Considering the recent events with Black Lives Matter, an asian friend said I should speak up. I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut about my experiences, for fear of destroying any future opportunities in the industry. As a black man who was educated in the US, worked in the US, and now works in Canada, I know a lot about the industry.
Many stories document the racism experienced by black people daily. This article is about the unspoken racism that economically cripples us in the work place. Once told education was the way, I now know that this is a very cryptic message. On its surface, it’s a bold faced lie to black men like myself. Maybe it works for half white people like Barack Obama but it doesn’t work for me. I’m just a simple black man.
Some may find my story a prime example of the Black Lives Matter campaign. Some may consider it the plight of any immigrant. Others will say this is typical of the Information Technology industry. Ultimately, this is my story and you draw your own conclusion from the facts.
The American IT Culture
Granted I’ve only worked for 3 American companies and paid 3 years of taxes to Uncle Sam, I think I got an idea of the US IT work culture. First off, there are lots of people who tell IT folks what to do, that don’t have an IT education or background. These people are often technical managers and of course executives. Quite often, the person who made the ultimate decision in IT, had very little if any technical knowledge. This cemented my assumption that education meant little and there was another force that dictated a person’s ability to traverse hierarchy in the US.
It took me what seemed like forever to get my first job in America. You see, instead of getting an internship, I started a tech company. I sold various goods on eBay that I could find locally. Eventually, this business grew into importing products from Shenzen China and distribution through nobilitybeyond.com to both the US and Canada. This experience paled in comparison to my counterparts who took internships at defense companies like Harris and tech companies like Microsoft. One of my professors was confused when I confided in him that I was often rejected from jobs for not knowing the programming language they use. To my white professor, a Computer Science degree prepared you to use any language. This was my first indication that companies will find any excuse they can to not hire you, or as a reason to fire you as a black man. Many will say this is industry standard; however, the reality is that right out of school the professor was right. My white counterparts weren’t hearing any of this nonsense during their interviews.
Eventually, I found a fintech startup that was desperate for tech workers. They already had other minorities working for them. They were just happy to find someone who had general web development experience and could learn their business quickly. This was my intro to the fact that for the rest of my career, my best chances for getting a job, were when that company didn’t just want but needed a technical worker. When they need a worker, color becomes less of a priority at the time of hire. This is a major fundamental difference in the US and Canada. In the US people will work with you if they can use you, even better if they can hide your existence.
Allies In My Career
My first taste at a +$100,000 USD salary was because of a university friend. He was only there for a year and was kicked out for various reasons. This wasn’t exactly on paper the friend my parents would have hoped for me to have in University; however, it’s not like the majority white population were lining up to be my friend. As with most of my life, I happily engaged with those who would engage with me, regardless of their status from society’s perspective
This alliance paid off big. Let’s call my friend Paul. He is a white American who grew up in Bermuda. He has black half-sisters. This unique perspective in life has obviously had an impact on him. I gravitated to his grandiose dreams of becoming rich while we were students. Long story short, Paul somehow got himself a job as a C-Level exec in a nationwide healthcare company in the US. He was making huge money and was looking for capable people he could trust to add to his team. He offered me an opportunity before Costa Rica but the visa process from Canada was taking some time. So while I waited, I got a job at one of Canada’s largest corporations to cover my bills. That job paid for the trip to Costa Rica to meet up with Paul, for what was sold to me as the most epic vacation ever.
Paul was living large, making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. His paycheck without bonus’ was $20,000+ USD/Month. Eventually, I confided in him that I hated my current job and he agreed to ramp up his efforts to get me back to the US as a Canadian on a TN work visa. Paul would continue to fight over and over again to keep me hired and protected from those in the company that would happily see me fired. Unfortunately, that business crashed and our whole department lost their jobs including Paul. At this point the political situation in the US had changed and I took the opportunity to return to Canada. This time I focused on the west coast in hopes of finding success.
The Canadian IT Culture
Now a Canadian citizen, I’ve spent almost a decade here. Canadians are even fiercer at protecting their fragile existence from outsiders than Americans. Every immigrant here will be met with a standard which states, experience gained elsewhere, means little here. Americans sometimes are exempt from this rule and I was able to gain acceptance with my education and experience draped in the American flag.
Canada is more of a first-come, first-serve type of place. Many companies have old programmers that are still waiting for their chance at a position or moved around too much and start at the bottom each time. This is a stark difference to America where other factors like your ability can make a huge difference in your upward mobility. In fact, it’s not unusual in the US to find a young person managing much older people. This phenomenon is definitely rarer in Canada.
Companies outright lied to me. It happened throughout my career in Canada. In the early days, I was an immigrant and had to take what I got. They would say the job was one thing then it would end up being something else. I remember complaining at my first job in Canada and was told that I either take what I have or leave. I left. Remember that to work in Canada; I would then need to convince another company to pay $1000 for me to get another work permit to stay in Canada. That’s in addition to convincing the border guard to grant the visa which wasn’t always easy. That company paid me to shut up and move on. I assume that’s industry-standard regardless of race.
Today I still take whatever job I can get. Arguably this is partially because of a low paying and highly competitive job market in Vancouver BC where I live now. Although one of the most expensive places to live in the world, its salaries pale in comparison to the US. In fact, I endure great shame in knowing that I now get paid $5,000 USD more than my first job in the US. After over a decade of experience, my salary is a joke, barely enough to keep myself alive much less a family.
In the North American world of Black Lives Matter, I’ve seen other minority races speaking up. These are the same people who aren’t just directly racist to me on the streets but have fired me from jobs. Maybe change is coming. However I’m reminded of losing a government job within 6 months, officially with no cause. How is that position then replaced by another worker appointed by my boss who is the same race as them? I’ll tell you, with the help of lies within the system. Racism anywhere is injustice everywhere but how are you going to say that, while holding me down? I guess I should be happy that they didn’t just make up stuff like other companies happily did to cover themselves from lawsuits. I guess by now companies know I must be a rollover, to have gotten this far, and not said anything.
The Interview Process as A Black Man
As you can see, my experiences are definitely different in the US and Canada when it comes to IT. The interview process however is very similar. It starts with disbelief. They have no idea how you got through their filter but they are determined to find out and fix the issue so that others like me don’t show up. They always want to know details of how I am seemingly doing the impossible; hop scorching the Canadian/US border like no one else. I often hear oh; I worked in the US too; as if we somehow shared similar challenges in getting there.
As a black man, you have to work 3 times as hard. This ends up being self-defeating since you then become a threat. Now when I interview for jobs, I have to be sure to downplay the hundreds of servers and applications I have managed. I have received the excuse many times that I won’t be happy working at their small business or I’m not niche enough for the department that’s hiring. It made me strive to climb the ladder faster so that these excuses wouldn’t apply. However as I stated at the beginning with the Amazon interviews, this tactic has not worked. There will always be another reason why I can’t be hired.
My current job was a bit of a surprise. I left out how one of my previous female boss’ had it out for me from day one. Her boss hired me and she made it her goal to prove me as an inadequate hire. However, while digging into my references, one of them told my employers about the situation. How I was fired even though I performed well as a leader of 15 developers. They asked me why I didn’t mention this during the interview. I told them I had learned to keep these situations secret. Most employers won’t view this positively, in fact, they will see this as yet another excuse not to hire you as a black man. That particular situation I don’t know if she was racist, but she had no qualms of using me as a pawn. Whatever the case, the rules are the same, I stay quiet about how I have been treated. Some may call this industry norm. The truth is I’m black, so I have to guess what the reason was for me being fired or not hired for jobs.
The Reddit CEO quit his job and told the board to hire a black man. I bet you that seat sits vacant or is filled with a black man who will walk the party line. Instead of staying on and initiating change himself, he has left it up to his peers to make that decision. From my experience, I know that efforts like his can be stifled quickly through strategy. Hopefully, I’m wrong and the goal of this gesture is fulfilled. At least he did something eh?
I’m tired of being poor. I have no misconceptions, I know my situation will only be changed by God or luck. As I browse LinkedIn, I can’t find a single black IT director in Canada. So instead of hunting for jobs, I will continue working on personal projects like CannabisListings.ca in hopes of catching lightning in a bottle, being the first black man I know to make money legally from Cannabis compared to my countless brothers in prison. I have lots of projects but my salary is the only funding, so I’ll stick to what seems like low hanging fruit. I am not as lucky as Mark Zuckerburg or Elon Musk but I must keep trying. Even as I own nothing.
My experience may be a bit unique. I’ve never been to jail and have been able to dictate my geography for the most part. Atlanta has a large black population and while working there I got the idea it would have provided some opportunities. With that said, very few black execs exist there, so I don’t know how much opportunity really exists for black people in North America. What I do know is that you shouldn’t be discouraged as a black man from entering IT. I doubt you will make it to the top but you can earn a lot and learn a lot in the process. Make yourself the perfect candidate in their time of need. Focus on certifications because they show that you are ready to hit the ground running with a particular job. It also makes you less of a threat because you seem like you will never go beyond that job.
If companies wanted to change they would. It’s as simple as treating others as yourself. It seems too obvious to me but maybe I can spell it out. Having someone black on your team is a threat to your establishment in the same way as having a woman or any other aspect of diversity. Nascar banned the confederate flag, are you willing to make that drastic a change to the policies to improve your business? Expecting others to change to fit your current model hasn’t and will never work. None of these people should be cuddled or simply given opportunities. However, equality and the opportunity to be heard would action meaningful change.