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Angela Taylor always pictured herself appearing on the screen, not working behind one. Growing up in rural Arkansas, she was dead set on becoming an actress in Hollywood. Silicon Valley, which is about a five-hour drive north of Hollywood Boulevard, was never part of the plan.
But during Taylor’s junior year in college at Northwestern — where she kept the A-lister dream alive by doing “all the creative and artsy stuff” in her communications major — a friend forwarded her an email about a summer internship at Google. She applied on a whim and was accepted to a position on the search engine’s corporate communications team. It might not have been her career goal at the time, but the chance to explore a new field was exciting, and the money didn’t hurt either.
“I was like, Whoa, there’s this whole world out here that I’ve never even heard of,” Taylor, now 30, told Refinery29.
The year was 2008: Facebook hadn’t yet gone public, Instagram didn't exist, and the original iPhone was only a year old. Silicon Valley was evolving at a thrilling pace, and the industry’s energy appealed to Taylor, who accepted a job at Google’s Mountain View headquarters when she graduated in 2009. But an HR role in the search engine's people operations department wasn't her dream job. It was in 2011 that she got hands on experience in software engineering — an unexpected opportunity that inspired her to make a drastic career change.
That year, Taylor took an Intro to Programming class taught by a colleague. “The goal was to teach non-technical people that they could use coding in their day-to-day work to become more efficient,” she explains.
Shortly after taking the class, Taylor, who was working on Google’s people analytics team, used what she learned to fix a broken script. A script is a way of communicating with a computer that Taylor compares to acting: In the same way that an actor reads a script to move a story forward, a computer reads a script to know what actions to take.
“I was like, wait a second, what am I doing?” she says. “I had never felt that way about any work I had done before. It was like a puzzle. Growing up I loved logic puzzles, so this was like a version of that where I got to build something at the end.”
Taylor decided she wanted to become a full-time engineer, not just someone who picked up one-off programming projects when needed. But saying you want to become an engineer when you have no computer science experience is a little like saying you want to be an actress with no agent: It's not practical by any stretch of the imagination.
“Google engineers have a reputation and I knew that,” Taylor says. “They’re all geniuses and they come from these top schools with the best computer science programs.”
Taylor knew becoming an engineer was a long-term goal, and gave herself 10 years to make it a reality. Still, the path wasn’t a clear one, especially since she didn't want to give up her day job and steady income to return to school full time. There weren’t many free online coding resources, so Taylor took evening classes at a community college using Google's education stipend. After a year of mastering the basics, she enrolled in computer science courses at Stanford.
“There were many times not only where I thought about quitting but where I decided, I’m done, I can’t do it,” Taylor says.
She wasn't just pushing herself to the limits outside of work. She also took advantage of Google’s 20% policy, which allows employees to dedicate a small portion of their time to a project outside of their direct team, so long as they still fulfil their full-time responsibilities. One day a week, Taylor joined a Google engineering group. She eventually stopped taking classes when she realised she was gaining more useful experience on the job and never finished a computer science degree.
In the spring of 2017, when she was six years in to her 10-year goal, Taylor received an offer to transfer teams, cementing her status as a software engineer. “When it happened, my first feeling wasn’t excitement, it was Oh thank God it’s over,” she says.
As colleagues shared news of her transition with other internal groups, Taylor came to a surprising realisation: She wasn’t the only one who attempted such a daunting career move.
“When I met these other women who had gone from non-technical roles into engineering roles, my first thought was, 'Oh man, where were you this whole time?'” she says. "It would have been awesome to know that this was possible. I thought my goal was crazy and that nobody else was trying to do it."
Still, switching careers comes with a set of challenges that don't end when the job offer arrives.
“Imposter syndrome is real — it’s so real,” Taylor says. "I didn’t even know that term until I got into tech. The funny thing is it was never anyone external that was making me feel like I didn’t belong. It was just all in my head. I just had this feeling that people would look at me and see that not only am I a woman, I’m a Black woman. Not only am I a Black woman, I came from HR. I just assumed that people had these thoughts about me. If they did, they never expressed it. Everyone was so welcoming and encouraging.”
Today, Taylor is a member of the Google Voice team, where she is a full stack developer, coding for both the front end (what you see onscreen) and back end (the processes that take place out of sight).
While she doesn’t rule out moving to L.A. and picking up acting — if she wins the lottery — that goal is no longer front and centre: “I have my dream job now just by being an engineer. I’m riding this wave.”
Taylor’s Advice For Changing Careers In Tech:
Know Your Worth
“You are no different than any other person in tech in terms of your capacity to succeed. Once you recognise that, it will be easier to go into the environment and not get discouraged by how unwelcoming [the industry] can be to people who aren’t in the majority. You can do it — you are just as good as anyone else.”
Set Realistic Expectations
“Recognise that it will take time, and give yourself that time. Learn as you learn and recognise your progress.”
Mentor Someone Else
“I thought I wasn’t learning anything, but when I started mentoring someone else I realised I actually do know a lot. Mentor someone else even if you don’t think you are qualified to, because you realise how much you do know once you start teaching someone who knows literally nothing.
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