An Interview With Two Black Nerds
We caught up about their work, black men in tech, how to make your own podcast, and where the future of tech is going.
We sat down to talk to the founders of Two Black Nerds, a podcast from Notre Dame graduates and engineers Iheanyi Ekechukwu and Romeo Kwihangana. The podcast discusses life after graduation, the job market, race relations in the office, building side projects, fashion wearables and more.
Romeo (left) and Iheanyi (right) of Two Black Nerds.
MVC: So tell us a little about each of you, what you’re doing, what you’re up to lately. You both just graduated right?
Iheanyi: I’m fresh out of college, I graduated in December. I’m working on the IBM Watson team right now as a software engineer, it’s pretty chill. I’m actually on the Chef Watson project, which is Watson being used in the culinary space, so that’s pretty cool — discovering new flavor combinations, recipes, stuff like that.
Romeo: I just came up on a full year of employment in August. I work in the aviation industry. Currently I’m at GE Aviation Systems, working on parts of electrical backup systems for aircrafts. We take the rotating power from the engine and we try to turn that into energy that you can use on your laptop or entertainment system. Devices are driving the increased demand on how much power the aircraft needs to provide, and we’re forever increasing the amount we need to produce. The challenge is to keep the weight down, because that’s what drives up the fuel cost for flights. So we work to make things smaller, while increasing their power.
MVC: Is it scary to work in aviation, because it’s so complex and so much depends on it?
Romeo: Any mistake that you make might cost a life. When you go to work everyday, you have to make sure the work you deliver is of the highest quality possible. After working in it for a year I truly appreciate all the work they do. We do intensive reviews, many simulations… the amount of rigor in the aviation industry is immense.
MVC: You two met in school?
Iheanyi: Yeah, we were like best friends, partners in crimes. Romeo’s a hardware head, I’m a software guy. I’m computer science and graphic design, Romeo has some dope industrial design skills too so we’re kindof like yin and yang.
MVC: Were you two the only black dudes in your classes?
Iheanyi: Yes, I was the only black computer science graduate in the class of 2014.
Romeo: I was the only black graduate in the class of 2014 in electrical engineering.
MVC: Tell us about Two Black Nerds, we’ve really been enjoying listening to it. How did you get started making it?
Iheanyi: During college, me and Romeo would always have these deep conversations, very intellectual and most of the time they had a technology focus. We’d find something really cool or something that was just released, or talk about some new product or design or form factor. We also had a lot of conversations around social issues, or our various opinions on current events.
Romeo: Our goal was to hit about once a week, but then a couple times things slipped, so we try to do it every two weeks, but I think we’re picking up pace again. It was a cool thing that we can do out of college as a project together.
MVC: Out of all the episodes of Two Black Nerds you’ve done, what’s your favorite ones so far?
Romeo: Based on the stats, from what we’ve seen people like talking about minorities in tech the most. But for me my favorite episode was the first one, because it was completely out of the blue. It was supposed to be a test episode but we ended up publishing it in the beginning.
Iheanyi: We had an episode dedicated to our mentors, because in the last year alone, there’s been two of our faculty members we both knew during college who passed away: the Associate Dean of Engineering and the head of the design program at Notre Dame. That was really heartfelt, and one of my personal favorites. We talked about some of our mentors who are still with us, and how we wouldn’t be where we are at without our mentors during college.
MVC: We wanted to talk a bit about black men in tech, who really don’t get much attention in the diversity in tech discussion. What are your thoughts on that, and what are the specific challenges that are faced by black men in the industry?
Romeo: I try to look back at the point I came to the US in 2006, and essentially I went right into high school. And that’s when you start seeing the discrepancies. As soon as I was put in the honors math class, at that point I was the only black man in the honors class. And so thats my introduction to having very few black men represented in the sciences and technology space. You essentially get the “being the only one” effect. That brings a couple psychological challenges. And those are really challenging. But when you have people around you who support you, what it really comes down to is the conviction of doing the work.
Iheanyi: Those psychological effects are really you having a lot of self doubt in your ability. You don’t know if they are mainly rejecting you for your age, or because of your skin tone. I’ve been in lots of situations where I talked to older black men in tech, and they’re like “yeah, tough game, and you can be the most brilliant guy in the world next to Steve Jobs,” but you’ll be in situations where the color of your skin will cast a negative opinion in people’s minds. There’s these stereotypical biases that occur, and you have to work twice as hard to get half as much as what the average Silicon Valley or tech industry male gets in terms of proving yourself and your self worth, and you’re not really trusted off the bat.
Romeo: The thing is even if that’s not the case, you’re still constantly wondering: is it my technical abilities, the color of my skin? Do you think I’m dumb for asking this question, or do you think all black people are dumb?
Iheanyi: You feel like you’re a spokesperson for your race. I feel like I’m carrying the whole world of Black America on my back. You don’t want to look bad or slack off, or look like you’re not reliable because then they’ll be like, oh, I knew we shouldn’t have hired that dude. And they may look over other candidates of color in the future. Or at least, that’s one of my fears. So we have something to prove constantly, not only for ourselves but for an entire race or entire group of individuals.
MVC: Also something we had discussed setting up the interview is the importance of representation of black men in the tech industry.
Iheanyi: It’s really important to have role models. A lot of kids are saying “I want to be the next Bill Gates or next Mark Zuckerberg or Evan Spiegel,” but those are white men and you need to have really brilliant black men in the tech industry, that superstar, that role model kids can look up to. In college, I mentored the robotics team and built Android apps, I teach Black and Latino youth in Austin how to code and they’re really excited to come to the class and learn new things. They’re like, “I didn’t know I could do these things.” The second reason why it’s important for black people to be represented is because they identify problems that are unique to people of color. Take Bevel. Tristan realized there was a issue with the shaving experience for people of color, how we’re more prone to ingrown hairs due to the curly nature of our hair. He’s using that as the foundation for his business and to solve that problem, and now he’s identified a market to work from, a starting point so now he can expand Walker and Co to other health and beauty products.
Romeo: If you live it, you understand it. They always say “understand your user.” He understands the user because he IS the user. He understands the struggle of black people on a daily basis.
Iheanyi: If we get more black men and women in tech, we’ll see more problems being identified that a lot of people of color will relate to.
Romeo: I like to think about the future of tech a lot. Google’s going into cars, into health; you have Amazon going into drone delivery, Facebook going into internet delivery via drones, virtual reality. Everything in the future is affected by tech, not just in the sense of computer science but these innovations require mathematics, hardware engineers, electrical engineers. The world tomorrow is going to be fundamentally different, and if you want to make sure that black men are represented, we need to be represented in all these other sectors of the field as well.
MVC: Who are some black guys in tech people should be following and checking out, and are doing cool work?
Iheanyi: Marco Rogers is really really cool, both from the social aspect of saying his opinions, and he’s a really talented developer as well. David Nolen people sleep on, he helped make ClojureScript and Om. I met him at TexasJS and his talk just blew my mind. I got to meet him after and he’s really dope.
MVC: For other people interesting in starting a podcast, what have you learned about the process what advice would you give? What tools do you use?
Iheanyi: Really invest in a good mic. We use Simplecast.fm for hosting our podcasts, that costs $120 a year. We split that, so about $60 each a year, about $5 a month.
Romeo: We both use a Blue Yeti USB. I found the intro music on a Creative Commons website, and I cut that to the amount of bars I wanted. I use Audacity for editing the audio – it’s an open source free software. The first time took me about 1.5 hours to edit, but now it takes me about 45 minutes.
Iheanyi: I use Buffer for scheduling the social media posts. We use ZoHo Mail, they give you free storage so our Two Black Nerds email is set up there. We have a nice division of labor: answering emails, social media, all that jazz, you’re probably talking to me. Me and Romeo go half and half transcribing episode notes. Romeo does all the editing work, uploads it to Google Drive, I add show notes, schedule it to be published, and Twitter blast it.
Romeo: if you get used to it you can get the editing time to around 30-45 minutes, and we’re not a heavily edited show since we’re not trying to story-tell, it’s just like two dudes talking to a mic. And if you make sure that you don’t curse during the episode, that makes it way easier in editing, haha.
MVC: So what’s next for Two Black Nerds, where can people find you and support you?
Romeo: The first goal, I think we’re just going to try to be more regular with the episodes.
Iheanyi: As far as reaching us, we are @twoblacknerds on Twitter, our site is twoblacknerds.com, and you can email us on firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re on iTunes, but you can also just listen directly on our site.