How Tez Smith Ignored The Gatekeepers and Broke Into Software Engineering!

Teachers Pay Teachers are hiring on POCIT

In 2018, Tez Smith finally mustered up the courage to enter the tech industry by enrolling in a software engineering boot camp. It was a dream that began right after he graduated from college in 2011. After successfully finishing the program, he now works for Teachers Pay Teachers (TpT), the world’s most popular online marketplace for original educational resources. But why did it take so long for him to turn his dream into reality?

In this interview, Tez talks about his work at TpT, his experience at the boot camp, #BlackTechTwitter, and the importance of community and representation in the tech industry.

Could you tell me what you do at TpT?

I work as a software engineer on TpT’s web platform team. I’m responsible for helping other developers build front-end features quickly, with high-quality components. We prioritize moving from ideation to release very quickly. 

You went through a software engineering boot camp to get into the tech industry. How was your experience at the boot camp?

I completed a program at Flatiron School specifically geared towards underrepresented and underprivileged people who are interested in changing their careers and getting into the tech industry. 

It spanned 14 weeks over the course of a summer. It was one of the hardest and most rewarding experiences that I’ve had. I went from having a very nominal understanding of JavaScript, to having nearly a full stack knowledge by the time I left. 

The cohort I was a part of made all the difference. My classmates were very supportive of one another. We would work together, and we didn’t believe in just giving each other answers. Instead, we helped each other to come to our own solutions through providing resources and employing critical thinking.

One of the opportunities that was available for students was that if you performed at a certain level, you had the chance to teach within the boot camp. Because of this, I became a teaching assistant for about a year. 

After my teaching experience, I happened to stumble upon TPT. It’s been all love ever since.

While at the boot camp, did you feel like giving up at times?

There have been many times when I thought that I was kidding myself and that this wasn’t something that I could do. But I had a very strong community and support group consisting of my peers and teachers that helped me get through. 

While I was there, it was the first time that I had the opportunity to be taught by young Black men who had extensive  industry experience and programming knowledge. That felt so impressive to me and made me realize that they weren’t any different than me, aside from time, experience, and maybe some opportunities.  

These things helped me to reframe what I thought was possible for myself and for others, hence why I decided to teach after graduating. 

What took you so long to get into the tech industry?

I didn’t know of anyone who looked like me in the tech industry. I didn’t know who I could reach out to, and the majority of my family were either blue-collar workers or teachers. 

I had to figure out on my own how to create a path into the industry. From the outside looking in, the industry didn’t look very welcoming and accessible. There didn’t seem to be anyone who was Black. I couldn’t afford a computer science degree. The degree that I had was already very expensive for me. 

The boot camp opened my eyes to what was possible for my situation. It allowed me to step foot into the industry at a fraction of the time and cost of a college degree.

Throughout this whole experience, how did it change your idea of yourself?

Graduating from the boot camp and working for TpT felt like an affirmation that I do belong in the industry. At the same time, I realized that the barriers to entering the industry aren’t as high as people make them seem to be.

There’s a lot of gatekeepers in the industry who say that in order for you to be a real software developer, you have to follow a particular trajectory. In reality, based on my own experiences, it’s all about doing your due diligence, having an open-minded approach to problem solving, and creating readable, understandable, and functional code.

Being represented and being part of a community seems important to you.

Yes, definitely. These things matter a lot. In my opinion, when people don’t see anyone who looks like them, it makes them feel like they don’t belong in that place. It’s hard to get into anything when there’s no clear path to follow. 

In 2010, after The Social Network came out, everyone wanted to get into the tech industry. We got to see the rise of Mark Zuckerberg as Facebook’s CEO, a company that truly changed social tech as we knew it. I remember watching that movie and not seeing one Black person shown at the college or working as an engineer. There was this scary implication that there was only a certain type of person or genius that could succeed. The film didn’t resonate with me at all. 

For those who want to get into the tech industry, I highly suggest that you become part of a community that will lift you up. For example, follow the hashtag #BlackTechtwitter on the social media platform. There are so many people sharing jobs and resources, and sharing their personal experiences with getting into the industry.

Do you feel supported at TpT?

My experience as a Black software engineer at the company has been so warm and welcoming. The whole team just feels so empathetic when it comes to everything that they do. 

TpT takes their mission and puts it into every iota of the things that they do, from the individual level, all the way up to the executive team. When they claim to have a commitment to diversity, you can see the truth in that.  It’s not just an empty statement.

For instance, there are initiatives in place where we are invited to ask questions and push the envelope. There’s a diversity and inclusion collective that has been working on a myriad of things, from hiring to corporate culture. 

We also have a black ERG that is just as kind, welcoming, and warm as the entire company is. It does a great job of making sure that we’re able to check in with one another and share career advice, resources, and other things that make you a well rounded professional.

Any last words of advice?

When it comes to looking for a job in tech, you have to be confident in yourself and know your stuff inside and out. In my experience, there are people along the way who will try to make you feel inferior. Your goal is to make sure that you are undeniable, and that you’re always open to learning more about your profession.

Teachers Pay Teachers are hiring on POCIT
Michael Berhane

Co-founder and CEO of peopleofcolorintech.com & pocitjobs.com. Also the co-host of the #Techish podcast! Full Stack JavaScript developer by trade.

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