Interview lead by Rakia Wells, Communication Specialist
This is Part 1 of a 3 part series highlighting the experiences of Black Adies at Ada and beyond.
Ana Lisa Sutherland
Currently at: Artsy
Ana Lisa (she/her), from Cohort 9, joins me virtually in her Seattle apartment, cozied up on the couch, nestled next to her french bulldog puppy, Hops. As we get settled and check the wifi connection, Ana Lisa starts to describe her journey to tech.
AL: I got my degree in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology with an emphasis in engineering. At the time, I had just decided not to go to medical school. And well, if you don’t get your Ph.D. with a science degree there is no career advancement. Straight up. So I was like, “I don’t know what to do.”
I’m from California. My partner and I decided to move to Washington. My job was at a biotech company, and it was a contract position.
I was their highest producer on the team doing super well. I expected them to offer me a full-time position and, at the time, had a new manager. She ended up telling me because of my “personality, I just don’t think we’re going to keep you on. But can you train your replacement?” This was a very tiny, soft-spoken white lady. I walked out of the meeting. I went and got a bar job that night. And the next day, I came in with a note and was like, “I quit.”
The biotech firm had a software engineer who we conferred with on our team, our liaison to the engineering side — his name was Brian. We got along great. He said, “you know, there’s a program up here that I’ve heard of before, you might want to start looking into. It’s called Ada developers Academy. You have all the qualifications.”
I was working bars for the next year. I finally decided to apply, and I got in on the first round.
RW: So, Brian, the software engineer was the spark that brought you to Ada.
AL: Yeah, Brian, the software engineer.
RW: Let’s take a step back and remember your time at Ada. What was your most challenging moment in the program?
AL: I was from a biology kind of background, like an intensive research background. It wasn’t engineering. But I think people who have gone through a science education formally are not surprised by the workload. Because science education and colleges are insane. I have all these classes, and I just don’t ever sleep. Like I had a job during Ada. They highly recommended that you don’t have a job.
RW: Wow! You still had a job during the program?
AL: I was still bartending while I was at Ada. It wasn’t the same as far as skills. But as far as knowing how to plan, I know how much time I need to study and when I’m most productive. I know when I should just stop and move on. Or I can pull an early morning session and know that works for me because I have done it before. The hard part really came in the internship for me.
“But with Ada, I think they kind of tell you about it, but I don’t think they can truly prepare you unless you talk to other Alumni.”
RW: What was hard about the internship?
AL: Just the tech world. The tech culture. Corporate America. Researchers in a lab are different from people in a corporate building. All the nuances and the interpersonal pieces. People are like, “Oh, you have a personality!” or “You’re really aggressive.” “Like, am I? Or do you just not know how to deliver statements to people?”
A lot of people in tech are the hard extremes where it can come across as abrasive on both ends. You either have to discern what they mean with divine intervention or have them screaming at you aggressively. That was the hardest one for me. But with Ada, I think they kind of tell you about it, but I don’t think they can truly prepare you unless you talk to other Alumni.
RW: What was one of your biggest wins at Ada?
AL: I would say one of my biggest wins at Ada was definitely getting other Adies into Nordstrom. We definitely brought on multiple Black female engineers on my team. I liked being someone who could reach out and be like, “these are all the questions you need to know.” Pay it back a little. It was nice to find that niche. And the Ada group as a whole. I got my next position because of the Alumni channel. That support group was really helpful. I was sad to leave all that for my new position.
RW: And your time at Nordstrom ended November 2020, and now you’re at Artsy?
“It’s so easy for it all just to creep in and be constant all the time. For me, especially, I have ADHD, and it just makes it worse. I start to hyper fixate. I get super tired and burnt out. And then suddenly, I don’t want to do anything, ever again.“
RW: How do you protect your mental health and wellness while you work?
AL: I was always very strict when I let myself work. I did no homework on the weekends. I recharge on the weekends. To be clear, I wake up pretty early. So I get up and do homework in the morning or right after I got home from classes when it was all fresh. I would do those chunks. And I had the evening and the weekend for myself.
It’s so easy for it all just to creep in and be constant all the time. For me, especially, I have ADHD, and it just makes it worse. I start to hyper fixate. I get super tired and burnt out. And then suddenly, I don’t want to do anything, ever again.
I also do a bunch of other things. I have a very routine skincare regimen. Every morning, I will do it. Every night, I will do it. So I would do the things I knew helped me decompress.
RW: There are some great gems there. Has your life changed since you left Ada?
AL: My life changed to a high degree. One of the reasons we left San Francisco, My partner and I, is that we just couldn’t afford it. And frankly, in tech, the money coming in is more than you’ve probably ever made as a Black woman or individually in your life before. That’s straight-up the truth. I have an aggressive student loan payment paid off, I have an aggressive savings account. I got a dog—a new apartment. I didn’t go out and buy a million things right away, which I wanted to do [we both chuckle].
Another thing that changed that I didn’t expect about tech was it gave me a degree of freedom. I was interviewing to be remote before COVID hit with this company [I’m currently at]. And they put me on a break in March and called me back later in the year to hire me again. For someone who’s not neurotypical, you don’t see yourself in corporate America because you have to deal with all those weird corporate vibes. Everyone has to be kind but very direct, but only an asshole if you’re a white guy. I wanted to be away from that as soon as possible. And I never could. I had no idea how to do so before tech.
So that was the thing for me. I was free to be like, “Oh, I don’t have to be in an office to make money.” That’s great.
RW: What would you say to prospective Black folks considering a place in tech?
AL: I would say make sure you’ve tried a lot of different things. As far as projects, and free online resources, make sure you can tolerate doing it. It’s not my passion. I don’t burn bright to code. Not gonna lie. But, it has to be something you can do that you don’t mind doing. Something about it intrigues you. Otherwise, you’re just going to be in another dead-end job you don’t like, right?
And find your community that can help you along the way. You have to start building up your external and internal resources, and no one’s going to help you do that. I’m a part of React forums, and different things helped me. You have to be a little proactive as far as building yourself a support group.
RW: Are you still connected with Adies today?
AL: Oh, yeah, actually a couple. I got a small group text thread going. But there’s also two I see on a pretty regular basis, and one is my very, very close friend now. She lives up the street.
RW: I love that. It makes everything so much more fun.
Hops gets up from his resting spot, stretching from his nap, sensing the interview has ended. I thank Ana Lisa for sharing her experience, and we both wave at the camera as the Zoom window closes.