I Am Cookie Dough

I was always told I had to go to college. I was “gifted” so learning came easy and I enjoyed it.  From ages 6 to 18, I went to competitive accelerated schools designed to churn out college students. It was a narrow path I’d been set on, without encouragement to explore beyond.

Majoring in theater was a no-brainer. It was the only thing I’d done my whole life, so I figured I wouldn’t get bored. My mom was a stage manager so it has always been easy to bring me to rehearsals with her when working a show. I ended up in close to 20 different productions between 5 and 13. Plus, Florida State University had a great theatre program and in-state tuition was cheap. So I went.

But I wasn’t there because I wanted to be. I’d gone simply because I felt I had to go to college, regardless of what I did when I got there. I liked theater a lot, but I didn’t love it the way my classmates did. Self-doubt crept in. Depression overcame me. Anxiety and self-hatred took root. I stopped going to class. I isolated myself from my friends who – going through their own stuff –  were too busy to notice.

At 19, I dropped out.

Straying from the path

With me, I took thousands in debt, a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and a bruised ego. I wandered, directionless for the first time in my life.

I felt like a failure. I did not know who or what I was anymore, I had no community and I belonged nowhere. I was crippled by my concurrent depression and lack of a diploma. What was my path now?

My mother spent her whole life working in the arts and that made her happy. I wanted the same thing. But we were always pinching pennies. I didn’t want that for myself, and I didn’t want my kids to grow up with that burden. So I thought to myself, “What can I do that’s creative, won’t be boring, and can earn me an income?”

I don’t remember if there was a lightbulb moment where I realized web design checked all my boxes. But that was there I landed.

I started getting my toes wet with HTML and CSS, but coding didn’t come easily to me. I didn’t have a computer, so I would write out lines of code by hand in order to memorize syntax. It didn’t click and just swam in front of my eyes. It was difficult, so I gave up.

For a year and a half, I lived in a few different cities, from Ft Lauderdale all the way to Los Angeles, working some retail and food service jobs. I learned about customer service, the balance between maintenance and growth, and found myself more than a little bit fascinated by marketing.  I began to learn how to juggle the depression and anxiety that lived in my head.

No matter where I went, web design was sitting in the back of my brain. I was shut down when I tried to suggest changes to the booking system of a salon I worked at. I found myself sketching redesigns of the website of the bar where I picked up shifts. I started learning again after moving back to Florida. This time, I found online resources like Udemy and CodeSchool and it all began to click.

Finding a new path

While I still didn’t love code itself, I loved the idea of building something from nothing. It all hearkened back to theater: rallying the knowledge and experience of multiple people, laying out a plan, inventing some creative solutions along the way, iteration after iteration until it functions and yields a result, then presenting it as a living and breathing product. I had learned about story-telling via script analysis classes in college as well as spacing and color psychology. I had always been academic, so I found ease and comfort in things like databases and content writing. My intellectual and creative side were merging, dancing together in one elegant performance.

In 2015, I applied for a web design internship at a small agency. It was here where WordPress and I first met. I was amazed that I could easily build websites with limited coding knowledge. I attended my first WordCamp in Miami, where I watched people like Morten Hendricksen and Michelle Schlup live what I wished I could be doing.

I was promoted to a full employee in a poisonous environment. I had to work long hours and was accused of not being a team player if I didn’t. I was guilt-tripped with gifts and compliments. I was asked to do tasks I hadn’t been trained in and was berated when I struggled. I left one day after about a year, in tears. The despair, loneliness and frustration were unassailable.  I had failed, yet again, to move forward on the path I felt I belonged on.

Setting my own path

I had no savings and no car, so I was left with a choice: apply to work at the Wendy’s that was walking distance up the street, or find a way to make money out of thin air. Taking inventory of my skills:

  1. I knew WordPress
  2. I knew how not to run a business

So I started building small sites for friends and family. I scrambled to learn how to invoice properly, how to handle contracts, how to get taxes paid. I googled a lot and failed often. But it was rewarding and creative, so I stuck to it.

In 2017, I felt confident enough to apply to speak at WordCamp Miami. It had been 2 years since I had attended the first and I was floored when I was accepted.

In the three years that I ran my business, I worked with clients from all over the world. I used WordPress daily to build and break, support and scale websites for other business owners like me. I wore every hat I could balance: CEO, CFO, designer, developer, marketer, and support staff in one.

While I appeared “successful” (whatever that means) I was paddling like crazy beneath the surface and was constantly stretched to my limit. I achieved decent work-life boundaries and found satisfaction in the work, but being depressed while running a business is easier said than done.

In early 2019, as my bank account began to dry up, I began to seriously consider throwing in the towel.

A fork in the path

I spoke at WordCamp Miami that year. The entire camp buoyed my spirits; this time, there were faces and topics I recognized. I went with my friend, Louise Treadwell, who made the entire experience less frightening.

And the universe was looking out for me. The very first person I met that day was Adam Warner.

He saw my talk and I suppose he saw something in me that he liked. By the end of the conference, my head was swimming with the opportunity he had presented to me: to travel as a GoDaddy Pro Speaker Ambassador.

I felt that electric sensation again of my two halves – academic and creative – merging. It was the first time the community had reached out and taken a firm, confident grasp of my hand. And I was in exactly the right spot to accept it.

The idea of attending more WordCamps was thrilling. I vowed to myself that I would up my Twitter game. After all, all my WordCamp heroes were active on Twitter and I was desperate to be where the action was.

I grabbed as many opportunities as I could to remain visible. I wrote blog posts and made YouTube videos to prove what I knew, to myself as much as others. I wanted to earn my place at the table by giving back into the community that had plucked me out of my despair.

Time to merge

I’d done a podcast episode with Michelle Ames and I noticed she worked for the plugin, GiveWP. Out of curiosity, I wandered over to their careers page and saw an opening for a support tech. I had the job within 3 days.

I’ve done a lot of things out of fear that many people find brave. I was told I was brave for majoring in theater, but I’d done it because I didn’t want to fail at something unfamiliar. I was told I was brave for moving to Los Angeles after I dropped out, but I was afraid to be stagnant. I was told I was brave to start my own business, but I was afraid to work for someone else.

I do feel fear. Fear that I don’t know enough, that I’m too young or inexperienced, that I’ll let down the people who have cheered me on, that I’ll end up vulnerable the way I was in my last job. That I’ll get hurt. That being a black, queer, woman in the tech space will be too challenging.

I’m comforted by the knowledge that most WordPress people don’t care what gender/color/sexuality you are… as long as you keep your plugins updated. Open-source means you’re not here to out-do the next person, but to contribute toward a common goal. I can dive into support at Give with WordPress as my base, my constant. I can finally acknowledge that I am worth being part of a team. It means all the difference in the world.

Who invented this path nonsense anyway?

I don’t have to be on a path anymore. I can let myself remain open to possibilities and say “yes” more. I don’t have to decide what I’m going to be, I can just become it, because I can trust myself and the foundation that WordPress has given me. WordPress, with it’s limitless contributors, versions, and possibilities, reminds us that we should be excited by change, not afraid.

I believe that giving up what I worked for 3 years to build is the bravest thing I’ve done so far. At first, I was furious at myself that I couldn’t make my own business as sustainable as I’d wanted. Moving to Give felt like failing. But Louise called it “failing up” which I think is pretty apt. It was a step forward into something I could grow into and really succeed at, rather than sticking with the familiar like I had always done.

I often remind myself of a quote from Buffy the Vampire Slayer which, ironically, I watched for the first time while in some the deepest throes of my depression: I’m cookie dough. I’m not done baking. I’m not finished becoming who ever the hell it is I’m gonna turn out to be.”