I’ve been blogging since 2000 and this is easily the most difficult post I’ll ever write.
I’ve gone on record (in a recent interview, in fact) as saying that if I didn’t start my career where I did — in Wyoming — after the military and college, that I would not have risen through the ranks from relatively junior employee to director early in my career. It was a confluence of fantastic mentors and people who managed to see things in me that I didn’t always remember about myself who empowered me to succeed, listened to my recommendations and frankly allowed me to grow into my role even if I made mistakes along the way.
My reality of being black and existing off the beaten path away from the coasts means that there are often people who haven’t quite figured out how far certain groups have come and find the oddity of a young(ish) black guy professing to know anything about web development, social media & technology as a whole to be something of a unicorn. I can’t speak to anyone else’s experience, only to mine.
The best part of this is, my problems never really existed in far-flung places not known for their diversity. It wasn’t until I showed up in places that have more diversity that people started treating me differently. And by “people” I mean a small minority who through their actions, not their words, consciously or otherwise made it clear that they couldn’t accept that I knew anything about what I was doing.
I’ve been aware of this long enough to make the subject a bit of a running joke amongst my friends, saying “Sometimes, you just get the distinct feeling people would be way more comfortable if you were the basketball coach than the web guy.”
Over the years, I’ve clung to the foundations that brought me here. Growing up in a place with people who were black in all sorts of leadership roles — school principals, tennis coaches, doctors — I never felt there was a governor on where I could go or what I could do. I’ve never felt the need to apologize or to inhabit a place that was lesser than, just to appease a particular faction who might not appreciate my appetite for getting things done.
I don’t attribute all of my perceived slights to race, either. I’m not exactly the quietest guy about change and I don’t do a great job of masking my frustrations with bureaucracy or inaction. I am action-oriented in all aspects of my life and it shows in my work and passions.
What I wanted to get out, is that none of the specific slights even matter that much. You can be told that something “isn’t in your wheelhouse” despite having a long career proving that it is. You can invite friends from around the country to speak to your colleagues and proceed to watch as they’re treated with the kind of respect you’d never seen before and just assume that it must be a faulty chip in your own processor that makes you unable to get such respect from the same people.
Or you can take stock of your own skills, assets and talents. You can prepare yourself well, reach out beyond your borders and keep growing your skills. There isn’t a bonus prize for trying to be the belle of the ball no one wants you to dance in. You have to find a place where you’re valued, where your talent is recognize and where you can thrive and grow unfettered.
I’m learning this and it’s made my life better.
I was the first in my family to go to college and even that path was a bit of a detour. I taught myself HTML as a teenager and part of the joy of working in a bookstore was getting free books to borrow like a library so I could augment whatever I was learning using Prodigy Web Page builder to reverse engineer websites I found online. I found all of this fascinating, but the only reason I’m here today is because in those days those free hours they gave you on discs gave me a chance to get online and when those ran out, friends who had accounts would give me an account under theirs.
After high school, the Air Force unit I was assigned to put me in the technology systems office of our small-ish 200+ person unit. In a crazy year, all of the office was deploying leaving me the most junior person by myself to figure things out. I’d spent years fixing the computers of friends when they were broken, so I knew software pretty well. But my first boss insisted I learn the hardware side too. By the time I got out, I was managing local servers and taught myself PHP at home.
College gave me a chance to spend my time learning. I wrote, blogged and coded my way into my future. Except, I never did any of it realizing that I could make a career of it. I was just curious, enjoyed doing it and liked the fact that I didn’t have to ask permission to buy a domain or anything. I could just put myself out there. I bought my first domain in the 90s via the mail since I didn’t have a credit card as a kid. My second domain I bought after maxing out the webspace my college gave me and have been running my own virtual server ever since — and hosting the sites of countless friends.
It seems fitting that the first thing I ran across this morning drinking my tea was an article about the National Hockey League’s first U.S. born black player, just the 7th black player ever to play in the NHL back in 1982. I think a lot about the topic of being an “only” or an other, so much so that I don’t really spend a lot of my time stewing over it. Still, I’d be lying to myself (and to you, dear reader) if I said that it wasn’t an ever present part of my professional life on most days.
Which by itself isn’t making me go home and cry in my sorbet. I mean, everybody has problems and issues and these are just the things I come to the grocery store of life with and it’s fine. I checkout and go about my business every day.
I’ve won national awards. Pretty much everywhere I go, I leave in better shape than when I showed up. The military — and hell, my parents — helped me understand the chain of command really well. I respect leadership and want to learn from and empower those above me to make the best decisions for the benefit of the organization. In fact, if I had to criticize myself I’d say I care too much about the company whether it negative impacts me or not. I just want us all to win.
What I’m learning, is the notion that you need to martyr yourself for the approval of others is bunk. You have the power to make your own choices and to structure your life in a way that gives you the satisfaction you seek. If where you currently exist in a professional setting makes you feel lesser than, you need to figure out how to get out of that situation.
There is no prize for being twice as good.