Career

What Being A Software Engineer For 365 Days Has Taught Me

Being a black woman in tech is an incredible journey. Here's what I've learned.

7 min read

“IT’S ANOTHER ONE!” I made it to a year in tech and a year as a Software Engineer. It’s been an incredible journey so far. I have struggled, I have learnt, I have cried, I have grown, I have vented, I have flourished and I’m grateful for every experience. With every experience, I have added to my growth.

So where do I begin? From the beginning, I guess!

I’m the only “me”..

The biggest challenge I experienced was being the only black person on my floor. I’ve now come to find I’m the only black woman in the building which is challenging. How can I help people understand this? I remember I had a call with someone and explained why inclusion in the workplace was of more importance than diversity to me. You cannot advocate for diversity and not provide an inclusive workplace where they can be themselves and have ways for them to connect with people that look like them in skin colour or gender. It is a mental and emotional drain and it’s incredibly lonely.

Jennifer Opal on her laptop at London City Airport


Unfortunately, whether it be in huge global corporations, or large cosmopolitan, multi-cultural cities, there are many people that have the same experience as me but I hope that as our communities are working to change this and lead change, it will no longer be a norm.

What I will say is that by being the only one, I was able to teach and educate others about blackness but it became exhausting so I just stopped. I focused on being sure that I stayed true to my identity, I talked with my London accent (which I’m kinda losing a little.. pray for me), I dressed the way I wanted to, I wrapped my hair in a scarf with Congolese print on a Monday, wore my natural hair on Wednesday and put a wig on on a Friday! At the end of it all, it was important for me to continue to be myself as much as it’s important for those around me to see me being myself.

Lean on me..

As I started to find my ground and continued to blog, I started to connect with so many amazing, hardworking people in the tech world who have accomplished great things and the majority of them looked like me! They’re black! Seeing them made me see the potential heights I could get to in my career and it’s so…… You know what? Let me say this. The tech community is beautiful to me. Blogging and sharing my journey has allowed me to connect with people from all over the world but connecting with the black tech community is even more beautiful to me especially with being in an environment I am currently in. I’ve learnt from them and have grown because I’ve been able to lean on them.

I have to stress the value of networking and connecting with people. Whether it be going to events, blogging, tweeting about a line of code that doesn’t work or doing an Instagram live sharing your finished project.

Either or, the tech community will help you and offer up some advice on things you can do and steps you can take whether it be growing in your skill-set or elevating in your career. I even found a few mentors along the way. I say a few because some of them don’t even know they are my mentors but they are my mentors in my head.

My career direction is up to me..

This isn’t for everybody but I have found that not all advice is good advice and that’s OK. A few months ago, I wanted to move into a different area of the business and was told to do a full stack project instead as a way of affirming my decision to move. As the project went on, I started to lose interest in the project and my desire to move into a different area grew stronger. It didn’t help that there wasn’t anyone around me to really guide me as I had never done a full stack project before and no-one to tell me if I was being too adventurous, where to begin or if I was not being adventurous enough. It affected me negatively. I started coming into work late, not taking my lunch so I can leave as soon as possible, worked from home more, took days off because I was sick but really I was incredibly down and started applying for jobs elsewhere.

I’m finally on path to moving into the area of the business that I want to move to and I’m excited for it but I had to take the initiative to say “No, I don’t want to do this. I want to do this. How can I make it happen?” It was many months later that I decided to walk away from the project, finally start learning about what I wanted and begin preparing for the move.

From this experience, I have found that it’s important for those above you who advise you and guide your career to create conversation with you rather than for you. Only because someone is “new”, doesn’t mean they are the same as the last new person. We can’t all fit into a box.

In your first tech roles, I think you should learn, be observant and be vocal in your career direction and be absolutely sure in your direction. You know what’s best for you. Just like I was sure I wanted a career in tech, I wanted a job that allowed me to explore my creative mind and code, you can be sure of your loves and hates in your career direction as you learn and grow within it.

What and how I learn is up to me…

It’s hard learning on your own. It’s hard learning on your own having dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) so a lot of times, I would start learning, then stop and move onto something else in a quick amount of time. ADD does that to you. It is a neurological disorder that causes inattentiveness, impulsiveness and other behavioural issues. I had to figure out a way to learn independently and keep focused. I researched more into my condition, I spoke with my GP and I started applying what I was taught in order to gain the most value of what I was learning at work.

I had to start understanding how I absorbed information best and applied to my learning. I did Udemy courses, watched YouTube videos and listened to podcasts. I avoided reading a lot because I’m still trying to find the best way for me to read. I did the Pomodoro technique but adjusted it to 20 minutes and 10 minute breaks and it has worked so well for me. I’m able to retain information much more than before and learning in tech is fundamental.

Tech is changing rapidly and it’s important to keep yourself up to date with new technology and tools that could innovate the way you work. I had to discipline my time where I set time aside on the weekend to study but also ensuring that I give my mind rest and that I am living my best life. Who wants to be thinking about coding all day, everyday? Ain’t nobody got time fo’ dat!

What I speak is down to me..

Blogging. Tweeting. Speaking. Sharing. Messaging.

They’ve all played a part in my career growth too. Sharing my experience of being a black woman in the tech industry has been a powerful outlet for me to pour out my heart and mind but it has also brought change and inspiration to others in a way that I never expected.

Jennifer Opal speaking as part of a panel at the Code First: Girls Conference in November 2019
Speaking as part of a panel at the Code First: Girls Conference in November 2019

I’ve won awards from being shortlisted for UK’s Most Influential Women In Tech UK by ComputerWeekly.com, to being named as one of 50 Most Influential Black Voices in Tech UK by TechNation but nothing brings me more joy than someone sending me a message to say “You look like me and you work in tech”, “I want to learn how to code, where do I start?”

There is so much power in a voice. It can do great things and bring inspiration to many. As hard as it is sometimes, I encourage you to blog on your coding and tech career journey. You have no idea who is looking up to you whether it be on social media or even within your family.

Be proud about your journey and progress. Share it with the world and be an example to someone else so they know there is a place for them in tech too. Representation matters.

If you have any questions, please get in touch. You can find me on Twitter, Instagram or LinkedIn.

Be blessed!

Resources

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