There is no shortage of people out there trying to tell me what my story is as an underrepresented this and that in tech. Yes, their grievances probably reflect my reality. I know how much less I make than my white friends. It took eight years into my career to work with a Latina woman who was in a senior leadership role. Managers have assumed that I don’t want to be as engaged when coming back from maternity leave. I have totally been passed up for promotions for reasons that did not apply to those who did. And yes, I’m probably the only this
|| that in the room, and for sure the only this
&& that on the team.
One of the reasons I backed off from doing speaking engagements for “diversity topics,” was because most organizers hoped for talking points reflecting a journey that would make it through 2020’s hoops, not 2002’s. They assumed I went to design school, or majored in CS, or would be able to recommend a bootcamp. Sometimes they weren’t aware that I was a designer (because at one point I wrote code) or how that was still a tech role. If they could guess what my dream job was, they’d probably say it was to have my own startup, or work for Facebook.
What a lot of these well-intended people usually don’t consider is the context in which I was able to sneak into this industry. It’s hard, because this advocacy is good and needed, whether it’s coming from entities specifically created for this, or a random person with a lot of followers on Twitter. But more often than not, they’re on the sidelines and not actually doing the same type of work as the people they want to help. Or they’re just running into the industry right now and assume that disenfranchised people only have a certain set of experiences.
Crossing over and coming in was easier back then. There was work, and we would do it. It was work that some people thought they were too good for (but couldn’t handle if they tried to anyway). We used counterfeit software and basic PCs and no one checked or cared so long as the work was done. We formed communities where we taught each other how to work and helped each other make sense of our new lives.
Today, the terrain has become virtually impassable for those who try to go it alone. There are plenty of people who promise to bring you in and hook you up with a job, who might just take your money and leave you stranded instead. It’s hard to tell, because you have no idea. The price to be let in “the right way” is ludicrous, too. It’s gamed to benefit others, not you. By the time it’s your turn, the rules of the game might have already changed.
It’s been two decades and we are comfortable and well-integrated. You’d think we’d be kind to newcomers, but now some of us are the the ones who are talking about issuing tests and only letting people with papers be here.
Amnesty, or the gift of being in the right place at the right time, is why I’m here. It’s a special type of luck that bestows immense privilege. But it’s still luck, so you can’t prepare others for it. And even if you could, amnesty is unlikely to happen again anyway. The walls we’ve watched get built to enter this industry are as tall as the walled gardens that confine us away from each other online and in real life.
There are generational facets to the diversity and inclusion situation in the industry in addition to the broader systematic ones, and there are even fewer people around who can speak to it. Past generations screwing over the future ones. It matters how you came to the internet and when you got into this work. I 100% believe that if I was born ten years later, I would not be working in this industry. Even with the benefit of knowing what my job was so I could take a direct path, and with people willing to help me succeed. If my portfolio from back then showed up on my desk today, I would not hire me.
These dots hadn’t connected for me until today, when this tweet showed up at the top of my feed:
By the end of the thread I wondered what could have been if I was ten years older. What would my career look like? Would I be in “senior designer purgatory” or the leadership friend zone with my own generation?
I totally messed around with MySpace layouts (and was damn good at it), but it was just something I did as a kid, because I didn’t have anything better to do. At no point did I think, “This is how I am going to break into the next big thing or get rich.” When I got to college, Notre Dame was one of the first schools who got Facebook. I immediately noticed that none of it was customizable. But I didn’t feel disenfranchised, because by then I already was making money doing websites, or I could just go tinker on something else. I even liked the idea of only a few people being on the platform too. It didn’t occur to me what I was taking for granted and how okay I was with shutting people out.
Contrition and the road of atonement for our shortsighted good intentions begins with representation but it also includes our work itself, and what we idolize in the industry. We hire to check a box, but set people up to fail. We want to move into the future, but we aren’t willing to let go of the glory days. It’s not just about what we have done, but what we have failed to do.