Omayeli Arenyeka, Software Engineer
Tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?
How and why did you get involved in tech
I originally wanted to be a writer. But my parents are Nigerian and very practical, so that wasn’t an option. I went to college undecided, and I had the idea that I would be either one of three things: an engineer, a lawyer or something to do with finance. Computer programming sounded cool, so I took Intro to Programming during my first semester. It was pretty easy, so I thought ‘ok! I’ll do this.’ The next semester was the worst of my time in college. I was taking two courses for the CS major and failing both. I was prepared to leave CS and do something else but then one day we had a substitute professor come in. He kind of went against the schedule for the day and instead demoed a game in Processing, which is a “software sketchbook and a language for learning how to code within the context of the visual arts.” The game involved using color tracking to knock objects off the screen, and I just thought it was the coolest thing especially because before then my assignments were to make a calculator or implement a stack. After that class, I moved to the ‘make your own major’ school. I kept taking CS classes, but I was supplementing them with art and design classes. The program was pretty flexible, so sometimes I would take graduate classes and independent studies where the class involved taking an idea from conception to completion. Being able to think of something kind of silly and realize I could make it was a really powerful feeling. I liked what I was making when no one was telling me what to make, so I kept going. So I guess I got involved in tech because I wanted a job after graduation that would sustain me but I stayed because I found that like writing, coding could be a tool for creative expression and social change.
What is your experience being a POC in Tech?
It was very isolating at first. The first semester I knew one black girl in my class, and we lived in the same dorm so we would work on our assignments together. The second semester I was the only black person, and I didn’t know anyone in the class. I was also doing terribly, and so I felt like I didn’t belong. I was looking externally for some confirmation that things would get better and that I shouldn’t give up but I didn’t have that, so I came very close to leaving.
Then I started going to office hours and tutoring sessions it got better. And then I found my community through an organization called Tech@NYU on campus and then it got much better. This was about the same time I started moving more into creative technology, so I think a huge part of things getting better for me was finding my niche and realizing that programming didn’t have to be this one thing. There were plenty of intersections and facets.
What advice would you give to a young person who wanted to enter tech?
Work on side projects. They don’t have big or even useful. Every time you think “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” write it down. Go back to it and see if something you can make. During my junior year, I was writing an email, and I typed “keep this on your radar” and then I thought to myself wouldn’t it be cool if you could see your schedule as a radar. When I got home, I started exploring the idea and then during the semester I made it as a final project for one of my classes. It’s still in my portfolio.
Find and join a supportive* community / communities. I’m a part of a ton of communities. Probably too many. I’m in more than eight slack groups. I still keep in touch with the current members of Tech@NYU (the student-run tech organization I joined in sophomore year). I’m an alum of Code2040 and a part of another community called Interact which focuses on using tech for social good. On Facebook, I’m on Ladies Storm Hackathons, Black Tech Women, HH Design, etc. When I started making bots, I joined a community called Botmakers. I’m a part of a more general learning community called Learning Gardens for people interested in investigating a particular set of ideas. And there’s, of course, the Twitter community. I got a job by DM’ing a company on Twitter. A friend of mine got a job interview because he posted one of his projects in a slack channel for creatives. My advice, of course, is not to join any community but if there’s something you’re interested in and there’s a community for it, find and enter it. Especially if you’re just starting out. There are a lot of people who want to help you and think what you’re doing or making is awesome. There are also a ton of scholarships and opportunities out there that you don’t know about but others do! I credit a lot of my growth in college to being around the students in Tech@NYU who were way ahead of me. It did a great deal for me regarding inspiration and pushing myself to get better. It’s also a quick way to learn more about the industry and get access to opportunities.
Still on the topic of finding a community, get on twitter. Follow people doing things you want to do. Find mentors. Brag about stuff you’ve made. Show works in progress. You’re great. Really.
Where can we find you?
I’m pretty active on twitter (@YellzHeard). I have a newsletter (tinyletter.com/yeli) where I write about lots of things (tech and non-tech). I’m redesigning my website, but you can also find me there. And of course, LinkedIn.