Interview lead by Rakia Wells, Communication Specialist
Cohort 5 Alum Jade Vance and Leah Petersen are the Co-Creators of AdieCon, an Alum driven conference meant to inspire, connect, and grow the Adie network. What started as an idea between friends blossomed into a renowned hub of inspiration and coveted industry talent.
Jade and Leah share their passion for implementing change in the tech industry and passing the torch to future Adies.
RW: Jade and Leah, thank you for joining me. Let’s get started! Can you share how you discovered Ada and more about your journey to tech?
JV: I previously worked in science, and I spent a lot of time trying to grow a career. I applied to everything under the sun in the summer of 2015. It felt like everything was just a closed door in my face. I could not get my science career to go to that next level. I had just finished an interview, and I was standing at the bus stop with my husband, waiting for my son to get home from school, when he said, “I read about this program for women who want to change careers and are interested in software, you should check it out. I think it’s called Ada Academy.”
I went home and looked it up, and I was like, “Oh my god, I want this.” It was like the clouds parted, the angels sang, and suddenly I was so focused on something. The timing was perfect because the application was opening up a week and a half later. I threw myself into it, and that’s how I joined Ada. Basically, it’s been like a rocket ship ever since.
RW: That’s so awesome. Leah, can you tell me about your journey to tech and how you found Ada?
LP: I’d been doing motorcycle stunts professionally for five or so years and was looking for what my next thing would be that was probably or hopefully safer for my physical well-being. I was at a point in my life where I wanted to transition careers. I have always been interested in art. I took a Coursera course on Blender that involved coding for some modeling-type stuff. I thought it was really cool. I also took a Python course, and my husband, who is a developer, I won’t say he was shocked at how good I was at it, but he definitely mentioned something like, “you’re picking this up, why don’t you think about moving in that direction?” No one, nor society, had ever nudged me in a direction set towards more of a STEM career.
My brother-in-law was working at Indeed, which was an early supporter of Ada. He had heard about it [Ada] in passing at the office and mentioned: “I heard about this program, and I think it’s called Ada.” I looked into it, and just like Jade, I thought, “this is absolutely 100% it. It must happen. This is my next chapter.” I went through the interview process and nervously waited for the email and got it, and there was no looking back.
“I felt like we could support people more.”
RW: AdieCon took place after you had both graduated from Ada, in February 2020, just before the pandemic. How did y’all team up to build AdieCon?
JV: It was Leah’s idea. She sent me a text that basically said, “Hey, Jade, do you want to start a convention?”
LP: We have a cohort channel, and we were hearing murmurings of people from our cohort considering dropping out of tech to go back to previous jobs. The reasons cited were typically around burnout or imposter syndrome. I felt like we could support people more. I think that having more support out there for more mid-career folks who are starting to look at next choices, like do they go the IC route? Do they switch companies? Should they demand a raise? Questioning if they deserve a raise; These kinds of things can be so foggy, especially when you have no one at your company or really in your network who has a similar background to you.
I really started thinking, “I don’t think there’s one oracle of help that we can go to, I think the power is with all of us, all of our shared experiences and the knowledge we’ve all accrued over our one to five years working as an engineer.” I really wanted to tap into that wealth of knowledge, help people share ideas, and see what’s working or not working for their career. A conference popped into my head.
Jade is so active in the community, supportive, and just a beacon of hope and friendly “Adie-ness”. She was the first person I reached out to, and she immediately understood the vision and the mission. I think that we’ve been a great team, and I really enjoy working with her.
RW: Have you tried doing something like this before?
JV: I have never done anything like this before. I’m a little bit shy around conferences and tend to not go to them too often. I’m an extroverted introvert where I am fine talking with people, but I am quite happy to also spend six hours in my garden [We chuckle]. Leah and I Googled a lot like we do with engineering things.
LP: My internship was dealing with Kubernetes, a growing technology when I first got involved. We were encouraged by our company to attend their conference KubeCon. The first year I attended, I went through a scholarship. It was an excellent way to see the growth of that technology and get involved in the community. I have never run a conference before. I’m not an events-type person. But as Jade said, I think we both looked at this [AdieCon] and said, “this is what we want to do. And we’re engineers, and a bunch of people all over the world are doing this. So why can’t we?”
RW: You both started with Ada in the beginning stages in Cohort five, and we’re now closing the application for Cohort 16 prospective students. This was the first AdieCon that invited new students and not just alum. What were some of the challenges of hosting a virtual conference with a larger audience?
JV: We joked at the end of last year, “Alright, we got this. We’re great for 2021. We know what we’re doing.” And then the pandemic hit. Now we have to take everything we learned and put it online.
One of the challenges was Zoom fatigue. This was our first time doing workshops, which were very successful and people really liked those. I think I envision more workshops but spread out throughout the day, but again, we’re learning and iterating as we go. People were really strongly into the virtual event because it lowered the barrier for entry. You didn’t have to travel. There was no taking time off of work necessarily because some folks were working and attending the conference at the same time. There’s pros and cons to that, too, because you’re not necessarily completely plugged in.
I loved seeing the representation from the prospective students as well as current students. I will put a plug out. We sent a survey for feedback on how to make AdieCon better. And I think we had 290 folks join this year, roughly that number, but only about 33 responses to that survey. So it would be nice to get more feedback on what folks liked.
“This is a conference for Adies by Adies. Everyone should feel like they have a chance to come and add their own value to it.“
LP: I definitely agree. My hope is that we can begin to collaborate more with potential students, interns, alums, and people interested in the program. To Jade’s point, the survey is the first bit of that puzzle piece of everyone contributing to the way AdieCon functions and the content we provide. Having everyone in attendance, I hope, will inspire some people who maybe learn something in their career or go through an experience they think would be useful to share with the broader network. And, they’re able to get involved with the conference, whether as a speaker, workshop, instructor, or coordinator. This is a conference for Adies by Adies. Everyone should feel like they have a chance to come and add their own value to it.
JV: We’re also looking for someone interested in helping us with the voice, mostly around marketing and social media tweets. I will be 100% transparent and say Leah and I were very stretched thin at times. We could definitely use a third person that wants to have their voice be part of this.
RW: It sounds like the conference benefits everyone. How do y’all come up with topics, presenters, and workshops for AdieCon?
JV: Remember that survey I mentioned? That’s a big component of it. I think Leah and I were more heavy-handed this time because virtual was harder. It’s hard to get folks motivated and excited.
LP: Officially, we want to drive the content through our survey and through the community. I think we were able to do that better in 2020. This year really was about setting the precedents. It was a rough year for everyone. But we do hope that we’re able to really keep that pattern of the survey in the future.
RW: Is there anything that you’re particularly proud of about AdieCon?
JV: Pulling it off. I remember when we started, we’re like, “we have no idea what we’re doing.” One of our big things was how are we going to handle money? We approached Ada about the fiscal vehicle and using Ada’s nonprofit status. Leah, I’m really proud of you for that. So I’m gonna flip this around and say I’m proud of Leah for that. I’m bad at being proud of things other than, “we did it!”
LP: Jade runs everything! Without her, AdieCon would 100% not happen. She is definitely the rock of AdieCon. I had a daydream in my head that next time we’re in person if Jade and I are on stage for any reason, I want to bestow upon her the rock of AdieCon because that’s what she is. A gold spray-painted rock or something.
JV: Yeah, sparkly, and it has to have glitter on it. [they go on to describe the features of this award]
LP: I think something I’m very proud of is the network itself. One of our big question marks was how are we raising money for this? Especially the first year when it was a brand new idea. We had no proof it would work. However, going to potential sponsoring companies, it’s just such an easy pitch. When you describe the facts of the network, they speak for themselves. It’s really cool to have this group of folks who are obviously very valuable in this industry, and companies naturally want to be involved.
“I hope that we just continue to see the spectrum widening of people getting in the door and getting over those hurdles all the way up to people starting their own companies, being CTOs, and running engineering teams.“
RW: How do you imagine AdieCon growing in the next five years?
LP: I am so excited to see it grow. I don’t have a vision. I’m excited that I don’t have a vision because I really want the network to create the conference. In my mind, Jade and I are facilitators. We’re hopefully taking what the network needs and wants and then manifesting that in an event. I’m excited to see each year how our network is changing. I hope that as folks become more mid-career and senior in their roles that we’re going to be able to see that shift in AdieCon content and resources. I don’t think that’s going to leave the students and interns behind. I think that’s going to really inspire people. I hope that we just continue to see the spectrum widening of people getting in the door and getting over those hurdles all the way up to people starting their own companies, being CTOs, and running engineering teams.
JV: I’m in the same boat as Leah. I don’t have a vision. I see it as iterative. I’m very big on making sure it is open and approachable for everyone interested in this space. In five years, I want to see other people step up and be a part of this. We purposely have done everything we can to make sure folks who want to can pick it up and run with it.
RW: AdieCon is clearly a success. What’s next for your personal growth in your career?
LP: I currently work at a company called Two Sigma. We’re a financial sciences company. Financial sciences is a new thing. We’re based in New York City, and I’ve been with the company for two and a half years. I was their first boot camp hire into an engineering role, and I am excited about the future of my career at this company. I think there’s a lot of opportunity within the firm, and I’m trying to get the company more involved with Ada. I would love to see that pipeline open up and more people learn about financial tech and what we’re doing here at Two Sigma. Generally speaking, I am very interested in accessibility to the tech industry. I hope someday my future work can involve broadening the pool of people who could potentially be inspired or feel like there’s a possibility for a career in tech.
JV: I’ve currently been with Getty Images for four years. I work as a senior software engineer. I am currently on the principal engineering track for growth, and I lead a team in search, specifically around reporting. I’m pretty passionate about what I call “making space.” I have to make space for others that aren’t just the typical engineering profile if I really want to make a change. I carry that with me as a team lead. I’m very mindful about how we build our team. We have an Ada intern right now and junior developers who came from other careers. It’s really rewarding to mentor them and see them grow into full-fledged engineers and be able to make space for more.
Fun fact, on my Ada application, I said part of my five-year plan, which was one of the old questions, it would be really cool to work with my husband because he had been teaching me little bits and pieces. As of February, he works at Getty now as well. We joked that it’ll probably be a while before we were actually touching the same code. And it was roughly 12 hours before we were collaborating together. It’s something that makes me really happy.
You can connect with Leah on LinkedIn
You can find Jade on Twitter @jadenicolevance