#TechTuesday: Why You Don’t Have to be “Techy” to Pursue an Engineering Career

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A Senior Android Developer at Pandora proves you don’t have to grow up entrenched in math, science and code to build a successful tech career.

By Betsy Mikel (Editor, Women 2.0)

When it comes time to chose a college major, how do you decide? Your favorite childhood pastimes might also have heavy influence — it’s no surprise that math and science whiz kids go on to become technologists. Seeing role models, parents and mentors excel in STEM fields also influences the decision to pursue computer science.

Not for Maria Chavez Cantu. She chose to pursue a computer science degree because… well, why not? She took a few courses, fell in love with programming and building things, and now, over 15 years later, she’s a Senior Software Engineer of Android Mobile Development at Pandora.

Maria Chavez CantuOver the course of her career, Maria has held many roles: architect, product manager, lead, developer and QA. She’s worked for many companies, from startups to corporations, and across different industries: Database, Finance, Insurance and Music as a full-stack engineer: db, scalability, middleware, front-end, CE and mobile.

As a first generation Mexican-American and California native, Maria was the first in her family to go to college. She chatted with us about how she landed in technology, why she stuck with it, the technical challenges she faces in her day-to-day work at Pandora and why it’s important to have an answer to the question “What do you do outside of work?”

What led you to pursuing a career in technology?

Maria Chavez Cantu: It was just chance for me. I wanted to go to college and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I just kind of started looking around for different courses I could take.

I had never owned a computer and I wasn’t that great at math, but I knew I wanted a good-paying career. I had always thought becoming a doctor or lawyer were way out of reach. When I heard “engineer” I thought of the the guys that design bridges. Software seemed so much more attainable. I think it was also ignorance that kept me interested! It was ignorant of me to say, “Hey let me try that.”

I took some basic programming courses and computer courses and it kind of clicked. I was able to make something in a fairly small time frame and it gave me that sense of accomplishment. So that’s what my a-ha moment was.

After that point, I went and bought myself a computer. At the time it was a big deal, because I paid $2,000 for a computer. So I really made an investment in going this route.  It was a good thing I didn’t understand what I was getting myself into!

Was there ever a time when you thought about leaving tech?

Maria Chavez Cantu:  All the time.  I was always thinking “Am I doing enough? Do I know enough? Can I compete with these guys who have been doing it forever?’

I was the first person in my family of six to go to college. My parents are strawberry field workers and didn’t have an education. And I was embarking on all new territory. There was a little bit of ignorance and willpower keeping me going and not much support in my family.

Early on it was difficult for me. I had to push myself. I felt like I was way over my head. I have this ingrained notion that I am at a disadvantage, and that makes me compensate. My parents did really hard backbreaking work so I’ve translated that work ethic over to my career.

Just because i don’t know anything about a topic, it doesn’t stop me from learning about it or trying it. It might take me longer than someone else, but I am going to finish it.

My work ethic got me through. I also focus on my other strengths. I wrote well. I can communicate. I like to talk. I used some of those soft skills, that maybe some of these socially awkward guys didn’t have, to my advantage. In school, I would get into project teams by offering to write the technical documentation.  At work, I bring a different perspective to the current project.

Over your 15 years of experience, you’ve held a variety of roles. We often receive the advice to specialize to learn how to do one thing really well. Do you think differently?

Maria Chavez Cantu: In 15 years, tech has changed — and it changes all the time. You can’t say, “Oh I know this one language.” Fortunately I’ve been able to rely on Java over these 15 years, but you have to learn everything on the stack: server, data modeling, business logic, user interface, etc...

It’s really important to have a good base, my computer science degree and years of work experience is what I rely on for problem solving. As long as you have that basis, you can look at a problem and figure out how to break it down. Then you can take the deep dives into the technology required to solve the problem. And that technology may be something you’re not familiar with — you may spend a week or more researching that new technology.

That’s just ongoing. I would not have made it if I had not been able to adapt to anything that gets thrown at me. A lot of the younger generation get bored really easily if you’re not constantly keeping up with the latest technology. But it’s a balancing act. At some point, you need to release products and not worry about learning the latest technology. How do I start from nothing and produce something interesting that works and will be successful out in the market?

What interests do you have outside of tech?

Maria Chavez Cantu: I have a family, so my husband and 8-year-old son are my priority outside of work.

I’m also actively engaged with encouraging young middle school kids to think about college, especially in the Latino community. My husband works with English as a Second Language students in Hayward, lots of immigrant kids come in and don’t even think about college. I would love to see them get into engineering, but I would really love for them to just get into college. It’s great to see diversity in the workforce.

Why is Pandora a good fit for you personally and professionally?

Maria Chavez Cantu: It’s a great life balance. I work at Pandora, but I don’t live at Pandora. I get to come to work and engulf myself and deliver amazing products to our listeners. I get to go home and have a personal life. I get to determine when I come in and when I leave. I tend to start my day at 8 a.m., others start at 10 a.m.

It’s good to test yourself. If you’re at work for too long, you may not see the solution to the problem that’s right in front of you.

What’s challenging about being an Android developer? What’s amazing about it?

Maria Chavez Cantu: A personal challenge for me is that I started as an enterprise application back-end developer. I was dealing with large Fortune 500 financial applications. I came into Android without much UI experience. There are a lot of concepts you have to grasp about user interface. That’s always a challenge for me to educate myself and be on top of that technology, especially when competing with the new generation of Android engineers.  This new/younger generation of engineers, may not have much work experience outside of Android, but they understand Android really well. So we can create a balance on our teams with engineers who have more work and life experience with these whiz kids who know Android so well.

With Android, things are always changing.  Material design is an example of a UI concept that many engineers in a company will want to immediately adopt.  But sometimes that doesn't make practical sense from a business perspective. You can’t change the product because Google made an OS update. Your company ultimately dictates the priorities for the product based on business needs.

As an Android developer it can be frustrating when the company doesn’t move as fast as you want.  However, instead of complaining, I tend to work on influencing future designs to take into account Android design and technologies.

The amazing thing is that Pandora is in the forefront. We tend to try new things and we’re a recognizable brand everyone sees — but that can be good and bad - it can result in much praise or a lot of scrutiny.

What’s one piece of advice you would have given yourself 10 years ago?

Maria Chavez Cantu: I feel like sometimes you can engulf yourself with work a little bit too much that you forget what’s around you. In my earlier years, it was just work, work, work. I’ve worked with many incredible people throughout my 15+ years. I wish I had maintained some of those relationships better.

I would tell myself: Make sure you have an answer when you’re asked about interests outside of your job. If you don’t have one, maybe you’re spending too much time there. You want to be able to identify yourself as an individual and live your life. Your personal life is the one you will have forever. Jobs come and go.

Thanks for taking the time to chat with us Maria! Want to work with her? Check out open engineering jobs at Pandora.


About the author: Betsy Mikel is the managing editor of Women 2.0 and runs the content consultancy Aveck. She has a degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and a lifelong obsession with French language and culture. When she's not biking all over every city she visits to find its best taqueria, you can find Betsy on Twitter at @betsym.