Episode 51 – Saron Yitbarek
Founder of Code Newbie
Program Manager at Microsoft
Tell me your story of how you got into tech.
Yeah, sure. When I graduated from undergrad, I got a double degree in English and Psychology. My first job out was working on NPR on the show called ‘Tell Me More’ with Michel Martin. From there, I came to New York City to work at Discover Magazine. In that time, I was pretty set on being a journalist but I happened to read the book ‘Steve Jobs,’ which came out a little while ago, or it came out around then. When I read that book, that was the first time I was introduced to technology in a way that spoke to me. Steve Jobs was this figure who wasn’t very nice, but he didn’t have a computer science background, he didn’t have a computer engineering degree, and he focused on the design, and the people, and the emotions, and the experiences. In journalism, those are things I can relate to.
I thought, maybe there is a place for me in this tech world. I started reading a bunch of other books. A bunch of blogs did a lot of research and made a list of tech startups I might want to work for. I called and emailed a bunch of CEOs, had coffee with a few of them. One of those coffees turned into an internship. 2 weeks into the internship; it transformed into a job. That was five years ago, at this point. I worked in tech start-ups in nontechnical roles for a couple of years, but I always felt very limited by what I could do and what I could contribute because I didn’t know products, I didn’t know what code was, I didn’t know how any of that worked.
Almost three years ago now, I decided to quit my job and learned to code on my own. I used online resources. Treehouse, Code School, CodeAcademy, all that stuff. I decided to apply to the Flatiron School. I got accepted, and that started my developer career.
What happened after Flatiron School? Did you adapt immediately?
The boot camp thing is interesting. We had a science fair, where they invited 100-150 different employers to come and check out the students and look at our work. We each had a little booth and a table and demoed our app. I think I was the only person who only had 1 app to demo. I think everyone else had at least 2. A couple of individuals had up to 4. I only had 1. I put a lot of thought and energy into that one app. Made it very professional looking. Spent a lot of time on it. It’s very exciting. I did that because I knew that when I met employers, we would only have a couple of minutes to talk anyway, and I wouldn’t be able to get to all the other apps that I could have done. I really wanted to focus on the one app. That paid off. People were impressed and excited about the fact that I did all custom coding, and I didn’t use bootstrap, foundation or any of those products. The fact that I talked a lot about the user experience and kind of a lot of things I figured my peers would not have focused on.
From that science fair, I ended up getting 6 or 7 job interviews. One of them emailed me a couple of hours after the science fair asking for an interview. One of those interviews was with the New York Tech Meetup, which in New York City is the largest meetup organization in the world. They have about 50,000 members at this point. That was a 7-month Hackers In Residence Program, where the school chose one of their students and me to work on their app and build out their platform. I got a job … I think my first day was 2 or 3 weeks after the program ended. It worked out well for me.
Were you the only person of color? How did they make you feel on being a person of color in either the boot camp or working at the tech companies you did?
I wasn’t the only person of color. I was one of the few, maybe 4 out of 45. Underrepresented, per usual. Regarding how it made me feel, I noticed it. I saw it when I walked in. I was very surprised because I expected a little more diversity. It threw me off. I feel very very lucky that my cohort was incredibly kind and warm. I was never made to feel a particular way because of it. It was just more of me being aware of it, as a person of color.
Frankly, I was used to it. I’m the only person of color and the only woman at most meetings and most rooms. Except now. Now’s a little bit different now that I’m a Program Manager, there’s a lot more women that I work with. As a Developer on engineering teams, and going to speaking events and conferences, that’s the norm. So for me, any time it’ not that, it’s a treat. But that’s kind of what I expect.
How did you get into the Program Management role in Microsoft, from being a Hacker in Residence?
There’s a couple of step in between that might clarify. When I finished with the Hacker In Residence Program, it was like I said, one other developer and me. We both just graduated. We had no idea what we were doing. During that program, I learned a lot, but I learned mostly from being wrong. We did things wrong ten times before we ever got them close to being right. I felt like after that, I could have gotten a regular developer position, but I wanted to be in a place of learning. I wanted to perfect my craft. I set up my internship program, which is a 3-month program. I applied there, I got accepted, and that was really huge in me being a better developer.
Back to the Flatiron School, when I was there, what I noticed, or what I valued the most, was just the community. The teachers were great, the curriculum was excellent, but what I got out of it was the community. It was so different from coding alone, where it’s just you and the internet. You and a computer, and the computer are always right. Finally, at this program, there were 44 other people who were just as excited and just as passionate as I was. For me, it felt like if I couldn’t afford to do that, and that program at the time was $11,000. Now I think it’s more than that. It was $11,000. A total of 6 months without a salary. That’s not acceptable to most people. I wanted people who couldn’t afford that also to be able to find their community.
That’s how I started CodeNewbie. CodeNewbie 2 years ago was just a Twitter chat. It was hashtag CodeNewbie. We met for an hour every Wednesday night. We talked about code. It was me tweeting questions like, “What are you learning? What are you excited about?”. The point was to use that as an excuse for other people to meet each other and for them to connect. We did that for about a year and then we launched a podcast and a discussion forum, and all these different things.
The way the Program Manager position came about was someone that knew me from CodeNewbie, he was the H&S in Microsoft. He knew me and knew my work from CodeNewbie and all the stuff I had done to help people get into tech. He got an email from my now boss, who said, “Hey, we’re launching this new technical training program. We need a Program Manager. Someone who gets the tech experience and the newbie experience”. He’s excited to bring tech opportunities to more and more people. He thought of me, and so he emailed me and said, “Hey here’s an interesting position. I think you’d be an excellent fit. If you want a recommendation, I’m happy to make it”. I looked at it and I thought, holy crap, this is everything CodeNewbie does, but I get paid for it, it’s so nice. He recommended me, and that’s how I started.
Cool. What is the difference between being a Program Manager versus a Developer?
Everything. I don’t think they have anything in common. I think the biggest thing is what you do in your hours. I spend most of my time in emails and meetings and Word documents. I spend a lot of time doing reports and plans and agendas. It’s funny, one day I was working from home, and my husband didn’t believe me when I told him I spent the most time in a Word document. He looked over my shoulder and then he stepped away. A couple of hours later, he looked over my shoulder again, and he said, “You’re in the same Word document.” I said, “Yes, that’s my life now.”
The biggest difference is it’s just a lot of meetings, lots of emails, and it’s a communication job. It’s working very closely with very different people and all of us trying to get to the same place and have the same conclusion, but having slightly different cultures. Especially in my role specifically, because although I work for Microsoft, I’m not working with the Microsoft team very closely. I’m working with our partners. Our partners are at the government, or our partners are at the community college. Their institutions operate very differently than a tech institution. It’s a lot of managing relationships and communication styles and personalities. For me, being very patient because I was a Developer, I want to move fast, I want to iterate quickly. I’m okay with things breaking as long as I know they’re breaking, and I can make them better. With, as you can imagine with the government and higher institution, that’s not really how they operate. It’s been a lot of learning when to push hard with stuff when to pull back and I just spent a lot of time thinking about those relationships.
As a Developer, the other big difference is your kind of removed from your end user. With the program that I run, I see my end users every day. I teach them; I work with them. We talk on Slack. I have appointments with them, and we go through their resume. I’m very active in their lives, so it’s very high impact. When you’re a Developer, you’re communicating with your end user through a screen, through buttons, through forms, through databases. I find this role to be a lot more emotionally fulfilling than being a Developer because there isn’t that distance.
I think the third thing I’ll mention is it’s an entirely different way of thinking. I do code in my free time, mostly for CodeNewbie. I have a CodeNewbie apprentice. I end up coding about 10 hours a week, on average. When I’m working with her, I feel like my brain is on fire in the best way. It’s a very different way of working. It’s very analytical. It’s very detail oriented. And it’s very much about getting the right answer, whereas with my job now I feel like it’s getting the best conclusion. If that makes sense.
There is so much gray area. There’s so much up in the area. It’s about finding the right balance and the best option. It’s not as simple as ‘Does this feature work. Yes or no’. That nuance is very different too.
Speaking of CodeNewbie, how did you get the idea to create CodeNewbie? It expanded so much in just a couple of years.
The idea came from … I feel like Twitter chats aren’t as popular in general now, as they used to be. A couple of years ago, everyone was doing Twitter chats. When I was looking at what’s easy … I love Twitter. I’ve gotten so much professional value from Twitter. I’ve gotten networking, I’ve gotten speaking gigs, I’ve received job offers from the Program Manager that I have now. It’s been a useful tool for me. I was thinking, “What is a low bird entry? What’s the easiest way to connect people from all over the world?”. Twitter was the obvious way of doing that for me. The idea that comes from just knowing that the community and having people. The community, sharing resources is high and that’s fine, but it’s the emotional support. It’s finding people who understand the struggle and who understand the frustration. Finding individuals who understand the fear.
That’s something I don’t talk about a lot when it comes to coding. There’s a lot of fear and a lot of anxiety that comes with the territory. Especially if you’re new, and you’re not used to being long so much, so consistently. A lot of what we do is about creating a space that is super friendly, incredibly welcoming. When I tweet from the CodeNewbie account, I’m a different person. I’m your favorite cheerleader. I’m your mother in a sense. I’m very, lots of smiley faces, lots of exclamation points, hearts all over the place. That’s the personality that we have. That has helped to create a very welcoming space for people who are not very comfortable because they’re new to it. The idea came from understanding the value of community and wanting to bring that to people all over the world.
What are tips you would give them who want to get into tech?
For the developers, I think my advice is if you’re getting into it … I’ve heard a lot of stories about people who try it and who find out it’s too hard. The reason they quit is it’s too hard. That to me is very sad because I think anything that you try that’s interesting is going to be hard at first. When things get hard to people who are trying to learn to code, they think, “I’m not good enough; I’m not smart enough. It’s too hard, and I’m never going to get it”. That’s the reason why they quit. I guess the biggest piece of advice is, if the reason why you don’t become a developer is because it’s too hard, don’t let that be the reason why. Let the reason why to be because you understand it and you can do it, but you just don’t like it. The hard part will pass, it will. Eventually, building a RailsApp and doing Rails New will not seem so intimidating. Pushing in a direction, it gets a lot less scary when you do it a couple of times.
Trusting that the reason that it’s hard is not because of you. It’s not because you weren’t meant to be a developer. It’s not because you’re stupid. It’s not because you don’t get it. It’s because it’s just hard. The hard part passes. The time where I think it’s most valuable to ask yourself “Do I want to do this?” is when your in the place where you know what you’re doing, and you’re getting it, and you still don’t like it. In which case, totally, don’t be a developer. That’s a good place to make that call. I think giving up too early is a big mistake.