Source of Influence
Before I start I want to give a big shoutout to Michelle Glauser, founder and CEO of Techtonica. I attended Tech Inclusion 2017 and sat to hear Michelle’s talk on how to be inclusive to class straddlers in tech. A class straddler refers to people who were raised in poverty or working class backgrounds, and over time move into the middle or owning classes. As a class straddler they experience shifts between two class identities. The idea of being a class straddler shouldn’t be new but it isn’t talked about enough.
Becoming A Class Straddler
I did not come from poverty. I am not going to pretend that I was not privileged to go to a really good high school on Long Island, New York, and have a very supportive community and parents. That being said, I come from a working class Latinx family. My father worked six days a week for the MTA while my mom cleaned houses and later on became a school bus driver. My behaviors, perspectives, and beliefs are influenced by my parent’s cultural traditions and their childhood stories. Growing up, I learned how to be frugal and how to look for opportunities that would push me ahead and give me an advantage.
My class straddler story begins in my first home when I received a phone call from a recruiter and was offered a job with a salary of $100,000. Before the call, I had been interviewing and looking for work in New York City for a good three months. I grew impatient and frustrated with the interview process, and didn’t know if I would land the job I wanted post-graduation. My plan was to work as a web developer, get paid at least $60,000, and live in my parent’s basement for four years. However, life laughs in your face when you make plans.
Hearing that number over the phone shocked me so much that I had to ask the recruiter to repeat what he said. “I made it, I did it,” I said in my head as I accepted the offer to work at TuneIn Radio in Palo Alto, California. My plans went from getting comfortable in the cold basement of my parents’ house to hopping on a plane from JFK to SFO.
Getting The Job
Job searching can be tiring and intimidating. You have to present yourself appropriately and negotiate when possible. While trying to get a job I learned that my perspective and skills are unique and valuable. However, not everyone understood where I was coming from.
Interestingly enough, my parents didn’t understand where I was going. A few days before my onsite interview at TuneIn, I laid out the outfit that I planned on wearing. It was simple, I was going to wear a polo with slacks. While I was away from my room, my parents noticed the clothes I laid out, and recommended I wear something more professional. They went the extra mile, and took out a full suit for me to wear. In the tech industry, dressing up like a Goldman Sachs banker is frowned upon. Luckily I had learned this the hard way, before going to my onsite interview in California. The interview was for an internship in lower Manhattan. I was taught to always dress your best and look professional in order to make a good first impression. Walking into the interview, I was told “You can take your tie and jacket off if you want.” Thinking it was a trick question, I took off my jacket and put it on the chair but left my tie on. After the interview, the feedback that was given to me was, “Don’t wear a suit to an interview again.” I was pretty embarrassed, but at the same time relieved. So here’s a tip: when going for an interview, make sure to always ask about their dress code so that your attire doesn’t hurt your overall interview.
That phone call was my first full-time job offer. What I didn’t do on that call was negotiate my offer. At the time, I was way too humble to take a step back and ask for $1k–$5k salary increase or ask for more stock options. As long as I had a desk, a job, and a paycheck, I was content. So I ducked my head down and just did my work. I lost the fact that as an individual, I needed to value my work and skill set. As a class straggler, I wasn’t aware that I could negotiate, and even if I had been aware, I would have been very nervous and embarrassed about negotiating.
Five months into the job at TuneIn, I was laid off which catapulted me into the interviewing process again, but this time with many companies in the Bay Area. I remember during one call with Uber, the recruiter asked me if I had used Uber before. Before San Francisco, I had never used Uber or any ride-sharing service — in NYC, you take the train or walk. I never hailed a cab and if I did, it was because I was on Long island. The recruiter was shocked that I hadn’t used Uber. “How come you haven’t used our service?” she asked. Nervously I responded, “I just haven’t had the time to use it.” It was hard for the recruiter to understand that Uber wasn’t an essential tool that everyone can afford and thought about using. By that time, I could afford it, but the idea of taking a taxi service instead of walking or biking seemed silly.
Silicon Valley is spoiled. Free lunch is offered at many tech companies and it was surprising to see how unappreciative people can be. Having free food makes it easier on the wallet and gives you one less thing to prepare for your day. Yet I have experienced people complain about how “poor” the food was or how they didn’t like it. At my first job I noticed that the catered food that wasn’t eaten was throw out. I would pack food in Ziplock bags or in paper containers and bring it home. I would picture my mom yelling at me about how wasting was food was bad and that I should eat all of my food.
When it came to connecting and building relationships with colleagues, I was closer to the cleaning crew than I was with people at work. Typically cleaning crews tend to be Latinx and as part of that culture, I insisted on saying hi every time I walked by or saw them around. Surprised to see a brown person working at the office, the crew would ask me what my role was and what I studied to land the job. This doesn’t mean that I wasn’t interacting or speaking to my colleagues — the connection I have with the crew is a mutual understanding of where we both are coming from culturally.
As a software engineer, other people coming from similar job roles will assume that “you can afford it.” Workers in tech do make a decent amount of money, which is why the expectation is there. However, I have a different perspective between what is reasonable and what is excessive. For example, coordinating the decision of reserving an Airbnb versus reserving a hotel stay — I would find it reasonable to stay at a hotel if I am paying for guests that I am bringing versus if everyone was equally paying on their behalf. I would find it excessive to reserve an expensive Airbnb, if the stay was local and if the duration of the stay is short. As a class straddler, I try to be frugal when possible and make reasonable financial decisions. One thing to keep in mind is that others might not have the same generational wealth and may be providing for more than one person.
No Longer Fitting In
My new socioeconomic experiences provide opportunities and knowledge I didn’t have before. They also bring difficult conversations and realities. Primarily, going back home has been awkward as I notice that old family and friends treat me differently.
Letting my family know my first job offer was mistake number one. Word spread like wildfire and soon enough everyone knew how much I was making. Money changed the way my family looked at me. Automatically, “he has money” became an attribute that was permanently added to my profile description. Going back home I hear phrases like, “Se olvido de los pobres” (“He forgot about the poor people”) or, “Stevencito tiene plata” (“Stevencito has money”). It is expected I would give a card with a good amount money for any occasion — graduations, birthdays, holidays, etc. If the recipient is not satisfied, “cheap or stingy” was the next attribute added to my profile description. These expectations and this new forced image was making me feel as if I didn’t fit into my own family.
The way my family treats me is what I expected of my friends. Nothing changed with my friends — they treat me like how they always have. There was more respect and acceptance than there was rejection and indifference. The only thing that changed are the conversations. I am truly grateful for the friends I have in my life. They continue to support me and push me to reach my best self.
Committing to Share
Early in my new career, I was timid and didn’t want to let other Latinx folks know that I was a software engineer. In the San Francisco Bay Area, it is expensive and finding affordable housing can be difficult. The tech scene does play a part in the gentrification and displacement of Black and Latinx communities. As large tech companies settle in a new neighborhood, the surrounding housing prices go up dramatically. So by saying that I was a software engineer, I thought it made me part of the problem.
Today is different. I have become more vocal about who I am and what I do professionally because there aren’t enough class straddlers in the field. There are not enough Black and Latinx employees in the tech industry. The more I talk about where I came from and the more I contribute to the community, the more I can motivate others. I may not see myself in a particular class but I have the ability to adapt and have both perspectives.
I am sharing my story now and letting people know that this is a field that will get you out of poverty on the current socio-economic scale. This field can literally lift you from where you are and help support others around you. But it comes at a cost and the only thing that we can do is continue to build a community — to encourage others to build, study, and share the opportunities.