When you ask Britt Gresham, a software engineer, how he would describe himself, he says he is a cat dad, an avid gardener, a baking enthusiast (often with fresh ingredients from said garden), and a ‘Big Nerd.’ Britt’s creativity is incredibly tech-focused, typified by his desire to automate as much as he can and to find data in everything. One of his projects involved scraping his personal music streaming data and comparing it to the emotional language in his texts over a decade, all so he could create personalized playlists for his every mood. Others include his many home improvements, like automating his house lights, oven, alarm system, and individual room thermostats, which are all macgyvered out of basic materials that he put together himself. In his words, “my house is automated for no reason but my amusement.”
Britt’s expertise in implementing personal (and professional) tech projects all began with a birthday present. When he was in elementary school, Britt’s parents gifted him an electronics kit, a nod to his dad’s job as a network engineer. Britt recalls spending all of his time playing with it, learning about resistors, capacitors, transistors, and how to make little light shows with LEDs. There were so many projects he could work on, including a two-player game where one set of lights would randomly go off, and whoever managed to push the buttons on their side of the board first would win. Britt recalls, “there were springs and little wires to build your own circuit [in the kit]. And if you [didn’t] like [what you made], you could just pull all the wires out, like plastic hair.” He found the whole process satisfying – creating something and then remaking or updating it at will.
Although his early interest in electronics continued to blossom, Britt found the structure of traditional education at his public high school in Kansas frustrating. He felt that subjects were taught without solid explanations for why someone might need to know this information, and consequently struggled to maintain his focus. “I [found] myself wanting to learn about things on my own time as opposed to having someone try and force-feed this information to me,” he explains.
“I [found] myself wanting to learn about things on my own time as opposed to having someone try and force-feed this information to me.”
Once Britt got started on his own side projects in the evenings and weekends after his high school classes, however, he rapidly became fascinated with math. “I [think] math is taught wrong. At least how I was taught math was incompatible with how I operate. It was just [opaque] sets of rules, and I hated that. But the moment I started to write code, [I could see] the practical application. I ended up writing [a program] just to play around with some math concepts I was interested in,” he says. For example, Britt recalls having to look up and read calculus papers in pursuit of details for building a program to detect beats in music – all before ever taking a calculus class in school.
Thankfully, Britt enjoys the process of learning how to do something by conducting his own research. This quality served him well during his first foray into the tech industry, setting up the trajectory of the rest of his career. After finishing high school, Britt interned for NIC Inc., a local tech company specializing in developing technology for government agencies. During his time there,18-year-old Britt realized that the basic data entry tasks he had initially been working on could be fully automated. He got approval from his boss to take some time to create a code to speed up the process and started finishing the work “at double the max output that anyone had ever seen on that project,” he says. “I would just go into the office, sit at my desk, and click a button. I’d watch my computer do [the work] and watch Netflix. The program would still crash, but when it did I could make changes [to] make it better, and run it again.” He found improving the code, something he had created himself, much more interesting than manual data entry. By chance, the developer department was seated nearby, and an older coworker noticed Britt’s unique setup. “One of the devs was like, ‘Can I see this code? We have engineers here who wouldn’t think to do this’,” Britt remembers. “I sent him my code, and he ended up advocating for me and requesting to hire me, because he wanted to foster [my interest].”
Britt ended up staying on at NIC for 4 years, including during his brief time at Johnson County Community College. In the end, Britt decided to leave traditional academia before finishing his degree after one final frustrating experience. Despite taking some introductory courses in programming in high school, not to mention his real-world experience from NIC and his side-projects, Britt found he was still required to take ‘Intro to Java’ instead of classes at his skill level. The lack of new information left him disappointed, and he craved more hands-on experience – the type of work he would do if he became a full-time software engineer as opposed to trying to cram in a full course load and working whenever he could.
According to Britt, what is far more important in tech is “how a person approaches a problem [and] how they go about solving [it].”
Ultimately, Britt realized that what he wanted to do didn’t require a bachelor’s degree. “It ended up working out for me because I kind of know how I’d like to operate,” he says. “I like learning things on my own, and so much of computer science in general is stuff that you can find online and figure out [yourself].” And in the time since leaving college, he’s gotten to meet many other industry professionals who are successful despite getting degrees in other fields, or not acquiring degrees at all. According to Britt, what is far more important in tech is “how a person approaches a problem [and] how they go about solving [it].”
While Britt is happy with his decision and loves what he does, he still worries about how his resume is perceived. While still an employee at NIC, Britt attended a local conference and was encouraged to apply for a job by a developer for Puppet, a software company focused on automation of computer tasks located in Portland, Oregon. Taking the job required leaving behind everything he knew in Kansas and flying across the country. But more than that, Britt recalls feeling intense imposter syndrome, a persistent feeling of being a fraud despite evidence of competence. He remembers thinking, “they’re going to know that I don’t have a CS degree,” and would worry about being ‘found out’ and fired, even though the company was well aware of his resume and happily hired him. Puppet didn’t fire him. In fact, he stayed on with the company for 4 more years, before moving on to work at several other Portland tech companies. Most recently, he was a staff release engineer for CircleCI, a company that handles continuous integration (essentially platform updates) for major brands like StitchFix, Ford, and Conde Nast. Still, despite over a decade of experience, Britt jokes that he often feels like, “I’m just sort of faking it and hoping that nobody finds out.”
Of course, Britt has not only proven himself at multiple companies over the years, but also found himself in leadership, organizing, and hiring roles since then. Despite that little voice in his head telling him that he is “faking it,” Britt knows a CS degree is not a prerequisite to be a good software engineer, and feels that focusing on where someone graduated from can bring bias into hiring practices. So, when Britt conducts hiring interviews he tries his best not to introduce similar biases, in part by not looking at applicant resumes beforehand. He explains that recognizing a school (or a previous company or employer, etc.) can make an interviewer feel more or less favorable to the person in front of them – before the applicant even has a chance to say a word.
“One of my favorite things is watching people have those sparks of ‘oh, I get it now.’”
As a black man, Britt is very aware of how the tech industry has a significant problem with bias and harassment. Multiple companies have come under fire for sexist and racist behavior in recent years, including tech giants like Basecamp and Google. Britt has also observed these facets of tech, and dedicates time to having discussions with women and other people of color in the field to find ways to create a more diverse industry. He notes, “it’s not a good look when a company is acquired, lays off all of the women at that company, and then hires only men.”
One way that Britt tries to combat this problem is to minimize bias in hiring. A method Britt employs, along with not looking at resumes beforehand, is sticking with a standardized set of questions for every candidate. “There are things that will pique my interest in an interview, and I want to dive into that, but even that is a bias and provides an opportunity I haven’t given another person.” Another method for reducing bias is by directly introducing more women and gender-nonconforming people to programming, thereby increasing the pool of potential applicants. Britt teaches basic programming in Django and Python through a non-profit called Django Girls. “One of my favorite things is watching people have those sparks of ‘oh, I get it now.’”
When Britt thinks back on his career, he notes that nothing has impacted his career path as much as networking and mentorships. He’s grateful for the opportunity he had as a teenager at NIC, where an established engineer took an interest in his work and helped him get a foot in the door. He’s also grateful to the Puppet engineer, who gave him an opportunity to move to Portland, where he’s been able to grow a beautiful garden and delve into local artisanal ciders. Today, it remains vital to Britt to keep providing similar opportunities for others. For this reason, Britt has also become a conference organizer for tech meetings, including a regional pacific northwest Python conference, PyCascades. For those interested in the tech industry, he recommends attending conferences as much as possible – while acknowledging that conferences can be challenging to get to, whether due to financial burden, busy schedules, or unexpected life events. During the pandemic, he helped host a virtual meeting with PyCascades, a format that may make these sorts of networking events easier to access in the future.
Britt emphasizes that anyone, both in and outside of tech, will benefit from having a supportive and expansive network. “Just going to conferences and meetups and hanging around people that are interested in these topics – it certainly changed my life for the better,” he says. “[By] being around people who don’t have the same experiences as you, who don’t look like you, or don’t think like you, you will end up learning so much. Not only about what you’re interested in, but also about society as a whole.”
“[By] being around people who don’t have the same experiences as you, who don’t look like you, or don’t think like you, you will end up learning so much.”
by Elizabeth Pekarskaya