Tech talent comes from more than just a computer science degree

Here in the D.C. region, we have a lot of talented software developers, some of whom are involved in government contracting. A growing number, however, are involved in product companies like Mapbox, which offers an open-source mapping platform for custom applications. Zuri Hunter is a front end engineer with Mapbox, and has been very active in developing a software development community in the area.

ABERMAN: Well, you’re out there every day, really pushing something very important, which is that there are are many different ways to become a software developer in this town, and there are many different kinds of people who are capable of doing it. You’re in the middle of connecting a lot of different dots. Tell us bit about what you do.

HUNTER: I’m involved in Women Who Code as a Ruby on Rails lead, I’m also part of the leadership committee for DCFemTech, and I’m technical lead for the Black Girls Code DC chapter. So, in those three organizations, I hopefully want to get involved, as far as gaining interest for women who are interested in the tech industry, as well as making sure that these women stay in the industry, as you can hear about not-so-great reports about the diversity of women and minorities, as well as the toxic environment that comes with it. What we hope. and what I hope, with my work, with these three is to build a community, and hopefully fix the pipeline, and sustain that pipeline, and make sure that these women stay in the industry and move on to leadership positions, to influence the culture, so we won’t have this continued cycle of a lack of diverse people in leadership positions.

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So, that’s my work, or what I hope to accomplish within my involvement in three organizations. To go and talk about Women Who Code specifically, I’m going to be real: if it wasn’t for that organization, I would not be in tech. I would have given up a long time ago, because learning, and going through the process of it, it has not been an easy journey. It did take a huge toll on my self esteem. There was one time when I did a Hackathon, and was offered to apply for a job, and I wasn’t sure if I was confident enough, had the skills to do it, even though I’ve been studying Ruby on Rails for two years or so. I just didn’t think I was comfortable, or well-prepared, or a perfect fit for the position. If it wasn’t for someone in the community who was like, Zuri, you’re great. You know this stuff, for crying out loud, you’re doing talks within the Women Who Code community on Ruby on Rails. Apply for that position! The worst they can say is no, but you continue applying.

So, I did just that, and her giving me that pep talk allowed me to, surprisingly, get my first job in the tech industry. So, having that type of community, and me passing it off to the next person who had the same experience, or the same feeling, goes a long way, and it really helps bring that community together, that nurturing, that thing to fall back on. Because we do have rough days, and we vent to each other about it. And we also provide suggestions, networking opportunities. Having Women Who Code like that, and my involvement there, goes a long way for women here.

For Black Girls Code, as you can see, there’s not a lot of black female engineers like myself. I didn’t get fully into programming until I took my first into Java class at Howard University. My dad, he did dabble in it, but when you’re a child, you don’t want to do anything your parents do. I didn’t want to do anything he wanted to do, but then, lo and behold, I end up developing an interest in it. Maybe if I was to have an organization like Black Girls Code back then, to expose me to it a little bit more, as much as my dad did, then maybe I would have gone down that route. So, that was my role with Black Girls Code, to come in and hopefully provide opportunities, and exposure to these girls. Like, hey, you could do stuff in virtual reality. You can do stuff in augmented reality, you could do mobile development, game development. These are things that you can do within the field, it’s not simply other stuff. You can get into STEM.

ABERMAN: I think that mentorship, and providing people with support, is really important for making any change. It strikes me that there’s something that not everybody appreciates, that software development is actually an industry that, if you get past the snobbery of it, lots of talented people can do. It’s a real level playing field. Mentorship’s great, but people have to be able to deliver. How were you able to develop the skills necessary to become a developer?

HUNTER: Besides Howard giving me that introduction course, my major, information systems, is not like computer science at all. It’s very business-focused, So, over fifty percent of my classes were business-focused. So, on the side, I had to pick up programming. I wanted to start off with Ruby on Rails. I started with Java, but I wanted to go into Ruby, and the way I developed my skills was going to meetups within the D.C. area. So, the first meetup that I actually went to, but didn’t participate much, was DC API. And for a good two years, I did not know what an API was, but I still attended the meetup.

And then from there, I was able to see there were ladies who code, and then Women Who Code, who were running an Android Java meetup. I would go to there, and from there, I was learning from women. I learned from their talks, and listening to the resources that they use to learn, and then continued going on with that. It wasn’t until I landed my first job I was able to afford to go to General Assembly to do their Javascript development class.

ABERMAN: For younger developers, it seems to me there are two different issues. One is just the general issue of dealing with inclusivity, and “you don’t look like me” and that whole thing. But it also sounds like there’s an element of snobbery, or a sort of standard way that people are supposed to enter this industry which, frankly, I don’t think is filling the talent void in this town.

HUNTER: No, it really isn’t. It also takes away from people who tackle problems differently. In computer science, whatever their background is, they might look at things the same way. But if you get somebody who was a stage creator for a play, stuff like that, they may tackle problems differently when it comes to building a system, stuff like that. So, it sucks that the industry is saying “you don’t have computer science, you’re not going to make it,” and there’s plenty of people here who have degrees that are nowhere close to computer science, and who are making game-changing things and applications, as well solving some problems in their own unique way.

I hope and I pray that this perception within the D.C. tech community, and within the entire tech industry, gets away from “in order for you to succeed, or be in the field of tech, you have to have a computer science degree.” Like, that’s not true. Anybody can do this if they put their mind to it, and actually practice, and are provided the resources and the mentorship to do it. Anyone can do that. So, hopefully, over time, that concept will go away. But the way the talent is coming in, the number of boot camps we have out here, the countless data science boot camps, that would change it, because the people that are going to these things are not coming from the traditional computer science background. You can’t say no to this awesome talent that’s coming out of these programs. So, hopefully, employers will say, wait, I’m missing out on a great opportunity to bring my company to the next level with this person.

ABERMAN: And I think that is the most important message of all, which is that, if we really want to take advantage of the opportunity to lead the 21st century, and digital convergence, we need to be very aware that the talent comes from lots of different places. Zuri Hunter, thanks a lot for taking the time to join us today.

HUNTER: Awesome, thank you for having me.

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