Seven Schools, Four Cities, and Three Countries Later
A Conversation About Diversity
Growing up, I wondered what lay across country borders. What makes their country special compared to any other? Why is their food so different from ours? I was always curious about what people from other nations were like, so I dreamed of visiting distant lands. My mother’s stories, stories I vividly remember, of her travels to neighboring countries encouraged those dreams; I had so much hope that one day she’d see the world. I’ve held on to her stories, sometimes returning to them as if they were receipts for experiences that I too might have.
My Last Few Months of Schooling in Zimbabwe
I was in a class of kids that, for the most part, grew up in the same society. As I remember it, there was one Pakistani girl — Raima. She hardly spoke to anyone, it seemed. She kept to herself. Whenever I’d walk over to say ‘hi’ and make small talk (maybe flirt a little), she would clam up. ‘Damn, this girl is shy’, I’d think after any attempt to befriend her. Now I can’t help but wonder, ‘Was it really shyness or maybe something else?’
In 2004, I relocated to Manchester, England. This was a move that would ultimately change me. At the time, my young mind hadn’t yet fathomed the significance of the transition: opportunity with responsibility, a gift and a curse.
Excited but Terribly Confused
The experience of being in a new country with unfamiliar customs and a different education system was exhilarating and baffling at the same time. I struggled to fit in and found myself in a tug-of-war between teachers who liked me because they saw my potential and teachers who felt that I was shown favoritism for being in ‘the minority group’. I can’t explain why, but I just couldn’t fit in, even with kids who had the same skin color as mine. I’d always thought of myself as a friendly and sociable individual. What was I doing wrong? It didn’t take too long for me to realize how Raima felt.
In hindsight, it was neither a problem of nerves nor a matter of what we were possibly doing wrong. It was simpler than that. This was about our differences―having different backgrounds and customs from one another. Humans are predisposed towards comfort. We seek out individuals who most resemble our own selves, looking for a resemblance that, at times, transcends physical appearance. As such, I found myself becoming really good friends with two fellas―Aamir from Pakistan and Bashir from Somalia―who shared passion and interests similar to mine. We bonded over the realities of being outcasts.
One Year Later
I had to decide where I would complete my A-Levels. Aamir and I both made our decisions somewhat based on emotion, seeking out an environment that was most familiar. At the school I settled into, there were more people who shared my upbringing and looked more like me, and I found myself becoming good friends with a collective of talented and resourceful individuals who grew up in southern Africa. Over the next couple of years, we would geek out over music and dream of one day owning our own businesses in hopes of going back to Africa and improving the economy. You know, ‘making it big’, whatever that meant at the time. Even though these aspirations kept me connected to my new group of friends, I could never really imagine going ‘home’. Would I be able to re-integrate into that society? I had already started to change. I had gotten so used to attention; most of it wasn’t a result of my achievements, but rather just being myself.
By graduation day, I had effectively spent 5 of the preceding 7 years training for an industry that may not accept the various stereotypes I conformed to. I was a twenty-something-year-old black male with a love for basketball, hip hop and everything that came along with the two. Even my hair and dress sense reflected my pastimes―something I had to change in order to fit in with the professional crowd.
London, August of 2011
I joined an investment banking firm. Within the first few days around the office, I noticed a popular topic of discussion: diversity.
Why is this “diversity thing” so important? I quickly came to understand that the concept is intended to help people feel empowered through acknowledgement of their differences. Let me explain: Working with people of similar backgrounds allows for a certain level of confidence and comfort. There’s that ‘comfort’ word, again… At the least, I think we’d all agree that communication is somewhat effortless if we speak the same language (both literally and metaphorically). Makes sense, right?
Now 7 schools, 3 cities and 2 countries in, I was ready to take on the world, diverse or not. I felt like everything I had ever learned was in preparation for that moment, the moment my career officially began. You see, before I joined the firm, I had already met a lot of intelligent individuals, which were rather humbling experiences. Some of the most unassuming of characters I crossed paths with had ideas, really smart ones, that bordered insanity!
I had no misconceptions about my level of intelligence coming into this… or going into the corporate world, rather. Being part of that large corporation was just unnerving. I was indeed a small fish in a pond filled with other well-decorated fish. How does one even stand out? Heck, how did I even blend in?
A Bad Case of Imposter Syndrome
I managed to find myself on a team where everyone else was way above my pay grade, and I was so afraid that one day they would realize I was seriously underqualified for the role. I sat through a plethora of meetings, mostly silently. I should say something smart, but the other team members are more experienced and smarter than I am. They’ll just think I’m being silly.
Outside of my immediate team, I was surrounded by people of many different nationalities, and even though we were connected by profession, or everyday business tasks, I still didn’t quite fit in. I underestimated how much my need to make real connections fueled my preoccupation with blending in. For a while, I forgot the reason diversity mattered. All of us, people from different walks of life, were sitting at the same table for the same reason. But at the time, my reasoning was still far removed from the truth.
One Fateful Night
I was out with some of the grads contemplating life in fintech. It must have been close to midnight after a few tequila-infused cocktails when the obvious hit me: Instead of focusing my energy on trying to be someone else, I should just be myself (stereotypes and all). I used to act differently depending on who I was around: my peers, my team, my friends and family. Of course, all of them appealed to different facets of me, but I shouldn’t have been worried of their perceptions of ‘the real me’. Intrinsically, the real me is inquisitive, so now I channel my energy into asking insightful questions, the ones most people are too afraid to ask. One of my go-to questions is, ‘What are you doing to make people who are different feel accepted?’
My job in risk management was great but, like all good things, came to an end. I’d spent much time straddling business and tech functions; I never quite felt like I was making the most of my software engineering degree. So I joined a publishing company that was working to digitize all of their print publications. I could officially spend more time coding and doing other software stuff.
At the publishing company, my approach to solving problems was different from that of my colleagues. I interacted with other teams across the company in a way none of the other engineers on the team did. I didn’t take everything at face value. I felt responsible for getting to the root cause of most things. I found myself working with customer-facing teams more each day. Working there felt like déjà vu. Again, I was walking the business-tech divide; screw you, life, and your sarcasm.
A few years and some jobs later, I find myself in San Francisco. Being a software engineer of African descent is rather uncommon in Europe. I had hope that America, the land of opportunity, would change my fortune. Almost everyone in the Bay Area is a transplant―just like everyone in London! So the diversity here must be awesome, right? Not entirely…
Don’t get me wrong. San Francisco houses many immigrants. The variety of food is second to none, and art is everywhere! Thanks to the city’s microclimates, there are so many outdoorsy things to do. Then there’s theatre, great nightlife, startups, music.
But that’s not all there is to being diverse. The city doesn’t have a variety of industries to sustain its residents. Here you’ll find technology and finance, mostly technology. The influx of technical opportunities has left the city less socially diverse; long-time residents are being forced out of the city, which means it houses only those who can afford to stay.
I used to spend so much effort trying to fit in that now I don’t care… not nearly as much. At tech conferences, I’m ‘the black guy’. At work socials, I’m ‘the African’. At socials with non-techies, I apparently ‘don’t really give a 🙊’, and at socials with other techies, I ‘have no ambition’ because I refuse to only talk about technology. I’m not saying that I’m entirely indifferent; I just recognize the impossibility of blending in.
‘What is it about who I am that makes me unforgettable? What is it about what I’ve done that makes it so incredible?’ — DMX
I heard this line for the first time over a decade ago in DMX’s song called ‘Fame’. By the time I graduated from college, I had gone through so many interviews and networking events that the most frequently asked question was, ‘Your English is really good. Did you learn English in Zimbabwe?’ They probably didn’t think much about it, like the person who complimented my way of asking questions… right before they said, ‘You sound like you’re rapping’.
I’m sure none of them meant any harm, but I fear that many people in tech make it difficult for those who aren’t ‘a cultural fit’ to fit in. So we’d gladly train our teams on how to interact with tools but not with fellow coworkers? That’s absurd! People have feelings, but tools don’t. People behave differently given the same input, tools don’t. People speak different languages, have different beliefs and reason differently; again, tools don’t.
Technology is at the forefront of a changing world; I feel that all technologists have great responsibility to each other and society. It’s the gift and the curse.
A Different Definition
I wouldn’t dare dismiss the explanation of workplace diversity that favors the idea of leveraging various experiences and viewpoints of different individuals. Even I, little old me who was silent during all those meetings, made substantial contributions to the companies I worked for.
But diversity is really about appreciation. It’s about appreciating each other as human beings.
My parents were providers for a working-class household, so my inquisitive nature was somewhat to my detriment: My folks stopped buying me toys after my 5th birthday because I’d break them apart trying to understand how they worked. Now I know what DMX was talking about. You know, being unforgettable and doing something incredible is born out of your own flavor of diversity, so keep it.