by Koyoua Vang
i.c.stars Milwaukee Graduate
I am a graduate of i.c.stars, working for Northwestern Mutual as a technology operations specialist– the youngest on the team. It’s a job I love, with a company I respect, in a career that can grow. I.c.stars’ technology boot camp prepared me for the technical part of my job. But the i.c.stars residency that followed added something more, something you won’t find in standard tech training curricula. It gave me a safe place to ask questions, gain confidence, find mentors, and make friends.
The i.c.stars residency bridged the gap between technology classes and practical applications. It’s one of the reasons that i.c.stars graduates remain in a tech field and advance faster than those coming from a conventional academic track.
When Blanca Gonzales, executive director of i.c.stars Milwaukee, asked me to help formalize their residency program, I was thrilled. The Milwaukee office was new—just two years old—but had enough graduates to sustain an active and energetic residency program. It would be peer-led, responsive to suggestions, and a place to ask questions and get help when needed.
Organizing the residency was a welcome challenge for me. Coming from a big family, I grew up responsible for others, planning, and organizing. I appreciate that i.c.stars has given me a place to be a leader and to put a logical plan together. My first steps were defining goals and objectives, developing a program content plan, and assigning leadership. Most critically, we needed mentors and volunteers.
BUILDING SKILL AND COMMUNITY
American Family Insurance, one of i.c.stars’ corporate partners, offered to sponsor the residency through funding and mentorship. Maritza Contreras, Ranell Washington, and Andrea Conteras have been closely involved, guiding us every step of the way. I asked for mentors in the three tracks most requested 1) cybersecurity, 2) data analyst, and 3) software developer and engineer. The sponsors they found have “been there” and “done that” and were ready to support and encourage us. Members of the residency council created a website for the residency with updates and event announcements. We’ve hosted professional development workshops and covered issues like personal trauma and healing. In the next season, we plan to add more technical and problem-solving workshops, covering topics like systems architecture, collaboration technologies, pattern recognition, data mining, and cybersecurity. We hosted a coding trivia night called “Hack It” with prizes—very competitive but fun. Socials and mixers are scheduled as well as community outreach events like our toy drive and Thanksgiving basket giveaway. The goal, when we began, was increased engagement. The outcome is much more than we’d hoped or dreamed. ‘It’s like a family’, participants and mentors tell us. ‘The residency feels like a family.’
WHY IT MATTERS
In any career, it is valuable to have friends and family who can guide you, understand the nuances of your work, and inspire you in ways that others can’t. This is critical in IT, where constant change and problems will evolve. Need help with the job search? Have a tricky coding problem?
The residency is a safe place to ask questions, learn from your peers, practice public speaking skills, and develop leadership. It helps build a network of friends and colleagues who you can turn to for questions and guidance on a long-term basis. Friendships grow and careers benefit from a shared sense of belonging and being part of a professional community. This is so important and something you might not find in the standard college environment.
Our residency program is active and energetic. It continues the professional journey, bridging the gap between what is taught at boot camp and what is needed to move forward and excel in a tech career. It is the difference between surviving or thriving. For newly minted tech employees like me, it’s helped me build a network of friends and colleagues who can act as mentors, answer questions, and guide on a long-term basis. The training I received at i.c.stars launched my career. At Northwestern Mutual, my boss, Neal Edwards, inspires me to become a better leader every day. The mentors and counselors at residency events help me thrive.
My advice to any person at the start of their career is to develop a growth mindset. When you face something unfamiliar, don’t run and hide. Seek answers. Stay connected to friends and colleagues. They will enrich your life and can help strengthen your technical knowledge. And to anyone thinking about a career in technology, consider i.c.stars. Their classes are intense but, equally important, they teach you how to be an independent learner, how to find the information that you need and solve problems. The 20-month residency that follows will lay the foundation for your new life, for personal fulfillment and professional growth.