D.C.-based software engineer Taylor Poindexter has worked in tech for eight years, starting out as an IT consultant and working her way to different roles before coming to a crossroads that’s experienced by many Black women — and many Black people who enter tech: Is the juice worth the squeeze? Is this career in tech worth all the hurdles and setbacks that only seem to happen to them?
Fresh out of the University of Virginia in 2013, Poindexter got a job at an IT consultancy as an automation engineer. It was the job nobody wanted to do. For Poindexter, that meant it was the job she was gunning for.
“That’s how I decided I would build the foundation of my career — doing the things no one else wanted to do to prove myself to the company,” said Poindexter.
And it worked: She moved from client to client, and position-to-position through the company over the next four years. Her roles included quality assurance lead, automation engineer and data integration engineer. As hard as she worked to prove herself through the years, she had reached a breaking point.
“I didn’t have psychological safety with my very first manager out of college. I feel like my confidence was really damaged,” said Poindexter. “It kind of just absolutely depleted me. But what I was trying to explain to a friend is that sometimes, you know, as a white man, a lot of times you navigate through the world and it’s constantly reinforcing, that you’re supposed to be here, you’re supported and it’s uplifting you. Whereas, as a Black woman, that’s often not my case. I’m constantly having to defend myself in one way or another, most days from microaggressions or feeling like maybe some people wouldn’t want me in this space to begin with.”
A recent report on equality in tech from tech hiring platform Dice states 58% of women respondents reported discrimination where their technical skills weren’t respected, while 24% of men reported such discrimination. When accounting for race, 40% of Black respondents reported discrimination where their technical skills weren’t respected vs. 18% of white respondents.
It’s a tale of two different work environments.
“Having that extra mental baggage can be a lot to start off with,” said Poindexter. “When you layer on top a condescending and unsupportive manager, that can really bring somebody to their knees. Whereas for [her coworker], he just goes, [the manager] can be a jerk, it’s fine, I’ll just put my head down and keep on working. That just didn’t work for me because we started at different baselines.”
A Gallup report found that one in two employees leave a job to get away from their managers and improve their overall well-being. We’ve heard this in our reporting, too: It was issues with poor managers that led to April Curley having issues at Google, and may account for the rise in attrition among Black women, according to the company’s 2020 diversity report.
On the other side of the coin, it was a great mentor and manager that pulled Poindexter back into tech and supported her through the interview process at the startup she worked at for multiple years, until its acquisition.
"Seeing people that look like you in positions that you one day hope to be in is very validating."
“I was telling him, I’m going to leave this company in the next couple of months and I’m going to go to the business side, because people keep trying to push me towards that. And I just don’t think I’m cut out to be an engineer,” said Poindexter. “He was like, I’m going to help you leave this company and I’m going to help you find a place that you feel comfortable asking questions so that you can grow. I promise you can be a software engineer. You stick with it. If it doesn’t work out at this next company, you can stop worrying about everything.”
Poindexter chose a path less travelled, according to Pew Research data. When it comes to the STEM computer workforce, Black people account for 7%, while women account for 25%. She started working as a software engineer at D.C.-based civic engagement startup in a workplace culture that encouraged asking questions and had senior developers that prioritized setting a solid foundation for her career. Now, she’s in it for the long haul.
That was in 2017. Poindexter worked with the company for four years as a software engineer, then as a backend engineer. In 2019, the company was acquired. She decided to move on in February of 2021. Bringing companies together in a merger requires internal work of aligning on culture and mission, and that process can be difficult.
“I just found that process itself to be a bit draining. After being there for four years, instead of sticking it through the acquisition I’d rather move on and dig more into [software engineering],” said Poindexter.
The key things Poindexter is looking for at a future company is that it offers more than lip service to diversity, equity and inclusion, a work/life balance, consistent priorities for the company, and psychological safety.
Poindexter herself has created a safe space for Black engineers with the Black Code Collective. It has grown to have close to 2000 members in the D.C. area and is a space where Black computer engineers can network, share experiences and get advice. She’s also fostered more transparency in tech salaries with a tech salary transparency Google form, with the data aggregated by Cody Braun on Github.
“Being able to have a community that you can come back to, and sometimes maybe complain to or get advice from, can be uplifting and really keep people going in their careers,” said Poindexter. “Seeing people that look like you in positions that you one day hope to be in is very validating.”
Donte Kirby is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation.