What's up! Who are you and what do you do in the tech industry?

I am Ashley, a southern girl from Louisiana by way of Chicago, currently living in Washington DC. My family has deep heritage from the western shores of Africa to slavery and southern Louisiana and Mississippi. Despite the fact that neither of my parents have 4-year degrees, they and my grandparents emphasized the importance of education. I went to college with the intention of becoming a designer and business owner and so I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in art and one in business. College was not easy for me. The school work was not difficult but it was time consuming, and because I worked 50-60 hour weeks trying to pay for food, housing, car maintenance, doctors bills, books and art supplies for school (in short LIFE is expensive!) time was limited. In short, I had zero time, very little money, and lots of school work.

After landing my first job as a data scientist I have had financial freedom as well as an abundance of time that I’ve never had in my adult life. I travel more, I volunteer with my sorority (z-phi!) and I have the time to think about what I want to do. A luxury I think many people take for granted.

My day to day life as a data scientist has been one of the most interesting points of my career. I solve problems in a way that is both creative and rooted in math. I have the opportunity to put my graphic design skills to use when I create visualizations, and I get to work with a broad range of people and problems. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of my day is not spent behind a computer coding, (well most days aren’t). Most of my days are spent brainstorming, talking to other teams,explaining my ideas, and implementing projects.

As a data scientist I have more autonomy in my job. I work on interesting projects at my own pace. Additionally, because of the demand for data scientists in Washington DC, I have more opportunities when it comes to selecting a job that I enjoy, and more flexibility in negotiating pay, benefits and time off. For me that means I have more time to spend with my family and friends, build my brand, and more chances to travel and do the things I want to do.

What's your backstory and what motivated you to join tech?

I worked for several years after graduating college as a graphic designer, then as a marketing executive. I hated it all. I hated how much time I spent at work. It was not unusual for me to spend the night on the lobby sofa because a deadline loomed and my team and I would be there until 2 or 3 am, and then be back in the office at 7am.

I hated how the culture praised being busy over being productive. I hated how people constantly commented on how I was too calm as if being stressed and anxious are markers of "good, hard-working employees". I hated that outside of work, nobody seemed to speak about anything of substance. Honestly I wonder if anyone had time to do anything of substance. I sure didn't.

But after spending all my resources getting a degree in art and business, I thought looking for a different career was a waste. It was also hard to reconcile how much I disliked my job because I excelled at it. I was getting promotions and recognition. My pay wasn’t bad. From the outside looking in, I had it all. No one seemed to understand why I wanted to leave. I decided to keep at it, continue putting forth my best effort and assumed I could fake it till I make it to job satisfaction.

I did this until I met a coworker who had so much faith in me. She was a VP at my company: in-shape, stylish, older, pretty, smart, and accomplished. She wanted to groom me to be the next marketing VP. She knew I wanted to own my own company and encouraged my dreams. She was helpful and a great mentor who understood the daily operations of the business. However, she spent every waking moment thinking and talking about work. Her daughter noticed it, her family noticed it, her friends were sick of it. I looked at all the other VPs, men and women alike had no time for hobbies, love, family, travel etc. I knew that I didn’t want to be this way and so I knew I couldn’t stay in this industry. I started quietly planning my escape.

I had never given any serious thought to a different career so when the time came to start looking for one I was at a loss, so I started doing research. At the time Princeton Review gave really good profiles of different professions including day to day work, number of hours spent at work weekly, pay, typical education levels etc.

After months of extensive research online (I only make decisions after doing extensive research because I am overly dramatic that way.), I decided my next career path was going to be data science. It was a promising career with great prospects and a broad range of applications (I like to have options!). Most importantly, I didn’t have to go back to get another bachelor’s or master's degree. I already had a master’s degree in International Economics by this time.

How did you break into the tech industry?

Whenever I set a goal for myself and I begin to see the pieces coming together I get giddy. I want to tell everyone and of course the first people I went to were my besties. Most of whom I’d known since middle school. I told them about the future I saw for myself but my friends thought I was insane. They told me I was a creative and tech wasn’t for me. They said I would hate it. After such negative feedback from my friends I decided not to tell my family about my plans. I kept going for my goal but kept the details to myself.

Now that I knew I wanted to go into data science, I devised my plan. The first step was to make my career goals clear to employers, while I learned the technical skills I needed. I knew I could not get a job in data science with the experience I had but I thought I could definitely land an analytics role.

The most important thing about my next job was not what I was doing, or even what I was going to learn, but the job title. I found a role that merged marketing and analytics but was more technical than any role I had held in the past. When they offered me the position the first thing I did was negotiate to have the title changed. I knew how important it would be for my future goals to have the word “analyst” in my title.

Even before landing my analyst job I began studying. In order to get this job, I would need to learn some new skills to make myself marketable. I needed to brush up on my statistics, and learn Python and SQL and then understand how to apply these concepts to machine learning and artificial intelligence.

To learn these new skills I took free online classes on coursera. I researched other data scientists and saw what they did. I reached out to them on Linkedin and asked them if I could take them for coffee. I especially reached out to women and minorities in the field. Eventually, after I felt comfortable with my baseline skills in statistics, advanced mathematics, SQL, and Python, I decided to get a certificate in data science at the University of Georgetown. I financed the whole $7000 program on a credit card with the goal of paying the balance at the end of the year when I landed my first data science job.

The classes at Georgetown were ALL DAY Friday and Saturday. The classwork alone filled my Sundays, and group projects required us to meet up twice a week after work. I was tired! I felt defeated at times. I often wondered if my friends were right, if I wasn’t mathematically inclined and this was all a waste of my time and money.

After about a year and 4 months of grinding I hadn't seen much reward for my efforts. My relationships started suffering. My long-term boyfriend at the time was feeling neglected after I started the Georgetown program. However, I am stubborn and once I put my mind to something I am committed. (Plus I already maxed my credit card on this program!) But finally after only one month in the program, and about 15 months into my journey, I was offered a job as a data scientist.

I landed a job at a startup, not because I had suddenly become the best coder or a math genius. I got the job because I showed them that I was willing to put in the same effort I did when I was back in college. I took 27 credit hours while holding down two 30 hour a week jobs, made time for extra curricular work, and spent time with family and friends. I admit, I exhausted myself regularly. But I knew the short term pain would result in long term success.

Here I am, a black woman, a data scientist, a speaker at tech events and a consultant for nonprofits and private industry who finally (finally) doesn't have to work double overtime to make a living.

What was the interview process for your first tech job?

The interview process for that first job was long. In the first week they screened me with an HR person. Two weeks later they followed up with a phone screen from the person who would become my manager. He gave me a take home “quiz” where I was given some data and asked to tell them something about the business, using the data. I had 3 weeks and I panicked. “Could I do it?” “Would I be good enough?” “Did I really know what I was doing?” It had been months since I’d seen my friends, hung out with family or even gone on a date with my boyfriend because of school and now with this interview I felt like more of my freedom was being stripped away. Luckily my past life in marketing prepared me for this so I joined #TeamNoSleep to get it all done.

I gave the quiz my attention for a full 2 weeks, while working and taking weekend classes. I would come home from work spend about 3 hours on homework and an additional 2 hours on my take home assignment for the job. I used the last week to reflect on what I was turning in; I made sure my answers were spelled correctly, refined word usage, and researched additional information to use as anecdotal evidence to back up my responses based on the data. I felt drained by the end of the take home assignment.

I got no feedback from the company at first. Panic began to set in again. All my self doubt rose to the surface. After a month of nothing, the company reached out. They wanted a final onsite interview. I went to the onsite and met the team. The interviewers asked me questions on how I would solve for business scenarios such as non-cooperative co-workers, a lack of funding for a project, etc.

I knew that this was it. There were no more technical questions which meant now they were seeing if I was a good cultural fit. While this was a relief and gave me the confidence to know that I had a solid technical background, it was an anxiety inducing process.

Finally I was offered an entry level data science position, I negotiated salary and a stake in the company at just under $100k. The full process from application to signed offer letter took 5 months.

Since you’ve started your tech career, how do you deal with imposter syndrome?

I constantly have imposters syndrome but luckily I not only made sure to look for a job where the work suited my needs, I also looked for a culture that suited my needs. This meant supportive coworkers who think cooperatively and aren’t trying to bring you down. My coworkers are always telling me they think I have great ideas and they like my approach to problems. When I really feel down my boyfriend from the Georgetown saga, who is now my husband, uplifts me and reminds me what I did to get where I am. I don’t need to be the smartest person in the room, I just need to be the one who can come up with innovative ideas to get the job done, work with integrity, and treat people the way they deserve.

What resources did you use to prepare for this journey?

Reading blogs (here are three that I like)

Wikipedia articles (here is a wikipedia search I had to do for work recently)

News and articles about the topic (Google alerts is great for this)

What advice do you have for others who want a career in tech or are early in their career?

I have 3 keys I like to live by.

  1. Network… network… network!!! People still get jobs by who they know and not what they know. That being said technology helps take the barriers out of networking. If you don't live in the same city as someone who you look up to their work, slide into their DMs and ask if you can interview them for school or because you are looking to change careers or because you read an article they wrote (people love to know that you’ve read their work or followed their careers etc.)

  2. Be nice to everyone. From the secretary to the janitor to the CEO. You never know who has decision making power and you never know where your next opportunity will take you. No one wants to work with a jerk. Tech has a particularly bad rap for this. The genius jerk programmer who is too valuable to let go. I’ve seen this so many times and it helps these people in the short run but in the long run their reputation as the jerk catches up with them. Don’t be a jerk.

  3. When a problem arises, offer solutions no matter how far-fetched or seemingly impossible. Additionally, don’t be afraid to offer half of a solution and know that you would need to educate yourself further or do additional research to come up with a full solution. People like to know that you are thinking of ways to solve the organization’s problems but no one wants to be around someone who only points out problems. Don’t forget that it is ok not to have a solution every time. Teams should be the foundation for a company to both build an organization but also build people. You become better by learning from others and they become better by learning from you.

Where can we go to learn more about you or keep in touch?

Follow me on twitter @ashleyMBA_ to get great articles on data science, tips on how to enter the industry and profiles and interviews with other great data scientists, as well as women and people of color in STEM. On September 4th I will be speaking at DC Digital Summit on machine learning for real-time segmentation, you can get tickets to attend here: https://dc.digitalsummit.com/ use my code SPEAK50 for $50 off your registration.