For many Black, Latinx, and first-generation students, a large part of the technical interview prep process involves combatting imposter syndrome. Overcoming these feelings of insecurity is a right of passage for students who are on the path to a career in tech. With the right kind of hands-on practice, students can develop the ability to perform well in every interview and gain enough confidence to unlock success along their paths.
Kevin Prada is a first-generation student at the University of California at Riverside, and he has struggled with imposter syndrome for most of his journey as a CS student. To build his confidence, Kevin joined groups where he felt represented, formed deep connections, traded resources, and eventually became a leader and mentor to help students like himself. He also committed to developing his technical skills to override his self-doubt.
Recently, Kevin completed ColorStack’s StackedUp Summit – a virtual, 2-day event that hosts speakers from 20+ tech companies and connects students with the industry. He also completed CodePath’s Technical Interview Prep, a no-cost, 10-week intermediate-level course where he learned how to approach whiteboard and coding interviews at the level needed to land jobs at top tech companies.
We spoke with Kevin about his journey: starting out at community college and transferring to UCR, joining the ColorStack community for underrepresented students in CS, and eventually enrolling in CodePath’s Technical Interview Course. Kevin had his first technical interview the day after we spoke with him and expressed that CodePath and ColorStack’s resources had given him the skills and boost of self-esteem he needed to tackle the interview.
Tell us a little about yourself and your background.
I am currently a third-year computer science major at the University of California at Riverside. I am a first-generation college student. My parents were Peruvian immigrants who came to the U.S. right when I was born. I grew up in a very humble, hardworking background: my dad was (and still is) a gardener, and my mom is a house cleaner. They always preached the value of education, being a professional, being the best that you can be, and doing what you love. My parents always raised me around science and music.
My parents are folkloric singers. When they got home from work, my mom would practice her singing, or my dad would get on the guitar. So they gave me a really good balance of music and science. I grew up wanting to do science, and here I am at UCR, living that little kid’s dream of working to become a scientist and working on my musical passions on the side, too.
You grew up around science and music. When and how did you get introduced to computer science and tech?
Originally, I was studying business administration, and it wasn't really fulfilling. I was mainly doing it because my parents were entrepreneurs, and I wanted to follow in their footsteps. But I realized I wanted to do science –what I was interested in as a kid.
I stumbled upon this music project [in school] that used really cool technological gloves –they use haptic feedback– to produce different kinds of sounds and effects for the artists. I was really curious about who makes that possible. How does that even work? Who works behind the scenes? So I [went on the company’s website] and clicked on their team and leadership page, and the majority of them were software engineers, computer scientists, and electrical engineers. I was like, "I want to do that." I want to be the person that works on those kinds of projects: new, innovative, cool combinations of technology and art. I wanted to be one of the people that were responsible for trailblazing that. So, that was what really got me inspired.
What were some of the challenges you faced as you got more involved in computer science?
There were definitely a variety of challenges. The first one was, honestly, the rigor of the course material. I wasn't used to taking rigorous science courses like that. I needed to get used to the workload. I wasn't used to the difficulty level of the concepts that were presented at first.I just wasn't sure if I was cut out for it; it was so much more difficult than any other class I'd ever taken. Still, to this day, I say that my first CS class was one of the hardest–including the upper division courses that I'm taking now. The good thing about it was that it was taught by one of the best professors I had at my community college, so it leveled itself out.
I had never been that determined in a classroom setting before. I told myself that "I need to do this. If I need help, I must go to office hours and ask for help."
The second thing was just honestly being underrepresented, being Latino, being Peruvian. The majority of the classroom wasn't that. I realized later that I felt uncomfortable–almost unsafe, to be honest. It's hard when you're in a setting like that, and you see people who are the majority, which seems so intuitive for them. Maybe they even come from a background where a parent is an engineer. They're not a first-generation student. Certain factors like that presented a challenge of imposter syndrome. I had a lot of doubts, like, "Am I supposed to be in this space? Was it designed for a person like me? A first-generation person of color?" But I eventually found a handful of people who looked like me, and we had the mindset of "us against the world." We formed a little community.
How and when did ColorStack come into the picture?
Up until last summer, I still felt a lot of imposter syndrome. I had always searched for some community. I even thought about making a club myself for people like me who probably felt the same way. But CS already had so much coursework, so I didn't know if I would have enough time.
I was eventually accepted to the Google Latinx Leadership Summit for tech students. At the end of that, one of the people in my cohort told me about ColorStack, a nonprofit empowering Black and Latinx CS students. I researched it and signed up for their second annual Stacked Up Summit. At that summit, I met five peers from the community in speed networking sessions. They were super cool and chill, and just like me, they were looking for a community in a space that wasn't built for us. It was relieving to find an organization that was supportive.
They have so many opportunities, including workshops on tackling imposter syndrome, and it's led by technical experts who are also Latinx. These people look like me, sound like me - look like they could be my older sister or my aunt. These were people I saw myself through, and it really centered me on seeing myself in those positions. That's just the tip of the iceberg for me. It's given me a community that I feel empowered by, and it gives me so many opportunities to grow as a CS student.
You learned about CodePath and our courses through ColorStack. What motivated you to apply to one of our courses after your experience with ColorStack?
Yeah, definitely. One of the biggest benefits I've gotten from ColorStack was the referral to CodePath. When I started getting interviews with companies for internships, I asked the ColorStack community if anyone had advice for technical interviews because I was feeling really underprepared. I was so intimidated and felt so behind.
Then someone mentioned CodePath, so I checked out the website and saw that the mission was all about empowering students like me, giving us support that we need and can't really get in a classroom. I looked at the courses being offered, and the technical interview course caught my eye because that's exactly what I needed. It felt like finding the perfect piece to the puzzle, and it gave me a sense of relief. The application process was very straightforward. I thought maybe I would need a letter of recommendation or something like that, but it just really wanted to know more about myself and my goals. And, of course, I was really happy when I submitted and got my acceptance!
You're currently enrolled in CodePath's Technical Interview Prep course. What is that experience like? What is the most impactful lesson from the course so far?
We're in week four right now. We've been learning the data structures that will be asked and learning how to use CodePath's method of solving technical interview questions called the UMPIRE Method. I've been practicing it a lot because it has really helped me. When you first start doing technical interviews, you don't have any guidance. It can feel like you're in the middle of the ocean with a boat, and you don't have a compass or really know where to go. You have a paddle but need to know which way is right. CodePath gave me a huge sailor boat, and they gave me a compass as well as a bunch of other tools. They told me the route I need to go through, and I knew my end goal. It was tailored for me to find success in my technical interview. It's about feeling empowered. Now, I feel like I know what I'm supposed to do, and I know what tools I have.
The waters aren't always easy. But CodePath gave me the insight on how to really go about these kinds of paths and has really helped me straight up tackle that imposter syndrome. ColorStack is great for a community, but CodePath is tackling that technical impostor syndrome that I've always carried. The fact that I have a technical interview tomorrow - and that I feel so prepared for it - I would have never believed I would even get this far. I haven't even finished the course yet, but I feel so much more self-belief and self-esteem as a CS student and as a leader. It's even hard for me sometimes to feel impostor syndrome because I'm doing it! I'm doing what CS students are doing and what software engineers are doing. It feels so good to finally have the opportunity through CodePath to finally believe in myself.
How has CodePath impacted your journey in software engineering and community leadership?
I always try to share about CodePath with as many peers as I can. UCR is known for its diversity, and it's especially known for its rank as one of the top schools in social mobility. This means we have a lot of first-generation students. I think at least 80% of my friends who graduate - almost every single one - are the first in their family to graduate college. So I take the opportunity to tell as many of my fellow CS peers to look out for CodePath. I work as a transfer mentor at UCR in CS, and I send it to my mentees. I have to write a newsletter every week, and I send out CodePath to my mentees. I really stress to them that while I know it's intimidating, this place is ridiculously amazing. I'm in it, I can speak to it, and it's working for me. I take it upon myself to share it with as many people as I can - especially because it's for us.
How has your experience with CodePath and ColorStack affected how you think about a tech career?
It has completely changed my outlook. I can now visualize myself in those roles.
Before CodePath and ColorStack, I couldn't visualize myself working at these companies [Spotify]. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I thought I'd graduate and maybe get something out of it. But now I know I'm going to be a software engineer, and I'm going to be doing what I love - solving problems and working on teams.
The biggest change is definitely in my mindset. Before, it was a question, and now it's more of a statement. I'm going to achieve that dream I had as a kid of being a scientist. I'm going to be achieving my dreams and supporting my family. It's basically completely impossible for me not to succeed at this point. I know I'm going to work hard, and I know I have the support and resources from these organizations. So how can I not? It's just a matter of time. I'm almost there.
Learn more about the opportunities at CodePath. Applications for Spring 2023 are now open.