Joan Marie Verba - Keeping hope through decades of challenges

Season 3, Episode 4 | July 26, 2021

In this episode of the podcast, Dan and Bekah talk to Joan Marie Verba about her early days in tech using Fortran, and how refusal to accommodate her allergies has prevented her from having a lifelong career in tech. She talks about pushing forward and not taking no for an answer as she continues her decades-long journey into tech.


Joan Marie Verba's Profile Photo
Joan Marie Verba

Joan Marie Verba earned a bachelor of physics degree from the University of Minnesota and attended the graduate school of astronomy at Indiana University, where she was an associate instructor of astronomy for one year. She has worked as a computer programmer and as an editor. She currently works as a writer, a publisher, and a web developer.

Show Notes:

In this episode of the podcast, Dan and Bekah talk to Joan Marie Verba, a web developer, former astronomy teacher, and prolific science fiction writer, about her early days in tech using Fortran, and how refusal to accommodate her allergies has prevented her from having a lifelong career in tech. She shares the story of her recent job offer that actually turned out to be a scam that's being investigated by the FBI. But she's not done searching for her next place in tech. She's pushing past the challenges until she finds that next job.

Links:
Virtual Coffee:

Transcript:

[INTRODUCTION]

[00:00:07] Bekah: Hello and welcome to Season 3, Episode 4 of the Virtual Coffee Podcast. I'm Bekah, and this is a podcast that features members of the Virtual Coffee community. Virtual Coffee is an intimate group of developers at all stages of their coding journey, and they're here on this podcast sharing their stories and what they've learned. We're here to share it with you. Here with me today is my co-host, Dan.

[00:00:30] Dan: Thanks, Bekah. Today, we had a fascinating conversation with Joan Marie Verba. Joan shared her long journey with us, including her early days in tech using Fortran and how refusal to accommodate her allergies has prevented her from having a lifelong career in tech. She talks about pushing forward and the importance of not taking no for an answer.

[00:00:53] Bekah: We start every episode of the podcast like we start every virtual coffee. We introduce ourselves with our name, where we're from, what we do, and a random check-in question. Today's random question: Is if you could be an expert in one thing, what would it be? We hope you enjoy this episode.

[INTERVIEW]

[00:01:20] Bekah: Hi, I'm Bekah. I'm a front-end developer from a small town in Ohio. If I could be an expert in one thing, can I choose the human person? Is that acceptable?

[00:01:33] Dan: Totally.

[00:01:34] Bekah: I was trying to decide if I wanted to do like brain or hormone. But if I can just totally be an expert in humans, that's where I would go.

[00:01:44] Dan: I think that's valid and would be a very cool thing to be an expert in. Hi, I'm Dan. I'm from, I don't know, a medium-sized city in Ohio, from Lakewood, Ohio. I do front-end development. Yeah. If I could be an expert in one thing, I think my answer is going to be well like plants and stuff. There's like arbory botany maybe that just covers everything because I like the trees and stuff.

[00:02:08] Bekah: Well, I said humans. So you can just say plants I think.

[00:02:11] Dan: I like plants. No. It’s – I’ve learned and forgotten that stuff, especially tree-related, like identifying trees based on different properties. Nothing like that ever sticks in my brain, if I don't use it all the time. But we had an arborist at our house to clip some trees, and I just made him walk around in my yard for half an hour, pointing at trees and making him tell me what kind of tree this one is, what's that one, what's that one, which he didn't seem to mind too much. It was fun. So, yes, plants. Plants is my answer.

[00:02:42] Joan: My name is Joan Marie Verba, and I'm from Minnesota, and I'm a front-end developer. If I wanted to be an expert in something, I think I would want to be an expert in astronomy. I know enough so that I did teach astronomy at Indiana University as an associate instructor for one year. But there's a lot more than I could know and a lot more than I'd want to know, so I want to know even more than I know now.

[00:03:11] Dan: That's awesome. Astronomy is so cool. That's another one of those things where –

[00:03:14] Bekah: That was my second.

[00:03:16] Dan: Yeah. It was always so interesting. For me, I can never keep any of those, the details in my mind. But I love going to the planetarium and I took a couple astronomy classes, intro classes in undergrad. Actually, I saw in your – I mean, you just said that you were from or that you did – Was it undergrad at Indiana or was at grad school?

[00:03:35] Joan: No. I was an undergrad at the University of Minnesota and I took graduate courses at Indiana University. But I did not get a master's degree. I did not reach that point.

[00:03:45] Dan: Okay. Were you in Bloomington?

[00:03:47] Joan: Yes. I was in Bloomington, Indiana.

[00:03:49] Dan: I love Bloomington. We lived there. My wife went to grad school there. We lived there for, I don’t know, five or six years. It's a great city, great area.

[00:03:58] Bekah: Thanks so much for being on the podcast with us today, Joan. We're really excited to hear more about your story and we always like to kick it off with the origin story, kind of how you got to the point where you are now, how you got into tech. I know for you this kind of is a long story. So if you just want to talk about up to the point where you got your first job in tech, maybe we can ask some more questions and then go from there.

[00:04:24] Joan: Okay. I'll pause at that point then. I have been interested in tech for quite some time. My dad was a marketing manager at Control Data Corporation in the 1960s and ‘70s and ‘80s and up through the ‘90s. He sold mainframe computers to companies. When I was in high school, the first computers came out, and the high school had sort of a timeshare with a mainframe computer. So there were some after-school activities for people who are interested in computers, and I attended those. The way that – we program them in basic, and there was paper tape. We would punch holes in a paper tape, and then run the paper tape through, and that was the software. Then we would get results.

Then from there, from high school, I went to college. My freshman and sophomore year was at the University of Chicago. I had some extra credits, so I took a computer programming course. That was fun. With the mainframe computers at that time, we were not punching paper tape anymore. We were punching cards. So each line of the code had to be on one card. If you had a large software program, you had pretty much a long box of cards to bring in and put through the computer. Then the computer would read the cards and then give out the results.

Then I went to junior and senior year. I transferred to the University of Minnesota and I got my degree in physics but I also took computer courses. The reason I took computer courses was not only because I was interested in them but because at the time, they were telling us, “Well, you can get your degree in physics or astronomy or whatever, but there aren't a lot of jobs in there. So quite possibly, you will have a job in another area.” So I took – Computer programming interested me, so I was taking computer programming courses. After I got my degree and went to graduate school at Indiana University, I continued to take courses.

When I finished at Indiana University, I took a couple of more graduate courses in Computer Science at the University of Minnesota. After that, I was ready to get a job, so I applied for a job and I got a job at Unisys. The job was in the airline division, and I was in the group that was programming flight schedules. That's what I had at first. Then the programming group that I was in was expanded to cover also hotel reservations for the airlines.

By that time, we were not using cards anymore. We were doing what computer programmers do now. We were keyboarding our instructions into a computer and sending it in that way and getting it compiled and bug tested and all that sort of thing. That was a lot of fun. You asked me to stop. Then I got my first job in tech, and that was my first job in tech. That was in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s.

[00:07:36] Dan: That's awesome. My dad did, just in school, a little bit of the program with the cards and punching holes in the cards. He always talks about, like I said. Because one of the things that is important is you have to keep them in the right order when you are carrying them around. Yeah. So he's at least once, maybe more than that, definitely dropped the stack of cards. [inaudible 00:07:56].

[00:07:57] Joan: What was recommended at the time is that we take a highlighter and on the top of the cards draw a diagonal line so that if the cards ever got separated, all we had to do was line them up so that the line was straight.

[00:08:14] Dan: That's a good idea.

[00:08:17] Joan: That would mean — if we dropped the cards and they got out of order, we could put them back, and it was easier to do that way.

[00:08:23] Bekah: What did the industry look like for you getting into it? Was it something that was hard? Or did you find that you were at a disadvantage? Or were there challenges that you were facing?

[00:08:35] Joan: I didn't find a disadvantage at all. There were — other people who have studied the history of tech have also confirmed this. There were quite a lot of women in the computer programming field at the time. Maybe about a third of the people who were working in the airline division at Unisys were women. And had no problems there. In my group, I was the only woman. But there were lots of groups in the airline division. I'd say about a third of the programmers were women. It was not considered unusual to be a woman in the field doing programming at the time.

[00:09:14] Bekah:  Yeah. So as you moved forward in your career, was there a shift at all? Or did you feel like the environment started to change? Or did you kind of leave the industry before then?

[00:09:27] Joan: Well, I'll tell you what happened with the industry. What happened in the industry in the ‘80s was that, well, first of all, I changed jobs in late 1982 because of the recession, and my group in the airline was discontinued. I guess it was given to somebody else but I was transferred to a financial thing. I was programming in Fortran and I was asked to program in COBOL. I didn't really want to do financial programming, it didn't really appeal to me, and COBOL did not appeal to me at all.

I mean, there are some people who say that you ought to be able to learn any programming language if you were a programmer. I learned a lot of them. I learned many in college and graduate school, and I was prepared to do anything but I was not prepared to do COBOL. Somehow, COBOL just never fit my particular skillset. As I said, though they say that you can learn any programming language, COBOL just never made sense to me in any way whatsoever.

So I went to Republic Airlines because I was used to doing airline programming. They programmed in – I'm blanking out on the term, but it was the very basic programming language that we had. So I was in another programming language. That was fine. I learned it fine. That didn't work out for various reasons, and so I sort of bounced around from job to job until I got to a tech startup in 1987. This is where the environment changed but probably not in the way that you think because by that time, Steve Jobs and Apple were trying to revolutionize the computer industry and do things differently and have a different work environment and have a different working philosophy.

Now, I have food allergies. Up until Steve Jobs started introducing all of these innovations, at the workplace, food was forbidden. You are not to have food. Definitely not to have food in the places where you were doing keyboarding, because it was felt the crumbs would mess up the computers, mess up the keyboards, mess up the computers. You weren't supposed to have food anywhere at all. At your desk, they might look the other way. They looked the other way because I had tea. I brought a thermos of tea. Always looked the other way. But otherwise, you're supposed to eat in the lunchroom. You're not supposed to eat in the computer areas at all.

But when Steve Jobs started doing things, one of the things that he started doing was introducing the fact that you had food all over the place. You had free food for everybody at the workplace and you could have food everywhere, and there was food everywhere. By the time I got to this startup in 1987, there was food everywhere. This was a problem for me. I'm definitely allergic to peanuts. They were eating peanuts at the keyboards, where I was supposed to do programming, and I got deathly ill. My lung capacity dropped by half. I had to go see a doctor. I was ill for an entire year. I had to quit the job because I simply – Just to recover. I simply could not work there anymore. That was a big change for me.

After that, I wanted to get back into programming. But the personal computer, the mainframe was going out of phase, and the startup that I had worked for in 1987 went out of business a couple of months after I quit because they were into mainframes, and nobody wanted mainframes anymore. Everybody wanted personal computers, and I did not have the instruction to program personal computers. I was broke, I didn't have a job, I had moved back with my parents, and I was ill. I couldn't afford to go back to college and learn the new PC programming skills, so I went to other jobs. I worked for a publishing company, retrained as an editor, got into publishing a little bit.

After that, I worked as an editor for about 15 years. Then I also worked for another company, more or less in customer service. Then in 2015, I learned about coding bootcamps. I had never heard about coding bootcamps before, but someone was starting a coding bootcamp locally. I thought, “Okay, maybe I can retrain to do this because I had learned basic HTML by myself in the late ‘90s to build my own websites.” I know enough to build a website but nothing that would suit me for a job. But there were coding bootcamps, and the person who started the coding bootcamp was interviewed by the local press and said that the reason why he was starting up a coding bootcamp was that there were so many jobs in web development open, and there weren't enough trained people to fill them.

I thought, “Okay, I should be able to learn coding fairly easily because of my computer programming background. The bootcamp is not terribly expensive, and it would be like 16 to 20 weeks, and then I would go to a job, and then I can get hired.” Well, okay. So I applied for this bootcamp in 2015, and it was pretty difficult to get in. I had to have two interviews. I had to take some free coding classes to prove that I could code. I had to prove that I had an aptitude for coding. Then I applied for a scholarship and I had to pass a number of various tests to get the scholarship. But I finally got accepted and I finally got the scholarship. The coding bootcamp for me was supposed to start at the end of August. A couple of weeks before the coding bootcamp was supposed to start, and I got the scholarship.

I called the person who was in charge of the coding school and I said, “Okay, I need accommodations. I have food allergies. I would like there not to be food in the school room, in the classroom. If you have food elsewhere, fine. I'll avoid those areas but I can't avoid the classroom. So there has to be no food in the classroom.” Well, the guy sort of went ballistic, and we had a half-hour conversation in which he was just apoplectic. I was trying to explain this really isn't a big deal. But he was still apoplectic. I said, “Look, let me go to your location, and I'll be able to tell pretty easily if it's suitable for me or not.” So I did go to the location a couple of days after that and looked around. I said, “Look, this looks pretty good. All you have to do is make sure that there's no food in the classroom, and I think I'll be okay.”

But, no, a couple days later, I received an email from him saying that my enrollment had been canceled. My scholarship had been cancelled. In addition to that, I was totally unsuitable to be a student at a code school. Okay, not to be deterred.

[00:17:15] Bekah: Wait. Can we just pause for a minute here?

[00:17:17] Joan: I’m going to pause there. This is a good place to pause.

[00:17:19] Bekah: I just feel like we've covered a couple of decades here. So I want to jump back to like your first experience with that because you talked about those environmental changes. It’s a lot of things that, one, I don't think people really think about dealing with challenges that they're not faced on a day-to-day basis all the time. So when you had to quit that first job at the startup, did you talk to your employer about the situation with the food?

[00:17:48] Joan: There were a number of conversations. My doctor wrote a two-page letter to them, explaining my food allergies and that I couldn't be around nuts, and I needed a nut-free area and all this sort of thing. They finally got down to saying, “We're going to offer you a nut-free area, your desk.” That really was not sufficient. It was not sufficient, so I really had to quit because they said it’s this or nothing. So I quit. But there were a number of conversations. I had conversations with my supervisor. I had a conversation with HR.

The doctors had conversations with them. The doctors wrote letters and stuff like that. It didn't. We weren't able to reach an agreement where I thought that I would be safe, so I simply quit. I was so ill by the time I quit, anyway. As I said, my lung capacity dropped to half, and it stayed that way for quite some time. It took me about a year to recover from that, so it was a really traumatic experience for me.

[00:19:00] Bekah: For sure. Then the trauma was relived I think when you were trying to enter that bootcamp. In the middle, when you were working as an editor and the other things you were doing, were they accommodating to you?

[00:19:14] Joan: The editing job was ahead of its time because it was remote work. There wasn't really a lot of remote work at that time that was legitimate. This was legitimate remote work. All I had to do, I worked at home. They wanted you to work at home. It cut their overhead expenses tremendously for their employees to work at home. All the editors worked at home, and all I had to do was to just go to the pickup area and pick up my assignments in the morning. Then the next day, I would drop off my assignments from the day before and pick up my new assignments. So there really was very minimal contact there. So I worked at home where I was comfortable.

The other job that I had did accommodate me but then – Remember I said I worked for a publishing company too for a while. They in the publishing company did accommodate me, but there was an overall feeling that they felt it was a nuisance, and that I was a nuisance, and that they really would rather not do this. But they sort of had to because I had to be accommodated, and they sort of had to fulfill the employment law about – because the ADA had not been passed when I lost my job in 1987. It had been by the time I'd gotten these other jobs. So they accommodated me, but it was not a comfortable situation in either of those places.

[00:20:46] Bekah: Okay. So you left tech and in this very traumatic experience and then 20-ish years later decide to try tech again. So I wonder like what kind of inspired you to try for this again, after having such a bad experience in tech prior.

[00:21:07] Joan: I guess I was desperate. At the time that I enrolled in the bootcamp, I had lost my previous jobs. The editing job came to an end, and I was told that I was not eligible for rehire. I won’t go into the reasons. Then the other job, again, as I said, the accommodation was very reluctant, and I felt unwelcome. I just felt that the time had come for that job to end too, so I didn't have any work. I felt that I could and I thought if there's such a demand for web developers, good, because this is a job that I can do. All I need is the instruction on the latest techniques.

[00:21:47] Bekah: So then you're back in this situation again, right? You've kind of are reliving this trauma in a new way. You are stuck because what you thought was going to happen just got totally taken away from you. Then you decided you're going to keep going forward, right?

[00:22:09] Joan: That is correct. Shall I go on?

[00:22:12] Bekah: Yeah. I want to know like what –

[00:22:14] Joan: I will do that. Good.

[00:22:15] Bekah: You still are looking for those jobs. That was still the inspiration here.

[00:22:19] Joan: I still felt that a coding bootcamp was the way to go, so I kept on researching coding bootcamps to see if there was one nearby or one that I could take remotely or whatever. At the end of 2015, I discovered that there was a bootcamp network called The Iron Yard that was all over the country but was just planning to get started in Minneapolis. I thought, “Okay, let's get on the ground level on that,” so I did. I went and I went to the get acquainted meetings, get acquainted with The Iron Yard meetings, and I applied.

Again, it took another bootcamp later, but we'll get into that. But it seems that the bootcamps have a long intake process by which they want to make sure that you have the aptitude to do code and that you have at least the enthusiasm to do code. So there was a long process by which I had to meet these requirements, and I did fairly easily. So I was accepted into The Iron Yard in early 2016. Again, I waited until the last minute and I said I want to meet with the campus director. I met with the campus director and I told the campus director of The Iron Yard, “I have food allergies and I need accommodation.”

As soon as those words were out, the campus director said, “Okay, here's what we're going to do for you. We are going to have no food in the classroom. We are going to notify all the students they are not to bring any food into the classroom. They are not to bring any food in any of their backpacks. They are only to eat in designated areas outside the classroom.” She said, “And if you have any trouble with that or have any problems whatsoever, you come and talk to me.” That was very different than my previous experience.

[00:24:17] Bekah: Finally.

[00:24:17] Dan: Yeah. That sounds better.

[00:24:20] Joan: So I did go to The Iron Yard, and the conditions were as they said. Again, the campus director and the instructor said, “We’re aware you have food allergies. If you have any problems, you come to us.” I never had any problems because the students were very diligent about observing the rules, and that was fine, and they didn't seem to have any problems with it. That was great. So I started The Iron Yard in June and graduated in September. Then I started applying for jobs and they had – part of the program was job coaching and all this sort of thing, which was great.

Then I did apply for a job at a certain company. I'm not going to name it. I applied for a job at a certain company. They said it was a front-end development job. I just got a certificate in front-end development. Wonderful. Let's go for it. All of the intake was remote. Every single bit of the intake was remote. I did not see a single employee face to face, until my first official day at the job. Everything was remote, and the induction process was long. It was a couple of months. They did a thorough background check, and I had to pass the background check, which I did. But then, again, that took a month.

Then finally, they gave me an offer. I accepted the offer. I signed the employment contract. Then only after that, I said, “I need accommodation for my food allergies.” So I was put in touch with the executive. This is a big multinational company, and I was put in touch with the executive in charge of employees with disabilities. She said, “Okay. To accommodate you, we have to have a doctor's note. We have a certain form. You can have the doctor fill out and fax it back to us. That's fine.” They emailed me the form. I printed it out. Fortunately, my doctor had an appointment on the same day. I went to the doctor. She filled out the form. She faxed it in. I faxed it in to make sure that they got it. I also scanned it and emailed it to make sure that they got it.

They told me that they got it, that the accommodations were there. They were going to have signs up. They're going to put me in the place that was the most remote desk from the lunchroom. That's what they promised me. They said there would be signs up for people to say, “There's someone with food allergies here. Please confine your food to the lunchroom areas, and don't bring any nuts and peanuts into the work areas at all.” They said this is all going to happen, so I went there and I had a week's orientation at the headquarters, which was fine, and the environment was okay, and they did pay attention to my allergies. I had to remind them a couple of times.

Then I got to the first day on the site of the job where I was going to be at. Welcome, I got my badge, shown my desk. Okay, first thing I do is, of course, I wash off the desk, in case the previous occupant had crumbs or anything. So I'm washing off the desk, and my supervisor comes up to me and says, “Oh, I need to inform you that we share desks here.” I said, “Well, that's fine. But the person who is sharing my desk will have to be very diligent because I have food allergies and can't have nuts and peanuts in the area.” He said, “Oh, no one told me about that.” Also, there were no signs up. Also, my desk was not the farthest one away from the lunchroom.

[00:27:51] Bekah: Wow. So all of the accommodations they said you would have –

[00:27:54] Joan: That I was promised did not happen. Then a week later, my supervisor asked me to come into a conference room and meet with me privately. So I met with him privately, and he said, “You can't work here.” So basically, I was sent home to await an assignment. I waited for a year. They did not have an assignment for me that they felt that they could put me into, and then they laid me off.

[00:28:25] Dan: So they sent you home just because they didn't want to deal with accommodating you or –

[00:28:29] Joan: They didn't want to deal with the food allergy situation. No.

[00:28:32] Bekah: Is that what they said? What was the reason?

[00:28:36] Joan: The reason was the food allergies. They said, “You can't work here. We have food all over the place all the time, and that's not going to change.”

[00:28:46] Bekah: The thing here too is — first of all, I'm sorry. This is a thing that you should never have to go through at all, let alone over a period of many years to have to push through these challenges. But also, I've heard other people who need accommodations for health reasons, who have experienced the same thing where they've been told, “Well, go home, and then we'll contact you when we have an assignment.” Then there's never an assignment for them. It is just, I want to say, a shame. But it's terrible, right? It's way worse than a shame. It's not okay, at the very least.

Okay. So now, you've navigated through yet another challenge and somehow not given up hope, right? Where does that take you next?

[00:29:40] Joan: About the time that I got laid off, the University of Minnesota was offering a bootcamp locally, and the price was right. So I enrolled in their full stack bootcamp, thinking that I have front-end development experience. If I get full stack experience, that will expand the number of jobs I'm able to apply to. So I enrolled in that bootcamp. They did accommodate me. I did have to remind them a few times, but they did accommodate me, and I graduated. I started that in March of 2018th, about the time that I was laid off. Then that ended at the end of July in 2018. So I graduated from that.

All the time that I was going through the bootcamp and learning through the bootcamp, I was also looking for work, all the time. I have been looking for work ever since I was laid off in March of 2018. I have kept track of the number of jobs that I have been applying to because I was sort of curious as to how many jobs or how long that I would have to apply before I got a job. This morning, I filled out my 532nd job application. That's how many jobs that I have applied to since I was laid off. So I am still applying for jobs. I have done some freelance work in between. But when the pandemic came last year, those dried up pretty quickly, so I didn't even have any freelance work to do.

That’s pretty much where I am now. I am still applying for jobs, still hoping that someone will hire me. I don't know if you want me to go on the podcast and relate my terrible experience of last month, which you heard about at the Virtual Coffee. I can, if you wish.

[00:31:56] Bekah: I think that's really a part of your story, and you faced so many challenges. So if that's something you're willing to share, I would love for you to talk about that too.

[00:32:04] Joan: I am certainly willing to share this because I was told when I made the call, and I'll get into that in a moment that this was a very common scam that people who are applying for tech jobs run into. So at my 521st application, I got a note saying that they wanted to interview me, which was great. I mean, I've been on interviews. I haven't gotten hired but I've had some interviews. So they asked me to interview, and I responded to the interview. It was a set of written interview questions that they asked me to return, and I returned them.

Then after I returned them, there was an interview, and then they said I was hired. I was just thrilled. I thought I was hired. Now, this job was posted on Glassdoor, which is a reputable place for posting jobs. The name of the company was genuine. They took the name of a genuine company in Austin, Texas, gave me the genuine name and address. The employment contract, which they gave me, was a standard tech employment contract. It looked like any other tech employment contract that I had signed. I signed it and sent it back to them by email. All this remote stuff was not unusual because I had gone through this with this other company, where everything in the inboarding was remote. The email address looked like the email that would be from the HR from this company. No problem with the email address, although the person that was supposedly my supervisor had a non-company email. But I've had freelance jobs where that's happened too, so that didn't raise any alarms with me.

I thought, “Oh, my goodness. I am finally hired. Wonderful. I've got an employment contract.” They said, “Fine.” It’s for a remote job. Great. That's what I need, a remote job. They said, “You've got to set up a home office.” Fine. That's great. “And we want you to use a company equipment that you buy from our designated supplier.” That's not unusual either. So they said, “We will send you a check, and you will use that check to buy the equipment for your home office.” Fine. So they sent me the check, and it came through the post by priority mail, and it's like a priority mail envelope. But the name and address on the check was not the one of the companies. So I emailed the person that was supposed to be my supervisor. I said, “This check is not from your company.” He says, “Oh, that's one of our trusted vendors. Don't worry about it. Just go check.” I said okay.

But I also looked at the address on the envelope, and the address on the envelope did not match the address on the check, which did not add – neither of them matched the address from the company. I looked up on Google Maps the return address on the envelope, and it was a vacant lot. So my supposed supervisor was saying, “Okay, we want you to take the check to the bank. We want you to email the receipt, deposit receipt to us, so that we know that you've deposited the check.”

I said fine. So I went to the bank and I said to the banker, I said, “I've been told trust but verify. There's something about this check that I question.” This was on a Friday. I said, “What I'd like you to do is call the bank and see if it's a legitimate account and that the funds are available.” They said, “Well, this is Friday after three o'clock,” and it was. “So we really don't expect a response until Monday.” I said that's fine.

On Saturday, my supposed supervisor gets back to me, and he says, “Has the check been deposited?” I said yes, and I scanned the receipt and emailed it. It did not have my full bank account number on it, the receipts, so like I felt safe in that. So he says, “Well, we want you to get started right away. So we want you to buy the equipment right away.” I said fine. He says, “I'll put you in touch with our supplier.” Fine. It was a text message conversation. So the text message says, “I am George or whatever from A1 computer supply company, and we want to deliver the equipment to you by 5:00 PM. But we want you to pay for it first, and we want you to withdraw the money in cash from your bank and then deposit it into our bank account.” I said okay.

Now, I had checked my bank account thing, and it looked as if the check had gone through. So I thought, “Okay, it looks like the check has gone through.” So I did – I drove to the bank and I said, “Remember that check? I want to withdraw it.” She says, “You can't.” I said, “Why not? It said on your website, when I checked my account on your website that the money was available.” She says, “Oh, that's an error. That was misleading. I'm sorry. We’re still waiting for it to come through and we're still waiting to hear from the other bank.” I said okay. So I texted the supplier and I said, “They won't let me take out the money. I'm sorry. I can't do that.” I never heard from the supplier or the supposed thing again.

Monday, I called someone who I felt was knowledgeable in these sorts of situations and I said, “Look, here's what's happening.” She said, “Call the Minnesota Attorney General right away.” So I did and I explained my situation. He said, “You've been scammed.” He said, “This is a common scam.” He said, “What job title did they hire you for?” I said software engineer. He says, “This is a common scam for the software engineers.” He says, “You were lucky that the bank didn't allow you to take out that money in cash because otherwise you would be held responsible for that money.” It was $6,000. He said, “And file a report with the FTC and the FBI,” which I did.

[00:38:13] Dan: Did the FBI have anything, like similar things to say or –

[00:38:17] Joan: I filed the reports online, and neither of them have gotten back to me. Both sites said, “When you file a report for us, we might not get back to you on this. We'll do our best but don't expect us to get back to you. But thank you for filing. Excuse me, here's a copy so that you know that you have a record of the filing the report with us.” But that was pretty much it. As I said, I never heard from them again8. So I was all excited to – I thought someone was finally going to hire me, and then someone didn't. I had never heard about this scam before. I mean, I've heard of other scams, and so I've been aware of people trying to take advantage of me. But this one I had not heard of ever before, and it was just not something that I expected.

[00:39:04] Bekah: No. I had never heard of that and I think, as you're telling the story, number one, I never would have noticed that the addresses were different. For me, I just probably would have taken it to the bank and did what they said. So, I mean, I think that on top of everything else, you took such careful steps, which, of course, you never should even have to do, right? This whole entire story is so much extra work and stress, and conflict is being put on you as you're trying to get a job. I just want to say that I think your ability to continue to move forward and to talk about it and to openly share it is so inspirational, I guess. I mean, to see you moving forward is something that I really appreciate you talking about.

[00:40:01] Joan: Well, thank you. I’m happy to share my story. I hope that others are able to get something out of it anyway.

[00:40:10] Dan: Absolutely. This approach is just like so, I don't know, evil. I'm trying to think of a good word for it. I've heard of this scam. Not this scam but I've heard of the way the check part of it worked, right? Deposit a check, take the cash out, give it to me, and then they cancel the check thing. But targeting people looking for jobs is like – I don't know. I don’t know. It's just shameful.

[00:40:39] Joan: Using a legitimate site for job postings, using the name of a legitimate company.

[00:40:46] Dan: Yeah. I mean, that was going to be another question I was going to ask was if you had reached out to Glassdoor through all this, I mean, after it happened at all.

[00:40:53] Joan: I went to Glassdoor and found that the job posting had been taken down. I felt that they probably knew about that from that. The job posting did not exist anymore. But, I mean, they were slick in the fact that they used a legitimate job posting site, that they used the actual name and address of a legitimate company, that they used a legitimate-looking employment contract, and that at least the supposed HR person seemed to have a legitimate company email address.

[00:41:28] Dan: Wow. Yeah. They criminals, I'm sure they're making a lot of money. Scamming people like this is just the emotional place that people who are doing the job seeking is in. So we've talked to people who have done a lot of applications and this long process, and wanted them to shared how hard it is, how much struggle it is and emotionally draining and everything like that. So I would imagine your defenses are kind of lower than they would be normally, anyway. It’s tough. But I would echo what Bekah said and just thank you for sharing this part of the story because knowing about it is probably the best defense for other people, at least, out spreading the word about it. It’s scary though.

[00:42:12] Joan: Yeah, it is.

[00:42:13] Dan: I don't like it.

[00:42:15] Bekah: Okay. So now, you're here, Joan. What is your hope for the future?

[00:42:22] Joan: I’m still applying for jobs. I'm hoping that someone will hire me, somewhere. It's pretty much all I can do at this point because I do need a job. I want a job. I would like to work. But because of my limitations, I do need a remote position. That limits the number of jobs that I can apply for. But I'm still applying, and that's all I can do is just move forward.

[00:42:50] Bekah: What kind of keeps you going? Is there like – What powers your motivation or your perseverance to keep pushing forward?

[00:42:57] Joan: I am just that sort of person that if someone says, “Well, you can't do that, and there's a lot of obstacles. Are you sure you want to do it,” I'm just the sort of person who says, “To heck with it. I'm doing it. I want to do it. I'm going to do it. I'm going to do it.” Some people have asked me. I've gone to events, where I have related that I got my bachelor's degree in physics, that I was the only woman quite often in the classroom. I've been asked, “Well, how did you feel about that?” I said, “Well, I thought if they didn't like it, that was tough.”

[00:43:46] Dan: I love that.

[00:43:48] Joan: I mean no. I mean, I guess I was fortunate in that nobody discouraged me from getting a bachelor's degree in physics because I was a woman or looked down on me while I was getting my degree in physics because I was a woman. But I have heard that other women who are trying to get degrees in sciences have had a really tough time. I didn't but I was prepared for it and I thought, “Even if they did, to heck with them. That's their problem. I don't care.” I've always had that attitude that if I had a goal, and it was a legitimate goal, and it was something that didn't compromise my moral principles, I was going to go for it.

[00:44:26] Bekah: Okay. So I know also you're a prolific writer. You’ve done science fiction and some other things. Have you ever written your life story?

[00:44:35] Joan: I have not. What I have written, as far as life story is concerned, I am a Star Trek fan and I've been a Star Trek fan since 1966. In the 1990s, I wrote a history of Star Trek fan activity, a fan history from 1967 to 1987. This is probably as close to a biography as it gets because I told my personal journey through it but also what was happening. This book has gotten a lot of attention. Not a lot of public attention but a lot of attention from people who were like scholars in the field of popular culture. I'm very well recognized in the field of popular culture. My Star Trek fanzine collection is at the University of Iowa Special Collections. I was interviewed last month, and the interview was posted Monday about this. So I've gotten a great deal of satisfaction from that.

But the problem is publishing and writing is not a very profitable endeavor, unless you're one of like the 2% of authors who can make a living at it. But it's something that I do because I enjoy writing. For people who enjoy writing, it's something that you can't not do. So I keep writing. I'm writing right now. I set aside my writing for my current novel, just before this podcast. So it is something that I do and it's something that keeps me going but it's not something that you can make a living with. I enjoy web development. I've got a dozen live sites that I keep up and keep working on. My GitHub repository is solid green for this year. So this is something that I enjoy to, and I'm just going to keep going until I can't anymore.

[00:46:34] Bekah: Have you thought about going back into freelancing?

[00:46:38] Joan: Well, yes. I'm always available for freelance work, but nobody's calling. That's the problem.

[00:46:44] Dan: Yeah. It can be hard too.

[00:46:48] Bekah: So have you thought about what your ideal job or what would it look like, I guess?

[00:46:53] Joan: Well, if you want to talk about ideal job, ideally, I would like to be one of the 2% of authors who makes a living off of my writing and publishing. But, again, it's so hard to get into that 2% of authors. So failing that, I really enjoyed my first job as an airline programmer, programming the hotel reservations and the flight schedules. That was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed that so much, and I was so disappointed when the company took me off that project. I mean, something like that, a web development project, where I can use my skills, where I can make a nice front end for somebody. That would be a wonderful job to have.

[00:47:38] Dan: What was it about that airline project that you liked?

[00:47:41] Joan: First of all, I was programming in Fortran, which is a language that I enjoy very much. I’ve forgotten most of it by now though, so I couldn't be a suitable fit for a legacy Fortran project, and I've been told that they're out there. But I was programming in Fortran. Programming in Fortran was fun. The airline scheduling was a lot of fun because it was just something that you could put your hands on and look at it and get satisfaction out of. People are using my stuff every day, and it's something that's useful, and it's something that's good-looking, and I did it, that kind of satisfaction that you get from the job.

The hotel reservations, I mean, I actually did a lot of the hotel reservation stuff from the ground up. I designed the hotel reservations thing, as well as wrote the code for it. I designed the concept. They just said, “Give us a way to do hotel reservation.” So I did the designing to on that one. That was something that I was proud of. But, yeah, the flight schedule was a lot of fun and very satisfying.

[00:48:55] Dan: That's awesome. I could totally relate to that, especially this is actually useful, and people are actually using it, part of it. It doesn't always happen in any particular job, so I can totally relate to that.

[00:49:08] Bekah: Well, Joan, I want to say thank you so much, again, for sharing your story and for being here with us. It was really powerful to listen to you talk about it and to hear how you're ready to just keep moving forward. I hope some way Virtual Coffee can help continue to support you and those goals and do something that hopefully we can celebrate you getting a job pretty soon.

[00:49:31] Joan: Well, thanks very much for interviewing me. This was fun.

[00:49:34] Dan: Yeah. I had fun too. Thank you, Joan.

[END OF INTERVIEW]

[00:49:36] Bekah: Thank you for listening to this episode of the Virtual Coffee Podcast. This episode was produced by Dan Ott and Bekah Hawrot Weigel, and edited by Dan Ott. If you have questions or comments, you can hit us up on Twitter @VirtualCoffeeIO. Or you can email us at podcast@virtualcoffee.io. You can find the show notes, plus you can sign up for our newsletter to find out what Virtual Coffee has been up to on our website at virtualcoffee.io.

[00:50:05] Dan: Please subscribe to our podcast and be sure to leave us a review. Thanks for listening, and we'll see you next week.

[END]


The Virtual Coffee Podcast is produced by Dan Ott and Bekah Hawrot Weigel and edited by Dan Ott.