Fig O’Reilly wears many hats! She is a model, coder and philanthropist! She started out her career as a model but is now passionate about technology, advocacy and storytelling. She is the director of a STEM focused non-profit called Space Apps DC which is the host of NASA’s International Space Apps Challenge in Washington, DC. Space Apps DC’s mission is to empower young people, especially girls and young women, to learn how to code and create projects with NASA. She created the hashtag #EmpowermentThroughCoding where women utilize social media to showcase their coding projects. She is currently a NASA Datanaut, a program made up of engineers, scientists and more who engage with NASA’s open data to create innovative new thinking, processes, and products. She earned a bachelor of science degree in systems engineering from the George Washington University. She shared her career journey thus far with LFE:
What sparked your interest in tech? My interest in tech began at a program that I went to in high school. Every summer I attended the Summer Math and Science Honors Academy at UC Berkeley where I studied nothing but STEM courses. It was the first time I ever learned how to code and the first time someone demystified what it really meant to be an engineer for me.
I think every teenager wanted to be a astronaut at some point! How was your journey towards becoming a NASA Datanaut? It’s so funny because I actually never had that dream as a kid, but now I do! A friend of mine from college sent me the information about the NASA Datanauts program because she thought I would be a great fit, and of course my first thought was “OMG this is so cool, absolutely!” Dreaming of one day becoming an astronaut is a perfectly acceptable for kids, but as an adult, especially as a young biracial woman who simultaneously does not hide her love for makeup and fashion, I’ve realized that a lot of people think I’m crazy or take my goal as a seriously unattainable joke. But that’s alright. I’ve always stood out in most rooms I have occupied since I started my tech career and if anything, others’ doubts gives me so much more motivation to prove those expectations wrong.
What is your favorite part about your job? And the most challenging? I am a coder and systems engineer and I often consult and do a lot of work for many different companies and organizations. Being a NASA Datanaut is just one of many roles that I have. That being said, my job looks very different every single day and so the hardest part overall is balancing all of the hats that I wear. When you become an engineer, you become a student for life. I am constantly learning new technology and having to challenge myself. That means that I have to be very responsible with time management and my calendar. One day I could be on set modeling for a new campaign, the next day, planning and raising funds for the upcoming NASA Space Apps Challenge in October, the day after that, sitting at my WeWork office doing IT project management work for a tech startup, the following day, boarding a flight for a runway show in another city, and finally, in a classroom teaching students how to code. I love that every day looks different, but that is also the hardest challenge as well.
What are some of the challenges you have faced as a black woman in the tech industry?
Being the only one in the room. When I showed up for rehearsals for my college graduation, I realized I was the only young black woman graduating with a systems engineering degree that year. I wasn’t the only one when we started as freshmen, but over time many of my black female peers fell out of the pipeline for a variety of reasons. Again, when I began the NASA Datanauts program, I looked around the room at the rest of my group and realized that even though there were quite a few women, I was the only black woman. When you realize that you are the only one that looks like you in certain spaces, you realize 2 things: 1) I’m happy to be here and to be able to represent and 2) I have to do something about this.
Who is your career crush?As of right now my career crush is Farah Alibay (https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/people/3065/farah-alibay/) who is a systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab who directly contributed to the latest lander touching down on Mars. I got to meet Farah at the national press briefing event for our 2nd successful mission to Mars and ask her about her career, how she has created her own lane, and what she plans on doing next. There are so many women in tech and engineering that have inspired me to pursue higher education, non-profit work, and to (literally) reach for the stars.
What advice do you have for young women who are interested in working for NASA?
My biggest advice is stay motivated and stay creative with how you pursue your goals. It is so easy to get off track or get tired of what can seem like an endless battle uphill against so many factors that are out of our control. But if you have a dream, create a mantra so that you can repeat to yourself the reasons why you are pursuing your this dream, especially when you are close to walking away. More than anything, remember that the landscape is changing and if you have an idea and the work ethic to make things come in to fruition, you can create your own reality. My career is a direct testament to that.