They say that time flies but it’s more like time moves at warp speed! It’s hard to believe it but just ten years ago this month, I transitioned into a career in tech starting as an Associate Research Analyst with Pyramid Research. I have now progressed to being the Global Head of Training and eLearning with major global non-profit the Internet Society, working to ensure the Internet of opportunity can benefit all. I was also recently appointed to the board as a Non-Executive Director of one of the UK’s top 100-performing social enterprises pioneering digital youth work, Noise Solution.
This has been the culmination of an incredibly varied set of experiences but also lots of sweat, tears, patience, and perseverance. There have been several ups and downs throughout this decade, so I thought I’d share six lessons I’ve learned along the way that I hope might be useful to other people, particularly Black people, women, and people with disabilities, who want to make a career change into tech.
1. Get yourself mentors and sponsors (spontors?) aligned with your values and professional goals
Although they both always downplay their roles in it (love you ladies but you’re too modest!!!), Dr Nancy Hafkin and Sonia Jorge were absolutely the driving forces behind my transition from education into technology. Research on mobile learning led me to my mentor Nancy. Over the years Nancy has ceded her place to me at high-level meetings and events (including with the UN) on several occasions, enabling me to build a profile in gender and technology at a speed of which I can only dream. Nancy also connected me with Sonia, who took a huge risk in hiring me to be a research analyst for a sector I had never really written nor knew much about. Sonia’s ability to identify my transferable skills, help me upskill in the areas in which I lacked experience, and eventually sponsor me and point me to more progressive opportunities in the sector has been truly transformative.
Both Nancy and Sonia have dedicated their lives and careers to the advancement of women and particularly women of color. They speak up for what’s right, and not always when it’s the easy or “trendy” thing to do. I am proud to have them in my corner and everything I do now in this area is to pay forward their kindness and generosity.
2. It’s okay to be narrowly focused on the topics that interest you
When I initiated my career change, for whatever reason my twin passions were gender and mobile learning. At the time, literally no other person in the world had written about this topic and I was the first. It was scary because I didn’t know if focusing so narrowly would mean I pigeonholed myself into obscurity. Yet, within two years my leap of faith paid off and I was the first speaker at a UNESCO event on this topic, and several publications, projects, and programs now focus in this area — often referencing my academic work as foundational guidance. Even if I had not realized these outcomes, the personal satisfaction of developing expertise in something I was passionate about and believed could make an impact for myself and others would be worth it. The world always needs new ideas and innovations, which leads me to the next lesson.
3. Write, write, write!
Although this is a lesson I’m still learning to be consistent with in my own life, it is one that should be a constant reminder for people in tech who are underrepresented. Writing academic publications, writing and co-editing a newsletter, writing in my personal blog, for Panoply Digital, and on Twitter has opened opportunities for me to appear in the Guardian (twice!) and on the BBC (twice!) for tech-related features in the past decade. On all four occasions, the stated reason these opportunities came to me was because I was communicating new ideas in a sector that, despite all the trumpeting, rarely has them due – at least in part – to the relative uniformity in its workforce. You never know who will end up reading what you write, so just do it — and make it count! Your creativity needs to be heard and read.
4. Don’t be afraid to embrace your difference
After being diagnosed with ADHD, for a long time, I kept this part of my identity hidden. Despite the legal protections for workers like me with a disability, I’ve seen too many times to count how people outside of the norm are excluded, marginalized, punished, and even in some cases retaliated against for the difference they have and over which they do not have control. When I first went public with my diagnosis in 2018, I felt both free and empowered since I was able to gain access to a variety of tools that could help me excel with this disability. Embracing my difference and turning it into a positive has given me the courage to speak more often about the challenges I encounter and how I work everyday to live a productive life despite these challenges.
The push for more assistive technologies (the epitome of inclusive) over the past decade is one I have been delighted to see precisely because I finally feel seen in this area of my life. I look forward to working more actively in this space in the years to come.
5. It takes a village. And often that village includes your peers
While mentors and sponsors have been invaluable to me during the past decade in tech, I would be remiss not to underscore the important roles that peers have played in my professional growth.
Whether it’s encouragement not to give up, a shoulder to cry on when it just seems too hard and impossible, idea exchanges, strategizing, pace setting, expectations management, or meetups to NOT talk about tech… your squad/tribe/homies/peers are there to commiserate when needed and to celebrate even the smallest of victories. Without them, I definitely would not be where I am today. You all know who you are!
6. Normalize self-care
That’s it. That’s the lesson.
During my career in tech I have had to push back against two true-for-me stereotypes to protect my energy: my Americanness (workaholic) and identity as a Black woman (work 200%+ times harder only to be paid less and judged more harshly on my work outputs). In the last ten years, two life-changing realizations I have worked towards are self-acceptance and acknowledgement that I cannot work around the clock relying on external validation that may never be given.
Learning to respect myself enough to enjoy ‘me time’ every week has proven key to my longevity and sustainability in this sector where few who look like me take up space. Long hikes and Netflix are just two of my not-so-guilty pleasures now. It doesn’t matter what your self care ritual or schedule looks like, as long as you have one.
While I could go on with other lessons, I think, especially given the curveball 2020 has thrown our way, lesson 6 is a good one on which to pause.
So, here’s to another ten years of moving the needle, positively smashing expectations, and continuing to be my ancestors’ wildest dreams!