December 28, 2015

Erica Baker, Engineering Manager – Part Two

You seem passionate about your job.

Oh, yeah. I love Slack. Slack is the greatest place ever! I feel like when I am not at Slack anymore (I don’t see that happening anytime soon) this [will be] my last job in tech. I’m not going to go anywhere else. I don’t think it gets better than here.

Why is that the case?

The team here is great. People here are really good people. I’ve worked other places where the people I was working with weren’t real people. You know what I mean?

Yeah, like genuine.

Right. Authentic and they care about interacting with others in a way that’s positive and they go out of their way to make sure that everybody else’s life is simple and if someone can help out there isn’t, “Well, that’s not my job.” It’s always, “Sure, I’ll help. Real quick.” That’s just the way people are here. Everybody’s here and it’s like we’re all in this together. Everybody here is a good person. I don’t know that I would find that in any other company.

What is your experience being a person of color in tech?

It’s very isolating. It’s not usual to not see another person of color in most tech jobs. When I was at Google, if I stayed at my building, I could go literally days without seeing another person of color. That’s just like the standard in tech.  How to put it? It’s not this very tangible thing that you can name. It’s just like, eventually, after a while, it would start wearing on you that you’re the only one there.

People are walking by and they stare at you because you’re the only black person they’ve seen in however long and they don’t expect to see black people, so people come with their biases. They think you’re the administrative assistant. People thought I was security. Nobody ever thought I was an engineer.

Someone said once “Oh, you should write something down that says that you’re an engineer.”

Why do I need to wear a badge on my chest that says I’m an engineer?

One time, I was sharing an office with a coworker and one of the people we supported when I was doing exec support came into the office, and he thought I was the admin assistant for my officemate.

I said, “No.”

He said, “You should put a sign-up.”

None of my other teammates have a sign that says they’re engineers.

So that’s what it’s like to be a person of color in tech. It’s very isolating and you have to, if you want to see someone else that understands the experience, you have to seek them out usually. I don’t have that problem here at Slack. It was interesting, when I walked in the first day there were 2 other black women engineers. I was like, holy shit, how is that possible? I was ecstatic. I was so overjoyed because at Google, I would go days without seeing another black woman and most of the time they weren’t engineers. Which is fine, that’s cool. But to walk in and there are other black woman engineers, it’s like totally amazing. So happy. So I don’t feel that here.

I know there’s the push for diversity. Do you think because of that trend there will be actions in place in companies to increase diversity, or is this just the buzzword of this year?

So, let’s start with that word diversity, right? People throw that word around, but it’s usually meant to talk about gender diversity, right? It means diversity of gender and race and all other types of diversity, but people are really focusing on gender diversity right now. So a lot of attention and a lot of resources are being pushed toward women in the tech movement.

So, when people say, “We value diversity,” what they’re really saying is, “We value getting more women into tech.” And if you push them on race diversity, it gets really squishy. First of all, talking about race makes people uncomfortable. Immediate discomfort because if you start to think about racism at work and you start to see how it’s affecting your workplace and your workforce and you wonder how that came to be.

You start thinking about systemic racism and you start recognizing that maybe you got there–if you’re not a person of color–you start thinking maybe you got there because of some systems in society that maybe favored you over someone else and you start thinking, well, maybe I’m not as special as I thought I was. People don’t like to go down that path so they just don’t because it’s super uncomfortable. I totally get that but at the same time that is why, when people are talking about diversity, they are rarely talking about race.

So, that being said, do I think that it is a trend? I think right now, Mark Benioff did a thing at Salesforce Conference. He’s said, “We’re focusing on women for now and then we’ll get to people of color.”

That’s when people say we’re going to focus on women now, it allows them to say, ‘oh well, we’ll just keep focusing on women.’ This is my cynical point of view because I’ve seen the way companies work–like, we’ll just focus on women until people stop talking about diversity; until it stops being a hot topic, and then after we don’t ever have to focus on people of color.

The market or industry will go into a downturn, and then people are like, ‘Oh, we are trying to save our company. We don’t have time to think about diversity anymore.’ That sort of thing. So, is it trendy? I don’t know that “trend” is so much what I call it. I just say that people are doing it until they figure out that they don’t have to anymore.

Everyone is talking about the percentages.  There’s only 3% [black/hispanic engineers in a tech company]; there’s only 5%[black/hispanic engineers in a tech company]. Every time we talk about these marginal percentages it makes people assume there are no black people in tech.

No, that is true. I mean, it makes it sound like there are none. There’s a lot of bias in recruiting, like, ‘oh we only recruit from these schools because we know those people are the best and they’re the most talented.’ That’s untrue. You just don’t know how to recruit from other schools.

What three tips can you give students who want to enter tech?

Be tenacious, for sure. Yeah, be tenacious and be curious, for sure.

Don’t forget that you’re still working with people. Even though you’re working with computers, there are still people around you that you have to work with.

Also, pay lots of attention to logic. Logic is like the basis for all things in computer science and in tech in general. You have to be able to work through the steps of something in your head. If there’s anything that I would say that you could do to prepare yourself or make yourself better or ready for computer science or a career in tech, it’s just like, figure out how to bone up on thinking logically. Do logic puzzles; that sort of thing.

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Ruth Mesfun

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