When I graduated from college I began working at an IT company without knowing I was setting myself up for a career in tech. I had a lovely experience at this first job, and although I was in a project management role, it was still a very male, non-minority dominated environment. Yet, I never felt alienated; the developers I was surrounded by were always very supportive of my desire to learn and hone my technical skills.
I then moved to the Midwest to become a senior analyst and then eventually a data analyst, where I faced egregious underestimation of my intellect. I’d interview for jobs and talk about my accomplishments and either no one would believe me or they’d tune me out while I was talking. Within weeks of starting the senior analyst role I was switched to another type of consulting. The travelling and interesting work I was promised turned into tech support. So I began interviewing at various companies. I remember one in particular where I had interviewed exceedingly well with the director and an analyst in the department. I was called back for another interview with two female vice presidents who were the hiring managers. They asked me questions and later would ask again, sometimes because they were in shock of my claims, other times because they had not been listening the first time I responded. Their expressions from the beginning revealed lack of confidence and at that point I knew I had already been rejected. At the end of the interview they learned nothing about my background. I definitely felt that racial discrimination was at play.
Even after moving back to New York, it was not easy to prove I was capable, and the obstacles I faced were not limited to the job search, but extended to teaching. I have had bad experiences where I have faced blatant prejudice. I was asked to teach a programming workshop and before the scheduled date I met with a staff member to see the facility. When I was introduced to one of the organization’s students as the instructor of an upcoming course, the man responded with disbelief saying, “You?” as he towered above me. In this case I feel that I was discriminated against because of my gender.
Many times, I have seen tutorials or presentations by non-minority males receive undue acclaim, even when put together haphazardly. In contrast, minorities in tech like women and underrepresented races need to be ultra prepared and make sure their execution is flawless. I was spurned after teaching at too quick a pace and told an exercise that the previous male instructor did four times with no complaints was offensive. The organization immediately removed me from future assignments and my compensation was dropped to a third of what I was promised. I believe this was an instance of racial and gender discrimination by the attendees. Realities like this can be a deterrent, making it seem like there is no point in continuing to push forward given that nothing can be done to change your gender and race so as to join the boys club, not even “leaning in” to grasp opportunities because the gatekeepers then lean out, away from you.
And the deterrents start early. I remember as an honors student in high school casually being asked, “Why did you apply to an Ivy League school? You won’t get in.” Or having guys brag about their score on the PSATs and asking me how I did to stroke their egos, assuming I did worse when to their embarrassment I did much better than they did. The same non-minority male privilege I found as a high school student persists even into adult-hood. Even worse, women and racial minorities begin to buy into the ideology that only white and Asian males are good at technical things and question if they can succeed in such a field. Unfortunately these people have internalized negative experiences rather than realizing that even if you are at a disadvantage in tech, you still have a chance. You will achieve your goals if you continue to try.
Because no one would give me a chance, I gave myself a chance. I got involved in the Meetup scene and started working on technical projects in my free time, as a hobby. I found open source data and used it to dust off the statistical programming skills that I learned in college. I audited some courses on Udacity and added exercises from that to my Github, or open code and posted these bits of information on my LinkedIn profile. Once I moved back to the New York-area I could entertain many more unbiased views of my talents than when I was in the Midwest.
In New York I began to attend conferences like PyData and forPythonQuants. I even started organizing a meetup group for women in tech called NYC Pyladies. Why? On one hand I wanted to meet as many people as possible. On the other I wanted to learn as much as possible. I feel I achieved both. I did not major in computer science or do any internships as an undergrad, but once I realized I wanted to be in a technical role and not just work in a technical company, I just kept surrounding myself with positive people who believed in me and patiently continued to look for a company that would appreciate what I could bring to the table.
I also stopped applying to companies via their jobs site or through staffing firms, and instead used my network. In my experience, searching for jobs in the traditional ways had resulted in deceit or underpay. But this networking approach worked! Finally, through an old classmate I landed a short term role at Cornell. I loved it. When this role ended I decided that using the same strategy I would aim for a permanent role next.
Now I work as an analyst developer at a prestigious and internationally known firm. I was always capable of such a role, but between being underemployed and undervalued, I had a hard time getting my foot into the door despite my excellent educational background and relevant work experience. What helped me eventually overcome these obstacles was refusing to be drowned out and becoming a better public relations agent for myself. Instead of complaining to people about the fact that I had never had a job which fully utilized my talents, I would infiltrate these non-minority environments and make friends with people there. At tech happy hours I was invited to I would show pride in my uniqueness and use the fact that I stood out to my advantage. I would use my relationship with the host or a veteran attendee to start conversations. Boldness was my friend, despite secretly being afraid of rejection.
In particular, a guy I met at a conference and had mutual contacts with invited me to a tech drink social he was hosting. He introduced me to his friends, but I still had to dig beyond that cursory act and make people interested in me. I talked about my background and shared how I was currently freelancing. Often smaller settings are less work because they force everyone to interact with one another. Once one guy was on my side, it was easy to get the next one, and then the rest followed in support of me. I left with multiple offers to pass on my resume and urges for me to increase my salary requirements. I was completely dumbfounded because I had no idea of my true worth, to the point of arguing with them. Regardless I was validated in my journey and my confidence increased.
People began to regard my presence as an asset as opposed to an impediment. I also used my alma mater associations and would get to know people whose careers I admired and who could validate my skills. Slowly, I built a reputation around which companies began to invite me to teach programming, write articles as a contributing author, and interview for jobs! It was exciting that the tech world thought I had something useful to say.
So instead of using an amorphous metaphor to tell women, especially minority women, to “lean in,” I assert with definitiveness, be your best promoter and get involved. I believe by embracing the very thing that makes us feel like outsiders in the tech world, minorities can infiltrate it and hence finally be able to take hold of the chance to thrive.