Living and Working in Brotopia

The Hope and The Dream of Equality I/O 2017

The views presented here are entirely my own and are not necessarily the views of my current, nor former employers

It has proven impossible to read Emily Chang’s Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley without reflecting upon my own experiences in both the Valley and the industry. In case you couldn’t guess, I’m Black. Not the son of the Harvard Law Dad, Stanford Medical School Mom Black, the other kind.

In a sort of TLDR statement for the argument that I would make here, but will not because I’ve made them far too many times, there is no one Black experience. Black people are not a type, just like Women are not a type. Both Women and Black people have some shared experiences with others who are similar to them physically, however this does not make them the same, nor should anyone expect that any two Women or Black people will feel the same way about any given issue.

Now that that’s out of the way, I would like to establish my credibility. I’m the ~1% … not the good, rich kind, the sad, only guy that looks like me in the room kind … of black software engineers in the valley. To further cement my mystical unicorn status, I’m over 40 and still in software engineering. This is increasingly atypical, many of the type, Bro, have left tech early, well before their 40s, many that I talk to who are just getting into their 30s are always surprised and happy to have an example of someone who is still coding and is “old.”

I think I can now go on to discuss what it is like being Black while being in Brotopia … but wait, I think I need to discuss my privilege first.

I have three kids and an amazing partner who I am entirely monogamous with ( to understand why I’ve chosen to underscore that point, you’ll have to read the book). I’ve been working in San Francisco, San Jose, and occasionally the San Francisco peninsula, AKA the Bay Area ( Go Warriors!!! ), proper for the past 17 or so years. I’ve had the good fortune to have worked for a two person startup that had an exit, and I’ve worked for a global multi-national corporation.

I’ve worked for several fat startups, a couple of mid-sized startups, some led by Women, some led by Asians, others led by the, unfairly in many cases, much maligned white-males that take so much grief for being bros. I do not have a CS degree, I’m proudly a BA in English with a concentration in Literature, specifically British Women writers of the 19th century, which was an amazing experience. Suffice it to say, being a mystical unicorn, I think I’m doing OK for now intellectually and emotionally in tech.

Surprisingly, I am not disenfranchised, nor dismayed about tech, and I don’t have a ton of horror stories. I’m still happily and gainfully employed at a senior level and am continuing to track for promotion, all of this before the push for diversity even occurred in the Valley.

All of that being said, I think I can now go on to discuss what it is like being Black while being in Brotopia … but wait, I think I need to discuss my privilege first. I grew up oscillating between a mother who was incredibly loving and attentive, as much as one can be while working constantly, and a father who was an extreme workaholic and was pretty solidly middle-class. I spent time with my father during the week so that I could go to school, more on this later, and the weekends often with my mother. My father lived in a fairly decent middle-class area of Philadelphia, while my mother and my little brother lived in what started out to be a lower-working class neighborhood.

I think that is the reason that things aren’t changing rapidly enough, it’s because when you start bringing in ethnic and cultural minorities who have been oppressed for years, and who have developed a coping mechanism of overwork, being 10x better than the next Bro who will walk through the door, they are often more likely to ignore the wrongs that they see in that they are so glad to just have a seat at the table

Often when I was with them, and eventually I would just end up living with them period, there would be people shooting at each other in the alleys, the same people would also start shooting at the basketball court while we were playing and we’d have to run away, etc… I got into fights at school when I went to an inner-city school, but I was OK once I was at the excellent private school in which my Dad worked like a dog to keep me. I went hungry sometimes, I had all sorts of difficult emotional issues to work through, not to mention later discovering that I am apparently hovering on the line of Asperger’s, another topic that I could go on and on about, things weren’t all that easy for me, nor were they as difficult as the circumstances other in tech grow up through. In addition to having a caring family, though not having a ton of money, I had a number of advantages that others did not.

All-in-all growing up this way wasn’t really that bad, though the moving back and forth between a private school where everyone attending, except me, were in the top 5% of earners in the country, to a inner-city school where nearly everyone was on government assistance in one form or another, to later attending a middle-of-the-road school in the southeast, presented some unusual challenges. Set me, and I believe many others with my background, regardless of gender, orientation, or ethnicity, up for a particular sort of complicity with Brotopia.

My Dad had a computer early on; my Uncle had many computers early on; the ways that they got these computers is something that I’m not going to go into, but the fact is that they were there and available to me. I would not sleep or eat, often being chased by my father or stepmother to the table for dinner, or to go to bed at 3 or 4 in the morning, I would only code. That never really wore off, I still have that problem.

This is not something that happens now, I got extremely lucky in addition to have been privileged in going to multiple decent schools, having access to computers early, teachers and parents that encouraged an absurd obsession over all other things, and even friends who thought it was cool. I had affirmation everywhere that young girls, and especially young girls of color do not have.

Eventually we moved away from the growing criminality of the working-class neighborhood in Philadelphia where I lived, to the south where, again sometimes unfairly much-maligned, Southern, white males & females helped me compound the privilege that I had begun to build before by letting me do pretty much whatever I wanted with the computers in my high-school library, as long as they were all working for the students. Since my mom couldn’t pick me up after school ( I was using a relative’s address to avoid going to the inner city school that I would have been district-ed for ) I would just hang out in the library, read philosophy, mathematics, physics, and fix problems with the computers. It was a win-win, the librarians didn’t have to pay some expensive technician, and I had a place to hang out where I wouldn’t get into fights, etc… meanwhile I just compounded my privilege further.

Naturally I ran into all manner of racism, people muttered things under their breath, others outright told me I was wasting my time with classical learning that I should focus on a trade like HVAC ( sometimes I wish I had gone into HVAC, it was and still is where the cool stuff is happening :-p ). I just kind of ignored them and did my thing. Eventually I developed an absurd work habit to go along with my privilege which further compounded things. I couldn’t let the racists have any rational argument to make that I was anywhere near a “savage” or any of the other terrible things that they said about Black people. As a bonus, now that people weren’t shooting at us as much, I could play basketball too, when I wasn’t coding, though I was and still am far too short at 1.77 meters tall.

So when I moved to the SF Bay Area in 1999, I found a culture that was deeply unfair and broken, although as an aside, the techno-hippies that were running things in the late 90’s are vastly different in so many ways than the tech-royalty that now presides over the area. The Bay Area in ’99 was sexist as all get-out, and deeply racist against Latinx as well, even though no-one would admit it, but the parties were great, nobody asked about what you had done before, as long as you could put up working code, you were hired. This is not something that happens now, I got extremely lucky in addition to have been privileged in going to multiple decent schools, having access to computers early, teachers and parents that encouraged an absurd obsession over all other things, and even friends who thought it was cool. I had affirmation everywhere that young girls, and especially young girls of color do not have.

This is the crux of the problem though, I believe that many software engineers share my story, one of being held back, told they couldn’t do it, that they can’t make it, but then they do, they don’t want to do anything to jeopardize the golden ticket they have been handed.

Here’s the rub. Because I was so dirt poor, because I was hungry for money idolizing it and dreaming about having it. I was absolutely willing to “play the game that was on the field.” to quote a passage from Brotopia. I saw the strange parties going on ( although I was only on the fringes and I didn’t participate in any of that stuff, and never felt that I needed to ), I went to the early stages of some of these, then left when stuff got odd. I would see things, that could be considered abuse of power, etc… I kept it to myself, I wasn’t being a good ally. I justified it by telling myself that since I had been so deeply and consistently oppressed that I wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize the opportunity I had to finally see how far my intelligence and hard-work would take me.

I think that is the reason that things aren’t changing rapidly enough, is because when you start bringing in ethnic and cultural minorities who have been oppressed for years, and who have developed a coping mechanism of overwork, being 10x better than the next Bro who will walk through the door, they are often more likely to ignore the wrongs that they see in that they are so glad to just have a seat at the table. This effect is what drove such division into the African-American community during reconstruction, and is likely the origin of the disparagement, “Uncle-Tom.” The people who got in did seemingly nothing to bring others in, sometimes as it is today, that criticism was justified though repugnant.

What I didn’t see, however, was how horrible that was for the other cultural and ethnic minorities, as well as my own group, that were the target. I heard all of the comments that made me chafe, “you’re so different from the other sic(Black) people.” “I am so surprised by your eloquence.” so on and so forth, but I just kept it to myself, as long as the checks kept increasing and the money kept depositing I didn’t worry about it, I let it slide off my back.

Eventually I finally accepted that I was well enough off that I could afford to take a few risks, start to stick my neck out for the candidates who were women who didn’t have the pedigree, and perhaps even didn’t answer the trick questions right, but were obviously bright and capable of what I have always called ( Just-In-Time Learning ).

If you will go back in time with me, forgive me, I’m old and I like tangents, there used to be this show called “The Pretender.” It was the best show ever, it was about this guy who was super smart and just traveled around pretending to be a doctor, lawyer, scientist, whatever, and he got away with it because he knew so much and could learn whatever he didn’t know super quickly. I styled myself after this guy, it’s funny now that I still have to fight a tendency to impostor syndrome after wanting to be like someone called “The Pretender.” But I actually do that, I love to learn, read, and get better, no matter how hard it is, no matter how many hours it takes I’ll figure out my mistakes and fix whatever I’ve done wrong, or I’ll learn the right way to do something before I do it and turn it in on-time and to-spec. Whenever I recognize that in a potential candidate for a position I push hard to get them hired.

In my career I have found that when that candidate is a woman, I have to push even harder than usual. This would be amusing if it wasn’t so tragic. The same exact traits that have clearly made me successful, as a man in a body that American society clearly hates is (relatively) easy to hire, while a Caucasian woman in a body that American society idealizes presenting the exact same traits is difficult to get through. This has never, ever, made any sense to me, it’s completely illogical, but as I get older, the harder I push.

This is the crux of the problem though, I believe that many software engineers share my story, one of being held back, told they couldn’t do it, that they can’t make it, but then they do, they don’t want to do anything to jeopardize the golden ticket they have been handed. They are often willing to overlook the horrible things that are done to women in tech, and the horrible ways they are made to feel, they / we are often not the best allies we could and should be for them.

This is a kind of selfishness born from fear of losing what we have hoarded, like Gollum with his precious, that we ignore our principles. This is true for many women who have “made” it into tech, many hate the things that are posted in the company chat, or the events where even if they are not, perhaps another female colleague is made to feel uncomfortable, but they don’t want to rock the boat so they put up with it, they don’t stand up for their co-worker who doesn’t like that sort of stuff.

There are probably Women who honestly don’t mind it and / or think it’s just joking around and that it isn’t that bad, I have a hard time believing that everyone in a “bloc” feels the same way about anything. But in the least, I think we can all agree that feeling uncomfortable at work or in school sucks and we shouldn’t wish it on anyone. Speaking as someone who has had to work hard to empathize with others on a cognitive level when I can’t do it on an emotional level, we must learn to recognize when someone is uncomfortable and do what we can to change it. It’s just the golden rule.

The problem is that it’s easy for me to stand on my privilege and make pronouncements now that I have gotten deeper into my career and I have a few options. It’s much easier for me to push back and argue with Brotopian ideas now, many NCG ( New College Grads ) would say. I completely agree with that, it’s much easier for me to fight now than it was before, so to that end, while I am ashamed of my prior complicity by silence, I now have the opportunity to do something and so I and my cohort have the obligation to do something.

It isn’t enough for me to have found a company to work for where ethnic and cultural minorities are respected and embraced, (recruiters, if you really want candidates like me to want to come to your companies, you need to work to change the culture, full-stop ) where I never want to leave for fear of wandering back into Brotopia, that’s great for me, but what about everyone else? The state of the Valley is embarrassing in so many ways, and we can do anything, we are problem solvers, we can certainly fix this.

I didn’t want to diminish what I was saying by making it a billboard for my current company, but if you are interested in working with a diverse group focused on making people happier in the skin they are in, let me know.

Author of The Last American: A Novel(http://goo.gl/rnWxu6), father, husband, coder.

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