by Vivianne Castillo

Working in Tech: Advice from Black Women to Black Women

Over the past few months I’ve had quite a few inquiries from young black women who are starting their careers in tech. They’ve been asking for advice related to working in the industry, navigating through corporate, and flourishing in the workplace.

Out of the belief that black women can learn from each other and can support each other in our professional aspirations, I reached out to black women in tech and asked them three questions:

(1) If you could go back in time to the beginning of your career in tech and give yourself a piece of advice, what would you say?

(2) What’s one piece of advice you would give to black women entering the tech industry?

(3) If you could change one thing about your current work place to make it a better experience for black women, what would it be?

The advice in this piece comes from black women who work in design, research, advertising, engineering, IT, and product/program management; they work across major cities in the U.S. and most respondents were 25 to 45 years old.

This is their advice.

If you could go back in time to the beginning of your career in tech and give yourself a piece of advice, what would you say?

Themes: don’t be fearful, believe in yourself, secure the bag, be vocal about your aspirations, seek out wisdom and support.

“People will sometimes be trash towards you. They’ll tell you that you don’t know enough, or that your knowledge isn’t technical enough. Don’t listen to them. They’re going on some impossible standard that even they themselves could not fulfill. You simply loving technology is enough.”

“Just go for it! Stop making excuses for reasons not to go after something you really want.”

“Build a network of other black women in tech who have been in the industry. You’ll need them during difficult and discouraging times at work. More importantly, they’ll be able to give you advice on how to navigate corporate life, especially because you’ll find yourself in spaces where (more times than not) you’ll be one of the only black women there.”

“Prioritize self-care in your hustle. Don’t let relationships fall to the wayside just because you’re busy. Find the time and make the time for those close to you and prioritize your well-being.”

“I would say that even though the road aheads looks lonely, you are not alone. I would say to lean on the women who you have known and seen pave the way ahead of you, both inside and outside of the tech industry, and don’t be afraid that you will be a ‘bother’ by asking for help and admitting you are having a hard time. My greatest advice would be to extend grace and pride to myself for having the courage to move outside of a comfort zone to pursue a path that was not yet fully determined, but would ultimately lead me to swim in the depths of my own possibility and to not fear or doubt those depths.”

“Be more confident. Take the steps that will foster trust in your knowledge, expertise, and skills. For example, thoroughly prepare before each meeting, regardless of the meeting’s level of importance, reading key documents, annotating the documents, etc.. Confidence is nothing more than preparation. Build a reputation of being on top of your stuff.”

“You are the main character in your life, it’s your world, enjoy your journey, indulge in your passions, love yourself fiercely, you’ll make it.”

“Go for the money and also take heed of companies’ reputations. Seek out others’ insights about what the company is like to work at before accepting an offer, as well as meet your team.”

“Don’t be afraid to articulate what your interests and career goals are and stick to them. Don’t be afraid to counter offer.”

“Have faith in yourself. You forging your own way is a strength, not a weakness. I pivoted from working in the non-profit sector with a non-technical education and I felt so much like a fish out of water in Silicon Valley. However, as I gained more experience as a designer I realized that my background was an asset that set me apart.”

“Start to advocate for yourself earlier, you are your own best cheerleader.”

What’s one piece of advice you would give to black women entering the tech industry?

Themes: sponsors > mentors, take risks, don’t give up on your career aspirations, be confident in what you have to offer, your thoughts and ideas have value.

“Getting a sponsor is more important than a mentor. A sponsor is someone who can speak to the quality of your work/work ethic and will go to bat for your during performance reviews or in landing your next project/gig. In essence, they are willing to risk their social & professional capital in order to increase yours. That is not the same as a mentor. A mentor’s only risk and expenditure is their time.”

“If a job looks interesting, apply for it. Ignore the urge to fit 100% of the qualifications. Studies show that men only look at and fulfill maybe 25% of them. Imagine a woman who has 75% applying for the same job. You’d be a shoe-in.”

“Have confidence that your perspective, no matter how different, is worth being heard. Be bold in sharing the ways you think and experience things differently, because it could have a strong impact on the direction of a product or business that may not have had diverse perspectives without you. Know that your voice is of value, even if there is no one else that supports you or if there are others who try to tell you otherwise. Often when you lean into those moments and speak up, you will find that there are others who have felt the same but have felt as though they didn’t have the space or confidence to say it.”

“Network, you’ll realize later how important connections are.”

“Don’t stay at a company or team if you don’t like it or them, there is someone else willing to pay you more and be happy.”

“Write down your vision and make a plan. Find trusty mentors and sponsors that you can meet with for sound meaningful feedback.”

“Don’t be fooled into thinking that all ‘mainstream’ women will be your sponsor or allies in the workplace. I have been surprised by the people who have gone to bat for me or defended my reputation when things go wrong (which they inevitably will). Many of those people have included white men on my team. In fact, white men have been equally — if not more — supportive of me than white women.”

“In the majority of work team environments you will be the only black female. Be intentional in your decisions, speak up and never be afraid to make mistakes. That is how you will learn. Also, always have a goal that is targeted towards career growth that you are actively working towards.”

“Don’t give up. We need your thoughts options and ideas. Also relationships matter so get ready to network to help you get in and keep networking to move up.”

“Build together. Ask for help. Seek community wherever you can to support you. Even if that just means joining a Slack group for WoC.”

“Be confident in your value and skills others might doubt, but never doubt yourself — you are unlimited. Haters are immature.”

If you could change one thing about your current work place to make it a better experience for black women, what would it be?

Themes: increase representation by hiring more black women, safety to acknowledge white privilege and racism, white co-workers leading the conversation on diversity & inclusion.

“I would have encouraged black women even more than ever to apply for positions they think would be out of their realm. We need a lot of black women in management. And to stop looking for mentors after a certain point and start looking for sponsors. You need someone to drop your name in the decision room when the time comes. Start building those early (and never think you DON’T deserve the accolades).”

“MORE BLACK WOMEN! The worlds need you.”

“I’m the only black woman in our software company of (10000+ employees, Italian-based company). I’ve asked HR to improve our cultural diversity training as it’s affecting my comfortability at work (e.g. comments about hair, people trying to use ‘slang’ with me, assuming I’m ‘aggressive’ because I’m tall, black, and played basketball, being asked why I don’t make friends or eat with anyone when everyone groups together based on nationalities/cultures/race).”

“More black women. I work at a large, well-known tech company and even though we have several office buildings, I’m the ONLY black woman in my building. It can feel really lonely and like I always have to be crushing it in order to prove that I belong here.”

“To have white people own their whiteness and racist ideologies so we can have courageous conversations about race and why in 2019, I am the first African American to obtain promotion and tenure in my department. Also, why no one in the department wants to acknowledge it.”

“More of us! There is so few black women in design-tech jobs.”

“Provide more education on white privilege and white feminism. As the only black woman in my building, I find it difficult to join in conversations that my white women co-workers are having about equality because, well, the only perspective they’re talking about is what it means to be a woman. Whereas for me, it’s about also being a black woman. It’s a privilege to only see your gender as being a barrier to equality and not have to take into account your ethnicity and/or race.”

“I work in a remote and fully-distributed team that seems resistant to meeting in person. To me, I see this as a negative because relationship building happens in-person. No amount of Slack messages or video conferencing can replace in-person networking. For remote workers, have more opportunities for building relationships in order to foster social bonding and team trust.”

“Hire more of us! Be intentional and transparent about your hiring process when it is time for the team to grow and don’t leave inclusion out of the discussion when seeking candidates.”

“Just one thing? Unconscious bias training for management.”

“I would create more visibility of the black female leaders here … I would still like to have a solid network or space for black women specifically to lean into.”

“Please stop forcing black women into being the Diversity & Inclusion Champion. We’re tired and shouldn’t need to take on the responsibility to educating you on privilege, racism, and your own bias. No, we don’t want to talk about this all the time. I often feel like I have to talk about Diversity and Inclusion because no one else in the office is championing it or even discussing it. And as the only black women, that’s discouraging AF.”

“More internal groups targeted to mentoring and advancing career growth for women of color in the company.”

“I don’t have any other black women on my team. It would be nice to have more people that looked like me in the office.”

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