Nikema Prophet, Community Manager at Armory, talks with host, Pachi Carlson about realizing she wanted to get into tech for a living, her first experiences working in tech, and she has kept herself motivated to keep learning new things.
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Jonan Scheffler: Hello and welcome to Launchies, proudly brought to you by New Relic's developer relations team, The Relicans. The Launchies podcast is about supporting new developers and telling their stories, and helping you make the next step in what we certainly hope is a very long and healthy career in software. You can find the show notes for this episode along with all of The Relicans podcasts on developer.newrelic.com/podcasts. We're so glad you're here. Enjoy the show.
Pachi Carlson: Hello and welcome. I'm Pachi Carlson, and I'm going to be hosting today's show. Today I have here with me, Nikema Prophet. And she is one person I admire a lot. So as you know, Launchies is a podcast for code newbies and people with non-traditional backgrounds. And Nikema is out there doing awesome work to open space for people that are trying to get in tech. She's also a Community Manager at Armory, and she's the founder of PopSchools that has a super cool project that I'm going to be asking her to talk about in a few. So welcome, Nikema, and thank you so much for accepting to be here today. How are you?
Nikema Prophet: Thanks for having me. Yeah, I'm good.
Pachi: So I always like to get started with the coding question. When did you first get interested in working in tech? When was the moment that you realized that hey, I want to do this for a living?
Nikema: There are two answers because when I started working with tech, I was younger, around 11, 12 years old. I started making web pages with HTML back then, but it wasn't a career aspiration back then. So when I started thinking about seriously I want to do this as a career, I was probably in my early 20s. Before I got pregnant and had my first child, I had always had that interest in computers. So I thought about it, but it wasn't until I did get pregnant and had to get my mind focused on how am I going to support a family now? So that's when it became okay; I have always liked computers. I've always had this interest, so this is something I can do as a mother and raise my kid. And I was thinking about remote work back then. I was like; you can do this from home and make money and raise kids. So yeah, that's when it became a career aspiration.
Pachi: And what was the first step that you took to decide? How did you choose what to learn and how to learn?
Nikema: When I got pregnant, I moved from New York to California, back home for me. And pretty much as soon as I got home, I enrolled in junior college, and they had a certificate called web developer, and it was in the computer information science department. So I pretty much just jumped in right away with the intention of getting this web developer certificate. It was a community college program. I didn't go for a degree; I went for a certificate. And it took me probably five years to finish a one-year certificate, but I did.
Pachi: That's great. So after that, when did you get your first job? Was it in web development?
Nikema: My first job -- again, there are two answers because the first job would probably be something like a one-off contract. I know I did some work building WordPress sites for people, and that was probably within a few years of finishing that certificate. But my first job, what I consider my real first tech job was in August of 2020, which is a few months back as of now, and that's where I am now at Armory.
Pachi: And how did you get that job? How did you get interested because you're working as a community manager, right?
Nikema: Yes, I'm an associate community marketing manager at Armory. And my job search was -- looking back; I think I made it kind of a spectacle. [Chuckles] I made a whole social media campaign around searching for a job. I did that twice. That was the second time I tried this documenting my job search because in 2019, I did a public job search, and I did get a job, but it wasn't the full-time salary job that I have now; it was a contract job with a founder friend of mine. So yeah, again, this was the second time I tried this, but the second time around, it wasn't just me documenting with the hashtag. It was -- Well, the hashtag that I used was #100DaysOfJobSearch, which I didn't invent. I know there were references to that before I started using it, but I jumped on that, and I made it social. So I invited other people to be on the job search journey with me, and of the group that started with me, I was not the first to get a job. I think a couple of people got jobs before I did, and a couple of people got jobs after I did. But I made it social; it was mostly on Twitter. And then, I started the private group where we had little workshops; people donated their time to give us resume workshops and tips on how to search for jobs in tech, like what kind of portfolio pieces you should have and how do you contact recruiters and contact hiring managers on LinkedIn?
I feel like I've made a spectacle out of it because there were a few times I had my most popular tweets -- [Chuckles] Twitter is my social network of choice, and that's where you will find me for the most part. One of my most popular tweets ever, and during that time that I was looking for a job, was like, "Oh tech, you're sleeping on me. I'm not going to be looking forever." So people were like, "Oh, you're so confident, and you're so bold. How do you say these things?" But I meant it. Number one, I meant it, but as I said, I just made this whole spectacle like, okay, Nikema is going to get a job.
Pachi: And that worked for you, right? It made a big difference being social about this.
Nikema: I think the social aspect helped a lot to keep my morale up, and we have each other to support each other, and we were connecting on LinkedIn with each other and endorsing for skills and looking over resumes just having an extra set of eyes or more, having somebody to check with.
Pachi: Yeah, it's like having somebody in your corner at this time, especially when you're starting because it's scary to put yourself out there.
Nikema: And the tech job search is really hard. I'm what they call non-traditional background. [Chuckles] And it's really hard to stay motivated; it's demoralizing in a lot of ways. And you just have to keep going on the faith that if you keep going, something's going to work out, but it doesn't look like it's going to work out until it does. [Laughter] So you just have to keep going. I think what helped me the most was the social aspect and feeling like I had that support. But also, in the process, I got a lot of background help from people. I talked to recruiters; I talked to people who are career coaches. What helped a lot was getting very specific and targeting a role. That was a mistake the first time around when I was looking; I had an idea of what I might be looking for, but it was too broad.
My recommendation is if someone's looking for their first tech job because I am actually not -- We talked about my role. I'm not a developer; I'm in marketing, but this is still a tech job. So my advice if you're looking for your first tech job is to get very specific about what roles you're looking for because if you just say, “I want to be a software developer,” that's way too broad. And if you're a junior developer, you're setting yourself up for a lot of rejections probably. So if you say, "I'm a software developer," that's too broad; you have to narrow it. Even within software development, there are specific roles. I specifically looked first for developer advocate roles, and then I found out that I'm probably too junior for that to work out. [Chuckles] Developer advocate, these job descriptions tended to want more experience, and I know I used to put it out there. It was the social spectacles. So I would say, "Yeah, I want to be a junior developer advocate." I know I got a response like, "Does that even exist, junior developer advocate?" [Laughs] So yeah, at first, that was my target. Then I was like, okay, so maybe I'm going to need to work up to developer advocate. So I started looking for support engineers and technical support because I thought that that would be a good fit for my skills with maybe a path into the thing that I really wanted to do. I guess that's another tip I think that helped is other than being specific and targeting roles is knowing how your skills fit the role. Like, what's your story? What's your pitch for going to this employer and telling them, "Hey, I'm here to do this job, and here's why I can do it."?
One piece of advice I was given was to figure out where your skills are and what you can genuinely get excited about doing because interviewing is really hard. It's very hard for me. I'm shy naturally, and also the whole interview process is a stressful process. If you're looking for a job and you don't already have a job, there's a clock ticking; there's a lot on the line. So interviews are hard for me. And I was given the advice that if you're lying to yourself, it comes across as people might not know what it is, but it makes you come across as weird. It gives off a weird vibe if you're saying through your teeth, "I really want to be a support engineer because X, Y, and Z," because you think it sounds good to say that. But if it's a lie to yourself, it's going to come across as a weird vibe to the person you're talking to.
Pachi: And I feel when you're looking for the first job, you're ready to accept anything. [Laughs]
Pachi: People ask, "Hey, are you interested in that?" "Yes, I am super interested in that."
Pachi: Honestly. Right now, I'm working in DevRel. And when I got my first, I got a freelancing job that was supposed to be a developer job. And the manager asked me, "Hey, do you have interest in DevRel?" And I had no idea what it was.
Pachi: So I Googled it because I didn't want to say, "Hey, I don't know what that is," but I didn't want to lie either. So I did a quick Google search. I said, okay, that sounds interesting. So I answered her back, "Yeah, sure. I'd like to try that out." [Laughs] But when you're getting started, you want to try anything just to be out there. But it's not always great because you don't even know what you're getting yourself into.
Nikema: Yeah. That's a good point too, interview them back. Have your own standards. I know it's easy to feel I'm new; I'm maybe desperate for a job. You should have your own set of standards, and that was also top of mind for me was I have a lot of requirements for what kind of work I can do because I'm a single mom, and I was homeschooling my kids, and I knew that working remotely was non-negotiable for me. And going back to that lying to yourself thing, I got pretty far in the process with a company I interviewed all during COVID times, during the pandemic. So I got pretty far with a company, but they had a strong in-person office culture, and they were struggling with being remote by necessity. It kept coming back to "Hey when we can, we're going back to the office. Are you okay with that?" And I tried to say, "Yes," I tried to say, "Yeah, I'm okay." But of course, there's that hesitation because that was a lie to myself. So I think where I was going with that point was to prevent that, ‘I don't really believe what I'm saying right now.’ is to prepare this overall one-sentence encapsulation of what you're doing.
So I had a few roles I was targeting and what I landed on was I want to combine my technical skills with my community-building skills; that's what I'm looking for. I'm looking for a job that will allow me to do that. So if you are clear about that, it makes it easier to craft a story and a narrative around that goal and pull together your evidence, [Laughs] like okay, here's evidence of my technical skills; here's evidence of my community skills. This is what I got, and this is what I want. But being specific is really important; having support is really important interviewing back; yeah, that was the other thing. I knew that I couldn't take just any job. So a lot of things I wouldn't even apply to because I could tell from the job description this culture is not going to work for me. Culture was a big thing for me. I would ask about the diversity of the team. I'd ask about is there a path? Am I going to be stuck in this role? Do people move around in this company? Have questions that you really do find important and ask them. Just because someone is willing to say “Yes,” which is hard to do, it's hard to get somebody to say yes, but it might not be a fit for you. So I was really intentional in my job search about doing my best to find a good fit because I don't ever want to do another tech job search. And I'm sure the second one will be easier than the first, but it was so ugh. I felt traumatized by it. [Laughs] So yeah, I don't want to do this again, so that was my thinking. I don't want to go through this sh*t again. And then I want to get somewhere that I feel I can last. I don't want to get someplace where I think I'm going to burn out or hate my life within a couple of weeks.
So I think I got really lucky and I found a place that it's been a few months, and I don't hate my life. [Laughs] I just feel really grateful because of the position that I was in, and I just wrote an article about that or a blog post about that; the position that I was in when I got hired was not good. I was not okay in a lot of ways. I was in pain; my teeth were hurting. I didn't have dental insurance, and I was like trying to pay out of pocket to get all of my dental work done. So I was in pain. And during these interviews, I was -- this is before my ADHD diagnosis, and also as a single mom during the pandemic, I had been pretty much broke for so long, for years. So I was just in this position where it was getting to be very desperate and getting to the end of my rope I guess. So I'm really grateful that I found a place where I could start and I had a little bit of grace. I'm not going to say I slacked off, but I needed a chance to get started. I feel like it took me a minute to ramp up, which might be normal. This is my first corporate job and first full-time job, but I just feel like it took me some time, and I'm really just now within the last few weeks feeling like I'm getting some momentum and getting into the groove of my job. So I'm glad that I had that early onboarding period to get there and to get to where I am now.
Pachi: And it's just really inspiring to hear that even if you were in a place that you were losing hope, you still kept having your standards when you were interviewing, and you didn't accept anything just to get from A to B. You were like, hey, I need to get out of here, but still, I have standards.
Pachi: That is really great to hear.
Nikema: Thank you. I think I know myself a bit at this point. I'm in my late 30s, and I know myself. I know that I have mental health difficulty, and I knew that was another thing; nothing was being treated; I wasn't going to the doctor. I was kind of a mess. So I was like, I know myself enough to know that I will walk off of a job if I can't cope. So it was really important that I got someplace where I felt safe and where I felt that I could sustain myself.
Pachi: I'm really glad you found it.
Nikema: Yes, I am too.
Pachi: It's very nice to hear that you're in a place where you got what you wanted. How are you liking your job?
Nikema: Before the job, I was trying to start this company, start my business, PopSchools, which is basically on hold right now. [Chuckles] This is my first full-time corporate-type job, and I like it a lot. And the reason why I like it is the people, and I think that's another thing that I didn't touch on in the job search is it's really all about people and how you connect with people. And a person is going to hire another person; you're not just a resume. [Chuckles] You are a full person. Person-to-person connection matters. So that's probably what I like most about my company is everyone who I've interacted with, and I've been interacting with my manager -- My current manager from the beginning she found me, and she found me through Diversify Tech, shoutout to Veni. She found me, and we connected. So I like my manager, Ros. I like her as a person. And I like everyone who I've talked to at Armory. Everyone seems really friendly, like, friendly enough. I'm on a small team. So far, it's been a team of me and my manager in the community part of marketing. So I don't really talk to a lot of people day-to-day, but the people who I have met in the company have all been kind, and actually, part of the interview process was a values panel. Since I started working, I've started sitting in on a couple of those with interviews. So part of the interview process is a values panel, and we talk about how would you act in this situation with coworkers and what's important to you in culture? And things like that. So just the fact that the company is thinking about those things from the beginning.
Pachi: Yeah, that's very important. But for the long term, if you cannot like the people you're working with -- I had a past job that I didn't really like the people I was working with, and that was hard because I had to work with them every day and now that I'm working with a team that I really like, there is just a huge difference that. You actually want you to go to work every day. [Laughs]
Nikema: Right. And that could be the difference between hating your job and not because I've had some bad jobs, but sometimes it's fun if you're with fun people and you're doing a hard job. [Chuckles]
Pachi: It could help with your mental health. Now, if you don't like the job and you don't like the people, the struggle is real. It just keeps going. I feel very similar. I was in a job that I wasn't really happy in, and then I got a job that I really loved. As long as there are jobs out there, someday, eventually, you'll find it. But it's not easy, and it's not fast especially if you are from non-traditional backgrounds like we are. We do have it a little bit harder.
Nikema: That's another thing. In my job search, one of my standards were I'm not doing code tests. [Laughter] I was like, I'm not sitting through code tests. You can test me. You can ask me to do a project. You can ask me to talk through some code, but I'm not going to sit and do a HackerRank.
Pachi: Oh no. Those are terrible. I had to do that once for one thing that I applied, and I gave up. I literally gave up because I couldn't do it. [Chuckles]
Nikema: I had to do one, and I first ran out of time, and then I asked for a retake, and they gave me a retake, and then I didn't do very well anyway. And I was like whatever kind of jobs -- so this goes back to me being very specific and having my own standards. It's like, whatever job I'm going to do, they're not going to be able to measure it with a HackerRank. So if there's whiteboarding, I'm not doing it; I'll walk out, and actually, that didn't come up.
Pachi: You say if you did need that, it's not a job for me. And when I went for that, and I couldn't do it, my mind says I'm terrible, and I'm never going to be a developer because I cannot work with algorithms. [Laughs] So that is great. The problem is not you; the problem is inside the system, okay? You're not broken.
Nikema: Right. Exactly. And I think it's lazy. [Chuckles] I'm just going to say that. I think it's lazy hiring because there are better ways to evaluate technical skills and the potential because I think that's another issue where I...this is hard to say. But I just feel like nobody's looking for junior developers, and I don't know if that's the truth, but that's how it feels. So there needs to be more across the board, across tech, more willingness to take people who have potential and grow them because it feels like when you're looking for that software developer job, everybody expects you to walk in day one knowing everything. And I don't know if that's just a feeling or if that's just -- actually, I think I do know a little bit.
Pachi: Last year, I was looking for a junior developer job, and most of them asked for so many -- and it wasn't like 10%, 20%, it was like 90% of the job ads. They will ask for absurd things, and I'm like, hey, I'm a junior. How am I supposed to know this syntax and have three years of experience?
Nikema: Right. Yeah. That's another thing. These job descriptions, as I said, some of them I look at, and I'm like no, I can already tell this is not the thing for me. They will combine five jobs in one job [Laughs] and be like, okay, yeah, the pay is crap. [Laughs] Do you want it?
Nikema: Yeah. It's like you need three engineers for this job for all this stuff you're asking for. [Chuckles] There's a lot broken about it, and there's a lot that makes it just really hard to apply as a junior. So yeah, I'm sorry that you would feel like, oh, I can't pass this test, so this is not for me. It's just so frustrating. Like I said, I was traumatized. But I just want people to know if you're looking now and you're frustrated, and you're getting nos; I guess that's part of the process now, but just know that everybody who's in tech already started out wherever you are. They were there at some point. So I don't know if people forget; I don't know what it is. I'm still new, but I just feel like if you've been working for some time and you're in a position to hire now, don't you remember where you came from? You didn't come in knowing everything that you know. I just wish there was more willingness to take somebody with the foundation to build something great. Take somebody who's ready to start and ready to grow and invest in them. They spend a lot of time looking for the unicorn looking for the person who's like -- Where do senior developers come from? [Laughter] Don't you have to go through this first? It's really frustrating because it just feels like, gosh, give people a chance. I understand the business. If you're looking for a job, you're not saying, "Hey, I'm this charity case. I need money." [Laughs] Can you give me some?" You have to bring value, and we all have value to bring. I don't care if you just learned to code a week ago; you have value. But I think that's part of the strategy when you're looking for a job is how do I talk about that value, and how do I package it in a way where this employer knows that I'm going to be of value to their business? Because it's not about we're going to hire you because we want to give you money.
Nikema: We're going to hire you because --
Pachi: You're going to make us money.
Nikema: Yeah, there's a job to be done, and we have to make money as a business. Package that value and know how to talk about it. If you did just learn how to code if coding is new for you and you're looking for a job, even if you've been doing it for a year like it's new as of a year ago, you are more than that coding skill, I guarantee it. You are more than that, and probably those things that are around that new skill are more interesting and more compelling than your coding skill after a year. Personally, I've been coding for a long time, but I'm not advanced. I know I'm a beginner, but I'm comfortable. I don't feel intimidated by coding. I know I'm a beginner, but I've been around it for a decade. So if I need to learn something, I know how to learn it. I'm not worried about that part. I'm not worried about this is not for me because I'm not smart enough or I'm not whatever; that part doesn't get to me. But knowing what the other stuff is and being able to talk about it is important because I'm more than my coding skill level. I am a great written communicator. I'm not so great with speaking; [Laughs] I’m working on that, but I'm a great written communicator. I know how to connect with people. I know how to work with people. I've collaborated with people online as a software developer. So taking those things and building around the coding skills because if you just look at yourself as what your coding level is, you're not going to look that interesting, to be honest. Like, oh, you've been coding for a year? Your skills are not going to blow people away. Probably if you look at the whole picture, yeah, you could blow people away because maybe you're a kind and pleasant person, and that means a lot. We just talked about the people you work with. Do I want to work with you? If you're a genius and you're a freaking jerk, you don't want to work with that person. Those are things they call soft skills or whatever, but I don't call them soft skills; they're essential skills, they're professional skills. Highlight those things too. It's not just about passing a test because if people like you, they will make exceptions for you.
One of the job offers that I got -- I ended up with two before I got to Armory so three total. And one of the offers that I got wasn't advertised as a junior position, but in the offer letter, they made it junior. They did that because they were offering it to me. So it means a lot to know how to present yourself and to really honor and value what you have to offer and to just be a good person. [Laughs] I think that means a lot. And if I had to look back over the whole job search, even the one before, it was all about relationships, all of it. It's all about being a person and connecting to another person and knowing my value.
Pachi: And I feel like knowing who you are is very important. I feel like often when somebody asks, "Who are you?" You just run to say, "Hey, I'm a developer." But that's not who you are; it's what you do or what you want to do. Who you are, you had to think about that so you can really know what you had to offer especially if you are older; if you're not in your early 20s out of a bootcamp, you probably had done stuff in your life already. [Laughs]
Nikema: Exactly. Yeah, that was my point. If you've lived to be (How old am I now?) 38, [Laughs] you've done some things, and you've experienced some things, and those things matter. You're not just this black and white coding assessment. [Chuckles] There's so much more to what everybody has to offer. That's not to say everybody's a genius in their own way. Everybody has something to offer; I don't care who it is; everyone does because we all benefit from having diverse perspectives, and you can't have that; we are all individuals. So everyone can bring that, everyone can bring personal experience that no one else can bring to whatever space they're going into because no one else is you. So your life up until now is more than what you can write in a code editor even if you're going for an engineering job. And I know it does matter skills matter, they absolutely matter. But you're more than that. And I think if you can get people to connect with you on a human level, they will want to work with you. And they can see that you're more than that. And they can see that hey, this is a person that number one, I can work with because they're pleasant and they have potential because at the end of the day, what we're doing the skills can be taught. You can't really teach someone in their late 30s to not be a freaking jerk.
Pachi: [Laughs] Yeah.
Nikema: And nobody wants to do that. So those “hard skills” scare quotes, that stuff can be taught, but you can't really teach the interpersonal skills.
Pachi: And do you really want to work with somebody that only sees you as a brain that codes?
Nikema: Right. Yeah.
Pachi: Right now, if you're looking for a first job, you're probably just desperate to say, "Yes, I want to," but no, you don't. You just think you do, but you don't.
Nikema: And then again, yeah, the first jobs maybe -- Like I told you, this is my second time around searching, and maybe for the first jobs, you do take something that's not perfect. If you get offers, you're probably going to take it, but just know that don't give up, don't give up on what you really want. I haven't given up on what I really want. My job I consider it close to developer relations, but it's not. I get to work my way there. I'm building those skills that I would use as a developer advocate in this role.
Pachi: Wow. You just say so many beautiful things.
Pachi: So my last question for you and it's something that's important because everybody is different and everybody has something to collaborate on. What is your top one tip for people that are starting in tech?
Nikema: Create a story around evidence of your best skills. So maybe you have zero experience, maybe you're young, younger than me, and you don't have a lot of work experience; you don't have a lot of tech experience. Make something you're proud of, build around that and have a story around it. Let's say it's like a to-do app because we do those.
Pachi: Yeah, we do those. [Laughs]
Nikema: Let's say it's a to-do app cred whatever. [Chuckles] So you build this thing that you're proud of, be able to talk about challenges you had when you were building it. What did I learn from this? What am I really proud of that I did? Build a thing that you're proud of and then be able to talk about that thing and do your best not to lie to yourself. So I think that was a turning point for me was that you can't pretend -- And I am neurodivergent; I can't pretend, I can't mask things. So it does come across like some people might be better at faking it till you make it. I can't do that. [chuckles] What you see is what you get with me. So my tip was just to make something you're proud of, be able to talk about it, and I guess prepare yeah, prepare because I did a lot of interviews, and there are right and wrong answers to the questions. [Laughter] For the common ones, when they ask, "Do you have any questions?" Have questions ready and going back to what's important to you.
Pachi: I have made the mistake of not having questions because I didn't know what I was doing. And then I just got a bunch of questions from the internet, and half of those questions I didn't really care about. So have questions that you really care about because if you don't care about if you can bring your dog to the office, don't ask if you can bring a dog to the office. [Laughs]
Nikema: Yeah, be prepared. I guess that's a good one. Be prepared because you know they're going to ask you certain things like, "Oh, tell me about yourself." I can ramble. [Laughs] If I am not prepared for that question, I could go into my whole life story, and that's not what the interviewer wants to hear.
Pachi: Yeah, they don't really care about where you grew up and how beautiful was your grandma's–– [Laughs]
Nikema: Right. So number one is to be prepared and be prepared to sell yourself. That sounds icky, but yeah. Be prepared to sell yourself.
Pachi: But don't sell yourself cheap. [Laughter]
Nikema: Right. You have value.
Pachi: Yes. Thank you so much for chatting with me today. That was so fun. That was really great.
Nikema: Thank you for inviting me.
Pachi: So where can people find you?
Pachi: Thank you again. And thank you, everybody, for joining us and listening to this episode of Launchies. Again, this is a podcast for people that are getting started in tech, and we want you to feel welcome. So you belong here. Thank you very much, and have a great day, everyone. Bye-bye.
Jonan: Thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate it. You can find the show notes for this episode along with all of the rest of The Relicans podcasts on therelicans.com. In fact, most anything The Relicans get up to online will be on that site. Right now, we're running a hackathon in partnership with dev.to called Hack the Planet, where we're giving away $20,000 in cash prizes along with many other fabulous gifts simply for participating. You'll also find news there shortly of FutureStack, our upcoming conference here at New Relic. We would love to have you join us. We'll see you next week.