Oftentimes, it feels like the tech recruiting process is a moving train on rigid tracks. The most widely known path is a linear one: students major in computer science at a university and apply to internships. Maybe they work for a summer or two and convert to full time roles post-grad, or maybe they apply to positions in the fall of their senior year. This seems to be the general formula, but what happens when you miss the CS train or don’t find it until later on in life?
Enter: Melissa Perez, a current Oregon State ECampus computer science major and fullstack engineering intern at Twilio. I chat with her about her own non-linear path to CS and what the journey has allowed her to learn about herself. Though Melissa is only 31-years-old, she’s lived past lives as a community college student, a statistics major at UCLA, and a consultant at Infosys. Before all of that, she grew up in Los Angeles where the expectation was to join the workforce as soon as she could. “I didn’t really have a direction, and I didn’t grow up with a lot of good role models in school. I mean, everyone in my family was expected to just go work,” she says.
Melissa mentions that she struggled in high school, but after her cousin encouraged her to apply to community college, she gradually began to discover her gift for math. “[Community college] took me a long time because I had to make up math classes and do the general education courses. And then, eventually I kept doing math courses, and I did well. I was surprised,” she tells me. Melissa’s achievements in math also exposed her to other STEM fields––most notably computer science.
In 2016, Melissa transferred to UCLA. She describes the period of transition as one that was marked by self-doubt. “Although I was doing well at those intro courses, I had, like, a sudden doubt… I felt scared I wasn’t ready for CS, and I would transfer, and I would fail out, and I only had so many chances at a ‘real’ university.” She ended up pursuing math and ultimately switched to statistics under the time pressure of scholarships that would soon run out.
Soon after graduating from UCLA, Melissa began working as a tech consultant for Infosys, but she never stopped thinking about what life might have been like if she’d pursued computer science. With a deep sense of personal curiosity, she began taking computer science courses online. “I spent that summer after graduation going back, doing c++, and going, oh, these topics actually make sense to me now,” she says.
When she was laid off from her consulting position due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Melissa turned difficult circumstances into an opportunity to catch the computer science train. She enrolled in Oregon State’s ECampus program where she’s now getting a second degree in CS. As part of the program, she’s had a chance to TA and participate in cyber security research, experiences that have sparked her interest in CS and education. “I’ve loved helping other students or other colleagues learn stuff or learn topics on whatever we’re covering. And it felt just good for them to take that knowledge and … go farther than we discussed. That’s the best thing ever.”
Given the number of students who want to enter the tech sector, Melissa sees her current position at Twilio and a career in industry as an invaluable opportunity for someone who might educate and mentor others one day. She found the position through ColorStack’s Stacked Up summit, a free three-day event in which Black and Latinx students attend panels and networking events with recruiters and other industry professionals. The summit will be returning this year starting August 17 (to sign up see this link).
Though Melissa had attended other tech conferences that year, she says that the Stacked Up summit stood out because of its people-centric approach. “It was crazy. You were able to get one on one interactions,” she says, which is exactly what happened with the summit presenters from Twilio. Soon after, Melissa landed the internship at the company.
Melissa has continued her involvement with ColorStack since the summit. She has attended Fam Fridays, participated in the Sprout program, and above all, found a sense of joy in the representation that ColorStack provides. “Just being able to see everyone’s achievements. It’s very great, and it’s not something I grew up seeing. I guess with us, people of Color.. Latinx, Hispanic, Black. It’s just, you wouldn’t think there were so many of us… And seeing all of these people, everyone doing so well I’m just amazed, and I’m very happy. And that’s what ColorStack means to me: community building up each other.”