Meet the Software Engineer Working to Create a Self-Care Community for People of Color in Tech
Each week, we explore how busy, badass, and creative women take time out of their lives to relax and treat themselves to a girls’ night in. This week, we talk to Pamela Assogba, who is a software engineer by day and yogi-creative-community builder by night. Check back next week for another interview with a boss lady.
Interview by Alisha Ramos. Photography by Sloane Tucker.
Pamela Assogba is a software engineer at Vox Media in Washington, D.C., but she’ll tell you that this is her job “only by title.” Rather, she likes to think of herself as “a creative and creator of all things.” If you get the chance to know this lady a bit better, you’ll soon understand why. In this interview, she shares with us her winding and distinctly unique path into engineering, her views on self-care and meditation, and her new initiative to create an empowering community for people of color in tech. We hope you enjoy getting to know Pamela as much as we did interviewing her.
Tell us about yourself. Who are you? What do you do?
When I was a kid I was really into painting. I wanted to become an artist, but I think for practicality, architecture made the most sense.
You see, I come from an African family. Saying “I want to be an artist” wasn’t going to fly with my parents. So it was either becoming an engineer or becoming an architect. I figured I’d still be drawing as an architect, but also use more scientific skills at the same time.
So, I went ahead and applied to architecture school, but I soon realized that I didn’t want to become an architect. I really enjoyed one particular animation class at the University of Maryland — I enjoyed the process and thought, “Hey, maybe I should work in advertising!” That was my last year of architecture school.
I started exploring art direction and dabbled in fashion instead. I taught myself how to sew, make patterns, design and make clothes. I wanted to start my own fashion line and possibly go to grad school to study fashion.
Do you think this is a pattern for you, where you need constant change in your path?
Yeah, it’s a constant pattern in my life. In my life I kind of need change and growth. I think it’s important to not get stuck in anything.
So what happened after exploring fashion and art direction? How did you end up as an engineer at Vox?
I studied fashion design for a bit. I was even supposed to become an apprentice at this woman’s shop. And then I discovered coding!
I got into Codecademy and did a bunch of free tutorials. My goal was to make a blog so I could show my fashion work. But in the process of building and coding my blog, I fell in love with coding.
I figured that well, this is a skill that I can use for anything! I was still designing clothes and sketching, but I found that coding was even more satisfying and kind of essential in order to get a job. I also wanted to become fully financially independent because at the time I was still living at home. And so I ended up taking an immersive web development class at General Assembly and became a teacher after graduating.
You’re currently a full-stack engineer at Vox Media. How did you land that job? How did you decide it was the right opportunity?
I’m a big believer in fate. Things just really aligned.
When you do this, your mindset will change and you’re going start doing the things you need to do in order to make those things happen.
So back to the question — I was a student at General Assembly and loved coding so much that I became involved in the community. I would reach out to people to pair program. I just really wanted to make friends in the tech community. There was no underlying motive or anything. I just knew that this was a field I wanted to be a part of.
We visited the Vox Media office as part of the General Assembly program and it was the coolest thing. It was a bunch of cool people doing cool stuff and I set my mind on it and said, “Okay I’m going to work here one day.”
I reached out to a few people there, got to know them a bit, and created those relationships. One day, one of them emailed me and said, “Hey, we’re hiring.” And the rest is history.
I think that’s so key — creating those relationships and setting your mind on something!
Your mindset is so powerful. Believing in something is so powerful. But you can’t just believe something and expect it to fall into your lap…you have to work for it too.
What advice do you have to someone who wants to switch into tech? If you could do the process over again, what would you do differently?
Honestly, I think everything aligned the way it was supposed to.
Tell us a bit about Color Coded. What prompted you to start that?
Color Coded is a community for people of color in creative fields. We design event, focused on self-care through collaboration, empowerment, learning, and just…fun.
Mostly because I moved quite a few times as a kid, and I’ve always been the kid that’s sort of weird, in my bubble, and just daydreaming a lot. I was always just kind of out there, but always really shy. It was hard for me to connect with people.
From an early age, I’ve had dreams of helping people who also felt like they did not belong. I wanted to provide a community for them early on. As an adult I found that there are not a lot of people who look like me, especially in this industry, and that’s pretty draining mentally. There’s not a lot of people you can relate to.
It’s all these things you can’t really talk about with a white person because I doubt that they’ve experienced those same things.
I went to a tech conference once in Barcelona where I was the only black woman. I just felt like — because people would kind of stare and, you know, look a little surprised when I say, “Yeah I’m a software engineer and I do mostly back-end engineering work.” At that time my hair was done in long braids, so I looked very unconventional, and I think that added to it.
One thing I don’t like doing is having to feel like I have to prove myself. But I know that a lot of us feel that way and it’s not a fun place to be in. It’s necessary but it’s not fun. Through Color Coded, I really wanted to provide a space where people could be themselves and be free of those pressures and just have a good time together.
Where do you hope Color Coded will go?
Oh my gosh! That’s a great question. My dream in life is to combine tech and creativity in general. I always think of this one word — and I think of it in French so I can’t remember! — but it’s something that conveys wellness as a holistic thing. I do yoga, I’m soon going to be certified to teach, but I also enjoy food. I want to bring all that into the Colored Coded mission. I would love to have a dedicated space to do all of that. So that’s the goal way down the line.
Self-care: What does it mean to you, why is it important?
Self-care means balance, being centered, and just being good. It has played a big role in my life.
I have a pretty strict routine: I wake up early in the morning, around 5am. I think it’s very important for me to have some time to be with myself and either think or meditate or do something for myself, even if it’s just a side project. It’s important for me to do that before I jump into the day.
Then, I meditate for 10-12 minutes.
Wait — how do you meditate? Teach us! We’re trying to get into it.
I read about meditation through yoga training more recently. But when I first started - I would do it on and off. When I was a kid my dad was very into yoga. Every Sunday we would all sit as a family and meditate. Sitting there, I would envision sunshine, sitting on the beach, and beautiful weather. I have very fond memories of that.
Recently, I’ve also found the app Headspace. It’s a great guided walkthrough of a meditation. I feel like anyone could sit somewhere — you don’t have to sit on the ground, you can sit on a chair or something — and just be with your thoughts and clear your mind.
Okay, so back to the rest of your routine.
After meditating, I either do a full yoga sequence (before I started doing yoga more heavily I would just do a workout) or sometimes I’ll take a walk and listen to podcasts.
Any favorite podcasts?
How I Built This by NPR, Hidden Brain, The Friend Zone — it’s essentially about self-care for black people. The host, Fran, is very authentic, humble, and open about her shortcomings and what she’s struggling with.
What are your go-to self-care routines? Do you have any specific products or brands that you love?
I’m using essential oils a lot now. I used to use products like Clinique, but it was pretty harsh on my face so I switched to almond oil which helps with acne. It has antibacterial properties, and it’s really light. I just put two drops of oil in my hand and massage it in.
I also found this face mask at Whole Foods - it’s mostly turmeric. It made my skin so soft!
Cooking is another thing that I do. It’s very therapeutic for me. I just make up recipes and experiment a lot in the kitchen. It’s also very meditative.
There’s also a type of meditation that I do — I forget the name, but a classmate in yoga talked about it. I think it’s called experiential meditation? It’s any time you do anything, you acknowledge that you are doing it. For example, when you eat a piece of fruit, you take the time to peel the skin, take the time to acknowledge its various flavors of sour and sweet. Being present while you’re eating is important.
Is there anything about your self-care routine you’re looking to improve upon?
Yes, my sleep schedule! I’d like to start going to sleep earlier.
Follow Pamela on Twitter @pam_yam.