From smart watches to smart homes, technology can vastly improve the everyday lives of people living with disabilities. Ironically, this same technology is often designed without their specific needs or challenges in mind. Drew Crook, a GA Software Engineering Immersive grad, realized this firsthand after his employer replaced the company’s software with one lacking accessibility (A11y) functionality — when he physically could no longer perform his job. Now, learn how he’s coding new pathways for others in tech as a lead accessibility engineer at CVS Health.
My name is Andrew Crook — I go by Drew. I have a degenerative retinal condition called Lieber’s Congenital Amaurosis (LCA). It causes me to slowly lose more and more vision over time until I go completely blind. I’ve been dealing with this my whole life. As a child I went to public schools where I was able to take advantage of technologies that allowed me to stay on a level footing with my sighted peers. Out of necessity, I became obsessed with technology and the boundless opportunities it could provide.
After completing high school, I attended Keene State College in New Hampshire. I started my first job out of college at a financial institution and worked there successfully for a few years. Then, suddenly, I was forced to face a very tough reality. The company I worked for changed all of their internal software, and this change resulted in my being unable to perform my basic job functions because the software was never created with accessibility (A11y) in mind. Now, that same technology that I love and rely on was useless to me. I did not let that stop my career growth — I ended up leaving that company and went to work for Apple for the next four years. I used this time to immerse myself in how devices like computers, tablets, and phones operated and also built up a good working knowledge of the Apple ecosystem.
In 2020 with the world in a tailspin due to COVID-19, I decided it was time to make another change. I decided to enroll in a bootcamp. I have always been interested in technology and how it worked, and I was always quick to point out issues to developers and companies when I noticed A11y problems. I wanted to take that knowledge and compliment it with the technical side of software engineering.
What were you doing before you came to GA? What was difficult or dissatisfying about it that prompted you to make a change?
I was working in an Apple retail store before GA. I loved my job and the people I was able to meet, but my passion was always centered around A11y. I knew that I needed to make a change to be able to realize my dream of developing accessible software. I had participated in beta programs and provided a lot of feedback, but I felt my feedback would carry a greater weight if I could also speak to the underpinnings of how the website/app functioned at the code level.
What was it about software engineering specifically that intrigued you to explore it as a career? What were the defining moments that pushed you to move forward?
Honestly, the challenge was part of the reason I wanted to pursue software engineering. As a blind person, you do encounter a fair share of folks who either lower their expectations for you because of the disability or outright block you from trying. Thankfully, I have an amazing support system. My parents were always pushing me to do anything I wanted to try as a child. Now, as an adult, I have a wonderful wife and kids who similarly encourage and support my aspirations. I wanted to become a software engineer to help better the world — not on a large scale — but in my own way with any little bit of feedback or code implementation. I was always interested in how things worked, from my legos and blocks as a child to the motherboards, CPU, GPU, and RAM in computers I built with my friends as a young adult. Software Engineering was yet another way to learn how something worked, and it was simultaneously challenging and rewarding.
What motivated you to choose GA over other programs?
GA was the most accommodating, and everyone throughout my application process was so helpful. I had actually reached out to four or five schools with some concerns about how successful I could be as a blind person using a screen reader in a virtual classroom environment. Every single school except GA sent me a very canned response with a copy/paste of their accessibility policy. GA, however, took it in stride and set up a meeting with lead instructors, career coaches, student success managers, and admissions. They were invested in my success 100% — it was that moment that I knew I’d choose GA. I knew that if I did my work and asked for support when I was struggling, GA would do everything in its power to get me to the finish line.
What was the best thing about SEI for you? And the GA experience overall, both during and after?
The best part of SEI for me was the projects and the people. I met so many fun, interesting, and unique people. GA encourages everyone to be their authentic self and to embrace all the experiences that brought them to the SEI program. The projects were challenging yet rewarding once completed and really helped to complement the concepts covered in class. After completing the program, I would say it was a toss-up between the continued support from the Outcomes folks and the continued friendships that began our very first day and have lasted over seven months removed from completing the program.
How did the GA teams (Student Success, Instructors, Career Coaches, etc.) help you succeed in the course?
I received immediate support when applying to the program and that support followed me and all the members of the cohort throughout its duration. Everyone from the instructors to student success were there to answer questions, provide encouragement, suggest resources, and generally be there for all of us if we needed anything. It was a great environment for learning and growth because I felt supported enough to try new concepts and learn as much as possible, as fast as possible.
How did the skills you learned at GA help you in your current role as a software engineer?
What do you love most about your current role?
I almost literally have my dream job right out of GA. I am a lead accessibility engineer. I get to combine my passions for assistive technology, A11y, and programming to create experiences for all customers regardless of ability. I get to educate fellow engineers on A11y best practices and also get to work collaboratively with other engineers to solve complex A11y issues in the code.
Congratulations on your promotion! What advice would you give those who think they’re “not capable enough” or second-guess themselves on making a career change?
The doubt demons are a real thing and imposter syndrome affects everyone in a unique way. I had to battle not only the physical challenges of learning and being able to code with my technology, but I also had to fight myself and the doubt that I’d actually be able to pull it off. What I would say to anyone looking to switch into this career and specifically take an Immersive bootcamp is: you get out what you put in. My second piece of advice would be to trust your instructors and the GA staff. If you are struggling, or need help to understand a concept, don’t suffer in silence. Reach out to someone and ask for help.
They say if you want to go fast, go alone — but if you want to go far, go together. Can you speak to the benefits of getting support from others? How did the GA community impact your development as a software engineer or professional?
I couldn’t agree more with that statement. I have had to live my life in a collaborative way. My need to work together with others started very early when I would ask friends or family to describe images or movies and shows. This skill was leveled up in the SEI program when I would work together with our breakout groups to solve problems. I would ask for assistance with visual tasks and then provide assistance to others with the code or problem we were trying to solve. It’s a unique way of working together but it translates perfectly to the workforce and how everyone has to work as a team to achieve objectives. If you try to “go it alone,” you may work faster in the short term, but ultimately, you will miss out on the inherent exponential growth potential working as a team.
In respect to software engineering, what do you want your legacy to be? Is there a change you want to inspire or a mission that defines the work that’s important to you?
I want to teach others the impact good accessible code can have and build truly inclusive experiences that anyone can enjoy. I smile when I think that someone halfway around the world could be enjoying their experience on a digital platform for the very first time because of the work that I am doing.