Dara Oke On Being A Double Minority In Tech And #ILookLikeAnEngineer

August 11, 2015 / Doyin Oyeniyi

Dara Oke via Love, Darbie.

For our first interview with ROOTs Technology’s mentors and speakers, we caught up with Dara Oke as she’s preparing to move to Seattle for her job as a Program Manager for Windows at Microsoft. Since she’s been involved with tech from a young age and has worked at large companies such as Intel, Twitter, and Microsoft, we wanted to get her perspective on the industry, her personal experiences, and her recent twitter fame, before she took off for the Pacific Northwest. Not only is Dara an engineer and programmer, but she’s also a photographer, lifestyle blogger, and graphic designer. You can find her tweeting and writing at Love, Darbie.

How would you describe your role with ROOTs Technology?

I would call myself more of a mentor. I just show up and help as much as I can. I also collaborate with TJ on how we can expand what [the students] are learning, the lesson plans, and things like that. Somewhat of a technology liaison or mentor is what I would say.

How did you get started with coding?

I started coding at a really young age, maybe around nine or 10. I was exposed to people who were in the field and also got a laptop. Because of things I was really interested in, I found my way into this world of web design. So fast-forward a few years, I was really passionate about [coding] and spent a lot of time practicing my HTML and CSS. By the time I was 13 or 14 I was freelancing these skills and building websites for organizations, local businesses, churches, and companies. So when it came down to choosing my college major, computer science was just the natural choice, because I could spend the rest of my life innovating and working on technology.

How has it been for you working in the tech field as a black woman?

It’s a really unique experience. I don’t think people who don’t have that intersectionality of identities can really understand. I have to deal with the fact that there are not many people who are black in the tech industry and the fact that there are not many people who are female in the tech industry. A lot of times I get very puzzled looks and I keep having to prove my worth time and time again. And it’s very exhausting. But it’s also very liberating to know that I can serve as a role model in a sense. That this is possible and we do exist.

When it comes to addressing diversity in the tech industry what role do you think programs like ROOTs Technology have in that?

I think programs like ROOTs Technology are the foundation in tackling the diversity problem. When I was young, I attended programs similar [to ROOTs Tech] and they completely shaped my life. I don’t know if I would be doing computer science if it wasn’t for the people who exposed [me to it] at an early age. So when I see programs like ROOTs Technology and other programs that target young minority people to expose them to tech, this is laying the foundation for future generations. If we have more of these programs and more of these students getting interested… in the next 10 to 15 years, the tech industry might look a lot different.

Can you tell me about this hashtag, #ILookLikeAnEngineer, that you were recently part of?

This hashtag started a couple of days ago. I was actually a little bit late on it, but I checked it out and I was very delighted to see the faces of these rockstar engineers who are women and people of color, and just anyone who didn’t fit that typical mold of what an engineer should look like. So I added my two cents to it without giving it much thought and I wasn’t expecting as much reception as I got. I’ve gained like 1,500 followers. I’ve gotten about almost 3,000 retweets on the tweet I posted. It’s interesting because I think a lot of people are seeing this and it’s kind of like a phenomenon to them: that a black woman exists in the tech industry. Because I know so many [black women] who are out there and doing great work, it’s become normal to me, but I see that for the rest of society it’s not the same. So that shows that we have a lot of work to do to change what an engineer looks like. That’s why I think the hashtag is so powerful: because I don’t only look like an engineer, I am an engineer. We need to change that whole concept or stereotype of what an engineer should look like.

What else have you learned from this experience? Because you have the intersections of being a black woman in the tech industry — even as minority, you’re a double minority.

I actually posed a question to my twitter followers last night at 2 a.m. in the morning. I asked people who identify as double minorities — you know, like a black woman — which part of their identity takes preeminence. Whether it’s their blackness or their femininity. I got a lot of interesting responses. The reason I asked that was [because] I found that a lot of movements like this diversity in tech movement [are] really centered around the inclusion of women. Or sometimes it centers around the inclusion of [racial] minorities, but it seems like they’re so separated. When I first read the article for #ILookLikeAnEngineer, I was really intrigued and proud, but I was also a little disappointed because it seemed to focus greatly on being a woman and not looking like an engineer, when I know that there are black men who suffer from not fitting that mold. Being a double minority, it’s a really unique place because I have to deal with the effects of being a woman and [of] blackness.

What are some of the courses that you’ve taken, people that you’ve come into contact with, or programs that you’ve been through, that have helped you grow on your path as an engineer?

Every class I took in college was very useful. The class that I learned the most was my operating systems course and although I learned a lot about the subject matter, I think I learned a lot about myself as an engineer. I’ll forever treasure that class just for teaching me that putting in the hours, you will get the results. That was a class that I was spending 80 hours of my week working to fix problems in my code and things like that. But past the classes, I think college is a great school, but I did most of my learning hands-on from my internships. Those were where I learned the most, especially when it comes to how to code and the right way to code. College more so taught me how to think. The first time I spoke at a ROOTs class, I said, “my computer science degree didn’t teach me how to code, it taught me how to think,” and I stand by that. Also as college is concerned, my freshmen year of college, I went to a National Society of Black Engineers meeting and that completely changed my life. I was surrounded by people who looked like me doing what I do. And they were thriving; it was the most magical thing I had ever seen.

Is there any particular message you have for women of color who are interested in technology?

I think my main message would be to just go for it. It’s really unfortunate that we don’t see a lot of women of color in this industry, so a lot of people don’t think that this is something they can achieve. For anyone who is interested in coding, it’s one of those things that if you work hard and are diligent, you will reap the results. You will learn, you will be able to build, you will be able to create something. My advice for all people of color is just start learning and see what comes from it.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. It’s also been move to Medium f rom the old ROOTs Technology website, owned by Tj Oyeniyi.