From Architect to Systems Engineer – A Story on WayfindingFeatured

Hi! I’m Pam. I am an immigrant from Togo, West Africa, a systems engineer on the Vox Media product team, an entrepreneur, and an all around creative.In May 2013, I graduated from architecture school. Four years of tears, sweat, and an impressive amount of all-nighters had arrived to an end. My peers seemed proud, accomplished, and eager for what was to come. I, on the other hand, felt more confused than ever. Before school, I really believed I would become an architect. I craved the sensory stimulation that a space could provoke with its atmosphere and I constantly touched surfaces when entering new places in order to compare materials through their different textures and temperatures. On a more pragmatic note, I loved to draw, I was good at physics, and building houses on the Sims was my favorite thing. Architecture seemed to be the perfect choice, but it turned out not to be.After the ceremony, the dinners, and the congratulatory hugs, I finally got to sit with myself and bask in my aimlessness. The next goal on this good-African-child trajectory was to go to grad school, which implied that I had to choose a subject to study next. I took a hard look at my recent school experience, hoping I would get some answers. I had to admit, I didn’t completely hate architecture school. I thoroughly enjoyed the creative freedom and the chance to witness a design grow and improve through an iterative process. I loved being able to tell a story with each project and I dreamed of leaving my mark through my designs. But as the years in school passed, I realized how much bureaucracy was truly involved in the process of getting the design from concept to reality. This slowly tore the glamorous picture I had in mind. I also realized that I didn’t share the fiery drive that kept some classmates energized even after spending three full nights finalizing 3D models and renderings. I did what I had to do to excel but never felt compelled to go a bit further. So, by the end of the program, although I still had a strong desire to create and build things, it was no longer attached to architecture. I needed something that would constantly feed my creativity, something that would give me room to fail and learn, and something that was flexible, fun, and quick.I almost immediately thought of fashion design. I loved fashion (still do). I could spend hours watching Fashion Weeks footage and documentaries featuring designers, and I was particularly interested in the opportunities to wear multiple hats as a fashion designer. Whether it was the making of a collection of the production of a show, I wanted to try it all. Last but not least, I was even better at drawing, thanks to architecture. So why not study fashion design?Before committing to anything, I decided to teach myself how to sew to gage whether I liked it. I immersed myself into the process; from drawing patterns, to the fabric choice, cutting, sewing, alterations, you name it. It was challenging, meditative, invigorating, frustrating, and, of course, it didn’t go as planned.I had been consistent with sewing up garments, when during three separate conversations, my uncle and two engineer friends encouraged me to look into the tech industry and code as a potential career switch, or at the very least, a tool I could add to my box. That last friend innocuously added that a blog could be a good medium to share my designs. That single idea catalyzed my whole engineering career. Because of this, I decided to build my first blog.I dabbled into the obligatory CodeCademy courses, delved into their HTML, CSS, and JS tracks, and eventually discovered Wordpress. I went on a hunt for tutorials, learned some basic PHP to put the blog together and within a few weeks, I had a working platform. It felt unbelievable, scary, and empowering. I had moved into an exciting knowledge bubble – and I would’ve stayed, but life came knocking with my bank statements in hand and reminded me that I needed a job or at least a graduate school admission. Well, coding seemed to check all the boxes that had originally brought me to fashion: it was creative, it gave me freedom to experiment, and it opened the door to unlimited avenues. Also practically speaking, it seemed more secure than a career in fashion.From that point on, things moved fast. I researched ways to get trained, looked up universities and their CS programs, then eventually stumbled upon bootcamps. At the time, learning how to code AND getting a job in 12 short weeks seemed too good to be true so I scoured the internet for honest reviews, until I was convinced that it would work for me. I then pitched the concept to my parents, asked for their sponsorship to cover the costs, and got accepted into a local bootcamp program!After being a student at the bootcamp, I was hired as a junior instructor for the duration of a cohort then continued on to becoming a full-stack engineer at my current company. I had been working as an FSE for a few years, when I decided to transition into the systems engineering team. They specialized in implementing infrastructure that enabled other engineers to get their work done quickly and efficiently. I admired their knowledge as well as their ability to solve other developers’ issues but I was honestly also eager to work on problems I had never seen before.The move to the systems team presented me with the most challenging tasks I had ever had to face in my engineering career. I started working with technologies I had never touched before and because my work impacted all the engineers on the team, it felt like I faced bigger stakes. That said, the novelty of the work was perfect for my curious brain and it pushed me to only learn what was necessary to complete tickets. It gave some boundaries to my tendencies to go on never-ending learning binges.By then, although I was growing on a technical basis, I wasn’t feeling creatively fulfilled. Perhaps because of my lack of expertise, I didn’t feel ready to lead new projects just yet. Nonetheless, I still needed to express myself through one or multiple creative outlets that I could own and see to fruition, similarly to architecture and fashion design. That wish for more creative freedom pushed me to start ventures such as Color Coded – a non-profit and community for poc in tech, a (ridiculous) bi-weekly systems engineering newsletter, a cookie startup, and more!I’ll admit that it sometimes feel like I’m spreading myself very thin but I couldn’t imagine denying myself all this frantic discovery. Besides, I find comfort in knowing that I stumbled upon architecture, fashion design, and engineering with this hectic process. I’m glad there is benefit to this madness.-- Pam was born in Kenya and grew up in Senegal. She moved to DC twelve years ago, finished high school and received a degree in architecture from University of Maryland College Park.After graduation, Pam taught herself how to make garments, decided to start a blog about it, then started teaching herself how to code to make the blog. She loves challenging herself, trying new things and eating noodle soup.
Thank you, Pam, for sharing your story with us! If you have a good story to share, or know someone who does, let us know via DM.