Dear Marginalized People Coming Into Tech

Experiences, Thoughts and Advice From Experienced Technologists

by Kronda Adair on January 13th, 2014

The tech industry is undeniably dominated by straight white men (much like the rest of the world, surprise surprise).

If you’re coming into this industry and don’t match that description, you’re going to have some extra challenges. Your hardships may range from the mildly annoying to cry-in-the-bathroom-at-work heartbreaking.

I don’t want you to be caught by surprise, but the most important thing I want to tell you is that in the end, it doesn’t matter. If this is what you want, you can do it. If you’re curious and persistent, you can have the career you want in tech and no one can stop you.

Women Who Hack Group.

Pic from Women Who Hack in Portland, Oregon

You’re smart enough.

You’re good enough.

Imposter syndrome is the phenomenon of feeling inadequate, or like a fraud, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. It’s so pervasive, even the white dudes suffer from it (they just hide it better). If you feel like a fake, it’s not because you are one, it’s because this industry moves so fast, there’s no way anyone can learn it all. That’s OK. Focus on the problems you want to solve and the people you want to help. Learn what you need to do that. It’s the people who think they know everything who probably aren’t learning.

Who Am I and Why Am I Telling You This?

I’m a 42 year old Black lesbian, living in the one of the whitest large cities in the U.S, and making a living in tech. And if I can do that, you certainly can.

You don’t have to be young. You don’t need to be a ‘digital native’. I went back to school at age 34. I graduated from college in 2011. If you read the mainstream tech publications, or hell, even a few job ads, it might seem like only programming ‘ninjas’ and ‘rock stars’ can make it in this industry. But that’s completely false.

I’ve only been doing this for a few years. I can name plenty of people who are better programmers than I am. And yet, I have a successful freelance web development business. I’ve spoken at conferences and given presentations to hundreds of people. I get to decide who I work with and make my own schedule, which is the dream I had when I got into this industry.

To get to this point, I have had to go over some bumps in the road. I started my career as an intern, and then employee of a small specialized agency. There I found both amazing mentors and some truly clueless attitudes and behavior from some of my coworkers and my boss. Especially my boss.

In my first review, my boss asked what my objectives were for the near future. When I said I wanted to work on my backend programming skills, he responded by saying, “Well, I don’t know, you’ll never be as good as $male_developer, he’s been at this for 15 years, you know.”

He also tried to convince me that I didn’t need a degree and I should drop out of school to come work for him–two months before graduation.

You will meet people who underestimate your talent, your worth and your ambition because of preconceived ideas they may have about your gender, race, sexuality or some other attribute. You are not dependent on those people for your success. You will find just as many (if not many more) other people who are grateful for your skills and the value you provide them.

As important as it is to develop your coding skills, it’s equally important that you develop a supportive network of people around you, who can be there for you during your journey.

#BYDHTTMWFI (But You Don’t Have to Take My Word for It)

iUrbanTeen Program Photo.

Pic from iUrbanTeen, bringing together underrepresented teens for educational tech programs.

I spoke with a few awesome programmers from diverse backgrounds to learn about their experiences getting in to tech as members of underrepresented or marginalized groups. Their experience level ranges from one to 13 years in the industry. Some are independent contractors, some work for companies, some have their own startups.

I asked them a few questions. Here’s what they had to say, and their advice for you.

What do you wish you had known prior to coming into the industry?

Emily: I think the one thing I had most wished I had known […] is just how well I’d do at it. I felt utterly unqualified, uneducated, and overwhelmed. For many years, I never applied for any tech job whatsoever, and I finally did so only when pushed to it, underselling myself dramatically in the process. Yet, in the end, I’ve done really well, and I’ve proven myself really valuable. I understand now, I was asking the wrong question: not, “Why would I go into tech?” but more, “Why isn’t everyone in tech?”

Anonymous: I wish someone would have told me that imposter’s syndrome is much harder to deal with than actual coding problems.

Tiffani: I wish I had known that being a black woman in tech (who’s actually technical) would make some people uncomfortable and how to deal with that and still succeed. I also wish I had known how to be a better advocate for myself, initially.

My first internship was at a large (un-named) tech company with a team of 6 or 7 white guys back in 2005. I really was the diversity/token hire. That made things awkward.

My team members would make jokes and do other things that now I can look back and see were totally offensive, but I was 19 and didn’t really know any better about speaking up or have anyone I felt comfortable turning to. I didn’t know about various affinity groups that could have been sources of support.

It taught me, however, to believe in my skills and never be swayed by somebody who needs to believe (for whatever reason) I don’t know what I’m doing. I admit that at certain moments I gave in to their low expectations to my own detriment. Never again, however!

Lindsey: Salary negotiation and how to assert myself, but even more so that confrontation is okay and not something I should be afraid of.

Ashe: It would have been nice to know that a lot of your job is making friends with the right people, which is where many people get opportunities.

What are some ways that you take care of yourself in the face of the widespread discrimination and exclusion in the industry? (Combined answers)

  • Finding people to vent to and people who will remind me that I am actually good at things when my impostor syndrome hits me hard has been super important.
  • The most important thing is finding other people who have dealt with this or are working to make things better.
  • Lots of escapism in the form of books, video games and comics.
  • I keep a tight group of supportive people around me–some who work in tech and some who don’t– that have shown me the ropes and have helped me in the moments where I’ve needed to vent or figure out how to handle some iffy situation.
  • Have really good friends that understand the problems I face every day. It’s nice to have people that I can rant to and not have to convince them of anything, they just understand. I found and connected with a few different women-focused hacker groups in my area.
  • In situations where I’m not vulnerable, I become a squeaky wheel. I advocate for others when I can.
  • I left the agency world and now my usual workday is from my home office with one or more cats cluttering up the keyboard. I don’t deal with day to day BS that happened in an office dominated by white men.
  • Therapy.

Why do you choose to stay? (Combined answers)

  • Knowing how to make, and design software gives you a tremendous amount of power in society. Personally, the journey of learning how to code has taught me how to become more analytical.
  • I love programming. It’s something I do for fun outside of my job and I love that I can do something I love and get paid for it.
  • For the most part, I love what I do and I love the people I’ve met here.
  • Money. I feel I could succeed in a lot of environments, but the money plays the biggest role. Tech’s compensation feels outsized compared to anything else I know. Another huge element is the ability to work around physical disabilities I experience; tech jobs come with a ton of accessibility and flexibility.
  • I wanted a career that gave me independence. I’m married to a nurse who works odd hours. Now that I have my own business, I can arrange my schedule to spend more time with her.
  • I choose to stay in tech despite moments of awkwardness because I’m extremely good at what I do, I enjoy learning new stuff, and I’ve helped a ton of people. Those things have far outweighed any pockets of discrimination or exclusion I’ve run into. I always seem to encounter more people that appreciate my contributions than those who don’t.
  • I have a direct relationship with most of my clients and my goal is to help them reach their goals. When I succeed, they are extremely grateful. My work has a direct, positive effect on their lives and their businesses.

What do you want to say to people from marginalized communities who are entering the industry?

  • Don’t lose sight [of] why you enjoy programming, and don’t let other people’s antiquated paradigms stop you from entering the field of software development.
  • Have faith in yourself. Don’t let the privileged undercut your worth. That’s a tough message to bring home, but it’s the most important.
  • Finding a mentor or someone who will be there for you when stuff gets tough is extremely important and I would highly recommend finding that/those person(s) before you even enter the industry.
  • Find people who have your back and understand where you’re coming from. It took me far too long to meet and connect with other marginalized people and it’s done so much for my mental health and outlook.

Tiffani: Stay the course. Keep hacking. Do NOT give in to low expectations. You’re going to encounter some pushback from people who perceive you as a threat and as somehow lessening their power and influence. That’s fine. Fundamentally, people don’t like change even when it’ll benefit them in the long run. That’s not a problem you should concern yourself with as there are tons of others you can solve with your new skills! :) There are people who will welcome you with open arms if you seek them!

Focus on your career, building a supportive community around yourself, and all the positive contributions you make when you keep your skills sharp and contribute where you can. Be as sharp as you can. (The look on people’s faces who wrongfully thought you wouldn’t be sharp because you’re not their idea of who typically does tech is ALWAYS priceless. :D)

The outpouring of goodwill you encounter from doing that will far outweigh anyone’s efforts to undermine your skills and contributions.

Find Your People

So there you have it, my lovelies. The upper echelons of this industry may have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the new world, in which the tech world looks a lot more like the rest of the world. But opportunity is here for you and you are needed.

Black Girls Code Photo

Pic from Black Girls Code.

If there’s one thing you should understand by now, it’s that you are not alone, even if you’re the only $diversity in your company, your meetup, your hacker group. There are more resources, groups, companies, founders, doers and makers than ever before. Build your support network both in person and online. Below is a partial list to get you started.