Vajrasara – an interview with Lashana Lewis – Part 1

I have been impressed by profiles of women invited to the annual Women-in-Technology luncheon at the PASS summit in the recent past. When the announcement comes out, I normally look up who the person is and read about them. When PASS offered an opportunity, as an official blogger at the summit this year – to interview Lashana Lewis, this year’s invitee to the WIT session at the summit – I jumped at the chance.

I must state here that I am really not that easily overwhelmed by many challenges people have at work, especially women, in this country. I try to be kind and compassionate whenever I can – but many problems are pale in comparison to what I have been through personally, coming from a highly patriarchal society in a third world country. But Lashana’s story and her character that came through were bright as a diamond even to me – so much that the term that came to mind was the sanskrit word ‘Vajrasara’, which essentially means ‘strong and bright as a diamond’.

Below is my interview with her. This was fairly long – I’ve made it into a two part blog post – the first part talks of her history and how she got here, and the second part is advice related to diversity,survival as a woman of color in tech and so on. I considered uploading the audio first for people to listen – but there are so many links to other things and valuable information in here – plus it flows better as a story if I write it.

Mala:         Can you go give me a brief history of how you got here?

Lashana:     Sure. I’m actually, to some folks’s surprise, a tech geek for a really long time – ever since I was a kid. My favorite story as a kid is that my mother would have me take apart things and put things back together. I was a curious kid. One day I wanted to take apart a brooch that she received from her mother from a long time ago. She said “Don’t mess with that. I know you want to fix it but don’t mess with it. We’ll make an agreement of what you can and can’t take apart and try to fix.” She would allow me to break the toaster apart and put it back together. That was our agreement – I had to ask her for permission before taking things apart.

I learned from that – the things that get you in trouble are the things that you end up being really good at.

Mala:                     Yeah. that is so true.

Lashana:              Yeah. I had a chance to purchase a computer through a program that I was a part of in high school. When that broke I went and I found parts, put it together and repaired it. My teacher saw that I was really good with not only that, but also computer programming. So he suggested that I go into computer science. So I went to Michigan tech university for about three and a half years on a scholarship for minorities in engineering. I had some trouble. I faced some issues then. There were probably a handful of people of color. Two people were Indian.

It was me and them the rest of them were white guys. So basically we just had a really tough time trying to get through and even get through some of the curriculum. I ended up leaving after three and a half years because of two things. One, because of that toughness, but two, because I ran out of scholarship money. Back then the Pell Grant didn’t pay for summer and I went to school 17 hours away from my home and I grew up in the projects of East St Louis, Illinois – which is an economically deprived area. I didn’t have the money to keep going back and forth.

I stayed there for literally three and a half consecutive years. Then I came home and tried to find a job. I couldn’t find one in spite of the fact that I had programming skills and most of the things people were asking for were data entry and very basic things. I was a computer lab assistant when I was in college. What they were asking me to do was very easy. I was even designing websites, and this is back in 1998 before the internet was this thing that everybody had. So couldn’t find a job. I became a van driver for an after school program. That was the only job I could find. I did that for about six years.

<<Lots of us do various other jobs before ending up in IT. But that is somewhat different from being fully qualified for an IT job and not being able to get one. In my time the only people who landed IT jobs were those who went to school for an engineering degree – so my first job was doing data processing and various miscellaneous tasks at a textile shop that almost cost me a lung because of the pollution. But she had to drive a bus for six years before she even found something in IT. I was mind boggled to hear that>>.

Lashana:              Yeah. I did that for about six years. In the meantime I made friends with all the IT guys. I was able to help during the whole 2000, Y2K bug thing when everybody was freaking out. I was able to update the bios for different machines. I just kept my skills up. But at the same time I still wanted to not do these side jobs after the van driving, I was a customer service agent – I could never get into tech.

I had an opportunity at one of the places I was working, which was a university, to take some classes and refresh some of my knowledge for free. So in the middle of two programming classes both professors didn’t even really know each other that much, but they both gave me the same suggestion to be a part of this program called LaunchCode. It was very new. Not many people had heard of it. It wasn’t even a year old yet. I ignored them. Then I literally sat myself down and said, “Your teachers are telling you to go to this program, to stop doing what you’re doing now. Finish your class but go to this program.” I ended up going. I hadn’t finished my degree at that time. I had the opportunity to do it for free – but they were urging me to do this Launch Code program, so I did it.

I started in June of 2014 right after school had ended for that semester. By August of 2014 I had an interview because basically one of the facilitators with LaunchCode saw that I knew how to program already and she said, “Well, do you need help with anything?” I said, “No, I just can’t find a job in IT.” She set me up with an interview. I drove out to MasterCard, which is right here in O’Fallon, Missouri, maybe about 40 minutes outside of St Louis .I interviewed and was hired that next month. In September I started my apprenticeship. Usually it’s a three month apprenticeship. One day my boss brought me to the side – I thought I was in trouble and he said, “No, no, no. I want to hire you full time. “

He gave me my first real IT job and by November I was a full time employee at MasterCard. I was a systems engineer. I worked with the Windows team. I trained another team in Chennai, India. Then from there I ended up switching over to software engineering so I could actually use the programming skills that I had to learn 10 years previously. I used those for about six months. A lot of people were bringing me in because one of the cool things that happened because I went through the launch code program . I was doing so well that it caught the eye of Barack Obama, the president at the time.

Mala:                     I saw how that picture on your twitter profile and I was like, “Oh my God, isn’t that cool?!”

Lashana:              It is cool. LaunchCode was trying to get some testimonial videos because it was very early program and they were trying to get people interested. It was a hot sweaty day – I stood in front of a camera and just blabbed for about 10 minutes. Then they filmed me in a couple of other places talking. Barack Obama got his eyes on it . Him and his economic policy advisor at the time – Byron Auguste, got together a program that would basically make grant money available to do other programs like Launch Code all across the nation. It was a $100 million grant opportunity for all of these different programs. Whenever the President announced these things, he tried to bring people related to the events. He asked me if I would come, through his assistants. It wasn’t him calling me up. I would’ve probably passed out. But he asked his assistants to come and contact me and get everything together. I went out to Washington DC and I sat and I listened to him talk about me. It just so happened that right when he was getting ready to do his speech, I was able to text my mother and tell her to turn on CSPAN and she said, “Okay.” At that moment my phone died. So I didn’t know what happened until after the whole entire thing. I finally got back to my hotel room, charged the phone and called home – my sister answered and I asked, “Where’s mom?” And she was like, “Don’t start talking again. Mom just stopped crying. She’s been watching this.”

Mala:                     That’s such a story, oh my God. Yeah.

Lashana:              “She’s been crying for like the last five hours so no, just stop.” I was like, “I didn’t do anything.” But yeah, that was a great thing. Obviously I took a picture with him. right after he gave the speech, which was fantastic. Because of all of that highlighting and because I was out there, people were like, “Well you have all these skills, why did it take you so long to get into the tech field? Didn’t you just go and apply?” I’m like, “Yes, of course I applied. I applied, I talked to people, I tried to make friends with people. It did’nt work – there was always something in the way.

<< I grabbed a bunch of tissues after this. It is an incredible moment when your loved ones get to see you succeeding. Also, the incredulousness people displayed when she explained how long it took for her to make it really struck a cord with me. I am faced with a lot of this on various fronts – starting from my personal life to various aspects. I try hard not to pose this kind of questions to people. Life is different depending on many things…never assume the opportunities you have in any regard are available to everyone else. Never take anything you have for granted>>.

Lashana:        I ended up talking a lot about diversity in tech and what the issues were for, particularly black women, getting into tech. But minorities in general. So from then I had two lives. In one life I was this IT engineer doing systems engineering and software engineering – I am behind a desk and not really talking to many people. Then suddenly I was called out to Washington DC to be interviewed by Tom Friedman of the New York Times to talk about what my life was like trying to get into IT. That got me into the more granular things, statistically and data wise – why is this happening? What is actually keeping people from having more women of color or people of color in general into these fields?

I started putting together some slides and I did one presentation at a conference called Lesbians Who Tech. During that presentation I talked about the digital divide. I talked about the racial dot map that’s out there, which a lot of people don’t know about. It’s basically a colored dot map for every person that responded on the US census. It actually is colorized depending on what ethnicity you identified as. It’s put onto a Google map so you can literally look anywhere in the United States and see what the racial density is of different areas. So I was starting to collect more and more information like that. So when I put together the presentation for data-driven diversity for pass wit, it really got me to looking at the statistics and trying to figure out and wonder why people weren’t aware of some of this information and how they could use it to make changes within their own company.

What I really got out of this part of the interview – in addition to personal inspiration from one woman of color to another – is how LaunchCode helped Lashana succeed. To me a lot of my visibility and success can be similarly attributed to my volunteering efforts with PASS – it gave me a platform to contribute something and to be seen as someone more than just a techie working a job, like so many others are. These associations matter and can work in very beneficial ways.

In the next part I will be discussing with Lashana on the importance of diversity in tech, hiring strategies, when to stay and when to leave decisions and so on..stay tuned..and thanks for reading!!

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