From Professional Soccer Player to Silicon Valley Software Engineer: Here’s My Story
2 million to 4 million. That’s how much the tech industry in the United States has grown in the past two decades. That’s 2x growth. That’s huge, and there is no sign of it slowing down anytime soon. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) biennial report, employment in the tech industry is projected to grow 12% between now until 2024, faster than the average for all other US occupations. This “Tech Boom” has motivated many people to reflect on their chosen career path, and wonder…
“Did I make the right choice?”
Every other week, there seems to be a new “hot” startup or another tech behemoth on the verge of an IPO, so it’s not far-fetched to at least entertain the thought of making the move into tech. But what people don’t know is that making this transition is not for the faint of heart. For those who are willing to take a risk, work hard, and go after their dreams, this industry might be exactly what they’re looking for. This is my personal story of how I traded in my cleats as a professional soccer player for a shot as a software engineer in the heart of Silicon Valley.
“To remember where you come from is part of where you’re going.” — Anthony Burgess
I had a unique childhood growing up in a biracial family in Pittsburgh, PA. Being raised by a German-American mother and African-American father who were both civil rights attorneys, the seeds of social justice and diversity were planted in me at an early age. My father, the strongest and most fearless man I have ever known, passed away when I was only 17 years old. I promised myself I would keep his legacy alive throughout my life and make him proud through my own determination to reach my goals and never give up.
“I learned all about life with a ball at my feet.” — Ronaldinho
My first true love was el joga bonito. (For all the non-futbolistas/os, I’m referring to the greatest sport in the world: soccer!) If I wasn’t playing soccer, I was dreaming about it; impatiently awaiting the next time I could swerve, shoot and score! But I wasn’t the only one; the sport was a family affair. Both of my parents were youth soccer coaches, and my two older sisters also played competitively. Throughout my childhood in Pittsburgh, we were infamously known as “The Soccer Family.”
I had been training since the age of four, and after 13 years of hard work, it all paid off. While in high school, I broke the city record three times for most goals scored in a season and was offered an athletic scholarship to Boston University. While earning my bachelor’s degree in International Relations, I was voted conference Midfielder of the Year twice, NSCAA All-American, and Fan’s Choice Player of the Year.
After graduating cum laude from BU, I opted out of the 9–5 office life to pursue my dream of playing professional soccer.
My professional soccer career took me all over the world, spanning four countries, five teams, and 100+ games. My biggest achievement was participating in the Women’s UEFA Champions League (soccer fans will know that is a pretty big deal!). But let’s be real too: pursuing a career as a women’s professional soccer player is not the easiest, nor the most lucrative profession (women soccer players earn as little as 40% of their male counterparts).
“Every end is a new beginning.” — Marianne Williamson
Have you ever dedicated yourself to something for 21 straight years…and then walked away? It’s a heartbreaking experience— walking away from something you love so much. It’s also extremely terrifying — wondering, Will I ever find anything better?
Well, after earning a Master’s Degree in Education at Durham University in England (while coaching and playing on their women’s soccer team), I finally came to that point: I decided to retire from professional soccer. I was only 25 years-old at the time, and some could say I still had my whole life ahead of me, but it’s all relative, right? Up to that point, playing soccer is all I’d ever known (and been known for), so thinking about doing something else with my life was a difficult thing to consider.
So I didn’t go too far. After my last year in Europe, I returned to the United States to be a full-time coach for the Sacramento State University Women’s Soccer Team.
The two years I spent at Sac State were filled with inspiring moments, as I enjoyed coaching and mentoring other young woman student-athletes. But there was still something missing for me. I wanted more; I wanted a new goal to pursue, a new passion to build on.
“The convenient path is rarely the most rewarding.”
At BU, I minored in Environmental Analysis and Policy, so I decided to enter the public sector for the California state government, thinking it would give me an opportunity to utilize my degree and make a positive impact on society. However, going from a sports environment that thrives on hard work and competition to a highly-bureaucratic, slow-paced workplace was a challenging adjustment.
In my eyes, staying with the state government for the next 25+ years meant earning a stable paycheck, but having a predictable, less interesting schedule. The one thing many of my colleagues seemed to be motivated by was the pension system and having a secure retirement. It worked great for a lot of people, but it just wasn’t the life I wanted. I wanted a career that was dynamic, intellectually-fulfilling, impactful on society, and would allow me to be more financially-independent.
“Opportunity is missed by most people because it’s dressed in overalls and looks like work.” — Thomas A. Edison
During my time working for the state government, my sister approached me with the opportunity to launch a website with her. A former school teacher, my sister shared with me on multiple occasions how making a career switch into the tech industry had changed her life for the better. Good for her, I would think to myself. She was clearly trying to help me see the light, but as the highly-competitive, stubborn younger sister, I wanted to figure everything out on my own and find my unique path to success.
So I learned the hard way. It took me nearly a year working for the government to eventually see the light. Finally I listened to her and was ready to take advantage of the opportunity. For five months, while still working my full-time job, I devoted my nights and weekends to helping my sister launch The Startup Couch.
Launching a website exposed me to a whole new world of computer programming, and I loved every second of it! With no prior experience in web development, I was learning on the fly and immersing myself in a dynamic project that was solely driven on where we wanted to take it. The ability to problem-solve and be creative reminded me of the excitement and enthusiasm I had when I was out on that soccer pitch, playing and coaching.
I enjoyed programming so much that within a matter of months, I decided that I wanted to pursue it as a career and fast-track my way into the tech industry.
“The biggest adventure you can take is to live the life of your dreams.” — Oprah Winfrey
Immediately, I started to take online programming classes and researching coding bootcamps I could potentially attend. I was interested in both Hackbright Academy, a highly selective immersive fellowship for women, and Telegraph Academy, a bootcamp focused on helping people from underrepresented groups launch careers in engineering. Before I had finished the application process with Telegraph Academy, I was accepted into Hackbright’s Winter 2016 cohort and only had a couple of weeks to make a decision. I decided to accept the offer.
The truth is, I knew that going to a coding bootcamp would be taking a huge risk: afterall, there are no guarantees of getting a job. Add the fact that I had to quit my full-time role with the government, end the lease on my apartment, pull out another loan, and move in temporarily with family members in just 2 weeks — it was nuts!
It’s totally normal to be frightened by such a situation. There’s so many risks and so much uncertainty involved; it would be easy to accept the “I’ll do it later” or “It’s too hard” excuses. Fortunately for me, though, I had the encouragement of loved ones who helped me break through my limiting beliefs. After some coaching and personal reflection, I decided that life is too short to make decisions based on the things that I fear. Plus, based on my track record, I realized that I wasn’t a stranger to embarking on a new adventure or tackling a new challenge. So I decided to take the leap!
“Allow yourself to be a beginner. No one starts off being excellent.” ― Wendy Flynn
The three months I was immersed in the Hackbright program was a whirlwind. I was told that it would be intellectually challenging and intensive, and yes it was that, but so much more. The first six weeks of the fellowship were geared to the technical curriculum, where every day our cohort of 35 aspiring women engineers was split between lectures and pair programming.
Have you ever been in a situation where you were learning so much so quickly that your brain felt like it was going to explode? Well yeah, that’s basically how I felt trying to learn 2+ technologies every day and having to communicate every single painstaking detail of my thought process during pair programming. It was exhilarausting! (Yes, I just combined exhilarating and exhausting to make a new word).
In the second half of the fellowship, we were tasked with creating a solo web application project and continued learning computer science fundamentals in lectures, while taking field trips to different tech companies in the Bay Area (e.g. GoDaddy, Twilio, NCC Group). Our solo project culminated at Career Day, where we had the opportunity to present our project to over 20 Bay Area tech companies.
The final two weeks of the program were dedicated to career services, which focused on helping us prepare for the job search, technical interviewing and employment. Several companies, including Github, Pixlee, Uber, and Gusto, also hosted our cohort in the evenings and helped us gain hands-on experience practicing technical interviewing.
Also during the fellowship, we were each assigned three mentors currently working in the tech industry. My mentors were from Lanetix, Ellie Mae, and Earnest. This was one of my favorite aspects of the program and perhaps one that sets Hackbright apart from other bootcamps. Speaking with my mentors on a weekly basis gave me great ideas for my project and offered me a more personal perspective on what it’s really like to be software engineer. One of the best pieces of advice they gave me was this:
“Make sure to find a company that is willing to make an investment in you. Choose an opportunity based on the people you will be working for and if they are going to be great mentors for your development.”
“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, What are you doing for others?” — Martin Luther King, Jr.
I am an underrepresented person in tech on two fronts: I am a woman and I am African-American. When it came time to think about which companies I’d want to work for after graduating from the Hackbright program, the first question I asked myself was: Which companies are welcoming to people like me?
When I started searching for this information, it wasn’t easy to find. Most of it was scattered across the internet in various articles, websites, and social media groups. It was then that I realized what my culminating project at Hackbright would be: a central place where job seekers could see how tech companies stacked up according to diversity.
In four weeks, I developed a full stack web application that highlights the diversity of the workforce within tech companies in the United States. It’s called Diversitech.io
Diversitech.io analyzes and visually displays tech companies’ publicly-reported diversity data and allows users to write anonymous reviews on companies they have worked for. Some people refer to it as “The Glassdoor for Diversity.”
It also displays the most recent news related to a particular company’s diversity efforts and implements custom algorithms to rank the top tech companies according to their gender and ethnic diversity numbers.
Here are some of the main features:
Search for a tech company…
See gender and ethnicity data, reviews, and diversity news for a company…
View the Top 10 Tech Company Diversity Rankings…
The tech companies displayed on Diversitech.io are companies that have publicly reported their data — on their website, in a blog post, or in some form of company documentation.
Information is power, and Diversitech.io makes diversity data across different tech companies more accessible. By comparing a tech company’s data to the gender and ethnic makeup of overall U.S. population, I hope this app will help advance the conversation around diversity in the tech industry and encourage all companies to publicly report their data and set goals to make their workforce as inclusive as possible.
“I will prepare and someday my chance will come.” — Abraham Lincoln
It’s been exactly 12 days since I graduated from my Hackbright fellowship, and I can truly say that the program was a great choice and life-changing experience. I was able to gain a network of amazing friends and mentors, who all share the same passion for software development, and I acquired the foundational knowledge needed to excel at deploying new technologies. And the best part of all? I’m just getting started!
I am currently on the job market and looking for an opportunity as a software engineer at a company that is inclusive and using technology to make the world a better place. For me, software engineering is empowering, dynamic, creative, and intellectually fulfilling. It challenges me to learn new things and be a better version of myself every day. I look forward to being a part of a tech company that shares my mission and values, and if you know of any opportunities that may be a great fit, please send them my way!
“I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.” — Eric Roth
For those out there considering making the jump into tech, but who are fearful of the risks involved, I hope this post has helped you see that it’s not too late to try. No matter what role you may be in right now, there are many programs that help people from other professions acquire the skills and network needed to access a career in tech.
Do not let your fear of being a beginner prevent you from getting started. Muster up the courage to get off the fence of indecision and give yourself a chance to go after what you really want.
The opportunity is ripe and the time is now.