Something magical happens when black people get to work.
This fact should surprise no one. Hard work has always been the wage demanded to justify the African American’s existence, lest the black tax go unpaid. It is common knowledge among black people that we must work, at a minimum, twice as hard as our non-black counterparts to achieve a fair level of recognition and respect. Curiously, the fateful marriage of scarcity and struggle forged by centuries of injustice and inequality has, out of sheer necessity, spawned a culture of innovation that has transformed everything black people touch; from sports to fashion, to technology and beyond.
Yet, knowing all this, I watched the inspiring story about the upbringing of Venus and Serena Williams by their father Richard Williams and found it touched me. One that continues to resonate in my very soul for several reasons.
On the one hand, I was moved by the actions of a man determined to propel his daughters to greatness in the face of incalculable odds, defying skeptics and critics in pursuit of a singular vision. I was also inspired again by the tenacity of two young girls from Compton working with skill and precision to perfect their craft with relentless perseverance and courage. I even watched in awe as an entire family turn their lives upside down to risk it all on a hope and a prayer, confident that their legacy would be nothing less than greatness.
And more than any other moment in the film, I was completely captivated by Serena’s response to a tennis coach when asked who she wanted to be most like as a tennis player. With an all-too-familiar Muhammed Ali air of assurance, she lays bare her audacious goal: “I want others to be like me.”
Contemplating the greatness of champions like Venus and Serena (and all of Compton’s other successful athletes, artists and musicians), we congratulate them on the success they have achieved. And I especially think it is appropriate for us to do so. There’s nothing quite like a good American underdog story. But this recognition of greatness also belongs to so many others in Compton who are not so-called athletes, artists and musicians.
It also belongs to people like me and so many others.
And what is my claim to this narrative? After surviving physical and sexual abuse at the age of 4 and being abandoned in the foster care system, I taught myself to code at the age of 8 in order to recover some of the agency and control that I felt I had lost. I learned to code almost a decade before I met a programmer in real life. And I wasn’t just content to be good, I wanted to be the best. This, in my mind, was nothing less than what seemed to be required of me. I learned this from black history, for I taught that this was also the price demanded of the innovators and engineers who came long before me.
Although I didn’t exactly have a Richard Williams of my own, I had foster parents who believed I would be somebody. They have stopped at nothing to unlock as many opportunities as possible for me. Even when opportunities were scarce. Even when they couldn’t afford it. Even when my father was fired from his job two years before he retired and cheated out of his pension.
Like the Williams sisters who knew themselves what it meant to be the only black person in white spaces, I also knew what it was like to be that only person in computer lecture halls, on teams at work or in any office.
I worked hard to pass the infamously difficult Google interview that even I didn’t think I could pass. In fact, I failed on my first attempt. Nevertheless, this fact did not stop me from studying 4 hours a day for more than a month to finally find my way to success. My career has always required the same perseverance, courage, determination, practice and work ethic that the Williams sisters have harnessed in their own journey.
Well, almost. I’ve never had to write code outside in the rain. But I would have done it if it had been necessary.
Allow me to share a little secret with you. For many black people pursuing paths in tech, they aren’t simply fighting for a job. They fight for both their excellence and the recognition of their genius. They strive to always be the first in many unknown spaces. In fact, representing only 5% of all software engineers in the United States, black tech talent has continued to endure a myriad of challenges and is undeterred in the pursuit of not only succeeding in the tech game , but also to change it.
People like Marian Croak, a living legend who pioneered Voice-over-IP technology and has over 200 patents to her name. people like Justin “Thug Debugger” Samuels, founder of the largest black software engineering conference, Render ATL, whose stated mission is to drape all of tech culture in unabashed blackness. People like Bria Sullivan, a software engineer who left a comfortable job at Google to start her own games company and serve as a startup consultant. People like Ruben Harris are opening doors for underrepresented people through the Career Karma platform that provides support, community and mentorship to those embarking on non-traditional journeys to technology.
And now Serena Williams joins this noble work. His recent financial investment as Champion of Brilliance for Karat’s Brilliant Black Minds initiative is nothing short of impressive. Offering participants free hands-on talks, feedback and advice, the program is the start of a new movement to increase the number of black engineers in tech.
The blessing of my colleague from Compton, Serena Williams, is deeply important to me. We now stand at the intersection of so much black excellence – and Compton excellence – that I believe this work will move the needle of technological diversity in ways never before foreseen. Its importance can hardly be contained. Indeed, he cannot.
I hope the day will come when society recognizes the brilliance of moments like this with the same vigor as when black people make strides in sports and entertainment. On that day, the true meaning of this moment may be better understood. Until then, the work continues.
Anthony D. Mays is Senior Advisor for Shining black spirits at Karat, founder and career coach at Morgan Latimer Consultingspeaker at the Office of the President of Washington, and former software engineer at Google. You can follow him on @anthonydmays on Twitter. Originally posted on anthonydmays.com.