Techies: Wendy Zenone
Wendy Zenone on her path from aesthetician to developer.
Original Interview: http://www.techiesproject.com/wendy-zenone/
Tell me a bit about your early years and where you come from.
I grew up in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I have three sisters. I come from very old-fashioned Italian background. I wasn’t encouraged to do a lot in terms of career. It’s kind of the mindset that you get married, you have kids, you stay home or get a small job, but your husband has the main job role. That’s what you do.
I ended up going down a path that wasn’t necessarily… I guess the word I’m looking for is fulfilling. I got married at twenty-three, had my son at twenty-five, and became an aesthetician. Though I was grateful for my job, it was not stimulating, and financially, it was not fulfilling. I wanted to also be an inspiration for my son. How could I tell him to do all these things, like learn how to code and that tech was the future, when I wasn’t going down that path myself?
“I got married at twenty-three, had my son at twenty-five, and became an aesthetician. Though I was grateful for my job, it was not stimulating, and financially, it was not fulfilling. I wanted to also be an inspiration for my son. How could I tell him to do all these things, like learn how to code and that tech was the future, when I wasn’t going down that path myself?”
One day, I re-applied to college. I majored in Communications, since I knew I was good at that, even though I knew I wanted to do so much more. I started taking classes through the University of Massachusetts. I did all my classes online, and after I accumulated enough credits, I was accepted into the bachelor program. I looked at the program and realized this would take me years to complete. As a mother in her mid-thirties, I didn’t have the luxury of time that someone in their early twenties may have. I needed to figure out a different path. I started looking into internships, and found an internship with a PR company. The woman who hired me was named Xinea. Through her, I was exposed to tech startups and Bitcoin. I worked with her for a few months, and then I got a call from Facebook. I interviewed, but did not expect to actually get the job offer. Surprisingly, they offered me a position with the Ads department. It just seemed like everything I was aiming for just kept happening — which, I don’t how that happened, but it worked out.
At Facebook, I worked on a tool that enables you to customize what kind of ads come into your feed. While I was there I took advantage of many of the programs they offered to their employees: They offered some free coding programs, like a PHP coding program for just women. It was my first experience even using the command line. I didn’t even know what Terminal was, let alone PHP or Python. Being able to see that you can manipulate or create tools using these languages was just very exciting. I eventually looked into different coding boot camps. I looked into Hackbright, an all-coding female boot camp. I attempted to start my application, and then I stopped; I saw the acceptance rate was about four percent. Because I thought, ‘’I’m a parent, I’m a wife, I’m in my thirties. I have no business doing this. I don’t know anything technical to be able to say that I want to be a software engineer.” I put that on hold for about a year. I started looking outside of Facebook for jobs, because I was really interested in engineering, but also more of the security aspect of it. I found a job with WhiteHat Security; the position was in marketing, which is fine.
I still felt like there was a part of the tech world that I wanted to be in, but I didn’t feel that I had that traditional background to get there. I didn’t go to a major big-name school; I didn’t have a computer science degree; I was in my later thirties; and I had children. It just seemed like everything that was supposed to have already happened, I missed out on. I talked to my husband, who was very supportive. He’s a self-taught security professional and one of the most intelligent people I know. He helped when I felt like giving up. He encouraged me to apply for Hackbright. He kept me going.
“I attempted to start my application, and then I stopped; I saw the acceptance rate was about four percent. Because I thought, ‘’I’m a parent, I’m a wife, I’m in my thirties. I have no business doing this. I don’t know anything technical to be able to say that I want to be a software engineer.’”
Initially, I did not get in. I received a email that said I was not accepted and to try again in six months. I just felt that if I lost this opportunity, I would lose it forever. This was my moment. I wrote them an email and I said, “I was so nervous on my interview, I did not represent myself in a way that truly conveyed who I am. Please give me another chance.” They wrote me back, and they said, “We have never allowed anyone to re-do an interview. But your email was so encouraging that we are going to allow you to interview again.”
My second interview was much better and I was accepted! Once I started my cohort, I still felt a little bit like a fish out of water, but it was understanding the technology and understanding what it is that they teach women that don’t know anything about software development. You can come in to Hackbright with a background in tech, or you can come in knowing nothing. That’s basically where I came in, I was starting from the ground up.
After I graduated, I went through many interviews. I was going through multiple software engineering position interviews, but I still felt that I wanted to to pursue security. I found an opening at Lending Club and it was through a network of people I knew. They offered me a position on the Application Security team. Now, two weeks into it, I am an Application Security Engineer. I was an aesthetician [laughs]. It’s so random and exciting.
Tell me more about the challenges of getting to this point — like you commuted four hours a day. What were some of the challenges of this experience, and the hardships that you had to overcome?
I had mentioned before that when I first started becoming interested in learning how to code, I had a very limited technical background. I was not a IT or Comp. Sci major that decided, “Oh, I think I want to be a software engineer.” I started asking some of the engineers at Facebook about how I can learn how to code and what is it like to have that job. The one engineer who would sit next to me was very encouraging. He would say, “It takes a lot of practice” and offer to show me how he fixes bugs in the code. Not everyone is that encouraging or helpful unfortunately.
We had an event at Facebook, and it was an Ads event to teach people in other departments what the Ads team does. The event had a Game of Thrones theme, which I was very excited about. I remember talking to someone from another team. I wanted to ask about the code but was slightly intimidated since I was very new to the world of code. So I got the courage and I said, “So what code does this code run on?” And there was a female engineer there and she turned to me and she just laughed in my face. She just laughed at me because I wasn’t part of that group, I was not an engineer, and obviously a noob. At that moment, I realized that high school was never over.
“I remember talking to someone from another team. I wanted to ask about the code but was slightly intimidated since I was very new to the world of code. So I got the courage and I said, ‘So what code does this code run on?’ And there was a female engineer there and she turned to me and she just laughed in my face. She just laughed at me because I wasn’t part of that group, I was not an engineer, and obviously a noob. At that moment, I realized that high school was never over.”
Aside from my own personal challenges, I also had the challenge of maintaining my family life as well. I knew that once I started my four hour a day commute, it would be a difficult to find someone to pick up my son from the school bus. I have two other step-children, so there’s three kids altogether that need to be cared for. Fortunately, between my husband and family — and sometimes I would even have to leave class and do pick up — we worked it out. I would get home at 8:00 or 8:30. The kids go to bed at 9:30. I wouldn’t see them very much, but fortunately they were all understanding. It was hard to feel so out of touch with my family but I felt it was important to do this for myself — and also for the kids. They need to see the importance of not giving up and hopefully the importance of learning how to code.
What are some of the most exciting things to you of working in tech and coding? What part of the work really activates you?
My first week at my new job, we all had a one-week bootcamp to get us to understand how the technology department operates. We went over everything from setting up dev environments to database schemas. I was in these classes with people who went to big colleges or had years of experiences or master degrees in computer science. Seeing that I was able to contribute to the conversations — and even knew about some topics that maybe some of them didn’t — felt really good. It reminded me that I had made the right choice to quit my job and take that chance. Understanding technology and knowing a coding language really gives you magic powers. It’s like being Harry Potter. You have a power that not many people do. And I think for me, I feel more excited about it because it was something that three years ago I wouldn’t have been able to say that I would be able to do this. It’s all still very surreal.
“Understanding technology and knowing a coding language really gives you magic powers. It’s like being Harry Potter. You have a power that not many people do.”
What are the biggest motivators behind your work?
My husband first, then the kids. My husband is very encouraging to me and that in turn motivates me. I want him to see that I can go from knowing so little, to having tech-related conversations without any issue. Tech is his world and I want to join him and be part of it. Steve would be proud of anything I do, but it makes me happy that I am joining him in “The Matrix.”
We tell the kids that coding is very important to learn. I feel it’s important for the future for people to understand how to code and being in tune with technology. We sent the kids to coding classes. I wanted them to see me making that effort to learn the topic that we preach about so often.
Lastly, I am motivated by becoming an inspiration for someone else who is in a similar situation. I started taking phone calls for people that are interested in Hackbright or another coding bootcamp, people who maybe aren’t sure about the commitment. I actually just got an email today from one young lady who said, “I really appreciate that you encouraged me and told me the benefits of going down this path. I was just accepted to Hackbright!” You get to the point when you’re older that you realize there are things that, if you want to do them you’re going to have to sacrifice. I didn’t want to take no for an answer. I didn’t want to say my time is up. I wanted to be part of the Harry Potter group and know the magic.
Where have you found support networks along the way? Obviously your family, but have you found them in the industry as well?
I found most of my support through co-workers in the security industry. I had some mentors, and they’re all men, which I love, because I feel that a lot of women want to be in the industry: They want to be software engineers, they want to be QA testers, they want to be in security, but the ratio is more men. I’m the only female on my team right now, which could make people uncomfortable. I am very comfortable with it and I don’t even think about the ratio. Maybe others don’t feel that they have that support, but I actually feel that I have had a lot of support.
How do your family and friends from your past feel about how much your life has changed and all the work that you’ve done?
I have a coworker, Katie, that still can’t believe that I’ve made it to this point, because she said — her and I, we took a Python class together at Facebook — “I can’t believe it. You said you wanted to do this and here you are and you’re working. You’re an engineer.” She gave up on learning Python. It wasn’t for her, but it was nice of her to congratulate and be supportive. Honestly, I don’t know if my family quite grasps what it is that I do. I think they get it, but not really. They are extremely supportive in knowing that I wanted to do something and achieved it, but I am not sure they understand the job.
How do you think the culmination of your background and your life experiences impact the way you approach your work as an engineer?
Starting my first tech job made me feel like a fish out of water. I felt like I knew nothing. So to survive one day at a time I used my experience in marketing, PR, just working with people in general. This is a huge asset to have. If I came straight from just a tech background, you know I went for a tech major and maybe I didn’t have that interpersonal skills, it wouldn’t make it as easy for me to just go up to someone and say, “I’m not really getting this, but, with your help I may.” I feel that my communication skills have come into play and I feel it is something that can really help the team when working with other teams and developers.
As far as 2016 goals, what little things are you working on right now, either for work or for yourself? Like what are the things you want to accomplish this year?
2016 goals are learn as much as I can about being an applications security engineer. Understanding the vulnerabilities, understanding how to secure code and understanding all the acronyms that I hear during the day. It’s all new to me. Lending Club gave me an opportunity to learn, and I’m going to run with that. I want to still practice everything I learned at Hackbright because that was the golden ticket that got me in. I also would like to continue to help other women that are in the same place that I was in. I had moments of serious doubt and I can’t believe I thought about not taking this chance. If I could help sway more women to trust in themselves and just go for it, that would be wonderful.
From kind of a high level, how do you feel about the state of technology in 2016? What really excites you, and what would you like to see change?
That’s a good question. I am very impressed with the way that technology is progressing. I like the ideas. I like that there’s always something new. It’s hard to keep up, I have to say. You think you have found the best tool to help with a current project, and then something new and more advanced comes out. I really enjoy that and love seeing the speed of progression. The amount of intelligence out there right now, even just in Silicon Valley is huge. I work with so many insanely intelligent people which has me very excited about the future and what is to come.
As far as what I would like to see change, right now, and it has been for the last couple years when I’ve been working, my goal has been to get into security. Rewind a little bit, when I was at Facebook, I knew I wanted to get into security. I had no idea how to do it. This is before even seriously considering Hackbright. I went to Jen Henley, who is the director of security operations at Facebook, and she sat down with me and just kind of gave me a guide on what to do to get into security. I started volunteering with their security awareness events, and then I went to work for WhiteHat Security. My husband is in security, and so by osmosis, I learned to love it. I think that it is an area of technology that is overseen. People are looking for the next best company, the next best app, but they’re not looking at the dangers that are involved in it. They are not taking the time to understand all the possible vulnerabilities and how they can be exploited. All of our lives are on technology. Everything important to you in online, your information, your personal lives, your photos, your family, and if someone’s not out there protecting that then all is lost.
What advice would you give to folks who are feeling like they have similar backgrounds to yours? Maybe they feel like their ship has sailed, they’ve had kids, they are in their thirties, they feel like that there’s no way that they could get into tech now, but they would love to. What advice would you have for those folks?
My advice is, time is going to pass anyway. Someone told me this a couple years ago and it resonated with me. It’s true. Time is going to pass anyway, and you don’t want to go down the road and think, “You know, I wish I did x, y, z.” For me, I went to a start-up convention and I just looked around and saw these people making these exciting new tech tools to improve our everyday life and I just thought, I need to know this, I want to be part of this.
If someone is working in a position and they’re unfulfilled or dream of changing positions and making a career change, and they think, “I’m too old or I have kids, I can’t do it,” then my advice is that time is going to pass regardless, and you don’t want to regret it not taking that chance. You only have one life.
You could go down it by going through a boot camp. You could look at CodeAcademy or, just take a Girl Develop It class for beginners. Start somewhere and I promise the momentum will take you the rest of the way. I took some online courses and GDI classes before I went to Hackbright. Just getting that little bit of experience is enough to drive you to continue on and finish the journey. I went from what I was doing — aesthetician work at ten dollars an hour a couple days a week — to a great job as an Associate Application Security Engineer. It was not an easy journey. I got denied a lot. I interviewed a lot, I got turned down a lot. My path was not paved with open doors. I faced a lot of disappointment in all phases of my journey. It worked out, and I would say don’t get discouraged. Just keep going, because it’ll happen.