As kids, my brother and I were exposed to computers for as long as I can remember. My Grandma worked at an elementary school in their IT department, so working in a technical field or with computers was not lost on our family. In Florida, surrounded by a hispanic community—I noticed many people at the time weren’t into the idea of working in technology or the idea that computers could provide a decent living.
Eventually, I convinced my mom to buy me a $10 domain name.
In middle school around the age of twelve, I began playing with an HTML/CSS tutorial provided by the online game Neopets–a virtual world complete with an economy, homes, pets and games. It taught you how to customize your pet’s webpage complete with basic analytics, tags, and homemade “graphix.” I was a curious kid, always interested in creating something or learning obscure new things. Naturally, coding was right up my alley and I was immediately hooked. I loved everything about the web; how in minutes I could upload my work to a server and it would be publicly available. How I could interact with this community of other people doing the same thing, without knowing who they were. How I didn’t need permission to create things, I could just teach myself and produce something. It gave me a certain freedom that I didn’t get in my real life.
Soon after, I began creating pet webpages, “petpages”, with graphics for other kids. As I learned more about web development and wanted to move on to larger challenges, I got “hosted” by someone. (This means an owner of a domain name gives away subdomains). I kept making graphics, some not specific to Neopets. Eventually, I convinced my mom to buy me a $10 domain name. On my site, I wrote design and development tutorials, and gave away “resources” like Adobe Photoshop brushes just like my peers—it was very in vogue at the time to do so in the large community of teenagers that liked playing around in image manipulation programs and code editors.
A year later, The New York Times featured me in a piece about piece on teenage girls who were creating things online. This solidified the idea that coding was a “real thing,” rather than just something meaningless I did in my spare time. After that (and reading all the bad comments), I got more serious about what I did as a craft. Before this, I was completely unaware of the web community. I soon discovered great web resources like CSS-Tricks, Nettuts, Hong Kiat, Smashing Magazine, etc. I learned about MySQL databases, created custom Wordpress themes and even wrote a few guest posts on other design and development blogs.
During my freshman year of high school, I began doing client work. I realized I could create the life I wanted for myself if I was the one funding it. My Mom was raising two kids alone on a teacher’s salary. While we had what we needed and were fed every night, there was no room for extras. By doing client work, I could afford to buy things like web hosting, more domains, and Photoshop magazines. Using my own money, I became more independent and took care of myself. I worked because I loved it, not because I had to. Work was more than a hobby or a chore, it was my passion. It was so invigorating to both do what I loved and to create a life for myself that wasn’t dictated by anyone else’s ideas of what I should do with myself and my time.
I posted on Reddit asking for design work in New York. To my surprise, it actually worked.
During the summer of senior year, I realized it was time to move on to bigger and better things. I wanted to move away from working for other people, and move toward working with other people. I posted on Reddit asking for design work in New York. To my surprise, it actually worked. A startup, based out of someone’s apartment, was willing to hire a self-taught seventeen-year-old from Florida as their designer. That summer, I designed and developed transactional emails, designed the logo, created business cards, and implemented front-end development in our Rails-based backend using Haml and Sass. I continued to work for that company remotely during the school year.
Having real design and development experience for many clients and for a startup by the time I was in my senior year, I made the decision that college wasn’t for me. I had taught myself everything I knew about the web, and I certainly didn’t need an outdated college curriculum to keep going. College is what everyone expects from young people. If you didn’t go to school, you’re seen as “less-than”–a failure.
The month after graduating high school, I moved to New York. I lived in a cheap studio apartment in Queens, and continued working for that first startup as their Lead Designer. To appease my Mom, I tried enrolling in a local college but that only lasted a semester. I decided that wasn’t worth my time or tuition if my days were spent knowing all the answers and teaching professors how to use InDesign shortcuts.
Since that startup folded, I worked as a freelancer, in corporate, and with technology startups in the industry. I have continued my self-education, using the codebases I’ve worked on, stackoverflow, and the many open-source resources online as learning tools. Most recently, I have been picking up Python and Django (and organizing local events that teach women how to code).
Many years later, I am humbled and grateful to have had wonderful people in my life who have enabled me to succeed. Employers who trusted and believed in me, my Mom who always pushed us to pursue our dreams, my family who accepted my decisions, and my amazing friends who are always there to lend their support and advice. Getting here was not an easy feat—especially as a young latina college drop-out. I hope this story shows others that it’s possible for women of color to thrive in this industry, even if it’s a more difficult journey than most.