Working in Tech as a Black Leader
On Monday, June 15th, 2020 at 8:28 AM CT I started a thread on Twitter with this:
I've worked in software development for over 20 years, and most of my career has been in management. I want to share something about the reality of working as a Black man fulfilling leadership roles in tech.— Anjuan (@anjuan) June 15, 2020
I had no idea that, as of this writing, over 7,000 people would like that tweet. I gained thousands of new followers in a couple of days. I’m publishing the contents of the thread (with two small typo corrections and a formatting change) here to preserve the moment on my blog.
I’ve worked in software development for over 20 years, and most of my career has been in management. I want to share something about the reality of working as a Black man fulfilling leadership roles in tech.
I’ve been responsible for shipping countless features and managing large numbers of people. However, for most of the people I manage, I’m probably the first manager they’ve had who has been a Black man. So, I always labor under the possibility that I may be seen as a “token hire”
Look, I’ve never seen a “let’s hire unqualified Black people” program at any place I’ve worked. There is definitely not a “let’s keep paying Black people large amounts of money even if they suck” program. If you don’t deliver as a manager, you’re going to quickly get fired.
So, the idea that I’ve built a career in tech just based on the color of my skin is ridiculous. However, when you’re “the first” you run the risk of representing “the worst” stereotypes people have about your race. And, being viewed as an unqualified token hire is part of that.
Therefore, I do my work with a bit of a chip on my shoulder. I try to be impeccable in how I present myself. Being late to a meeting? No way. Producing sloppy work? Can’t have that. However, carrying this chip is a burden on top of what is already a really hard job.
One reason I started speaking at tech conferences was to “show my work” and try to portray the thoughtfulness and deep understanding I have about working in software development. I’m usually the only Black man on the list speakers and sometimes the only Black man at the event.
There’s not a lot of role models for what I do. There are fewer role models for where I want to go with my career. In a lot of ways, my progression requires going “where no one (like me) has gone before”. And, I do all of this surrounded by systematic racism.
For my fellow sci-fi nerds, it’s like going on a five year mission where you’re constantly surrounded by cloaked Klingon Birds of Prey. They can appear at any time and fire photon torpedoes at you. And then disappear. But, the journey has to continue.
So, that’s the reality of my experience as a Black man (and manager) in the software industry. There’s a whole lot more, but most of it is stuff that I can’t put on Twitter. I share this because being Anti-Racist is more than just criminal justice reform (although that is badly needed). Most Black people aren’t criminals so our need for reform goes beyond the criminal justice system.
Being Anti-Racist means reforming an entire system built on centuries of the hereditary slavery of Black Americans and a century of Jim Crow laws specifically designed to keep Black people in our place. And, that place was definitely not a place of leadership.
So, you may have never done a racist thing in your life. That’s great. However, I hope you’ll get involved in dismantling systematic racism. That means you’ll get a system of justice, too. Injustice in any system threatens the freedom of everyone inside that system.