From Hardship to a Staff Engineer at Apple with Cher Scarlett

Cher Scarlett shares her inspirational story about she overcame hardship and poverty, and worked her way up to become a staff engineer at Apple.

We also talk about:
  • How Cher Scarlett bravely shares and deals with her mental health issues publicly
  • How Cher fights for inclusion in tech and reminds people that they belong in tech independent of their education or background
  • She openly shares her vulnerabilities and encourages and lifts up others.
  • Also, listen to the second interview, where Cher Scarlett talks about how she got hired at Apple despite her bipolar disorder.

Picture of Cher Scarlett
About Cher Scarlett
Cher Scarlett, who is influential in the #AppleToo movement, overcame hardships and poverty. Cher works as a software engineer and made a name for herself thorugh Twitter, blogging and by being a leading worker's right activist.
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Read the whole episode "From Hardship to a Staff Engineer at Apple with Cher Scarlett" (Transcript)

[This transcript is the result of a community effort. You can help make it better, and improve the podcast’s accessibility via Github*.* I’m happy to lend a hand to help you get started with pull requests, and open source work.
Special thanks to ry-v1 for helping improve this transcript.]

Michaela: [00:00:00] Hello and welcome to the software engineering unlocked podcast. I'm your host, Dr.McKayla. Before I start, I want to tell you about a new project of mine. I'm writing a book about code reviews. It would cover the latest research and best practices around code reviews everything I learned when working with teams at Microsoft, as well as with companies around the world, would go into this book. If this sounds interesting to you, then you can become an early reader and get exclusive access to some of the draft chapters. You can find out more at I will link it also in the description. Well, but now let's start with today's episode and it's special.Today we listen to the first part of a two part interview series with Cher. I've never done that before, but well, Cher has been very inspirational story to tell. She did share with us how she overcame hardship and poverty and worked her way up to be now a staff engineer at Apple. Cher has an incredible strengths in her, bravely shares her struggles, dealing with mental health issues publicly. She also regularly reminds people that they belong in tech independent of their education or background. I'm impressed by how she openly shares her vulnerabilities and encourages and lift up others. So I'm really happy that Cher is here today. Welcome to my show Cher.

Cher: [00:01:37] Thank you so much. I don't think anybody's ever said so many nice things about me.

Michaela: [00:01:45] I could have gone on and on.

Cher: [00:01:55] Brevity is important.

Michaela: [00:01:58] Um, so it's one of the first thing I want to talk with you about is your journey into tech, because I know it's not a very traditional journey. So you recently started to share more openly that you actually don't have a computer science degree background and things like that. Do you want to tell us a little bit how you actually started in tech and you know, what brought you here?

Cher: [00:02:22] Yeah. So I was definitely like, always very like curious kid and I'm, and I'm still like curious. Uh, and I was always like really interested in the way things worked. And so my mom. She worked for a construction company and she would like take like computer parts from her work and like bring them home. And so I was very interested in like learning how to like, you know, build computers. And so that was kind of like where that started and it just kind of. You know, moved on from the hardware to the software. And so I was actually playing an online game called EverQuest and I had a really popular guild on my server and all of the other popular guilds had websites. And so I was like, I need a website, you know, but I'm like 14 years old. Like, I don't know how I'm going to get it. And so I remember I was sitting there like on one of the websites and internet Explorer, and I just like. You know, right. Clicked it, which was like, I was like, there's some way to like, take this thing apart and see how it works. Cause that's like how my brain works, you know? And so I just, I saw view source and I was like, Oh, that would make sense that this is how this works. And so that's what I did. And basically just started reverse, you know, reverse engineering HTML, which was quite easy because it's just XML. And then moving on to, you know, reverse engineering CSS, and then reverse engineering JavaScript. And reverse engineering action script, um, to kind of learn how to build all of these different things. So that's kind of like where my air quotes education came from to begin with. And then I had a kind of a rough life, which I've, I've talked about in the past, in that I was struggling because, and I don't think this is something that people talk about a lot, but like as a woman, like with a certain, like, I bloomed very early and so very early on, I started getting a lot of unwanted male attention. And as I got into middle school and high school, I basically got a lot of like really negative slurs towards women being thrown at me constantly. And even though I wasn't initially, I wasn't like, you know, didn't fit those lists. I mean, I never fit those labels, but I wasn't even like close to fitting those labels. Like it just became kind of a self fulfilling prophecy where people would say that I, you know, was sleeping around when I wasn't and then it turned into, I was because I was so desperate for, you know, this like sense of belonging somewhere because I, you know, I was getting, you know, neglected and abused at home. And then I would go to school and I was getting, you know, emotionally abused by, you know, my peers. And I just felt like there was nowhere that I fit. So I stepped into the box that they were creating for me. And it never aligned for me. And so eventually I just got to a point where I dropped out of high school. And I started using drugs and, you know, sleeping around to use drugs and just living a lifestyle that was very, um, Not conducive to having a productive life and moving forward, but it's because I really, I did not care what happened to me. And I ended up in a lot of situations that I haven't really openly talked about yet. Um, I'm hoping to get to that point, but there was, I did have talked about how I got into stripping and pornography. And then there was, um, a major event that happened that caused me to attempt to take my own life because I just. There was nothing. I just felt like there was nothing left for me. Like that was the only like drugs weren't even enough of an escape from my life that I had to fully escape my life. So that was, I was unsuccessful obviously, cause I'm still here. So I spent time in a mental institution. I was for the second time diagnosed with bipolar disorder. And then I don't know, I didn't have like a renewed sense of life or whatever that people talk about. I, um, I went straight back to the same lifestyle that I was living before of just like self-harming and, you know, sleeping around, you know, for drugs and, and finding ways to like make money to make ends meet and stuff. And then in that process, um, I met a man, uh, who I use drugs with, um, at the time who got me pregnant and I It was, I always talk about like, Oh, like I got pregnant and then I changed my life, but it wasn't really that like a simple, it was definitely more like a process. I did stop using drugs of course, and drinking while I was pregnant. But I wasn't on a clear path. I was just kind of like ignoring the fact that I was pregnant without like hurting the child and my daughter. Um, but when I got to be about, so he kicked me in and out of the apartment that he lived in like several times and my mom lived 2,800 miles away. So I was driving back and forth between like, Oh, come, you know, come get back together with me and live with me and stuff and let's make this work. to you know, driving back to Washington. So I didn't have like a steady job or, or any money during all of this. I went through several like, you know, $200 cars during this process. Just a lot of like, really dumb stuff. And I got arrested several times because I wasn't paying fines and stuff that I was getting like for, uh, various, um, things that I have done in the past, or was currently doing, just ignoring like general responsibilities. And then the last time I went back to my mom's house, I was seven months pregnant. And I just, I guess maybe it was a little bit of like nesting that the feeling that women talk about it, like, you know, needing to create like a space for your child to like, Be born into. And so for me, it was like, my whole life was not that space. And so I went to this company called they had,
an ad on Craigslist and that they were looking for a front end developer. And this was in 2006. So it wasn't like that wasn't like a job title. That I had ever heard before, but I was reading about it and they just wanted somebody who knew HTML, CSS and JavaScript. And those are the things that I had taught myself that I knew really well. And like I had used HTML, CSS and JavaScript in school projects when I was still in high school. So it was easy for me to be like, okay, I can do that for a job. Like maybe this skill can give my child like, and myself, like a life that I can like deal with. Right. Like, so that this kid doesn't grow up to have the same problems that I've had. Um, and so that's where I started. It was really rough, um, starting out with, cause I wasn't making a lot of money. I think I was making like $27,000 a year or something like that. And I lived in Seattle, which was very expensive of course. And I couldn't afford rent, childcare. Oh, rent and childcare and anything basically on the salary that I was getting. So I decided to quit that job and try to just do like some contracting work, which I did for several years while I was also working as like, um, a server in a bunch of different restaurants and, and some like other, like just minimum wage jobs, trying to, to make kind of everything, you know, come together. And then in around 2011, a lot of my clients were kind of experiencing the remanence of the depression that happened in the late, uh, like around like 2009, 2010. And I got a lot of bounce checks and clients not paying. And I got to a point where like, I was actively being evicted from my apartment because I couldn't afford to pay the rent. And I was applying for like every single job that I could find. And one of those jobs was at USA today or who owns USA today, um, for a mobile front end developer position. And mobile was like one of the things that the communities that I had gotten involved with cause I thought it was like really, really important that websites be really usable. And so somehow, luckily, you know, like I got this interview, I went out there. It was a really terrifying experience because at this point, like if I wasn't somebody who had really like, I guess, full people into thinking that like I had a degree or like, you know, whatever. Um, so I I'd never stayed in a hotel before and I was at the Hilton. And I didn't have a credit card because of the life that I came from. I didn't have a bank account or a debit card again, because of the life that I came from. And so I had $20 in my pocket and to my name, that's all the money I had. And they told me that like, I need to put a credit card down. And I was like, I don't have a credit card. And they're like, do you have a debit card? And I said, no. And I was just standing. And then I just started sobbing and they're like, well, you need to put down a hundred dollars cash. And I'm like, I don't have a hundred dollars cash. So they went up to the room and like I told them, I was like, I'm not, I don't live here. Like I have nowhere else to stay. I have an interview tomorrow next door at USA today. And I was like, in this job, if I get, it will literally change mine and my child's life. And so the manager was kind of just like, Oh my God, like, this is like, you're like riffraff or something, you know? So they went out to the room and they cleared out like all of the snacks, all the minibar stuff. And, um, I think that. It was like, even though I had been working towards like changing my life in the, you know, the four years prior, this was the first time where like I realized that like, I felt crappy that people don't trust me, you know, like, because of. You know, and they realistically, you know, if I shared like all of the details of everything I did to me against me, because I will not say that all of it, it was above board. It wasn't, and I didn't get caught for a lot of the stuff that I, that I did to, you know, make sure that my kid had food and like I had a roof over my head. It was like, I don't deserve to be trusted. And like, it just felt really bad. And for me like that, it was the, it was like, okay, kind of like a two step, like. Uh, you know, when I was seven months pregnant, I was like, I don't want my kid to grow up this way. And then, you know, being in this hotel sobbing and they're taking out everything, so I don't steal it. It's like, I don't want people to look at me this way either. And so I went in, I thought I totally bombed the inner shell. Like, uh, you know, it was, there was some white boarding. Um, there was a lot of like, you know, conversation. It's still to this day. Like, don't like, why, why they give me a chance. But when I was in the shuttle back to the airport, they called me. And they wanted to let me know that they were going to offer me the job. And I was just like, I mean, just, you know, broke down crying because that was, that was it. Like, I, cause this was like, you know, I was making like 18 to $20,000 a year, like between my contracts and you know, the minimum wage jobs I was working. And this was, I think they offered me like $67,000 a year to start. And so. It was such like an enormous jump for me. It was like, I'm going to be able to take care of my shot. Now. I wasn't making enough to not be on food stamps anymore, but it was such like a huge improvement that I wouldn't be like, you know, taking out payday loans to make ends meet. Another thing I did was like, I, uh, I would sign up for school so that I could get the FAFSA loans, um, because it would be like enough of a bump in the money that I had for a little bit that I could make that last, like food and stuff. Of course now I paying for it, right. These student loans and no education, but it was just like, you know, another way of like making ends meet and like, I didn't have to do any of that stuff anymore. Like the only thing was left was the food stamps. And then, you know, it kind of. Obviously like, you know, my career kind of took off from that point in 2011, when I got that job at USA today.

Michaela: [00:13:48] Yeah. Somehow for me it sounds like a cycle, right? A virtuous cycle where you, if you're in it, you're somehow getting deeper into it. And it's really hard to get out. And once you're out, it's, it's the same cycle. You can actually get that up. Do you feel that way as well?

Cher: [00:14:05] Oh, definitely. You know, only 4% of people that come from poverty will ever break out of that cycle. And I think a lot of things that things that people don't really understand, like, especially with like incarcerated people, is that a lot of people that, you know, have done like worse things than me even, they, they really did it out of like a combination of necessity and then circumstances you know, like people, like I have a lot of emotional and mental health problems, of course, because of the way that I grew up and very easily, you know, think if I didn't get pregnant, like in the life that I was living, like, there's absolutely no doubt in my mind that I could be in prison right now, you know, instead of where I'm at, just because I know that that's where my life was going. Those were the people that I was around. Those were the things I was engaging in, but like, recognizing that like. I, you know, basically I was like rehabilitated that I'm not the only one that, that can happen to you. And when we don't take the time to recognize that, that those people who, you know, like my friends who are still in that life, it's like the reason that it's there in that is because it's, it's a cycle and there's, there's really no escape from it.

Michaela: [00:14:48] Yeah. It's really hard to get out. So one of the things that you. Tell me, is that this getting pregnant was definitely a, when the changed your mind and you know, where you were thinking, well, I don't want my kid, my baby to grow up in that environment or with those circumstances. And then there's this event that you have at the hotel, but do you think that there were other things, were there other people in your life up to you to come out of that or strengths coming completely from inside of yourself?

Cher: [00:15:23] Um, I definitely think that there were people along the way who helped. So I definitely got like positive feedback along the way. Um, but I just it's, it's like a mixture. Like I wasn't ready to, I had so much like damage that I wasn't processing and that I was shoving down that it was like, I couldn't accept those things about myself to actually, you know, try to get myself out there until it was a point where like, I, you know, it's, it's either find something or you're gonna lose your kid and be homeless, you know, that's, that's what it took for me. And I do think that I do think that it's, it's like both, both things matter that has to come from like internal and then you also, cause you have to be willing to accept like other people's help. And if you're not like you, you can't, you can't move forward.

Michaela: [00:16:14] Yeah. But I think it's really, there's an incredible strengths to being in a situation that really seems. You're a little bit stuck right your, um, things are not, I mean, you definitely knew that the situation isn't as it should be, or it could be. And, and then if, because we were saying, well, this is the cycle, right. Then if you're seeing that it's actually happening again and again, that you're in those situations, which I think they are somehow attracting themselves. Right. So one bad situation somehow attracts another bad situation. It really takes a lot of things to say, well, okay, I can still get out of that and applying to this job and I'm going there, you know, whatever it takes and even standing there in front of this person in the hotel and saying, well, I don't have a credit card.I don't have a debit card. I don't have the a hundred bucks, but I'm staying in this hotel tonight. Right. Um, I think is, is this is Incredible strengths. That, you lifted yourself up to be, you know, in a very different position. I think especially his first leap. Um, you get out of that. This is, it's really incredible. I mean, I'm very, very impressed by that. So when then you were in this better job, right which brought in more money and there's this upward spiral, right. What was the next step? So did you think by that time, I really want to become, you know, a staff engineer at one of the largest and most prestigious, you know, software engineering companies in the world.

Cher: [00:17:43] Um, I don't think that I, uh, I had that in my head. I think I was still at a point where like, I was like, I don't want to be on food stamps, you know? And I want, I want to grow as a person. And I, I think my main thing was like that I don't want to put myself in those situations. It's like you said, like it's a cycle where you're actually. I wouldn't say you're attracting those things. I would say it's, it's more like, like some of the emotional problems I have for like, from my childhood that I'm working in, in, through, in, through therapy right now, now to change is like the way your thoughts and behaviors are informed are based on the kind of stimuli that you were presented with when you were a child. So if the only attention you got was, you know, from, you know, a parent abusing you or chastising you when you did something wrong and that's the only attention you got. Um, you're basically going to be drawn to these high risk, negative situations where even though like, you know, like, okay, I know after I do this thing, I'm going to feel really bad, but during it, I'm going to feel really good. And that's the only time I'm going to feel really good. And so I think that, I was at a point and it's in 2011, I was in my mid twenties. Like maybe I was like 26 or something like that. And so like, I was also maturing, I think, as a human being and like recognizing, even though I wasn't actively in therapy anymore, I knew that like, I, I was chasing those things for some reason that wasn't right. And the easiest way to not put yourself in those situations is to not have access to them. And so the job was, so I lived in St.Louis, Missouri at the time, and the job was in the DC area in Northern Virginia. And I didn't know anybody there other than at this job. And obviously nobody at this job is because you had to take a drug test and everything to get hired. Um, so everybody that is working there is not doing the things that I was finding myself involved with, you know, before. So it was like, totally just like cut off. And so, like, I think that at the time, my main goal was just not going back into that life and, you know, getting my food stamps and like being able to take care of myself and my child, like at a standard and level that I felt like was, um, conducive to her growing up well and healthy and feeling loved and supported. And so I focused entirely on that. And over the four years that I was at USA today, which once I reached, um, six months, that was the longest day. I've never been at a job. So like, that was a huge thing, a milestone for me. And, um, I think I just got to a point where like, I began to trust my colleagues when they complimented me. And it wasn't like a, you know, it wasn't like a linear progression. There were times when like, cause I, when I started, like, I was the only female engineer in the whole department. So, um, I definitely experienced a lot of sexism in that workplace. And I don't think that, I think that that was when I realized that like, a lot of sexism is not intentional that they don't even realize they're doing it. A manager that ended up being like, he's somebody that I like still use as like a reference now and like we talk here and there and like, you know, he's like super proud of me and everything. Um, the, my relationship with him actually started off like super rocky because we had had a big, like a reorganization of the department and the whole company, actually. And I was the only front end engineer that was left from the team that I was working on, which handled all of the mobile sites and which wasn't just the USA site. But it was also all of the newspapers and broadcast stations. That again, that owned at the time. So it was a lot, there was just a lot of stuff, stuff and we were working in an older technology stack of Ruby on rails and velocity templates, you know, ancient, ancient stuff. Um, but I was the only person left. I had been working on that for more than a year and the only other person. Um, had only been there for two weeks. And so we went into this meeting and they're like asking questions. Cause we combined into one and team with the .com like the desktop site and the mobile sites. We became one like web and mobile. And so they're asking me questions about like how it works and except they weren't asking me, they were asking Craig and I was the only one that knew the answers and they, but they kept asking Craig directly about stuff. And I would have to answer the question and it went on for an hour. And I remember very specifically, like going home and crying and being like, I will never be seen as like a person of authority or knowledge because I'm a woman. Like I just distinctly remember feeling that way and I was going to quit. And I decided instead that I wasn't going to, that I was going to start being like really more involved in like, pointing out, like things that I felt like were important that I knew that I, it could be an authority on. And one of those things was like accessibility. That's something that was really important to me. But I also had like an incredible breadth of knowledge on yeah, because the first client, longterm client I had when I was doing my contracting stuff after I'd quit, that first job was Blind. So I knew all about assistance technology, why it was really important. And then also like how to use, you know, native tags and everything in the correct way. Uh, so that assistive technology could have like, you know, an, a user experience of that made sense for somebody who was using that technology. And so I hung on to that. And then, um, also the other thing was that, you know, cause I was somebody that came from a poor background. So like obviously when I was working there, I had that device, I had had like unlimited data and you know, like everything. So yeah. But I remembered what it was like trying to navigate the mobile web didn't have those resources. And so, you know, making sure that things were fast and, you know, downloading a minimum amount of time, making sure that if they turned off JavaScript at work, like, or, you know, Back then, like phones didn't always have, you know, uh, the best web, so they didn't have JavaScript. So like insuring all of these things, like where's something that I could be in authority on. And so just coming in really strong and being like, no, we have to do this this way. We have to do this this way. And then the USA mobile site is not the same anymore as it was back then, but it was award-winning. And one of the things that was like consistently brought up was how fast it was and how like light lightweight, all of the JavaScript was and how it still worked when you took, when you turned the JavaScript off. And so I basically aligned myself prior to that happening by being the leader of, of that particular thing. And so then people outside of the company started talking about me because, uh, you know, like the technical leaders and the digital leaders would say like, yeah, like Cher was the one who like really pushed this initiative and made sure that like all of this was, was done in, in this particular way with, uh, with JavaScript, because like reactive JavaScript was still kind of a new thing, you know, back then. So I became a name and, you know, the Northern Virginia area of somebody who was like highly technically capable and then also understood like, you know, the performance, um, implications of, on people with people who don't have access to unlimited resources.

Michaela: [00:25:16] Yeah. I think that's really interesting. And I think it's somehow it's, it's similar to the story of , you know, not giving up and not saying, well, this is how my life now is, and that I'm convicted or, you know, I have no roof over my top. Here's the same. Somebody somehow treats you not with respect, but instead of saying, well, I'm quitting, I'm going away. You're finding a way to actually. In your way, right? Make space for yourself and get, get the respect that you actually should, should have. I would like to ask you a little bit about your job at Apple now. So what are you doing there? I know the title is staff software engineer, but what is, is staff engineer at Apple? What do you do? What are you responsible for? And also, I would like to hear everything about the hiring process because I'm super afraid of interviews and things like that. So we'd like to know. How he experienced that? Yeah. Also for my listeners that want to apply at Apple, what should they do?

Michaela: [00:26:17] Well, who wouldn't like to know. Right. But this is the end of today's episode in part two I deep dive with Cher, into the hiring processes at Apple, engineering culture and software engineering practices at this large prestigious company, I hope you tune in, in two weeks for now. I say bye, and have a good day. Bye. I hope you enjoyed another episode of the software engineering unlocked podcast. Don't forget to subscribe. And I talk to you again in two weeks.

Cher: [00:26:48] Bye.

Copyright 2022 Doctor McKayla