Throughout my life, I’ve generally been very deliberate in everything I do: I knew what I wanted, and every undertaking was in pursuit of that goal.
As a Black girl, I was taught very early that uncertainty was a luxury I couldn’t afford and so, I had to have a dream, I had to work towards that dream, and most importantly, I had to achieve that dream.
When I decided I wanted to become a Software Engineer, it was one of the scariest leaps I’ve ever had to take for a number of reasons. Full disclosure: I cannot recall a point before my Junior year of college when I wanted to be anything but an attorney. I’ve always been a talker, with a knack for debating, so naturally, Law seemed like the best fit – or at least that’s what I’ve always told myself.
Recently however, I’ve begun to evaluate the impacts of seemingly harmless comments and actions by the people around me and how those may have directly impacted my academic and ultimately, my career choices.
One of my most distinct memories as a teenager was being told by a biology teacher that she didn’t “see me” in STEM and that I should stick to something easier. She made the comment jokingly, but I’m now 27 years old and I can remember that exact moment, that exact feeling – that in itself is testament to the long lasting effect words can have on someone. I began to question whether I was actively pursuing a law career because I genuinely wanted to, or whether I was doing it because I had been conditioned to think that as a woman — and a Black woman, at that — the STEM space wasn’t for me?
Needless to say, I decided to pursue a career in STEM despite the aforementioned reasons, and after successfully completing App Academy’s Software Engineering bootcamp, I thought that it would be helpful to share a few snippets of my journey with the next Black girl who might be anxious about pursuing a career in Tech.
Five Things I Learned as Black Woman in Tech
This is a bro’s world.
I knew when I decided to pursue a bachelor’s in Computer Science that I was essentially entering a “Man’s world”, and I can be honest about that. What I didn’t expect was the “bro culture”. I didn’t anticipate lengthy “bro” oriented conversations and having to feel uncomfortable every time I went to class. I didn’t anticipate jokes aimed at women whilst I sat there, the only non-male in a class size of about 15. There is still an issue with gender diversity in tech, and although we love to think that we’ve made significant strides towards gender equality in the workplace, the truth is women only account for 8 % of Software developer roles globally, with only a 2% increase in hiring in the last 20 years.
That being said, I was persistent and I was not shy about calling out professors, classmates or peers who made inappropriate jokes or comments. As a Black woman in tech, you have a right to be in that space and a right to speak up if anyone infers otherwise or attempts to make you uncomfortable.
Part of the reason I decided to write this piece is because I know how important it was for me to see people who looked like me in the roles that I was pursuing. Trying to become a lawyer felt natural to me partly because I saw women who looked like me in that role – I could envision myself in a courtroom because I’d seen other strong Black women in courtrooms (See: Viola Davis and Gina Torres). But finding a female Software Engineer was like finding a unicorn. We just weren’t in these roles! I’ve made a point of sharing some of my experiences on social media for that very reason – I want Black girls to see themselves in me. I want Black women in tech to know that this IS possible.
I was particularly excited when I started with App Academy because when I looked at my zoom screen, I saw other people who looked like me looking back. My cohort included people of all races, cultures and backgrounds and the overall environment was very inclusive.
You have to be your biggest cheerleader.
I remember my mom saying to me once that if I waited for the world to applaud me I would never make it anywhere. Truer words have never been spoken. There are no participation trophies for Black women, and even when you’re extraordinary, you’re encouraged to be “humble” about your achievements. I’ve often found myself trying to diminish my achievements so I wouldn’t be seen as the loud, boastful Black girl. I was embarrassed to draw attention to myself even when I had done something great! Note that I have never had a problem constantly coming down on myself for not knowing enough or not feeling like enough though.
As I progressed in my undergrad career, I learned the importance of cheering for me. Taking a moment to acknowledge how far you have come doesn’t mean you’ve gotten comfortable or complacent. Root for yourself! I’ll say it again, root for yourself! If you don’t pause every now and again to look back on your achievements and applaud your progress (no matter how little), this world will swallow you.
If you’re a Black woman in tech reading this, chances are someone has offered unsolicited advice on what you should or shouldn’t do with your life. They’ve told you what type of roles they see you in and which ones just don’t seem to “fit” your person. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news but those people never go away.
When I decided that I wanted to work in tech, I was relentless in my pursuit of that goal. I knew that some of the opportunities that were afforded to some of my peers would never be given to me and I had to work for everything I had. For me, that looked like staying in the library until closing, finding extra resources to supplement my learning and making connections with people who could help me grow as an engineer. I was hungry to be successful because I had to be. It doesn’t seem fair that someone else can do half the work and secure twice the opportunity, but unfortunately that is our reality and I had to work with what I was given. I made a conscious decision to not focus on the disadvantages, but instead focused my energy on getting to where I wanted to be in my career.
It’s okay to not have all the answers.
A few weeks before my graduation showcase at App Academy, I had a 2am panic attack. I remember reaching out to one of the technical instructors at an ungodly hour to tell her how not ready I felt. What I remember most vividly about that experience however, is her telling me that she’s worked as a Software Engineer for years and still relied heavily on Google and Stack Overflow for a number of things. I chuckle now when I think back on that time, but I remember the sheer panic I felt not because I didn’t think I could build an amazing capstone, but because I wasn’t sure if I could surpass my cohort-mates expectations as the only Black woman in the graduating class. I remember thinking I couldn’t be the one who messes up because then I wouldn’t just be a student who under-delivered, but rather The Black woman who wasn’t good enough. I remember being too paralyzed with fear of judgement to ask for help when I needed it.
Imposter syndrome can be compounded by the fact that I am a Black woman, but in those moments, I had to remind myself that even a Senior Software Engineer still asks Google! It’s ok to feel like you don’t have the answer as long as you are willing to put in the work to get those answers and solidify your knowledge with practice.
As we continue to celebrate Black History Month – I am grateful for everyone who has come before me and made it possible for me to enjoy my career path today and whilst I don’t have all the answers, I’m hoping that my experience can quell some of the anxiety that other Black women might be facing as they venture into the world of Tech and STEM.