Truths told by a black woman developer, no chaser.
Blah, blah, diversity. This buzzword has been thrown around for a few years, since big company X revealed their abysmal numbers. Solutions were made, the ‘pipeline’ was introduced, and money has been thrown as a bandage to a larger problem. Funny thing is, no one asks brown people about their stories, to actually improve the tech ecosphere.
I wish I didn’t have a story, but I think it’s important to share as I focus on preparing the next wave of brown technologists enter an industry not made for them. Because these things have happened, will happen, and will probably always happen. They’ll only stop happening when humans start respecting each other as humans.
In this story, I won’t list the names of the companies. You’ll Google me to find them, anyway. I’ll share my truth, my salaries, and my opinions…and nothing more. And I’ll watch as some folks race to my story’s comment section to defend the actions of those mentioned- I’ll point to my second paragraph as to why this story had to be shared. Ready? It’s a doozy.
I have been a web developer of sorts since 2007. I started as a stay at home mom and freelancer, aiding other entrepreneurial moms in building an online web presence for their businesses by creating logos, graphics, and then CMS-backed websites (Wordpress, Wix, etc). I have been familiar with and have written HTML, CSS, and PhP since 2007. After freelancing for about 8 years, I decided to learn to code. I’ve always been intimidated by coding- I was taught that girls aren’t great at math, and given the conditioning, I wasn’t great at math. My art and creative focus kept me away from the heavy lifting when working with clients, and for intense programming I’d look to other freelancers to complete tasks. I soon recognized the power in being able to have an idea, then manifest said idea using my own hands. Being able to create a site from start to finish was my goal, so around the end of 2014 I began to teach myself to code using online resources like Lynda and Khan Academy.
In 2015, I decided that I’d dedicate the year to changing careers and making the dive into web development. At the time, I had a lag in freelance work and worked remotely for a popular ride-sharing company. I lived in a 2br apartment in Maryland with my two children and made $28,000. We were comfortable, but I wanted more. One day in February, I happened to see a post in a Women Who Code newsletter for scholarships to attend General Assembly. Some weeks later, I earned a full-ride scholarship to attend GA in San Francisco.
The Journey Begins
I packed up my apartment, sold my car and stuff, and landed in a small studio in South SF with my two kids. For 12 weeks, I spent long hours learning the full stack, coming home to my kids to spend a few hours with dinner and quality time before sending them to bed, coding for a few hours, working, then sleeping to repeat the next day. I cried myself to sleep some nights, from exhaustion and feeling like I’d NEVER get it. From knowing that I HAD to make it, that I had to grasp what was being taught to me for the sake of my little ones. I still feared math, but failure was my biggest and most prevalent fear. I didn’t stop working 40 hours a week until I was blessed to receive additional scholarship money, and even then devoted the hours that I would have spent working to finding employment after bootcamp.
I learned from a newer instructor that my other teachers deemed me a “special student.”
During bootcamp, I often felt like my instructors silently wrote me off. Because I learned outside-in (that is, it made more sense to me to layout sites and app projects and build in functionality as I go, from front-end to back), I was deemed unteachable. Maybe my glazed eyes in class fooled them- while I took incessant notes and soaked in knowledge, I’m sure I appeared undoubtedly tired. I was only one of a few moms in class, and the only single mom. Nonetheless, each project I presented in class was built from front-to-back, and by the end of my stint I had over 15 projects done (most done outside of school hours) in Github. In class, my questions were often met with gruff responses, and during a drunken rant at my graduation, I learned from a newer instructor that my other teachers deemed me a “special student.”
My first job experience after bootcamp was amazing. I found my summer job while still in bootcamp in May, with a diverse nonprofit in the Bay Area doing huge things for low-income youth of color. I could immediately fulfill my promise to increase tech access by educating the next generation, and by the end of bootcamp had recognized skill in front-end development. Not only did I get to teach students how to build websites, about HTML and CSS, and to motivate them to join the tech industry, I was interviewed a few times on different publications for my work. They always made me feel embarrassed because I was new to the industry. My coworkers felt like family, I was uplifted, celebrated, and appreciated for my talent, and I was encouraged after the summer position to jump feet first into the tech industry, for reals. I felt ready and motivated, and despite hearing horror stories about the work environment of other brown people in tech, I went for it.
My summer employment ended in July 2015, and as I was working (and since the middle of April), I’d been interviewing for companies. I was lucky enough to score interviews with HUGE names, like the internet radio company that personalizes what you hear, the one that added SMS to apps, the one that is behind most customer support tickets, and more. Each one of them loved me personally and I went through many rounds of interviews, but given my bootcamp education and “no prior experience” (because 8 years of being a web designer was nothing, apparently), I was told by each company that I just didn’t have enough experience. In August, I left San Francisco to head back to Maryland to regroup. I felt like I’d failed my kids, but I knew it would be easier for me to find something and get my experience on paper to mimic my actual skill level.
Back in Maryland, I took a month to shake off the disappointment of leaving the Bay Area, and to land on my feet. After being received so well, it felt like a smack in the face to be back to my home state, but I noticed that there was a groundswell of innovation happening. I couldn’t stay down because I had two sets of eyes looking up to me, so I kept going. I hooked up with the local tech industry, volunteered with Lesbians Who Tech and Technical.ly, and looked for another job. It took me about a month and a half to land my first coding job, and I was overjoyed at the prospect of finally starting my programming career.
First Programming Job?
On paper, the job posting was for a Web Designer/Developer, which sounded perfect for my skill set. I met all of the requirements, and knew I’d be a great match for the company. The job description promised creative freedom, something I value. When I got there however, I was hustled. The position was for a small used car dealer-turned marketing agency, and the job was actually for HTML email development. In September of 2015 I was offered $45,000/year (grossly underpaid for the amount of work expected) to push <td>’s and <tr>’s around in Dreamweaver, to craft HTML emails. I had to take the job, as my savings was dwindling and I had to provide. I sat in a two room office, one housing “the nerds” (as my boss once referred to us) which consisted of me, a high-strung project manager, and one other developer.
At this job, I was privy to a number of stereotypic, racist ‘jokes’ on a daily basis. One day my boss walked in holding his eyes slanted, and did an “oriental” (as he called ‘them’) impression. Another day he exclaimed that Mexicans were cheap and probably wouldn’t pay for our services. My coworker, a developer and white guy who was worried from the moment I walked in that I’d steal his position, was in charge of training me up and letting me loose. He referred to me as “Brittany,” (as synonymous with a ditzy person in this instance) because I asked too many questions.
After I started to produce at the same or in an increased pace, I was made to feel discouraged for asking questions and was not given the help I needed to complete tasks. Each day was a competition, and my coworker was determined to win. My project manager sat across from me and watched me work. No, literally watched me work. He huffed and puffed if I took too long relocating divs or un-nesting 1000 tables. The stress of having to endure racist jokes while being demeaned by my coworker and feeling constant fear of losing my job caused me to leave after only one month of employment. Again, that failure thing crept into my psyche, but luckily I had no time to dwell in it, as bills and kids kept me on the path to a new position.
Second Job- Not Better
My second coding job was for a small back-end focused agency that has worked for some big names that you’d probably recognize. It was for a Front End Developer position, something better suited for my skill set. I’d have creative freedom. I’d have the ability to work under a high ranking supervisor. I’d be able to share ideas. This was a big draw for me, and after explaining why I left my first position after a month (after being minimally pressured to do so- the interview team was super interested to hear why I left my previous job after a month, and promised that diversity was key in their company), I got the job in November 2015. I earned $60,000/year.
My new office was huge and gorgeous. A big open office with graffiti on the walls, a fully stocked kitchen, and a free beer tap. Yes, a beer tap. I was sat in the back of the office, and was the only front-end person reporting directly to the CEO. I was one of three black women, one of a few women developers. Not sure if I was the only LGBT person on staff. Needless to say, the bro-gram was in full effect here. See that image above? That’s from work chat. I had to ask someone to remove it- it was definitely a Giphy fail, but it was left up in the chat for a long time, without anyone mentioning anything.
Things started awesomely. I loved my job, and I was doing well. I finished tasks in a day, I committed code, I pushed to remote repos. I learned about VPNs in a way I never knew them before. I learned how to work within sprints in an industry standard sort of way, and I was tasked with big, visible projects. After the training period, I was given a large task involving a site that hadn’t been updated since 2008. And so it begins.
A Turn Right to Hell
I was generally ignored at work. No one spoke to me, not even the other women/brown people in the office (somehow, because there’s so few of us I always expect that we’d gravitate toward each other). Everyone went to lunch together, and most times I was left in the office alone. I was asked to go to lunch on 5 total occasions in 6 months (and turned them down most times, as I felt like I was being invited due to pity, instead of interest). I was pleasant and social- maybe it was where I was sitting, away from most others? I didn’t have a team to collaborate with, and my boss was not very respondent (and busy). None of this bothered me at first, but over time it started to feel isolating to not speak -to anyone- for a full 8 hours each day.
During one of my assignments, I was tasked with making a super old site responsive. I gave ideas, and they were discredited. I tried to suggest different ways of approaching the site redo, to include completely overhauling it, but they were turned down. I started to become held to expectations and deadlines that weren’t clearly stated. I worked for a month on the site, redoing small portions and attempting to renew over 7,000 lines of code on my own. I’d go home to study different ideas to complete the task, then try them out at work. The task was given to someone else after my boss mentioned a deadline that he did not mention before; initially I was the lead, but I was soon phased out.
In February, I asked to attend the Lesbians Who Tech Conference. I’m a lesbian, and I tech. The conference was about tech stuff, and fell in line with most companies’ standards of attendance. I was told this conference was inappropriate and out of the scope of what the company would support:
“wrt the san fran conf, it falls a bit outside of our normal conf lineup, so we’ve had some debate on if it’s appropriate. this happened a couple times before, and since you are willing to cover expense we usually meet halfway and give you the time without need to take vacation time, so we should at least do that much, which would let you move forward with booking stuff.”
So yeah- I had to pay to attend the conference.
I had other smaller web projects to complete. Some of these I did on my own, and some with a new team- the new Marketing person, me, and the VP of business. The new marketing person was young, blonde-haired, and blue-eyed. She was invited to lunch each day, she was communicated with by my boss and others frequently, and she was made to feel included in the work environment from day one. Very different experience from the one I was introduced to. It hurt, and it was really new to me to feel hurt feelings about experiences had at work. What was wrong with me? Was I the social outcast of the office? Or was I there to bolster diversity numbers and nothing more? Was my work ever going to be appreciated? During the interview, I had a sneaking suspicion that I was simply a diversity hire, and this in my mind affirmed it. I no longer felt comfortable at work, and started having panic attacks each morning before heading into the office.
I approached HR about some of the things I was experiencing, and made the case to work from home indefinitely. I could produce at the same pace and level from home (although I had been previously met with apprehension when working from home because I have children, even when it was mentioned during the interview that once I got up to speed it would be no problem), and didn’t want to deal with the isolation and feelings of inadequacy any longer. I felt my job was in danger because no one was communicating with me about projects that were to be completed in a team. No one was communicating with me AT ALL. I was told that I was being too sensitive. I shared concern about the racist/homophobic jokes that appeared in work chat. I was told that if I don’t say anything, I can’t complain. And that I was not the only black person/lesbian in the office, but the only one to say something. I was assured that the Lesbians Who Tech Conference was not the only conference deemed inappropriate and denied by the lead team, but there were no other examples given of that happening. Finally, I was told that if I work from home, no matter how I produce my boss would deem my work inadequate.
I chose my health, my sanity, and my strength by leaving the position in March 2016.
This is what diversity in tech looks like.
Maybe my story is not typical. I was embraced and favored through my experiences in the Bay Area, and maybe it made me forget that I’m black, a woman, and in an industry dominated by white men. This is what diving into the tech industry looked like, to me.
These are the things I had to transcend before deciding to refocus my work to be an advocate for tech access. I don’t mind enduring these things if it means the next generation of technologists won’t have to. I don’t mind taking a salary hit if it means I get to be productive, happy, and appreciated at work. I will never again choose a job whose culture doesn’t mesh with mine. I will never again allow myself to be sat in the back of the office, for my voice to be squandered, and to endure jokes at the expense of my mental health.
I choose happiness, and to bring my authentically BLACK self to the office each and every day. Everyone should be able to do this- once they are able, that is when the folks working on the ‘diversity in tech issue’ can say with certainty that it’s been fixed. Until then, stop trying to impress people with your numbers and ask the folks on your team how they’re doing. Chances are, you have some work to do.