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‘You want ME to give a talk at OSCON?’

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This was my reaction when I was invited to be a speaker at the 2016 conference. I wasn’t particularly notable, possessing neither a Wikipedia entry nor a Twitter blue check, but here the conference chairs were inviting me to take part. That year, they had been actively working to broaden the reach of the conference and would be featuring a wide array of new speakers. OSCON is an institution in our industry. How could I possibly say no?

The question was, what should I talk about? At the time, I was working at a company focused on the enterprise adoption of Node.js so I really wasn’t lacking topics suitable for an open source conference. But did the community need yet another talk on the power of Javascript and Node.js? It felt like this was an opportunity to deliver something with more impact.

Here I was being invited to speak as part of a concerted effort to increase representation. So, I decided to share an important story about my career in the hopes that it would help others like me. I decided to focus on my time at a previous company, where I progressed from an engineering manager to senior manager and eventually to engineering director, and the roadblocks I faced as a Black manager despite my success.

In this article, I’m going to share a couple of stories from that talk to give you a glimpse into my experience of navigating engineering leadership as a Black person, and to demonstrate the importance of representation and sponsorship for people from underrepresented groups.

Representation matters

When I started working at my previous company, there were very few Black role models in the industry. It was rare to encounter a Black person that held a director-level title, much less a VP-level one. During my entire tenure at my former company, I could count the number of Black engineering managers I knew on one hand… and have fingers left over. Most of the people I could learn from were White males and what worked for them certainly did not work for me.

As I had no mentors to speak of, I channeled what I learned from reading about two of my idols, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. I was driven, passionate, and most likely a bit of a jerk. We hit all of our milestones, including shipping the first public beta of our product, and proved the viability of our developing technology. However, the feedback I received after we shipped was not what I was expecting: ‘You need to work on your personal brand’.

It’s debatable whether or not Bill Gates and Steve Jobs should be considered role models for anyone. But at that time, they were the poster boys for the industry. Many leaders in many companies emulated them. The critical difference was that they had more in common with Gates and Jobs than I did. They could get away with stepping on toes and being aggressive because they fit the pattern where I didn’t.

Engineers from all underrepresented groups need role models. They need to see people that look like them. And organizations need not only to recruit and promote these folks but provide them with proper, continuous support once they’ve been given those titles.

The importance of sponsorship

After that experience, I was feeling disillusioned and preparing to resign when the opportunity to join an important project team presented itself. The project was going to deliver more than a new product offering; it would fundamentally change the business model of the company. The potential of this project re-energized me and I was determined to make it a success. I had grown as a leader and knew that success on this project could change the course of my career.

Leading this project team will always be a highlight of my career. The only asterisk on that achievement was the lack of recognition. While several of my peers were justifiably promoted to director-level post-launch, I was not. When I asked about this, there were many executives that claimed that I certainly deserved it. Still, I was told I had to wait. Another full cycle of product development came and went and after multiple reorgs, I landed under a new manager. When we discussed my situation and the possibility of being promoted like the rest of my colleagues, I was told: ‘I don’t see you in that role’.

Despite delivering on major projects that had significant impact for the company, I was still being denied the recognition I felt I had earned. Later, I learned that my colleagues’ managers and other executives had sponsored them. While my previous managers appreciated the results I delivered, they didn’t go out of their way to speak up for me. In the end, it took a heartfelt conversation with the GM of the business to remove the obstacles and land the promotion. While I was incredibly grateful to be recognized, the entire experience was draining and I departed about a year later.

The experience highlighted to me just how important sponsorship is. As an engineering leader, make sure that you’re actively speaking up for people from underrepresented groups. Call them out publicly for their achievements and go to bat for them whenever you can. It can be the difference between somebody getting sidelined or getting the title and salary they deserve.

Reflections

Eventually, no matter how much I enjoyed my work at the company and despite finally earning the director title, I had to move on. For all the talk of bringing your authentic self to work, the reality was that doing so seemed to hurt more than it helped. For many, their authentic selves and lived experiences seem alien to those that are overrepresented in the industry, and people fear what they do not understand.

That’s not to say that people of color and others in underrepresented groups should conform to the current societal norms and what is deemed ‘acceptable’ by the majority. Society must learn to be accepting and tolerant of differences, and engineering leaders must be cognizant of that in order to make change happen inside organizations.

If you’re in a leadership or managerial position, make sure you are doing all you can to hire diversely and create an inclusive environment where people from underrepresented groups can thrive so that everyone has access to role models and sponsors. Representation and continuous support really can make all the difference.