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A Case Study with Flor

Flor Marshall.jpeg
Flor Marshall

Au Pair to AI Engineer

Flor's Story

In spring of 2019, Flor Marshall was jobless, separating from her husband, and raising a two-year-old son in New York City. She had just left a job to pursue her dream career: software engineering. The problem was that almost no software company would take a chance on a German-Linguistics double major who had virtually no coding experience. 

Flor had no illusions about risk. Her own mother had left El Salvador in her 20s, alone, to work as a housekeeper in the U.S. Flor, likewise, took a similar leap of faith. 

If you know about registered apprenticeships, arguably the most underutilized source of skills training and career mobility in the United States, you might think you know how this story goes. But to understand why Flor succeeded—and how you might follow in her path—we’ll need to dig deeper.

The student-parent 

Born in Rockville, Maryland, Flor is a first-generation American who grew up without lofty career expectations. Following high school, she took classes at a local community college but lost interest. In 2011, at 19 years old, she moved to Munich, Germany to be an au pair. Over the next year and a half, she became fluent in German and then returned to Rockville determined to build a career.

Flor married her high school sweetheart, newly enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, and followed him to southern California in 2013. He was soon deployed overseas. Flor began taking classes at Palomar College in San Marcos, CA. To make ends meet, she delivered papers for the school newspaper in a golf cart, managed the front desk at a skydiving center, and worked at a frozen yogurt shop. 

After two years at Palomar, Flor was accepted to the University of California-Berkeley in 2016. Then, Flor found out she was pregnant, which, she admits, “was kind of scary.” Thankfully, Berkeley had an organization that supported student-parents like Flor. She went on to double major in German and Linguistics. It struck her as odd that computer science majors took her advanced courses in semantics and syntax. She bookmarked that observation. 

“Stick to what you’re good at”

After graduating from Berkeley in 2018, Flor and her baby son moved to New York City to join her husband, who was accepted at Columbia University following his service in the Marine Corps. Flor took an operations job at a hedge fund, a “bittersweet experience,” as she recalls. On the one hand, she learned a lot about investing and started to build her own stock portfolio. On the other hand, she didn’t like the work—or the people or culture.  

Of the many tasks assigned to Flor, one piqued her interest. She regularly ran a Python script to scrape economic data from the internet. That task planted a thought: “If I understand how to run this script, it must not be so far-fetched for me to understand how to use programming languages.” Javascript, CSS, and HTML were just languages, like German. Didn’t computer science majors take her advanced linguistics courses at Berkeley? German and linguistics were transferable skills for software engineering.

Eager to learn more, Flor went on Facebook for ideas and discovered MotherCoders (now known as Bitwise Impact), an nonprofit organization that introduces mothers to coding and the tech industry. Of the 200 mothers who applied for 2019, Flor was one of 24 accepted to the program. Every weekend for three months, she joined MotherCoders at a library in Brooklyn. 

For her final project with MotherCoders, Flor produced a website about herself, and while it wasn’t anything special, it convinced her to take the next step: leave her job. “I didn't have anything lined up,” says Flor, “but I definitely needed to pursue this with all of me, all the time.”

She put in her two weeks and told her boss at the hedge fund that she was leaving to pursue software engineering. His unsolicited advice: “Stick to what you’re good at.” Had Flor listened, she’d probably be in a similar role, doing the same unfulfilling work. But Flor had become good at many things in her life. Unlike those who stick to what they’re good at, Flor knew how to learn—and suffer a bit.     

An outsider

Until Flor landed a job, she and her husband, still an undergraduate student, would have no income. As Flor would learn soon, the tech industry could be surprisingly insular and challenging for outsiders to break into.

“Not a lot of people are open to the idea of giving someone a chance that isn't already somehow in the tech industry,” notes Flor. 

Flor went on Facebook, joined a Latin tech group, and wrote a post. It said she wanted to become a software engineer. She didn’t know where to start. She couldn’t apply for junior development roles without experience. Could anyone point her in the right direction?  

She received one reply—from Diego Rivera, an employee at  Phone2Action (P2A), a civic technology company based in Arlington, Virginia. He suggested that Flor apply to their pre-apprenticeship technology fellowship, a summer program. She was accepted. 

Flor was hesitant about leaving New York for a short-term gig, but she had nothing to lose. She and her husband were drifting apart and realized that they wanted to separate. Thankfully, Flor had family in the D.C. area who could provide support. She packed up and moved with her son back to Rockville. 

Learning not to know

In retrospect, says Flor, “I don't think I was too truthful in the fellowship application.” Thanks to MotherCoders, she knew the right lingo and buzzwords to use. However, when P2A’s fellowship took Flor from zero to 60 miles per hour, she suffered imposter syndrome, afraid that a lack of experience would reveal her to be a fraud. 

Initially, she worked on a sprint team where members took bug tickets and addressed them independently. Flor struggled—a lot—until she learned a key lesson. “The people around me were like, ‘Look, it’s fine if you don’t know [something], but you have to tell us you don’t know. And we'll either show you or tell you how to find things out and come to the answer yourself.’”

Flor’s newfound willingness to be vulnerable changed everything. P2A moved Flor to a more collaborative team that dealt with real-time issues and bugs in consultation with P2A clients who reported them. Her skills improved rapidly.

As the fellowship came to an end, Flor didn’t have anything else lined up. She was going through a divorce, raising her son, and drinking from the proverbial “fire hose” at P2A. Ximena Hartsock, co-founder of P2A (and BuildWithin) invited Flor to join their apprenticeship program in front-end software development. 

The P2A apprenticeship

Starting in November of 2019, Flor and other former fellows became full-time employees and apprentices at Phone2Action, paid to work and learn hands-on for an entire year. Although COVID-19 forced the team to go remote in March 2020, that didn’t slow down Flor. She continued to address bug tickets and learned to make updates to P2A’s database, a complex process with high stakes. She also began to create web pages for clients’ digital advocacy campaigns. The apprenticeship progressively added more difficult tasks with more responsibility, continuously pushing Flor to learn. 

“It never got boring,” says Flor. “Sometimes it was overwhelming. But there was always something to do. And there was always something to learn. And I think that's what kept me motivated to keep pushing through and asking questions.”

As Flor became more skilled, she relied less on the precious time of her coworkers and more on her own research abilities. Googling for solutions to software engineering problems became an “art,” in Flor’s words, that continues to serve her. As the apprenticeship ended, Flor was offered a full time position at Phone2Action as software developer.

At the bleeding edge of tech

Flor accepted a full-time position at P2A after completing her apprenticeship. While Flor might have stayed for years, the company underwent an acquisition, and the new leadership decided to offshore front-end development. 

Yet again, Flor faced the prospect of being unemployed. This time, though, she was a highly desirable candidate. In February 2021, Flor landed at Fluree, a blockchain database company. She started in development relations, building custom apps for clients and teaching how to use them. After proving herself, Flor was moved to a software engineering team doing front-end development for Fluree’s flagship apps.

Since February 2023, Flor has been a remote software engineer at Supernormal, maker of an AI that creates high-quality notes from meetings. Only four years earlier, she faced the prospect of being an unemployed single mother in New York City. Since then, she has tripled her apprentice salary and is a strong candidate for any front-end software role. 

Flor knew the value of immersive learning from her experience studying German. After one year (and change) immersed in a software development team, she was fluent in a new language: Javascript. She also overcame her imposter syndrome. “I think I'm past the point of being worried about what I don't know,” says Flor. “I will admit it, and I know that I can learn if given the opportunity.”

Lessons from Flor

Flor’s story has many takeaways for potential apprentices. Here are the three lessons she would like to highlight:

  1. “Develop thick skin.” Anyone who attempts a bold transition to an entirely new career will face criticism from bosses, friends, and loved ones. People will tell you you’re “crazy” according to Flor. Hence, the value of thick skin. The opportunities are out there, but while you’re searching and struggling, be ready for people to attack rather than support your aspirations.

  2.  “Don’t be shy to ask questions or to admit that you don’t know.” That was the biggest challenge for Flor to overcome. Once she did, it unlocked her full potential to learn from colleagues and mentors and, eventually, become her own teacher. It also allowed Flor to embrace the struggles. “It's okay to feel like you suck,” says Flor, “because feeling like you suck is the first step at getting better at something.”

  3. “You don't have to remain in that situation.” If you’re reading this story, chances are you’re pondering a new profession and career, and not without a reason. In Flor’s case, one trigger to change was her hedge fund boss. He was unempathetic towards Flor’s responsibilities as a mother. He didn’t care if Flor’s son was sick and needed Flor home; he expected her in the office (even though she could do her work remotely). Wherever you are, says Flor, “It’s not going to be easy to get out of it. But it is so much more worth going through that than staying somewhere that is either not paying you enough, not valuing you, or that just doesn’t fit the expectations of life that you have for yourself.” 

*Want to break into tech? Visit HERE to find a tech apprenticeship.

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