My story as an African American female engineer is my own. I don’t necessarily see myself as an activist, a crusader or an authority on the diversity problem that the tech industry faces. But, if my personal narrative can encourage more black, Latina and trans women to become coders, mitigate their feelings of being an outsider in the industry or start a dialogue about less discriminatory hiring practices, then I’m proud of the part I can play.
The conversation around diversity in tech includes many voices, from engineering rock stars to President Obama. Each voice adds another rich layer to the dialogue, some advocating for more women, some for more underrepresented racial minorities, some for both. I have one more layer to add to this rich tapestry of perspectives as a woman of color and a coder.
Recently, three female engineers from startup darling Slack spoke with the company’s senior policy manager. All are women of color. As engineers Erica Baker and Duretti Hirpa articulated, the feeling of isolation being one of the few women, one of the few people of color and one of the fewer women of color in tech isn’t just palpable, it’s painful. As Erica stated, “…it's a slow buildup of pain that you're feeling, because you're so isolated, but you can't put your finger on the isolation.”
For me, that feeling was much easier to recognize moving to Silicon Valley for two consecutive internships at Apple during my sophomore and junior years at Spelman College, a historically black college for women based in Atlanta. The isolation that I experienced was pervasive, but I also experienced overt hostility. While it didn’t happen at my place of work, it dealt an almost debilitating blow to my confidence.
Just one example. While at a major tech conference, I overheard two white men speaking about me and another female intern, concluding that we were likely hired “for aesthetics,” not our programming skills. As a newly declared computer science major, I began to question my career choice and my skills as a developer, a reaction born from cumulative feelings of isolation in a mostly white man’s arena and my own impostor syndrome compounded by systemic oppression.
By the conclusion of my second internship, I wanted to give up on a tech career. The unfamiliar faces of Silicon Valley looked nothing like those in downtown Atlanta, and I felt unwelcome, unprepared and intimidated by other interns from Carnegie Mellon, MIT and Stanford.
But when graduation rolled around, determined to be a part of the industry I loved, I returned to the Bay Area for 12 interviews before I was offered a job as an automation engineer at Apple.
Unfortunately, another two years of isolation without shared experiences with other women of color, self-doubt crept in again. I fell victim to a stereotype threat that pulled me out of the programming profession I loved so much, into “technology adjacent” jobs that kept me in more “appropriate” roles for an African American woman, like developer relations and quality assurance.
It didn’t take me long to realize that my passion remained in the programming world. I had abandoned programming, not because it was too challenging or because I lacked passion, but because my race and gender made me feel inadequate in the tech environment. I believed the industry’s message that I was simply not good enough.
Have you heard of something called Engineering Empathy? It’s one of the components of the Dev Bootcamp curriculum that taught me and my cohort to be emotionally and psychologically aware of ourselves and our peers. It encouraged open dialogue about micro-aggressions against minorities, impostor syndrome and systematic oppression. It also helped to quiet my inner critic.
What I was taught at Dev Bootcamp mirrored what I saw on the campus and among the staff. It was comforting to see diverse faces coding together – faces of women, men, blacks, whites, Latinos, Asians and everything in between. We brought not only our diverse backgrounds, but also diverse ideas, which made working together that much more intriguing and exciting.
At the end of my experience there, I took the programming and soft skills I developed to a management role back at Apple, where I helped launch Transit in Apple Maps.
Now, another two years later, returning to Dev Bootcamp as the Austin Campus Director after having traveled around the world with Apple for my launch, I see this next step as an opportunity to “pay it forward,” to encourage and train junior developers (particularly minorities) who may be on a similar path as I was in the beginning of my career.
So, what have I learned from my tech journey? A big component of the solution to the diversity issue is simply showing up and bringing your whole-self to work every day in your engineering team. As women of color in the industry, we are often paraded around as symbols of an organization’s commitment to diversity, or we are expected to have clear prescriptions for solving the problem. That’s a ton of pressure! Just being a woman of color who loves tech and stays in the tech industry makes a difference.
Or, you might be someone who feels compelled to take a stand and rise up to fight the underrepresentation of women of color in a more direct way. I can’t tell you which way is right, but I can tell you to hang in there. We need more developers like you bringing a diversity of backgrounds, perspectives, ideas and skills to companies in order to improve the products, platforms and services we deliver.
Whitney O’Banner is the newly appointed Campus Director of Dev Bootcamp Austin. She oversees all aspects of the Austin campus including: admissions, curriculum, career training, partnerships, marketing and operations. Whitney's career in tech spans programming, software testing and management. Whitney joins Dev Bootcamp from Apple, where she started as a junior developer. She later traveled the country, encouraging minority students to consider careers in STEM and carving a new grad recruitment pipeline with Apple’s diversity team.