I can truly say that I have been blessed to be a software developer for 10 years.  the decade has flown by and my life has changed drastically in this time frame. I entered the field with lofty dreams but not really knowing what to expect. What I learned is that I am a hard worker who was willing to spend hours to figure out a problem. This is a trait that I developed due to adversity, and I think that this aspect of my character is what has kept me successful.

The Early Years

When I was a child I used to say that I wanted to be a computer programmer. I don’t remember the reasoning behind that ambition. Maybe it had to do with the number of hours spent playing video games or it could be because I was fascinated with my Uncle’s computer. Whatever the case, I was dead set on becoming a developer. Nearing the end of high school, I had a change of heart. I decided to study electrical and computer engineering. I struggled through assignments, quizzes, and exams. I just couldn’t keep up or understand what was going on. As a result, I ended up flunking out of University. Yup, I was embarrassingly put on academic suspension. I was devastated and felt like every bit of the failure that I was. I didn’t know what to do. But I learned a lot about myself and life during that time.

Knowing when something isn’t right for me

Electrical and computer engineering is an awesome program and profession; just not for me. During my studies I did really well in classes that involved writing code. I did horrible in my other classes. When I flunked out of the program my goal was to get back into it as soon as I could. I retook classes via continuing education night classes and I did better. However, I realised that this field was not for me. I needed to, as some people put it, “find myself”.

Finding a decent job when you are in your early 20s, black, and have no degree or diploma is really hard

During my stage of self discovery, I needed to find a job. I submitted resume after resume. I submitted application after application. I signed on with job agencies. I found next to no jobs. I was a high school graduate, certainly there was something out there that I could do that paid more than minimum wage… Nothing. A friend of mine, who also was out of school, found a job at a call center and told me that they were looking for some more people. I applied and was hired. I learned that selling things that I am not passionate about is not my strong suit. I was let go from that job after a couple of months.

I ended up getting another job, a summer position, that helped me to earn some dollars. I got this job through an agency so a percentage of the minimum wage that I earned went right back to them. I saved as much as I could, but these were hard times.

Volunteer

Clearly, I had a lot of free time on my hands that I needed to fill. I learned how to play guitar by ear, I became a master of NBA Live, and, best of all, I tinkered with web development. My church wanted to create a website, and not knowing a thing about html, I decided to volunteer my time and energy. With the help of a friend and the help of the internet we were able to create the first version of our website. I realized that this was something that I wanted to do.

Go Back to School

I found a program at Seneca college that offered Computer Programming and Analysis. There was a specialization in Java Internet Development, and that sounded like something that I wanted to do. I went through the application process
and was accepted. I started my post secondary career all over again with a renewed zeal. Academically I was among the top pupils of my class. My program had a co-op option that allowed me to get valuable work experience. I was able to work at Kraft Foods where my project was to present IBM AS400 data on the web. I got to briefly speak about it in a magazine article (my quote starts in the last paragraph of page 9 to 10).

After three years at Seneca I graduated near the top of my class. I had the opportunity to begin my career, but I wanted to fulfill the goal of finally earning a degree. I was able to attend Trent university and have my credits from Seneca applied toward my degree. My Seneca diploma was equivalent to two years of university credits in the honours computer science program. Maybe it was motivation from my previous failures, but academically I did quite well at Trent also. The summer before my final year I was able to get a job as a software developer at my father’s company. I remember my dad imploring me to do a good job so that I wouldn’t make him look bad. This was a great experience. I worked under the Chief Technology Officer (CTO), and to this day if I ever need a reference he is happy to oblige. I really tried my best to go above and beyond there. I graduated with my Honours Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science ready to take on the world.

Don’t Burn Bridges

I learned that wherever I go in this crazy industry the people that I work with, and my superiors remain important regardless of if I stay with same company or move to another one. Along my software development journey I have accumulated a list of great references. I worked for multiple companies, but I have always left companies on the best of terms. This aspect of my career has been key to my longevity in this business.

You’re going to be alright

There you have it. If you have flunked out of school, like I did, there is hope for you. Actually, it could be the best thing that happened to you, you just don’t know it yet. Stay positive and use this time to grow. One thing I didn’t mention is that I also used this time to grow spiritually. I know that everyone may not believe in a higher power that reveals life’s purpose, but this was key for me to break out of my state of melancholy.

If I can make it through, you certainly can too. Trust me, you’re going to be ok. Just get back to coding.

Photo by Drahomír Hugo Posteby-Mach on Unsplash

I was the only black person in most of the classes related to computer science. I grew up in Toronto, and if you know anything about this city you know that it is one of the most multicultural cities in the world. It is not unusual for someone from Toronto to have friends with backgrounds from at least 4 or 5 different countries. I went to college in this great city and I can’t remember seeing another black person in any of my computer programming classes. From college I decided to go to university. The one that I chose was 2 hours away from Toronto in the beautiful city of Peterborough. I can remember having one other black person in one or two of my classes. Why were there so few of us?

The Digital Divide

While in university I took an interesting course called Computer Ethics. My professor’s name was Dr. Byron Styoles and he lead a discussion about the digital divide that has stuck with me ever since. The lack of representation of people of colour in the industry was result of a lack of access to technology during childhood. This is due to socio-economic class and historic discrimination. Students with lower incomes have lesser access to technology. Now remember I did graduate from university a decade ago. It was before cell phones and tablets were prevalent. Tech, up to this time, was very expensive, and anyone that grew up with access to cell phones, computers, or the internet was very fortunate. The discussion also had  associated readings and they showed that for someone to strive toward a goal they must know that the goal actually exists and is achievable. We need to see people like us in those fields to picture ourselves in them. This sentiment is also echoed in one of my favorite books called The Other Wes Moore. There were some trailblazers in the technology field that we are beginning to hear about now, like the women in Hidden Figures, but none of them had the celebrity of a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates.

In 2016 Google conducted research among school aged children and their parents to get to the bottom of why Blacks, Hispanics, and women are so grossly under represented in Computer science. You can read about their findings here https://services.google.com/fh/files/misc/diversity-gaps-in-computer-science-report.pdf. I thought that the situation had to be getting better now that technology is integrated into society, but the researchers found that things are pretty much the same as they were when I took that class all those years ago. Something that stood out to me is that access to computers and to computer science education is still lacking in black communities.

“Black and Hispanic students are less likely than White students to use a computer at home every day, and Hispanic students are less likely than White students to say they use a computer at school every school day. More than six in 10 students know an adult who works with computers and technology, although fewer Hispanic students know such an adult. Home Computer Access Is Higher Among White Students, With Large Majorities of All Students Reporting Daily Cellphone Usage” Diversity Gaps in Computer Science: Exploring the Underrepresentation of Girls, Blacks and Hispanics p. 12

Prejudice

Due to the lack of black representation, while I was in school I found that my peers and professors treated me differently. I wasn’t abused or anything like that, but prejudice was real. I remember someone calling me “dawg”. I had to explain to him that I don’t refer to myself that way (or speak using black colloquial terms around non-black people). When I would do well on tests, quizzes, or assignments the looks that I would receive from my professors were telling… it was almost as if they were saying “huh, I didn’t think you had it in you”.

Prejudice is as normal as the most normal thing that you can think of. We all pre-judge. It becomes a serious problem when opportunities are taken away or granted due to that prejudice, that’s when it transforms into racism.

Trailblazing

Is this field worth pursuing for Black people? Absolutely! Sometimes we have to put up with negativity in order to promote progress. Black developer and prospective developer, you are a trailblazer. There are still many firsts that we will eventually achieve. Which one of us will be the next Bill Gates, or Steve Jobs. Which one of us will be the next Jeff Bezos, or Mark Zuckerberg. It could be you. You and I are the bridge to the Digital Divide, and with more representation in the industry, my hope is the prejudice will end. We are part of a close-knit family full of shared experiences. I implore you to write code without fear, knowing that you have a place in the development space.

Photo by NESA by Makers