The internet saved her from a cult. Now she uses code to empower other women

Self-taught programmer Alejandra Quetzalli founded sheCodesNow to give more people a safe space to break into tech.

This interview has been edited for clarity. 

I was 9 or 8 when my father showed me how to use — before Google. I just remember he showed me how to search something, probably related to dogs. Then results came up after my query and I was like, "What happened? Is this black magic?" My Dad was very offhanded: "Oh, it's just programming. People get paid to do that." 

So then I asked him, "How do you learn how to do something like this? Can I do that, too? What do I do to be that programmer person you said?" Because I had no idea what programming meant. I think that was the first time I'd heard the word. 

My dad literally says, "No, you're more of a girly girl. You love your Barbies; it's not really something that you would do. I wouldn't really worry about it." I didn't touch any tech stuff for another 17 years because, I thought, "Why would my dad lie to me? He must see that I don’t have that particular inclination.” So I just didn't even give it another thought. 

My mother involved us in a cult*, and we were in that cult for years. I couldn't do anything about it. They would repress everything, like no pants were allowed for the women. Women always had to wear dresses. There were all these measurements, like if you wear a skirt, no more than so many inches above your ankle, things like that. Your hair, it was preferred that you wore it a certain way.

In the American part of the cult, it was really popular for the women to not wear makeup. It was very discouraged because they said that you were not accepting how God had created you, and I'm like, "It's one thing if you say you want to feel comfortable, whatever, it's another thing for you to tell me that I can't or can. What the hell? It's my face. If I want to paint it orange and purple, I'll do it. I can do it, whatever." My mother was involved in that cult even after I left home.

Whenever I could have access to the internet — which wasn't very often — I remember Googling and researching things that I would ask about at home when I didn’t think the answers I got were fully making sense or logical. Things about religion, women's place in the home. I was researching a lot to figure out what I actually believe or think. I was able to finally lose the guilt of religion and things like that.

That was the moment where I thought, "Wow, if it wasn't for somebody who created the internet, I wouldn't have had access to be liberated from these teachings." Because I lived in a very secluded place [in Mexico] — we were forcefully secluded because the cult didn’t want us to associate with people from “the world.”  So when you remove knowledge, like books, internet, etc., it's easier to keep people controlled, right?

It was because I left home that I was able to leave the involvement with the cult. I was around 19 at the time.

I was just trying desperately to save myself from the situation that was rapidly imploding, getting worse and worse. We had such a rough childhood growing up [and] the situation ... was like, "No, this is like ... no, no more." 

So then I was like, "Wow, I feel free." That's when I got this tattoo on my arm of a quetzal, a bird representing freedom. I got this to represent that moment of freedom [that] happened for me, and that guilt that was released, that freedom to go and try to figure out who I wanted to be. 

I [started] working full-time for a while in this place [called Televista] down in Tijuana. It’s basically a call center. I was just taking in bilingual sales calls — it was about as fun as stubbing your toe. 

I [wanted to go to college and] had some money saved from that job, but not enough to fully pay for four years of rent and books. At the time, I think my parents had separated and I think my grandfather was like, "Oh, maybe I'll loan you money for a few semesters," or whatever. My mom said, "OK, I'll allow you to go to this one college." It was this super-remote Christian college that has the most insane rules called Pensacola Christian College.

The funny thing is, the sad thing really, that I actually had more freedom [at Pensacola Christian College] than when I was back home. That tells you a lot.

I had girlfriends my age, so I was no longer secluded at home and isolated. Sure, there were all these stupid rules, but I had friends. I could go out and do something fun, even if it was not allowed to leave the campus. 

Eventually, what happened basically was that there was a really big problem between my parents. My father basically said to me [after I told him I wouldn’t support him], "I'm not going to give you any money for college, and you told me that your rent was due, so what are you going to do? You think your grandpa's going to keep paying for you?" I was like, "Well, I guess I don't finish college then." So I quit college because I couldn't afford it.

Then I thought, "Oh, I should do something crazy," like what people do in the movies. You know that one moment where you're like, "I have $3 in my bank account, what do I do?" I had a couple hundred dollars so I bought a plane ticket one way to Seattle, and I thought, "I'm going to work there for the summer because I'm sure I can get a retail job — it’s summer. They’ll hire a few extra hands, and then that will be enough to buy a ticket back [and] continue school. I’ll figure something out. For now, I want to go visit Seattle and pretend this isn't happening and have a different summer."

portrait of girl and her dog
Alejandra Quetzalli in her South Lake Union home with her service dog, Canela, on July 28, 2019. Quetzalli founded sheCodesNow, which provides free programming educational tools with the hope of empowering women. 

I wasn't planning on moving here — I only brought a suitcase with a couple of things. Then one day, when I got one of my first jobs at Barnes & Noble, I told my sister, "Hey, I'm actually being offered a full-time job. This is cool, not just part-time, this could be enough to actually pay rent if I stayed here, ha, ha, but I know I can't do that." She said, "Well, why can't you?" That's when I was like, "Huh." So that's why I ended up staying here in Seattle.

I actually don't have a degree. I was never able to get around to it. I started picking up freelance copywriting.

CDK reached out to me saying, "Hey, we need SEO [search engine optimization] people and you're a copywriter, so it kind of fits." I was like, "Yeah, totally." But I had no idea what SEO was. They said, "Do you want to set up a meeting and an interview?" So I said yes. Then I researched what SEO was. 

They gave me a contract role for three months. [Later], I got a web dev job with [Educative Inc.]. They hired me to be a junior front-end developer.

Whenever I would say to someone, "I think I'm curious about this. I'm going to apply or ask a manager to let me do that project or do that thing," almost every time I’d get a response like, "But are you sure you can really do that?" People can underestimate you, and I'm like, "Just because you think I can't do something doesn't mean I can't do it.” So now, if somebody says that to me, I immediately plunge into it. That's really what's been happening, every time [I’ve pursued a programming job].

I founded sheCodesNow back in 2016, and it was all kind of an accident. It was just because I opened my big mouth at a meeting. My workplace showed us this documentary, Debugging the Gender Gap, internally in our engineering team. I'm thinking this is good — this means management is open to improving things in our team culture, because let's face it, every team in tech needs to constantly keep improving, right?

So I raised my hand and I said, "What are we doing now, then?” We watched the movie, that's cool, but now what are we going to do? Coding is becoming really popular, there's a need. There's people who want to get a better job, make more money for their kids, so why don't we give them classes? That's something we have control over. This VP guy who had put together the event turns to me and he says, "I agree. When are you starting?" 

I didn't want to not do something after I opened my big fat mouth, obviously, and so I was like, "Yes, OK, I'll get back to you on the plan." I had to think of what to do, because I had never put an event together, a tech event. I felt very underqualified to even figure out how to find a speaker, because I didn't know enough programming back then to know how to put up a programming event, you know what I mean? How am I going to put up an event about something I'm barely mastering yet? Now, I've been working with programming stuff for like four or five years, but back then, I was really new.

tattoos on arms
Alejandra Quetzalli in her South Lake Union home on July 28, 2019. Her tattoos — the Quetzal bird, which represents freedom, and the ancient Mesoamerican deity Quetzalcoatl, which represents rebirth — signify new beginnings for Quetzalli after she left the Christian church and came out to her family as queer. Quetzalli is a self-taught programmer and now works in developer relations at Amazon Web Services.

Initially, it started as an event. We would set up an event and we'd find the venue to have internet access, tables, chairs, prepare the class itself. I wanted to give women a safe space to learn, and for free. I wanted to be very clear that we would never make any money out of the classes we give. 

My heart was burdened because I saw all these women in tech events and I'm like, "Yeah, they're great for networking, but what about actually giving resources to the community?" In my mind I was like, "That's what I want to do.” Maybe I don't want to do a socializing women in tech group, maybe I want to do an actual let's-get-down-there-and-do-something-about-it event. 

Now our in-person workshops are replaced by virtual workshops [streamed on game-watching platform Twitch]. We finally had our first stream last week.

We get a lot of women who are in their 30s or 40s thinking, "Oh, it's too late for me because I'm not in my 20s or early 30s." That's a cool thing about sheCodesNow — we actually get a lot of students who are middle-aged women telling me, "Oh man, I saw your stream and I thought, you know what? I'm going to give this a try." That's what sheCodesNow is about: providing hope and giving you a safe space to figure out if tech is where you want to get into. 

The big reason I got into tech was that I got tired of being that girl who doesn't know how to do anything, who doesn't understand how to configure her own cellphone, can't even print a document. I was so tired of being that person. I thought, "No more. Also, I know these people get paid a lot, so there." 

Tech is so scary for anyone. If it wasn't, programmers wouldn't be such doucheballs. They're freaking out or clawing their way in just like everybody else is — just some are being douchier than others about it. I don't want people to see tech that way, because that's what's keeping other people like me from joining tech. 

*Quetzalli’s family took part in a Christian homeschooling program called the Advanced Training Institute (ATI) while living in Guadalajara, Mexico, where Quetzalli grew up. ATI is an offshoot of Bill Gothard's Institute in Basic Life Principles, which is considered by many to be a cult.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Manola Secaira

Manola Secaira

Manola Secaira is formerly a reporter for Crosscut, where she covered Native communities, the changing region and environmental justice.

Dorothy Edwards

Dorothy Edwards

Dorothy Edwards is formerly an associate photo editor at Crosscut.