Class, the tech industry and me

Can the tech industry do more to support people from low-income backgrounds?

Amy Thornley
May 21, 2018 · 5 min read

Strive for success, make things better, put a dent in the universe — sound familiar? Working in the tech industry, we’re surrounded by this sort of hyperbole. I often feel like I needed to step up my game, everybody else is being so successful all the time. They’re doing talks, they’re renowned on twitter, they’re working at Facebook and the list goes on.

I began to worry that I was not ambitious enough, and I thought it had might have something to do with my background.

I grew up on a council estate with my mum, my sister and my grandparents. My mum is a single parent, and she spent my childhood working hard to keep clothes on our back and food on the table. My family was working class through and through ­­ — the word ‘Thatcher’ was a swear word in our house.

Nobody in my family had been to university before. So when I came along and was deemed bright at a young age, my family were not sure how to react. There was a lot of “oohing” and “ahhing” as if I was some kind of lucky gem.

I was, in fact, average, in comparison to my peers. Though I was in the top sets, I was a hanger on. I tried my best to keep up, but I struggled. I was painfully aware that my peers backgrounds where different to my own. We may have been in the same class, but we were in a different social class. There seemed to be only a handful of students in the top sets who ‘were like me’. Most of the students from working class households would be in the lower down sets. I still wonder why that is. You might assume— as the rhetoric goes— that it’s due to a lack of ambition.

Ambition is ‘a strong desire to do or achieve something’. If you’ve ever been in an interview where someone has asked “what are your hopes and ambitions?” You would be forgiven for thinking the two were one and the same. But ambition is different to hope. Ambition is not merely willing something to happen. It’s about having the determination to make it happen.

A lot of people assume that people with low-income don’t have aspirations. That they don’t want to work and enjoy being poor.

This is not true.

They have hopes and dreams like anybody else. Where they often fail is that they don’t have the tools or support to achieve them. This can leave them feeling overwhelmed and hopeless, so they don’t even try.

I know this, because despite my successes — I’ve felt this way on many occasions. The one that most comes to mind is when I left university. I turned down several internships in London because I couldn’t afford to work for free or for next to nothing. My classmates thought I was bordering on stupidity.

I was in despair. I spent the next 9 months switching between claiming job seekers — an experience so humiliating, that nobody in their right mind would want to prolong — and doing odd bits of freelance. I used my coding skills to help small businesses build websites. This gave me enough cash to help mum with the bills and avoid the dreaded job centre.

Eventually, I took a job as a Front End Developer. My boss was nice enough to throw me the occasional design brief. This gave me the portfolio I needed to side step back into the world of design.

I’d had determination enough to teach myself how to make websites as a teenager. I went to art and design college, despite not having any art qualifications. I went to university, despite creeping self doubt, which came out in the form of an aimless gap which I spent working in a buddhist shop. I had what you’d call ambition, but sometimes it wasn’t enough.

Now I know what you’re thinking. Quit whining. You did it. You work at one of the largest media organisations in the world as a User Experience Designer.

Myself and Software Engineer, John Bogart

And you’d be right. But my point is, that it wasn’t easy, in fact it was flipping hard. I had to make sacrifices — like taking a different career path — that more privileged graduates didn’t have to.

The term imposter syndrome gets thrown around a lot. But it’s easy to imagine how this could be magnified if you’re from a poor background.

I don’t know how to be assertive. I don’t know how to act in formal situations. I don’t know how to climb the corporate ladder.

You don’t have your parents giving you advice about pay, progression or pensions. It’s likely that you’ll earn more than a parent in your first graduate job. All of this can make you feel under supported and alone.

I’ve found seeking out other people who come from similar backgrounds invaluable. But these encounters have been few and far between. Or maybe, if you feel like me, you’re too embarrassed to say anything. It’s not like you would want to advertise that your family used to eat jam sandwiches toasted on a gas fire for tea. Honestly, it’s good, try it.

The great thing about the tech industry is that it doesn’t care where you come from. You can do that thing we need? Great, you’re in. There’s something wonderful about that. Perhaps we’ll look back and say that the tech industry levelled the playing field for a generation.

For those of you, like me, who made it despite being working class or from a low-income background. Well done. Give yourself a pat on the back. It wasn’t easy, it took ambition, and you did it.

But still, I worry about all those people who are coming unstuck, like I did after University. Or, sadder yet, those less well-off kids who don’t know that there is a place for them in these industries. Our ambition should now be: how can we help these young people? How can we give them the support and tools they need to not only dream, but to dare.

Maybe, I am ambitious after all.

Amy Thornley

Written by

UX Designer at the BBC. Trying to make things better using design and tech. Accessibility advocate / A11Y.