Nobody Does It Alone, Jack

By all accounts I’ve had an incredibly successful career. I came from a poor family and built a career in one of the highest paying professions in the country. I am incredibly lucky.

I grew up outside Johnstown, Pennsylvania in an unincorporated community called Beaverdale. Beaverdale is an old depressed mining community. Today, when you go there, you’ll see the boarded up remnants of community grocery stores and small businesses. When people talk about rural communities being left behind, they mean Beaverdale.

As you can imagine, there weren’t a lot of opportunities there for a kid interested in computers. And no opportunities for someone secretly questioning her identity.

I knew that if I wanted to be successful I’d have to get out of there. I didn’t want to end up stuck in Johnstown working the kitchen at a local Sheetz facing no future. I know that’s cliche, but when you’re 16, everything is a cliche.

In high school, I was in our “gifted” class track, I joined Future Business Leaders of America and Technology Students Association, and I joined after school clubs. I got into a good college, graduated with a bachelors degree and made a career for myself.

This is the type of story a lot of people tell about themselves. It’s the American dream. It’s the promise of our country: that through hard work and determination, we can become successful and live our dreams. The previous paragraph outlines my path through that dream. But, it’s also a lie of omission.

People might look at my life and see a hardworking person who rescued herself from her circumstances. But, that isn’t what I see. I see a long train of getting bailed out, having help, and being propped up toward success. I was the result of a lot of help. I didn’t do it alone.

After my father died, we moved from North Carolina to Pennsylvania. My mother worked waitressing jobs because she couldn’t find a job in PA as a nurse. Our income dropped substantially. Because of the loss of my father and our income level, My mom received government assistance. She got Social Security Survivor’s benefits on our behalf that helped pay our rent and buy food. Our health insurance was provided through CHIP. We received food stamps. I got free and reduced lunches at school. I received a ton of financial help when I was young.

Those student organizations I joined? They were free after school programs that gave me something productive to do. The ones that lasted longer usually included food. I took AP and CHS course, but didn’t receive credit for them because we couldn’t afford to pay the exam prices.

I tested into the gifted program at my school, But among that group, I was not a great student.

I got into the University of Pittsburgh and because of my family’s status, I was able to get grants and loans. Almost my entire education was funded by Federal loans. I got bigger loans than most people because my mother’s credit would not let her file for PLUS loans on my behalf. This meant that I had money to pay for tuition, housing, books, and campus meal plans.

When my mother had slightly more earnings one year, I almost wasn’t able to pay for school. A financial aid administrator at the university worked with me to get new grants to cover most of my tuition and put the remainder on a payment plan though the summer.

I had excellent mentors in university. My advisor put me in touch with Carolyn, a woman who gave me an opportunity to get some web experience building Wordpress plugins.

Later, when I was facing financial difficulty and felt guilty about going to my mom for help, Carolyn offered me a small job writing up manuals and doing basic system administration at her networking consulting firm. This was work that ordinarily would be done by other, more experienced employees. But, she created a job in her company to help me bridge a bad time.

My first job was at a consulting company. I got this job because a friend had the position open and interviewed me. When I graduated, I joined professional groups. One of these groups, Pittsburgh Ruby, would help me land the biggest move in career: Software Engineer at 4moms. Working at 4moms gave me a ton of experience. It put me in touch with a great community of developers and helped me build a resume that would lead to every job I’ve had since. But, I would not have gotten that job if I wasn’t part of the Pittsburgh Ruby community. If that community didn’t exist, I might still be in western Pennsylvania.

Recently, I was laid off from my job. And the community I have built here in Boulder has been instrumental in helping me land interviews and get introductions. I’m incredibly fortunate. I work in an industry that is incredibly well paid. I built a career for myself. I did everything I could to escape poverty and become successful. But, as I reflect on my career , I can’t imagine a path from where I was to where I am without all the help I’ve received.

The biggest thing I’ve learned in life, is that hard work isn’t enough. Nobody does it alone. And, you don’t have to try.