By Lucia Blackwell, Software Engineer
I’ve failed calculus twice.
I’ve always struggled with math. It was a persistent source of angst over my academic career. Grammar I can do. Reading, got it. Geography… passable, and at least there were no tears. But math in all its forms has been an Achilles heel for as long as I can remember. And so if you had told fifteen-year-old me, or eighteen-year-old me, or even twenty-five-year-old me that I would someday be writing software at a high-performing engineering consulting firm – and loving it – you would have been met with some serious skepticism, to say the least.
But it’s true. Thirty-one-year-old me is a software engineer at First Mode. I get to spend my days writing software for amazing engineering projects, surrounded by incredibly clever people who don’t treat me any differently than if I’d graduated with honors in applied mathematics.
I’ve taken a meandering, uncertain path to get here. Growing up, I loved computers. I’m told I started teaching visitors how to use our family PC when I was three or four. At eleven, I built a Pokémon fan site from scratch directly in HTML. When it came time to apply for colleges, computer science felt like a natural choice of majors, and that’s what I was accepted as at the University of Delaware.
That didn’t last. I was intimidated by the program’s rigorous curriculum. I thought about the math classes I would have to pass – already a nemesis at that point. There weren’t many female students in the major – was there a reason for that? Was there something wrong with me?, I worried. I switched to biological sciences before freshman year even started. I convinced myself that only exceptional, analytically-minded workaholics could ever be engineers, and that was that. I decided I’d go into animal husbandry instead. That seemed easier. Safe.
And it was. I graduated from UD, went on to intern at a zoo, then at a sanctuary for big cats, and eventually worked as a veterinary assistant. The jobs were physically demanding, but rarely required a lot of the raw brainpower I’d assumed I lacked. Over time, I found myself getting bored. I started to miss problem-solving. More surprising, I missed feeling challenged, a feeling I thought I’d hated.
Around the time I was starting to feel that conflict, I attended a local nerd convention called GeekGirlCon, and on a whim watched a panel on women in tech. The engineers on that panel talked about their creative jobs, their projects, and most importantly, impostor syndrome – the first time I’d heard that term and a vital mental trap to be aware of.
That panel was the spark I needed: I ate up all of the other tech-related talks the rest of the weekend, then searched for more. I asked my partner, a programmer, to show me some of his textbooks. From there, I tried some code tutorials, did some research, and finally held my breath as I applied to Oregon State University’s online computer science post-baccalaureate: a program specifically for people who already had bachelor’s degrees but wanted to change careers.
There were still a lot of tears, and this time there was anxiety over racking up a second student loan’s worth of debt. Despite the anxiety, and with a heaping dose of my partner’s emotional support, I was passing my classes. More than passing: in fact, I was getting A’s. And for maybe the first time in my life, I was enjoying my homework!
Three academic quarters into my program, I took a summer internship at a software consulting firm. After that, I applied for a co-op (or a really long internship) at Planetary Resources, an asteroid mining startup. The impostor syndrome was still very real, so I was really only applying for funsies. One phone screen, one interview, and a lot of excited screaming later, I was an asteroid miner, and after I graduated, Planetary was my first full-time software engineering gig.
I’ve still never passed calculus.
I’m still not the mythical superhuman I thought all engineers must be. But I’m doing great! As it turns out, almost all of my engineer friends have battled impostor syndrome in one form or another. We all worry we don’t belong here with these other amazing engineers – who themselves also worry – seemingly regardless of accomplishments or experience.
I’m at First Mode now. I’m getting to do all of that problem solving I’d craved before my career change, and it’s everything I’d hoped it would turn out to be. Every day I’m getting paid to solve puzzles and build cool stuff.
When I shied away from computer science the first time around, one of my fears was the distinct lack of other women in the program. And, indeed, I have been the only female software engineer in three different offices now.
Looking around as I write this, there are three female systems engineers sitting directly to my right, front, and left, and I can hear two female mechanical engineers talking to each other over my right shoulder right now. And everyone hasn’t even rolled in for the morning yet. Fear quashed.
From time to time, I’ve still worried that my weakness in math would catch up with me. Day to day at First Mode, though, it hasn’t mattered. I’m finding that I have other strengths, and everyone else has their own weaknesses. It’s why working collaboratively is so vital. No one needs to know everything all on their own.
And absolutely no one cares that I didn’t start my bachelors in CS until I was 26 (another thing I was insecure about). It’s not a competition, and there’s no toxic comparison going on here. Instead, everyone seems eager to teach their fellow engineers whenever an opportunity arises. Not just mentorship in software, which I get through constructive code reviews and pairing on problems, but teaching about anything — how electricity works, some basics on the politics of the space industry, and even how to use industrial epoxy to reattach a broken loafer heel. I am so excited to never run out of things to learn at work again.
I am thrilled with the way my decision to go back for my second degree turned out. Do I regret backing out the first time? Probably not(!), and this answer actually surprises me a little. If I hadn’t worked in animal care, I would never have discovered that I don’t like being done learning, another surprise to the perfectionist in me. Most importantly, I learned that there’s rarely a single correct path to any goal. I think that idea gets lost; I see it a lot in the obsessive min-maxing when discussing computer science career paths. “You HAVE to go to a top CS school, then you HAVE to intern at a FAANG right after data structures, and you HAVE to–” Nah. There may have been more direct routes than the one I took, but I got here.
…plus, now I’ve got pictures of me with my hands in a jaguar’s mouth during a root canal procedure, so that’s pretty sweet.
It turns out there’s nothing superhuman about engineers. (Don’t @ me, engineers.) If you’re wondering about programming, or love building things and have been thinking about mechanical engineering, or have been thinking about making a switch into electrical, please do yourself the favor of giving it a try. Take a free online course or try an intro class at your local community college. Read some books or attend a talk. Don’t let yourself wonder “what if?”.
I don’t know you, but I bet you can do it. I did.