I grew up poor, jumping from multiple migrant farmworker camps to the next, starting in Hood River, Oregon and ultimately landing in the Skagit Valley, just north of Seattle. Our safety net was always more work than there were Mexicans to do it. Our safety net was community, pre-internet, where our families would get together on weekends for carnitas, chicharrones and cueritos de puerco. There was the Sunrise Apartments, La Paloma and Section-8 housing. Long before the DM there was carne asadas and the network was who you knew.
No one went hungry. It was our network that ensured we didn’t go hungry. Pre-NAFTA, my mom always had great work. But something else started to happen. The Jansport of the world’s began to move their operation’s overseas. For a while we’d go vacation, splurge and visit family in Nayarit, but things became rougher as we grew up. Communities begin to slowly divide between the networked and un-networked and between the technical and non-technical. While only an hour away from Microsoft and Seattle-tech titans, it was rare to ever see technology entrepreneurs that looked like us with similar socio-economic backgrounds visit the area, connect and mentor.
The Seattle-tech network while only an hour from Mt. Vernon was as if it was on the other side of the country. Those that did mentor, coach were farm supervisors (mayordormos), farmworker union organizers, taqueria business owners, social workers, and migrant head start educators, each with their own set of values and experiences. Thus, our network reach is defined by those very networks, a humble and bilingual network.
In the 10th grade I dropped out of high school and worked at Olympic Fish Company in LaConner, just west of Mt. Vernon. I wanted to make money and while my network expanded, it was limited to Mexicanos who I’d share lunch with. Members of the community with an unwavering work ethic, love for family, and the triunfar attitude. A year later I returned to Mt. Vernon High School and quickly nominated by the late Dr. Ken Fox to attend the state’s migrant leadership youth conference where my network expanded even further with individuals with similar socio-economic upbringing and all learning the same material in the same educational experience on the Central Washington University campus.
This was defining. Not because it was the first time I had set foot on a university campus, but because the chaperones and speakers in Ellensburg looked like me, had Spanish-surnames like Herrera, Loera, and Sanchez, and were fluent in Spanish. I felt like they knew me. During this period I also was nominated and attended the National Youth Leadership Forum on Law & the Constitution in Washington, D.C., and my experiences were further defined by both a Mt. Vernon and beltway network. To attend I had to fundraise over $5,000 quickly — I knocked on doors and met business owners and lawyers. One said lawyer, Joe Bowen, took off a Nordstrom sports blazer off his office hangar and had me try it on. When it fit, he said, “it’s yours.” In my DC hotel room, I researched the who’s who of Hispanics and ran across one name who actually returned my message: Marco Davis. During a break, we met up for coffee. At the time he was doing some interesting stuff with the National Council of La Raza. Our paths would later cross on the internet. This period was formative and it was further enhanced by individuals backing my success and fueling my drive.
Post-Mt. Vernon when I enlisted my network now included an Army network. All patriots. All soldiers. Post-9/11 while at Oregon State University my network added ROTC cadets. That fall, while I was in the Assistant Professor of Military Science office he called over Ben Culver to meet me there in his office. When Culver arrived he escorted me back to Sigma Nu, a frat house comprised of guard soldiers, cadets and non-military. Between staying on couches or having a community I signed up. Fast forward 13-years, I met with Culver at the U.S. Capitol in summer 2013 where he worked as an Army Congressional Liaison.
College is a network, the Army is a network (and a small world), and this network ever expands and grows while you serve in the reserve and active-duty.
When Twitter launched and began to take off I signed up in late 2009. I followed Chris Brogan, Robert Scoble, and Chris Sacca amongst many. I followed their lists and created my own. I followed their blog and created my own (I had to learn to use WordPress). I followed their Posterous and created my own. This new network was 1st degree. I could literally tweet and touch someone. It felt surreal to connect with entrepreneurs, writers and venture capitalists clear across the country and receive a response. Individuals from other networks now in the same network. Twitter wasn’t email. It was different, and I was hooked. When Chris Sacca tweeted a post about supporting veterans with a Bitly link, I responded, and while the tweet didn’t garner the attention it deserved, it was here nor there. We tried. He tracked it, but it didn’t measure up. I couldn’t believe that the campaign didn’t take off. I was surprised.
I spent a good half of 2013 and 2014 trying to survive post-military, learning to become a programmer all while trying to convince programmers to build out the BilingualHire app.
When I couldn’t find someone and I got over the imposter syndrome, I spent the latter half of 30-days working on the app until it was live. When I got stuck and had blown over five hundreds dollars leveraging HackHands(), I began re-asking various code schools if I could now use my New GI Bill. After countless, “no’s” and “sorry, bureaucracy can be slow” I began asking more pointed questions like, “am I the only one asking this questions or are there others?” What I found out was that I wasn’t alone. Kristen Smith, then CEO of Code Fellows response of, “over 25% of monthly inquiries are New GI Bill-related” pissed me off. Her attitude of just, “fucking ship it” was empowering. On August 21, 2014, I committed the first line of code to GitHub launching Operation Code, then a simple petition asking Congress to allow code schools to use the New GI Bill (of course it’s more complicated as we later found out). I would later spend 6 mos evolving this, 6 mos under a fiscal sponsor until the DM that changed it all. The DM that changed and accelerated most everything and has led me on a path to diversify the tech industry with military veterans came to and from Jonathan Coveney. He had been very helpful providing invaluable feedback on the BilingualHire app. Prior to that he gave great input on NestNote. In one instance, he mentioned another individual that I should connect with. Another Hispanic. That person was laura i. gómez. She was just leaving Twitter, had traveled extensively throughout Latin America and was getting ready to launch her own tech startup focused on diversifying the tech workforce using machine learning. It took nearly two-years for us to meet in person, but we DM’d periodically.
I was in San Francisco for Signal and had tweeted to my followers to meet at 21st amendment for drinks and chat Operation Code, then a project under a fiscal sponsor. That night we had a ton of folks come out from SendGrid and everyone wanted to learn what this Operation Code was — but, most importantly how they could help. I gave broad overviews in military lingo covering the strategic, operational and tactical elements. But it was the very presence and persistence of the individuals that came out for drinks that night, including laura i. game, Nick Frost, Elmer Thomas, and Pete Runyon that encouraged me to look outward. The Silicon Valley breed is unlike the Skagit Valley breed. Within weeks I split Operation Code from the fiscal sponsor. It was liberating.
It’s no surprise then that these four individuals today serve on the Operation Code governing board of directors and are helping shape the future of the organization that is being built while we fly it.
A fervent advocate for ensuring our most vulnerable in society should not be left behind in an era where over half of new wealth is being created in software. As our board vice chair, Laura, brings immeasurable human and technical understanding, a passion for ensuring all socio-economic backgrounds can participate and thrive, and a velocity that would be hard press to match. In just a few short months, Laura, has made numerous introductions to the Valley, shared our story to her followers, and leveraged her network to learn about the Operation Code mission. It’s been a firehose lesson after lesson and I’m still learning. After losing my Posterous content after their acquisition by Twitter I swore never to blog on any medium. This Medium might be the only exception.
That first DM intro from Jonathan Coveney was key. That DM expanded my network to another valley unlike the Skagit Valley I grew up in. He genuinely wanted to help and he did.
This valley, the Silicon Valley is by most accounts, the mecca for the world’s most formidable technology titans and startups of our time. But that DM acknowledged something further. Something about the power of networks. It’s not who you know, but who the f*** knows you. This is a place that should unequivocally stand behind their diversity statements and take more actionable steps to recruit, mentor and coach America’s newest greatest generation already trained in leadership and today’s newest programmers.
Last year, Operation Code veterans toured Airbnb and Twilio. Last month PuppetLabs reached out.
The day my network expanded by a Twitter DM that was genuine, helpful and led to synergy was everything.
As always, love to hear from you over on Twitter. To more DMs.