A few weeks ago, I answered a question on Quora explaining how it feels to be a Black software engineer in Silicon Valley. I explained that most of the time, my race doesn’t play into how I’m treated at work and how my work is recognized. While that answer is mostly true, it felt incomplete. It’s also the case that my race is so deeply woven into everything I do that I don’t actively think about it anymore. Occasionally, these worlds collide and everything comes roaring to the surface.
I did a ton of job interviews during my senior year of college. Interviewing usually consisted of a 4–5 hour “loop” of technical interviews at the company’s office. Company engineers spent 1 hour at a time asking programming questions. One such loop stands out in my memory. I’d met with the first two engineers on the loop when the technical founder/CEO walked into the room to ask a few technical questions. He was the author of a large, open source project. So, while I’d never met him before, I recognized his name and expected a challenging interview. Shockingly, his first question had nothing to do with technology. “Why do all the Black kids sit at the same table at school?” he asked. I was taken aback but tried to explain the social dynamics that might be at play. He followed with, “Why is it no longer okay to say n****r?” I never had that cutting word said to me and had a serious choice to make. Should I stand up and leave, or treat this as a teaching moment? It took mettle, but I chose the latter and gave the best 3 minute summary of 20th-century race relations that I could come up with. I finished the interview loop and went back to campus. When the recruiter called as congratulated me on getting an offer, I immediately declined, citing “severe cultural differences.”
Previously, I shared the story of that interview with just a handful of close friends. But about a year ago it came to the forefront when I wasn’t expecting it to. I was at work participating in a brainstorming session about how to conduct interviews. I had conducted hundreds of interviews across many companies, so I knew I’d have a lot to add to the discussion. The facilitator started the session by asking an ice breaker, “What is the strangest question you’ve been asked in a technical interview?” I wasn’t listening to anyone else’s responses as memories of that interview, and all the anxiety that came with it, flooded my mind. I had tucked away the horrible feelings of that moment for years, but now they came rushing back to the surface. As the only Black person in the room, I was terrified of how it would feel to explain this story to everyone. How awkward and quiet the room would be. How I would feel like the most distant outsider…READ MORE