Where are you from? What were your early years like and where did you come from?
I am, technically, from Germany. I was born in Germany because I’m a military kid, but I lived all over the place. My path was Germany, to New Mexico, to Miami, to Alaska, to South Carolina, back to Alaska, back to Miami, back to Alaska, then to Atlanta, then New York, then California. I have to look at the map in my head as I’m saying that [chuckles].
How’d you first get interested in tech?
When I was younger my mom had a computer in the house. She was in the Air Force, also, and she did combat plans. And she had the computer around, and I used to poke around on it. And this was before Windows even happened. I still very much remember the black and green screen. And then about 5th grade— I was poking around when I was little, just playing Carmen Sandiego and that sort of thing. In about 5th grade my teacher decided that I should go to this thing that was in the city because we were in Alaska by this time. And so I got in a taxicab and went to a city as a ten-year-old all by myself, which — I thought I was grown. But it was teaching kids how to use HyperCard, which is, I don’t know, very early precursor, predecessor, I guess, to the web. It didn’t connect, but it was the idea of linking things together, and that’s how you navigated it. So I learned that, and then I was like, “I love this. I want to do this.” And I was just so enamored with computers, and I just spent all the time I possibly could either reading books or on computers. And then I learned how to install things on computers. And I learned how to dabble in hacking computers—and then senior year in high school I took a zero hour class which is like a class before school started that was not for credit that was learning how to program calculators. TI-83s. So we wrote BASIC on calculators which was good times typing and pressing those little buttons. There was no keyboard. Oh, yeah. Writing code on those things is not fun, but I got that. I got that feel, got that passion for it. So I—
You went to school early for it!
Yeah. And I was writing and making websites when I was a teenager and that sort of thing. My Geocities site was legit [laughter].
But yeah, I had that and I was like, “All right! I want to do this for my job.”
So I went to school at the University of Miami and I was a CS major for a year and it was the worst thing I ever did. Going back to Miami was great, but going to school next to one of the best beaches in the world was not a good idea when you’re coming from Alaska. Because it’s like, “But the beach is there. Class? The beach is there.” Then, when your classes are horrible because you’re the only woman, or one of a few women in your CS class, and also you’re the only black person or one of two black people, and definitely the only black woman in your CS class, it’s like, “I don’t want to go there. It doesn’t feel good. The professor sucks and also he looks at me like I shouldn’t even be there. He won’t even call on me when I raise my hand, and he acts like I’m wasting his time,” and I’m like, “I don’t like it.” So I didn’t finish my CS major there. I left after my first year and went back to, the University of Alaska, switched to a degree program, an AS degree, micro-computer support, which they’ve changed to IT something or another. Finished that, and then started working for the University. I intended to get my bachelor’s but they were like, “Hey, 21 year old Erica, we’re going to pay you $45,000 a year. Into it?” I was like, “Yup. Into it. Give me the money.”
So that was your first foray into work.
That was it. Windows Domain Administrator for the University of Alaska Statewide Systems.
Amazing. And so walk me through the path from that to what you’re doing now? Take me through it.
Windows domain admin at the University of Alaska. I got married—that didn’t work out. Then I was like, “I’m getting the fuck out of Alaska.” I was like, “All right. I’m going to apply for any job in a warm place.” And I was like, “East Coast”, because that is where the rest of my family is. My dad was in Florida at the time. I was like, “Okay, anywhere in the East Coast that’s warm: I’m there.” I applied for a network operations position at Home Depot’s headquarters. Got that. Moved my entire life to Atlanta in three weeks from Alaska, which was fun. Yeah. I was at Home Depot for a year—I did network operations and mobile desktop support—then switched to this company called Scientific Games because they were going to pay me more money to do desktop support. So I did that. While I was there, someone told me about this site called Craigslist. I was like, “What is even a Craigslist?” I was looking at Craigslist and there was a job opening for Google. I was like, “Google doesn’t advertise jobs on Craigslist. No one even knows what Craigslist is. Why would Google have their jobs there?” I applied for this job at Google and I thought it was fake. I thought it was pretend, right? “This is a scam. I’m going to use my throwaway email address because this is totally a scam, but I’m going to send them my resume. But I know this is not real.”, until I flew in for my onsite interview in New York. And at this point I’m like, “Okay, so this is not fake. This is for real. Let me put my game face on.” So I pull up to New York, put my game face on, got the job. Worked at Google for nine years. Started as a field tech—which is kind of desktop support plus plus, and then did Google TV for awhile because I’m really into TV—I like to watch TV a lot—and then I switched back to the corporate engineering organization, and then I switched to SRE, Site Reliability Engineering.
After that I went to Slack, because I was like, “I can’t work at Google anymore. It’s horrible. It hurts my soul to work here. I’m gonna work somewhere that is either making a difference in the world, or a place where I can be happy.’ Slack was a place where I can be happy.
I’m assuming that in your nine years at Google— I kind of want to dig deeper into— hopping from department to department, how was that? What were some of the projects that you worked on? Hopefully there were some parts that were really exciting and appealed to you and that you’re proud of.
In Atlanta it was cool because it was a small office and there were a lot of people there and it was very diverse. This was the most diverse office I worked in my entire time at Google. Everybody was there. When I moved to the New York office, it wasn’t as diverse. Also I was in a cold place again. Bad choice [laughs]. But I worked on my favorite projects there, which is when Google did the DoubleClick acquisition, I did the IT onboarding. I was responsible for making sure all 500 employees that we onboarded got all their stuff, like their hardware, their usernames. I had to set up a whole process to get 500 people through the onboarding process within two days.
But that project was one of the most stressful things I’ve ever, ever done in my life. It’s one of the most rewarding projects that I’ve ever done. And I only got to do that project because my manager switched to a female manager at the time, and she believed in me and was like, “Erica can do this. She’s going to do it.” I don’t think that any other manager would have taken that chance on me because it was huge and I really appreciate her. She’s one of my favorite people at Google. I hope she ends up running Google one day, she was great.
And I switched— when I left New York, when I came to Mountain View, I was an Exec Tech and that was interesting, being in a position to work with all the executives at Google is tricky, because they are in positions—or were in positions—where they felt like they could say whatever they want to say. They didn’t have to put any checks on what they said. One executive thought I was my office mate’s admin assistant, walked in and was like, “Is Frank here?” I was like, “No Frank’s not here.” He’s like, “Oh, well can you tell him I came by and take this message?” I was like, “Can I help you with something? Do you need technical support or something? Is there something I can bring you?” Like, “Oh, you can do that too?” I was like, “Yeah.” He’s like, “Oh, I just thought you were his admin assistant.” I’m like, “Word? Really? Really?!” So that was super frustrating. They just had no qualms about saying the most fucked up shit. One of the executive’s admins— I was sitting outside a board meeting, and she walks over to me—as I’m sitting outside of the board meeting—and she’s, “Are you security?” I’m like, “No. I’m sitting here in my not security uniform wearing my work dress clothes, because I’m sitting outside a board meeting waiting for them to tell me that they need support with something. No! Not security!” I was so pissed off about that, but that sort of thing happened all the time. It was interesting, it was never that overt in either Atlanta or New York. I didn’t have much issue in New York, aside from them passing me over for stuff that could help my career for white dudes. That was the only problem I had in New York. Nobody ever came up to me and was like, “I think you’re an admin,” or “You must be security, because what else would you be doing here.” Working with the exec support— like the project I worked on, like working with the exec assistants to help them get their jobs done, like writing one auth little tools for them to blast an entire department with emails to go on a ski trip. Neat little tools to help them— I don’t know, like migrate from Palm contacts to Google contacts because that was the thing that they had to do. That was fun. That was rewarding. Even though there was bad, there was that good. There were some good people I was working with.
Well, we’ve already touched on this a good bit, but what have been your biggest struggles?
Like those things that I told you about. People just assuming that because I am a black woman—the worst one is people who assume that I only got hired because of affirmative action or whatever. It’s like, “No. I came in and I destroyed the interviews, and that’s how I got hired. I’m really fucking smart. I don’t throw it around, but I’m in MENSA. I’m not dumb, but you want to assume just because you look at me, you see I have brown skin and I’m a woman that, somehow, I’m not worthy. Immediately, that’s your assumption, and that is the worst thing that I have to deal with always.
“People just assuming that because I am a black woman—the worst one is people who assume that I only got hired because of Affirmative Action or whatever. It’s like, ‘No. I came in and I destroyed the interviews, and that’s how I got hired. I’m really fucking smart.'”
I wrote this thing called “The Other Side of Diversity.” I had been going to therapy and I was like, “I need to work out and figure out why I’m so unhealthy.” I was writing things— there were so many other things that I wrote about my life that I posted on my personal blog, and this one thing was like, “This is going to be the thing I write about working in tech, what it feels like to be a black woman in tech.” Everybody’s like, “Oh, we need more women of color in tech,” but here’s what it actually feels like to be a woman of color in tech. I wrote it all down and then it got so much feedback and when I wrote it, I was like, “This is what it feels like for me, but I didn’t know that it was everybody. There were so many people who were like, “This is exactly my story, this has happened to me, all these things.” I was like, “You know what? I don’t need to put myself through this.” There are other options out there. I don’t need to be hurting myself because someone says, “Oh, Google is the best place to work.” P.S., not the best place to work at all. But there was just a moment where I was like, “You know what, I don’t need to be here. I can go somewhere else.” At that point, I was like, “I’m going to go somewhere else,” because staying here will literally make me sick. It will make me stressed out, and stress leads to sickness, and I’m not going to do it anymore. And so I left. Right? [chuckles]
It’s amazing you lasted nine years.
My family got a lot of pride out of me working at Google. I was the one who made it, and I didn’t want to let them down. After a while, I was like, “I need to do this for me.”
How’s life been at Slack?
So great. It’s just so different to work in a place where the focus on inclusion comes from leadership. At Google, Larry would sometimes say something about diversity when a bad thing happened, but he would never proactively be like, “We need to fix this. This is a problem for us. I care about this.” It was either a PR situation for him or it was that something bad happened and we need to make sure that people know that we care about the diversity. But at Slack, Stewart was just like, “Yeah, this is important. This is super important to me, and this is super important to this company. We need to be out ahead of this before we even become a big company. This is really fucking crucial. We can’t mess this up,” because he’s so big on fairness and justice and making sure that we don’t contribute to the problems in tech. And so just to have the different ethos at the top of the company affects so much. Every company should be run by a philosophy major.
“Just to have the different ethos at the top of the company affects so much. Every company should be run by a philosophy major.”
Tell me about whether or not you’ve had mentors or role models or even inspiration during your time in tech, or none at all?
None. No mentors. I guess maybe the lady I told you about who believed in me to do the project, that was the closest thing to a role model. I had something like a mentor for the last few months I was at Google, and she was pretty cool, but she was super busy, because everybody knew she was great, and so we rarely had time to meet up. Besides those two, from my 15 years in tech, I’ve not had a mentor, ever. People like to mentor people who look like them, and there’s nobody in tech who looks like me. Well not nobody, but there are very few people in tech who look like me. There are definitely very few within my line of work, like in operations and system administrations and that sort of thing.
Yeah, for sure. And your family’s not here, so I’m curious to know where you found early support networks.
Yeah, my mom was up in Yuba City and my sister is still up in Yuba City. My mom passed away in 2010, but my step-dad is still there, and my sister and her kids and husband are still there so, when I need to get away, that is where I go. But outside of going to see them, like there were no support networks here for me, until I decided that I needed to not be in the South Bay. Because there’s nothing there for me, like everybody there treated me like I was different, because I looked different, and so I felt different. Oakland, it was like “Oh, hey, my people.” And I now have a great support network, I have so many friends and places I can go and get away from tech, which is important to me. I think that’s a good thing for everyone to have, an outlet to get away from tech.
How did you do it?
I just survived. I didn’t flourish. We have this thing at Slack called “thriving,” and I didn’t thrive, I survived. That’s how I did it. So glad I feel like I’m living again, versus existing.
What are your biggest motivators? What drives you?
Making sure my nieces and nephews have a good role model. My nieces and nephews’ mom and dad are great, but they aren’t in tech and my nieces and nephews don’t see that tech is a thing that someone can do. I want for them to be able to see me do these things. I want for them to see me achieve. I want them to know that it is something that they can aspire to. That’s a huge motivator for me. My work on diversity and inclusion, I am motivated by making sure that the industry gets better for people who come after me. Because I don’t want anybody else to have to experience what I experienced. Diversity and inclusion work is not my first choice. If I could be spending my free time doing stuff, I’d be doing genealogy all the time. That is what I love to do. But I work on diversity and inclusion because it’s super important. Right now I get to have this voice—people listen to me for some reason, and I have support at work to continue speaking about these things;and permission to say whatever I feel from the CEO of my company—which is super rare, Not everybody gets that. And it’s a huge privilege, and so I’m not going to waste that privilege. I want to use it to speak up so that we can make improvements. I think the first step is talking about what’s going on and then getting uncomfortable. It’s not going to be easy, right? Talking about sexism and racism is super hard, but I feel like we keep talking about it, people will get used to talking about it. And then we can move on to fixing it.
How do you feel about the state of tech in 2016?
I think we are doing major things and making major accomplishments and taking major steps forward in tech. So many innovations, so many new cool things out there. Tech itself is great. The social structures, I guess that have been built within tech, the diversity of Tech? Horrible. The way people behave in Tech, horrible. We’ve created this system wherein as long as you know how to write code, as long as you perform well in your job, you should feel free to say whatever you want to about whoever. Like that’s the system we’ve built, and that’s not so good.
“The problem in Tech is that nobody wants to acknowledge that because they want to believe that it’s a meritocracy. They want to believe that their hard work is what got them here like they’ve struggled and suffered for all this time and that’s how they got here instead saying, ‘Maybe you got here because that guy you knew in college he referred you for a job but he didn’t refer the black girl who was also in the same class who actually got better grades than you.'”
And also, people are so married to this idea of meritocracy and like “Oh Tech is a meritocracy,” and whatnot that they can’t get beyond that and see that Tech is just another part of the society we’re in and it is affected by systemic racism, systemic sexism, and all manner of injustice just like everything else.
The problem in Tech is that nobody wants to acknowledge that because they want to believe that it’s a meritocracy. They want to believe that their hard work is what got them here like they’ve struggled and suffered for all this time and that’s how they got here instead saying, “Maybe you got here because that guy you knew in college he referred you for a job but he didn’t refer the black girl who was also in the same class who actually got better grades than you.” They don’t think about that—it’s just like, “I worked hard to get here, so I deserve to be here.” And that’s— it’s really unfortunate that that’s a widespread belief, and it’s hard to change people’s thinking on that. They’re really really married to that idea that it’s a meritocracy and if we can convince some folks that it’s not and that there’s some systemic issues that we need to work on then I think we can move forward.
I think the idea that it’s not a perfect meritocracy threatens some people’s own credentials and it scares them.
Oh it definitely does, and I think that there are many people who are frightened of it. Yes. They’re so scared of that. Because to consider that maybe you are not like this super smart, super special person, that got into tech…like that’s the story that they’ve been told, like at Google “we hire the BEST engineers in the world, only the best. We get all the best.” It’s the story that they’ve been spoon-fed and they get attached to that story, and to take that story away is just like NO. This legitimizes me. This makes me important, and to take that away is like, now they don’t have something to cling to, to show that they have value.
Yeah. I remember the moment where I became disillusioned. It was when I worked at this little YC startup, and I was so passionate about the product. I was obsessed with it. But I started seeing that it wasn’t about the products—for me it was about the product, but for them it wasn’t about that, it was about finding something that they could sell, or making something decent enough that they could sell. And then, it was about hiring another McKinsey alum to help them sell it through the connections that they all had from their networks and it was just like, “Oh, this isn’t about what I thought it was. This is about boys all sitting in a room together and selling stuff to each other.” And that was a moment where I was like, “Oh man, like, my high hopes and my naive ideas about what everyone was here for. It’s not what I thought it was.”
To have that moment of realization is hard. Oh, I thought I was working in the best company in the world. Turns out, no—I believed the hype I drank the Kool-aid. But, no. I am sorry you experienced that. It’s frustrating.
How do you think that your background and life experience impacts the way that you approach your work?
I already spoke about being able to assimilate really easily, so that has impacted my life, But also when I was growing up I had this button that said question authority. And I believe that. I don’t know where I got it. I am pretty sure my mom never gave it to me, because my mom did not like when I questioned her. She was the authority person. But, you know, I strongly believed in questioning authority. And also there is a song in 1996-1997, in Biggie’s last album. It was “N-words bleed”. And the lyric that really stuck to me was “N-words bleed just like us. Picture me being scared of an N-word who breathes the same air as me.” And even though the language is wrong, and the song is about being in the streets, and murder and that sort of thing,that line for me, is like, “Oh right. That’s just saying that everybody out there is a person just like me. And I don’t need to be afraid of them because they’re just another person. They breathe just like me. They poop just like me. That CEO, or whatever, that I just said, “Hi” to or whatever, or emailed or asked the question or didn’t feel any qualms about talking to, that’s just another person. They just had different life experience than me and they got a little luckier than I did. And so that has helped me a lot in my career because, for some reason, people think that being able to speak to people in positions of power and authority— it’s like a magic trick or something. No. They’re just other human beings.
Let’s go back to Slack. As an outsider, I just feel like they’re leading the front, in terms of diversity and inclusion. And not just in quantitative ways, like everybody’s doing—posting the numbers or whatever, but hosting Deray at the office. All these little things. And Stewart not being afraid to speak up as an executive.
The head of diversity should be the CEO. CEO can have a deputy. It’s like, this is my deputy of diversity or whatever. But the CEO should be the person for whom all diversity reports go to. The CEO should be the person who is leading this charge.
This is the person who everybody has to report to about diversity. This is the person who will tell the company how the diversity is going — that sort of thing. Like, the CEO should be the person in charge, and they might say, you know, the deputy is going to take care of these parts, but you’re still answering to me about it, right? And so that is what I think should happen with CEOs. Sadly, it doesn’t happen. Companies just hire Heads of Diversity. And then, they think that’s all they need to solve the problem. Especially Twitter hiring Head of Diversity that was ineffective as a Head of Diversity in other companies.
“The head of diversity should be the CEO. CEO can have a deputy. It’s like, this is my deputy of diversity or whatever. But the CEO should be the person for whom all diversity reports go to. The CEO should be the person who is leading this charge.”
What would be a very easy next step for them to do?
Those quantitative numbers about how many people they have hired, that’s all about recruiting. They need to start focusing on retention and happiness. How are people at your company feeling? A great thing Google did just before I left is that they do these surveys every year called Googlegeist—they surveyed the entire company to see how they are feeling about working at Google. For the first time last year, they asked people, randomly selected groups of people to do a separate ends of the survey. And one of those was diversity related, like if you feel comfortable sharing your gender, if you feel comfortable sharing your ethnicity and then, you know, answer a few questions. And they found that people who were black people at Google, did not feel like they could succeed in the way that other people felt like they could succeed at Google. And that is a huge metric to be watched. That should be what they pay attention to. You’re hiring? Fine. But, to feel like you cannot succeed in your workplace is a problem. And they need to make sure that number is going up, right? So, companies can be tracking retention, how people feel included in ways that works for them. They should not be high-fiving just because their 2% went up to 3%. That’s terrible. High-five when your percentage matches the rest of The United States population. When you have, whatever the current percentage is, of black people in The United States at your company, then high-five yourself. Same for the Latinas and Latinos etc. Then you can high-five.
“That should be what they pay attention to. You’re hiring? Fine. But, to feel like you cannot succeed in your workplace is a problem. And they need to make sure that number is going up, right? So, companies can be tracking retention, how people feel included in ways that works for them. They should not be high-fiving just because their 2% went up to 3%. That’s terrible.”
What do you think tech can do better to keep talent from leaving?
Understand first that your talent is leaving because your culture is horrible. Come to terms with it. Get really uncomfortable with it and then get comfortable with it and then fix it, right? Recognize that you’re going to have to do some work on your culture. You just can’t keep shoving people in like, “Oh, we’re going to just hire all these black people or these Latino people or these women. We’re just going to keep hiring and hiring, and that’ll fix it.” I feel like companies need to recognize that that’s a problem that they have and then work on it. Like I said, it’s like we’re looking at every little thing, and I feel like companies can look at every little thing. Like, “What is this here for? Why are we playing ping-pong? What is this serving? Who is this serving? Who is this for?” That sort of thing. Every single aspect of your culture. Look at it with a fine-tooth comb. It’s going to be painful, it’s going to suck! People are not going to like it. But look at every single aspect of your culture with a fine-tooth comb and figure out what is not inclusive. What would feel weird for somebody to participate in? Maybe that trip to the gun range, maybe not the best idea for a team off-site. You know, that sort of thing.
“Understand first that your talent is leaving because your culture is horrible. Come to terms with it. Get really uncomfortable with it and then get comfortable with it and then fix it, right? Recognize that you’re going to have to do some work on your culture. You just can’t keep shoving people in like, ‘Oh, we’re going to just hire all these black people or these Latino people or these women. We’re just going to keep hiring and hiring, and that’ll fix it.’ I feel like companies need to recognize that that’s a problem that they have and then work on it.”
Where do you see yourself in five or ten years?
Hopefully alive? [laughter] You know what, I don’t know. If Slack is still here, I’ll still be here. But if Slack is not here, I won’t be. Slack is my last stop.
Unless I start my own company— which I don’t see happening. Everybody keeps trying to push me towards that, and I’m like, “I don’t have an idea that is good enough to start my own company.” But unless I start my own company, Slack is my last stop in this industry. I will go back to the East Coast and work on whatever. Photography maybe. I don’t know. Something on the East Coast and chill, and not be in this terrible, terrible environment. Unless it gets better. If it gets better, I might stick around, but I don’t think that’s going to happen in five to 10 years. Maybe 20.
“I think the first step is talking about what’s going on and then getting uncomfortable. It’s not going to be easy, right? Talking about sexism and racism is super hard, but I feel like we keep talking about it, people will get used to talking about it. And then we can move on to fixing it.”
What advice do you have for those from a similar background who want to get into tech?
If they’re in tech, recognize that you’re not alone, find your people. There may be only a few at your company, but there are many of us out there not in your company. Figure out how to get to your people. There are women in tech groups, and women of color in tech groups, and people of color in tech groups all over FaceBook. And there’s Slack groups or whatever. Find your people, and I can’t even stress how important that is because it gives you a place to go when you feel like there’s nowhere to turn. Try not to get discouraged. I’m not going to tell people not to rage-quit because I’ve been right on the cusp of doing that many times. But try not to get too discouraged, and if you do get too discouraged, tell your people. If you found them, well they can help you out with that. Don’t be afraid to speak up, and if you feel like you don’t have a voice and you need your story to be told I’m happy to tell stories for anybody. If you need to be anonymous I’m happy to do that. For people who aren’t in the industry already, make sure you really want to be here. You have to really want to be here to deal with all this shit. Like if I did not love computers as much as I do I would not still be here. If I did not love tech as much as I do I would not be here. I’d be off somewhere trying to get a law degree or something because that was what I wanted before I discovered computers, I wanted to be a lawyer, so that’s what I’d be doing. But I love Tech so much, that I can’t let go of it. But make sure you really want to be here, because that love is what’s going to keep you here when someone tells you that you shouldn’t be here.
“Try not to get discouraged. I’m not going to tell people not to rage-quit because I’ve been right on the cusp of doing that many times. But try not to get too discouraged, and if you do get too discouraged, tell your people. If you found them, well they can help you out with that. Don’t be afraid to speak up, and if you feel like you don’t have a voice and you need your story to be told I’m happy to tell stories for anybody.”