Professional Development

How I Got Here: Nneka N’namdi and the power of word of mouth

The founder of Fight Blight Bmore imparts lessons to Black youth and professionals — and Black women specifically — on how to navigate the tech world of the defense contracting space.

Nneka N’namdi

(Via Linkedin)

Your name is in rooms your feet haven’t entered yet.

It’s an old saying you may hear from your grandmom or a deaconess, often heard before or immediately after, “Won’t he do it!”

The saying embodies how Nneka N’namdi, founder of Fight Blight Bmore, got hired by Lockheed Martin and started her career in tech. She was in her final few weeks of school at Morgan State, earning a bachelor’s degree in information sciences and systems. It was the last mile where everyone was applying to jobs and trying to figure out what’s next after college.

“One of my classmates in my senior project class interviewed with Lockheed and in the interview they asked him, ‘Who of your other classmates would you refer for a job? Who would you want to be on a team with?’ He gave them my name,” N’namdi told Technical.ly. “The recruiter called me, interviewed me. I ended up getting hired by Lockheed. He did not.”

It’s the power of networks. It’s the intangible benefit of college that often goes underappreciated in tech. The bootcamp model of learning to code in three months or less and getting a high-paying tech job is real. But just as real is the power of networks: LinkedIn found that in 2016, 70% of people were hired at a company where they had a personal contact. Glassdoor did a similar study and found that one in 20 people got a job offer they otherwise wouldn’t have gotten because of their network.

“I always think about that story,” N’namdi said. “How people can speak your name in places. And you don’t even know. I had no idea. I found out later.”

The friend told her about the interview exchange a month later. He ended up working for Corning Inc., the multinational tech company specializing in glass, ceramics and advanced optics.

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Since this referral, N’namdi, now 45, has spent the last 20 years as a systems engineer for various defence contractors. She’s worked in all areas of software and systems development, from requirements identification and analysis to physical system teardown.

“I figured out very early that I didn’t want to code, but I did like breaking the developers’ code, ” N’namdi said. “We said your code should do A, B and C. You said your code could do A, B and C. Let me go in there and prove your code does A, B and C. I spent a lot of those years in requirements and tests.”

Today, she is the SCRUM master for her team and manages the software development sprint using tools like JIRA in the Agile development framework.

N’namdi also uses all the knowledge she’s learned over the years working on smart technology, as well as database and cloud computing projects, within her work with Fight Blight Bmore. Her skill set is honed in creating software to the specifications of clients to find solutions and solve issues.

Drawing from her years of experience, here are some of the insights and advice N’namdi has learned along her tech journey:

  • Define what success means for you. Be clear, open and honest with yourself about what success looks like for you.
  • In order to be a good systems engineer or software engineer, you have to listen. Listen to your clients and team to distill what they need this particular system or software to do.
  • “Never take the first offer, the first salary offer — particularly as a Black woman in tech spaces. I learned the hard way. It wasn’t my first project, but it was early in my career. I found out that all the systems engineers on the team were making significantly more money than me. I went to an older Black woman running, you know, older than me, and I  told her. And she helped me negotiate an appropriate raise.”
  • “As an employee, whether you are [on a] salary, whether you are 1099, whatever you doing — W2 to 99 — understand the financial pieces. Understand what your labor is worth and leverage that accordingly. Because they will play. These jobs will play in your face.”
  • “In that particular case, I negotiated a $20,000 raise. So imagine how much money they actually had to play with. When I went to sign my updated salary paperwork, I’ll never forget, my manager said to me, ‘Cotton Comes to Harlem.’ I knew it was a movie. I knew it was a Blaxploitation film but I had never seen it. But I knew innately something was wrong with what he said, like he was trying to throw a jab.”
  • “Young Black people, but specifically young Black women in tech: You gotta know the game. Don’t be in these jobs giving them your best. You go, you do a solid job. You do that 80%. But all that extra stuff, nahhh. All of that unpaid labor, all those things, committees and this, that and the third — that’s not going to support you being promoted, if that’s what you desire, or expanding and growing your skillset and career. Don’t do that stuff. You save your best for yourself. You pour into yourself.”

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.
Series: How I Got Here
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