MyStory: From Bihar To Bengaluru, My Journey Of Becoming Successful Software Engineer Without College Degree

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This is the story of Annu, a 21-year old girl from Kishanganj (Bihar), who left her home to pursue her dream of becoming a software engineer in a big company without a college degree. For the past eight months, she has been working at MindTree as a software developer in Bengaluru.

My father always praises me by saying, “Tum toh Bete ho hamare. (You are our son).”And I correct him every time with a ‘Nahi Papa. Main ‘BETI’ hoon. Aur aisi hi hoti hai betiyaan.(I am a daughter and daughters are like this)” 

When I was 10 years old, my father prayed and promised at Vaishnav Devi temple that if my sister and I get married to good families, he will visit the temple again with his sons-in-law. In Bihar, good families are pricey; the higher the reputation of a family, the higher would be their expectation for dowry. I grew up seeing him worried about arranging money for our safe future.

Little did he know that when I reached a ‘marriageable age’, I would take full charge of my future. I am Annu, a 21-year old girl from Kishanganj (Bihar). It has been eight months since I joined MindTree as a software developer in Bengaluru. This is my story about leaving home to pursue my dream of becoming a software engineer in a big company without a college degree.

I was born in a middle-class family, rife with numerous conflicts in the households. I grew up seeing family members turning against each other and engaging in lots of verbal violence. One such family feud left my father financially broke and emotionally shaken.

My father was kicked out of the family business with a condition of receiving Rs.150 per day. From a joint family with enough resources, we had overnight become a family of four without any employment.

My mother then stepped up to protect us all by starting a small shop with Pantanjali franchise. Slowly, we gathered just enough to sustain ourselves. School education became a luxury we could only afford by selling off my mother’s gold jewellery. Despite the struggles, they ensured that I attended a reputed school, which helped me learn English among other things. Seeing my parents’ struggle, the only way I could contribute was by studying as hard as possible to become a financially independent person someday.

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Emergency funds sent to 250 families

But, studying hard is not enough to get admission to a good college, especially for software engineering. Once the school got over, most of my friends left for colleges in Kolkata to pursue higher education. I couldn’t financially afford to go to any of those colleges despite my good marks in school.

All my cousins who were doing well professionally further fuelled my aspirations to grow. I enrolled in B.Com in a local college in Kishanganj while constantly looking for part-time jobs like sales girl or teaching. The quality of education was so poor that even after a year of college, I hardly knew anything about the subjects I was reading. I was desperate to change the status quo.

One of the local NGOs – Project Potential helped me find opportunities that could help me live upto my potential. I got to know about Navgurukul, an NGO currently based in Bengaluru, which offers a fully-funded residential program for learning software engineering, with guaranteed jobs in the corporate sector or startups. The organisation was young and had just started their first girls batch in Delhi. I immediately gave its entrance exam and was ecstatic when I got selected.

This was my golden chance to get bigger opportunities and I had to convince my family to let me pursue this. Once they were convinced, overcoming the constant criticism by my relatives was another challenge.

“Kuch nahi kar payegi yeh ladki, time aur life waste karegi bahar jakar(This girl won’t achieve anything. She will just waste her time and life)” they would say. These remarks instilled a lot of self-doubt in me.

Nonetheless, I went to Delhi to join Navgurukul. It was everything that a regular college or school is not – it was driven by us, the students. The biggest surprise was that we did not have exams or the pressure of grades. There was also no notion of authority because we did not have teachers. We all did peer-learning – mentor each other and learn at our own pace. The environment there welcomed vulnerability and encouraged open conversations about almost everything.

The culture of learning was not driven by competition, but by cooperation. It was integral to all of us to live as a family instead of as a class of 10 girls trying to do something big in their lives. It constantly challenged each one of us to break the moulds that bound us.

Like others, I used to take many initiatives within the community to help it grow. For example, I remember I was often given a location on Google Map and asked to go get things on my own for the centre. Back home, my parents would not let me go alone anywhere other than college. Here, I was not only making decisions related to expenses and other resources but was also travelling on my own.

As trivial as it may seem to many, this simple act of being trusted fully for being on your own made all the difference in my education at Navgurukul. And this was just a start!

With every decision I took or every time I mentored my peers, my self-doubt started melting away. This initiative-taking ability was of great help later when my mother was diagnosed with severe liver disease. We had no money for the treatment, I went around Delhi asking for help, I got an appointment for surgery in AIIMS, met high ranking officials and sought a financial waiver. My father was astonished by the way I handled the situation. The only sad part is we lost Maa due to some complications, even though the procedure went seemingly normal.

At Navgurukul, I lost the old Annu and discovered a much braver version of myself. I learned various programming languages, English, and various aspects of personality development. I then got selected for training at an MNC named MindTree.

I was very excited when I first joined the training campus. It was very sophisticated and everything – including someone making our beds and offering meals – was delivered to us as a guest service, which was quite a new experience.

But, the new feeling soon turned into self-doubt; I used to wonder whether I belonged in that set-up. Everyone around me was an engineering graduate from good colleges and at least 4-5 years older to me. In addition, there was the economic divide – they spoke well, wore better clothes, acted way more casually in this new posh environment, seemed far more educated. It felt like I was in some parallel world.

With every passing day, I had this growing fear that I was not good enough to be there. My peers from Navgurukul who had also cleared the interviews were my pillars of strength. Some of them stayed up with me during many late nights, studying with me, and motivating me. It was a tough time but I sailed through because of them.

It was the feeling that I was not good enough to be around my peers that started pulling me down. I failed the training exams and could see the fear getting to me. But as they say, when you lose once, you no longer have the fear to lose. I overcame the fear, I was not yet ready to concede defeat.

As we had joined the training mid-session, I requested for an extension to the authorities. I made a strong case in front of the training authorities to give me an extension because we all joined the training in its last leg and were tested on a new tech stack. When they saw my argument was reasonable, they yielded, and I was given 15 more days.

I knew I had to do this somehow. There was so much pressure that even the fear in my mind was pushed to a corner. I worked day and night and finally made it.

The happiest part is, I am now in Bengaluru, the city of techies – and I am one of them! We are different, we are not from the same economic strata or educational background – but nevertheless, one of them!

Some colleagues are very helpful, most think we are just kids and many respect us because of the journey that we took. However, it is not as seamless as I had thought it would be. A few of us are still struggling. But I am glad that all the hard work paid off.

My job and independence gave me a bitter-sweet moment to live a few months ago. I had enough savings to be able to organise a respectful ‘barsi’ for my mother’s first death anniversary. One girl’s independence in a community paves way for others. I could see the change in the way my relatives received me and my decisions when I went back home this time. From ‘yeh kuch nahi kar payegi (she will achieve nothing)‘ to ‘humein toh pata hi tha Annu bahut kabil hai (We knew Anu is capable of achieving )‘, the transition in their perspective towards me has been radical.

I am not sure when my father will be able to go to Vaishnav Devi again with his future sons-in-law, but for now, he is coming to Bengaluru with my younger sister to shift with me. My sister, who was my source of strength throughout my education and supported my father when I was away, would now be studying at Navgurukul too.

Now that Navgurukul has broken my fears, I want to get back to my town, do something for the women and break all the taboos surrounding them.

For now, I lead mentoring efforts at Navgurukul after my working hours to ensure that the current students code their way out of poverty or other social constraints. If I can, everyone else can too!

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It's not how much we give
but how much love we put into giving.
- Mother Theresa Quote

MyStory: “Two Months After I Joined IIT For My PhD I Was Diagnosed With TB”

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A person suffering from Tuberculosis (TB) not only battles the ‘Mycobacterium tuberculosis’ bacteria inside his lungs but also from the stigma attached to the disease. It weakens the patients in many different ways in their fight against the dreaded disease.  

My fight with TB was also filled with stigma. I joined IIT Kharagpur for my PhD in January 2015. Two months later, in March 2015, I was diagnosed with TB. I had to take sick leave from March 2015 that eventually lasted till June 2016. Initially, I did not respond well to medication. Further tests revealed that I had multidrug-resistant TB (MDR TB). This meant that the type of TB I had was resistant to two or more of the antitubercular medication I was taking.

About a year after the intensive phase of my treatment, I felt better and applied for readmission to IIT in July 2016. A prerequisite for rejoining was that my faculty members had to verify my application. With the formalities completed, I resumed my education, but I felt that something was amiss. 

My guide indicated that he did not want his work to suffer on account of my illness. I also heard from a senior colleague that my guide had said that I would spread the disease like an ‘infested animal’. I was disheartened at being subjected to this indignity by my supposed mentor.

However, my primary concern was defeating TB, so I didn’t dwell on it. Today, as I reflect on it, I realise the reasons behind the stigma were ignorance as well as fear.

Even among the educated, there are misconceptions about TB. People think all forms of TB are contagious. Others believe the patient is infectious for the entire length of the treatment. Some even believe that TB spreads through touch. This breeds the fear of contracting the illness.

As we know, people stigmatise and discriminate when they fear. I felt the impact of the stigma on two levels – in my professional life and my personal life.

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Professionally, the reluctance of my supervisor to mentor me and his discouragement affected me. I could not decide whether I should wait for the IIT authorities to tell me to leave or drop out. That decision was made for me by luck when I found out that my CSIR grant application was never processed. 

This meant that I would have to pay for my education. Given the expenditure on my treatment, this was unaffordable for me. This was the final nail in the coffin. I was forced to drop out and could not go back to completing my PhD.

What I faced was not technically illegal. I was discouraged from doing my PhD, but it was still a form of stigma. The external stigma I faced led to depression and isolation. 

Eventually, I realised I had to fight. The treatment for TB is difficult, requiring strict compliance and the management of side effects, and these demands resolve. I began motivating myself. I began following a proper diet and completing my treatment to ensure I could recover. I also turned to books as they transported me to other worlds and helped with my isolation. I also focused on reviving my old relationships.

Gradually, things improved. I could not proceed on my desired career path, but I am an educator now. I constantly realise that I have a role to play in shaping young minds. 

Workplace stigma has tangible consequences. It affects an individual’s career, financial opportunities and their right to work with dignity. So what can we do to address this stigma? 

First, we need to sensitise people by educating them about TB, and the impact stigma has on patients.

Another measure is group counselling involving the patient, the employer and the immediate supervisor. Informal versions of these sessions happen in the workplace in the context of illnesses like cancer. Why should it be any different for TB? 

The goal of this session would be to ensure that the patient is in a supportive environment. 

Finally, at a systemic level, there needs to be a workplace policy on stigma mitigation and a mechanism where the patients can anonymously register their concerns about stigma at the workplace.

A person’s career or job is often their calling and a provider of financial security. Workplace stigma creates a hostile work environment, affecting a person’s ability to do their job and their financial security. Financial insecurity and stigma make it harder for the patient to fight TB both in terms of means and motivation. Therefore, addressing stigma in the workplace is critical to patient well-being and recovery but also to their right to work with dignity.

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Quote
It's not how much we give
but how much love we put into giving.
- Mother Theresa Quote
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