Twitter at CodeNewbies or send me an email, email@example.com. For more info on the podcast, check out www.codenewbie.org/podcast. Thanks for listening. See you next week.
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