After the death of George Floyd and civil unrest across the United States I find myself asking more often what role I can play in defining the future social construct of what it means to be Black in America. Although sometimes I find myself pondering how much race matters in 2020 and debating both sides of the issue, I remind myself that the reason I got into tech was my hypothesis that race matters less in tech than it does in everyday non-technical workplaces. Here’s my story.
The journey: 8 professional certifications and 2 graduate certifications
By the age of 30 I had been laid off twice — once from an airline (oil prices went through the roof and I wasn’t the only one laid off) and once while working as a contractor in the U.S. government (budget cuts and a number of contracts weren’t extended). In both cases I was not singled out in any regard, but I seemed to be among the least likely to be laid off based on my qualifications. After the second layoff, I took a hard look in the mirror and said, “How do I prevent this from happening again?” At the time, I had two professional certifications, an engineering background, and was working in an engineering research and development group.
The manager of the engineering group, who was not African American, did not have any professional engineering experience, yet he had 10-15 engineers working for him. He ultimately decided that the contract I was on was expendable. I couldn’t 100% make it out to be a race issue because I often challenged the manager on his decisions to spend American taxpayer dollars on projects that, from my perspective, were unnecessary and of little value. I am sure it did not help that the person reminding him of his duties to the American people looked like me.
After this layoff I earned more certifications and promised myself I wouldn’t ever be laid off again. This was tied to my commitment to do good work, my passion, and my exceptional (and sometimes overqualified) credentials. I worked myself up from 2 to 8 certifications, then I pursued 2 graduate certificates.
The big move to tech
In the engineering jobs I’d previously had, I worked closely with an information technology group. In those positions, I was lucky enough to see diverse groups of individuals from various backgrounds. After evaluating further what made this group different, I saw that this group was focused on results. It was that simple. Non-result-based organizations have the privilege of deciding who is going to do the job, where result-driven organizations don’t have that privilege. Now having worked in the tech field for 7 years, here is what I have learned:
- The closer to entry level you are in the corporate world, the more race matters.
- Compared to non-tech industries, race matters less in tech. The technology field requires results, often by undefined means, so you frequently have to map your own pathway. In other industries, the path to success is often well defined and documented.
- Jobs where the path forward is undefined are more inclusive and receptive to opinions, no matter the source of the opinion. Jobs where the path of success is defined are a lot less receptive to input and also place emphasis on who is giving the input.
- To put it simply, if good ideas are required to maintain a market edge, then race matters less. If executing in an industry where no innovation is required, race matters because pretty much anyone can do the job as long as they follow the instructions and have the skills. In the latter cases, the powers that be are motivated to keep people who look and think like them in position and power. These folks are not anti change, they think of it as not messing with “success.”
Race matters to people and will continue to matter to people for the foreseeable future. The best way to insulate oneself from being subjected to how hiring managers and managers perceive you is to be in a field where results matter all the time, and those fields typically are in science and technology.
Vincent Peters is an inventor and founder of Inheritance AI. He is an advocate for the positive aspects of the AI revolution, specifically how it can radically extend human life.