September 19, 2016

Boyma Fahnbulleh, Software Engineer at Chain

What made you decide to work in tech?

I think at the base of it, was my brother in law [who is a good deal older than me, maybe like 11 years older]. Growing up I followed in his footsteps, so whatever he was doing I wanted to do (laughs). He studied electrical engineering and so in the summers I would work on tech hardware problems with him, and that got me excited about technology, and when I was in the ninth or tenth grade I took a class in Visual Basic, and I enjoyed it. When I was at school, I wanted to study computer science and from there I’ve been a little bit obsessed!

Have there ever been any obstacles in your career?

After I had graduated from school, I moved to Chicago from Indiana and was working as a web developer for this French software firm and four months into that I was brutally mugged, just left for dead in the streets. A near death experience changes you.  I took on this mantra of ‘life is too short to do things you don’t want to do, but it’s too long not to do the things you have to do.’  I always had this passion for the arts, so I put my tech career on hold and chased the dream of being an entertainer. It was incredible to go after something that I thought was a dream, but it brought me back to my tech career eventually. I realized this was not only what I want to be doing but what’s best for me also. So even though it was a traumatic thing that I had to overcome looking back, it was the best thing to happen to me because it leads me to the path I am on now and I think the path I’m on now is the right one.

What was your experience being a POC in tech?

It’s been lonely; I think it’s the best word. From being in school to every job I’ve had, I’ve been the only person of color on my team. Especially when you’re younger, it’s hard to see yourself in this career because you don’t see anyone in front of you doing it. I was lucky to have my brother-in-law, but even then it’s still hard not to see people that look like you doing what you do and love. But with the rise of social media and things like your website that showcases how many people of color are in tech [and the great things that we’re doing]. I think the forming of community [even distributed on the web] is so key and it’s helped me. Also just being deliberate in the choices you make and the environments you put yourself in for work. I work at Chain and though I’m the only black person on the team the team is pretty diverse, we have 21 people, nine women, and individuals from all over the world. Building a diverse team is something that Chain is striving for, even if the numbers are not where we want them to be, the mentality of the people that are working there is fantastic, so you can seek that out you know.


You mentioned loneliness in the industry, how do you think we can avoid it?

I think the major thing is trying to find each other and build these communities. At the end of the day, we can’t fight the reality, and the reality is there just aren’t that many of us in this space. Yes, we can try and look to the youth to show them this is a career path but at the end of the day, we still have to deal with our reality which is there aren’t many of us. So I think building communities, using the web to connect with each other and having different sounding boards where we can express the things we go through and the struggles we have and also the successes we’re able to overcome. That’s the primary reason when Michael reached out to me about an interview I was like definitely. You all are doing some of the things that need to be done for us to have more success in this field, I believe that.

What was your perception of the tech industry before entering it and what’s your perception now?

I can only speak from being an engineer. I felt there was one true type of engineer, and if you didn’t fit into that mold, it would be hard for you to succeed. As I continue to build out my career and I’ve met fantastic people from different races and cultures. I’ve learned there’s no such thing as one type of engineer or one type of person that will be a successful engineer. Anybody can build the skills set needed to succeed in this industry. It’s just about believing in yourself and putting in the hard work. Because it is hard working in tech regardless of your background but as people of color we all know that we’re going to have to work harder. It’s just about knowing the work that you’re going to have to put in and knowing that it’s going to bear fruit in the end.

What are three tips that you can give to high school/college students who want to enter this industry?
  1. Get a mentor [It’s so key]! With the internet, you can just reach out to people. I don’t think we realize this- especially people of color- people like to help each other out.
  2. You have to be solving problems constantly! Tech in particular but life, in general, is just about solving challenges, and the way to get better at solving problems is just solving problems. So if it’s a side project you’re working on or a class project or something you do in your free time, you need always to be solving problems. It’s the only way you’re going to get better
  3. Don’t be so quick to Google! If it’s a problem you need to solve, sometimes you need to figure it out. It’s not always just right to Google it, especially when you’re starting out.
Zara Tewolde-Berhan

Zara Tewolde-Berhan is a researcher, writer and campaigner. With an interest in PR and Communications, she is developing her passion in satire cartoons and graphic design. Zara holds a BA in Modern History and Politics.

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