Apprenticeship Community

Ask-Me-Anything with Tiffany Mikell

June 9, 2015 6:00PM PDT to 7:00PM PDT

Tiffany Mikell spoke with the community about remote work and learning, and being a self-taught developer.

Tiffany Mikell, CEO and co-founder of BlackStarLaunch, has more than 10 years of professional experiences in technology, entrepreneurship and education design. Her ventures are focused on building tools and platforms that increase the accessibility of learning opportunities for the underrepresented.

In 2013, she helped Dev Bootcamp launch its Chicago location and played a key role on the founding team. In 2010, she founded a successful technology consulting firm developing SaaS (software as a service) platforms for non-profits and social enterprises. She began her career as a Java developer and Technical Architect with a specialization in ERP (enterprise resource planning), business intelligence and SaaS-based solutions for Accenture.

Mikell’s work embodies and is driven by the idea that access to education, resources and support is the key to empowerment.

The full AMA follows, with questions from the community in bold, and Tiffany’s comments after each question. The AMA is lightly edited for clarity, length, grammar and style.

kmanion: OK, I like to start off with “What are you excited about right now?” as my multipurpose opener.

I’m currently super excited about building scalable virtual collaboration and learning tools. I’ve been someone who has worked remotely quite a bit in my career. I’m also a total geek for distance learning.

However, most of the tools that exist in the space are overly complicated and not that appealing/engaging. Planning to spend some time building in that space specifically.

I’m excited about creating platforms that bring together different tools like Slack, Twitter, Google Docs and other ways that we collaborate. Kind of like a “bring your own collab tool” concept. Fascinated by that concept.

Zee: What are some of the things you enjoy about distance learning + remote work? And what are some of the things you don’t?

Re: distant learning + remote work: The number one thing I appreciate is probably the flexibility. I have a nine year old who was born premature. He was hospitalized for the first six months of his life. Being able to code/work in the hospital literally saved us during that time.

I’ve also been a non-traditional/self-directed learner for most of my life. Distant learning meant I didn’t have to wait for a course or program to be offered at my school or in my area. It meant i could literally learn anything I wanted at any time. That was sooo powerful for me.

And then the final pro about remote work/learning is I am a total introvert. Virtual communication causes less anxiety.

Not many cons to remote work/learning. It’s easy to isolate yourself. Gotta make sure you keep an in-person network as well.

cyrin: How do you feel like the need for culture fits and soft skills changes when working remote versus in person?

Particularly because I felt like as a Black woman, I’ve been able to achieve ‘culture fit’ easier or quicker when I’m on remote teams.

When working on-site it’s all about: Do you “speak the lingo?” Do I want to go out for beers? Do I want to throw a Frisbee at lunch?

For me the answer to those questions is usually no. However, when remote there’s definitely more focus on actual performance.

I still send silly gifs and engage in light banter to build community, but I feel like it’s on my terms, and I’m never pressured into social situations that make me uncomfortable.

Zee: What about soft skills around collaboration (task tracking, email etiquette, etc.)?

I actually think the soft skills that I’ve had to refine by working remotely are totally transferable to on-site teams and actually make me a better communicator. (I’m biased of course lol.)

When you don’t have the luxury of just walking over to someone and having a conversation or whiteboard session, and you don’t have the pressure of co-workers in person to keep you on task, you have to create systems and use tools that allow you to manage your own time and priorities well as well as get super clear on your own thoughts, ideas, etc. – So they can be thoroughly communicated to others.

It can be hard as hell sometimes, but I think it also encourages a healthy dose of introspection which is good.

eruditelijah: How do you find/attain those opportunities for remote work when you don’t really have much work experience/skills?

Most of my remote gigs come through network connections. I first build something awesome that will help a couple influential people I know. Once they are on my team I ask for opportunities.

Find the dopest, smartest ppl you know and ask, or just observe – what’s something that will make their life/job better/easier?

Examples: how many nonprofits do you know that could use a website/CMS? How many people in retail do you know that could use help building a square store? Know any recruiters that could use a resume finding script? Small things like that. Then you become the go-to person for tech in their mind.


cyrin: When you work with people for, etc., what are their biggest (or, most memorable) stumbling blocks?

In work we’ve done to support other entrepreneurs, probably one of the biggest two are: 1. Lack of flexibility in their product/company vision and 2. Somewhat related – Waaaaaay too many features in their first release. Just get something out there is usually the way to go.

My first gig: I interned at an organization called i.c.stars. At the time I was an English major with basic tech skills. i.c.stars encourages people of color to build apps for local community-based organizations as a way to create impact and change. I was blown away by the idea. During the internship (2006), I played with Drupal and was hooked. Built an app with .NET and then used that to apply for an entry-level Java bootcamp at Accenture. So that was my start.

I’ve been around the bootcamp block. I love immersive learning environments. I like to learn rapidly, and I like to have that learning centered in “real-ish” project work … bootcamps often provide that context. Also, the other learners in a bootcamp environment are usually just as driven and focused, which helps.

I do think it’s super important to evaluate your own learning style when deciding to go with a bootcamp or not. Some folks hate the pressure of those environments.

There’s also the network of employers that also come with attending a bootcamp, and someone to cry to when you eff up royally on your first dev job as we all have at some point.

Zee: How do you identify the opportunities that are suited to your skills that have the biggest input on your “social capital”?

Re: Choosing opportunities and social capital; that’s a tough one. Honestly, at least my feeling/experience at the moment, is that as a Black woman, no matter how much “social capital” I have, I still have to fight to not be erased, to not have my work erased.

And so in identifying opportunities – it’s all about the impact on areas that excite and matter to me that will also sustain me in a substantial way.

Basically I don’t necessarily expect to be recognized publicly or granted the “social capital” I deserve. .So it’s all about doing dope work that pays. That’s it.

coralineada: What was the most surprising thing you learned in your time helping to get Dev Bootcamp(DBC) up and running in Chicago?

I think it was an interesting experience because in many ways environments like DBC are like a microcosm of the tech landscape at large, so it was kind of cool to be a part of the education of so many beginning developers from so many different walks of life. That was kind of cool.

I think this whole “coding is cool” movement was surprising to experience also lol. I’m still a relative newbie 10 years in, but even in 2006 being a developer was not the sexy thing to do lol.

So yeah, it’s been cool/surprising to see the culture around software/web dev become cool and mainstream.

eruditelijah: So what do you think are some of the best ways to get learning resources and career opportunities to underrepresented folks who usually can’t afford the bootcamps and such?

Now is the time for scholarships. Every bootcamp in the country just about has a diversity scholarship right now. Take advantage.

Meetups can be a good resource also. But yes! There is SOOOOOOOO MUCH learn to code money right now.

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