My Journey From Couch-Surfing Kid to Tech Engineer
Four years ago, I was in high school and barely scraping by. I was homeless, and lived on the couches of friends and relatives. I skipped school, skipped homework, and I spent a lot of hours playing video games. Today, I work as a senior associate quality assurance engineer at Workday, a leading finance and HR software company.
Despite only having a high school degree (the first in my family to receive this), I'm supporting myself with a well-paying career in technology. I'm also pursuing a college degree in computer science, outside of my full-time job, and I'm never late to work. What made the difference? A little bit of luck, some gumption and a program called Year Up, a national nonprofit that provides disadvantaged youth with professional development and work experience.
Connecting youth who need opportunity with companies that need talent is what Year Up does. It works with about 3,600 youth per year and partners with 250 companies. The program combines six months of classroom and training akin to a business bootcamp with six months of an internship at a company. I was a young person who needed an opportunity; below is my story.
Embracing a little bit of luck.
While I was still in high school, my mom, a recovering alcoholic, lost her job and our home to foreclosure. I graduated while moving couch to couch around the Hayward, Calif. area. I enrolled in a community college with a vague plan to pursue a degree in physical education, so I could become an athletic director and help other kids in situations like mine.
Eventually, I moved in with my aunt and cousin, and that's when my luck turned around. Right when I started to realize that my career options were limited, my cousin was accepted to Year Up. Every day, he would come home and tell me about the program -- what he learned, how successful he was going to be, and most importantly, that he would have a well-paying career. I was jealous. I also thought: if my cousin can do it, so can I.
Getting out of my comfort zone.
In applying to Year Up, my first challenge was to find proper clothes to wear to the interview. The best I could do was a polo shirt and jeans. I remember feeling nervous during the process and being extremely relieved when I was finally accepted into the program.
After joining Year Up, I knew that I needed to work on my demeanor if I was going to be successful. I was a head down, headphones on, type of introvert. Being sociable was painful. Year Up provided opportunities for me to step out of my comfort zone. Instead of sitting in the back, I found myself volunteering to go first to give presentations, and to lead training sessions. Each time I took a chance, the next time got a little bit easier.
Good work habits were also ingrained. If any Year Up student was late, we all received infractions. One day, I was struggling with a commute delay. I did my best to make it on time, but ultimately, I was docked. That's just one example of how strict the program is and how much the organizers care about instilling the right behaviors and best practices. Year Up isn't mandatory, it's a privilege to be there. I now leave home extra early for work -- no excuses allowed.
As a kid, I always enjoyed technical things -- video gaming, building computers, etc. NASA is a Year Up partner, and where I initially wanted to work. What I didn't know was that as part of Year Up's program, they meticulously work to match interns with the companies where their respective skillsets will shine. That is how I landed at Workday.
At first, the idea of working at a software company felt as foreign as my first day with Year Up. I didn't know what the cloud is or HCM (which I learned stands for human capital management). However, within stepping into my first interview at Workday, meeting members of my team and seeing the culture firsthand, I knew that Year Up had placed me right where I needed to be. I started as a quality assurance intern to test new features and look for bugs in Workday products. After I finished my internship, I was hired as a contractor and then got my full-time position.
When first introduced to Year Up, we were told that Year Up graduates averaged about $21 an hour. That number floored me. I'd only ever made $8 to $10 an hour working at a store at Christmas, or for a summer recreation league. At Workday, my first contract wage bested even what Year Up said. My wage jumped more with a full-time offer and I've since received steady raises. I am now financially self-supporting -- and then some.
Now almost three years after joining Workday, I am in a position to help other Year Up interns and people from backgrounds like mine. The company has hosted 30 of us, five of whom are currently going through the program. Of the 25 that have completed internships, 17 are now full-time employees at Workday, and the company plans to expand the program.
Year Up is just one of the workforce development organizations our company supports. Every year it holds Workforce Week, an annual week-long event where employees like me volunteer to mentor people seeking jobs in tech. In addition, I'm able to give back to my teammates as they come to me for technical help, and I get to train new employees too. I also participate in company events after work and efforts to encourage middle school kids to pursue STEM interests.
I'm still working on being more of an extrovert, but I've built the foundation for my career. I've also come to realize that it doesn't matter where I come from. What matters is the work that I do.