Q&A with Software Engineer Cassidy Williams

AUG 05, 2020

Cassidy Williams, also frequently known online as cassidoo, is a software engineer based in Seattle, WA. I originially interviewed Cassidy in October 2019 for a piece about Technica, an all-female and non-binary hackathon, published in Ms. Magazine.

I found our conversation deeply interesting, yet only a couple of quotes made it into the final Ms. article. Recently, I followed up with Cassidy, in hopes of publishing our interview on my blog (so it lives for posterity somewhere, at least). In this two-part interview spaced out over nearly nine months, she explains her journey in the tech world and answers some fun questions along the way.

OCT 31, 2019

Q: Describe your job!

I'm currently an instructor and developer at React Training. For those who don't know, React is a web development library for building cool user interfaces. It's one of the largest web development libraries out there, and at React Training, my main job is to visit different companies and cities to give trainings on how to use this library.

Q: Describe your experiences in the tech world.

I've jumped around at a lot of different jobs—this is my sixth job since graduating college in 2014. I was an early employee of Venmo right after graduation, back when it was a really fun and fast-paced startup. My title was Software Engineering and Developer Evangelist, so I built aspects of Venmo as a software engineer, but I was also involved in developer evangelism, which is a combination of engineering and marketing. I would go to hackathons and meetups and say, "Hey, if you ever want to build with Venmo, here's what you can do." It was really fun working in New York City, but after a while (especially with PayPal buying the company), I started to feel my growth plateau a bit.

Then, an AI startup called Clarifai came along, and they worked on advanced image recognition to use in applications. For them, I was again a software engineer dev evangelist, and I got to manage a few developers, work with my sister, and build out their dev evangelism program. My sister and I were the 17th and 18th employees, so it was very, very small, but it was filled with fun experimentation. I really enjoyed the job, but I was burning out a lot because I was speaking at so many events and also doing the 9 to 5. I decided I was done with New York and moved out to Seattle, where I ended up going to a creative agency called L4 Digital.

We were able to build for customers like Sesame Street and Chicago Public Radio, starting from design all the way through product development and launch. I tried a variety of different projects, and it was just software engineering without the dev evangelism. I also managed a team of six developers and I was a tech lead on few projects, so it was a cool step up in my engineering career. Unfortunately, L4 was bought and the culture was changing a lot, so I ended up joining Amazon where I got to work with my sister again.

It was was a cool role at Amazon—kind of back to my developer evangelism roots—where I took feedback from developers who worked on Alexa skills and served as a middleman, relaying information with the product teams to release new features. However, as with large companies, I wasn't able to do my job as well as I wanted because of the politics in the organization. I would have to rely on certain emails from certain people, but because a person didn't like my manager, they would reply to me instead, and et cetera. I did not end up lasting at Amazon very long.

I started to realize that I'd rather work for a small team and I switched to a company called CodePen, where you make art with code and experiment. It's such a fun website, and the even better bonus was that it was my first remote job. The entire company was only eight people and we all worked from our respective homes. I really loved CodePen—honestly, I thought I was going to work there forever. I was like, "This is it. I'm done bouncing around. I'm good." Towards the end of my tenure there, however, I realized that as much as I loved working on this product, I missed interacting with developers again. I was speaking at some conferences here and there, but my managers said, "Hey, you know, you should stick to coding. This is what your job is." And they were right, but I kind of missed that.

At one of the conferences where I spoke at on my own time, I ended up meeting someone named Michael Jackson. You can't Google him because his name is Michael Jackson. He's very accomplished in web development—Twitter, Netflix and most sites use his code in some way. His partner Ryan Florence is also an incredible developer, and you've probably touched his code at some point, too. Those two are the powerhouse that not only did all this awesome code in the open source world, but they also had this company that involved training people with React. In talking to them, I realized it would be really fun to have that as my job, where I could still work on open source but also talk with developers again. I'm almost two months in on this job, and it's still very new. I taught a workshop in North Carolina this week, I was in Baltimore a couple of weeks ago, and we're kicking off our fall tour next week, where I'll be teaching public workshops in Dallas and San Francisco. I love being able to travel, and I also have downtime between trips to work on side projects and recover. It's great because I get to continue what I was doing at Clarifai and Venmo, yet since I don't have the engineering on top of the speaking, I don't burn out as much. I'm able to have the best of all the different worlds and also work from home. I'm really excited to be where I'm at so far. It's been a journey, jumping around. I don't necessarily recommend it to everybody, but it's a great way to figure out what you want to do and go for it.

Q: What's the balance between coding and speaking with your role at React Training?

My full time commitment is to travel twice a month for workshops. I traveled this week and two weeks ago, and each workshop is two days long. I also did a couple remote workshops in between those two. In total for this month, I've given workshops for eight days, and all the time in between that is downtime and side projects.

It's very chill, and it's also nice because we're coming up with some online courses to teach, so when I'm not working on things and I'm bored with my side project, I can just help develop the new curriculum. The tech ecosystem changes so quickly, so you have to stay on top of it especially if you're teaching it.

Q: How did you get started with speaking at events?

Actually, that was something that I started doing in college. I went to Iowa State University and graduated with a computer science degree. While I was there, my main club was the computer science club, and I was very protective of it. From my freshman through most of junior year, it was very small—by the end of the school year, only five people would show up regularly. Then, I basically took over—I ran for president of the club, my sister joined the board, and then our roommates and a couple of our friends did as well. We were just like, "Let's make this club awesome."

So, we did a really intense job of marketing it to computer science majors and asked sponsors from companies to get us pizza every week. We said, "We're going to have hackathons. We're going to have interview prep. We're going to make this a really well organized machine." Our first meeting ended up having about 200 people, which we were not prepared for. People had to sit on the floor and stand. Afterward, more than 50 people continued to show up every single time, which got me in the zone of speaking in front of people. The Women in Science and Engineering groups would also ask for someone to speak to high school girls, and I thought, "Oh, I could tell them about computer science."

I also became actively involved with NCWIT, the National Center for Women in Technology, which proved to be an awesome networking opportunity. There are friends that I made in NCWIT back when I was 18 that I'm still friends with today. It was a really great group of girls (now women) who were interested in tech, and NCWIT would often have opportunities saying, "If anybody wants to go to this event or speak at this thing, we can make it happen because we want to represent girls there." My junior year became a very active year for me. With NCWIT, for example, they ended up being able to attend this big diversity and inclusion summit at the White House, and my sister and I got to go speak at there. Before this event, I had already gotten an internship in Silicon Valley, but I was able to connect with people who lived in Silicon Valley at this event, and I was able to network with them again when I was interning there.

I ended up going to a bunch of different hackathons and adding everyone I could on LinkedIn. Through NCWIT, I was able to apply for and attend a hackathon that was on a flight from San Francisco to London. I was the only undergraduate student on the plane, and it felt very intimidating. Craig of Craigslist was on the plane. Kelly Hoey, an amazing author who talks about networking, was on the plane. Megan Smith, who ended up being the CTO of the United States a year later, was on the plane. All of these really legit people were there, and I was like, "I am a baby."

Ultimately, it was awesome, and my team actually ended up as one of the winning teams. My teammates were awesome—Kelly Hoey, Kimberly Bryant (who founded back Black Girls CODE), and Dr. Sue Black (a computer scientist who helped save Bletchley Park, which is where Alan Turing builds that computer that saves World War II). Because we ended up winning, we presented at some conferences in London. Later that fall, in September, we were invited to speak at the United Nations. As fate would have it, I did a hackathon in Philadelphia earlier on, where I met the founder of Venmo. They were like, "Well, we'd love to interview you, we just have to figure out the trip." I said, "I'm speaking at the United Nations in New York, where your headquarters are," and it all worked out where I interviewed with Venmo and spoke at the United Nations on the same weekend.

When I was interviewing with them, I said, "By the way, I do enjoy speaking, so if you need someone who can speak on behalf of the company, I can," and they said, "Oh, actually, we do. This could work out." I gave them a presentation in addition to my technical interview, and it snowballed from there. Later, I started doing meetups, conferences, and hackathons, and it's grown to be a regular thing of what I do. I really enjoy speaking—not because I'm like, "Ooh, listen at how well I speak!" Rather, I really enjoy showing people cool technologies. Also, I like making jokes about tech. That's kind of how it all happened—it was a winding road that worked out in the end.

Q: What was your biggest obstacle as a female in tech?

The tech industry is very, very male-dominated, so I've had plenty of unsavory experiences. I've experienced it at the big company level, where I'd be told, "Because you're a woman, people won't reply to your emails. That's just how it works here." I've experienced it at hackathons where I'd offer to help with someone's project and they would say, "Yeah, but I need an engineers help." I would have to say, "I am an engineer." That kind of thing. It's gone so far as my phone getting doxxed and people making dating profiles of me. So, I've had some not great experiences, mostly because people (typically men) who are threatened by a changing status quo will act out.

It can be hurtful, but I will say that even though it sucked at the time, I'm glad it happened to me, rather than someone else who might have left the industry. I love coding. I think it's so fun. Even if it weren't my job, I would still be coding on the side. No matter what people say, I will still stick with it. However, I know that kind of behavior can push people out and discourage them. That being said, having a community that can support you makes all the difference. For instance, when someone made a fake Facebook profile of me and said really unkind things, I was able to say, "Hey, friends! Leave, report and block this account. This is not me," and people were able to support me. They said, "Oh, I'm going to be donating to Girls Who Code in your name."

Luckily, I think it's getting better because our culture is more "woke" now and people are calling things out. I've had significantly better experiences over time than I've had even four or five years ago, which is tremendous and a good sign for things to come. The biggest obstacles were just people not liking the status quo changing, and not liking a girl who wears pink being able to code as well as them.

I can relate to that. In a fast-tracked computer science course at my school, there were 32 people in the class and only seven girls. We were all scared to speak or ask questions because we knew we'd be judged for it.

Yeah, I was the only girl in my first computer science class in high school. I didn't actually know that tech was male-dominated until that class. I discovered coding at 13 when I heard my neighbor say, "Check out my website," and I was like, "Oh, you can have one of those?" I started looking up how to make a website, and it was just something that I liked, so I signed up for that class at my school. The first thing the teacher said was: "As you can see, we have a girl this year." I was like, "What?"

To anybody who might feel intimidated: keep asking questions, even if it makes you feel like you sound dumb, because the people who ask questions get the answers. That's something that I took a long time to learn. Especially when you're a newer developer, or a newer person in any industry, you feel like you have to prove that you're good at what you do. You get stuck at certain points and work too long when you really could have asked, "Hey, I'm sorry, I'm stuck on this. Can you help me out?" You get your answer and move on. In all the times that I've spoken at events or been in classrooms and offices, the people who are the most senior are the ones who ask the most questions. I've found that consistently, because they're not afraid of looking dumb. They genuinely just want clarity. If anything, I think it shows that you're listening and trying to wrap your frame of mind around it.

Q: When did you go to your first hackathon?

The summer of 2012. Before studying abroad in Spain during my sophomore year in college, I managed to get an internship at Microsoft in Seattle. That was my first experience of seeing what a hackathon was, and from there, I was just hooked. When I went back to computer science club, we started them in my school, and I started going to them a lot more in Silicon Valley the next year. Between hackathons at speaking at events, I've been to 200 or more. What's actually fun, too, is that I met my husband at a hackathon. I'm more frontend and he's more backend, and we sometimes do hackathons and build projects together.

Q: You mentioned feeling hooked after going that first hackathon. What about it made you want to keep going?

It's a really fast way to learn something. You learn best when you build something, because you're like, "Okay, I have to build this, but I have no idea how to build it, so I guess I'll Google an aspect of it." You just start searching for different parts that you can build and eventually you figure out how to build the whole thing. I'm like, "Oh, I know how to build a calendar component now. I didn't know how to build that before." Later, you can apply that to different projects, and your knowledge base grows. I also know so many people who have started a hackathon project and then turned it into a successful startup that has been sold. Although I don't recommend staying up all night anymore because I'm ancient, it's so fun to be able to do that with a cool team.

Q: Describe your experiences at all-female hackathons as compared to general hackathons.

What's great about all-female events in general is that you immediately have a similar context and comfort zone with the people around you. Although it's not a hackathon, the best part of the Grace Hopper conference is the dance party at the end. Yes, the talks are really interesting. The Career Fair is amazing and full of opportunities. There's great networking opportunities, but the best part is the dance party. The last time I went to Grace Hopper, the music started and my sister and I were like, "Let's kick off this dance party." We started dancing, and more and more people came. You're fully comfortable because they're all women with the exact same interests as you, just having a good time and dancing. I remember there were CEOs completely getting down with Ariana Grande, and girls and women from every age range, without having to worry about some kind of grimy guy grabbing up on them. At Grace Hopper, I've made so many connections who have become mentors to me, or who I've been able to help and pay it forward to my community.

Guys have an automatic community built in since there are people like them in every single room. Meanwhile, with being a woman in tech, or any underrepresented minority in tech, you enter a room and you're not sure if there's going to be someone who has a similar background to you. So, going to any sort of event that supports a minority demographic in tech is amazing because you finally have that community that you don't automatically get by just being in the industry.

One of my mentors told me this quote a long time ago: "Lift as you climb." As you move up the career ladder, help people out along the way. Build your community and build up the people who are a couple years behind you. You can say, "Okay, I know that at this point in my career, I was starting to ask for a raise. How can I help you get to that next raise so you can be successful?" As you pay it forward to them, they can pay it forward to the people who are just behind them. Then, you build that welcoming group where it's safe, it's helpful, and you have the opportunity to go to places in your career that you might not have otherwise.

Q: What advice do you have for young girls interested in computer science?

First of all, just experiment with it. There's so many great online resources now that I would have killed for when I was 13. Back then, there were like two websites that taught HTML in the world, and that was about it. I had to just look up the "view source" of the website and figure things out. There are so many blog posts and so many tutorials that will show you how to do build websites, so really just experiment and see if you like it.

Second, bring people in with you as you learn more about coding. When I was taking AP Computer Science, I started to really like it and I told my sister, "Hey, you're a couple of years behind me. This is fun. I think you'll like it," and now she's a developer at Facebook. She did that for our younger cousin who was two or three years behind her, too, and now she's a software engineer at T-Mobile. Herd all around you and build that community.

Finally, don't be afraid to ask questions because you will not sound stupid. Once, a developer (she's really awesome and highly accomplished) messaged me saying, "My code isn't working. I'm beating my head against the wall. I don't know what's doing. I'm freaking out." I said, "Okay, let me look at it." It turns out that she didn't capitalize a letter, and that was what broke her code. She was working on it for three hours and could not figure out where the bug was. She was able to be relieved because she just asked the question, even though she felt like it was being vulnerable.

So yeah, experiment, build a community, and don't be afraid to ask questions.

Cassidy and one of her mechanical keyboards! (Source: Cassidy Williams)

AUG 5, 2020

Q: Give me a brief life update! How have you been since November 2019?

Oh, man. Well, the world is very different from November 2019. After the pandemic hit, React Training unfortunately had to lay off all staff. They're still trying to do some workshops, it's just not a place anymore. I've joined Netlify since then, and I'm working on React and Next.js. It's a really fun team. It's much bigger than I'm used to—React Training was a group of five to seven people and Netlify is 100 people, so it's different but exciting. That's the biggest life update; I'm still in the Seattle area and still drinking too much boba.

Q: Can you tell me more about your role at Netlify and your favorite parts of working there?

My full title is Principal Developer Experience Engineer, so I'm working to make the experience better for developers using Netlify. A lot of it is building demos and tutorials to show people how to use Netlify, and giving feedback on the actual product. I also give talks on how to use certain things and build aspects that can be put into websites. Honestly, the best part of working there is the people. My team is really, really awesome and I love working with them.

Q: What does a day in your life look like?

Well, in a pandemic, life is really waking up and going to the computer to work. I try to get in a walk here and there, and my new place is within five minutes of four boba places, so I basically get bubble tea and then come home to either work more on side projects or play video games. That's that's pretty much the routine nowadays.

Q: What's your favorite boba tea flavor?

Lately, I've been really into strawberry black tea with crema on top. So good.

Q: Has your work routine changed notably since the beginning of quarantine?

Well, my whole job was traveling to teach workshops, and now I do talks online instead. I work on a lot more coding and there's more teamwork now because it's a new job. Instead of working on something to teach, I'm working on something to use. It's the same but different.

Q: How much you miss traveling? If quarantine were to end soon, would you continue to seek out speaking and traveling roles?

I do miss traveling for sure, especially because I had to cancel a lot of really fun trips. However, I also know I definitely had too many trips. In January, I was home for one weekend, and a couple days in between traveling. I remember thinking, "I don't know if I can sustain this. This is going to be my last year of 'Hurrah!' traveling and then I'll slow down a bit." Now, the world's forced me to slow down. I do miss traveling and I do want to do more of it, but maybe not as much as I was doing.

Q: Explain your TikTok career!

I just posted one five minutes before this talk! TikTok was something I started doing for fun. People started liking it, so I kept going with it. I've been making videos for a long time just to entertain people, first for my younger cousins who couldn't really watch YouTube (there weren't a lot of kids channels back then). I've made videos for over a decade, but I started making these tech TikToks—TechToks, I guess—a little over a year ago. I liked the TikTok video editor and thought I could make some quick videos with it. Then, the following started. I'd make the videos even if it were just for myself, but it's fun that other people find them funny, too.

Q: What are some other activities that you do for fun?

One that a lot of people already know is that I build mechanical keyboards. It's a really fun thing to be able to make something that looks good and is also functional. That's my biggest hobby outside of making silly videos, but I also like making side projects. I'm one of those coders who genuinely loves coding, so I make silly little things (and also useful things) for myself and for others. I also like video games! I really enjoy playing music, too—my husband and I both play different musical instruments, but our group we were in just doesn't meet anymore due to the pandemic. The other activity I miss the most due to the pandemic is karaoke. It's such a fun time.

Q: What instruments do you play?

My main ones are trumpet and guitar, and I also have a euphonium. For those who don't know, it's like a baritone, but with four keys. I was in an electric guitar band here in Seattle—it was all electric guitars, very Seattle funky music. I'm also classically trained on guitar. My husband was actually a piano performance major before going into software. He plays piano and violin, and we just have a lot of instruments—we've been moving over the past week, and we were like, "Oh we are hoarders when it comes to instruments."

Q: Do you feel like the world of tech and music mix at all?

I feel like a grand majority of the tech people I know play some kind of instrument. If it's not music, it'll be drawing or painting or something else. It's more common than not that there's some kind of creative outlet for tech people, and especially for music. I know so many musicians in the tech industry.

Q: How do you feel about the environment for women and non-binary people in tech today?

In the tech industry, I think it's getting better in some ways. At Netlify, we have over 40% women and non-binary, which is very rare. We are an exception to the rule, but the industry has gotten better. I think that people are realizing it's not a pipeline problem. It's an industry problem. People are recruiting better and being smarter about it. I'm cautiously optimistic about that realm of the world.

Q: Do you believe that the 40% female and non-binary balance on your team was a purposeful choice on Netlify's part?

Absolutely. They've been very actively working towards that. Their goals as a company have been very intentional in terms of inclusivity and diversity from the top. The two founders are white guys, but they understand the need to have a diverse team. I also think the whisper network is real. Once they had a pretty diverse team and good culture, women, non-binary folks, and people from different races and backgrounds started telling the people they knew, saying, "This is a good place to apply to." Good culture attracts good culture.

Q: Is this diversity something that most tech companies are starting to work toward, or is Netlify still a standout in this regard?

I think they're a standout. I interviewed with quite a few companies when the pandemic hit, where I would be the first woman on the team, or one of five out of 40. Granted, there are more companies that are being more intentional about it, but there are still plenty that are like, "Hey, will you teach us how to be better?" I appreciate that they want to fix it, but you can't just ask your one person who's different to get more different people. You have to hire someone who is a specialist, and you have to be more intentional about it. If you put that responsibility on the underrepresented members of your team, that's an extra job for them to do in addition to the job they were hired for. So, it's still a mixed bag.

Q: Do you have any advice for coders in the middle of a pandemic, in terms of work-life balance or keeping sanity?

For people who are working remotely now for the first time: you have to set up some kind of routine so that you're not working all the time, even if it means that you work in the morning, take a break in the afternoon, and work again in the evening. Choose something where you can get your time in, but then you close your laptop and you're done. You also need to create the separation between "home" and "work," which is really the key to work-life balance. If you don't cut yourself off, you'll end up being a workaholic, or someone half-works all day instead of fully committing to your work during the day. It's especially tough because I do think that remote work is different from pandemic remote work, but that separation is really important.

If you've read to the end, congrats! It was honestly a delight to speak with Cassidy (not once, but twice!). If you'd like to see more of Cassidy, check out her website, twitter, TikTok, and weekly newsletter. There are even more links there! Have a nice day :)