Episode 66 – Mopewa Ogundipe
Software Engineer at Khan Academy
Carnegie Mellon University, Computer Science & Robotics
What made you decide to work in tech?
My two older brothers introduced me to engineering. They’re both engineers and I grew up watching, and eventually joining, them take apart household appliances. When I got to high school, I had a series of amazing teachers who helped a group of us start a FIRST Robotics Competition team and who introduced me to programming. I decided to go into the tech industry because I love putting things together and this was a place where it was possible to create something tangible and have huge impact from just an idea.
What was an obstacle you faced and how did you overcome that obstacle?
I think I’ve been lucky in that I grew up in an household where there was never any question that I could be whatever I wanted and accomplish whatever I wanted as long as I worked hard and put my mind to it. My parents moved our family from Nigeria to the U.S. when I was 10 because they strongly believed that my brothers and I would have better opportunities here. They gave up a lot, more than I can comprehend sometimes, to make sure I went to great schools, from elementary school through university. Sometimes I struggle through periods of doubt (and I think everyone does to some degree) but it definitely doesn’t help when now and then I’ll get a comment either suggesting or outright saying that I only got an opportunity because of the color of my skin or my gender. But I’ve never let that stop me for long and that’s partly because it’s incredibly empowering to have parents and a family that believes in me as much as mine does.
What is your experience being a POC in Tech?
I initially found it pretty lonely, especially during college. Consistently being the only black woman in the room felt like a responsibility, and that pressure was exhausting. However, over the years of interning out in the bay area and now having moved here, things are much better because I’ve found a community. I no longer feel alone, because I’ve surrounded myself with friends and mentors that I know I can always lean on.
What was your perception about the tech industry before entering it, what is your perception now?
There was a hot second or two in my first years in college, where I bought into the myth that the tech industry is a meritocracy. But that idea was pretty quickly shattered after exposure to the industry. I saw how heavily companies recruited based on employee referrals, which might be a good system for companies that start out diverse but how many tech companies do? (Very few). Also, during conversations about diversity and making companies look more like the communities they serve, I just kept hearing tech leaders mention something along the lines of “Diversity is important to us, but we also won’t lower the hiring bar.” I would look around and could never find anyone else who seemed bothered with what I found to be an offensive implication that making an effort to have a more diverse workplace automatically meant having to hire people who aren’t qualified.
What are three tips you can give to high school/college students who want to enter tech?
1) Don’t be afraid to reach out if you have questions about the tech industry. I’ve found some incredibly supportive people over my four years interning and now working full-time in the tech industry, including people I initially thought would be much too busy to take the time to talk to me. Twitter is especially great for this.
2) Ask every question you have. Then when more come up, ask those too.
3) Try to work on side projects. They’re a great way to pick up technical skills, but they’re also great to have on your resume. I know it’s not always easy, but I think the reality of the industry is that side projects are the best way to get a foot in the door when you’re starting out and don’t have previous experience. I worked while I was in college. Between that and doing well in my classes, I didn’t have much time to work on side projects. So I ended up taking a lot of project-based classes where part of the class involved working on an independent project as a way to kill two birds with one stone.
Right now I’m playing around with React and React Native with tiny side projects but mostly I’ve been focused on putting my best foot forward during my first few months as a full-time developer. So far, I’ve worked on a wide variety of projects at Khan Academy; I’ve worked on projects to reduce our app size, to track our data usage, to allow for A/B tests in our phone apps, and a bunch of others. It’s really great because I’m learning a ton and I’m actually watching myself becoming a better developer.
Khan Academy is doing a Facebook Live chat with their software developers, Mopewa Ogundipe [featured above in episode 66] and Mike Lee, on Thursday, December 8th at 7 pm ET/4 pm PT. They’ll talk about their career paths and what they do at Khan Academy, and answer questions live.