Q+A: App Academy’s Shamayel Daoud on LGBTQ Diversity, Technical Challenges, and More

coding bootcamp lgbtq diversity

Shamayel Daoud was a science tutor for kids in San Francisco a few years ago when she had a realization: This city is way too expensive for me. She enjoyed the work but was living paycheck-to-paycheck and knew she had to look for a higher-paying profession to comfortably afford the rent. So she decided to return to her early love of computers and applied to coding bootcamps in the area. Within a few months, she had multiple offers.

When she had to make a decision, she ended up picking App Academy, the one bootcamp with the best reviews and toughest curriculum. More than a year later, Shamayel ended up as one of the heads of the curriculum itself.

So how did she do it? Shamayel says she wasn’t particularly different or special but that she worked really hard and cared about what she was doing. That serves as a lesson for other people who might be interested in a coding career and the bootcamp itself.

As Shamayel moves on to a new job at a cool Silicon Valley drone startup, we spoke with her about getting started as a student, the most important challenges she faced, and the importance of LGBTQ diversity in the tech industry.

How did you go from being a pre-med undergrad to getting into computers? 

So I grew up in San Diego, born in New York but moved over when I was really young. And I ended up going to school at UCSD because my parents wanted me to be close to home. They wanted me to be a doctor and so that’s what I thought I wanted to do. So my entire high school life was focused on, like, biology and the sciences, though I actually took a few AP computer science classes because it was something that always interested me personally. So when I went to college, I started as an electrical engineering major. And then I swapped over to physiology and neuroscience because I was still thinking of going the pre-med route. After I graduated I realized I didn’t want to do that. So that’s when I started looking for other options. And thinking, where do I want my career to go from here?

So what did you do after leaving college?

Pretty soon after leaving college, I moved to San Francisco. That was about 5 years ago. I was tutoring because I had a good foundation based on all the things I’d been doing. And I decided I didn’t want to be a pre-med or do research, [or] do any kind of lab work. So I tutored for about three-to-four years and then I heard about App Academy and bootcamps in general. I took CS [Computer Science] classes in high school, was an electrical engineering major for a little bit in college. “Maybe this is something that I can keep pursuing,” see if this is really something I want to do.

I also knew, living in SF, if I wanted to stay here I probably needed a career. Freelance tutoring was fine. It was a good first job. Because it gave me a lot of freedom to explore things I wanted to do. I got to delve deeply into a few hobbies but wasn’t going to be sustainable long-term. So that’s why I went to back to: “Hey, I was interested in this thing once, let’s see if I’m still interested, let’s see if I could do it.”

Then sometime soon after you decided to join a coding bootcamp. What was the impetus, or moment, that made you decide to do this? 

It wasn’t one situation in general but it was a series of events over a year or so where [I know it was] time to find something long-term. I still have a dream of having a house one day and being comfortable somewhere and that wasn’t something I could do on a tutor salary and started thinking of something else [where] I could do that.

I started thinking about a bootcamp because I knew a few people, friends of friends, who were successful at them. And I just knew that it seemed like a good way to get as much education in as short a time period as possible. I was 26 when I came into App Academy. I think if I was a little younger I could have considered going back to [graduate] school or something, but I felt I was starting to get older and hadn’t started a career yet. So I’m just going to get into something that’s going to fast-track me that I had the aptitude for and that I’d be able to handle the stress. And it seemed like a great way to get to where I wanted to be in the shortest amount of time.

Especially in Silicon Valley, the myth of the programmer is someone who is very, very young so I felt behind before I got in the industry. Which is a really weird feeling to have but it’s just the perception you gain from media, and you hear of things like Mark Zuckerberg saying young people are just smarter than older people. So even though I wasn’t part of it [yet], I already felt behind.

At your age of 26, what is your perspective of people who can apply to this program?

I think it’s possible. You have a lot more maturity, which helps. I was able to structure my life around the hours that I needed to keep to be successful and I was able to stay motivated. And I was [also] sure this was something I wanted to do because I had time to think about and to prepare for it. In the industry, I have co-workers that are younger than me but I also have a lot of co-workers that are older than me.

I think it does get more difficult. There is a lot of ageism in this industry. You can get in on the ground in a few months through [App Academy] in a few months and I think it’s really impactful.

When you were thinking about getting into coding, what was your motivation and how did it differ from when you were in college?

I think my main motivation was just interest. My family got a computer when I was in sixth grade and immediately started spending my whole life on it. I built my first computer when I was in high school. I did small, little interactive things. I took HTML in middle school. It was always the thing I chose when I had an elective. I picked CS, web development, computers, or some kind of tech like that. That pushed me to choose [coding] when it was time to choose.

My family migrated from Afghanistan and our culture really reveres engineers and doctors. All of my mom’s siblings are engineers — mechanical, civil engineers. My dad was actually studying to become a doctor when he was in Afghanistan but had to stop when they had to flee the country. This was 30 years ago. That was always part of my mother’s dream and father’s dream, something they tried to pass on to me. I was interested in biology, anatomy. My mom saw that and tried to push me up because she saw how everyone should want to be a doctor.

Because I had some interest in it, I ended up going that way when I went to college. I think I was 16 when I started college. I was still growing up and my parents had complete control of the situation because I was a minor. At the time, I hadn’t gotten a chance to explore myself and feel confident about my own decisions and really think about what I wanted as opposed to what my family wanted. It became easier to do what my family wanted me to do.

Did you choose App Academy because of the rigor of the course or because of something else?

I was looking at a bunch of bootcamps and I applied to four or five. I ended up joining because I got an email inviting me to JumpStart. I was leaning more toward Dev Bootcamp because their empathy program really appealed to me. But I got this email about JumpStart, which said “come on site for a week and we’ll teach you everything you need.” That seemed like a great opportunity. I ended up passing the assessment and getting into the program.

At that point I was still in the application stages with the other bootcamps but I looked more into App Academy as a result of JumpStart.

After seeing some of the numbers and the reviews of App Academy and seeing how effective and rigorous it was, it showed me [that’s] paywhere I wanted to go to.

Before you started the bootcamp as a student, you’ve told me you were afraid of the assessments, like many others. What changed for you in order to stay in the program?

I think my biggest misconception is how scary [the bootcamp] is. A lot of the reviews you hear about App Academy are about the policy where you fail two assessments and you’re out. The week leading up to the first assessment, I was terrified. Coming in, I was thinking, “What if I get kicked out?” “What’s going to happen?” “What am I going to do next?” “What’s my backup plan?”

[But] when I got here, I found more support than I expected from the instructors, from my cohort. And I found the assessments were a fair judge of where you were at and definitely not as scary as I expected. If I was keeping up with the course work and was staying on track and doing everything I needed to keep doing, I didn’t really have a problem with them. After the first couple of assessments, I stopped fearing them as much.  

What was the biggest overall challenge you faced during the full course?

I think my biggest challenge was getting used to the schedule. When I was tutoring, I would work between two and four hours a day, sometimes a longer. My schedule would be all over the place. I would have clients after school. Sometimes I would start the day after 4PM. So just getting into that school mindset, where I had work to do every night, I had a place to be every single day, and I had a schedule laid out for me — it took a little [while] to get used to that. Especially waking up. I hate waking up! I’m not a morning person at all. So having to be here at 9AM was really difficult.

[I managed through] willpower. I think it helped that the program was so short. I was able to tell myself, “I’m doing this program for three months and I’m in a comfortable-enough situation to be able to support myself with my resources.” I know not everyone has that. But I was in a place where I was able to not think about the rest — just focus on the bootcamp and say, “I’m in a place secure enough to do this for three months and I’m going to put my all into it.”

Let’s talk about finances before the course. Did you have financial security?

Before [when] I was tutoring, I was getting by. I had a lot of savings from college from working. Tutoring was fun and actually made quite a bit of money through it but still felt like I was living paycheck-to-paycheck because the rent was so ridiculous here [in San Francisco]. So the driving factor for me [to attend App Academy] was that I wanted a career where I could stay in San Francisco. Because I love this city. So it made sense to go down this route. And now it’s great. I have a 401K. I’m really excited about that.

Tell me why you think diversity is important in the technology industry.  

It’s important because you get an entire range of perspectives. When you’re making products, you’re putting them out there for everyone to use [and] you might not know what different groups need out of a product or how different groups might use it. So just having more people who can bring different ideas to the table, I think, really helps a company ultimately succeed.

Companies shouldn’t pursue diversity just for profit. I think they should pursue diversity because it’s the humane thing to do. I think it’s good to take care of your people and make them comfortable.

People worry there is no social component to bootcamps but your experience was different. Please tell me about that.

I had a great time here socially, in general. I’m a fairly outgoing person. So I liked gathering people up to go out to dinner, to go out on weekends when we had time. There were a lot of women in my cohort. There are a lot of people in my cohorts, [an] OK number of people of color. It made me feel really comfortable there and like I had groups where I could go and make friends instantly because we had a shared connection. I remember the first week of our cohort a bunch of us all went out on Friday.

I also like going out a lot and that’s something that a lot of people, the whole alcohol culture of kind of programming and Silicon Valley. I made my first group of friends from just those of us who’d go out in the evenings and to a bar. And then my circle of friends kind of expanded as I got to know more people and discovered all the things we have in common.

You recently started a new job at a startup. Tell me how that company’s interview process managed diversity.

One thing that really stuck out to me when I was interviewing is that there was only one other woman on my team. So she interviewed me. And during that interview, I felt like I could be myself more than I did in any other interview. I actually felt authentic. I felt like I didn’t have to worry about impressing people. I didn’t have to worry about whether they don’t like me. I could just be myself. I could show off my abilities. I never really realized how important it was and how viscerally it affected me. Speaking with someone who is closer to my experiences brought up more of who I was as a person. So think of [another] woman interviewing and [what if] her entire interview panel is men? What if a queer person is interviewing and there are no people there [like them]?

I think it’s a lot harder for people to get into a company if they don’t feel like they can be genuine on that very first step. That really sunk in for me. Because that’s where you start: the introduction to the industry is through interviews. So the more diversity your team has, the easier it is to get people. And I think the easier it is for those people to perform and to excel once they’re there. If they’re surrounded by people they can be comfortable around because of their shared experiences.

A lot of students are interested in knowing about App Academy’s level of queer and LGBTQ support. Please tell me about your experience. 

I think I got very lucky with my cohort given the representation we had. [In] my circle there were only two people who weren’t queer. I immediately got to know [everyone]. My TA was also queer, so that was great. I met a lot of them through the circle. They weren’t the crowd that’d go out drinking with me on Friday nights but I ended up meeting them because we had this other space where we could talk, de-stress, talk about what the week was like, and we started getting lunch together. It’s really comfortable to feel like there are people who have experienced some of the same things you have who can understand you on that level.

While at App Academy, you were part of the employee resource groups, including the LGBTQ one. What was your involvement like and why are these groups important?

I went to a Meetup [once] where they were talking about employee resource groups. There were really powerful things said by the speakers. One of them was, as minority groups rise in the industry, you have to bring people up with you. And that’s how you move forward in the diversity problem. Just people helping each other get into those positions where they can feel like they make a difference. And that’s something that I tried to do at App Academy and bring back with me.

At App Academy, I was working with the gender-non-conforming group, the people of color group, the LGBT group. I tried to bring more people in, talk with them, share my own experiences, be a mentor, be supportive. Now that I’m working in the industry, it’s something I’m passionate about.

At App Academy, I ended up becoming instructional manager. I had a really good career while I was here but that doesn’t mean anything if you’re not pulling people up. I tried to make sure the diversity group was going to be well-staffed. And that the resource groups were stable and people were getting the support they needed.

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