This editorial article is a part of Technical.ly's Technologists of Color Month of our editorial calendar.
It started with a team of seven at one of Comcast’s Lab Weeks — a chance for employees to work on projects of their own choosing.
Justin LaRose, a senior software engineer, and CXHub Manager Mumin Ransom had started to see more Black engineers joining Comcast, and wanted a way to bring them together. The Black Employee Network Employee Resource Group existed at the company, but it encompassed employees from all departments.
“We wanted to build a community around engineers,” LaRose said.
So during that Lab Week, they gathered a team of seven engineers who didn’t know each other to build a feature for the X1 platform, and the idea for a more formalized group was born. Shortly after, the BENgineers — that stands for the Black employee network of engineers — group was formed on Slack. In the year and a half since it started, more than 120 Comcast engineers have joined across various departments and locations.
“That was sort of our coming out party, highlighting this group,” LaRose said of the Lab Week project, “to get the recognition that engineers of color have something to add to the value of this business.”
The group has three main goals, which it lays out in its mission statement: enhance the pipeline for Black talent internally and externally at Comcast; create channels between Black technology employees, upper management and community leaders; and showcase Black talent to create representation.
The group does so by hosting and attending professional development panels, workshops and tech conferences, as well as partnering with area organizations like Coded by Kids to teach workshops and get young people excited about careers in tech. It also hosts happy hours and other social events aimed at building a larger community for engineers of color, LaRose said.
It's been an organization that's embraced me. I'm new to the city and to the company and it's been easier to get my grounding, learn the overall business, just being exposed to all the different resources.
Recently BENgineers also launched its Technically Speaking series, an effort to get more Black engineers and devs in speaking roles on panels and at conferences.
Michael Winslow, director of core applications and platforms at Comcast and a BENgineers leader, said he’d been turned down from speaking at a tech conference last year and was disappointed to see that there wasn’t a single Black speaker who’d made the cut. When he approached conference organizers, they told him they just didn’t get that many applications from Black technologists.
“I came back [to Comcast] and wanted to see [how] to change that,” Winslow said. “And it was the consensus that a lot of people had no idea what the process was to apply to speak at a tech conference.”
Since then, the group has made efforts to connect BENgineers with speaking engagements. Shirlette Chambers, a cloud software engineer at Comcast, joined BENgineers shortly after her arrival at Comcast in October 2018. Winslow was looking for someone to speak on a panel about women technologists, he said, and messaged Chambers, asking if she’d do it.
“She said, ‘OK, I’ll do it, but I think you should know I just started at Comcast this week,” he recalled.
For Chambers, the group has offered professional development, but also social benefits, she said. She moved to Philly for the role late last year, and was looking to feel connected to a community with shared experiences.
“It’s been an organization that’s embraced me,” Chambers said. “I’m new to the city and to the company and it’s been easier to get my grounding, learn the overall business, just being exposed to all the different resources.”
The BENgineers continues to grow at Comcast, and leadership is planning to grow to at least 150 members by the end of 2019.
“From the outside looking in, you don’t know how to break in, you kind of go through the motions with a lot of imposter syndrome,” said Quincy Iheme, a software engineer for Comcast’s Xfinity Home apps.
Thanks to support from Technically Speaking, Iheme’s proposal to speak at an open source conference in Denver was accepted.
“It was an enlightening experience,” he said, “one of those things where you just kind of have to jump in.”
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