The phone call that ended the military career of Midshipman Deja Baker came on a rainy morning in Hawaii in late May 2017. Having recently completed her third year at the U.S. Naval Academy, Baker was on leave, one week into a month of R&R—hiking, beachcombing, and Netflix-bingeing at her fiancé’s apartment in Oahu. The voice on the phone was her company officer’s. He told her she was to return to Annapolis immediately and pack up her things. Her time at the academy was over.
“It put me in panic mode,” she says.
That spring, a mysterious bruise on her leg had prompted Baker to visit the doctor, a decision that tipped one unlucky domino after the next: The doctor ordered blood tests; the results were alarming, and he hospitalized her; after a five-day stay, she received a diagnosis of a rare blood condition she chooses not to reveal. Simply put, her blood didn’t clot right. The U.S. Navy insists that its officers bleed properly. So, even though she had already served a tour in Japan as an enlisted sailor, had completed advanced training in cryptologic intelligence, was one year from completing a computer science degree, and was aiming to work in the information warfare command far removed from battle, she was out. She had no job prospects, no cash, and as soon as she packed up her things back on the mainland, no home.
“For the next 24 hours, I just bawled,” she says.
By the next morning, however, Baker had regrouped. Having persuaded her company officer to let her finish the remaining three weeks of her leave, she spent that time researching coding boot camps she could apply to.
Recruiters and industrial psychologists stress the importance of attributes such as resilience and determination (a recent survey by LinkedIn identified four soft skills most coveted by companies—leadership, communication, collaboration, and time management), and employers are devising new methods to assess these kinds of intangible qualities, but the relentless drive Baker possesses can be hard to spot on a résumé. She doesn’t present as tough. She’s soft-spoken and doesn’t like talking about herself. She dresses in startup-employee casual—cropped jeans, Toms shoes, and hoodie. At 27, she still gets carded whenever she orders a beer. Baker’s most valuable talents, the formidable inner strength and insatiable curiosity she’s exhibited since she was a child, are traits that might only emerge over the course of the kind of probing face-to-face interview with a perceptive manager that seems to happen less and less often in this era of job application portals and chatbots. Does an algorithm yet exist that will discern the extent of Deja Baker’s tenacity?
Baker grew up outside Detroit in Wixom, Michigan, population 13,000, where Ford built Thunderbirds and Lincoln Town Cars until its plant there shut down in 2007. Her own family didn’t have much connection to the auto industry—her father was an electrical engineer, and Baker rarely saw him; her mother sold real estate off and on and died when Baker was 10. The maternal grandmother who took care of her passed away when Baker was 16. Soon after that, she persuaded a judge to let her take care of herself.
“No one wanted to be my guardian, basically,” she says. “I was just thinking, I’m tired of depending on people. Depending on people isn’t working out for me,” she says. With the small inheritance she received from her grandmother, she rented a tiny apartment while she finished the last semester of high school. Her grades earned her scholarship offers at local universities, but she and a friend enlisted in the Navy instead, sold on the vision of escaping Michigan and seeing the world.
When it came time for Baker to choose a specialization, the recruitment coordinator took a look at Baker’s slender 5-foot-7 frame and sniffed. Her scores on the ASVAB, the military’s battery of standardized aptitude and assessment tests, positioned her well, he said, to work as a dental assistant.
Baker didn’t want to clean teeth. “Is that all my score qualifies me for?” she recalls asking the man. Reluctantly, he agreed to show her how she’d scored—better than 80% of the other new recruits, it turned out. She was actually qualified to apply for practically any job in the Navy. “I don’t know if I want to prove people wrong, per se,” Baker says. “But I know a lot of people look down on me, like I’m some weak person.”
She chose to become a cryptologic technician. The specifics of the job were classified, even to her, but she’d loved computers since she was a girl, and she knew the job was technical.
Baker liked the structure of the Navy, the skills and the acronyms and the teamwork. At the end of basic training, recruits participate in a final exercise called Battle Stations-21, where they must complete difficult tasks—everything from mooring a ship to firefighting to “rescuing” heavy dummy dolls out of smoky rooms—in a chaotic environment, on no sleep. After her training, the navy deployed Baker to an air base in Misawa, Japan, where her team collected and processed intercepted electronic and radio transmissions. Within a year she was instructing the new arrivals on her team, many of whom outranked her. The department head, seeing her potential, encouraged her to apply to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. She was accepted in 2013, one of fewer than 100 enlisted sailors admitted to a class of about 1,200. At the academy, Baker formed close friendships with other prior enlistees and attracted the attention of a mentor, Janie Mines, a former Navy officer who also happens to be the first African-American woman to graduate from the Naval Academy. “She’s a diamond in the rough,” Mines says of Baker. “Under that reserved armor she places around herself, there is someone extremely intelligent, someone who benefits so many others.” Baker also joined the Pipes and Drums musical ensemble. It was, she believes, marching with her tenor drum that caused that career-ending bruise.
Once she knew she couldn’t go back to school, Baker decided she didn’t want to wait while the Navy arrived at its final decision (technically, Baker remains on active duty and the medical separation is still pending, she says). Her fiancé offered to let her remain in Hawaii while she figured out her next step, but she declined (the two ended their relationship a few months later).
By the time she left Oahu, she’d been accepted with a tuition scholarship to a Chicago-based program for military veterans called Code Platoon. Baker arranged to crash in the spare bedroom of a friend in Toledo until the classes began in the fall, and the day after arriving in Ohio, she got a job stacking boxes at a nearby FedEx facility, earning $13 an hour to pay off $4,000 in credit card debt from school expenses and buy the MacBook required for Code Platoon. She posted on Facebook asking if anyone in Chicago needed a roommate. She also spoke again with Mines, her academy mentor, who then enlisted three other women, all former Navy officers, who offered to pitch in to help cover Baker’s rent in Chicago, which Baker accepted.
DRW has partnered with Code Platoon since it graduated its very first class of coders in 2016. The program gives the company access to a talent pool who, while not as pedigreed as the computer science grads from four-year institutions the company also hires, are hard-chargers. “They are adults who want to work, who have discipline,” says Seth Thomson, the chief information officer at DRW, who also serves on Code Platoon’s board. Over the past decade, as the firm has increased the number of its technologists from fewer than two dozen to more than 180, Thomson says the biggest challenge has been finding the kind of workers who excel at the firm—hardworking and flexible, driven to learn and keep up as the company’s demands on its developers increase and change. “It’s pretty clear to everyone that there’s not enough tech talent out there,” he says. “As a larger portion of our trading has moved to electronic, we need more people, and we need good people.”
On a recent Friday afternoon at DRW, Baker sits alongside Rene Duquesnoy, a senior software engineer (and member of the Air National Guard) who mentors junior developers like Baker. For now she works on nuts-and-bolts projects, and together they review her code, looking for ways to streamline a function. “Is there a way you can break those methods into smaller bits and test each part individually?” he says. Lower on the screen there’s a browser window with several tabs open to coding sites: Stack Overflow, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to Python, a publication called Python Pandemonium. Python is a new language for Baker, and she’s doggedly learning it.
At 4 p.m., Baker steps away from her computer and heads to the corporate lunchroom where 30 or so coworkers sit around tables, digging into platters of charcuterie and cheese. A wine shop owner fills their glasses—DRW offers bimonthly wine tastings for staff, a nice upgrade from stacking boxes in FedEx trucks in Toledo.
Seated with two colleagues and a reporter, Baker takes up her glass, and toasts. Most of the folks in the room don’t know it, but this scrappy sailor and onetime FedEx schlepper built the web-based app they used to sign up for the tasting. Last night she’d joked about finally gaining entry to the popular event: “It took me like two months to get into the wine tasting, I thought I’d never get in. But one guy on my team pointed out, ‘Deja, you made that app! And you’re an admin now, you can just go in and add yourself! I was like, ‘I wouldn’t do that!'” (She’d gotten into the tasting fair and square.) She smiled her quiet, persistent smile. “But I totally could, though.”