Meet Madelyn Tavarez
Meet Madelyn Tavarez, a software engineer at Pinterest (check out her account). I had the pleasure of interviewing this amazing Dominican American Tekwoman for our blog and I must say she is truly inspirational! Aside from her many accomplishments within the field, Madelyn is also an ambassador for TECHNOLOchicas whose mission is to bring more young Latinas into tech. On her free time, she enjoys teaching "Intro to Code" classes at local community centers, building passion projects like her Youtube Channel where she teaches others how to break into tech, mentoring women and of course, traveling the world.
An Interview with Madelyn Tavarez
You are quite the world traveler! I personally love traveling and feel it has given me a unique perspective on life. What do you feel traveling has offered you?
I love traveling because it offers so many opportunities for growth. I first fell in love with traveling when I lived in Italy and Istanbul for a few months. I learned so much during my time there and grew as a person in ways I couldn’t have imagined before landing there. Istanbul is where my interest in software engineering sparked and that alone has changed my life forever. Overall, I feel that travel has made me a more open, compassionate, kind, thoughtful and person.
During my travels I met many kind, humble and beautiful people who see and experience the world from a completely different lens and whose aspirations and dreams are extremely different from my own. Meeting these individuals forced me to open up my mind to other possibilities of what living a fulfilled life could mean.
I guess my love for travel is rooted in the way it continues to shift and shape my view of the world, the meaning of our lives within it and our place within the universe.
What is you next travel destination?
I’m not sure yet, which is actually a first for me! I feel so blessed that I was able to cross-off quite a few items off of my bucket-list throughout the past couple of years. I literally just got back from a big trip across India and Egypt and am just excited to be home to be quite honest. I am mostly focused on executing some of my goals for 2019.
Give us a little background on your career. Did you always know you wanted to be a software engineer?
I had no idea I wanted to be a software engineer until just a few months before graduating from college!
If I had to point to a specific time in my life where that spark of interest glinted, I would say I became interested in programming in high school, I just did not recognize it back then. In the days of MySpace, I would run home after soccer practice every day to find a new cool feature to add to my profile. I always had the most customized profile out of all my friends because I loved playing with code. Back them it was just HTML and CSS for me, but I felt so powerful being able to get things to work and display exactly how I wanted them to. Once MySpace went out of style and Facebook took over, I tried to find a way to customize my Facebook profile but there was no way to do it, so I kind of forgot about coding. I never knew that what I was actually doing was coding, or that there were other platforms I could do it on, or even that I could make a career out of it.
I was re-introduced to the field of computer science and engineering while living abroad in Turkey. My curiosity led me to take online classes during my free time after school and on weekends. I fell in love with the idea of being able to build products from the ground up by using just my brain, my imagination and a computer. I was also very intrigued by the prospect of building and contributing to products that affected the lives of millions of people around the world. I soon realized that I wanted to be part of a team that influenced how these impactful products were built. Once I decided to commit to becoming a software engineer, I applied to Fellowship programs and was accepted into Coalition For Queens (now known as Pursuit) where I had the opportunity of learning Java and Android Development.
Did you ever feel intimidated working with people who did have a technical educational background? How did you overcome that feeling?
In the first year of my career I felt extremely intimidated and out of place. I guess I had a major dose of imposter syndrome. I felt so different from everyone else at my company. I didn’t graduate from an Ivy League school or have a Computer Science/Engineering degree. I was also the only Latina Engineer at my company for a little over two years! For all those reasons I felt extremely different and like maybe I didn’t measure up. Being a newbie, I felt that everyone else was more experienced and knowledgeable.
"I felt extremely different and like maybe I didn’t measure up.."
I was overcome with the daunting feeling that I was never going to be able to catch up to them. Luckily, I had an awesome mentor who was able to calm me when I was freaking out. Her name is Sha Sha and she’s now the Android Technical Lead at the company. She’s a badass engineer with a ton of experience and I was extremely lucky to have her on my team as a mentor. She suggested two key tips: to take things one step at a time and not compare myself to others. My mentor assured me that my knowledge and experience would grow with time. Being someone who wanted to be amazing from day one, I really needed to hear that. She made me realize that I simply had to give myself time. So, I learned to embrace my own unique journey and slowly became more confident with time. I also created and found supportive communities that I could identify with. When I got to Pinterest there was no Latinx Employee Resource Group, so I helped kick-off that effort and now we have over 100 members worldwide. Therefore, my advice to others would be to put in the work every day, do not compare yourself to others, find a support system you identify with, and embrace your own unique journey. That is what worked for me.
Why is important to ask questions?
Sometimes we don’t want to ask questions because we don’t want to look “dumb” or “uninformed” but asking questions is extremely powerful because it can accelerate your learning. Sometimes the answer to your problem is extremely simple, you simply haven’t been exposed to the problem before and thus cannot easily see the solution. Personally, I can recall times where I spent hours trying to resolve a problem I thought was colossal, only to then consult with senior engineer and obtain a solution within a few minutes of pair-programming.
What is it like working for Pinterest?
I love working for Pinterest. It’s such an awesome environment and company to work for. Honestly, it’s my dream company and I feel so blessed to have the opportunity to work on a product that creates a positive impact in the lives of others. Pinterest is simply a super fun place to work because of its people. As you can imagine, people at Pinterest are extremely nice and have a wide variety of interests and hobbies which they bring into work and share with the wider company each and every day.
Why do you love working in the Technology field?
There are quite a few things I love about my career. I love that I get to create things that are useful for others and that influence how people live their lives. I love that I get to come into work and learn something new every day. Changes and innovation in this field happen every day. This means that I get the privilege of working in a field which requires me to continuously learn and grow. I truly value that challenge. I find such a huge reward in being able to find solutions to new and complex problems. I also love that I have a lot of autonomy in my job. When I see a problem that needs solving, I can choose to approach it in any way I see fit or I consult with my team members. I am grateful to have found I career that allows me to work with extremely creative, intelligent, passionate and talented individuals. If I ever found myself pursuing another field in the future, I doubt the transition would be difficult. Programming skills are extremely transferable across industries and I truly believe that in the future every company will be a technology company in some way, either by using Technology as their main platform or by integrating technology into their business processes in order to become more effective, efficient or scalable.
What does a typical work day look like for you?
Wow, I feel like all of my days look different depending on what sorts of projects I’m working on at the time. I actually made a video about it [A Day in the life of a Software Engineer].
Many people think programming is a lonely job, but it is quite the opposite. I feel like I’m surrounded by and working with people most of the day. Building a product requires tons of communication and collaboration with other engineers, designers, product managers and even end-users!
On a daily basis I do a variety of things, but I’ll go through a typical day from when I wake up until I get home in the evening.
I try to wake up between 6:00 am - 6:30 am and run to the gym before I have a chance to convince myself not to go.
Once I’m home I’ll shower and change.
I ride my bike to work and listen to an Audiobook on my way. I’m currently listening to Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” and I totally recommend it to every wo/man of color; it’s so good!
When I arrive to work I make Chai Tea and grab some fruit before sitting down to catch up on Slack and email messages.
When I’m done reading and responding to emails I usually get to work on the task for the day. We use JIRA for project management and I usually have a few projects on there at different stages of development. Sometimes I work on front-end UI components, while other times I work on infrastructure tasks or research.
I will work for a few hours until it’s time for a team meeting. At our team meetings we discuss project status and define what we’d like to work on next individually.
Because my company provides free breakfast lunch and dinner, I try to have most of my meals on-site. I usually have lunch with friends both coworkers and people I invite over to join me for a meal. Because I’m involved in a lot of different groups inside the company, for example, I run our Pinterest Bookclub and I helped found our Latino Employee Resource Group, Todos Pincluidos, I also have a lot of lunch meetings with huge groups of people where we discuss books, current events and what we’re going to bring to the Latinx Pinterest community next.
After lunch I head back to my desk for a few more hours of individual work. In the afternoon I also often have meetings with Product Managers and Design to discuss current projects, brainstorm future projects and make data-based decisions on current running experiments. The afternoon is also when we have our wider Android Engineering meetings where all of the Android Engineers at Pinterest (30+) come together bi-weekly to strategize and communicate about changes to the platform and product.
Pinterest offers a lot of activities in the early evening before dinner and I tend to take advantage of those. On Mondays and Thursdays we have Yoga on site which is a great way to unplug and destress and every week we have a special workshop like embroidery.
I usually have dinner with my team and then grab a bike to head home, meet up with friends or take a dance class. By the time I get home I’m usually ready to be alone and unwind so my evenings are pretty chill and consist of reading, tea and skincare.
How do you keep your tech skills up-to-date?
At work I try to make sure that I’m always working on something that is new to me. I also subscribe to quite a few technology related newsletters and podcasts which help me stay up-to-date with my industry and what new tools and technologies I should be on the lookout for. Occasionally, I will attend local Android meetups that capture my interest. At Pinterest we also host Android meetups once a quarter where we bring in Engineers from other companies for lunch and informally chat about Technology tools and frameworks we are currently using or excited about. I also work on personal projects during my free-time if I’m curious about anything or want to build something for myself.
In your opinion, what is the most common misconception people have about the tech industry today?
One common misconception is that women aren’t welcome in the Technology industry, that it’s a toxic place for women and that there aren’t many of us in this field. I don’t find this to be true. There are many women doing amazing things within the field. I will admit, I do find that perhaps some companies or parts of the Tech industry are not ideal spaces for women, however, I always encourage women to do their research before accepting an offer or interviewing for a company.
What does “doing your research” mean? It means reading Glassdoor reviews to see what past and current employees have said, finding people who work at the company on LinkedIn or Twitter and inviting them to a quick 30 minute coffee chat to get a feel for the environment, asking a ton of questions about the culture and looking around the office when the opportunity presents itself in order to get a feel for what the male to female ratio is.
When you interview at a company you have to remember that you are interviewing them as well. You are trying to decide if this is a place where you can be happy for a few years, a place that will enable you to develop and grow as a professional and a place where you will feel comfortable and excited going into work.
Being a tech ambassador yourself, tell us about your partnership with Technolochicas.
I am an ambassador for TECHNOLOchicas. TECHNOLOchicas is a grassroots organization whose mission is to inspire Latina’s to create the future of technology. It’s an initiative backed by NCWiT, the Televisa Foundation and the Eva Longoria foundation (I got to meet Eva Longoria for the launch our campaign at Google a couple of years ago!).
We host events and coding workshops throughout the country for young Latinas with the goal of inspiring them to seek, or at least consider, a career in STEAM fields. These workshops consist of fun coding games, approachable introduction to programming lessons, science fair style exhibits where the girls can learn about a few different sectors and hopefully find one they are interested in and live panels where the young girls can ask TECHNOLOchicas all of their burning questions.
What message would you like to give to all aspiring females in the tech industry?
When things get tough don't give up.
· Seek out help. Look for mentors, guidance, tutors and others who are embarking on this journey at the same time.
· Use all of the resources available in your community and online. Almost everything you need to know is out there, you just have to look for it.
Learn form your peers.
· If you are in college, learn from your peers who may have better study habits than you or who have metal models for learning that you had never even thought of.
Be extremely curious.
· Explore all of your interests and figure out if there is any way you can combine all of your passions into a career. Even if you can’t, at least you will have learned something new that you might be able to use in the future.
Learning never stops!
· Gain as many skills as you possibly can and never stop learning. Absorb as much as you can from the smart people around you, from those who came from better and worse means than you. Everyone has something to teach if you are willing to open yourself up to the possibilities.
Find your community.
· More importantly, look for a good community to be a part of. Look for your tribe of people who will be there for support and motivation & who you can provide the same to.
It’s not going to be easy, otherwise everyone else would be doing it too! Who doesn’t want at least a six-figure salary coming straight out of college? Who wouldn’t want to bring their entire family up an income bracket or two? With hard work and determination, you can achieve your career goals. If I can do it, you can do it too!
What resources would you recommend for women interested in learning how to code?
I started with the intro to HTML and CSS course on CodeAcademy (there’s a photo and quote of me on their website now *blushing*). After doing HTML and CSS and learning that you actually enjoy this kind of work I would dive into Python because it is a good introductory programming language that a ton of companies use for different purposes.
CodeAcademy is really awesome for intro courses and for getting a handle on the language. However, when you start to feel ready to build projects I’d go into Udacity, Udemy or Treehouse to start building cool things. I’ve taken some courses on each of these sites and they all have really great quality content.
After taking the courses you need, what you do is up to you! You can take more courses online and continue to self-teach until you feel ready to apply to internships/apprenticeships/jobs, or you can do an online program like FreeCodeCamp or you can join a formal training program like Pursuit or HackReactor. There are a ton all over the world which you can search for here. I would recommend reaching out to program alumni to get a feel for the program before you apply because the application process can be quite extensive. A lot of these programs also have helpful payment options.
When you’re ready to apply to apprenticeships check out https://github.com/fvcproductions/apprenticeships.