How We Got Here
Join Chris de la Garza, Solutions Engineer, for a roundtable discussion where he interviews several Cloudflare employees about how they got into the tech industry. This segment is focussed on employees who came from a non-tech background into technology.
Hello everyone and thank you for taking the time to join us today on another segment of How We Got Here.
This show focuses on Cloudflare employees who came into technology from a different field or without a CS degree.
I'm your host Chris De La Garza, an SE out of the Austin office and joining me today is Ashley and Mickie, assistant engineers out of our Austin, Texas office.
Thank y'all for taking the time to speak with us today.
To get started off, Ashley can you share with us a bit of your background and how you got into technology or IT?
Yeah, I started off at going to art school and I bounced around like five different degrees before I ended up in production design, which basically means that I worked on live events as a designer and technician and I did that.
I graduated with a BFA and did that for about five years in New York before moving down to Austin and career switching into software.
Very cool. What that's a big career switch there. What drove that?
I'm not gonna lie, kind of money. Turns out that theater doesn't pay the bills very, very well or very consistently and living in New York is really expensive and moving locations is also really difficult just because outside of New York the communities are so small.
It makes sense. That makes total sense. Mickie, same question to you.
Hi, I'm Mickie. I got a degree in international relations.
I got a liberal arts degree and I worked in politics. I was a legislative assistant and I was a policy analyst at the Texas State Capitol and I went into politics because I was like so young and idealistic but I was like I want to change the world, you know, and I wanted to like have an impact and this is probably not a revelation for anyone else but like politics can be deeply frustrating and filled with politics.
Yeah, like you guys read the news, right? But this was kind of like, you know, had to dawn on me slowly and the thing I loved about policy analysis was like data.
I was like always super nerding out on the data. I was like where did they get this information and like how do we drill into the numbers and so I was like I'm gonna go back to school and I'm gonna get a master's in statistics and I'm gonna just like nerd out on data all the time and I did.
I didn't complete the master's but I was going to school.
I was at UT and I had an elective to fill and my brother who is a software developer was like, I remember this, he was like the less you think of your computer as a magic box the better and I was like fine, okay, I'll go take this like computer science class and I did and I loved it and I was obsessed.
I was like actually kind of a little compulsive about it. I was just like had to do it and I was like oh it's fine I'll just I'll just fill my electives with computer science like I was still in denial and then I just it was the courses I couldn't not do so I decided I should probably code.
Very cool, very cool. I like that thought of taking the complexity away from IT and just kind of appreciating it for what it is.
I think it's a really cool piece of advice. Kind of to kind of change the gears here a little bit, looking back at y'all's journeys is there anything you know kind of sitting at this point now that you want to suggest to your former self or in other words what would you suggest for the folks at home who are possibly looking at making a career switch or thinking about getting into IT and looking to follow in similar footsteps to yourselves?
Nikki, would you like to start us off?
Sure, I have a lot of advice here and I'm gonna start in order of probably most controversial opinions first so y'all may not agree with this advice but I think for me something I think is really helpful when you're starting out is considering or working at a startup and I know your mileage may vary and it's kind of risky and there's you know a wide gambit in the startup world, mixed bag if you will, but I personally started out at a startup and I think it was so incredibly valuable as far as having like a flat hierarchy.
You get to wear like a lot of different hats and maybe it's not gonna be so segmented of like here's your specific role right like you can maybe delve into more parts of the stack or more than just coding and learn more about like product and just like get a wider view I think then maybe is necessarily available to you at a bigger company.
I think you know it's it's a place where maybe you're taking a risk but they're also kind of taking a risk on you if you're just starting out.
So yeah I'll start there I have a lot a lot more but that's I think starting in a startup can be like a nice way to get your foot in the door.
I like that I think that's a really interesting point because I remember when I got into IT it wasn't the technology that was the most difficult portion of it it was all the other intangibles that flow into it the normal business processes and those kind of things.
Let's come back to you real quick. Ashley do you have any thoughts here or any suggestions along that same line of questioning?
I mean I started out in a small company it wasn't a startup it was an already established company but it was a software consultancy and yeah being in a smaller company gives you a lot more possibilities around you know how much impact you can have or like how like the breadth of information or the breadth of experience that you can get.
One thing that I I see people talk about a lot that kind of drives me crazy is they talk about like oh you don't need a CS degree to do this and I you don't because I didn't get one I just taught myself crap on the Internet but actually I didn't teach myself a bunch of other people came up and put a lot of work and into resources that I ended up using and the number one thing that I feel like comes out of the or the problem that comes out of the attitude that you don't need a CS degree is that you don't need CS knowledge and I think that's garbage.
I think that the I started off using MIT's OpenCourseWare. I didn't finish hardly any of the courses that I ever took.
I just was like I would bounce around between them so I think if I was gonna give my past self advice I would say maybe try finishing something.
I could give myself that advice today but I would definitely tell people don't listen to people who tell you you don't need CS fundamentals.
You don't need an entire like CS major right you may not ever need to know how to write an operating system and that's fine but but don't blow off the the fundamentals would be the number one thing that I would tell people.
Don't go straight into like like yeah you can go straight into a LAMP stack or a node application and write the whole web web application front to back and you can get pretty far with that but I feel like you're stunted if that's as far as you get.
That makes a lot of sense. I know when I'm training new SEs one of the first things I tell them is you got to learn the window or you got to learn the nomenclature around everything which I think back into what you were saying there that you know CS degrees are incredibly valuable but at the same time too one of the biggest takeaways from there is just having that mindset or understanding the window around it.
I know you had more than one. Yeah I had so many. This is one of my, this is funny, Ashley you and I might disagree.
My maybe second controversial opinion is I don't think you need school.
I don't think you need a formal CS education.
I think you're saying like having some CS fundamentals is important and I I agree.
I think I think that's true. I think there might be a little bit too much emphasis on having a traditional computer science degree and I don't think that that's necessary so I when I was I converted from trying to get this master's in statistics and I was like I'm gonna get a master's certificate in computer science and unrelated I oh and then I also got a job at a startup and I am actually I'm a big fan but I won't keep harping on that and I was exhausted.
I was working full time and I was going and I was taking like night classes and weekend classes and unrelated to that I had a near-death experience and I was in the ICU for a week and it was during finals week and they were very nice and they let me like you know take my finals later and this is like the one thing I'm sure professors get all the time like oh I'm so sick you know and I was like no I'm almost you know I really need your help.
I got to finish my classes later but unfortunately signing up for the next semester required your grades already be submitted and because there was a delay by the time I tried to register for these next classes they were already full and it took me this like kind of wild experience until I realized that I was trying to get the certificate and all of this experience and education not because I was finding it intrinsically valuable but because I was afraid that I needed this external validation and that I needed others to validate that yes I knew this stuff and that I could like get this stamp of approval and put it on a resume and be taken seriously and it's so much easier for me to say and give the advice of like don't be afraid but but I would encourage people not to let fear be the reason they're pursuing this educational attainment of like a computer science credentials like I think it's possible to learn the skills without the formalized education and I know so many people like Ashley and me who have non-traditional backgrounds it's definitely possible it's just a less like more windy path to get here yeah I mean oh my god if you want to just go on a segment about education and some of the scams laid in there and we could do that but I think that's a different segment but okay I didn't yeah I have a couple of times now it's just been when Mickey's talking and it's good um yeah I think that like when it comes right down to it you know there is like even when I was in high school going for my first degree my dad my dad had the cynical advice that like listen your four-year degree is a piece of paper that says that you committed to finishing something over the course of four years I was like cool yeah I'm not gonna gain any other skills that I did gain a lot of skills and we'll get to that a little bit later but I did gain a lot of skills that were that are still relevant to me today but yeah like when it comes to you know there's so much content out there it's so easy to just like get your mitts on like even an older textbook or a lot of a lot of educational systems are actually publishing their their stuff online and you know if you follow a rabbit hole far enough like you can end up like perusing a white paper on how you know rest came to be and that's learning too and that's great and maybe you wouldn't even gotten there in CS and you'll then have something else and then also like a building software is not like software development and engineering and and design is not computer science they're two separate things they just both happen to have and on the computer I have a question for you you self-taught right online how did you choose what to learn oh I was so like magpie about it so I started back in like 2011 I started with like oh I got to get out of here well I guess I'm gonna need a CS degree do I have money for that no okay well who's got something online MIT does cool so I'll do this thing and it's like the the you know 600 level like programming for non majors like very very basic thing and I started down on that and they taught Python there and then I started asking the question like well okay but fine what do I do with this what do I build with this you just taught me how to write and test some software but I don't like what can I build with this that's gonna be practical and so I started pulling that thread and I know she froze and then I'm sorry again I think you're good now yeah where did I where did I leave off I last I heard was that you started to pull on that thread when you looked at the Python portion yeah I just started pulling the thread of like what can I build with this and ended up like diving into people's github repositories and then ended up saying like okay well I know a little bit of web dev from when I was a kid cuz when I was a kid I like wanted my you know web portfolio up there so I learned enough HTML and CSS to make that happen in high school geocities then right I didn't I self hosted but that was cuz my dad was my dad was into that kind of stuff so I did have a little bit of that in the family already I had that privilege of somebody else in my family and that's oddly rare and so yeah it was like oh well maybe I'll try writing WordPress themes and then I get pull the thread of like you know the lamp stack and PHP and my sequel and wow my sequels kind of cool that's databases what about databases and I like pull the sequel thread and databases thread and then well I don't know maybe I want to write apps and like this was before Swift too so I ended up like shifting over to that and trying Objective-C and then hating that so I just I tried different things and at the time I was a freelancer in New York and so my my process was like I have you know six weeks on or a week on and then a week off and then some time though I'm working and then some time where I'm not and so anytime that I was working I probably didn't have time to pull on it on these things but when I was off I didn't really have a lot of money to do a lot of fun things in my spare time so I would end up just coming back and coding and that was another one of the things that was like that was how I knew that this was a good idea was that I I kept returning to it so I didn't have like a boot camp style three months and you know heads down on just this I had I gotta go to work and then come back I guess I'll code some and then like dropping it for a while and coming back and so the fact that I kept coming back was a big part of what made it stick very cool I guess that's the next question I definitely want to get through the rest of your list there but when did you know you made the right decision I mean it's a big switch yeah ever a moment for you as well it was it was I felt I felt kind of compulsive about my classes like I I feel so bad now but I didn't I didn't touch code until I was 25 and I it's funny for me to reflect on because at the time I was like oh I'm so old like I've never you know I've never coded and I was in these classes with 18 year olds this was like the elective classes and I like bless these kids because I was like I'm gonna do so well like they're just like in their class like I'm here for school and I was like I'm gonna beat you I'm gonna be the best like I was like and then when we got the assignments I just I couldn't not do them I had to like do them and I'd do them over again and this is not something I'd felt academically for a really long time that I just you know like this perfectionist it was unhealthy I'm not like recommending my way of doing it but I realized there was like a particularly hard like semester and I had this one class and I would work on it like 30 hours a week or something wild it was a lot of hours and I realized that's a full-time job if I can do this and I feel compelled and interested in it it was definitely a love-hate relationship at the beginning like there was like awesome moments of like my brain is creating magic like I think this is incredible and then there's you know the lulls of like why doesn't this work I'm the stupidest person in the world like I don't get this that's where the compulsive came in I remember like sitting on in front of my desk I had a desk that I'd sat on the floor in front of it and like working through problems and then just like flopping back and staring at the ceiling and being like what am I missing for like you know 20 minutes yeah the highs and lows are real so I think I realized that was what made me change from statistics into computer science is like if I if I feel this engaged with the material so it wasn't the data itself it was more so how you were applying it or because what would yeah and I well even when I was thinking about statistics I liked the idea of application of what I was learning right I didn't want to just learn theory and abstract and into this day I don't think I do very well with abstract concepts I really like to apply what I'm learning in computer science does that fairly well generally I get Ashley's point too and I think it was something I didn't know at the time but there is a distinction between computer science and software engineering yeah I think yeah exactly software application or software engineering is the application of computer science knowledge and understand with understanding towards a particular and so it was a really excellent points though too because I'm a lot of we are saying was resonating with me because I was that person that picked this I knew I've always wanted to be interested in technology but I picked this thread a few times and something would have to go I always came back to it and that for me was kind of the thing y'all were saying that I was like I can definitely see bits of my own journey there as well where it's like that for me that interest is what kept dragging you back into it but Mickey I want to make sure we give you the time to talk about your other stuff okay okay so one thing I wanted to give as advice is it's good to remember that tech is like not just SAS companies I think software has eaten the world like your fridge has software and parking meters have software and if you're thinking about entering into tech it's much broader and integrated into a lot of different fields then I think maybe people realize when they think think of the word tech company so I guess my advice there is to keep an open mind about companies and fields that you're considering when looking to get a foot in the door you might be surprised that you know I don't know I'm doing a bad job of coming up with an example but something very far out of left field has tech integrated into it and that could be a really great and true point I have it when I was a ranch hand in the ranch in South Texas I was the tech guy they have like drone companies now just for agricultural maintenance of knowing how big herds are right like it does you can think of any field right now and there's going to be a tech component so it's really incredible in that way too I think there is no tech tech is like everywhere yes exactly not an industry it's a tool thank you for clarifying what I'm saying I thought about this one a lot I think it's wonderful though because it can have this overlap of interests like if you were interested in animal agriculture there's going to be ways that you can apply your skill set to this field yeah whenever people ask me like oh how do I get into this I go like what do you want to do like what are you interested in you don't you're not necessarily writing the next iPhone or whatever is not necessarily the gonna be the best fit for everybody and really I think that's the most interesting thing and what I wanted out of tech was the ability to apply like take this one skill and be able to apply it to a really diverse number of problems yes I mean I ended up at a tech company but that doesn't mean that you know I couldn't go and apply all the same skills to two different problems that I'm interested in so definitely and I think that kind of strengthens your earlier point of you don't need to have in-depth computer science knowledge in order to apply tech principles or tech concepts to other fields and other things as well to you sure like having having good like software fundamentals is good but that's not always necessarily the same as CS fundamentals either so I think they're two different things it can also be easy if you're considering transitioning into tech to start where you're at you know for example you're in marketing there's lots of marketing software but like moving within a company you might have a softer landing it's everywhere Oh previous co-worker of mine he did a boot camp track but he got started writing macros in Excel spreadsheets that's all I was gonna say is I think to that point is you may have a lot more resources around you than you realize and for me it was a lot of that shadowing hey I see somebody do something cool in their computer what's that keyboard shortcut what are you doing there how did you do that you know those kind of things and just building on that interest yeah I can keep going I don't know we do have some more airtime left and I'm sure the folks at home appreciate the advice I just wanna make sure actually is there anything else within that sphere you want to add on there should we let Mickey go with one and it's a good prop for the next portion of the conversation no I mean the the one thing I do want to fit in is like so there's getting yourself into tech there's getting yourself the skills that you need but there's also getting yourself into tech you and and understanding that the skills that you already have actually are valuable you expand on that um yeah so so my old job was like I would call myself a full-stack lighting professional in that I I swung a wrench but I also led crews and I programmed light boards and I assisted lighting designers and I was a lighting designer and I like did I did drafting I did all kinds of stuff and and every single one of those things had its own little like transferable skill so like heading a crew very easily translates into management or like working as a part of a crew very easily translates into working as a part of a team because software is a team sport which doesn't it doesn't like enter into the psyche like the mainstream psyche nearly as much as you want it to like everybody sees you know like one one person in a dark corner mr.
robot yeah exactly yeah so any of those kinds of things like when it comes time to to start putting yourself out there like taking inventory doesn't just mean what programming languages do I know what projects did I build it also means like what did I do at my last job or if you're coming out of school or whatever and you're changing careers that quickly like what's an example of a group project that you like led or what are skills that you can drag along with you that make you valuable to a team and so yeah that's one thing that I think that's another piece of advice I would have given is drawn drawing your entire toolkit yeah I think you're right I think the skills that you really need aren't tech skills but like ability to learn yeah quickly and adaptability and I hate this term but soft skills are so important they're not soft they're very difficult but those are independent of tech skills and I think you can have those in any industry you're coming from yeah yeah like I gave the example the other day like you know sitting as a part of a particular one one department in a stage load-in but it's just one department and then you've got another department over here that's working with them the same physical space and another one over here and you have to be able to negotiate all of your time and resources with all of those people in order to make one cohesive whole it's much easier to to conceive of in the physical space like a theater production but it completely applies to software as well I think subtle sense incredibly excellent points there with that and like I've heard it before when I was first starting off but gentlemen told me years I can teach you to understand Linux I can teach you to code it's much more difficult for me to teach you customer support or how to engage people in certain situations or the I would say less soft skills but more intangible skills very cool Mickey I want to make sure we get you some time I know we're running over here what final thoughts or I guess maybe one or two more pieces of advice can we give to the folks at home okay I have some okay I'm just gonna like just go through them all right rapid-fire I wanted to say don't be afraid to start and by that I mean I think you can go online and you could be like how to code and there's going to be these rabbit holes that Ashley mentioned and they're going to go deep and it's going to feel daunting maybe but I think there's a lot to learn and once you're in the industry it's a pretty open secret that not no one knows everything so just yeah the advice is you're not expected to master at all don't allow the the breadth of content to prevent you on your journey next one ask questions like I think this is really important I think people are very afraid to ask questions because they think they're gonna out themselves as not knowing something and the only way I think you learn is by asking questions and like Ashley said this is a team sport so generally hopefully you have teammates that are helpful and when somebody asks me like yeah when somebody asks me my superpower I say asking dumb questions anytime I ask a question that's dumb I get people after the fact thank me for asking it because I didn't want to so I also think it's it's like this um feedback loop where people are like oh I don't ask questions because no one else is everyone must know it it's not true not everyone knows okay third one network so this one is a pretty traditional advice as far as how to get into in the industry but I think tech industry is a lot smaller than people generally give it credit for and I was thinking about why and I think it's because people in tech tend to move around somewhat more frequently than other industries like a typical ten years two to four years at a company and so if you like I have worked in tech for eight years which is approximately three jobs and if I think about the people I started with at that company they've gone on to three jobs and then it's like a Kevin Bacon situation of how many different degrees of separation you have right like if you network with one person they likely knows someone at a company that you're interested in thank y'all so much for joining us do appreciate the advice we need to do another segment to expand on those last topics next time but thank you all again really do appreciate it thank you bye