Tell me a bit about your early years and where you come from.
I’m from Miami. My family family has four kids. I have an older brother, I have a twin sister, and I have a little sister. I did really well in school. I played sports: basketball, track. I went to college in Miami and then I went to law school at Florida State. I always liked tech, but it wasn’t a career when we were kids. There was War Games and Space Camp and movies about the craziness of hackers—how it could go horribly, horribly wrong, but it wasn’t a job that you could have. My elementary school—I was in a gifted program and they had a computer class—and I built a space game on a Commodore 64. Yeah, I’m dating myself. [chuckles]
I was really into tech when I was really young, but it wasn’t a thing you could do. And when I got to undergrad, that’s when email came out. I remember they were like, “You can have email.” I was like, “What the hell is email?” They were like, “You can write letters to people on the internet.” [chuckles] Napster was out then. It was all kind of the early wild, wild west before Google. And then when I went to law school, it was the first year they had a laptop requirement, and so we all had to get laptops, which was awesome. I downloaded the Mame arcade simulator, and so I just pressed F8 or whatever to put in quarters, and I’d be sitting in law school playing video games. It was awesome. [laughter]
“I was really into tech when I was really young, but it wasn’t a thing you could do.”
Then I finished that and went to D.C. and got a Masters of Law, because I didn’t know what lawyers did day to day, and I wanted to be good at what I did before I started it. But it seems I educated myself into a bit of a black hole. Instead of staying in D.C., I went back to Florida and no one knew what my degree was or what could be done with it, and nobody wanted to pay me to figure that out. But I had classmates who had my degree and they got credit for an extra year of practice and got jobs at these big firms, and I couldn’t get interviews. It became very clear that people are kind of colorblind to a degree when you’re young because you’re in school and you’re not really a threat, but once you come back as an adult, things change. I wasn’t ready for that transition, my family wasn’t ready for it, and it caused some really difficult times.
Yeah. So then I practiced law for a while, which wasn’t what I ultimately wanted to do. I wanted to be a law professor, but I practiced for a while because my parents put their foot down after three degrees. I needed to get a job. So, I did practice but unfortunately I ended up working for people who saw the law as a business, not a profession. Which means that my ethics didn’t line up with theirs.
And so I kept ending up in situations where people would think that I should be so happy that they gave me a job that I should do whatever they wanted me to do. But I had earned my position. I had three degrees. Like you didn’t just hand me the job. But just by virtue of who I was it just became a thing that, “Yeah. But who else is going to hire you?”
So I kept ending up at these firms where they wanted to do things to make them richer at the expense of the clients. And at some point I was like, “You can continue going down the same path or you can do something different.” So, I decided to do education for a while.
And actually I had a pretty good time like with the students. But once again I ran into some difficulties and ended up not being offered a position in 2008, which was the beginning of the recession. If you got let go at that time, there was really no backstop. So, I ended up doing a couple different jobs, I was a personal trainer for 24 hour fitness [chuckles].
“I basically packed up all my things into four bags and took planes, trains, and automobile, all the way to L.A. I stayed with my twin for the holiday season, and I moved sight unseen to San Francisco with my unemployment check as my only source of income and started sending out applications.”
Yeah. I did a variety of things. I was teaching at the Strayer, in their business law of department. I was teaching white collar business law and I looked at my book and I realized there were no lawyers who wrote it. I was like, “Why are there no lawyers in a white collar criminal law book?” And I realized, it was because lawyers didn’t like business and businessmen didn’t like the law. So I was like, “Oh, well, maybe, I can fill that niche.” So, I went back to FIU and got a Masters in International Business. I specifically went back to my undergrad because it’s an international focused university, and I wanted an opportunity to do an international internship. And I did that. My last semester I had an internship in Scotland. I worked for a start-up—actually incubator high tech company that made holograms. Actual holograms. Like, “Help me, Obi Wan, you’re my only help!”
[ laughter] It’s insane. When I was working with them, they were a start-up, so I got to work on their website and stuff like that. I got into a little bit of HTML, and I was like, “This is kind of cool.” When I came home, I had been thinking of this idea of a website. Black Americans traveling internationally is a pretty new phenomenon in the numbers that we’re currently doing it. And a lot of us– because I’d done a couple of study abroads and every time I left the country, the whole community was like, “You’re going where?” [laughter] There’s an anxiety. And you can’t really say, “Oh well, he went or she went.” And it’s hard to point the elders to information. And you kind of just—you look like you’re just going out there on your own. I was like I should probably do a website for Black American travelers. So you can have basic information that you can share. That became my passion for a little while. I created a website and it was a whole big thing, learning all the different coding and whatnot. I did use a platform but still you have to learn some things on your own. I’d taken a position with an e-book publisher, so I learned more HTML and even some CSS. Just various things on how to structure content and whatnot. But I’d gotten to a point in my life and in my relationship at the time where things just weren’t working in Florida. I always try to come back to Florida to be successful because I’m from Florida. You see all these other people in your home doing these things, and you just want—this is my home, I want to be successful in my home. But I finally reached a point where I had to realize it wasn’t going to happen. I’ve only been in California a year [chuckles]. I came here last January—actually the November before. I basically packed up all my things into four bags and took planes, trains, and automobile, all the way to L.A. I stayed with my twin for the holiday season, and I moved sight unseen to San Francisco with my unemployment check as my only source of income and started sending out applications.
I was in hostels. Then, the week that I was supposed to receive my last unemployment check, I completely freaked out. I was like, “I had no other backup.” I couldn’t go back to Florida, I had nothing. So, I’m online, I’m looking, I’m looking, and I found a job meet-up that was hosted by the San Francisco LGBT Center. So, I walked from North Beach down to the San Francisco LGBT Center. I had no idea how far it was. I get there, and it had already started, but they were cool and we talked. They said they’d help me with my resume. I came back the next day, and they helped me with my resume and I went back to the hostel, revamped it, and then I papered the entire Bay Area with it. The next day, I was supposed to come back and talk to a career counselor. And I wake up in the morning, I look at my phone, and I have an email from this dude at Google.com. I almost fell out of my bunk! [laughter] Because I was like, “What? I didn’t apply to any jobs at Google.” So, one of the jobs I’d applied for was for a vendor who worked on campus at Google. He was like, “Hey, can you have a phone interview on Monday?” I was like, “Yes!” So the phone interview was cool. He asked me if I could get down to Google on Wednesday. I took a bus, and then the Caltrain, and then two buses. I couldn’t find my first bus stop when I got off the Caltrain, and so I was freaking out, and my friend in Florida is trying to Google map it for me, and it was a whole thing. I find the bus stop, get on the bus, get off, go get some food, and go stand at the second bus stop for twenty minutes like, “Oh, I have plenty of time.” And the bus comes like, “Oh, no, you’re supposed to be on the other side of the street.” Now, I’m freaking out like, “I’m going to miss this interview!” Mind you, I’m right down the street from the campus, but I’ve never been, so I couldn’t tell. I just didn’t know.
“I couldn’t go back to Florida, I had nothing. So, I’m online, I’m looking, I’m looking, and I found a job meet-up that was hosted by the San Francisco LGBT Center. So, I walked from North Beach down to the San Francisco LGBT Center. I had no idea how far it was. I get there, and it had already started, but they were cool and we talked. They said they’d help me with my resume. I came back the next day, and they helped me with my resume and I went back to the hostel, revamped it, and then I papered the entire Bay Area with it. The next day, I was supposed to come back and talk to a career counselor. And I wake up in the morning, I look at my phone, and I have an email from this dude at Google.com.”
Finally, the second bus comes, I get off and have to walk all the way to the edge of campus. But I actually got there fifteen minutes before my interview, after I’d already called the guy like, “I don’t think I’m going to make it on time!” And then I made it, and it was cool. I had the interview and it went really well. I’m walking out and I was actually walking on Intuit’s campus because they’re across the street, and I was just walking around on the phone because it’s just beautiful. I get a phone call and I had to tell my friend, “I’m going to call you back because I’ve got a phone call.” And it was the recruiter saying they wanted to offer me the job and I was like, “What?” This was the day I received my last unemployment check. [chuckle] I got offered the job as a vendor at Google. The next day I got on a megabus and headed right to my sister’s in L.A. and just vegged out for two weeks. She was like, “You can just stay here.” It was great, and I started, but even then it took a while to get up and running. I still didn’t have housing together, that took a while. The first place I got housing I signed a six month sublease, and then in three months my sub-lessor [chuckle] contacted me and was like, “Yeah, so the lease is up.” And I was like, “What?” “Yeah, you need to get out this month.” That was tough and it was just a variety of different things like that that kept popping up.
I ended up actually having to leave Google because the prospects for long-term employment had gotten kind of iffy. Not that it wouldn’t have happened, but their time frame was a lot longer than mine. I had uprooted my whole life. I wasn’t really in a position to be in a wait-and-see kind of attitude. So I took the opportunity to go to Yahoo, which was terrifying [chuckles] because all of my friends were at Google. It’s the first place I called home since I left home. It was the family that I made in California. But I went to Yahoo, and almost immediately upon entering Yahoo as a contractor, they interviewed me for an FTE position. And about two weeks into January, I signed my contract for an FTE position. I started my Google contract position February 23rd of last year, and I was scheduled to start my Yahoo full-time position February 13th of this year.
It was. The difference a year can make is extraordinary. But, unfortunately, Yahoo fell apart about a week after our initial interview and my job went with it. They called the day my background check cleared and rescinded my contract. It was devastating. A body blow. It shook my entire network. Like, I had come to California to change my life and I made it happen all in one year. And one phone call snatched the rug from under me, under all of us, yet again. It’s hard to keep getting up. And, if there was ever a moment where that was a question, this was it. But, I think my fighter is hard-wired. Like she can go on auto-pilot when all of my other systems shut down. So, I somehow managed to apply for a few jobs during the devastation. And my circle held me up. My sister and my girlfriend particularly. The Monday after the news, my girl ended up spending the day with me. And we went for a walk in the park. It was such a nice day out, sunny and warm, and it just healed me some. Like, I was still hurt, but I wasn’t shattered anymore? Like I could move forward. And that week a recruiter contacted me. We had a really good phone interview about a job that wasn’t for me. And she told me she also recruited for Google and asked if I wanted to go back. And I told her “With all my heart and soul.” Because when you take a blow like that, you just want to go home. And Google is my home here. So, we found a position I liked, I interviewed and I got it. I’ve been there for a few weeks now and it’s different, like when you move back with your parents after college [chuckles]. But it’s good.
So how it’s been? Has tech lived up to your expectations? What are your first impressions?
Well, it is difficult when you start at Google, is what I’ve learned. Google is tops. It really—it doesn’t get much better, in my experience. I clearly come from a very difficult background, employment-wise. It doesn’t matter how intelligent I am, or how hard I worked, there was always a problem. And Google was the first place that I’ve worked where no one gave a shit. No one cared at all. And it was funny because I was actually sitting in one of the cafes one day, and a whole bunch of new Googlers—Nooglers—were coming off of a bus, and the first guy looked at me and was like—and you could see him running his training in his head like, “if she’s here, she’s supposed to be here.” And I’m watching them all walk by and have this same conversation in their heads. I know that it seems like they shouldn’t have to do this, but thank god they do. I’ve never been in a position where people self-corrected. When they recognized that they had felt something unreasonable and then fought themselves to make it right. I just felt that was brilliant. It’s not utopia, everywhere has difficulties but considering where I’ve come from, I could not have landed at a better place. My time at Yahoo was good but for different reasons. There was opportunity at Yahoo. There were things that I could do, things that I could bring to the company. But cultural wise, it’s a little more difficult because there wasn’t much diversity on campus. I didn’t have the self-correction thing. I had more just open stares–
“I clearly come from a very difficult background, employment-wise. It doesn’t matter how intelligent I am, or how hard I worked, there was always a problem.”
You mentioned that.
During my first week or so there, people just kept walking by my desk and looking at me, to reassure themselves that I’d still be there. There aren’t a lot of black people, and then I don’t resemble the ones they’re comfortable with. I used to have permed hair, I was a lawyer and would wear heels and suits and whatnot. I’m much older now and at this point, you’re going to be who you’re going to be. So I wear my little t-shirts and long sleeves [chuckles], and I wear my hair natural. And there just aren’t a lot of people like me at Yahoo. So it’s not hostility. It’s more discomfort, but it was disconcerting and really affected my decision to accept the FTE position. Because if I’m not there, then who’s there? So the culture can use a little help [chuckles], but the opportunities were there. So it was a balance. I’ve been in outright hostile situations more often than not. So a little bit of, “Oh my god, she works here?” I mean I could do without it, but it’s not going to destroy it for me [chuckles]. At this point, it’s a lot better than what I’ve seen before.
“Even in New York, people would stare at me. And I was like, ‘There’s a guy painted silver down the street. Why am I interesting?'”
It’s a blessing almost for you to be able to have that perspective, but I hate that it has to happen in the first place. You know what I mean?
Yeah, and it’s a hard fought blessing because in my twenties, it would have been different. But in my twenties it was new and raw, I was struggling with it a lot more. So to come here at this age, and for it to be this kind of struggle—I’m comfortable with it. So I kind of feel like all of the out-and-out fighting [chuckles] I basically did to hold onto my humanity on the East Coast kind of prepared me for the questioning looks of the West Coast. It’s just things are softer here. It’s not like the issues don’t exist, but people don’t tend to take it as far as obviously. It’s more abject curiosity. It’s funny because there are a lot of minorities in tech, they’re just not American minorities. It’s like, if you can accept minorities from other countries, why can you not accept your own? It’s the number one issue that I’ve had with Silicon Valley. We don’t ever seem to have a problem with the amount of women from other countries. We don’t ever seen to have a problem with brown people from the opposite side of the globe. But when you see a black person in tech or you see a program for Latinos in tech, then suddenly people are up in arms and, “Why are we handing out this and handing out that?” It’s like there’s an assumption that if people come from other countries, then they must have done something to make it. If minorities come from here, they must have been given something. I have four degrees from very good universities, so clearly no one gave me anything. You may have given me opportunity, but no one’s handing me my job. The fact that I don’t get the same credit, just to start, is frustrating. This is the life story for black women in this country for decades. So, just like those before us, you’re just kind of hoping that if you continue to do what you do, then maybe it will be easier for the next.
“It’s funny because there are a lot of minorities in tech, they’re just not American minorities. It’s like, if you can accept minorities from other countries, why can you not accept your own?”
You have a super interesting background. You have degrees in multiple disciplines. You’re so well-rounded and you come from the other side of the country, like myself. You didn’t go down the typical path at all. More and more, there are conversations around how being unique and being different makes you such an asset, in terms of contributing to a team or bringing perspective to a product. How do you think that impacts your approach to work and makes you bring something to the table?
Yeah. Well, I’ve always been a contributor. I enjoy being on a team. I appreciate that dynamic. My first stint at Google my diversity in intelligence, I guess, made me a leader. Amongst my group at least, because they appreciated that I could see different sides of an argument, and because it makes it—I become like a translator. Especially since my first Google team—my first team at Google, there was me, a woman from Japan, a woman from Brazil, and an American girl with—she worked with the Canadian market. So we all had very different understandings of the same sentence, and I could understand all of their understandings, and help them explain them to each other. And so I tend to bring value in that aspect, and people tend to be open to that. As far as it translating into a wider contribution to the company, that’s more difficult, because people are rightfully to some degree concerned about their position, and there’s always a difficulty because people think that you have the same motivations they have. And so people who are motivated by position are always concerned about other people trying to take theirs. If you have a good idea, or a good approach or something like that nature, they’re more concerned with how it affects them ultimately. ‘Will she come take my spot?’ But that’s a position I’ve always been in so I’m very comfortable with that– people thinking that way. It’s unfortunate, but that’s what my norm has been. I value Google. I value Yahoo. I value these companies that play a daily role in my life. For me it’s not really about, ‘Oh, if I do this I get to move here or do this?’ No, it’s about, ‘If we make Yahoo stronger it helps all of us.’ Yahoo seemed to be pretty open to using me in a variety of ways. I’ve only been back at Google for a few weeks but from the conversations we’ve had thus far, they’re open to using the talent I have in the ways that best benefit the company. That’s why I value Google, because that’s a philosophy I can believe in. We’ll have to see if it follows through, but I don’t really have much reason to believe that it doesn’t. The people who are in charge of that type of thing seem to have the mindset that I agree with, and the people who have difficulty with it don’t seem to be in my chain of command. So, I’m not so concerned. It seems that at least in my department, the people at the top are pretty comfortable with who and what they are, and so they’d be willing to allow me to help the company when the opportunity presents itself.
“I have four degrees from very good universities, so clearly no one gave me anything. You may have given me opportunity, but no one’s handing me my job. The fact that I don’t get the same credit, just to start, is frustrating. This is the life story for black women in this country for decades. So, just like those before us, you’re just kind of hoping that if you continue to do what you do, then maybe it will be easier for the next.”
I love that you can have that focus.
At some point, I spent a lot of time fighting the expectations, fighting people’s opinions, fighting for what I rightfully earned. And I was miserable. And I didn’t get any of those things that I’d worked so hard for. The expectations were still there from one side, but people still saw me how they wanted to see me from the other, and I never received any benefit. You can only beat your head up against the wall for so long, and so then I was like, “Well, let me try and find an arena that doesn’t make me fight so hard for my humanity,” and I felt like tech was it. And it has been. While I was still a contractor at Yahoo, they still allowed me some input into some arenas that I didn’t expect. They actually took my input legitimately and forwarded it through proper channels and treated me as if my ideas mattered. And that’s the thing that I liked about Yahoo at the time, that that they still had the capacity to see human beings. It wasn’t a machine, there was still a human component. I think as long as they manage to keep that, they still have a fighting chance.
At work, do you have kind of a support network that keeps you grounded, or do you find that elsewhere? Like the LGBT community that you were involved with when you first got here?
I was actually heavily involved with LGBT ERG at Google, which is interesting because a lot of tech companies in Silicon Valley don’t allow vendors and contractors to be involved in their groups, which I think is really unfortunate. But I found a home with the Gayglers. A lot of them are still my friends, and a lot of the people who I worked with when I started are still my friends. At Yahoo, I made some more relationships. A couple of people I started friendships with. But I didn’t spent as much time on their campus in that way. I hadn’t connected with their LGBT community, but between my old Google friends, my newer Yahoo friends, my girlfriend, and hopefully new Google friends. [chuckle] I actually met my girlfriend at Google as well.
Oh, really? Oh, man! It’s like you just found treasure as soon as you got here.
It was like the perfect place for me to start. I couldn’t—it wasn’t the place for me to grow at the time, but it was the place for me to get on my feet. And I will always appreciate it for that. Everywhere can’t be everything. I think I needed to be there to get a floor, to get a family, you know a home? But then, I had to branch out just like you do when you’re a kid. At some point you have to leave home, try to create something bigger for myself.
I really respect that. I think a lot of people a lot of people take the safe—they just stick around. You know?
Comfortable isn’t always safe and that’s what I was concerned with. Towards the end of my first Google gig, we were comfortable, but we didn’t feel safe. I felt like I could stay here and ultimately lose it all, or I can make this leap and possibly gain a whole lot. And it seems I made the right decision.
Have you had mentors, people that you know or you don’t know people that have inspired you on your path?
My twin inspires me, she always has. Our family is very competitive, and my twin is very smart, but I’m Very smart. In our family dynamics it was always difficult. She would study really hard and would get a B, and I would play around and scan the book last second and get an A. That’s tough. I don’t think she realized that I noticed that. Obviously I wouldn’t have felt guilty, this was in high school and middle school, but it wasn’t that I didn’t understand that our situations were different. I always kind of wanted her to get what she deserved or be what she wanted. She worked so hard. She went through, for several years she wanted to be a model, so I used to help her with that dream and whatever dreams she had. Recently, she actually published a book. She had her own launch party and it was awesome. It’s a dream that she’s been working on for seven years. I would edit it, then she’d pay to have it edited then she paid for a book cover, and images, and this, that, and the other. My whole life she has worked hard to pursue different dreams and I watched her. Even when they didn’t go the way she wanted, she never just quit. She never just said, “Well, I guess that didn’t work.” She would just find another dream and pursue that one. I was always inspired by her ability to keep going. When it got difficult for me, I didn’t necessarily look back on that example but I think I always had a little bit of it in me.
Over the last maybe ten years or so, we’ve gotten pretty close, and she’d call and check-in at the most opportune times [chuckles]. Just encouraging words to keep me moving. She had been trying to get me to leave Florida for some time. The last time I went down and it didn’t work out she was over it [chuckles], and so when I actually decided to go, she was all—”You need to come, you need to come here. It looks like you need to come here.” When I got the job as a vendor at Google, I couldn’t work out the housing situation since I wasn’t getting paid anymore, and she was like, “You can just stay here for a couple of weeks. My roommate will be fine. You’ll just sleep on the couch.” Even when I started working there, I still had to get finances together and get housing, and she would send me a little money here or there or talk to me and keep me focused. And basically she’s kept me from being a hothead over the last two years, which is a thing. I’m not just generally a hothead, but once I hit a point, I’ve hit that point, and she’ll talk me down and like, “Look, this is where you were, this is where you are. I know this is difficult, but this is where you are, and it’s better than where you were, so breathe, relax, and then you can make a decision.” She said that a lot over the last year, year-and-a-half. I can’t say that I have any mentors in the tech community or anything like that, but having her in my corner has been—it’s a lifetime thing. She’s given me a path to follow and she’s a positive voice in my ear and I need it.
“I’m very excited about the ability of tech companies, since they have the resources and they have the ability to train and they have the people flooding their gates. They really do have the ability to pick and choose a workforce that can be anything they want it to be, and to create a corporation unlike any that you’ve seen. They are being socially responsible but profitable and bringing something good to the world. What scares me is what I actually see.”
I’m just curious to know what you think about the state of tech in Silicon Valley right now. What are you excited about, and what really frustrates you and what do you want to see change?
I’m excited about the possibilities of—when I was in business school, they talked about transnational corporations. And it’s like a new form of corporate entity, how you do business, how you see the world. And it’s really only possible if you, like a tech company, bring people in from all over the world and make a global focus your focus. So it’s not about diversity as in this many people of these people and this many of these people. It’s a diversity that’s bigger than that. It’s diversity of thought, diversity of focus, and how you approach problems in situations. So I’m very excited about the ability of tech companies, since they have the resources and they have the ability to train and they have the people flooding their gates. They really do have the ability to pick and choose a workforce that can be anything they want it to be, and to create a corporation unlike any that you’ve seen. They are being socially responsible but profitable and bringing something good to the world. What scares me is what I actually see.
“We have this idea of, everyone was a nerd, so why would there be bullies?”
That people are people, and when an organization gets large enough, they’re going to have a certain amount of people who are there for reasons that don’t align with the corporate strategy structure, vision, and mission. And allowing those people too much time and too much power can ultimately destroy an organization. You lose your focus. You lose your good people. And it scares me because it happens when it doesn’t have to. Companies that don’t necessarily need to cut cost, use contractors with completely opposing visions to cut cost. But you don’t need to cut cost. So why would you affect your work pool in that way? And so I see talented people moving from company to company to company, because the vision that they thought the company had when they came in was not the reality the C-suite built. And so I’m talking to different friends of mine who work in different tech companies, and the atmospheres are not what people outside of tech think they would be. We have this idea of, everyone was a nerd, so why would there be bullies? All of us got overtalked in high school and elementary school, so why would we overtalk people? You figure that this would be the one arena where you would know how to treat people, and care to treat them that way. And that’s the dream of Silicon Valley, for all of us who are coming from wherever, when we come here. But then we get here, and it feels a lot like the East Coast, and that’s demoralizing. Because if we can’t be better in Silicon Valley, we can’t be better. Where else in this country are we ever going to have this opportunity where there are enough resources, enough jobs, and enough companies with missions that aren’t just money-focused? There’s nowhere else in this country where we have this ability to be better. So if we can’t do it here, it speaks for all of us. And it’s scary. And so that’s—my biggest fear is that we won’t recognize that we can do better, and we’ll be mean girling in the cafeteria at a tech company in Silicon Valley, when all of us grew up on the other side of that. There shouldn’t be a place for that here. This is really our only safe haven, pretty much tech and academics, and if those two go down, then there’s no safe space for the square pegs and that’s a scary proposition.
“If we can’t be better in Silicon Valley, we can’t be better. Where else in this country are we ever going to have this opportunity where there are enough resources, enough jobs, and enough companies with missions that aren’t just money-focused? There’s nowhere else in this country where we have this ability to be better. So if we can’t do it here, it speaks for all of us. And it’s scary.”
Yeah. This is supposed to be the place where you can be an other.
Yes. Comfortably so. Accepted and appreciated for that. I mean, I’ve seen it in spots, and then I’ve seen the complete opposite. And it’s scary when you think we may get more of that than what we expected, you know?
Yeah. I’ll be curious to see what happens. I worked in tech for a few years, and six years ago, it was way more— it felt way more weird. Does that make sense?
It doesn’t feel so weird anymore.
Way too normal.
I don’t know how I feel about that.
It’s becoming way too normal. I shouldn’t stick out at all, you know [laughter]? I really shouldn’t. That’s the whole idea. That was what I loved about when I first got to LA. No one looked at you. Even in New York, people would stare at me. And I was like, “There’s a guy painted silver down the street. Why am I interesting?” But when I first got to LA, no one cared at all. And I just thought it was the greatest thing ever—that I could just be.
But more and more, I’m becoming a thing again, and that is not what I expected. Nerds should be more open and accepting [chuckle]. So that’s been a bit of a concern. I don’t know how long it’s been going on because I’ve only been here a year, but I’ve felt it in the time that I’ve been here. And that’s disconcerting.
Going back to something you talked about earlier. People talk a lot about the hiring problem and the pipeline problem and the addressing diversity issue from a hiring perspective, but I’m also really interested in retention. And that’s not talked about quite as much. You’ve got people coming to the industry. They’re coming, but you’re losing them, like you said. I’m curious to hear your thoughts as someone who has this perspective in consulting and business strategy, and your thoughts around how are folks missing the mark in terms of talent retention.
They’re making it too complicated. It’s not that hard. Just don’t make me feel like I’m not supposed to be here. I’ve worked at two pretty big tech companies at this point. And the biggest difficulty that I’ve seen is most of the diversity is going to be in your contractor and vendor pool. There are more Black people working as contractors and vendors at Google than as FTEs. There are more of us working as contractors at Yahoo than working for Yahoo. So a lot of these companies don’t necessary have an issue with minorities. But they create a pretty clear line between contractors and FTEs, which creates a separation between your largely minority force and your largely majority force. And so you end up in a situation where everyone who looks like me is probably a contractor, so nobody pays attention to you. And you end up with full-time employees who are treated like contractors because that’s what people see. If the majority of the contractors are minorities, and the majority of FTEs aren’t, then “If you’re a minority, you must be a contractor, I don’t have to pay attention to you.” So it’s a structural way of internalizing these attitudes and beliefs that we didn’t intend to foster. There’s no real need for that.
I mean, your contractors work for you. You can’t do your business without them. They’re not necessarily less intelligent. I know that because I have four degrees and I’m a contractor, so clearly we’re not inferior beings. But the issue is the need to create an entitled position socially. You already have stock options. You can go to the health center. There are already things that you can do that contractors can’t do. So, the fact that you have to create this ‘we’re better than you’ atmosphere necessarily injects some level of discrimination into your company that didn’t have to be there. I mean, it’s one thing to have different badges. No one really cares until it becomes a thing, until I’m walking on campus and I see someone look at my badge color before they say hi to me or don’t say hi to me. Or before they walk past me like they don’t see me. Those things aren’t necessarily racist when they’re set up, but if I am one of less than 2% of black people on your force, but your contractors have plenty of black people, all of a sudden now I am an ‘other’ because everyone thinks that I must be a contractor. It just makes it more complicated.
Just have your work force treat everyone like they’re okay. Say hi to anybody that walks past you. Speak when you’re spoken to. Just basic human sensibility, and you can keep your minorities. Nobody’s asking for extra. Nobody wants a handout. Nobody needs special treatment. We just don’t want to be treated poorly. I think there’s this anxiety around the issue, and it makes people do a whole lot of things, but they don’t do the basics. So you’re having these courses, and you’re having these talks, and oh, let’s have a seminar, and a symposium, and let’s do this, and write this article, but when you walk around campus, do you say hi to each other? When you’re sitting in a meeting, do you notice when someone has something to say? When they say that thing, do you actually listen to it, and comment based on what they said, or do you just run through it like they didn’t say anything at all? Just basic human sensibility will make people want to work for you. But when you make it us versus them, then it’s more complicated, and then you have to try to force people. “Don’t treat these people worse than…” And so now people are actively trying to be overly friendly, which is also disingenuous, nobody wants that. I don’t want you to say hi to me because I’m the black chick. I want you to say hi to me because I’m on campus and I looked you in your face. That’s just basic. We manage, but it’s this whole– I work for, you work at, and that sense of entitlement has permeated all the Tech companies that I have even spoken to my friends about. And all those Tech companies have diversity issues.
“It’s not that hard. Just don’t make me feel like I’m not supposed to be here.”
Whoa. That’s just like a totally new systemic issue to me that is blowing my mind right now. It’s almost like, it’s creating—and I’m sure it’s not on purpose, but it’s created the system in which discrimination can be quietly applied to an area of tech that is not necessarily stigmatized and that’s crazy. It’s crazy.
Do you remember the situation where minorities are afraid to speak to other minorities? Because it’s like, “If I speak to you and you’re a contractor, they’re never going to believe I’m not a contractor.” Now you’ve created dissention within the minority groups because nobody wants to be connected to someone who is lower than them because people already want to think that they’re lower. So it’s just highly unnecessary, just speak, just work, just be kind to one another. It’s not that complicated. Teach manners in these intro classes. Teach cross-culture communication. People who grew up in this area think of things this way, the east coast sees it this way, the west coast see it this way, this country sees it this way, that country sees it that way. Know that while everyone won’t fit into those individual groups or sets, you may want to be cognizant that people from this country may speak about things in this light, or it may be more effective to explain it this way. Just teach people how to communicate with each other, and how to be kind and people will stay. We like our jobs, everyone who comes here likes their job. We just don’t want to be tortured and we don’t want to be a zoo animal. [chuckle] We don’t want to be petted, randomly, by people who think it’s their job to pet you. We just want to be a human and go to work every day. That’s all you want to do. It takes an effort in communication and understanding that everyone here deserves to be here. No one’s handing out jobs, to anyone, from anywhere.
“Just have your work force treat everyone like they’re okay. Say hi to anybody that walks past you. Speak when you’re spoken to. Just basic human sensibility, and you can keep your minorities. Nobody’s asking for extra. Nobody wants a handout. Nobody needs special treatment. We just don’t want to be treated poorly.”
Lordy. People are treating it like it’s a zero-sum game. You are not taking something from someone, by being present.
That is also a difficulty. The, “Oh well if we hire these people there’ll be less of—” No there won’t. There are still jobs, they’re still hiring. I hate the argument every time you say, let’s diversify. People say, “well we don’t want to lower our standards.” Did you lower your standards for me? Because I believe that I out-degree most of the people at my company. So it’s just this automatic assumption that we need a handout when it’s not that. The issue is, I have 4 degrees but I may have never been interviewed. How many people like me are out there because you want to interview people who you know and you understand and you feel comfortable with? Well, for the good of the company, maybe you should expand who you know, who you understand, and who you feel comfortable with. I’ve spent a lot of time traveling. I’m comfortable with pretty much anyone, pretty much anywhere.
“How many people like me are out there because you want to interview people who you know and you understand and you feel comfortable with? Well, for the good of the company, maybe you should expand who you know, who you understand, and who you feel comfortable with.”
A lot of people don’t travel. Or they’ll travel with their friends to specific places that feel an awful lot like home. So you don’t actually get a view of the world or meet different people or learn different things. It’s not that you’re actively not hiring women or any other minorities, it’s that you don’t know them and you can’t communicate with them. So you’re afraid of them and you’d rather not have them in your closer circles. That’s why teaching basic communication, teaching basic human kindness would make it easier to hire and to retain minorities of all sorts.
There’s is some media syndrome and I don’t think we understand it. You see it every day when you check Facebook. It’s like people feel like it gives them some sort of, I don’t know, intelligence credit. If they can just shoot people down and be hateful all the time. It’s like a new badge of honor of some sort, you know to be mean and unreasonable and just to hate [chuckle] for absolutely no reason. I don’t understand it. Life is really short, like really short. And I can’t waste time for any of it. I won’t waste time for any of it. I think by the time some of these people realize how short life is, they will have blown quite a bit of it. Just wasting life experience.
Yeah. I don’t think it works long term. I’m not convinced.
[chuckle] Maybe you won’t become a bitter old person. When I was in high school we were having a school function outside at my high school and I think there were older people. I was standing outside waiting for my mom to pick me up, and a couple of them walked out and they were nice and they said hi or whatever. But two or three of them were just mean, just went out of their way to be mean to me because I was the youth and I was this and that, you know “kids these days.” And I was like, “How are you this bitter when you’re this old? Have you always been bitter?” But it’s just a horrible way to live. It’s like, even if you’re physically kind of crippled as an older person, if you’re kind, it changes the whole appearance of your face. It changes how the room feels when you’re in it, and I would rather go out like that than cussing the gods [chuckles] with my last angry breath. It just doesn’t seem to be worth it. Especially since you work in tech. How bad can it be [chuckles]? Really? This is like Disney World. How bad can your life be? They pay good salaries. The housing is expensive, but it’s nice. You can afford it on your salary. The food is good. You can get organic and whatever special stuff that you crave for a reasonable price. They will deliver anything from anywhere to your door at any point in time. You can go off the grid or use Google’s fiber or their phone service or anything else, anything that you want is within a dial of your phone. Wow, why so angry? [chuckles]
I so understand. I think perspective helps.
Yeah, I think it does.
Where do you think you’ll be in five or ten years? Do you think you’ll still be here?
Oh, no [laughter]. No, I’ve got plans. I wanted to do tech for a long time, and I have a set period of time that I want to spend specifically in tech solely. But I had dreams before I came here. So this was a dream that I wanted to fulfill, but it’s not my ultimate dream. Well, part of it was. Working at Google was an ultimate dream, but I’ve done that. So that’s cool [chuckles]. But yeah, I have things that I want to do with my life once this phase is over. I’m not a lifer, but I don’t think I’ll ever truly leave tech. I was always kind of in it anyway. So this is a very important chapter in my life, but it won’t be the only one.
I’m excited to see what happens, what you end up doing. My last question for you was going to be what advice would you have to people who face similar struggles to you who are hoping to get into tech?
Don’t listen to anyone or anything. Well, listen, but always give yourself the final say. I don’t have a single tech degree [chuckles]. I came here to do a General Assembly course in UX design and it all fell apart when I was on the train in Texas because I couldn’t find housing. But I’m still here and now I’m in my second stint at Google with greater responsibilities. So it is possible. If you’re willing to put in the work it is possible. You may have to go a different route. You may have to do some different things, but just don’t let someone else dictate to you the path that you need to take to be here. I had several people who I was trying to have as mentors who tried to tell me, “Do it this way, do it this way,” but they weren’t ways that fit what I wanted for my career and for my life. And I appreciated that they were trying to help me, but I had to do it my way, and I’m very happy that I did. Oh, and it will not be easy. There will be traps and pitfalls, the rug may even get pulled more than once. You can’t help what happens to you. If you get hit hard enough, you will fall. But you can control how you fall. Always fall forward. Take the blow. Allow yourself the hurt. But never go backwards. Fight to fall forward and you’ll always have a reason to get up.
“You can’t help what happens to you. If you get hit hard enough, you will fall. But you can control how you fall. Always fall forward. Take the blow. Allow yourself the hurt. But never go backwards. Fight to fall forward and you’ll always have a reason to get up.”