Happy International Women's Day 2020 everyone! Taking another small break from the Career Change Series to tell the stories of the women who have helped and impacted my journey (big or small) to be a professional developer.
The Woman Who Taught Me To Code
Where better to start than with the person who actually taught me to code? Corinna Brock-Moore was my cohort (Go Ninjas!) instructor from Flatiron School, and she was there from beginning to end with relentless support and positivity for each of us. Coding was clearly a lower priority than each of her students, as my personal and many classmates testaments of her 1:1's demonstrated time and time again.
The really impressive part? Halfway through our cohort, tragedy struck and one of her parents passed. We all would have missed her dearly, but wanted what was best for her and wouldn't have blamed her or Flatiron School if she left midway through (many of us reaffirmed it to her in private). But not Corinna. 1 week or so off, and she was right back at it, no excuses and just as relentlessly positive as ever.
Thank you for everything, both practical and inspirational, Corinna.
The Woman Who Has Given Me A Chance
So, after graduating from Flatiron, I had to start networking for my job search. The idea of doing it all online is a terrible one, and at some point, I had to go out and meet people. I live in the Hudson Valley in New York and the coding community here is almost non-existent relative to NYC, North Jersey, and western CT. Almost that is.
I found two events to attend in my local community: a coding club being held in the city library, and a Hackathon called HV Techfest - the first of its kind in the area. Both these events have 1 thing in common: Yulia Ovchinnikova.
Now, I'm not an expert on Yulia's personal life so I have no real substance of any personal struggles she has had. I can however tell you she is a Russian immigrant (complete with those struggles) who learned to code and has done tireless work to bring a strong coding presence into the Hudson Valley. This includes it's first-ever Hackathon, a coding club (constantly growing), the first coding bootcamp in Orange County, NY, a Hudson Valley Entrepreneurs group, a Web Development course in SUNY Ulster, and a Google IT Support class in OUBOCES. That's a ton of activity for one person, and to say she's a big part in turning the tech scene in the Hudson Valley upside down is no exaggeration. Check out Open Hub Project if you want to see some of the things she's working on.
To top it all off, she has done so much for me personally. She's gotten me job interviews, introductions, and gave me my first job in tech as an Assistant Instructor for the above mentioned Google IT Support course.
So thank you Yulia for everything you have done for me, and where I grew up.
However, The MVP Is Beyond Any Doubt...
My wife, Catherine Salazar. Sounds cliche, tacky, and obvious, but hear me out! My wife has one of the most unimaginable journey's especially over the past 2 years or so.
For starters, my wife was enrolled in Flatiron School bootcamp before me, and her experience there helped guide out choices. Watching her build her projects is precisely what inspired me to learn to code, I wanted to do some of that cool shit for myself! Having saw first hand the challenges she went through balancing a new child, full-time work, and studying was what led us to the decision I should leave my job entirely. Despite the stress of her day-to-day life and not ever feeling accomplished enough, this was the easiest part by far.
Next, after we talked about it for a few months and had a solid plan in place, tragedy strikes for the first time that year (2019). I do not want to get into too much personal detail, but we had a miscarriage about 1.5 months before my classes started and I was to leave my job. I talk to and tell my wife I'm willing to postpone everything til later, and she flips out on me like I was giving up. She never lost sight of the big goal.
So, the time comes I leave my job in March 2019, and while we managed some cushion and debt relief in the last few months, we are down to one income. The pressure on my wife at this point is immense, as she is the sole earner, a full-time employee, a full-time student, and a full-time mother & wife. Despite taking over a lot of the household work (I learned to cook in 2019!) the pressure of failing even a little bit at one thing made her feel like a failure at life. The stress and anxiety was building up daily, and it was hard to watch, no matter how I tried to get her to take real-life breaks. Still, she carried herself in a way that merely held me accountable for working as hard as she was, having no job didn't mean I didn't have work to do! I was responsible for excelling at whatever tasks I did have, and that's exactly how we both wanted it. Ok, so typical start to a moving-on-up story.
July 2019, shit went way left for us in a hurry. We discovered a lump in her right breast, and after getting it checked out found it was cancerous. It wasn't long after that she was further diagnosed with clinical stage 4 breast cancer. I mean, how much more shit can be piled on to one person?
So let me give that quick recap of my wife's 2018-2019 to this point:
1) Full-Time student
2) Full-Time graphic designer
3) Full-Time wife/mother
4) Suffered miscarriage in 01/2019
5) Sole income for a family of 3
6) Cancer patient
Taking a moment to add my problems into there:
1) Not working for the first time in my adult life
2) Going through a career change
3) Learning how to take care of my family in other ways than what I had been
4) Being a dependent and feeling like a burden at times
5) As we got the diagnosis, I was just starting the material for our final project at Flatiron School.
That's a lot of pressure weighing down on us. And do you know how she reacted when I suggested postponing school and going back to work somewhere to help? We can't afford any distractions, let's keep moving forward with our plan. Holy shit, I hope every single one of you can find that kind of support in your lives one day. I come to tears every time I think of her courage.
Note: She definitely put her money where her mouth was several times. I was offered multiple opportunities by past bosses recruiting me, and she was the one who shot it all down.
...And then again...
August 2019 after about 2 rounds of chemo, we discover my wife is neutropenic and a "fever" of 99.5 sends her to the hospital. This happened the day before my first final examination, and no matter how hard I tried to study, it wasn't any use. I failed my first attempt at graduation, as I clearly wasn't learning React, but just mimicking it.
We're still not done! She had 16 total rounds of chemo, the first 4 being extremely hard on her (think the drug abbreviation was AC or something). She went through balding, high amounts of nausea, helplessness, neutropenia, two hospitalizations and all the typical things a cancer patient experiences. But the first 4 I specify because they hit the hardest, and something else happened during those treatments.
My wife is an immigrant from the Philippines. She has no family in America except for me and our son. When her Uncle heard of her condition, he explained he was already visiting Texas on missionary work in August & September 2019, and would come to visit her in NY. Awesome, she never had family visit her here and this is just what she needed!
So as he was in the Houston Airport in September 2019, getting ready to board his plane to NYC, they stopped him from boarding. He was clearly sick and not able to fly. He collapsed in the airport and was rushed to the hospital to stabilize him. We were the closest family available (in NY!) and we got the call, and they weren't sure he was going to make it. We flew my neutropenic wife, days removed from her last chemo treatment, and my mother (I didn't go because we both wanted me to pass that second attempt at my final) to Houston the same day. My wife, sick as all hell herself, stayed by his side in the hospital for 3-4 days until she had to come back for her treatments. It was sad at the time they never got to talk because he was in a coma the whole time.
Note: 2019 didn't suck all the way, her Uncle made a miraculous recovery and was back in the Philippines within a month after a rehabilitation stint. Don't think he's 100%, but alive and moving on his own is infinite times better than what we were expecting.
I graduated while she was in Houston! I wish she could have been here for it, but that day was easily a top 3 day ever for me. The sense of accomplishment you feel going through such a trying time is unreal.
November 2019 she receives her genetic testing results and finds she is BRCA II positive. This explains her specific type of cancer (triple-negative higher risk of returning) but saddens her because it means at least a 50% chance our son has this gene. Think of this as a PSA to get your genetics checked for your family's sake. We can't do anything about our son, but get him tested around his 18th birthday.
Unfortunately during this time her coding and graduation was the least important thing. She actually has a complete React/Redux final project ready but is too far removed from being able to handle the live coding exercises.
Still A Story In Progress
We are still going through our journey towards remission and victory, but I'm happy to say outside of the regular day to day emotional journey that it's been almost all good news since then! She finished chemo in January 2020. She received a stage 4 diagnosis for nodules found on her lungs that were too small to biopsy in our area. When we went to a different medical group for the mastectomy, they had the tech to biopsy it.
This was the scariest part of the whole experience. We had the freedom to ignore it before, but if this biopsy in the lungs came back cancer positive we were facing a much scarier prognosis.
It came back clean!
She had her double mastectomy and is currently recovering from that, and the future looks bright as hell.
There are countless other struggles and details omitted from this version of her story. A simple "thank you" doesn't cover this woman's strength. Through everything, she never lost sight of what was most important to her, and even managed to be my pillar of strength when my confidence in the job search waivered.
Thank you and I love you so much, baby.
International Women's Day isn't just about tech-centric women, so I want to give a shout out to my mom and sister who's support with both my wife and son have been invaluable. Even if they struggled at times to relate to the life choices my wife and I made through this entire saga.
Thank you Mom and Deanna.
And lastly, shout out to my career coach Diane Fernandez. Apparently I took for granted how good a career coach she has been until I heard my cohort mates complaining about all of their coaches. She's been a rock and an awesome resource through this entire second phase of my career transition.
So thank you to Diane.
One of the biggest surprises (mainly because I didn't research the demographics before my career transition began) was how few women are actually employed in tech. This was amplified by the fact that everywhere a tech newbie looks (social media, my bootcamp Flatiron School, and lots of other places) it seems women have a massive presence. Add to the fact women were front and center (not supporting characters next to men) in my personal coding journey, that these numbers still blow my mind. But the numbers don't lie, they are underrepresented, and the platform/presence each one has carved out for themselves is a testament to their strength and ability to overcome challenges.
Happy International Women's Day.