Yolanda Thompson will be the first to admit that her decision to become a software developer in Memphis was the result of a meandering career path. “My degree was in Sports Management, focusing on sports marketing,” she says. “Coming out of college, I worked in sports for a very short amount of time, but ended up stumbling across an article talking about the fastest growing careers in IT and I saw that programming was one of them.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
As a graduate of Overton High School, mother of three, and native Memphian, Thompson wanted a job in her hometown that would both challenge her and provide a promising career outlook. That challenge and career was made possible through FastTrack’D, an 8-week, intensive Java development program offered free of charge by Memphis-based Cook Systems. Founded by Wayne Cook, Cook Systems is an information technologies consultancy and staffing company that offers free training in software development with guaranteed employment for participants who successfully graduate its program.
For Thompson, the offer couldn’t have been any more perfect. “It’s difficult, sometimes, breaking into an industry as an outsider,” she says, “especially someone who doesn’t have a computer science background like other devs may have. However, that didn’t discourage me.”
Thompson successfully graduated the program and now works as developer in one of the fastest growing, and highest paying, fields in the country. She also finds the challenge to extend beyond the work. Sometimes, she says, she even gets to challenge her peers’ perceptions of a woman in a decidedly male-dominated career path.
“Some people might imply that since I am a female, I don’t understand logic,” she says. “It doesn’t really bother me, per se, because I know what I’m doing. But there is a stigma associated with being a female in this male-dominated industry that we don’t understand logic as well as our male counterparts. There have been some times when I had to be assertive to back up my position on this. Or I have to let something crash and burn and then say, ‘let’s do it my way.’ I’ve seen where a female perspective on web design and front-end design actually helps the project tremendously. It gets a little bland when it’s just males doing it. User experience seems to be one of my strong points and now I’m seen as an expert on it.”
Michael Edwards, another native Memphian and graduate of the FastTrack’D program, sees diversity as one of the key factors to his satisfaction in what he does. “What I enjoy the most is the diversity of personalities. Everybody always thinks that computer science people are all geeks, but we have former cheerleaders, people who used to be in a rock band.” A graduate of Whitehaven High School, Edwards credits his interest in a career in coding to early exposure during high school.
“I was always taught [at Whitehaven] to explore, so that’s really how I got into coding. We had a vocational school and I was really focused on computer engineering, but that sparked a desire to go deeper into how it actually works, so that’s when I got into coding.”
While attending college at Tennessee State in Nashville, Edwards majored in Computer Science. “I like the idea of being able to build something from the ground-up,” he says, “and that’s what brought me to Cook. I was having a hard time finding a job on my own [after graduation].”
Edwards learned quickly that the FastTrack’D program was the key to solidifying a career in tech for him. As an intensive, 8-week course, the training provides all of the information needed to teach students how to develop software using Java and .NET-based programming languages. “It’s challenging,” says Edwards. “It makes you think on your feet. You’re always learning something new. If you’re a dedicated person who is willing to work for what you want to earn, that is the best class to take.”