Vanessa Kasun is debugging some code, finalizing her presentation for the upcoming Heartland Developers Conference on Sept. 24. The topic? How to build a React app from the ground up.
She says it casually, nonchalantly. As if it’s something everyone can do.
Except that it’s not. Kasun’s breakout session at HDC is the culmination of years of hard work, discipline, struggle, discovery and joy in the face of a world that once tried to convince her that, as a woman with Latinx and Slavic roots, she’d never hack it as a developer.
“People of ethnicity have always been told, ‘You need to prove yourself more, you need to work harder.’” Kasun said. “And so having that double judgment put on me—where you’re a woman and you’re of ethnicity—was difficult.”
Initially, Kasun wanted to launch a professional school teaching makeup artists how to do sci-fi makeup for productions. While dreaming up her future company, she realized she’d need a website to market herself. But that’s expensive.
“I thought, ‘I’ll just go in and learn tech first, and that way I’ll have that skill set under my belt,’” she said. “I ended up loving it so much, I completely switched my path and direction in life.”
She enrolled in Metropolitan Community College’s computer science program.
It wasn’t easy. Although she loved her coursework, life circumstances complicated things, she said. As a single mother, Kasun had to make do with outdated computers and survive on grants, scholarships and state assistance.
“I was full-time in college, and I didn’t work because I had to be a mom,” Kasun said. “It was literally paycheck-to-paycheck.”
But, she said, learning how to program and code sustained her mentally and emotionally.
“The more confidence I kept gaining, the more I kept going. I knew the end result was going to be a completely different world,” she said.
Despite having trouble securing immediate employment after graduation, Kasun said she didn’t lose hope. Finding a job was a struggle everybody had, she reminded herself.
Instead of giving up, she kept her eye on the prize and “just kept trucking,” taking on some freelance work that included building a website for the North 24th Street Business Improvement District. Employers took notice.
In January 2020, Kasun accepted a position as AIM Code School instructor. She quickly wrote a Foundations of Web Development course curriculum geared toward high school learners as part of AIM’s pilot program with Omaha South, a position that allowed her to be a role model for the female students in the class.
She knew what it was like to be one of few women in a computer science class—sometimes the only one. And that could be awkward.
“It was a little discouraging at first,” she said. “But I honestly just tried to stay true to myself and open to other people.”
Even though Kasun was validated by her male peers, she said she advises young women who aspire to tech careers to pursue that dream no matter what pushback they get.
“There’s nothing deep to it. Just do it,” she said. “Regardless of what you feel, regardless of what you experience, if (becoming a software developer) is what you want to do, just go for it and you will not be mad that you did it.”
And as for young women who mistakenly think a tech career would be too hard for them, Kasun had this advice: “Don’t doubt yourself. Just take the time to learn. You’re capable of learning to code, just like anything else.”
Kasun herself exemplifies what a young woman can accomplish once she makes up her mind to pursue tech. The same advice applies to anyone, of any identity. And while she could talk at length about the ways coding has helped her understand her mind better and even process trauma more effectively, Kasun said she needed to get back to coding.
It’s that eyes-on-the-prize lifestyle calling to her, like it always has.
Those interested in attending Kasun’s breakout session can register here for a free general admission ticket to HDC by using the promo code SUPPORTER at checkout.