Motorcycles, mentorship & macros: Magee Mooney is simply amazing

By Wendy Gittleson for Hack Reactor

If you’re new to the tech industry, or perhaps if you’re not, you might have some preconceived ideas about what a coding professional might look like. Hack Reactor Program Lead & Technical Mentor Magee (pronounced Muh-gee) Mooney wants you to forget about all those stereotypes because tech isn’t about who you are.

Tech is about what you know, and Mooney wants you to know that  Hack Reactor’s coding bootcamp is designed to give everyone, even those who aren’t the cliched “tech bro,” access to highly skilled and lucrative positions.

My conversation with Mooney went a little longer than I usually plan because it was like talking to an old friend. We discussed her history, diversity in tech, and her Ducati motorcycle.

What is your background?

I started in technology roughly 36 years ago when I was working as a temp word processor. I had specialized skills in word processing software, insatiable curiosity, and friends who would give me leftover computer parts as they upgraded their computers. By 1986, I had built my first Intel-based computer from those spare parts and made up the rest with frequent trips to CompUSA (a computer “superstore” back in the day). I was hooked.

Over the years, I was a technical trainer, worked as a desktop technician, studied networking technologies while pursuing a well-regarded networking certification having become a LAN Administrator (back when I had to explain to people what a network “was”). I proposed and built what was likely one of the first multimedia development labs at USAID to build educational products that could be shared with USAID missions that weren’t yet connected to the web.

Later, I bought Microsoft’s brand-new technology, Access, dove deep into it solving all kinds of personal information management challenges, and ultimately capitalized on that expertise to become a professional database administrator and programmer. That landed me at UC Berkeley for 10 years, supporting a team of exceptional scientists at a world-leading childhood leukemia study by maintaining and improving their research database applications.

Ultimately, I got into software engineering because I found that I could automate repetitive tasks throughout my tech career by writing “batch files” or “macros” and as time passed, learned that business process automation was far more interesting to me than other aspects of my job. As I learned more, I eventually transitioned from working with computers to teaching folks who to use them and then supporting/administering/fixing the technology itself. I attribute my long career in technology to my love for problem-solving and puzzles, my deep curiosity about tech, and personal practice of reinventing myself every 5-10 years, taking on more skills, diving more deeply into existing ones, or walking away from one tech discipline and following a different path has led to a long and deeply rewarding career.

What drew you to Hack Reactor?

I wanted to update my skills after leaving a role as a programmer/analyst at UC Berkeley maintaining and managing proprietary research database applications and childhood leukemia research data. I spent many years working with Microsoft technologies before designing and implementing replacement web applications to modernize their tools. It whetted my appetite to return to web applications development, so I sought out Hack Reactor once I left. I chose Hack Reactor because it was the most rigorous bootcamp at the time and the only one using Javascript as the instructional language (at the time, the rest were all teaching Ruby on Rails).

What is your favorite part of being an instructor?

I really believe that due to the success of our program and how many amazing humans choose to join our community, we have the opportunity to introduce more diversity, life experience, and kindness into our profession. The icing on the cake is that, as a part-time program, we are able to attract people who otherwise would not be able to do our program and help them make this leap into software engineering.

Mortgages, families, and other life commitments often prevent people from being able to take advantage of our full-time program. Making it available on a part-time basis means we can reach more established adults with deep personal and professional experience and help.

In 1999, you were somewhat of a pioneer. How did you initially learn to build websites?

I was using the internet already before this new “World Wide Web” thing started to evolve. It was an exciting time to watch this technology grow and to be able to create websites with little required tooling and education. The only things that were required were our imaginations and time and an interest in learning. Save for the folks inventing the technologies, we were all self-taught tinkerers back then. There was no such thing as a bootcamp and it would be years before web development showed up in university computer science departments because the full picture of what the Internet could be and do beyond primarily serving text-based information was only just beginning to be recognized.

I must confess I was definitely one of those developers who made “web pages” with dancing baby gifs and scrolling marquees. By 1999, I had been programming and experimenting with web development for some time when a contractor to the law firm where I worked ghosted about nine months into a critical year-long contract to provide a lobbying information system to a foreign government wanting to improve trade opportunities with the United States.

One of the firm partners called me into his office and asked me to rescue project data locked on a hard drive. The conversation drifted to the abandoned project. He explained that the press in the client country had started to become critical of the initiative and they needed to turn it around quickly. Eleven weeks later, I was delivering to him a web-based secure application with SSL, populated with the rescued data, capable of being used in Asia, and updated by paralegals in Washington, DC. Sometimes, you can do huge things when you don’t know how hard they are supposed to be.

Your background is somewhat unique among the instructors I’ve talked to. You didn’t quite finish your BA and you are a graduate of Hack Reactor. Do you feel this makes you more relatable to students?

Actually, I don’t. My personal story about my career in tech is more similar to the stereotypical tech person in Silicon Valley. I learned early on that I had a gift for tech. Folks recognized it and I got lots of opportunities and accolades for being able to learn and apply tech quickly to solve business or organizational problems. I was once offered a job by a founder of a major US satellite telecom company because I talked him through reconfiguring his computer configuration by memory over the phone. I got him unblocked quickly, and the next thing I knew I was upgrading his hardware infrastructure by installing the very first hard drives in his new consultancy’s computers as an independent contractor.

I do think that having had deep professional experience in tech does help students feel that they’re in good hands and that adds value for many of them. I share my story as a fellow grad so they know I understand what the experience of struggling through the program feels like. But when I learned how to code and create web apps, the technology was much simpler. I grew up expanding my knowledge as the technologies evolved. So from that respect, I think they actually have a much harder road to mastery than I did when I was in their same position.

However, I went back to school in the early 2000s and now have substantial academic experience, digging into Assembly Language, C++, and Java programming, designing Logic Circuits and building them, spending years doing formal academic work rich in logic and proofs as a Math major/CS minor. I was enrolled in my final two classes when my mother’s terminal illness caused me to drop out and stay away long enough that other hurdles focused me on my career instead of school. I also came into the program with a good 15+ years of coding experience before I entered as a student. So from a student perspective, at first blush, my experience and credentials make me look more like those experienced CS people who they often find intimidating.

Do you feel that a concentrated bootcamp setting is perhaps even better than a university degree?

It depends upon what a learner wants. For most well-paying jobs in web development, I believe a reputable, high-quality bootcamp can’t be beaten. The ROI on the tuition for students who prepare well and work hard to graduate can be remarkable. Very few technology skills I learned at university are part of my current toolset for creating web applications. But it’s also true that the years of formal training in logic, problem-solving, and debugging to produce working code gave me a strong conceptual grounding that allows me to learn new technologies quickly and understand better how and why they work. That’s invaluable.

Hack Reactor grads are introduced to those building blocks and they’re reinforced throughout the program so they can gain the same experience, but it can take time well into the beginnings of their career to integrate them fully into their toolkits. I think people who want to get deep into back-end and network architecture will still be well served by adding university coursework to their education. In short, the largest pool of jobs in the marketplace are well served by graduates of strong bootcamp programs. But certainly, there’s still a place for university coursework for folks who want to specialize or dig in more deeply.

What do you feel are the biggest challenges facing the tech industry?

There are a number of ways I can answer this question but I suppose I want to share challenges I perceive from my lived experience.

I think our industry has been slow to figure out how to incorporate more diversity into the ranks of its engineers. BiPOC, Women, People over 40 (50?!), LGBTQ+, Neurodivergent, and other differently-abled people all are represented among some of the most gifted engineers I know but still show up in numbers far too few in our industry. We need to crack the problem of how to bring our recruitment efforts to communities where not-actually-hidden talent exists. We have to learn how to see what is there, improve recruitment and interviewing modalities. We need to allow children and under-employed people to see folks who look like them in engineering jobs. You can’t aspire to a career you’ve never seen. And you may not want to aspire to a career where you don’t see people who look like you.

Short Story: When I was applying to bootcamps back in 2013, I went to the websites of all of the existing bootcamps in San Francisco and I counted the number of women I found in pictures on each site. I didn’t even bother counting people like me who were over 35. I chose Hack Reactor in spite of the fact that there were no women on their site but the exercise remained one that featured prominently in how I considered what community I wanted to join. I had to weigh the pros of HR against the poor representation of diversity on their site at the time to justify my choice to myself.

Ultimately, the pros far outweighed that con so it was an easy decision. And as an alum (and later a staff member), I watched how hard HR worked at figuring out how to reach out to and recruit enough talented women students and am proud of what we have achieved… but it still remains hard work for all of our industry.

You hit on one area of discrimination we don’t hear a lot of talk about, and that’s ageism. Ageism is one of the last remaining accepted forms of discrimination. How do you think tech can fix the diversity problem?

One way is through activism and creating intentional change. Another form that I think is as powerful and effective as any other is infiltrating, getting people like me, People of Color, older people, people with disabilities, and having us become “normal.”

I compare it to when (San Francisco Mayor at the time) Gavin Newsom legalized same-sex marriage and it spread. It got to the point where people who were initially resistant or uncertain eventually realized that the sky didn’t fall. The same thing will happen with tech when we get a lot of people into the industry who look different.

At RPT (Hack Reactor Remote Part-Time), we have a team that is majority women, including our tech mentors. Some people on our teams are neuro-diverse as well. I think that when you bring men into the industry who are guided by women who they regard as experts, you fundamentally shift the perception in the industry regarding the role of women. For me, being a model of a competent, skilled engineer that people would like to work with is one of those things that could affect change ultimately. You won’t have to have slogans or convince people; it just happens.

I especially believe in Hack Reactor as an organization at large and our part-time program because it enables women and older workers who have mortgages and kids and can’t check out for three months the way younger people can.

I will let you in on a secret on how I’ve overcome some of the biases against women and people over 25. I ride a Ducati sport bike. I learned to ride when I went through Hack Reactor. When people I interview with learn that I ride their dream bike (or one of their dream bikes), they start looking at me slightly differently. It gives me a context to connect to young men. I didn’t do it for this purpose, but I found that the connection made the young men see me as a human with a shared interest. Then we’d geek out on bikes and then move on to the other things. When I was looking for work, I would bring my helmet and motorcycle jacket into the interview as an ice breaker.

Are you still involved with the Taproot Foundation? If so, tell me a little about it

I am not. It was a great experience but it has been some years since I’ve done work with them. Nonprofits applied for support to Taproot who assembled cross-functional teams to help solve program or operational problems for the organizations that won grants. I was usually the only developer and worked with marketing people, copywriters, business analysts, or other professionals to help them be more effective in supporting their communities.

At the time, it was challenging because we were not permitted to use open source or existing commercial technologies and had to “roll our own” solutions. They’ve since relaxed that restriction and I believe have a curated list of technologies their volunteers can use but the constraint led to interesting challenges. I wrote a content management system from scratch for one org, for example. Most important was knowing that my work led to helping several non-profits better support under-served communities.

What are some of the best and worst things coders have done?

Coders can help change the world. They can empower people to improve equity and access. They can help people in environmental disasters reconnect with lost loved ones or help municipalities reduce congestion and environmental pollutants by improving the ability of inhabitants to find and quickly park their cars. Graduates of the Hack Reactor program were instrumental in fixing the disastrous site when the ACA was rolled out, for example. Federal Government contractors had built it very badly and someone with a vision called in engineers with training from Silicon Valley to come in and rescue it.

Among the worst things? I suppose I’d just like to limit sharing my many strong opinions on this front to this one– this can be a very insular community full of people, many of whom have learned from very young ages that they could do what many folks believe is “magic”. When you move from that directly into a high-paying career which reinforces that narrative, we often lose something that comes when you work with a more diverse community of people who have had to struggle in their early careers. I wonder sometimes if leaders of some large tech companies had to struggle more in the real world with real-world issues before they launched their tech careers if we’d see more empathy and more sensitivity to how mismanagement or misuse of their platforms can harm the public narrative and faith in each other.

What is your proudest professional accomplishment?

For all of my technology career, I have made it my mission to support and mentor other women to become technology professionals. Building the Remote Part Time program is the one accomplishment that I am most proud of because it allows me to effect change for women on a big scale and to expand that impact to other under-represented people in tech.

One of my favorite things about building RPP and stewarding it to where it is now is that we are infusing this profession with people from all walks of life with a wide variety of professional and personal backgrounds. We make the life-changing bootcamp experience available to people who can’t quit their jobs because of families or financial obligations. I believe that supports increasing diversity in our Hack Reactor community. I believe that what we do impacts not only our students but can also lead to generational change.

Daughters are watching their mothers retool and become programmers. Children can imagine themselves as engineers and their parents, with often lucrative careers after they graduate, can carve out new futures for their families by allowing them to pay for college educations, trade schools, or other life experiences. We know that childcare responsibilities often fall on mothers. Losing time in the workplace often has lifelong costs to career advancement and total earnings. We have moms and dads with newborns regularly going through our program and arguably advancing their careers rather than falling behind.

If you could use your coding skills to create anything at all, what would it be?

Does it have to follow the rules of physics?

No, we’re having fun.

I would design a portal to allow you to travel between spaces so I could be with my sister and niece and nephew for a couple of days and then be back here.

Prediction time

Changes in software development and/or the computer industry in 10 years

There’s an interesting thought paper out of Xerox’s PARC facility on “Calm Technology” from some years ago. The principle is that information comes to us in our spaces as we move through our day. We don’t have to go to a terminal and learn an interface to get information. A sound or environmental change may provide a meaningful impact. Right now, our bathroom mirrors can be hacked to show us news clips or to-do lists as we brush our teeth. I announce in my most grand voice to the open air of my home to “Add Celery Please” and some magical thing puts it on my shopping list. A thought, a grand pronouncement, and it’s done. Ubiquitous computing finding us in our spaces and reacting or informing us has become almost trivial given the rise of the Internet of Things. I expect to continue to be surprised.

Changes in Hack Reactor’s curriculum over the next 5 years

This is hard because a central premise of what we do as educators is to adapt to the market and evolve what we teach (and how) in response. What I can predict is that our curriculum will be relevant, how we deliver that learning will evolve to continue to optimize learning and we’ll have leveled up several notches in how well we can evaluate and predict the success of our students allowing us to intervene and coach earlier and/or more effectively than we do now.

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