(Guest Post) Nakeema Stefflbauer: FrauenLoop is about bringing a ‘yes we can’ attitude with us.

nakeemaHeadshot (1)

I met Nakeema in December 2016 as part of the developers mentoring her students. During this time I was interested in who Nakeema is, her journey, her struggles and what motivates her. After numerous chats online, I asked her to write a post so that her story could be read/heard by more than just me :) I think her story is a powerful one and her initiative, FrauenLoop is beyond amazing.

Where it all began:

My interest in Technology started in the late ’90s, when I found myself without the ability to land a job, after having gotten an expensive education – I had loans to pay. Literally everyone I would run into at that time was either talking about joining an “internet company” so they could get stock options and become rich, or they were complaining that they hadn’t already joined a tech company (so that they would already be super-successful). For myself, I saw that no one was hiring academics in my specialty and everyone seemed to be hiring at technology companies, and I kept reading interviews and profiles of tech people who would say that they’d learned most of what they were doing on the job, through trial and error. I thought, “well, I definitely know how to learn, so let me see if there are roles around these websites and whatnot that I could learn to do.”

Early on, I got hooked on the problem-solving side of technology: this dogged attitude of “if this doesn’t work, what other ways can be tried?” I loved this even when the options were all bad…like, getting code to run beautifully on Netscape and Internet Explorer bad. You had to think creatively, try all kinds of workarounds, and never give up.

Challenges faced:

The biggest challenge in this field was, luckily for me, the same one I faced in all the other well-paid, professional fields that I had considered before: an over-abundance of men in the managerial roles, and usually very few black people. That made it really stressful, to feel, as I moved up, as if I always had to be better-prepared than everyone else. But I think it also helped me to excel at leading projects, especially when it came to negotiating between technical teams and less technical clients. I was lucky to join the eLearning industry back when online courses were still being invented, but the really great thing about the tech industry generally is that it’s always changing: right now, machine learning and virtual reality are the next frontiers and this is all still being mapped out by practitioners and researchers – a lot of the technology and applications haven’t yet been designed. To me, that’s the kind of industry I want to be part of, because it’s so focused to tomorrow, on adaptation, on dynamic skills and less on theory and the past or book learning. 

I often faced situations where I was either overlooked or not considered for growth opportunities by male managers, simply because they weren’t interested in developing me – or anyone else, for that matter – there are lots of awful managers out there who are too selfish, or too insecure, or too immature to guide anyone else in their careers. That’s just a fact. So I had many work evaluations that told me nothing, gave me no “road map” and didn’t match the things I read in career magazines about active mentors and active management. Usually I’d just hear that I was average or just above average, and only when my teams or clients were consulted would I hear any compliments or acknowledgement. This really taught me to care more about how I felt doing my  work, and to focus on the personal satisfaction I got from working, because working only for a paycheck is just not worth it. You think, “if I get run over by a bus tomorrow, what will I have learned? What will I have accomplished?” You never want to answer only that you helped some other person to make more money.

Current focus:
I’m running a nonprofit organization called FrauenLoop, which means “womens’ loop” in German and English; it’s based in Berlin, Germany, and with FrauenLoop, I work with other software professionals to teach European and immigrant women, many who have refugee status, programming skills. FrauenLoop teaches front-end (what you see on websites), back-end (the logic organizing how/where online data is kept), and analytic (what you can learn about data, users, and their behaviors) skills.
Nakeema-coaching
 
FrauenLoop really reflects where I am in my life today. I’ve been an academic researcher – once upon a time I wanted to become a diplomat – but after watching Europeans start to respond to the refugee crisis here, I asked myself about the long-term plan. What about long-term integration, culturally and economically? What about the work that both the host and the newcomers need to do, for integration and this new immigration to actually work? And of course I started looking for women in the equation, especially women refugees and women of color like me, and there weren’t any. And the subject of refugees had assumed a kind of charity or charitable implication: you know, “help for the poor unfortunate refugees” so the idea of local European enrichment was lost. But I just thought about the career I’ve had, for sixteen years now, working in the software industry, and how few women I’ve met in the US, Canada or Europe who have successfully navigated that industry, and I thought, “well, why not just hold some introductory classes for women who are motivated to change careers – whatever their background, and whatever their reasons for needing help to change?” 
 
For me, this has led to a series of learning experiences, from curriculum development to student and volunteer teacher recruitment, to helping students get placed in jobs and internships after they finish the program. And all this while I work full-time as a senior project manager at another tech startup, Distribusion Technologies.


Opportunities?

If you have a mobile phone or portable computer, go to YouTube or the Play/App Store and get any free beginner programming videos or apps you find. Just try them out, thinking of yourself as an investor: if you had money to invest in solving a problem, what would that problem be? Portable Solar power to charge electronic devices for long periods? An online rating system for childcare providers, or maybe a marketplace where you could book good childcare with just your phone? I have two kids and I am all for using technology to solve the problems that I actually have: like where do I find a great hairdresser when my kids and I all wear our hair natural and we don’t know any hairdressers familiar with our texture of hair? There is literally an app for that in the US and of course it’s making money because guess what? It is a real problem and technology is a tool that you can use to address the problems that you care about.


General advice:
I am lucky to have worked with lots of amazing engineers over the years, and when I started to investigate programming in Ruby language, and JavaScript and Java and Python, one of these friends told me; “it doesn’t matter what you learn so much as what you are interested in doing. Don’t learn to program in general. That’s like learning to glue: no one does that, what you do is learn to build a collage or a Popsicle-stick-model or a birdhouse. You then learn to use the glue you need to build that project.

Programming is a lot like this. If you want to build a website, here are the available tools: investigate what you need, to do what you want. If you want to build an online store, the tools might be different. An app for your phone that does X might use a different programming language than an app that does Y. But if you start off with what you want to build, you’re a lot less likely to lose interest or give up.
 
I personally believe that 99% of success at anything is not giving up. And I’ve had more doors slammed in my face and people telling me to lower my expectations than you want to know. But I managed to get my PhD from Harvard and my dream job in the software industry all the same – and now I get to learn from, and to be inspired by, awesome, determined women in my classes who are learning computer programming from scratch to turn around their lives. Whether they are coming from war-ravaged countries or just from unsupportive work or home environments, FrauenLoop is pretty much about bringing a “yes, we can” attitude with us, as women who are often facing similar career challenges. Talk is really cheap: I believe the way to make change is to empower ourselves to make our own changes. Beginning with our mindset. Because luck favors the well-prepared, and because, as women, especially women of color, too often “we are all we’ve got.”

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