Working at a tech company as a person of color

[Writer’s Note: This is the first in a series of LinkedIn articles about my personal and professional growth through my  time as a content publishing intern at Microsoft. I also explore how this experience is influenced by my identity as a person of color. I hope that this will serve as an outlet for reflection and a reminder to bring all of myself to the table, while also providing a few helpful tidbits for anyone else doing an internship.]

Diversity and inclusion are integral to my identity and values. As a Pakistani Muslim woman, I’m all in when it comes to conversations about being an underrepresented minority (and fighting to feel valid in a world that wasn’t made for me). However, I also recognize my own privilege because my parents attended professional school and provided me with college-prep education that led me to attend the University of Washington (UW) today. Whenever I enter a new job or class, I find myself asking, “do I deserve to be here?” This question has nothing to do with my skill set or relevant experience, but my identity as someone who often has to fight to feel valid. And since I’ve spent my whole trying to prove that I deserve to have access to fulfilling and lucrative careers, it can be easy to forget that I might be worthy of the opportunities because I created articles, projects, and deliverables that demonstrate my skills.

When applying for jobs for this summer, I searched for job descriptions with familiar words like “accessible writing” and “passionate about technology,” and searched for ones that embodied everything I wanted to be like. “Excellent writer who understands how to use everything from a perfectly placed fragment to in-depth storytelling” was part of the description for content publishing intern at Microsoft, and it seemed to fit the bill. I was incredibly concerned that my resume didn’t hit every bullet on the job description in my cover letter. Honestly, I’m brown and female and Muslim and because of that, the word “engineer” doesn’t quite feel right in my mouth when it’s used to describe me. The narrative I frequently tell myself isn’t one where I don’t honor everything I’ve accomplished. It’s the one where I call myself words like “inadequate” or “lucky” rather than “hardworking” and “empowered.”

How could I sell myself as a competitive applicant when I had no experience as UX writer and knew no one in the field? I grew up speaking the language of medicine and health care, not technology, and I wondered if I would enter the industry as an outsider and stay that way. These perceptions of doubt were not unique to me. An internal report from Hewlett Packard internal report found that men apply to jobs when they meet 60% of the requirements, whereas women only tend to apply if they meet 100% of them. This time, I managed to silence my fears about being too inexperienced because I realized that I couldn’t take myself out of the game. I had to give myself a chance to after my dream job of writing at a tech company and if I failed, it was a sign that I was trying something new and trying to grow,

Regardless of the outcome, I welcomed the interview as an opportunity to learn how to sell myself more effectively and align my past experiences or strengths with the desired attributes or values of a company – and I think this is something that young professionals should always keep in mind: see every interview, portfolio review, or workshop as a learning opportunity to strength your elevator pitch or opportunity to engage with the field.

I strive to always bring my identity as a storyteller and writer to the table, while also recognizing that my identity informs my interest in empowering underrepresented voices in higher education and STEM fields. I’m learning to own my skills and strengths and recognize that I hustled every day to get here, but I also understand that so many people with similar skills could not make it because they lacked the necessary resources/support/mentorship they needed to thrive. I guess that all of this self-reflection worked because I managed to get an internship offer less than 24 hours after interviewing for the position – I definitely screamed at the Apple Store when I found out, which scared everyone in sight, but it was a product of genuine excitement!

So, enter me as a content publishing intern at Microsoft. It’s hard to turn down an offer like this: the opportunity to work for a company whose software impacts billions of people, coupled with the free sodas and opportunity to wear jeans every day, makes it all worth it. But even though I was chosen to bring all of my storytelling skills and values of mentorship and inclusion to my work (reminder: your skills and perspective are always a strength), I still have to make the choice to believe in myself every single day. I didn’t grow up in Redmond, my parents aren’t in this industry, and I can’t even make my rent without financial support from my family despite working 18 hours a week. As a minority, I always feel like I have more to prove than the average person, as if I need to work 200 percent harder to work up for my brown skin and vocal fry because people who look at me wouldn’t necessarily take me seriously.

Don’t get me wrong: I feel supported and validated in my work thanks to my supervisors and mentors (shout-out to Doug Kim and Ashley Walls for creating an environment where I can take the risks I need to), but I think we all need to do better to create a community that supports people of color. Most broadly, this can be done by creating space for people to thrive in their work and ensure that the path to secure benefits like job promotions are accessible There is significant literature about how the workplace benefits from having diverse perspectives – underrepresented minorities know how to solve problems that people with privilege haven’t even considered. For example, there’s an academic support program at UW called Washington STate Academic RedShirt (STARS), which supports economically disadvantaged and educationally underserved students in receiving engineering degrees through academic support courses and community building. Oftentimes, these students are underrepresented minorities who did not have access to resources like college counselors or AP classes. When I spoke with students in this program, it was clear that they recognized engineering is more than innovation. They thought of questions like, “How valuable is a new piece of technology for taking notes if costs $100 a year to upgrade the software, and members of the community cannot afford it?” They recognized the intersection of differential access to technology and income, or, the way that their geographic location could prevent them from receiving high quality health care treatment and equipment. I believe that these students will grow up to change their communities and engineer products for people who have traditionally been overlooked in the design process. We need diverse voices at the table, especially when it comes to technology and the work of engineering companies. This contributes to diversity of thought and offers a fresh perspective when solving problems, which is integral to working at a forward-thinking company.

Unfortunately, not everyone has access to a program like STARS, but I believe that the key is to find a mentor who believes in your own abilities. My main mentor while at UW was Julie Lancour, an adviser in the UW Office of Undergraduate Academic Affairs. Julie supported in my windy journey from being an intend Bioengineering major on the pre-med track to being a Human Centered Design and Engineering major with a passion for writing. She reminds me that I deserve to be fulfilled in a future career and has encouraged my pursuit of journalism, engineering, and higher education even if I didn’t know these pieces would fit together. Although I’m a student,  I identify first and foremost as a storyteller, which is an extension of my identity as a Pakistani woman who was raised on stories of crossing borders and oceans, but also my work as a journalist where I try to capture the essence of people and their stories (and accurately capture and share them with a broader community). For the past three years, I’ve leveraged my values of diversity and inclusion to empower underrepresented voices through my work as a reporter for The Daily of the University of Washington, writing tutor at the Center for Learning and Undergraduate Enrichment, and HCDE coursework. Through my work, I hope to keep helping people weave narratives about their goals with intentionality, and I hope that my writing and tutoring continues to fulfill this goal.

Through the mentorship I received from Julie, coupled with the experiences I’ve had at the UW, prepared to walk into Microsoft and believe in my skill set and identity. As a minority, I can empathetically recognize ways that populations are being excluded but more than that, I have the problem-solving and storytelling skills to translate this awareness into action. I intend to do this in every single job I have, whether it’s at Microsoft or in journalism or higher education. I am not here because of a diversity quota but because I worked to develop strong writing skills that demonstrate my values while constantly seeking feedback from mentors and teachers about how I can be a more effective “interdisciplinary communicator with a passion for social impact,” as my tagline suggests.

So, if you ever experience moments of self-doubt the way I do, remember what Dona Sarkar, head of the Windows Insider Program, said: When someone says that you can’t do something (including yourself), ask why. And don’t forget that you earned the opportunities that you have, and opportunities or promotion offers are ways that people are honoring your skills. Choose to believe that you are profoundly capable and can emulate the leaders who inspire you ­- in moments when you’re trying to establish yourself on a team, self-evangelize what you’re good at so people know what you can offer. This will help you push past and the limits of a job description and seek projects where you can develop the skills you want.

So, yes, I’m sea level at an engineering company as a Pakistani Muslim woman, and I deserve to be at the table with the best of them – all the software developers, UX designers, and content strategists at the table. My previous experience as a journalist for The Daily and work as a tutor at CLUE have affirmed my passion for writing and using stories to celebrate people’s accomplishments, and my passion for HCDE helps me think about how to solve problems based on demonstrated needs in the community. I’ve realized that I need a career where I get to write all the time, not just for work but in personal projects that help me understand my values/motivations and make them accessible to others. I want a work environment that values my work as a writer, a place where I’m asked to defend my ideas but not be defensive about my skills. I want to work in a place where I can wear whatever I want and don’t have to worry about hiding a tattoo or removing my nose ring – and I think I found this at Microsoft.

I’m lucky that I get to spend my summer growing through this work while keeping that familiar sight of Mount Rainier in view at all times. I don’t take any of this for granted, and I hope I never do. Cheers to all the growth that’s occurred in the last few weeks and will continue to occur, but also to the products and devices and text we will create that will always put the user at the center of the system and strive to create delightful experiences.

What kind of workplace do you want to be in, and what values are you looking for? I think this consideration is integral as you start to choose the workplace you’ll enter, or even the culture you want to exist in. Remember this, and that you deserve to feel validated, no matter what company you work for.

Follow Aleenah Ansari, Content Publishing Intern @ Microsoft | Human Centered Design and Engineering Student @ UW

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By Aleenah Ansari
Aleenah Ansari