I was recently getting a coffee with a fellow Strider; let’s call him Bobby. Bobby was offering me some feedback on a project we had worked on for some time. He had been a senior developer on my team and was always ready to answer my GraphQL and Django questions. I looked up to him and valued his input greatly. It was great catching up with Bobby. While we discussed our project he said, “You built a great relationship with the engineering team. You can be very direct and were able to communicate complex technical and domain concepts, winning the respect of the team.”
After Bobby and I parted ways, I retrospected about my role in that particular team. Although my peers might describe me as an honest and outspoken individual, I’ll admit that I was uncharacteristically candid on that team, more so than I had been on any other team before. And as my feedback session with Bobby showed, my candor clearly had positive results. But there was no special magic to that team… or perhaps one could argue that there was.
Diversity has played a vital role in my life. I was born in the Bronx and still call that borough home. I live in a neighborhood where White is the minority. My friends and neighbors are predominantly Latinos, Africans, West Indians; a hodgepodge of different cultures. When I joined the world of tech, I would have to adapt to a big change in my usual environment. I hadn’t realized how much I missed diversity in tech until I joined a team where people came from different professional and ethnic backgrounds. The team lead, let’s call him Joe, was a Puerto Rican from “the hood.”
Joe was a great team leader. He brought life experience to work each day, cracking jokes and making sure that everyone in the team was heard. Joe was himself unapologetically. I looked up to him and I was happy to be part of his team.
I’ll confess that I tend to censor myself at times, especially during work. I might reconsider telling a joke or making a pop reference for fear that my team won’t get what I’m saying. And if I do end up telling them, more often than not I would have to explain what the joke meant or where that pop reference came from. To be clear, my tendency to self-censor was a conscious choice, not because I’ve been part of non-inclusive teams before, but because for some reason I’m not fully myself at work.
But in Joe’s team, I found that I wasn’t self-censoring. I was myself, and it felt great to share a joke that related to my world and to the people around me. I didn’t have to explain what I meant. It felt great to identify with a leader who has been through struggles similar to mine. My team, composed of members with an array of backgrounds and experiences, created an environment where different ideas, related to software or any other topic, were met with curiosity, not skepticism. I started to feel more confident, shared different points of view. I ventured into new areas, unafraid to fail if I must, only to learn the valued lesson of failing and of learning from past mistakes. With the support of Joe’s team, I took on the development of a new major feature full of complex business logic, in a framework I was just starting to learn. It wasn’t until my feedback session with Bobby that I realized how free I felt to share my ideas and take risks in Joe’s team, and in turn, how people took notice of me.
I have read many articles about diversity and inclusion as important ingredients in successful tech companies, but those articles felt impersonal to me. Judging from my experience in just one team, I understand precisely why it matters: In this one diverse and inclusive team, my teammates seemed happier when they shared their ideas, which led to increased productivity. Thanks to Joe’s team, this Bronx girl has become a better engineer.