Interview with Vanessa Tostada, A First Generation Latina in Tech

By pearl - June 23, 2020

After a long pause from blogging due to #covid19, I could not think of a better come back story than Vanessa's journey to Silicon Valley. She talks about resilience, overcoming imposter syndrome, and a few useful tips for current or aspiring CS majors. Read on and be inspired and be sure to leave a comment and share. 
 

Vanessa Tostado is a first-generation college graduate from Wesleyan University where she obtained her undergraduate degree in computer science. She currently works as a software engineer in test at a security company in Palo Alto. 


I grew up in East Palo Alto. Every time I say this, people immediately assume “wow fancy Palo Alto”. But it’s actually East Palo Alto, in the backyard of Silicon Valley overshadowed by it, with people living through the changes and in some cases getting gentrified. Sometimes, I get survivor’s remorse because I now work as an Engineer in Silicon Valley making me feel like I am a part of the problem. But I have to remind myself to be proud of how far I have come and focus on the impact I can have on my community. The impact that started back when I was a sophomore in high school. I was part of a team that participated in Technovation; a competition that challenges girls to build an application targeting a community problem.  My team created an app called TagIT, aimed at organizing events to clean up my community. It was a simple concept, if you see an area that needs to be cleaned up, you take a picture, tag it, and organize an event for people to help you clean it up. Our goal was to eventually include features like setting a radius for events near you.  We did well in the competition, coming out placing in the top 20 worldwide. We got a lot of encouragement and support including an opportunity to meet with the Mayor of California. Being a sophomore and being able to not only impact my immediate family but my community inspired me to want to do more. It inspired me to want to study computer science because I realized I could use technology to drive change.

 

Vanessa and her siblings Emiliano, Monserrat, Jasmine, Miguel, and Briant

Choosing Computer Science

After the Technovation competition, I took my second computer science class in high school and it was daunting. My teacher had a rule that if you didn’t finish an exercise in class, you couldn’t go out for lunch.  More often than not, I would watch other students trickle away, while I stayed inside not knowing what to do or how to ask for help. This experience was sending a message to me that maybe I did not have what it takes or I was not cut out for writing code. I signed papers to drop the class, but luckily my mentor intervened and encouraged me to stick to it. To find my voice. She made me realize that all I needed was to figure out what I didn’t know and ask for help. 

In College, I started out as a double major studying Pre-med and CS(Computer Science) but eventually put a pause on Pre-med because I was more interested in my CS courses. I worked on a lot of fun projects and I jumped at an opportunity to take courses in an exchange program in Budapest. One of my favorite projects was from a video game development class. My team built  EVO, an app for kids between 4th and 5th grade, teaching them about evolution. It was challenging to implement but once it was done, the real reward was seeing the excitement on the kid’s faces. They worked with us throughout the entire process and witnessed the different stages of development.

Overcoming Challenges

Although most of my classes were difficult they were not my biggest struggle because I was comfortable asking for help. My challenge has always been learning how to channel being a first-generation Latina working in tech. I do realize this is my superpower and what makes me unique. Though I am proud of my rich heritage and where I come from, I get imposter syndrome because most of the people like me are in janitorial or kitchen jobs. So it is a constant emotional roller coaster between feeling proud and sometimes feeling like I do not belong. One of the things that help me is listening to positive uplifting podcasts like Latina to Latina, which interviews Latina women professionals like actresses like Gina Rodriguez and Susie Jaramillo a children’s book author. Hearing stories from women like me with similar struggles and backgrounds reminds me to keep fighting. It reminds me everything is going to be ok.

Life After Graduation 

I am working my first full-time job at a cybersecurity company, with a team that develops a framework to automate testing for QA developers. I always thought I would only be interested in projects that are directly on the market, but my customers are the QA engineers, which has an even greater impact helping them be more effective. Being a software engineer has been a learning curve because of all its components, in addition, I've had to learn a lot about what QA developers do in order to help them. It is easy to get overwhelmed, so I remember to be honest about the things I don't know, so I can learn from the experts in my fields and the other engineers who have been doing this longer than I have. 

Vanessa and her mentor Sarah

Advice For Future CS Majors

I have a couple of things I will tell myself if I could go back in time;

1.  get comfortable failing. I was always in “go mode” and afraid of taking any wrong steps. If you try to start something or learn something new like a programming language don’t give up.

2.   Don’t wait to start taking risks when you start working because then, it's harder because your salary is on the line. Take risks now. So how do you take risks? By doing things that make you uncomfortable. Putting yourself out there. Getting out of your comfort zone.

3.  Find a mentor. These days it does not even have to be someone you know. Find someone you resonate with on Instagram. Someone who 

Vanessa and her mentor [inset name]
Vanessa and her mentor

helps you find your voice. This will help you build your confidence. Pick a mentor you are comfortable enough with to be vulnerable, and also enjoy spending time with. You can totally have more than one, but the fewer the better so you can devote time to spend with them. One of my mentors gives me stuff to work on and follows up with me every time we meet.

4.  Celebrate your victories. I personally need to take this advice because I am one who is always thinking about what’s next instead of taking time to enjoy the moment and celebrate my victories. 

Closing Remarks

I think representation is important especially tech where it is lacking. It’s sad to hear that a lot of girls are stepping away from STEM. So I am thankful for blogs like yours that highlight minorities in these fields encouraging the next generation of women of color in STEM. 


Big Thanks for Vanessa for taking the time to Interview with DmB. Be sure to follow her @it.complies 

 

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