December 19, 2019

The (One) Time I Had A Black Manager

I got my first job when I was 16. A few weeks after I got my driver’s license, I drove my red, 2002 Ford Focus over to a local Frisch’s Big Boy. I’d never eaten there, but it always seemed to be empty which I thought was just the right level of intimidating for my first job.

My would-be manager, a white man of around 60, conducted an informal interview with me at one of the empty tables — we had every seat in the place to choose from.

With my resume in hand (which I can only imagine was just a blank piece of paper), he asked me questions about work ethic and why I wanted a job. I told him about how I’d gone to work with my parents at their shops almost every day after school and on the weekends. I told him I knew a thing or two about keeping a place in tip-top shape and having pride in my work. He liked that answer and hired me on the spot.

He was my first manager and he gave me my first bullet on my blank sheet of paper.

Fast forward six years, and five managers later, to 2016. 🚀

One year into my first job out of college, an email popped into my inbox that caught my eye. Dion, a new engineering manager, had just been hired. There was a photo and a blurb where he’d been prompted to answer some questions about where he was from, what he was doing before this job, and what excited him about his new role. He said he was from Jamaica (like my mom), he was excited to get to know and work with everybody, and unlike any manager I’d ever met, he was black.

I immediately looked him up on Slack and sent a message that said something like:

“Welcome to [company]. You’re Jamaican, I’m Jamaican! I think we’re the only ones. Would you like to get coffee?”

He responded saying he didn’t like coffee but would love to chat. I knew our friendship was off to a great start — I didn’t like coffee either!

At the time, I was a CX agent, or as it’s called where I’m from, a customer service representative. I’d gone to college to study business — not because I didn’t know what else to study, as the stereotype of business majors goes, but because I really wanted to.

When I graduated I didn’t know where I would fit in.

When I graduated I didn’t know where I would fit in. Most of my classmates were going off to work in some of the most homogeneously dominated professions in the galaxy — investment banking and consulting. I knew I would be utterly alone there and couldn’t stomach the idea of feeling as out-of-place at work as I did in my college classes. So I packed my bags to go try my luck in the most diverse city in the country, at a startup I’d heard about from a friend, to fill the only role I could see myself in at the time — CX.

What happened next changed the course of my career, and quite possibly, my life. Dion (my new blood brother) and I, sat on a bench outside of our office, drinking nothing, but the conversation was easy. We talked about our Jamaican mothers briefly, he told me about his experiences giving back — volunteering, mentoring, teaching — and I told him about mine. We’d both come a long way to be sitting on that bench. Knowing that was in our blood. Paying it forward was a necessary part of our journey. He asked me what I wanted to do in the future. I told him I’d been learning to code for fun because I was bored in my job, but I told him I definitely didn’t want to become an engineer — for the same reasons I had steered clear of investment banking and consulting.

He half-heartedly tried to convince me otherwise but mostly listened, then told me we should grab not coffee again soon.

Over the course of the next year, I brought him projects I was working on. He looked them over, told me to keep working, offered advice about where to focus my learning. On more than one occasion he told me I could “do it” even before I knew what “it” was. He was well-respected and smart, calculating but also compassionate and personable. He valued people — where they came from and where they were going. He was the first person I saw myself in since going to college. The first person in this strange world so far from where I’d started that helped me see that I could really do it, whatever it was.

I kept working on my coding, building projects outside of work. Just when I was ready to leave the nest (set out for my life after [company]), he hired me onto his team as an apprentice software engineer, the first position of its kind at the company. He vouched for me. He assured the necessary people I‘d worked hard and could be successful in the role, pulled levers and opened doors. Behind closed doors, he told me I had a big challenge ahead of me and that everyone would be watching to see how this played out. He knew I understood — you can’t fail when you’re the first.

I worked hard and before long I was contributing and pulling my weight on the team ahead of schedule — I was a bona fide engineer. Around the time I joined the engineering team , Dion had hired the only other Jamaican engineer I’d ever heard of, two Dominican engineers, a “bad-ass” female engineer from India, and two of the coolest white guys around. We were drawn to Dion like a light in the dark, and so, around him swelled a diverse team (like a perfectly-staged college brochure)— the best team I’ve ever been part of.

Dion changed my life, and in no small part, because I could relate to him and he could relate to me. Dion was my manager for exactly one year. We still grab not coffees and talk about work and life. He gets it, and I’m forever grateful to have him to look up to and to have had, if for only a brief time, a black manager.

This article was written by Meka Seymour and originally posted here via Medium.


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