In 2014, I was accepted into the Detroit Labs Apprenticeship program. I didn’t know much about the tech industry before I entered it — well, other than what I learned from “Star Trek,” which taught me that tech was a beautiful, equitable, logical meritocracy. I was leaving behind a decent (in comparison to previous) paying job as an office manager in the home health care industry, which is very regulated and structured. Not surprisingly, there were a few things I had to adjust to.
Such as, instead of having to be the first person in the office at 8 a.m. every morning, it became coming into the office at 10, when I have a meeting at 10. Or just working from home and remoting into the meeting. I had to adjust to the idea that company rules weren’t fixed regulations handed down from directors, but a living, breathing document created by the team for the team. Also, I had to adjust to being a very visible black woman.
Now, I’ve been a black woman all my life. I’ve also been a Detroiter all my life and, in case you weren’t aware, Detroit is a very black city. I’ve worked in many organizations in Metro Detroit and most of those spaces were very diverse. There were black women, white women, Asian women, Middle Eastern women, and men of various backgrounds. My presence never stood out. My blackness wasn’t quite so stark a contrast. My womanness wasn’t abnormal. My femininity wasn’t marginalized. In fact, the healthcare industry is rife with folks who look a lot like me.
So here I was, a “Star Trek”-trained black woman entering a new industry where my very existence in the industry is the stuff of fairy tales. I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t prepared. And Detroit Labs didn’t ease me into the new world, because it is such a supportive place to work. Starting out, I had no idea what awaited me outside the rosy bubble of DL life.
My first conference
I went to my first large conference in 2015, just after I was promoted to a junior developer. I can’t explain just how excited I was to go to a place where I was going to be surrounded by hundreds of like-minded folks, all eager to learn and teach. I imagined Detroit Labs writ large. I traveled with a co-worker, another recent apprentice graduate. He and I got there the day before to participate in the pre-conference mingle festivities.
There we were in the bar having a couple drinks and playing a rousing game of “Where are all the brown people?” He had one point up on me, so when I saw a black man walking by I excitedly (and perhaps too loudly) proclaimed, “He’s brown!” Noticing my excitement, and knowing why, he laughed and came over. We caught him up on the score and shared introductions. He asked, “What do you guys do?” We answered, “We’re junior Android app developers.” He looked at my co-worker and nodded. He looked at me and asked, “Like, you write code?”
So, confession: I was incredibly frustrated and angry at this comment, but this was a professional event and, as a professional myself, I nodded and managed to not let my sarcasm slip. He raised an eyebrow and proclaimed excitedly (as excited as I had been to see his brownness), “You’re a unicorn!” My inner dialog exploded into a mixture of confusion, insult, and a lot of cursing. As I struggled to come up with a coherent, profanity-free reply to being called a mythical creature, he continued on, asking if I knew someone. That was something I knew how to answer, so I told him. “No.” He shook his head in disbelief at my lack of awareness. “She’s the other black female developer here…” and he continued to list off the many ways in which she was interesting and awesome. She sounded great. Really. I’m sure. Even though I wasn’t listening.
I was stuck on “the other black female developer,” as if there were only two of us, period. As if, at this conference of hundreds of people, I was one of a single pair. We were a
public static final int TOTAL_NUMBER_OF_BLACK_FEMALE_DEVELOPERS = 2;. Which was ridiculous. I mean, my coworker and I had seen with our own eyes other brown people, some of which had been women. Not many, but more than one. So, I kindly let him know, “We’ve seen a couple of brown women since we’ve been here.” Long story short, he said that most of the brown people we saw, including him, were likely not developers. He said black and brown developers were rare, and black and brown female developers were fictional.
I learned a lot at that conference. I learned a lot about development practices, about libraries, about how other developers approach Android development. Unfortunately, I learned a few other things. I learned that people will ask you if you know where you’re going when you try to enter a technical talk. I learned that people will ask you to prove you’re a real developer by answering technical questions. I learned that some people have the self-control not to call me a unicorn out loud but almost no one has that level of control over their facial muscles. I learned that rose-colored bubbles don’t taste like strawberries when they pop in your face.
In next week’s installment of this series, I will talk about how I processed imposter syndrome with the “unicorn effect.”