Reflections From an Underprivileged Software Engineer
How Brian Nguyen started working as a software engineer at Kapwing, and his path to get there.
This is my tenth attempt at writing about how I started working as a software engineer in San Francisco. With each passing draft, I’m forced to experience painful reflections of my early life.
My life as the child of two impoverished, immigrant farmers from Vietnam. My life before having a six-figure salary. My life before the “comfort” lifestyle. Although it is painful to look back, there is nostalgia also mixed in with the reminiscence. Today, I feel like I am lost between my past and my present. I’m doing my best to write about the differences in my life before/after working in tech and explain what those differences mean to me.
The Places That Define Me
As I write this piece, I am sitting in an office full of plush, perfectly-cushioned Herman Miller chairs. The price of these chairs makes me sweat, but I cannot deny the extended years of durability they’ve given my spine.
I am working at a gleaming white standing desk. Each desk is a workstation powered by a brand new 16-inch MacBook Pro. The office kitchen looks like a Safeway. A shining rainbow of La Croix cans are neatly on display behind a dedicated glass door fridge, an aisle of snacks all stacked tall and wide pushing the limits of the pantry, and much more.
The space is bright, spirited, and full of life. The office is a healthy ecosystem housing passionate coworkers along with real breathing plants on every corner. Every time I walk into this space, I am greeted with smiles.
My childhood home was nothing like the Kapwing office. The chairs at home were made of decaying wood or rusty metal. I remember the constant back cramps and hip pain from chairs that never stayed in one place. I also remember the metal folding chair’s freezing bite each time I sat down.
There weren’t many desks in the house for my family, so we did many things on the floor. The lights in our home were never guaranteed to work, and I became familiar with studying in the dark. I am constantly thankful that my eyes were able to survive and operate well today.
Food was a rare resource. Fridges and cabinets were empty, opening each door revealed a desolate wasteland. Although this wasteland was lacking in food as a resource, it was not barren of scavengers. I remember stacking cups and bowls topside-down to not invite rodents or insects to take refuge. There weren’t many smiles in this home.
Where Is My Definition?
The Kapwing office and my childhood home are polar opposites. Going to the office makes me feel like I’m Charlie entering the chocolate factory. While I am driving home, I feel sad like the wind that sighs outside my car.
When I step into the office, I get the feeling that I am stepping forward in life as if I am progressing towards something greater. When I step into my home, that greater feeling of progression is stripped away from me. I know that the good feeling will come again tomorrow, but I also know that it’ll disappear again.
One day, I saw a mouse stuck in a glue trap set inside my home. I watched that mouse struggle to escape for a few minutes, and I found myself imagining myself in the glue trap along with it. I’m a stuck rodent in a glue trap in the futile rat race for self-identity. I am constantly bewildered about which one of these locations better defines me; am I an impoverished boy from a decrepit household, or am I a well-off software engineer at a San Francisco startup?
College vs High school
College was a huge lifestyle change for me. I attended UC Davis, where I learned to code. My professors loved their fields and were experts. It was amazing to hear professors present their research on newly developed technologies.
I recall listening to a professor present on the process of making ceramic stronger by removing the porous surface. The amount of money spent to simply make a pot smooth was fascinating to me.
UC Davis students were full of potential and achieved great things with alumni ranging from Olympic athletes to a United States treasurer. UC Davis had an immaculate campus: steel buildings with glimmering multi-story windows, new construction on every block, trees imported from around the world, etc. The architecture was beautiful year-round, glimmering in the summer sun and sparkling in the winter moonlight. My high school was nothing like UC Davis.
Newark Memorial High School
Newark Memorial High School, an East Bay area school, was ugly and continually breaking. The asphalt was cracked and the buildings constantly deteriorated. One year, half the buildings were blocked off due to termites eating at the decomposed wood. Once, a water pipe burst through the floor of my English teacher’s classroom during a quiz.
Teachers at NMHS were the textbook example of what happens when you pair underpaid educators with low-budget educational districts. My 11th grade history teacher made national headlines by threatening to shoot students and pour hot coffee on their heads. Students weren’t friendly either; multiple murders took place during my time at NMHS. I saw students disappear from the classroom. I watched knives and guns get sold in the bathrooms.
While students at NMHS could have great potential, NMHS did a poor job at letting students recognize or use their potential. It was hard for kids that attended NMHS to be prepared for college, let alone be a competitive college applicant. If a student did end up attending college, they would spend a lot of time catching up in academia or have a difficult time learning at the same rate compared to their peers who have had an easier transition.
I graduated in the top 10 of NMHS, but at UC Davis I was placed on academic probation multiple times. NMHS didn’t offer any computer science classes and as a result, I felt behind in university. It was difficult to keep up in the first year of university.
I felt unprepared compared to my classmates and I felt that I had fewer resources to work with. I felt dumb compared to students who had passionate teachers who taught them how to code in high school; the closest thing I had to that was making formulas on my TI-83 calculator. The inadequate mentality followed me throughout college and into my career. I felt radically different and under-qualified to other job seekers in the market. It was easy to feel like I was not meant to succeed as a software engineer.
It was a lot easier to feel I belonged when I was a "poor kid." I was more relatable to my peers. Like myself, my peers grew up in poor households headed by parents who immigrated into California.
One huge feeling of camaraderie shared between a friend and me was over our mutual hatred and embarrassment of going to the thrift store. In elementary school one of my friends was ridiculed for wearing another student's donated clothes. I knew that feeling of embarrassment and anger firsthand. Everything I owned had to be scavenged at the second hand store; I never had the opportunity to be the first owner of anything.
Another moment where I felt a deep connection with a different friend was when I went over to their house and saw pink Himalayan salt on the kitchen table. I recognized that pink Himalayan salt as being recalled and being sold at clearance price at a resale grocery store. I also recognized the salt from my own kitchen table. There was an immediate feeling of being related to someone; the fellowship of pink salt. We joked about how it tasted great.
It’s hard relating to my coworkers. It is difficult to find similarities and connect with one another. I am constantly scared that something I say will offend someone or unintentionally make someone feel awkward.
One evening while I was out with some coworkers, I saw a convenience store with a sticker on the window. The sticker said in big letters “EBT ACCEPTED HERE”. I thought that it was nice that EBT was accepted there and I let out a comment to my coworkers that I used to be on EBT. What followed was a conversation on what EBT was and awkward silence.
It was also difficult for me to ask coworkers to help revise this blog post. I was extremely nervous that people would think of me differently or that I would ruin their day sharing sad memories of my life. I remember having so much anxiety after sending a link that I would be unable to focus on other work for the rest of the day. I want to be able to build great relationships with my coworkers and have the feeling of comfort around them. However, the only feeling I have around them is apologetic. I’m sorry for who I am.
What I have is a real insecurity and discomfort on who I am to my coworkers. Please excuse the use of the cliché word; imposter. I work towards building a relationship with my coworkers, but it always feels forced and unreal. It feels like I’m being someone that I’m not in order to fit in. I know that the assumptions that my coworkers are different from me may not be true, but right now the feeling that I do not belong is true. I have fears that one day I’ll be “revealed” for who I am and then the person they reveal will be someone they won’t accept or won’t enjoy.
The Value of Money
Obviously, one of the biggest changes to my life now that I am a software engineer is the amount of money in my bank account. I now have more money in my bank account after one paycheck than my parents’ bank account ever had in my entire childhood.
Nowadays, if I want something I just go ahead and purchase it. Just a couple weeks ago, I bought a Ford Mustang. I did not have to think hard about whether or not it was a sound decision because I had enough wealth that at worst the purchase would be a small mistake. The amount of money in my bank account is high enough that most things have become easily affordable.
Last month, I bought a brand new refrigerator to replace my old one from my childhood. The fridge felt gigantic compared to its predecessor, just like how my bank account felt gigantic to its former self. The refrigerator shined and was dent-less; after the purchase of the refrigerator, my bank account too was dent-less. I could make these two purchases every pay period and I would still have extra money in my bank account afterwards.
Before I became a software engineer and had my own income, my family’s money was only spent on what was needed. This meant that a lot of things were skipped in order to save money like meals, doctor appointments, field trips, etc.
One core memory in my life was when I declined an ambulance ride. I was running at high school cross country practice when slowly my vision turned black and I collapsed in the street. The first thing that came to my mind when I woke up in the ambulance was how I could not afford the ambulance ride and I immediately exited the vehicle.
Even after avoiding these “unnecessary” purchases, my frugal family still did not have enough money. My family struggled to pay bills and we were consistently late on making payments. Eviction notes were regular occurrences in our mailbox.
At one point in my life, one of my biggest fears was an overdraft fee. The poorest I ever felt was when I had 2 cents in my bank account. I felt poor at that moment not because I only had 2 cents in my bank account, but because I was happy that I avoided an overdraft fee; I was happy I had 2 cents in my bank account.
Guilty & Embarrassed
I wish I could better enjoy the purchases I make. I’ll feel guilty when I look at my mustang, but I’ll also feel embarrassed when I look at discounts or sales.
I loathe the lump that forms in my throat, choking me up when I’m simply just adding avocado to my Chipotle burrito order.
I have animosity towards using coupons, I would rather pay the whole price.
I wish I were not so verklempt over purchases, but at the same time I don’t want to not have these feelings. It would sicken me to become someone that blindly spends their money with no restraint. While money has an intrinsic monetary value, lately it has been feeling that I pay an emotional cost as well.
There are many people in the world that have situations worse than me. I’ve been thinking a lot about a certain expression that goes something like, “Don’t be sad, someone has it worse than you.”
It feels like everyone tells me that I am successful and that I should be happy; that I am the breakthrough special case. I was supposed to fail given my underprivileged background, but I was still able to achieve success and therefore I should be happy. However, I would be lying to say that I’m happy in my life right now.
The expression also means “someone has it better than you, be sad.” Many of my childhood friends don't see me as the same person anymore. They consider me “tech trash” and claim that I no longer know what it feels like to be downtrodden.
It feels like I am being punished for accomplishing my goals. Not only do I feel that I am punishing myself, it also feels like I am punishing others for being “successful”; my friends are ‘sad’ because I have it ‘better.’ I hate living in a life like this.
I remember in college, I sat on a chair for eight hours; depressed. I can never forget that feeling that nothing I did was going to matter. No matter how much I tried to stand up and leave my seat, I couldn’t. I recently had that experience again just a few weeks ago.
It made me sad to think that still nothing has changed. But, today after sharing a rough draft of this article with my coworker, he told me something that changed my perspective on it all. “You should be proud of where you are AND where you come from. They make you unique and distinctly Brian.” It felt like a bulb lit on top of me. Truth be told, I was embarrassed I didn't realize it earlier.
I am the sum of my experiences up to this exact moment; I’m not only what I used to be and I’m not only what others say I should be. I did not have to carry negative thoughts of my past nor did I have to be ashamed for who I am now. I won't deny my past and I won't reject the future. I have the ability to leave my seat and set course to achieve anything I want to do. My ability to do so is greater than it has ever been in my life. I embrace these two worlds and I embrace myself.Create content faster with Kapwing's online video editor →