It’s no surprise that Black people lack in numbers in tech. Because of this, we’re seeing more annual reports, more initiatives allegedly being put in place, but not as much real talk around the experience of someone that is Black in tech.
In our new recurring series Coding in Color, you’ll hear from Black technologists that work for startups and top companies, freelancers, and CTOs. These techies not only share how they got introduced to tech and how they perfect their skills, but they also unapologetically share deets on what most people avoid talking about (i.e. how they deal with microaggressions, racism, not fitting in with the workplace culture, codeswitching, and so much more).
Recently, Amina the CTO of Bloc Software sat and talked with us about her experience working while Black in Tech …and we learned A LOT.
As the CTO of Bloc Software, Amina develops software and data tools that help workforce development programs track and increase job placement outcomes as they work to upskill 120 million job seekers for the future of work.
Get into her interview below! This one is a longer read so grab a beverage and buckle in.
Tell us about you!
I studied politics at Princeton, Environmental Studies, which I guess in some ways was an introduction to what I do now….
At Princeton, you’re required to take Quantitative Analysis classes that introduced me to coding and R… and…I kind of fell in love even though I wasn’t really good at it at all, but I really enjoyed it.
I utilized Statistical Analyses in my independent work at Princeton, primarily, trying to use Civil Analysis to understand the voting behavior of Black and Latino women throughout US voting history and discovering particularly how they were influenced by the use of racism, gender, or sexist dog whistling by presidential candidates.
So I did a little analysis of different news articles and what not to understand the impact on the vote.
That’s how I fell in love with coding.
But at that point, I actually decided I wanted to go into a career in Higher Education, primarily Multicultural Affairs, because I had a difficult time navigating Princeton and I became really interested in trying to figure out how to be a resource to other students of color.
I had a really hard time breaking into that field so I ended up starting my own organization after working at one of my friends startups for a little bit, and that kind of evolved to bringing me to where I am now, which is focused on building tools for progressing civic organizations…and for my own organization, which works to help job seekers utilize workforce development resources, and increase their job opportunities.
Honestly, that was my first introduction to coding.
And then, yeah, I was pretty lucky to go to a pretty advanced math and stems high school where we learned HTML CSS, coding and Visual Basic like animations. We also did some low-level robotics.
I think that just got me really comfortable with learning new technologies quickly.
And then in college, I was really coding focused on data analytics analyzing electoral data. However, honestly, I never saw myself pursuing a career path related to any of that.
But I was working in Multicultural Affairs at Princeton (they were the only place that would hire me) and trying to figure out how to build a career organization to make it easier for other black college students on their career journeys.
I’m really, really bad at event planning and all of the different things that I had to do to pull that project off, so I started building out technical tools to try to make my life easier, which kind of evolved into the tools that I kind of build-out full time now.
When you’re seeing black, graduates from Stanford, or UC, Riverside, or Princeton or Yale struggle, through the process of getting hired or see them struggling to be given a fair shot in the hiring process, it really makes you question like what’s going on?
So yeah there are HUGE hurdles Blacks are facing as they interview and try to get and stay in Tech jobs.
Although I’m not the right person to speak on this lol….I’m probably jaded at this point.
Because before I became a software engineer, I watched so many people struggle through the process constantly.
It really makes you start to like doubt the bullshit line about like, their isn’t a large enough pipeline. So yeah, honestly, I think a lot of these organizations have white supremacy encoded into their hiring processes. And there’s literally no incentive for them to do otherwise.
Because the truth is, you probably wouldn’t see, you know, 19 year old, White and Asian programmers getting paid what… $130,000 a year coming straight out of college unless there was a supply issue, right?
They’re definitely not incentivized to actually open up the door to allow us in. Once you’re in an engineering role, and you see who else is alongside you, and notice that yes, they’re brilliant people…but they’re people who’ve also just been given the benefit of the doubt because basically, every company has their own way of operating, right? Every company has its own stack. Everyone has their own deployment philosophies. There’s so much on the job training that has to happen no matter what.
So you see people in organizations and wonder, are they really that much better than a friend I have? Or was someone just willing to place a bet on them? Because they’re a friend of a friend, you know?
So yeah, I think it’s all bullshit, to be honest. But I still do my part to help black technologists play the game.
The one thing people take for granted in tech hiring is that it is a very deeply personal and irrational process, like anything that human beings do, right? Like, I think there’s a perception that it’s meritocratic or data-driven because it’s in the technology space.
And I think that’s not the case.
I think the other unique challenge to technology hiring is you have an entire hiring process that does not really reflect what you’ll be doing on the job…
And so it’s like this coding experience that you have to be able to navigate, that really does not help you, but you still have to do – like whiteboard interviews, data structure, algorithmic interviews, right?
There’s like a tweet that’s been going viral about job descriptions asking for engineers to have a CS degree, five years of experience and all they’re going to do is build a credit app. And a credit app is just basically an app (that does) features (that) create, read, update, delete, destroy, right? And like, I can teach someone who’s never coded before how to build this app (credit app), probably in two hours. So, yes, this is a prime example of the disconnect.
And it happens because Tech is a space where so few people know what is being said or what is happening.
The truth is that there are people who design it that way, in order to benefit some groups over other groups.
And it’s true that as a black engineer, once you’ve navigated that entire process once, you’re tired, right?
There are actual studies that show there are penalties for being as aggressively an advocate for (black) people like me. For example, you may feel the repercussions of it in your performance reviews.
Your ability to be a gatekeeper is a lot more constructed.
So I think, even for people of color who entered those spaces already…it isn’t easy for them to put somebody on their back or reach behind and pull them up as you would hope.
So anyway, I could go on and on and I’m sure that my take on this is one of the less positive ones. I’ve been optimistic for so long that I’m just like, I can’t anymore.
I don’t typically talk about diversity in tech anymore because it’s so exhausting, but I respect what Mogul Millennial does. So I’m I’m more than happy to give my opinion, but it’s probably a lot more disillusioned than most.
In terms of thriving once you’re actually hired into an all – white, typically male, bro culture…I guess I can only speak for myself.
For me, it was really relying on mentors. I had a work experience where I had to jump the chain of command, even though I was very resistant to doing at first. I realized it needed to be done because at the time I was working as a data engineer and the relationship between my direct manager wasn’t working out. There was no real opportunity for me to transition teams and actually the team that I arguably was a better fit for – I wasn’t allowed to move to. I even had a relatively toxic experience during my interview there.
So yeah, I could have sat and just let certain things happen. But honestly, I kind of, to some extent, built relationships over my direct manager’s head. Thankfully the only other black person on my team happened to be two levels above my direct manager and I built a relationship with her. And ultimately, she was able to transfer me to an entirely new team that made my work life experiences so much better.
So yeah, I think it’s being really, to some extent strategic, to make sure that you’re developing relationships across the organization and not allowing yourself to get kind of pigeon-holed or siloed into a workplace environment that isn’t healthy or productive for anyone.
Another big resource to take advantage of is being able to talk to other people who are in the exact same situation.
I think it’s always beneficial. I became much more active in Black and technology groups. Because up until that point, I’d mostly been doing freelancing or building tools for my own company so I never was onsite or inhouse.
Another thing is to really like, set time aside to invest in learning. It’s super important too.
I gave myself micro tasks during that time of my career where it’s like, okay, every day I’m going to read a technical paper.
Every day, I’m going to write a couple of lines of code that have nothing to do with work, really investing in keeping those new skills fresh, so I never felt pigeonholed.
If I had to leave, I felt confident that I could find a new job in the same space quickly. So those are some of my strategies.
I struggled so much with code-switching because for me I have an intersection of two carachitures – 1. I’m black by and 2. I’m chronically ill, so it’s like honestly, at some point it gets weird.
Sometimes I prefer to code switche because I prefer to not give people all of me. It’s almost easier for me.
It’s like okay, it allows me to set a very clear boundary. Like you will have this version of me but the people who I love, who’ve earned my trust, get more.
They get to see the full, complex and nuanced version of me.
But that being said, I have stepped away from code-switching more especially as I was starting to see the other marginalized people around me.
I recognize I always grew up or went to schools that were predominantly white. And I’ve been able-bodied my entire life. So I recognize that I had some privilege and that code-switching was easier for me than others, but I don’t think everyone has the privilege of being able to put on that mask.
So as I’ve gotten further my career, I try to be more openly and fully myself so that other people of color feel that they have space to do so as well.
Honing my craft as a programmer comes down to a few things.
I’m constantly trying to learn new technologies.
So, right now I’m trying to increase my knowledge of different frameworks from doing a tutorial on Django. I’ve known Python since college, but never from a web development background doing things like this, like crud app tutorial through real Python.
I’m also doing a tutorial on building an app using the Morne stack which is Mongo (Mongo Express React), which is hot in the space right now and Node.
I’m a big fan of tutorials to help you build an app from start to finish. I’m also doing some independent learning on natural language processing, which is a part of, of a machine learning AI.
So there’s one book called “Natural Language Processing for Python” and the LTK book which is pretty well known.
Also I try to have in mind to start getting some tutorials up. There’s this website called Floyd app that helps with that.
Oh, and there’s also this really awesome Black Software Engineer. I think his name is Ben. He has a YouTube channel called Back to Back Software Engineer.
It has all these tutorials that break down the most popular coding interview books, Cracking the Coding interview and elements of programming interview.
If I could give three tips to someone who wants to pursue either programming or being in the tech industry then I’d say…
People skills matter more than anything. So much of my first opportunity relied on personal relationships.
Get out from outside a computer or even like networking online. You’d be surprised how much you can connect with people through Stack Overflow. Free Code Camp too. Twitter is pretty common, I’ve seen people get jobs on Twitter.
Shoot, there’s even what’s called Career Karma, right? It’s a ‘new lead’ startup that’s helping people figure out if they should go to a coding boot camp to helping you really take advantage of people relationships, even if you’re an introvert like me, and usually behind the computer screen.
The second is, man, like I think in school, because of the grading structure, there’s this perception if you don’t get the first time around, that you never will.
And I think in coding is almost the exact opposite. Like you always have to go in with the mindset like you’re going to hit a wall.
And so the question is, like, what do you do when you hit the wall and really just take some time away from it and try again, and eventually like you’ll figure it out. So I think there’s a real mindset shift from traditional schooling that you have to adopt if you want to be a coder, especially a coder who transitioning to it without a lot of experience in the space or a lot of like academic support..
Lastly, find mentors, which is a lot easier to do than you think.
Because mentors will be your shortcut into understanding what you actually need to learn to figure out what you need to prep for great interviews. They lay out the hidden curriculum that exists for getting into the space. So utilize them.
Lastly, I’ve definitely encountered blatant obstacles as a person of color in tech.
I mean, I’ve been accused of reverse algorithmic racism by a potential funder. They accused me of giving black job seekers an unfair advantage. Lol, I didn’t even entertain it.
I’ve had situations like going into stakeholder meetings and having the people there not believe that I built our product.
Having a pitch deck and being told to assign a white person onto it….
I’ve had a software engineering interview where my interviewer said I was incompetent. And then I got another job in another division as a data analyst and ultimately promoted to the original engineering role that I interviewed for.
So, yeah, I’ve gone through a lot of silliness…
To me, to some extent, when I hit those types of barriers, it kind of just motivates me to be better at this point.
But, you know, you’ll definitely be underestimated, but there’s a lot of power to being underestimated.
Feel free to connect with Amina on LinkedIn, send her a connection request and tell her we sent you!
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