Interview with Venessa Nyarko
Venessa Nyarko is a Narrative and Realization Producer at The Coalition, an Xbox game studio. Venessa works with interdisciplinary teams at the Coalition to develop cohesive storytelling across gameplay, cinematics, and sequences to create a cohesive experience for players.
Venessa began her tech career as an Xbox Digital Marketing Coordinator for Microsoft Canada, then moved to Game Development as a Production Coordinator at Ubisoft Toronto. She rose rapidly through the ranks to become a Production Manager and First Assistant Director for all Gameplay Animation on Far Cry 6.
Currently, she is the Leader of the Black Kids Code (Girls) Vancouver chapter, a non-profit organization with chapters in Vancouver, Edmonton, and Calgary, and the first non-profit organization in Canada dedicated to empowering black girls to develop digital literacy, computer competence, and foundational knowledge for a career in technology.
With over six years of experience in the technology industry, Venessa is passionate about gaming, marketing, digital/social media, and how creativity, processes, and metrics can work together to create great stories. Venessa has a degree in Rhetoric, Media, and Professional Communications with Business from the University of Waterloo.
How did you get into tech?
I have always been interested in games and played games since I was young. My first game was Mario Kart 64 on the Nintendo 64 when I was about six years old.
We had just bought a new house, so my cousins came from out of town and between the new console and the new home, it felt like a very big deal.
Initially, I thought gaming wouldn’t’ be something I could enjoy because up until that point, I was taught video games and technical things were for boys. All night long, I watched my older brother and my male cousins battle it out on racetrack after racetrack, longing to try it too. He tried to get me to play, but I refused. As far as I knew, video games were for boys.
The following day, however, I woke up early and snuck downstairs to try out the N64 for myself when no was looking or could tell me otherwise. It was not long before I was beating the AI. After some practice, I wound up winning my older brother and cousins. It may seem small, but those little wins helped shift my perspective in a dramatic way. Having that experience showed me that anybody could play – no matter how young you are or how you identify. It showed me that gaming was for everyone. . And I took a lot of those learnings as I grew older and decided to go into Tech. Anybody who has a passion for or an interest in tech can pursue it. It does not matter what gender or race you are. As long as you have a passion for it and are eager to develop the skills, you could be great at it. This was my first foray into the world of interactive digital media in gaming and ignited my interest in games.
In time, I went to the University of Waterloo for a degree in Professional Communications, Rhetoric, and Business, which provided a stellar co-op program that allowed me to explore the field of digital media. During my third year at University, I landed an internship at Microsoft Canada’s Xbox Digital Marketing team. I immediately fell in love with it. I felt like all the pieces of my life were coming together. My interest in digital marketing/tech and communications, combined with my passion for gaming, coalesced into this amazing career.
I did not want to leave after my co-op, so I began working at Microsoft Canada full time even before I graduated from the University and continued to work there for another year after graduation. My mentor and manager at the time, Karina Vivas, was very involved in my career growth, saw my passion, and encouraged me to consider pursuing a career in Game Development.
Around the same time, the Ubisoft Graduate program–an international program designed as a career accelerator program in the game industry–was accepting a new cohort. I applied and was accepted. In 2018, I joined Ubisoft Toronto as a Production Coordinator and went on to become a Production Manager and a First Assistant Director. I knew my passion in gaming was in producing narrative-driven games and in October 2021, I decided I was ready to take the next step in my career to become a Narrative and Realization Producer in the at The Coalition, the studio known for the Gears of War Franchise.
How did your early exposure to gaming shape your desire to pursue a career in technology?
I think it played a pivotal role. There is a common misconception that a tech career requires one to have a technical background. When really what was most impactful for me was how creative the industry is.
When I first got into gaming as a child, apart from the creative pursuit, I enjoyed the art, music, and animation. I also realized that I could control the characters on the screen with my inputs. It was different from reading a book or seeing a movie. I could see my inputs and interactions reflected on the screen. Seeing that as a kid made me realize that if I get into tech, I could have an even greater influence on how these games are created. I could have a monumental effect and impact on the stories we tell our future generations, and I could make games that cater more to a wider and more diverse audience. Being able to see that at a young age was significant to me.
Several of the data we gathered in our research indicate that black women are underrepresented in the tech sector. Is this something that resonates with you?
There is definitely an under-representation of black women in tech. It is even harder to find women working in game development. I think the reason for the under-representation is twofold. There are often systemic barriers to entry in that the black community is hardly aware of the available programs, scholarships, and career opportunities in tech. Also, there are historical ideals among the black community about careers desirable for women and the careers they should aspire to. I did not know what the roles of a Producer, a Program Manager, or a Technical Marketer were when I was young. These career paths were never presented to me. This intersectionality of being black and a woman can act as a perpetual barrier to entry to a room many of us only find out exist by mere happenstance.
When you don’t see a lot of black women in the field, you tend to think that’s something that you won’t be able to do or see much progress in. When we do not see ourselves adequately reflected in space, we think we might need to become another kind of person to qualify for being there.
For those of us who are already in tech, we do have a responsibility in the way we recruit, in the way we talk about the industry, to make sure we’re reaching outside our social circles or what we consider the norm for recruiting. It is important to demonstrate that this is an industry that needs black women and their voices because that is the only way we will be able to tell diverse stories. Although we are certainly making progress in terms of diversity and inclusion, I still believe that we have a long way to go. to go in ensuring that we have a parity of black women in the tech sector.
Compared with when you got into the industry, would you say things have been getting better?
I think so. Since I’ve been in the industry, the landscape for recruiting young talent has changed significantly. We still have a long way to go, and even more so in gaming, but I’ have seen initiatives in place that bring studios from across Canada together to learn more about how to network and recruit diverse talent, which I think is an excellent first step. I believe that we can do more by creating more inclusive spaces, reaching out to surrounding communities, and engaging in active listening. I think that the dynamic in our industry will begin to shift when we can reach outside what is comfortable. When something is not familiar, we get uncomfortable. But I think that we need to grow to become comfortable in our discomfort to ensure we are making space for those different perspectives that we otherwise wouldn’t know about.
When we talk about the representation of black people, how much of an issue is it with not having the right talent compared with these systemic barriers? Do you think there is black talent out there and black talent that is not being harnessed right now?
Whenever we hear the word tech, we tend to think of coding, but in reality, there are so many talented black men and women who can pursue successful careers in tech if only we would emphasize the several other career paths within the sector. There may be a shortage of black talent, but there is also a gap in the way we recruit them and showcase what roles and opportunities are available. I also think there are systemic barriers to entry.
While I was in Toronto, I met so many black youths who were interested in tech but could not figure out how to get their foot in the door. We need to educate the black community about how to get into the tech industry. I think that is why initiatives like Black Kids Code (Girls) are so important because they are giving black youth early exposure to the tech industry. We must do more in terms of educating the black community on what it means to be in tech, and on the diverse roles in the industry.
Specific to gaming, the industry has been used to telling a one-sided story in the past. It would most commonly be from the non-black perspective or the non-person of colour perspective. If we want to attract and retain black talent, we have to be willing to tell diverse stories. When you see yourself reflected on a screen, you feel more connected to the characters, you want to be engaged, and want to create something similar.
In your experience, how has the tech sector fared in retaining black talent? Are there forces within the sector that tends to push black talent or black women out?
In my opinion, the biggest challenge facing the sector is recruiting black women. In studios where I have worked, I have been one of two or three black women. I would say that retention is not the biggest issue. We are still on the first hurdle of getting black women into the industry, and I would like to hope that once we have managed to do that effectively, we will create spaces and communities where black women will feel that they can pursue long-term careers in the industry.
There is a Black community at Microsoft, and within gaming, and we also have a black community at Xbox which connects people from all of Microsoft together. When you look at that community, you can see many more Black people within tech, but the numbers reduce drastically when you look at North America, particularly Canada.
There is currently a push for diversity, equity, and inclusion in the tech space, but tech organizations must be willing to have tough conversations, not just hiring black women to check the boxes. We want to be able to say that we recognize black women for the unique perspectives, talents, and skills they bring to the table. If we can do that as an industry successfully, that will help us retain black women in tech.
Regarding the under-representation of black women in tech, do you think it is more a gender issue than a race issue?
It is a black women’s issue. It is the intersectionality of being black and being a woman. From my experience, there are a lot of white women in the tech industry. I have worked with several incredible women in tech; however, I’ve never had a black female mentor. The industry is still dominated by men, and we need to make it equitable; however, among women and black women, the numbers are very different.
I had the privilege to be mentored by so many amazing women during my time at Microsoft Marketing, Ubisoft, and now Xbox Game Studios. All of them have been women, but none of them have been black women. Several initiatives or panels celebrate women in technology, but there are few initiatives for black women. I think a lot of that has to do with us seeing women as one big umbrella group, and so when one woman is represented, we think all women are represented. To an extent that’s partially true, however, it’s important to recognize that black women have a different cultural experience, a different historical experience, and a different perspective.
It’s great that we’ve made progress in increasing the number of women in tech, but I think we still have a long way to go, especially in increasing the number of black women in tech. How can we ignore the fact that sometimes there are so few of us that we can’t even form our employee resource groups? Or that we rarely see black women on tech flyers, billboards, and games? How can we ignore the fact that we’ve only recently started seeing our hair textures reflected in games? Some things are specific to getting women into the industry, but other things are very specific to black women experience, and those things are still underserved.
What motivated you to get involved with Black Kids Code (Girls)?
To encourage and inspire blacks of all ages to feel that they have a place in tech, regardless of their age. Growing up, I didn’t have much information about technology. Even at 15, I could not have told you whether I was interested in coding was because it was not something that was talked about much. I want black girls to have a different experience.
Our monthly Black Kids Code (Girls) workshops are all run, supervised, and instructed by black women. We want black girls to see that black women are at the forefront of these initiatives, have successful careers, and are giving back to the community. Our goal is to let them know that this is something they can do too, that it isn’t impossible, but within reach, easy, and fun.
What challenges have you come across concerning working with the black community for trying to get Black Girls to code?
The first is parental influence/interest. I know this firsthand as a child of immigrants. My parents were very brave to come to Canada in the 1980s. It was a desire to provide a better life for their children, and I think immigrants and blacks want the same thing. We want to see our children succeed, so what do we do? We tell our kids to be a doctor, a lawyer, or a teacher. One challenge is to get parents to see that a tech career is not only forward-thinking (because many of the roles that will be available in the next 10, 20, and 30 years will be tech-based, requiring some sort of digital literacy to be able to do the job), but also very stable and makes for a successful career.
Another challenge we face is that in the black community, tech is still perceived as something for only boys. Black Boys Code has gained a great deal of momentum, and we want to make sure we have black boys who are coding, but Black Kids Code (Girls) is relatively new. We need to stop questioning whether tech and coding is for girls and realize that we can use it to empower girls in in the black community.
I work in Game Development, where 50% of users are girls. Stereotypes of gamers being just boys are a thing of the past. Within the black community, we have some work to do to showcase that there are black women in tech. Our narrative needs to change from “this is not something black women can do” to “this is something black women can excel at”. Parents must know their daughters can succeed in the tech industry and their voices are essential. It is the only way to increase numbers and change the face of the industry. If we tell black girls that tech is for boys, they won’t pursue it. Although they may stumble upon it on their own, we want to make sure that we are being intentional and piquing their interest and passion as early as possible.
Can you speak to some of the successes you’ve recorded so far in your work with Black Kids Code (Girls)? Are there any shifts within the black community?
We have only been in operation since November of 2021, so we are still relatively new. However, the number of workshop participants has increased substantially. I live in Vancouver, where there’s a lower percentage of black people than you’ll find in Toronto, Calgary, or Edmonton but even so, we’ve seen a steep increase in participation rates. In our last workshop, there were about 30 girls in the room (virtual) from ages 8 to 12. We’ve seen more girls join the program, but what I would consider a huge success is that we’re seeing younger girls as well. Parents are reaching out to learn about upcoming workshops and how to get their kids involved, but also, they’re asking how they can help.
One of the biggest success factors for me also is that I’m seeing a lot more parents and older people wanting to get involved. As the older generation becomes more engaged, it opens the doors for younger generation to get more easily involved as well.
Another success is the retention rate. We have students who have been in the program since we began. They are seeing the value and are getting more and more passionate as we progress. There are a lot of new faces every time we hold a workshop, but we also see familiar faces, and that gives me hope that they are falling in love with tech and gaming as I did when I was their age.
What partnerships do you think are necessary to bring about the shifts that we want to see? Do you see the need for partnerships beyond the black community to drive this transition?
It would be great to partner with tech companies, game studios. I also think that it would be important to get schools involved. Even though schools do not cater to any specific racial community, we incredibly value allyship in helping to spread the word of our program for the community
Can you think of other specific roles for these allies? Think of an ally, like, say, the government, Women and Gender Equality Canada.
In the future, I’d like to see is support in creating a certification system or certifications for these girls. In addition to gaining foundational knowledge in Programming and Computational thinking, we also want to help them get their foot in the door. We have girls up to the age of 17 at Black Kids Code (Girls), and that’s the age when they get their high school diplomas, go to university, enter trades, or get jobs. They’ will have an easier time getting their foot in the door if they have credentials that show they are ready for entry-level positions in the tech industry.
Any final thoughts?
While the goal is to have more black women in tech, it doesn’t stop there. The black women who are already in tech are amazing, incredible, and successful, and they have accomplished so much. It’s not only about making sure we have representation in tech but also making sure these women have the right skills and training. I can’t wait to help the next generation and those that are currently trying to get their foot in the door to get into the sector as well.
Interview with Debbie Motilewa
Debbie Chiamaka Motilewa Ph.D. is a Product Manager, business developer, and the founder of Afro Hub, an online marketplace for Black-owned businesses in Canada. She has a graduate degree in Accounting and Finance from Dublin Business School, Ireland, a Master’s degree in Business from the University of Aberdeen, and a Doctoral degree in Business Administration from Covenant University.
She started her career in academia before pivoting into tech. Debbie has taught management, organizational behaviour, and sustainable business across three different continents – North America, Africa, and Europe. She is also the Chief Executive Officer of The VolunteerNG, a non-profit focused on expanding access to quality education for children and youth in Nigeria. Through VolunteerNG, Debbie has mentored over 800 young adults and is sponsoring 30 kids through elementary and high school. She is also the author of SMART Goals: Making habits work for you.
Debbie officially began her career in Tech at Microsoft in 2021 and is currently working on building and driving the adoption of Yammer within Microsoft.
How did you start your career in tech?
I moved to Canada from Nigeria in 2018 and started working in academia. At the beginning of the pandemic, I was discussing with my friends the economic success of the black community, and we were asking ourselves questions like: why isn’t the black community in Canada growing and flourishing as much as other communities? Considering my background in business, we started looking for ways to support Black businesses, which is how Afro Hub Market began. Afro Hub is a marketplace just like Amazon, but for Black-owned businesses in B.C. We built a website, featured people’s products, and then handled delivery when a customer ordered.
At the time, I didn’t know it, but what I was doing as the CEO of Afro Hub was product management. It was an enjoyable experience, so I researched to find out if I could make a career out of it. I talked to a few people and from the discussions, I discovered what I was doing was product management. From there, I signed up for a course on product management from product school. I was about 8 weeks into the course when I started applying for product management jobs. I applied for a job at Microsoft, went through the interview process and got an offer. It was an easy transition for me. Later, when I spoke with my employer and others on my panel, I learned that they hired me because I was building a product that was community-based–Afro Hub. I have a lot of experience with community building, and the project at Microsoft I’m working on has to do with creating communities within the workplace. Since I had a lot of transferable skills, they thought I might be a good candidate for the role. That was how I transitioned into tech.
From your experience so far, how would you describe gender equality in the tech space?
I have a totally different experience in my team, and it could be because my product is more about employee experience, and you find a lot of women working in employee experience. In my own team, our designer is a black woman, our data scientist is a black woman, our researcher is a woman, and my manager is a woman. In meetings outside my team, if there are 15 people, about 8 – 9 of them are likely to be men, and around 4 – 6 of them are women. If you consider race, maybe 4 – 5 of the 15 individuals would be black. Microsoft is very big on diversity. Other tech companies could be different. Within Microsoft, diversity is a very strong focus, as is racial equality.
What would you say is the biggest misconception about working in Tech for women?
I think there is a general misconception that you need to have a strong tech background to work in tech. You don’t. I have to be honest and say that in my first few weeks at work, I was faking it to make it. I didn’t understand all the tech jargon. So I kept asking my colleagues to explain to me. Now, I have a better understanding of some very used terms. If I had told myself I had to have a tech background, I wouldn’t be here.
Another thing that comes to mind is that men are generally more risk takers than women. If a job advert requires 10 skills, men will confidently apply when they only have 4 or 5 of the required skills, but women only want to put themselves out there when they feel they are 100% qualified. If I had looked at my qualifications, I would not have applied for my current job. It is likely that you would succeed if you just put yourself out there.
How do you see your progression in your career? Have you gotten the necessary support?
It has been about seven months since I began working in the tech sector, and I have received a lot of support from my team. I haven’t gotten a promotion yet, and that is fine. I have a black woman on my team who has been with the organization for 8 months and has gotten a promotion. It is very clear she is doing a great job. I haven’t yet been promoted, but the support is great.
The relationship I have with my boss is incredible, and we clicked right from when I started working at the company. She constantly sends me resources to support my growth, puts me out there, and has me attend meetings on her behalf. It is also a wonderful feeling when your team gives you positive feedback and encourages you. I’ve gotten a lot of support, and it could just be my team or the organization I’m working for.
Could you feed in from conversations you might have had with other Black women about the barriers they face in getting roles in tech?
From my conversations with friends, the major barrier is that they don’t have the experience the tech companies are looking for. I think my male friends are facing a similar challenge. Canada’s technology industry is booming now, and there are not enough experienced candidates for the available positions. A good example is we are hiring on my team right now, and I keep getting asked, ‘Debbie, do you want anyone who can fit this role? Apart from not having the required experience, my female friends have not faced any out-of-normal difficulty in getting roles in tech.
From our research, we discovered that getting into tech is a pipeline—it starts early on from a young age. Do you see that as a barrier to black women?
When I was younger, I was very into computers. Sometime last year, I asked my parents, why did you not encourage me to pursue a career in this field? My Mum was a computer teacher, so there were times I went to her office and played with computers all day. I built my first website when I was really young. However, I was expected to become an accountant, lawyer, or doctor.
I really wished someone had encouraged me to pursue a career in tech years ago. It is likely that I would have gotten into tech earlier and could have started climbing the career ladder sooner. I feel like I was born to do Product Management. I am happy with my experience so far in the terms of all the things I have done, and I have no regrets but sometimes I ask myself, ‘How did it take you this long to get here?’ I can imagine it is the same situation with many people. Early exposure, education, and encouraging people to pursue what they are interested in/naturally good at, are all important. Information matters too. People need to know more about the tech space, the roles available, and the skills required. I think more blacks and black women would be in tech if they were introduced to the field at a young age.
You mentioned earlier that you have gotten lots of support from your team. Can you to the specific supports that you’ve enjoyed and what systems organizations can put in place to attract and retain black women in tech?
In my organization, there is a lot of emphasis on diversity. There is one question every employee must answer as part of their performance appraisal, and that is how they have contributed to diversity and inclusion within the organization. There is also a women’s community where there are always conversations about how to get ahead in your career. The women’s community gives you access to other women who have been in tech longer and are willing to support and mentor you.
Another thing is that there is a black community within my organization where we have career talks and mentoring sessions and is a good place to receive support from other people like you. Diversity is at the core of my organization, and when you know it matters to your appraisal and promotion, it puts a good pressure on you to support other blacks or women.
If you weren’t in tech already, what would a company do to attract you into the sector?
It would make me more comfortable to see other people who look like me in the organization if I were applying to a company. My first step when applying to a position is to check LinkedIn to see if there are any Black women at that organization, and then reach out to them. I just feel like they understand me and will be easier to speak to.
Whenever I see don’t see anyone like me in a company I am applying to, my first thought is there must be a reason why there is no black woman here. Then I ask myself, should I be applying here? It is the same when I attend interviews. When I see someone who looks like me on the interview panel, I feel comfortable. I think companies have to put effort into ensuring they have a diverse workforce.
In my organization, there are times that my people from the black community have reached out to say, ‘I am hiring, do you know anyone who might be interested? Their goal is to recruit more Black people to their team, so they are sharing this information specifically within the black community. I think that showing that there is already a presence—of a black community—in your organization helps.
Our research has shown that there is a high level of attrition for women in tech. Do you think this is true, and if it is, do you know what might be driving that?
When I was in academia, work ended at 5 pm. I had my summers off when students were on vacation. There were times when I had to work over the weekend, preparing notes for the upcoming week, but there always was a certain amount of flexibility. When I was done with work for the day, I was done. Tech is quite different. In a sense, it is also quite flexible; there are times I am done with work by 5 pm, but there are times I’m still working by 9 pm. Fortunately, my team is very focused on work-life balance, but even so, there are times when the workload is heavy. I know that it’s easier for me because I’m single. If I had a baby, I would have to leave work at a certain time even if I’m not done with my work for the day, meaning I would have a lot to do the next day. The tech sector requires time. You need to put in the time for the work. I’ve had some conversations with family and friends, and they think when I am married and have kids, I’d probably want to go back to academia, and sincerely, I have thought about that as well. I think women tend to leave once they have families, and it becomes difficult to keep up with the pace.
Could you think of any support that such women would require to make them stay?
Women with families will need support from both the organization they work with and their families. I have a colleague who moved from being a team lead to being an independent contributor because of family obligations with support from the team. There was a time when I was experiencing a lot of anxiety attacks due to work, and I spoke with my manager about it. My manager was very supportive and reduced my workload. The family obviously also has a role to play. It is important to have support in managing the house and taking care of kids.
I think training on how to maintain a work-life balance is crucial. I started going to therapy at work because I needed to learn how to separate work from my personal life. Right now, when I am done with work, I close my laptop and shut the door never to return till the next day. Whenever I have an idea about work, I just note it on my phone and get to it the next day. These are the three things that come to mind – support from your organization, support from your family, and coping strategies to maintain a work-life balance.
For black women trying to get into tech, what roles should they be looking at? How can they prepare themselves?
Identify your interests. What are you interested in? What do you like doing? What experience do you have? What skills do you have? Rather than just searching randomly for tech jobs, look at the skills that each job requires, and identify the roles that fit or are closely related to your experience. Then take a course to build knowledge. There are many free courses on Udemy and LinkedIn. I once considered becoming a Software Engineer and began taking an online course. About three hours into the course, I knew that field wasn’t for me. I moved on to another course that seemed easier and more aligned with my experience. You don’t even have to pay for any course at the moment. Try different courses and when you find one you’re interested in, then you can start putting in the extra effort.
Any final words for black women?
Do not feel pressured to pursue tech because others are doing it and because there is a lot of money in it. Take a step back and consider if it is what you really want. When I started working in tech, I thought the pay was fantastic. However, there is a lot of work involved. It is your interest in the sector that keeps you going at the end of the day.
Interview with Jessica Udo
Jessica Adaobi Udo is a product management professional, diversity and inclusion advocate, and a founding 200 Member of Product School. She started her tech career at Microsoft as a Program Manager, working with a team of software developers to deliver new features for Azure DevOps Boards. She is a graduate of Electrical and Software Engineering from McGill University. /p>
Jessica is the Chair/President of the Global Africans of Microsoft Employee Network, where she partners with Executive leadership and other employee groups to provide a global perspective and reach for Africa and the African Diaspora and advance Microsoft’s Global Diversity and Inclusion Strategy. She is also one of the program managers for the African Impact Challenge, an initiative that funds and trains first-time African founders to build market-creating innovations.
Through her different engagements, Jessica uses technology to solve challenges, while working to ensure greater representation and inclusion for minorities in tech. She is currently working as a Product Manager on Microsoft’s Cloud Mine Platform.
How did you get into tech?
I moved from Nigeria to Canada to study, and I ended up graduating with a degree in Software and Engineering from McGill University. In your final year, you start to figure out what you want to do with your life, and what kind of job you want to get. I was quite lucky. I went to an event organized by a group on campus called POWE (Promoting Opportunities for Women in Engineering). It was one of those meets and greets at the Microsoft Office in Downtown Montreal, and I used that opportunity to learn more about the company, what kinds of opportunities were available, and to meet other women, including minorities, who were working in the field I was interested in pursuing. It was inspiring. I applied to Microsoft afterwards and landed an offer. I have been at Microsoft for about two and a half years and throughout this time, I have been proving myself, combatting the internal imposter syndrome, and finding more ways to bring my true self to work and make an impact at the company. I am pleased with how much I have been able to accomplish in my short time at Microsoft, and I am looking forward to doing even more in the future.
How much of a barrier would you say you experienced getting into the tech space, including your education?
In my case, it was less of a barrier to getting in and more of a matter of finding the motivation to stay when there weren’t many of us – Blacks. I moved from Nigeria where I was the majority in a sense, with everyone being black and coming to a space where you realize that there are not a lot of people like you, and even fewer in your engineering classes. As I progressed in school, the numbers kept dropping. I sort of flipped it on its head and said, well, this is one of the reasons I need to stay. In some ways, it is this thinking that keeps me going on my job. I want to be a point of reference to people, including young black women, who are thinking of pursuing careers in tech or just starting out their tech careers. My goal is for them to see a black woman doing this and think, I can too.
You spoke about the number of black people in tech reducing as you progressed higher in the pipeline and the need to have people that look like you in tech. How important is that to you?
In so many ways, it is important. Whenever I see another black woman in the space I am in, there is an instant connection, and you just know, you’re going to be friends. And sometimes you need that. You need someone who has a shared experience with you and has thrived regardless and is able to give you advice and mentorship.
I also think that when there are not a lot of people who look like you, you start thinking, maybe there is a reason, right? When you are the only black person in an organization, you might start to wonder why there aren’t any other black people, and sometimes that is a reasonable concern. I think representation goes a long way in encouraging you in your career journey.
Some of the data analyses we have done based on publicly available data of black people in tech show that there is an under-representation. Do you clearly see this under-representation in the work that you do, from day-to-day?
Yes, I can. It’s very apparent, but it is getting better. In my company, for example, there are a good number of blacks. I think there are over 2,000 Africans at Microsoft, or probably more. But this is probably not that much when you consider the fact that Microsoft has over 140,000 employees. But it is something, right?
There are fewer blacks at the most senior levels and fewer of us in more technical roles. You have relatively more blacks in non-technical roles like HR, and Diversity and Inclusion. When you get into Software Engineering, Product Management, and Cloud Architecture teams, you might find fewer and fewer of us.
I have seen a lot of black engineers coming in lately, but when you look at the number of blacks on the C-Suite board, the number significantly decreases. I believe things will change in time.
What do you think needs to be done to get black into more technical roles, and black women especially? Is it that there are no black talent? What do you think the issues are, and what do you think can be done to get them into the technical roles?
I believe that there is black talent everywhere. When it comes to getting blacks in more technical roles, the first thing that comes to mind is awareness. If you think about how certain jobs are advertised, especially for senior positions, they are often within a group of people who knows each other. In some cases, those roles are not going to be as publicized as other roles might be. If we go down that route, then if a white person is hiring and shares it within their circle, applicants are probably going to be whites. It is going to be difficult finding the black talent you are looking for.
Building a diverse workforce will require going the extra mile. If you want to intentionally build for diversity, you may have to put in extra work, extra hours, and extra employees to reach out to the communities. Sadly, some organizations are not ready or willing to make that investment. Some people claim that they want to be a diverse team, but they do not realize all the work involved, or they realize it is too much work and choose the easier route.
The other thing that comes to mind in getting more blacks into technical roles is strong communities. I think we are doing a fantastic job in the black community. There are all these black professional groups springing up in different places. The reason why I think stronger communities help, is because it provides safe spaces to get mentorship and support. This is why I am very involved with blacks at Microsoft, and lead Africans at Microsoft. When I think about attrition, which is another reason why there are few black people in tech, I think of strong communities as one of the ways to solve that.
What would you say is the biggest misconception that might be out there about getting a job in tech for a black woman?
I don’t know if this is a misconception, but the first thing that comes to mind is right now there is a lot of noise about black people getting into tech and getting big salaries. I have been really pleased seeing the increased number of people getting into this space right now. But then I ask myself, Is the workspace getting more inclusive, or are we just here because it is a lot of money? I guess the misconception there is that because there are more black people in tech, people believe that that is because the workplace is getting better. It’s probably not.
The other thing that comes to mind which is also less of a misconception is that some people feel that they are diversity-hires, that they don’t deserve to be here, or that they are only here because they are black. I used to feel like that , but now I don’t. I feel like we have to own that. For the employer, it shows they are trying to put in the work. They recognize there is a gap, and that they need to have another voice at the table that is different, new, and fresh. These diverse perspectives, ideas, and cultures help make the workplace and the work itself better. People feel like diversity hires are terrible. I think not.
I guess being a diversity-hire comes with its own challenges and imposter syndrome. At the same time, you have an opportunity to prove yourself and show you deserve a spot at the table. However, I don’t think that anyone should have to prove anything to anyone, and we shouldn’t be hard on ourselves when we find ourselves in those situations.
Can you speak to some of the supports that you have in your current role those other employers might want to look into adopting and other supports you think need to be put in place?
When I think of support, the first thing that comes to mind is your manager and the culture of the workplace. When I first started getting involved with employee groups and employee networks at Microsoft, I was really concerned that it took away from the time that I could spend actually working. But the culture at Microsoft encourages those engagements. Those engagements are taken into consideration in your performance review, promotion, and compensation. It’s not treated like you did this side thing, but your job is not going as quickly as it could have been going. It’s more like you are doing this thing which is making Microsoft a better place, and that goes in line with your day job.
Another support is the fact that you are encouraged to attend conferences or workshops, including conferences for black tech professionals like Afro tech. My team would be willing to sponsor my attending such conferences, and those are always great places to network, learn, and meet other black people in tech who are “killing it”. I like to think that most tech companies do, but if they didn’t, should consider doing.
You also have rest days – days you can take off without overthinking or feeling guilty about not working. It really helps to be able to do that because there are times you do not want to pretend to be okay when you’re not.
Moving away from organizations to the black community, how do you think we can support the involvement of women in tech?
I think from how we are raised, there’s that initial discrepancy in the kind of things that boys are encouraged to do versus what girls are encouraged to do. People think girls in tech are nerdy, not ladylike, or that they don’t work on technical issues. This is different from people’s perceptions of guys in tech. There are definitely layers to that in terms of gender. When you add gender and race together, it just makes it more complicated.
How does this affect the tech pipeline and getting young black girls through the pipeline and into tech jobs?
I think the first thing would again just be representation in tech. If we show black girls that they pursue any career they want, including in tech, I think it would go a long way. As I mentioned earlier, this is one of my reasons for staying in tech. I want the next young black woman to see that there is someone like them in that space and that it is possible for them too. Increased awareness and proper education can also help. We’re doing better than previous generations in terms of encouraging girls that they can pursue any career. These days, parents are less likely to tell their female children to go to the kitchen instead of the computer lab. It’s still there, but it’s not as bad as it was before.
I remember in high school, we had to choose between Food and Nutrition and Technical Drawing courses. All the girls chose Food and Nutrition classes by default because a woman should learn how to cook in order to be a good wife, while all the boys chose Technical Drawing. As you probably can guess, I chose technical drawing, and maybe that’s why I am here right now. If we are intentional about giving proper education, at that level, the girls should have been asked why they choose Food and Nutrition. What do you want to do with this in the future? Girls have to be encouraged to pursue careers that will benefit them in the future, rather than choosing careers because it fits the mould of what they’ve been told a woman should be.
There are certainly other jobs that women could get into in the sector. That is women without a tech background. Could you speak to the ease of black women getting into those jobs?
I personally think about this a lot because I have been involved with some communities that encourage black girls and women to pursue careers in tech, like She Codes Africa. It’s interesting because we always encourage women to attend those Bootcamp, find a good mentor, work on a project, etc. Something I always think about is that learning to code as a woman might be slightly different from learning to code as a man. And this is largely because of how society has shaped women and what we pay attention to. I just gave an example of having to choose between Food and Nutrition and Technical Drawing in high school, and I think this kind of decision-making plays out in every area of our lives.
In high school, girls hardly paid attention to subjects like Further Math or Calculus. It was just a thing that girls did – choosing the less difficult path. If a girl had to choose between Computer Science and English, there is a very good chance that she will choose the English class. English seems more like what a girl would study rather than show up as a nerd in science class. When you place these girls into a Computer Science Bootcamp with the guys who have some taken some science courses previously, who do you think will have a slightly easier time learning?
Obviously, there are not that many black men in tech. But if we’re talking about black women specifically, I’m very much for intentionally closing that gap for black women to get into tech because they have had different experiences and closing the gap requires more intentionality.
I love that there have been so many intentional spaces teaching women to code or helping women get into tech. But encouraging girls to pursue careers in tech must start from early education. It is easier to start that at a young age than to spend years doing something else, then trying to take a Computer Science Bootcamp.
Would you agree that the under-representation of black women in tech is more of a gender inequality issue than a racial issue?
No, I think it’s all of that. In my experience, I think our generation is more open-minded in terms of race.
Any advice for young women intending to pursue careers in tech?