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How I Became a Software Engineer

Women Coders

Women of Silicon Valley speaker Stephanie A. Higa shares the story of her transition from architecture student to Senior Software Engineer.

I’m a Software Engineer in Silicon Valley. Because of this, people often assume that my career trajectory is neat and linear: that I studied computer science in college, completed internships at tech companies, and went into software engineering right after graduation.

Here’s a quick summary of what happened instead:

  • I studied architecture in college. I graduated into the recession in 2010, with an unimpressive transcript, few marketable skills, and zero job prospects.
  • After months of searching, I got my first job after college off craigslist, making fifty cents above minimum wage.
  • I attempted and failed to teach myself how to code multiple times in my early twenties.
These might seem like mistakes, or, at the very least, missteps, but I don’t see them that way. I consider these facts to be the highlights of my career. They are, in a sense, victories.

The Power of Reframing

Throughout my life, I’ve used cognitive reframing to transform my interpretations of situations. I’m convinced that my tendency to reframe has been the driving force behind most of the changes I’ve made.

For example, let me reframe the points I mentioned above:

  • That unrelated architecture degree gave me skills that I could never have predicted I would need. In my program, I developed building proposals, complete with 3D renderings, plans, sections, and physical models, and then defended these proposals before a panel of judges. I felt like I had been thrown into the deep end, where I suddenly had to learn project management, public speaking, and a bunch of new technologies all at once. These skills proved to be useful long after college.
  • Graduating into the recession opened my mind to alternative paths. If I had been a better student, or if I had graduated into a healthier economy, I probably would never have thought about going into technology.
  • That minimum-wage craigslist job turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life. I started out as a business development associate at a tech incubator in Los Angeles. The incubator was a small, nimble company that gave me the opportunity to wear a closet full of hats. During my first month, I made cold calls, filled out spreadsheets, and sat at the reception desk. Five years later, I was the Sole Designer and Front-End Developer at the company.
Every supposed mistake in my life turned out to have a positive side.

That brings me to my final point. I spent over two years trying in vain to learn how to code. I was what you would call a “false beginner” (in language learning, a false beginner is a person who has some exposure to a language, but no true understanding of it).

I signed up for community college classes in PHP and Java, only to drop them without absorbing anything. I picked up an old tome on C programming. I completed tons of JavaScript exercises on Codecademy.

After all this, I could write loops and 'if' statements. I knew that pointers existed. I could solve very basic toy problems like FizzBuzz, but I couldn’t create anything meaningful. The world of programming remained a thick-shelled mystery to me. I was on the outside, looking in.

So, how did I finally learn how to code?

Reframing, yet again.

Some people learn best from traditional computer science classes. Other people learn best from online tutorials, or competitions, or side projects, or pair programming.

For me, it was an amazing book called Natural Language Processing with Python, which I discovered in late 2012. Until that moment, every other resource I had found introduced coding as a way to solve math problems. Natural Language Processing with Python introduced coding through the lens of language: how to programmatically categorize, classify, and discover meaning in text, using the Python Natural Language Toolkit.

Soon after I taught myself how to code, I started searching for ways to incorporate my new hobby into my business development work. In December of 2012, I convinced my boss that I could build a WordPress theme for one of our projects, and he gave me the break that jumpstarted my career change. In April of 2013, I officially became a web developer.

Six years later, I’m still happy with the decision I made. I’ve tread a circuitous path to get to where I am now — and I remember every step of my journey. Reframing has helped me to toss regrets, express gratitude, find new opportunities, and never, ever take anything for granted. Years ago, I had a laundry list of excuses for why I couldn’t pursue my dreams. Now, I just consider myself to be incredibly lucky.

Stephanie HigaStephanie A. Higa is a Senior Software Engineer at Box, Inc. in Redwood City, California.

She will be speaking at Women of Silicon Valley, taking place 2-3rd May in San Francisco. Stephanie will be exploring how to overcome the fear of changing jobs in a session entitled 'How To Create the Experience Your Dream Job Requires in the Job You Currently Have' on Day 2 of the event. 


Stephanie is one of California's female tech superheroes, click here to find out more.