Black Engineers on the Need for Mentorship & Community in Tech

6 minutes

A good mentor can open the door to many opportunities, especially for Black (and other minority) professionals who navigate homogenous work environments, microaggressions, and harmful stereotypes throughout their careers. Many Black developers and engineers have spoken on being “the only one in the room” — a sentiment backed by data that shows that Black people only make up 7% of the tech workforce in the U.S. And the number dwindles even further as you look toward leadership positions.

That’s why having a mentor can be so helpful. They can offer a source of support and empathy as they provide professional guidance and help accelerate your career growth. So, for Black History Month, let’s explore how mentorship and community-building have helped many Black engineers and other tech professionals accelerate their personal careers and make tech more equitable and inclusive.

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Finding a mentor

When Codecademy Senior Software Engineer Voniel Brown moved from a rural town in Jamaica to the U.S. as a child, he quickly became fascinated with tech. He nurtured his interest for years, and even took a C++ course in college — but ultimately majored in finance instead because he thought the field was more stable. (Plus, computer science programs at the time were cost-prohibitive.)

Through the National Association of Black Accounts (NABA), a nonprofit networking organization for Black professionals in finance, Voniel met a recruiter who introduced him to a Software Engineer at his dream company. The two met for coffee, and the engineer explained how he launched his career through a bootcamp, which inspired Voniel to think about pursuing a career in tech. 

The connection was a game-changer: “It was amazing because I actually wanted to go into tech but it didn’t seem feasible at a time when I was looking at college majors,” Voniel said. “So to hear his journey from going through a non-traditional route and ending up at the place where I wanted to work reignited my interest in tech.” So Voniel enrolled in a bootcamp, learned to code, and today, he works for Codecademy! 

Along with identifying career opportunities, a mentor can also offer empathy and insight into shared experiences — especially if they come from a similar background. “For people of color to be mentored by someone who looks like them allows these leaders to have a truly vulnerable and safe environment,” said AWS General Manager Daryl Hammett in an interview with CIO.

Grateful for the mentors that helped him find his way, Voniel sought to pay it forward and helped other developers at his bootcamp – and now, he plans to look for even more mentoring opportunities now that he’s at a senior level.

While mentors can help establish your career and find your place in an industry, these lasting relationships can evolve over time. “[You get to a point where] you’re on the same level, and the dynamic isn’t the same as before,” he said. “[Whereas] before it was like a Padawan and a Jedi Knight, now you’re a Jedi Knight, and you can have your own Padawan.” In other words: You’ll eventually transition from mentor-mentee to peers, and be ready to start mentoring new developers yourself.

Building community

No two mentors are exactly the same. For example, you might have one mentor who provides hands-on code reviews and teaches you valuable new skills, while another might recommend you for jobs or provide big-picture guidance for your career. 

Having multiple mentors who you can turn to for different needs is important, Amina Adewusi, a self-taught Software Engineer said during a You Got This conference. This way, you can crowdsource insights from multiple perspectives (and avoid being overly reliant on any one person). 

“I’m often taken aback by how advice can differ so much from person to person,” Amina said. “And I found that, by speaking to several people, I get a richer experience.”

In addition to having mentors, it’s also helpful to have a “sponsor,” which is someone who actively advocates for you at work — basically a level up from what a mentor does. A sponsor creates opportunities for your work to be acknowledged, amplified, and appreciated by other people in the organization, and is “personally invested” in your professional success, according to the Harvard Business Review

Recent research from McKinsey suggests that sponsorship among Black tech professionals is more impactful than mentorship alone. Sponsorship enables Black tech professionals to take their roles to the next level, advance to management positions, and ultimately stay at companies longer. In the McKinsey survey, more than one-third of Black tech professionals said advancement opportunities were the most important factor to career growth.  

Making tech accessible

The lack of diversity in tech is partially due to the many and varied systemic barriers to entry. For many minority groups, tech still seems inaccessible due to degree requirements and unfamiliarity with potential career paths. 

Degree requirements for jobs exacerbate the racial gap, as many Black people (and other minorities) aren’t in a position to pursue higher education. Surveys show that 65% of Black workers in the U.S. developed their skills through alternative routes, like bootcamps, partial college completion, on-the-job training, and platforms like Codecademy. On top of that, mentors often turn to their social networks or school alumni associations when finding a mentee, which puts people from nontraditional educational backgrounds at a disadvantage once they get in the door. 

Tech companies have been dropping degree requirements over the last few years, which has helped make tech hiring more equitable for the vast talent pool of self-taught programmers. But there’s still plenty of work to be done at every level. Companies, for example, have a responsibility to address unconscious biases and prioritize hiring (and nurturing) more diverse candidates. “If you only go to MIT or Ivy Leagues to get your talent, you’re missing out on the non-traditional routes that a lot of the more diverse talent comes from,” Voniel said. “You can’t have this push at the top to diversify if the entryway isn’t diverse.”

Get involved

Ready to get out there and start making connections? Check out these organizations that help Black tech professionals find support, mentorship, community, and opportunities:

  • Sista Circle: Black Women in Tech (BWIT): An organization that provides a supportive community for Black women in tech and helps members find networking events and other professional opportunities.
  • Blacks in Technology (BiT): A media company that promotes Black success in tech and provides community-building activities with groups on Slack and LinkedIn.
  • /dev /color: An accelerator that was designed to help elevate Black engineers and technologists to leadership positions and offers a mentorship program.
  • Black Code Collective: A safe space for Black tech professionals as they navigate the sensitivities of being a minority in largely homogenous work environments.
  • Black Tech Pipeline: A job board created by Pariss Chandler, who launched the #BlackTechTwitter hashtag in 2018, that helps Black professionals find employment with hundreds of companies that are transparent around their diversity practices.

There are also tons of tech groups on Slack and Discord (including our own Discord channel) where you can meet other developers and engineers. Or you can try contributing to open source projects and networking on LinkedIn and other social media platforms. Any of these options can lead to mentorship opportunities, which is helpful if you’re brand new to tech and are looking for ways to establish relationships. Be sure to check out the Codecademy blog for more advice about how to find a mentor and uplifting stories about Black technologists with inspiring careers.

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