Sheena Bryant is using technology to make the kind of impact through her work that she always imagined possible.
The former high school English teacher left the classroom behind, but never let go of her desire to help people. She enrolled in a bootcamp, learned to code and became a software engineer. After applying to a role she found on Technical.ly, Bryant began working at Nava, a public benefit corporation that uses technology to improve the accessibility, effectiveness and simplicity of government services.
“At Nava, all of our work has a direct impact on the American public,” she said. “It makes me feel good knowing that the work I’ve done impacts people in this country for good.”
Recently, Bryant was named one of the 12 most influential technologists in D.C. on Technical.ly’s inaugural RealLIST Engineers. The recognition, nominated by her peers, is a direct effect of Bryant’s drive to do work that both challenges her mind and feeds her soul. She’ll be celebrated alongside other RealLIST honorees at this Wednesday’s Technical.ly Awards at Mindspace.
As a woman of color and an engineer, she has demonstrated a firm commitment to diversity and inclusion in tech. It is because of this commitment that she helped found earthtones, an employee resource group for Black employees at Nava, and helped to launch an apprenticeship program created to build a more inclusive engineering team at the company.
And as a woman who cares deeply about people, she’s building code for a Medicare program that incentivizes clinicians to focus on quality of care, positively affecting 34 million Medicare patients.
Though she’s no stranger to the Techincal.ly beat, we were thrilled to reconnect with her to learn more about her work life at Nava.
Talk to us in more detail about your diversity and inclusion efforts.
In order to continue to foster a diverse and inclusive workplace at Nava, I helped create an employee resource group for people who identify as Black. earthtones serves as a safe space for folks to talk candidly about our experience working in tech and to determine together how we might be able to leverage our personal experiences to ensure that Nava remains a place where all can feel welcome and thrive. The group was excited to host an inaugural event earlier this year that brought together stakeholders from across the city to discuss the importance of diversifying the tech space. We launched the District Black Tech Forum in June, had a great turnout, and are already thinking about how to iterate for next year.
I’ve also been a part of building an apprenticeship at Nava designed to attract and train technologists who are underrepresented in tech, particularly those just starting their careers. The apprenticeship provides on-the-job training, salary and a clear path towards full-time employment. To combat the reality that engineering opportunities too often rely on networking and privilege, Nava was really intentional about recruiting in underrepresented spaces. I am extremely pleased that our first cohort welcomed three exceptional apprentices, all women of color, and we were able to hire each as full time engineers when the apprenticeship concluded.
Nava takes inclusion very seriously. When we brought up wanting to create the employee resource group, the event and the apprenticeship, we had zero pushback. Our ideas were met with support and partnership.
What are some interesting engineering projects that you’re working on?
I’ve had the pleasure of working on Medicare’s Quality Payment Program (QPP), a project in collaboration with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). QPP allows CMS to evaluate and provide payment adjustments to doctors based on the quality of their care, encouraging them to deliver high quality, cost-effective care to patients.
What is most challenging about the work you do at Nava?
Nava partners with government agencies to help millions of people better access critical services. The work on our projects can be very bureaucratic, very structured. Often that means the work we do has technical constraints. In terms of technology, we can’t always work with the Corvettes of the tech world, instead we’re more likely to inherit legacy systems that we modernize and improve.
Contracting for the government means navigating a complicated ecosystem. Our projects necessitate work with a number of other contractors on the same project. It requires that we learn to communicate clearly with a wide range of teams and to keep an open mind.
But I think building those skills — communication, collaboration — actually makes us better engineers.
What tech stack do you work with?
Have you always known you wanted to work in tech?
No, in fact, I got my degree in English from Howard University and began my career as a high school English teacher. I later moved on to work in nonprofit management and fundraising. Eventually I felt ready to do something entirely new.
On a whim, I started exploring coding tutorials on Codecademy and was incredibly surprised by how much I enjoyed them. So I kept at the tutorials and, in 2015, decided it was time to become serious about this new found interest, quit my job and enrolled into an immersive coding bootcamp. I completed the bootcamp in November of 2015, accepted an offer by the end of December, and started my very first software engineering job in January 2016.
Making a career transition is difficult, but it’s so worth it if something about the work resonates with you. You’re more likely to do your best work if the work both inspires you and challenges you mentally. Leaving a career where you excel for something totally unfamiliar is scary, but I have never regretted taking that leap of faith. Being willing to take that risk ultimately lead me to incredibly fulfilling work at Nava, and I couldn’t be happier about that.