Cheryl Schaefer

How many years have you been in tech?


Tell me about your background. What were your early years like?

I grew up in a rural area in the Metro East (Illinois near St. Louis) the younger of two children. My mom really encouraged reading and deep thinking when I was a child, and my dad encouraged me to spend time in nature and work hard. My dad worked in agriculture for the federal government; he commuted. My mom had gotten a degree in English to be a teacher. She substitute taught and did before/after care after I was in school while she was well enough. I was always provided for but they were hoarders and my mom had costly medical problems. I took on a lot of responsibility young.

I was an over-achiever in high school. I took honors classes even in subjects I didn’t care for, none of which offered AP credit. I wanted to be involved in every musical group possible. I was also working. I began teaching music lessons in high school. After my first year of college, I started cutting back. I earned a masters degree in flute performance and gigged for a while. I took any chance to perform I could get. I worked a string of day jobs in other areas I found interesting including dental higher education, optical, and photography.

How were you exposed to tech?

I was interested as a child when my father got a computer at work. He introduced me to databases and telnet, then the internet. I built a few sites in Geocities. I considered doing computer science when I did my undergrad but went with music instead. I did a few things along the way, like macros for video games, that were not really programming but involve the same meticulous thinking and drive to complete.

I was becoming dissatisfied with the long work hours and low pay/benefits with what I was doing. I started looking at options for a new career path and consulted several sources. I checked out lots of 101 classes at the local university, I looked at the Bureau of Labor’s website for career projections, I talked to my family and friends, etc. After I decided to try to get into tech, I started attending meet ups including Lambda Lounge and STL Ruby at my brother’s suggestion.

I took a couple classes both in-person and online. I built a project to reinforce my learning and to help me remove some tedious data entry at my job. As soon as that project worked, I had three more ideas for useful projects I could make that would be a welcome challenge. I was hooked!

What is your current role?

I’m currently a software engineer with The LaunchCode Foundation. I build systems that support education and making connections for people to get their first job in tech. I work on a small team so I get to work on a variety of things. The largest share of my time has been spent on a ruby on rails web application supported by aws cloudformation with elasticsearch used for searching and matching. Recently I have been serving as retrospective facilitator.

What is your proudest accomplishment?

I’ve recently given my first conference talk and written an accompanying blog post

I’m proud to be able to keep pushing the envelope in professional development. I’ve been able to identify a new learning goal every 3-6 months and really dig in and learn and use complex technology.

What are you learning right now?

Right now for tech subjects I’m working on Elasticsearch, the different analyzers and queries that are available. I’m learning more about devops, networking and security. I’m also practicing flute pretty intensely to lead up to March performances with my Celtic band. I try to rotate topics every 3-6 months. I think it’s important to keep learning different subjects not just because I think they’re interesting, but also to keep my thinking flexible; to encourage myself to look from a new perspective at specific issues and the world in a broader sense.

What was the last fear that you faced? How did you feel after you conquered it?

Thinking about this has reminded me how perilous everything felt when I was starting to learn tech. I had never driven into the city alone. Often there were no other women at these meet ups. The first of two in-person classes was taught by a woman; I convinced a friend to go to Coder Girl with me when it was just starting up basically as a hacknight. At Coder Girl there were women mentors and lots of beginners. I helped them and built my confidence. Getting to know more people, and just repeated exposure time really helped allay those fears. I figured I could always try something else if this doesn’t work out, but I wouldn’t know if it was possible until I tried 100%. I commute to the city every day now, it doesn’t phase me.

What advice do you wish someone had given to you? What advice would you give to others starting out?

At the beginning of any journey, try to leave as many future possibilities open as possible. Just starting out feels scary but once you just start, you get past that bump pretty quick. Be compassionate with yourself, you who you are now, who you were in the past, and also future you.

What are your hobbies?

I’m a musician – I play flute and various other instruments whenever I can. I am always reading different books. I love animals, especially cats. I like to bicycle and short hikes in the woods. My favorite thing is to sit around a bonfire with my husband and friends in the evening.

What do you like about St. Louis? The midwest? Why do you live here?

My family is mostly in the St. Louis area. I take care of my mom; she lives in a nursing home in the Metro East. She needs me here. My extended family lives between Chicago and Arkansas/Southeast Missouri so I’m centrally located within driving distance of them. My husband has family in the area too, with extended family in Kansas City which is also driveable from here. I like the easy accessibility of nature in the midwest – you can just be outside with lots of trees without paying for anything. The weather is also (usually!) not too extreme but variable which I really like. I really enjoy the diverse neighborhoods in this area; I live less than half an hour’s drive from downtown but I have an affordable house in a quiet rural/suburban village.

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