From Security Guard to Backend Engineer — How the I/Own It Scholarship Changed My Life

I’m Briceida, a software engineer at Optimizely. I was born in Panama and moved to the United States when I was 11 years old, and I was a 2017 I/Own It Scholarship recipient. I went from working night shifts as a security guard to being an application backend software engineer in a few whirlwind years. I want to share my experiences as an I/Own It Scholarship recipient; I hope you find them useful if you’re thinking about applying to the I/Own It Scholarship program.

Two years ago, I was working graveyard shifts as a security guard in Bellevue, WA. I spent my nights patrolling buildings and checking doors. This was one of the most discouraging points in my life. I had graduated with an Anthropology degree a few years prior and I felt lost. I wanted a real career. A career that would challenge me on a daily basis, allow me to make a comfortable living, and provide me with future growth opportunities. I loved Anthropology, but I knew my vision wasn’t feasible with that degree. I knew I needed to make a change, but I had no idea what that change was. I was unsure of what to do next.

Then, a friend encouraged me to look into programming as a career. He said it was a career where you could make your own path. A career where your degree didn’t matter, only what you could do. Where if you worked harder, you would move faster. It took a few months of convincing but, in October of 2016, I gave it a try.

I started with CodeAcademy, freeCodeCamp and a few Python courses on Coursera, and I have to say, learning how to code was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I remember being really frustrated when I couldn’t grasp how for-loops worked and crying when I couldn’t get a React component to render. But, after a few months of self-study, something clicked and I fell in love with coding. Soon it became something I did every day but it wasn’t easy. I still felt stupid when I couldn’t work out a solution to a problem or when I couldn’t grasp some new abstract concept. But, I enjoyed the fact that I could make something work. Being able to create something out of nothing is fulfilling at a fundamental level. I was hooked.

It can be hard to make continued progress on your own so eventually I started researching coding bootcamps in the Bay Area. Adding some structure and working with other students seemed like it would help me get to a professional level. I decided to apply to Hack Reactor because of their intense and focused curriculum.

While I was applying to Hack Reactor, I noticed that Optimizely was offering the I/Own It Scholarship, which is aimed at bringing people from underrepresented groups into the software industry. After doing some research I decided to apply, which wound up being one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life! Optimizely is an awesome company, and unlike other scholarship programs, the I/Own It Scholarship program offers very real support for new programmers through mentorship and a paid internship. The process was quick and painless. I applied online and I was contacted by an Optimizely recruiter within a week. I was interviewed by a few of their employees who were themselves Hack Reactor grads. My interviewers wanted to know how passionate I was about programming and how I embodied OPTIFY, Optimizely’s company values: Ownership, Passion, Trust, Integrity, Fearlessness, and transparencY.

Two weeks later, I received a call from one of the recruiters informing me that I was an I/Own It Scholarship winner. I was elated! Soon after, I was put in contact with my onboarding mentor, Lauren Pappone. Lauren is a Senior Software Engineer with years of experience who had also graduated from Hack Reactor just a few years prior. Lauren was always there to offer advice and assistance during my three month journey at Hack Reactor. While I still was at Hack Reactor, I once asked Lauren what I needed to learn to succeed at my internship at Optimizely and she offered this advice:

At Hack Reactor I’d recommend you just soak up as much as you can and follow what interests you, rather than trying to tailor your experience to Optimizely. Being an engineer involves always learning the new technologies, so what’s important isn’t what you know when you start — it’s how well you can learn and apply new concepts. You’ll have plenty of time to learn the specifics of how we work once you get here!

Hack Reactor was grueling and intense but worth the effort because it dramatically improved my programming ability. It introduced me to new tools and concepts (like ORMs, TDD, Docker, and SQL) and exposed me to algorithms and data structures which later helped me during my internship. It showed me where I was missing concepts, helped to provide some structure to concepts that I had only partially understood, and gave me some really interesting projects to work on. More than anything, struggling through these concepts surrounded by other smart, dedicated, and equally stumped peers made me a lot more confident. I wasn’t bad at programming just because I didn’t pick up a concept the first time I read it, it just turns out that programming is kinda hard.

Three days after graduating from Hack Reactor I started my internship at Optimizely. On my first day, I met the App Backend team and my new mentor Vinay Tota. The App Backend team works on building and maintaining the main Optimizely application’s backend which is written in Python.

2018 I/Own It Scholarship interns and our mentors enjoying ramen during a ramen making class at The Story of Ramen.

During my internship, I worked on a few App Backend projects. My main intern project was implementing a couple of endpoints to allow the App Backend team to service data access requests and data deletion for GDPR. I also worked on other GDPR-related tasks that involved using Boto3 to migrate and upload customer data. Vinay was always patient, supportive and knowledgeable. He was a great mentor and I still thank him for always being so kind and encouraging. Vinay was always there to answer my questions and, what was super important to me as a beginner, he never made me feel dumb. Vinay always explained abstract concepts in a language that I could understand (no big words that were alien to me), he drew out diagrams to make things clearer, and provided code reviews that aimed to improve my code quality and emphasized software reliability. During my internship I had one-on-ones with my manager, Neha Singla. In these one-on-ones, Neha talked about her experiences as a software engineer and offered me advice on how to succeed in this career.

After three months my internship came to an end but it was so rewarding. I had learned so much! I learned how to implement things I had only heard of. I was so happy with my experience as an intern that I accepted a job offer from Optimizely soon after my internship ended. I’ve been a full-time software engineer since April 2018 and I couldn’t be happier. I still have a lot to learn but the people around me have always been supportive and kind. No one has ever made me feel dumb or out of place and they always take the time to answer my questions. Finding a workplace environment where everyone is knowledgeable and kind is tough but the engineers at Optimizely have been amazing. This a great place to be if you’re a new software engineer from a non-conventional background.

Briceida Mariscal and Alan Sun at an SF Python event hosted by Optimizely. Image credit: Adam Panzer

Just two years ago I was bored and unhappy working as a security guard and uncertain about my future. Now I have a good job where I solve interesting problems every day; where I’m intellectually stimulated and I’m always learning something new. I knew what I wanted to do with my life, but I was trapped by my circumstances. Optimizely and the I/Own It Scholarship program gave me the support and guidance I needed to change my life and to grow as an engineer.

If you’re interested in applying to the I/Own It Scholarship program to kickstart your career, you can find more information about the program and how to apply here.