Episode 319: Aaron Brooks

Aaron Brooks is the founder of MASTERMND Academy, and a DevOps engineer at Fearless in Baltimore, MD.

Y'all, we are starting off November with a really inspiring interview with DevOps engineer and tech education enthusiast Aaron Brooks. By day, he uses his skills at Baltimore-based software development company Fearless, and by night, he's helping educate the next generation of techies through MASTERMND Academy, a free 12-week bootcamp that he livestreams on Twitch. (And I thought I was busy!)

We started off with a look at Aaron's day-to-day work, and he shared how his first exposure to tech turned him from being a consumer to a creator. Aaron also reflected back on his career, sharing some of the experiences which shaped him into the developer he is today. And of course, we talked about MASTERMND, and Aaron gave some advice on skills software developers need to succeed in today's market. Aaron is a shining example of someone who has achieved great things thanks to technology, so I hope his story can motivate you as well!


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Revision Path is a Glitch Media Network podcast, and is produced by Maurice Cherry and edited by Brittani Brown.

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Transcript

Maurice Cherry: All right. So tell us who you are and what you do.

Aaron Brooks: Yeah. My name is Aaron Brooks. I'm a DevOps engineer. I'm a technical lead actually at a software company in Baltimore called Fearless Solutions. It's actually a black-owned software company owned by a guy named Delali Dzirasa and another guy who was partner in it, his name is John Foster. But yeah, that's what I do. I'm DevOps engineer. I help bridge the gap between development and operations. But I'm also pretty passionate about technical education. So I also have started a series called Mastermind Academy where I hopefully have created a scalable platform to be able to teach these tech topics in a way that will actually help people get jobs in the future.

Maurice Cherry: Dope. I really want to go more into Mastermind Academy and definitely want to talk about DevOps stuff. But let's start with Fearless because you already said something that is blowing my mind a little bit, which is black-owned software company.

Aaron Brooks: Yeah. Yup. Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry: I checked out the website before we started recording and I was just telling you before like the whole software with the soul really struck me as like wow. Like even just looking at pictures of the company culture and how everything works out, it's really unlike anything that I've seen before. And I've been around in tech for a minute. How did you like hook up with Fearless? How'd you get started there?

Aaron Brooks: Great question. So you're definitely not wrong. So I grew up in Prince George's County, which is not that far from ... It's closer to DC, not that far from Baltimore. But I went to school in Baltimore, went to college in Baltimore and after school I was working. A lot of jobs were in the DC area, Northern Virginia area. So I was kind of working down there, but living in Baltimore. And then I moved down to the DC area. And then I was looking around for different things. And my wife actually ... I met my wife in Baltimore and she was working up here, so we wanted to move back to Baltimore again. So a lot of moving back and forth.

Aaron Brooks: But as I was moving back to Baltimore, I decided I didn't want to make this long commute anymore. So I started looking for jobs. And I went on Google and typed in tech companies in Baltimore and Fearless popped up. And actually went on the website and I saw someone that I knew there. There's a woman named Kiera that I knew through a mutual friend. And I saw on the website and I reached out and asked her questions and she had nothing but positive things to say. So I applied. Things went well. They actually didn't get the contract that I was supposed to be joining for. So I actually took a job in DC for the time being and then they reached back out to me and were like "Hey, you still interested? We would love to have you." And you know, that sounded like a great company. So I took the leap and I've been there for almost coming up on three years now.

Maurice Cherry: Wow. So really you kind of almost lucked up on it. So you just kind of found it through a Google search.

Aaron Brooks: Yep, absolutely.

Maurice Cherry: What is a regular day like for you in DevOps? Like I'm sure for people that are listening might have an idea, but can you also explain just like what is DevOps and why is it important?

Aaron Brooks: Yeah, so DevOps really it's different everywhere you go and everyone will have a different answer for it. But what DevOps is supposed to be, it's supposed to be bridging the gap between development and operations and breaking down those silos. So usually developers write their code and they toss it basically over this proverbial wall over to Ops. The people who are there to put this stuff out in the system to keep it running. And if there are issues, the Ops people toss it back and they don't really know how to code runs and things like that. DevOps, it's not really a job title. It's not what you do. It's more of a philosophy about how you approach software development and solving problems. And it's really just people who are designed to create these pipelines, create tools, create services to help developers really develop as fast as they need to.

Aaron Brooks: So that's all DevOps is. A normal day for me really is I do have to manage ... There's usually a pretty big focus on infrastructure management. So I do a lot of cloud computing and I'm responsible for writing and codifying templates to basically deploy Amazon web services resources. So now, you no longer need to buy servers and things like that. You can basically write these files that kind of describe the state of the infrastructure that you want and ship it off to Amazon. And Amazon will go ahead and provision these resources for you, which makes it pretty cool. It's a lot of automation in there. And so making sure these processes and things that you usually do manually are done in an automated fashion, done in a way that no one has to kind of be hands on, which should save a lot of time and really help developers move a lot faster.

Maurice Cherry: So it sounds like it's a lot of almost behind the scenes work, making sure that all the gears are turning and everything is running smoothly.

Aaron Brooks: Yeah, absolutely. It would definitely more backend focused., traditionally backend focused.

Maurice Cherry: Okay. Do you lead a team at Fearless or are you just kind of like an individual contributor?

Aaron Brooks: I do. So I am the team lead for ... I actually work on the sba.gov project. So that's the Small Business Administration. We managed basically the digital footprint for the Small Business Administration. We are revitalizing their tooling, their website, all the various backend things that they have to help support small businesses. But I am the team lead there so I do do more than just DevOps on a daily basis. I'm actually don't do much DevOps day to day right now because I do manage the application team and I'm helping architects out the application there, make decisions and help set in the path for we're going to do there.

Maurice Cherry: Okay. What does that kind of day to day look like? Is it just mostly meetings since you're not kind of in the thick of it?

Aaron Brooks: More meetings than before. And I am very much still in the thick of it, but there is definitely more meetings than before. A lot of meetings that I did not expect. Day to day, usually I'll come in, we'll do our stand up, we'll talk about the things that we did, what we have coming up tomorrow. We're an agile shop. We practice agile scrum. So we do that and then it's usually, you know, I'll have some sprint tasks. So I might have some development tickets. I may be working on ... We have a Java script node react front end and I may be doing some things with that. Or I may be shoring up some security concerns and updating packages and things like that. Or adding new architecture to the site, new physical Amazon architecture to the site.

Aaron Brooks: On a daily basis, but it is a lot of meetings. It's a lot of helping to clear blockers for the developers. So developers run into problems, helping them work through those problems and making sure that they have kind of the runway to be able to complete the things that they need to complete. But yeah, a lot more administrative things than I am used to.

Maurice Cherry: So for people that are listening, you've kind of detailed what DevOps is, so I think folks can kind of get a sense of what the difference is between software development and just doing DevOps or something like that. But you also work with designers as well, is that right?

Aaron Brooks: Absolutely, yeah. All of our scrum teams generally are made up of developers, DevOps, a scrum master, designers in QA or test engineers.

Maurice Cherry: !What do you think designers need to know about the software development process? Because like you're mentioning agile scrum and I know what those things mean. I know if I talk to other designers they'll be like what? What is that?

Aaron Brooks: Yeah, yeah, yeah. The team that we actually work with is actually pretty small. Our entire team is about 10 people. So we get to work pretty closely together. This position has been the first time I've ever been truly a part of the entire process of the software development life cycle. And so, what I would say developers would kind of benefit from knowing about DevOps is one, what the DevOps ethos is is again, really being able to enable development so that both designers and DevOps engineers really have the same end goal. And that is to create the best product for the user. Our users are the same. So the end user general is the same. But for DevOps, the developers also are user. That's kind of our main stakeholder.

Aaron Brooks: I guess when the designers are designing, being able to be a part of that design process. You know, I've been a part of design sprints and all kinds of design jams and things like that. To be able to actively run through and analyze and figure out what a proper or effective solution will be for someone design-wise, that part is really important because the conversation that happens between the technical feasibility of a design can really impact how the DevOps engineers architect the system and implement the systems so that this can be done quickly. So if you have the opportunity to work hand in hand with your developers or DevOps engineers, it can make the end product much better than you think it is and you can actually get it a lot faster.

Maurice Cherry: Interesting. No, that's good to know because I used to ... This was maybe about, well, I know it was over 10 years ago. But back when I used to work at WebMD, they really had like development and design in these two silos. So like when you mentioned that wall earlier, like it's a metaphorical wall, but you know like throwing the project kind of back and forth over it to make sure that both sides kind of have everything in sync. I just know that when I was working at WebMD and we had that process, it was so difficult because we would do the designs or whatever and then we toss it over and then the developers would just toss it right back. Like "Oh yeah, we can't code that. We can't do that." So this caused a bottleneck to try and get things done.

Aaron Brooks: Yeah, it's really tough also to be able to know. Like unless you're having that constant communication, it's hard to know like we aren't designers and designers aren't web developers or back end engineers, usually. So it's tough to know the full scope of what is feasible, what can be done in the proper amount of time. So like having that conversation can like really help you know. Like "Hey, maybe the stakeholder just needs like a feedback, but we just need somewhere on the page to get feedback." And the designers may say "Oh, this is super easy. We'll just throw this box over here." But because of the way that the page pages designed, because of the components we have built, maybe that's another 10 hours of work where if maybe we just had a conversation, maybe we could've thrown it into a component that already existed and we can throw a little link in there, which may be an equally as effective solution. But until you have that conversation, you don't really know.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. So how long have you been at Fearless now?

Aaron Brooks: I think October 17th will be my three year anniversary. And I've never been anywhere for three years. I'm a traditional I guess millennial job hopper. I've had a lot of jobs in the past seven or eight years. And I usually get out of there in a year, a year and a half times, man. And this is the first time I've ever been anywhere. It's the longest I've been at anywhere for over two years. So I'm coming up on three with no plans to leave anytime soon.

Maurice Cherry: What is the company culture like?

Aaron Brooks: The company culture is amazing. So you talked about the software with a soul thing and that's not a joke. You know, they talk the talk and they walk the walk. I mean, they believe in what they say. They practice what they say. The company culture's great. It's pretty open. It's a start up feeling, even though we're a government contractor. I think a lot of people consider us ... I was called in the government, a nontraditional contractor. So we have a very startup vibe. We actually work out of a co-working space in Baltimore called Spark. We've actually grown so much that we've purchased most of the building now where we started out. When I joined, we were just in two offices there and now we've got multiple offices or multiple floors. We actually own one of the floors now, which has been pretty great.

Aaron Brooks: But you know, dress down. It's pretty casual. I mean, I walk around and get to see the CEO of the company walking around in a purple hoodie because he's got to rep the brand at all times. But he have a purple hoodie on jeans and some custom Fearless Air Maxes. Yeah, and that's powerful. But it's comfortable. The people are super helpful. I've learned more in this three years than I've learned in my entire career combined to be honest, because of the amazing people who are willing to help.

Aaron Brooks: I think we do a great job of hiring people who have empathy. A lot of companies are just looking for the best talent and the best talent isn't always the best for the company or the best for the job. And I think that really shows what the type of people that we hire and the kind of culture has evolved over time. So the culture isn't the same today that it was when I started and that's a good thing. The culture should evolve over time as new people are able to contribute to it. The company culture follows along those same guidelines as the values that they put out.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah, that's a good thing to know. And one thing that I know I've told companies before, it's like every person that you hire, they contribute to the company culture in some ways. So I know there are some places that hire pretty slowly because they want to make sure that every person that they bring on is that right cultural fit, as well as being the right person to do the tasks that are needed for that job. And then there are some places that hire in like batches. And so, what ends up happening is that your workforce culture changes dramatically because you've brought in so many new people at one time and it can be a struggle to sort of get them all up to speed as well as make sure that they mesh with what the current culture already is.

Aaron Brooks: Yeah. Yeah. And I mean, we kind of are going through that now. We've had a pretty big explosion of growth. We are bringing people in in batches. I don't like to use the culture that much because culture can exclude. You know, trying to fit into a culture can exclude people. But I think that our values are so strong that I think one, a very specific type of person is attracted to Fearless and wants to work at Fearless. And that even people who aren't quite completely aligned when they joined the company, I think that those values just rub off. And as they see and feel and hear people talk and operate, I think that that rubs off on people and creates this bigger, better culture.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. A certain type of person. That's a good kind of way to think about it because I know when folks talk about diversity and inclusion for example, and I'm bringing this up one, Fearless is a black-owned software company, which is a rare thing to hear about. But when folks talk about the pipeline and making sure that we're hiring the best people and all that sort of stuff, do those conversations come into play with what you do as a team lead when you're staffing out your team and everything?

Aaron Brooks: Yeah, absolutely. This is one of the [inaudible 00:14:13] open. We have access to the CEO. We have conversations about just this and I think [inaudible 00:14:18] maybe a year and a half ago, one of our women engineers on our team was like "Hey, we talk a big game, we keep posting on our website that we have 40% women in the company, but that's not quite in engineering roles. And I think is misleading and we need to start doing something to change that." And the company said "You're right."

Aaron Brooks: So actively we were like "Hey, some of these positions that we were holding for level three and level four engineers, let's drop it down a level one and level two to open up", not because we can't find level three and level four women engineers, but because we want to open up and give the biggest group of people access as possible. So they opened that up and immediately started putting level one, level two engineers in front of us to hire for positions that were held for level threes and levels fours. And at that time, I actually wasn't the tech lead, but I actually was a part of choosing the people who going through that process and helping choosing the people that we wanted to work at Fearless and to help cultivate and to help grow. And that was pretty exciting and that's kind of shifted into now.

Aaron Brooks: You know, I still am very much a part of interviewing and selecting candidates for Fearless and actually going out and looking for candidates to push towards Fearless. And because there is this big diversity inclusion push, but knowing that there isn't a perfect type of person that can be effective at a company. You know, everyone brings something different. And being able to be at a place where I've seen that happen makes it so much easier to go out and be more open minded about who would be an effective person at the company.

Aaron Brooks: So yeah, it definitely plays a part. I've had to get a little more empathy. We actually just hired one of our testing interns. She graduated, she said she wanted to do DevOps. We were like "Hey, we don't really do level ones, even though we have a level one listed. Let's try to do a level one now. We say we want to do this. We say we want to hire more engineers. We already know she's very intelligent. She has the aptitude, so let's bring her on." So now we have a black woman level one DevOps engineer, which is great, especially in the industry, especially DevOps specifically, which is very ... I don't see many black people in DevOps at all. So this has been very exciting. We actually have three women, black DevOps engineers at our company, which is nuts. It's got to be some kind of record. On a team, we call our different disciplines herds. And our DevOps herd is probably now maybe 13 or 14 people. And so to have three black women engineers on it is pretty great.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. I'm looking at the website now and it says 86 team members with over 45% female or 39% minority. I mean, for any software shop, those are great stats to have. And then you're also-

Maurice Cherry: ... software shop. Those are great stats to have, and then you're also doing great work, so it's not just about, oh, we're hitting these arbitrary diversity numbers but we're also out here doing the damn thing as well,

Aaron Brooks: Yeah, so yes. I don't know if you've... It's been going around the internet a little bit now, but I don't know if anyone's seen the... You seen the article about the company Chef and the backlash they got. They had someone protest, and I think they brought down a bunch of servers or sometime, someone who worked internally for-

Maurice Cherry: Oh, yeah. They were, I think, Chef was one of the developers found out that their code was being used by ICE-

Aaron Brooks: Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry: ... and so he pulled his code from the code base.

Aaron Brooks: I don't know if I'm supposed to say this, but I'm going to say it anyway. We, Fearless, maybe a year-and-a-half ago, maybe, came to us and said, "Hey, we are on a short list to do some work for ICE." They told us a little bit about it. They said, "We feel like this morally gray area from what we want to do. We know what they're saying is good, but we see these problems. We want to come to you." This is a small software business, has an opportunity for almost-guaranteed money, and they come to their employees and ask, "Hey, are you all okay with this? Is this something that you would want to work on or be willing to work on?" We said no. Everyone said no. Immediately, they were like, "Cool. Then we will retract our names from the bid tomorrow. No big deal."

Aaron Brooks: It was so powerful. I bring it up often to people who ask me about Fearless, because a business... The job of a business is really to make money, but when you incorporate those values, and you believe in them, and you really operate within them... I don't know, it feels really good to be working for people who, at the very least, considered what we thought. Even if they were like, "Yeah, well, we still have to... we're still going to put our names in, but we liked the feedback that you all gave." I would've been okay with it. I would've been fine with it because they reached out, and they asked, and they cared about what we thought. But to pull your name from almost a guaranteed contract is crazy to me.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. I know how that whole bid process goes, and if you even make it that far to the final round, you've put so much into it, you want to see it through.

Aaron Brooks: Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: So I think the fact that the head people at the company brought that to you all shows that they have an immense amount of respect for you not just as workers, but as people, too.

Aaron Brooks: Yeah. Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry: So you mentioned earlier you grew up in PG county, in and Baltimore Prince George's County. When do you remember first being exposed to technology?

Aaron Brooks: Yes, I was super-fortunate. I got exposed pretty early. My mom, she was a higher-up in the government, then they gave her a cell phone when I was really young. I remember her having this special cell phone in the car, and I just thought it was cool. It was like, "This is nuts. You got this phone in the car," and I thought it was something you could only do in houses. From there, I got into video games. I always liked electronics. I liked pulling remote-controlled cars and stuff apart and things like that. That was pretty cool. Then, we actually had a family friend who sold computers. My dad, it was a good family friend, he purchased a computer from his friend in, I think, '95. I'm a '90s man. I was born in '90. So five years old, I think we had our first computer in the house. I didn't really know what I was doing with it, but my brother used to play some games on... A brother who was six years older than me, he would play some games, and so I would play some games. I kind of followed him along and did things that he did.

Aaron Brooks: I found I really liked this stuff. I started asking them for Game Boys. I really got into video games first, to start. Then, because I was in technology so much, I think for my fourteenth birthday, thirteenth or fourteenth birthday, it was in middle school or I was about to go to high school, I think I asked for a computer. I know there was no way my mom would get me one, but I think she rationalized it as, "Hey, you're about to go to high school. You're going to be writing papers and do research." So she actually got me my own computer. I got my own Dell desktop, and it was pretty much the lowest tier one you could get. It was real slow. I messed around with it. I caused all kinds of issues, so I spent tons of time figuring out how to fix it, like make it work. Most of the time it didn't work, mostly because of things that I did to it. That was my starting computers. I really just got to mess around with stuff like that. I liked messing around with different things, different electronics, different devices. Yeah, since I can remember, really, I was doing things like that.

Aaron Brooks: But I'm not one of those guys who, you might talk to people and they're like, "Yeah, I've been coding since I was 11." That wasn't me at all. I wasn't doing anything meaningful at all. I was, honestly, mostly pirating music, and anime, and things like that, which was terrible but... Yeah, I definitely grew up with consumer technology for sure.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. When did you first get that notion that you could be a creator of this stuff instead of just being a consumer?

Aaron Brooks: Yeah, so that actually happened, I would say, in college. In college, I went to school. I wanted to be a mechanical engineer. I love mechanical engineering. I love the mechanics of machines. I'm huge into motor sports. I'll do work on my own cars, things like that. I ride mountain bikes, things like that. I love that stuff, but I thought that's what I wanted to do. I switched off into computer science because one of my friends on my floors showed me Linux. That was pretty cool, and I started messing around with that. I started feeling cool, like I was Neo from The Matrix, even though I wasn't really doing anything. I was like, "Oh, I like this stuff. I know about computers. I know computers more than most people, maybe that's something that I can do."

Aaron Brooks: I started doing that stuff. Then, I was fortunate enough to get an internship with the government, with NIH, a summer internship. When I was there, I realized that these guys aren't like the... In my mind, these people were the smartest, I don't know, people in the world, like I could never do that stuff. When I was there, I was like, "Oh, these are normal people who know a little bit about computers. I can do this. I can make a living out of this, and I think that I would like it." So starting there, I switched my major. I came back. I switched my major to information systems because I did find coding real tough at the time. That first year of Comp Sci really kicked my butt, seriously. So I switched to information systems. I really excelled at that stuff. Yeah, once I knew I could make a living off of it, I got excited about it. I started to learn more and more.

Aaron Brooks: The good thing was that I started to find pieces in tech that I liked more than others. Again, Linux, I ended up focusing on Linux, and found I could get jobs doing just Linux. I was like, "Oh, this is great because there are things that I don't like, like databases. I don't really like messing with databases and writing SQL code. If I can just do Linux, that's great." But then, you end up doing all those things you also hate, but-

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Aaron Brooks: ... Yeah, starting to achieve some success at some of those areas really makes you feel like you can achieve success in other areas, and it just steamrolled from there.

Maurice Cherry: It sounds like you were able to specialize, almost, in a way.

Aaron Brooks: Yeah, in the beginning, I definitely specialized. I started my career as a Linux administrator. That's probably what I did for the first three or four years.

Maurice Cherry: I've heard of information system. Actually, I've taught in a, well, it was sort of a business information systems framework. I taught a design course to business students, which was very interesting. Nobody liked it. They were like, "Oh, we have to take this course," but nobody really want to learn about HTML and all that sort of stuff. How does information systems differ from computer science? Is it just not as code heavy? What are the differences in those two?

Aaron Brooks: Generally, yes. Computer science focuses a lot, specifically, about interacting computers via programming languages and what kind of the theory behind that, all the rules, and things like that. It's definitely a little more specialized and definitely it's way deeper. It's a lot more focused. It's very code heavy. It's very, very code heavy. Information systems is a lot broader, so you learn things about networking. You learn things about operating systems. You learn some of the business side of things. It's a much more broad... You get a much more broad general knowledge about how computers and systems work. Basically, you kind of learn how to run and serve up the things that the computer scientists are building in their code.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Aaron Brooks: You're learning how to actually deliver that to the world. So yeah, it's definitely more broad discipline.

Maurice Cherry: When you look back at your past career experiences, you mentioned NIH, of course, even the work you're doing now at Fearless, what stands out to you the most? Is there any one experience or any one job that kind of really sticks out in your mind?

Aaron Brooks: This, absolutely. Well, okay. I'm going to cheat a little bit and say this is a two-parter for me.

Maurice Cherry: Okay.

Aaron Brooks: I was actually at a job before the one I took before I came to Fearless. It was actually with a government contractor. I walked out of that job because I told the PM that, basically, I was going to lay hands on him because of how he was speaking. The way he talked, it wasn't even to me... The way he talked to the people on our team really bothered me. There were other African American members of the team that were older and that were much more experienced than I was. It felt so disrespectful. I was a new member of the team. I was actually going through the clearance process, so I actually couldn't do really any work. There was no, really, reason he had to yell at me. But I told him once. I took him aside and said, "Hey, I know I'm young, but we're adults. Please speak to me like an adult, not like... I will treat you accordingly."

Aaron Brooks: He was like, "Cool. I'm sorry about that." He goes, "I get a little carried away sometimes." And he did it again. It was very disrespectful. That was really eye-opening for me because I knew, at that point, that I could never... I've heard of toxic work environments, and I was fortunate enough to never have worked in a toxic work environment previous to this job. It was eye-opening to me in that I felt as though, in that moment, I learned that so many people, particularly black people, are willing to withstand a lot to keep their jobs.

Maurice Cherry: Whoo. That's a word.

Aaron Brooks: Yeah. Yeah. No, no seriously. So I was fortunate enough that I had... I definitely didn't have... I was maybe 25, not a lot of money saved. I definitely should not... I was not in a position to quit my job-

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Aaron Brooks: ... but I knew I have a pretty great family unit, and so I knew I wouldn't be on the streets. My mom would be mad at me if I had to move back home, but she's... I wouldn't be on the streets. I took that chance. I determined that if I could help it, I would never work in an environment like that. I would do my best to enable, to tell people that they didn't have to work in that environment again. Luckily, I was able to get a job. I got hired a week later, fully remote job making 20K more than I was making at that time. It actually worked out really well for me, but that was a big thing. That was a big eye-opening part of my career, so that made me very selective about where I moved to next. I used to just look for jobs, any job that I could find, but that made me very selective about what jobs I took in the future.

Aaron Brooks: Then, this current position, it was really pivotal, really stands out to me because one, I received such intense mentorship here. I really have to credit the... When I came into the company, I was the third Dev Ops engineer. I was really a Linux systems administrator, but you can play the game with those roles. Getting to this Dev Ops role, I really felt a little like a little bit of imposter syndrome. Then, at the time I didn't realize, the two guys I was working with were the best engineers I've ever worked with in my career. But I didn't really know that at the time. I couldn't recognize that, so it really made me feel kind of inferior. There were points where, like, "Yeah, I'm going to leave here because I'm the worst. I'm not very good. Those guys are way better than me." Then we hired someone else. Yeah, they were good, but they were as confused as me. They weren't doing this quite as fast as these other guys were. I started to realize, "All right, maybe these guys are just special. They have 10, 15 years more experience than I do." It took some time to start to recognize that and not just focus on what I felt like my deficiencies were.

Aaron Brooks: But they were able to mentor me through this process, even through times when I felt like I wasn't performing up to standards. They really helped me grow. I've come, like I said, I joined as someone who, I guess, I wouldn't even consider to be a Dev Ops engineer. Now, I'm a technical team lead three years later, which is pretty amazing. That type of mentorship, I will make sure to give to everyone I come across as my career goes on. I will not deny someone else that. That's what I'm trying to do now. Like I said, we had that level one Dev Ops engineering. She's on my team. My whole goal right now is to make sure that she gets the same type of mentorship that I received because it really accelerates what you can do.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. Let's talk about MASTERMND Academy because that's actually how I first found out about you. I think I got a news alert through, I don't know, maybe Technical.ly, I think.

Aaron Brooks: Yep.

Maurice Cherry: The tech platform, Technical.ly. I was reading up about it. I was like, "Wow, this is kind of dope." But can you tell our audience what is MASTERMND Academy, and why did you start it?

Aaron Brooks: The reason I actually started MASTERMND Academy is because of the owner of Fearless. He started a tech incubator to be able to cultivate digital services companies. I was actually fortunate enough to get entered into it. I applied for it, and I got in. But at the time, I actually did not have a business idea. I just want to learn from him because he's someone I look up to, and I wanted to be a part of this. I thought it was a great opportunity. He kind of asked me, like "What do you do? What do you want? What makes you tick? What are you passionate about?" I'd already been part of... I was helping run... There's a meetup called Baltimore Black Techies, a organization here. I was helping run that, and I was doing a lot in the Baltimore area to be able to teach people tech. I was helping run these GoBridge workshops and things like that.

Aaron Brooks: I was like, "Yeah, I love teaching people tech. I really like exposing people to the opportunities of tech because tech has really been a huge thing in my life. It's allowed me to live a life I never thought I would be able to live." He was like, "Well, do that." So started putting together things, and I was like, "Hey, well how can I..." The content's already out here. People can go learn how to code if they want.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Aaron Brooks: But then I started to realize that everyone is not an autodidact. Everyone can't hop online and self-teach themselves these things. People need the interaction. People need to be able to ask questions. I wanted to figure out a way that I could approach teaching people this stuff. It'd be scalable and reach the masses. One day, I was sitting down. I play video games. I saw something pop up on Twitch. I actually saw someone live coding on Twitch. I was like, "That might be it." I think that would work. One, because it provides great discoverability, so even people who aren't looking for you can find you at any given time. Two, it's a platform that... I talk to so many kids who are already on Twitch all day, every day. When I tell them, "Hey, you can come learn how to code. You can come learn cloud computing for free on Twitch," they love it. They're like, "Yeah, I'll join up."

Aaron Brooks: I have people join on and say, "Hey my mom actually found this and told me you were on here. I was already watching Twitch, and I found you." So, that's been great. That's been a little bit of an experiment, but I think there's some cool ways, again, to be able to expand this, and to be able to, again, scale the way that people learn, and to pull the cost off of the learners. Because of the way Twitch works, because of advertisements, because of the subscription model, because of sponsors, one person, me or if I were to start a team of three or four, and offer more classes, we could really earn a living without putting the cost on the people who are learning.

Maurice Cherry: Nice. How long, now, have you been doing MASTERMND Academy?

Aaron Brooks: Yeah, so MASTERMND Academy is actually only... The first boot camp has only started... I registered the business in January and spent some time trying to figure out how to make things work. The first boot camp started on August 12th. It's only been running since August 12th. I think we're going on the eighth week. It ends, I think, the day before Halloween. This one is kind of a pilot. This first one has been kind of a pilot just to kind of get some feedback, and to re-assess, and to figure out what works and what doesn't. I'm actually intending on doing three boot camps at once right after the new year, so taking some time after this one to really figure some things out and doing more boot camps all at once right after the new year to serve more people.

Maurice Cherry: Nice. It sounds like it's been picking up steam and getting good feedback. Like I said, I read about it in Technical.ly, so I know that people are paying attention to it. What feedback have you been getting from people that have tuned into the live streams?

Aaron Brooks: I've been getting phenomenal feedback. Again, it's gotten much more press than I-

Aaron Brooks: I'm getting phenomenal feedback. And again, it's gotten much more press than I expected, and I can attribute that the community around me. The connection that I've made, people have really, really looked out for me, and I really appreciate that. But the feedback that I've been getting is that people really like it. People love the content. People are always asking me... The biggest request I get is like, "Hey, can you add this in?" Like content, "Because I want to learn this. Hey, when are you going to do with stream like this? Hey, these are some things I want to learn." And so I've been getting some great feedback on what people want to learn and what they're having trouble learning on their own through the content that's already out there.

Aaron Brooks: And so I've gotten some good ways to make it more interactive as well. People who watch Twitch are like, "Hey, you can do all these things to be able to interact with your learning base a little bit more," which is exciting because I think that's part of the fun. I think that's part of what keeps people engaged in learning processes, being able to connect with them, and talk to them. And so working on getting some people to help out with moderating, and being people are resources for questions.

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Aaron Brooks: I don't want to be the only... I want MASTERMIND to be the thing, not me. I don't want me to be the thing. I want MASTERMIND to be the thing. And so I'm working with a few people to make sure that we can kind of expand this and that people can have multiple resources to get information from, so that people, one, to feel like they're part of a community. But again, have the base, have people they're comfortable with going to to ask questions.

Maurice Cherry: Cool. Yeah, I watched a few of the live streams just as I got prepped for this interview. Do you have plans to have other hosts do live streams as well or do you still kind of want to be the face of it?

Aaron Brooks: So for right now, just while I'm trying to, again, figure out how to scale it properly, I will probably continue to do these things. If I do intend on, in the future, having other people help out just because again, there's also a time factor here. Right now, this isn't my full time job. Maybe one day it will be and I can do more streams, but I think there are also some things that people are better at than I am. There's some people who probably would teach the front end web development portion of it way better than I would, so probably we'll keep it where I continue to be the face for certain, I guess, pathways. So dev ops, maybe cloud computing, I will kind of stick to those things, and people get to know me as a part of MASTERMIND for those things, and maybe we'll find someone else who's better at programming, and the computer science aspects of it.

Aaron Brooks: Maybe we'll get some people who are great at design and teaching the human-centered design, and design thinking, and graphics design, and things like that. So I do want to be able to... Tech has a lot of different disciplines and I would like to be able to cover all of those things, because everyone doesn't need to be a programmer. That's one of the things I come across that people kind of like about it, they're like, "Hey, I didn't know there was all these other things out here besides programming and web development, and I didn't really like those things. But I think I would like doing networking or I think I would like being a scrum master." So it's been exciting to be able to do that. But absolutely, I do think there'll be more people teaching these courses as time goes on as well, besides me.

Maurice Cherry: I like that idea that everyone doesn't have to be a programmer. That's one of the things when I, not even when I first started getting into tech, but I feel like it's still a pervasive lie-

Aaron Brooks: It absolutely...

Maurice Cherry: That's being told by, I mean honestly even being told by big companies. I will call out Google in this respect because I've been through it, their interview process. I remember for awhile, they had been trying to recruit me. This was a few years ago and I am not a coder. I know HTML, I know CSS, I know just enough JavaScript and PHP to break anything.

Aaron Brooks: Yep.

Maurice Cherry: So like I don't consider myself a coder, to that respect, at least. And I remember I was interviewing, I think it was for a a design position or something at Google, and I had to take a programming test. I forget what the name of the website is that they use, but there was some test thing where I had to write out something about Big O notation.

Aaron Brooks: Yep.

Maurice Cherry: And I remember getting in the interview and being like, "Okay, what is that? I've heard of it but I don't really know what it is." And they were saying, "Oh well, everyone at Google has to know how to code." I was like, "Even the designers?" And like, "Even the designers." And I'm like, "Even the chef in the cafeteria needs to know how to code?" And they're like, "Yeah, probably." I was like, "Okay, that's ridiculous." I mean, and I knew from there that there was more than one way to get into tech, because not everyone in tech programs.

Aaron Brooks: Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: There's project managers, there's writers, there's UI/UX people. There's all sorts of ways that you can be a part of this without having to write a single line of code.

Aaron Brooks: Yeah, that's also one of the biggest things I want to get out of the bootcamp as well, just to show people that. People don't know that. People ask me that all the time. Like, "Hey, look, I'm trying to learn how to code. But I'm really struggling." My first question is usually, "Do you want to code? Is that something that you enjoy?" And they're like, "Well, if I want to get into tech, don't I need to do this?" And I'm like, "No, not at all." I mean, to be a hundred percent honest with you, I made it to six figures before I even knew how to code well at all.

Maurice Cherry: Whoa.

Aaron Brooks: Before I knew how to code at all. I don't like saying that, it sounds braggadocious, but it's to put it into perspective like, "Hey, you can do tons in the tech industry without being able to code," because I think that's the most intimidating piece of it. There are things that are more complicated, but coding itself and programming, the different ways that you have to think to be able to solve problems using code is tough, and it's intimidating, and I think it drives lots of people away. And I think it's one of the biggest reasons why most people who might be interested in tech industry, never even try.

Maurice Cherry: Wow, I'm glad that you mentioned that. I mean, I don't think it's a braggadocious kind of thing. I mean, we live in a capitalist society, people want to know about these sorts of things. And certainly I think when people are kind of feeding the notion of getting into tech, particularly to a younger people, salary is often brought up a lot. They're like, "Oh, well, you can make this much money, you can do this," which I mean, unfortunately, that's just the world that we live in. So that's interesting to know that even before you got to a place of being really strong with coding, that you were still able to make a career and make a living for yourself in tech, which I think is an important thing to share.

Aaron Brooks: Yeah, yeah. So it's really funny that you mentioned that the younger generation, they're kind of focused on the money aspects of a little bit. I have found that that helps a lot. I've been to a couple of Baltimore city schools and talked to kids, and that's almost the first question they ask, like, "Hey, how much do you make?" No shame, just, "Hey, what kind of salaries do you make? If I'm going to do this, what can I make?" And when we start to getting those conversations, they get excited and, again, talking about that, if we can use that to get people interested, and then because you look like them, you listen to the same music they listen to, you dress like them. Because of that, they can see you and they can believe that they can do it. I'll talk about it all day. I have no problem with it, anyway... That I could make someone believe that this is an industry for them or that they can make a living out of this, works for me.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. So what do you think is the skill that a developer needs these days? And it doesn't necessarily have to be a technical skill like learning a certain language, but given the fact that you lead a team, you're working in dev ops, and you're also doing this technical education part. Is there a skill that you think more developers these days need to possess in order to, I don't know, be relevant right now in the industry?

Aaron Brooks: Yeah, honestly I think the only skill that you need to do almost anything in tech is solid problem solving skills. If you can conceptually take in information and put it together in your head, and be able to construct ideas and information about it, if you can use that information to solve problems, you can move to whatever area of tech that you [inaudible 00:41:42]. All tech really is, even people who are programming, all you're doing is you are solving a business problem using code in a computer. So those problem solving skills are important and I think you can get them in a lot of different ways. Again, people always put down the the kids who spend all their time playing video games, playing Fortnite and stuff like that. No, I mean I think these problem solving skills are important.

Aaron Brooks: People don't realize when you're playing these games and you're doing these things, you're actively taking in information, you're decision making, you're being tactical about things. And I think if you can do your best to pick up some great problem solving skills, the rest of it actually, I think becomes pretty easy. That's the hard part. Learning the code is the easy part. Learning the language, it's kind of like learning Spanish. You can memorize tons of translations, and all the words for book and library, and all that. That part's easy. It's hard to be able to use it in conversation and use it to effectively communicate with someone. And I think development is the exact same way.

Maurice Cherry: Okay. So with all these things that you're doing, where does this drive to give back and to teach come from? Where does that ambition come from?

Aaron Brooks: I think it comes from, one, that was the saying, "To whom much is given, much is required." And I think I've been very blessed in my life, and I think that especially for black people, I think when you start to have some success, I don't think you have the luxury of not giving back. We just don't have that luxury. And it's also just exciting to me to be able to show anyone that, "Hey, this is the life that you know, you can far exceed it if you just spend..." If you have $50, and you go on Craigslist and buy a Chromebook, and you head down to McDonald's for some free Wi-Fi, you can be whatever you want in the tech industry, and that's the truth. Again, it's not for everyone, but that is a real possibility. And being able to show that to someone, and being able to show someone that they have access to these things that they generally would never have believed they have access to, it's just something that excites me.

Aaron Brooks: But again, most of the drive is just purely comes from I think I owe it to us. I think everyone owes it to us. People have reached back and people have shown me how to do things, and people are still almost pulling me through life, honestly. Things I never would have expected to do or didn't want to do, people have kind of been like, "Hey, no, now's the time. You're ready to do this. Let's come and do this and go over here, and do this, and meet this person." I don't know. It's been great for me and I want to make sure that I can be that resource for everyone else.

Maurice Cherry: Who are some of the people that inspire and influence you?

Aaron Brooks: The two owners of Fearless, [Dalili 00:44:19] and John. I mean honestly they're huge inspirations to me. My brother, honestly. So my brother, he was a prominent high school football coach at the high school that we went to, which is a [inaudible 00:44:31] to private school called DeMatha. He was a football coach there, but now he's at the University of Maryland, so tonight I'm actually going off to the Maryland-Penn State game. But I think that the way I've watching him, he's been a big guiding factor for me, watching his success, watching how he's dealt with adversity and things like that has been great. And honestly my parents, my dad was an educator for over 30 years. Again, my mom, she was in the government. People underestimate how iconic that is to have people sitting in front of you your whole life who have worked hard for you, who have kind of showed you that, "Hey, if you want something, you can work for it and you can achieve it," And who've kind of instilled that into me over my lifetime has been invaluable.

Maurice Cherry: Nice. When you look back at your career, what do you wish you would've known when you first started?

Aaron Brooks: I wish I would've known that the pool of... This is going to sound bad, but the pool of good candidates in the tech industry is actually quite small. In my mind, everyone out here was amazing, and super smart, and knew everything, and that whenever I was applying for jobs, I was at the bottom of the list.

Aaron Brooks: But if you ever get into a position where you get to start interviewing people for these things, you realize that there actually aren't a lot of people who know this stuff, and that stopped me from applying for jobs. That stopped me from trying to advance at certain times, just purely because of what I believed about the industry, rather than what it really was. And then on top of that, there are people who are great, but they also want the type of money that most companies can't pay. So they're willing to take the next in line, which is usually you. You really should be surprised at how high on the list you would score during an interview process. So yeah, just the false belief that there are all these amazing savants out here who are just the best ever in tech was really kind of a hindrance to my career early on, just the types of roles that I applied for, the types of things that I thought I was good for, I think kind of sucked. I wish I had a little more confidence in that aspect.

Maurice Cherry: Interesting. Yeah. I know that once I started getting to the position, and this is before I was at my current employer, but even just bringing people onto my team at my studio, there was a lot of people that will just, I mean they'll shoot their shot, which is great. But you do sort of get the sense, especially in tech, that there are people that are, like you said, these savants that they know all the things and that you're just not going to measure up, and it's a lot of mediocrity out there.

Aaron Brooks: It's a lot. Yeah. It's a lot of mediocrity. That's not a bad thing, it's just that false mindset that... Knowing that there's a lot of mediocrity helps a lot. I think it would cause a lot less anxiety in a lot of people if they knew that.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah, I agree. Where do you see yourself in the next five years or so? What kind of work do you want to be doing? You want to still keep doing MASTERMIND? What's on tap for you?

Aaron Brooks: Yeah, yeah, no, that absolutely is a great question. I do see myself doing MASTERMIND. I think that's the path I really want to go down. I want to make sure that as long as technology education is a thing that has a high barrier of entry, I want to be there to help solve that problem. Right now though, I'm also positioning myself, just in case, you shouldn't have a backup plan when you're trying to run a business, but the backup plan that, ultimately one day, and this has been something that I've been dreaming about since I got into the tech industry, but I want to be a CTO of a company. I would love to be a CTO of a company and drive forward that vision and help a company grow, especially on the technology landscape. So yeah, that's hopefully I'll be doing one of those two things. Hopefully I'll be the CTO of MASTERMIND, I guess.

Maurice Cherry: Nice. Well, just to kind of wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more about you, and your work, and MASTERMIND, and everything? Where can they find all of that online?

Aaron Brooks: Yeah, I'm on pretty much every social media platform at MASTERMND io, and so that's MASTERMIND with no I. So it's M-A-S-T-E-R-M-N-D-I-O. So, also Twitter, Instagram, YouTube as well. I try to put out YouTube videos every Friday, but YouTube is a lot harder than Twitch, but the stream on Twitch is twitch.tv/mastermnd.io. You can also head over to academy.mastermind.io or dot com. Either one works. Yeah, you can reach out to me on any of those platforms. We do stream. Right now the streams are Mondays and Wednesdays. I guess by the time this airs, I will probably be done with the first iteration of bootcamp, but we still will be streaming during that time, mostly one off topics, little shorter workshops during that time, probably on Mondays and Wednesdays as well, but, yeah.

Maurice Cherry: All right, sounds good. Well, Aaron Brooks, I want to thank you so, so much for coming on the show. I mean, first thank you for just sharing your story about how you got into tech. Thank you for sharing just kind of the work about Fearless. I mean, I want to know even more about Fearless, the more you talk about it, the more I'm getting excited about it. But I think really the work that you're doing with MASTERMIND is truly what... And that's what we need to see right now. We need to see more people giving back to the community, giving back to the industry. And I really want to see where you end up taking MASTERMIND in a few years. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Aaron Brooks: No, thank you. I really appreciate that, Maurice.