“People of color, people from a low-income background get into this much debt going to a school thinking, this is my way into the tech industry, this is my way out of poverty, this is my way to help take care of my family or help care for my parents, and then they end up being screwed over like this.”
Keziyah Lewis is a Black and queer web developer, designer, and digital nomad. She curates Juniors in Tech, a newsletter for early career technologists. She is passionate about eliminating barriers to entering tech, making the tech industry more just and diverse, and making tech companies better places to work.
Kim Crayton: Hello, everyone, and welcome to today’s episode of the #CauseAScene podcast. My guest is Keziyah Lewis. Keziyah, please introduce yourself to the audience.
Keziyah Lewis: Hi, everyone. My name’s Keziyah and I am a software engineer, and I’m also the founder of a newsletter called “Juniors in Tech”, which is just a newsletter for juniors in tech or people trying to enter the industry.
KC: Okay, well, that doesn’t say much about… because I didn’t even know about that. So we gotta get into why I even know you—’cause that is not why I know you—but we start the show as we always do. Why is it important to cause a scene, and how are you causing a scene?
KL: It’s important to cause a scene, because—on behalf of other people who aren’t able to cause a scene—I am a really big advocate of people with privilege and power speaking up on behalf of people who don’t have a lot of privilege and power. Who can’t speak up for fear of losing their jobs or losing their network or, you know, things like that.
So, you know, something—I’m on Twitter a lot, obviously—and something I see a lot is when these things happen, when there’s some sort of scandal, or when people are talking about racism, sexism, and all these problems in tech. And I see a lot of people being silent about things; just like not saying anything at all about you know, the serious problems in tech we have going on. And I understand that from the perspective of someone who may not have a lot of privilege or might be effective if they might be affected if they spoke about something. But it’s really frustrating to see people who have lots of privilege, lots of power who really don’t say anything at all. So, I think it’s important to cause a scene in order to speak up on behalf of other people—or at least lend your privilege—not necessarily on behalf of other people—but at least lend your privilege to other people so that we can all, you know, help each other and make this industry—make the world a better place.
And how am I causing a scene? I like to think that I try to do that for people when I can, whether that’s through—for example, you have seen my threads about bootcamps. You know, that’s one example in which there are a lot of people at these bootcamps who are just, like, really afraid of speaking up about how they’re getting treated—how minority students at these bootcamps are getting treated—and a lot of them are just scared that if they say something, you know, they’ll get kicked out or they’ll never get hired once they finish the bootcamp. I’m a person who already has a job in tech, already have my own network. You know, it doesn’t cost me anything to speak out on behalf of these people who DM me anonymously. So that’s one way that I’m causing a scene.
KC: Okay, so I really wanna go back to your first thing, because another reason—we’re gonna talk about the bootcamp thing because that’s when I initially ran… figured out who you were. I saw you. You were coming up—because I’ve been talking about bootcamps since I got into this space and how bad the curriculum is and how bad the the engagement is and how bad the support is and all this. That was before all the ISA stuff even came—that I started seeing—so you just popped up in there. But I want to start with—oh, I want to start with—because this is a double-edged sword.
KC: And that is when they get their asses handed to them. This is when they want to run off Twitter and say, “Oh, I just can’t deal with this anymore! I’m just gonna close my account for a few days.” And then they come back as if nothing ever happened because they have the privilege to do so.
KC: So I would advise—I totally agree with you—they need to be out here on the front lines, because what do they have to lose? And this is why my video, “White Men in Tech ain’t Shit” got taken down, because they’re so triggered by this.
KL: Oh, I didn’t even know it got taken down.
KC: Oh yeah. It got taken down off Periscope. Thankfully, I had already downloaded it and put it elsewhere. But yeah, it’s no longer on Periscope because people—and it was it was an interesting litmus test—because I’ve talked about white women, I’ve talked about everybody, but when I specifically said “white men in tech ain’t shit,” that was the trigger. That was the one that people just couldn’t deal with.
KL: Right… wow.
KC: And it got reported. So that was telling—that right there was proof that there’s a line that I cannot cross. Or they won’t—I’m gonna cross it anyway—but that they would like me not to cross. And those are the individuals that need to be speaking up. But they need to be speaking from a place of being informed, and I would prefer them to amplify the people who have the lived experience.
KL: Exactly. Definitely. Yeah.
KL: Yeah, yeah. I definitely agree with that. We see it a lot—not just in tech, but just everywhere—it seems like if you have privilege and you speak up about some social justice issue, then all the attention goes to you. And it’s like, “Oh, here’s this wonderful white person who’s like, you know…”
KC: Oh, we’re seeing it with Greta [Thunberg] right now!
KL: Right. Yeah, exactly.
KC: There have been hundreds of Indigenous and people from marginalized communities talking about climate change, talking about it in their communities. Living in [the] Amazon; living in Flint, Michigan; living in, living with these things, and it takes… And so now she’s become the face of this? And it’s gonna be interesting to see what happens because she’s become the face of this movement. But she’s gonna be devoured by the movement, ’cause she’s… So she’s gonna be the—not even the canary in the mine field—they’re gonna… she’s gonna be discounted and devoured. And the best thing she—because even when she says, even when she’s on the stage with Indigenous people or Black people or people saying this who’ve been saying it forever—they get ignored. She gets credit for their work.
KL: Right. Yeah, and it’s not like she can’t do the work because climate change affects all of us. But, you know, we all know that it’s people in the Global South, people of color, people who are very poor, who are going to be affected the most by these issues.
KC: Who are being affected the most. Where have these nuclear plants been? What communities have these things been in? They’re not in the suburbs.
KL: Right. Cancer clusters and all that stuff. Yeah, we see that with a lot of things, like there was a conversation recently—I just saw it on Twitter—with some people I follow who were talking about accessibility and how you know, lots of more developers are learning about accessibility these days, which is really great. But why are many of the accessibility experts presumably abled people? You know, that sort of thing.
So, you know, we all know that there are some really popular antiracist speakers who go around, they speak, and they write books about antiracism, but they’re white. And, you know, I’m glad they’re doing that work, but a Black antiracist speaker couldn’t get that much attention, probably would have more trouble publishing the book, etcetera. Yeah, it’s definitely an issue, and we should definitely, if you’re—if you have some sort of privilege in a specific area and you want to speak out about an issue, make sure you lend your privilege and your time and amplify the voices of those who are actually being affected
KC: Because we see it all the time. We could be on—having a conversation—on Twitter. Say something. Say it again. Say it three times. A white person comes in and says it and the person’s like, “Oh, thank you for that.” It’s like, “What? He just said my experience. This is not even an experience they’ve just had. I just shared with you my experience…” Yeah, exactly. It’s quite a phenomenon. So yes, I need these individuals to speak out. Yes, but I need them also—not “but”; I’m gonna put a period on that. What I need them to do though, is recognize that this work is not where they’re experts in, and they need to get uncomfortable, they need to just be prepared to be uncomfortable. And to be… because when we challenge them, not only do they learn but the broader community that watches it learns. And this is only the way this stuff scales.
KL: Yeah, for sure, Definitely.
KC: So tell me about the bootcamp thing. Yeah, because that is where—woo boy, oh boy, oh boy, oh boy—that is where it has been… it’s been really sad to see because I’ve had—I’m sure I haven’t had as many individuals come into my DMs because I haven’t—outside of the podcast, I haven’t tweeted about it a lot—but you’ve done a lot of research. You’ve been really digging into this. And tell me how that started.
KL: Yeah. So, I have a friend who was in Lambda School, and I was just chatting with her casually one day, and it’s like, “Hey, how’s Lambda School going?” And then she started telling me like, “Oh, it’s not going well, you know, the curriculum is terrible. I’m not having a good time. I feel like quitting every day. Other students feel like quitting every day,” and that sort of thing. And I just had no idea. I was just always under the impression—probably just because of Lambda School’s marketing—that it was a good school, had a really great curriculum, and very passionate instructors and all that.
So I even would post links to Lambda School scholarship programs in my newsletter. I genuinely thought that all these bootcamps were just wonderful institutions up until like, July. I genuinely thought that, because I went to bootcamp in New York City, Full Stack Academy and I had a really good experience there, and I think it’s a top notch bootcamp, and I would recommend it to lots of people. So I thought, oh, every bootcamp must be like this because my experience was good.
[Kim and Keziyah laugh together]
KC: Okay, so I’m gonna stop you right there, because now you’ve just spoken about your privilege. That… and see this is… I don’t want to stop you there, I wanna keep going because I’d like to highlight those things because people have relative privilege. It’s not just about people—white people—white people having privilege or whiteness having privilege. We all have privilege in certain environments. So the fact that you had a great experience; it didn’t even dawn on you that somebody else will be having a shitty experience from a different place or whatever.
KL: Absolutely. That’s a really good point. And you know, one of the things that having privilege is—like, it completely isolates you from everyone else who experiences different things—it just didn’t even occur to me. Obviously, I knew that there must be some bootcamp out there that isn’t great—’cause there are hundreds of them, they can’t all be good—but I just thought like, oh, my bootcamp was good; I see bootcamps popping up everywhere; I see lots of people going to bootcamps; it generally must be a really good industry. I just had no idea, like it didn’t even occur to me that there were these serious systemic problems.
KC: And it’s so funny because when I first got into the space and started looking at bootcamps, as an educator, I was mortified at the very beginning. Oh, my god. I had a completely different experience. My mentee at the time—I was thinking about going to bootcamp, and then he was like, “Well, if they’re not guaranteeing you a job, don’t waste the money.” And then I just started looking into it and looking at people around me and coming from again, an educator’s background, I understand how adult learning works. I was like “How is this scaling? How does this make sense? How do you, if I’m paying—and at the time it was 15,000 [dollars]—and now these people have lost their damn minds about how much this shit costs. $15,000. There is no child left behind. I mean, there is—if I can’t figure this shit out—I need all the support in the world to help me figure this shit out. And that right there was not even there.
And then the one-size-fits- all curriculum is a problem. And then I started realizing that there were people who work in the industry who are now creating curriculums who don’t understand how people learn, so you’re creating curriculum based on how you learn. And then I started figuring out the people from the cohort before who couldn’t get a job were now teaching, and then I was like, “Whoa, whoa!” It’s so funny—that is so interesting. And again, this is about: we have to value the lived experience. This is about why we have to prioritize qualitative data over quantitative data. They both have value, But I’m gonna always weigh qualitative data over quantitative.
But go ahead. That’s—yeah, that’s very interesting, ’cause I’ve never had a great—just seeing ’em—mm, mm. Yeah, I just never —the one that I do, I appreciate—it’s because the teachers who were there came from backgrounds where they were either—have been—teaching coding, you know, as a consultancy in a part of a business, so they were used to teaching adults. Or something like that. So it wasn’t like they were fresh off, you know, just figuring this thing out themselves, and they put in way more work with students because they knew what students needed because of that experience.
KL: Yeah, it seems like a lot of these bootcamps. They aren’t really centering student needs, and they aren’t really prioritizing the…
KC: Oh, well, no. No, they’re not even—when you have an educational institution and your first—these are ISA business models. It’s not education. Because if you have a school that does not even know that you need to register as a school in the state, that doesn’t make any sense to me.
KL: Yeah, definitely. That’s like something you should probably figure it out.
KC: That’s like on the checklist.
[Kim and Keziyah laugh]
KC: “We are a school, what is required to be a school in this state?”
KL: Right? Exactly. Yeah. But yeah, I was talking to this friend, and so she started telling me all these things that was happening. And then when she was finished, I was just like, “You know, can I tell people about this?” Like, people need to know. I was very surprised and I figured that, you know, other people would be surprised about it too, and I just had to tweet something out. So I just asked her, “Can I tweet all this and keep your identity anonymous?” and she’s like, “Yeah, that’s fine.”
So that’s how that that first thread started. And then as I was tweeting out the things she told me in the thread, other Lambda School students started DMing me with their stories, and I decided to keep them all anonymous as well. And so the thread just continued for a few days. And, yeah. So it was really interesting to see, you know, all the different—a lot of the students that DMed me.
They ended up telling me a lot of the same things. It was like, you know, the curriculum wasn’t up to par, some students complained [about] having to teach themselves an entire section because the instructor was so incompetent they couldn’t learn anything. There were students who told me about working with their TLs—they have this Team Lead program—which is like current students who are—I guess—in charge of a group of other students in a TA-type [Teaching Assistant] role. A lot of students told me that the TL that you get assigned to can basically make or break your experience at Lambda School. You know, they have something like 3,000 students. And I think the student to teacher ratio—at least over the summer—it was something like, 200/250 to one, and you know that’s like…
KC: Okay, hold on wait a minute, what?
[Kim and Keziyah laugh]
KC: So they doing college lectures now?
KL: Right! In like these giant Zoom classes, I guess. And I don’t know. It’s…
KC: Also they’re not even live. I mean, they’re not even…
KL: Yeah, that’s all online.
KC: Oh hell no. So this is a big MOOC, but you’re paying for it.
KL: Basically, yeah, that’s how I described it. These are Massive Open Online Courses that cost—how much does Lambda School cost again? I don’t remember…
KC: I think that if they get to forty grand [salary] they have to pay up to 65,000 [dollars]. I think. I don’t know if it’s 65. Yes, some shit like that.
KL: Yeah it’s like that’s, you know… yeah. Or you can go on, like, Coursera or something and do that for free.
KC: Well, hell, you can go to Starbucks. Get a table. Invite your friends.
KL: Yeah exactly, and it’s ridiculous. So yeah, that’s how the whole thing started. So I did one thread on Lambda School in July and then a couple months later, I did another thread on Holberton School where it was the same thing.
KC: Oh, my God. $85,000.
KL: Yeah, for Holberton School. Yeah.
KC: And they have no instructors.
KL: Right, they have no instructors. At least they’re in person. But like, it’s basically the students get together at their campus and, like, teach each other.
KC: As I said, Starbucks. Book a room at the local library.
KL: Right? Yeah, like somebody’s house in their living room. And have a potluck and learn to code.
KC: Yes, yeah, yes. That’s why I said this isn’t—the business model is not education here, the business model is the ISA.
KL: Yeah, definitely. They sell the ISAs to banks and that’s how they make money. And if people don’t end up getting jobs, supposedly they’re off hook for the ISA. I think with some of these schools that’s how it works. But a lot of the students I’ve talked to, like, after a couple months pass and they know that they have to pay all this money back, they continue because it’s like, “Oh, I already have to pay however much money, $10,000, $20,000.” Like “I have to continue. This is something I have to do!”
KC: Oh yeah [inaudible] exactly exactly. They get to a point where they feel they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t, because if they drop out, they still have to pay the money.
KL: Right, yeah, so, yeah, but it’s… it’s just really… you know, a lot of these students who attend these schools, you know, they’re obviously from nontraditional tech backgrounds. They may not have CS degrees. They probably don’t have CS degrees. A lot of them are, you know, underrepresented people of color. A lot of them come from lower income backgrounds, and it’s just really sad to see people who are somewhat like me—people of color, people from low income backgrounds—get into this much debt. Going to a school, thinking, “Okay, this is my way into the tech industry. This is my way out of poverty. This is my way to help take care of my family, or help care for my parents,” or whatever, and then they end up being screwed over like this.
KL: “…help care for my parents,” or whatever, and then they end up being screwed over like this. It just made me so angry to see that this was happening. I went to a decent bootcamp. I got the education that I needed. I got my chance. I got into the industry. I want that for everyone else. For every single person who wants to learn to code or learn design or learn data science or learn whatever, that’s what I want for them. I want success stories. And then to hear that there are these bootcamps who aren’t delivering that—it’s not like one or two people aren’t getting hired. It’s like, most of them are in this situation where they’re being screwed over and it’s just really frustrating.
KC: Folx that’re are getting hired are the exception to the rule.
KL: Yeah, and often—from what I’m hearing—the ones who do well and the ones who get hired, they have some sort of previous knowledge or experience.
KC: And I’ve said this from day one. The people that I’ve seen that do well in these programs have either a background in coding where they’ve been doing it themselves or a background in engineering or something. And they go to these schools to focus on a career shift or to step up their skills a little bit because they want to take it to another level. Yes, they’re not coming in saying I don’t know what a variable is.
KC: And they keep pitching this as if everybody—but this is what I talk about a lot—there’re not enough people who can be successful to scale this. In particular this is VC money. So, what you have to do is now you have to bring in marketing and sales people to now pitch this—this is a solution for everybody.
KC: And then on that is there so much information asymmetry because you have people who transition into a field that they know absolutely nothing about. So they believe what you say.
KL: Right, that’s true.
KC: Because they have nothing to evaluate it against. Your numbers on your website are, as we know—data’s manipulated. Numbers on your website are manipulated. Everything. So they have so much information asymmetry that they don’t understand what they’re getting into. I mean, I have a shiiitload—I mean, when I say “a shiiitload” of student loans, I have a shitload of student loans. But you know what I also have? I also have an ability to go to my student loan holder and say, “Hey, I need a deferment”, “Hey, I need a forbearance”, “Hey, I can’t pay this right now”, “Can you do income-based?”, whatever. I recognize, unless I substantially get a—figure out something—I’m gonna be paying this shit for the rest of my life. I get that. But that was a choice I made. And I got something out of it. Yes, everybody does not need a college degree. I get that. I totally understand that. But this—how we’re doing now—is not a substitute for a college degree. It is not.
KL: Right. Especially when it’s so expensive. I really… that’s such an annoying talking point. They’re like, “Oh, we’re replacing college” and blah blah blah. Okay, but it costs like up to $85,000. Someone can go to college for that. A really inexpensive…
KC: Thank you, you can go to a state school…
KL: Yeah, a state school costs much less than that.
KC: And they can apply for Pell grants, they can apply for a whole bunch of free money to go.
KL: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, it’s just real annoying.
KC: And the talking point—again, it doesn’t hold water. It really doesn’t hold water because, there are—crap, I mean, I tell people all the time undergraduate to me, is not about getting your first job. To me, it’s about—for most people—it’s about going out there and figuring shit out on your own ’cause you’ve never been away from your parents. And trying to figure out what you like, what you don’t like. And most people are not working in the jobs where they have their degrees on. But that doesn’t mean it’s a waste.
KL: True, yeah, I agree.
KC: And so with this bootcamp stuff where you have to leave—if you’re working—you have to leave your job. I mean, there’s so much of a life upside-down thing that they want you to do and you get nothing in return? Who’s gonna pay my bills while I’m doing this thing?
KL: Exactly. It’s so sad. Like when I went to my bootcamp, and then for the time after when I was looking for a job, I basically took out a living expenses loan to help me live in New York City for that time, and then I have people in my DMs who went to Lambda School, Holberton School, etcetera. They also have to quit their jobs, and they have families, and they have expenses. And then… I would be so pissed off if I went to my bootcamp and took out that huge loan and spent all this money and I didn’t end up learning anything or didn’t end up getting a job within a year. That would just be…
KC: And then I love how again the data—they’re like working in tech. No, that’s bullshit. I don’t want to see “working in tech” data. I want to see how many of your students are actually working as developers because that’s what the hell they went to school for. Don’t play with me with these numbers, don’t do that.
KL: Yeah, they are really good at manipulating. Holberton School, I think says something like 100% graduation rate. But then they leave out all the people who drop out. So it’s like if you start at 50 and only five people graduated, that’s modelled as 100% graduation rate.
KC: Exactly. It’s all quite interesting. It’s very annoying. And I don’t like the fact, again, the #CauseAScene guiding principle: “We need to prioritize the most vulnerable”. And you’re preying on the most vulnerable. These are predatory loans. I don’t see these as any different—basically, I see this as the mortgage crisis. That there’s gonna be an issue here. Because you’re saddling people with thousands of dollars of debt who are coming from communities who—without some support—will never, never be able to pay this off. If they can’t transition into tech, they’re never gonna be able to pay these off.
KL: Right, exactly.
KC: And then I heard—when I had that person from Holberton on here, on the one podcast—she was saying how somebody who… for them it’s not even getting a job in tech. If you can cobble together $40,000 in income, period—and it could be over several jobs—that’s when it kicks in. You don’t have to be in tech.
KL: Yeah, yeah, that’s how you know that they really don’t care at all about educating these students in order to get a job. They just care about their ISA money. That’s the reason why these institutions exist, it seems like.
KC: Yeah, yeah, and it’s because I’ve said this again, education does not scale for VC money. That’s not how education works.
KC: If it did, we would have figured out—well, one of the reasons I left the school system, is because it’s broken and there’s no incentive to fix it because people are profiting off of people being broken. And so you scale that to—at least that’s free—K-12. You know, students aren’t paying for that. Now you have—you’re setting up a system where—and I’ve seen where now they’re getting together. Well, they’re trying to slap these ISAs on them. Just figuring out what lane or what industries they work best in So they’re going like medical school—I mean, not medical school, what was I thinking? Was it nursing school? Or something. Something in the medical field they’re trying to slap these ISAs. They’re trying all these different… going into all these different industries and seein’ where they can wrap—what they could wrap around these ISAs. Because what they’re doing now is becoming organized ’cause they’re trying to—they’re about to start lobbying the government. Because there are no bills about this and they’re trying to get ahead of the curve because they know this is some bullshit. This is no different from University of Phoenix and all that other mess.
KL: Right, exactly. Yeah, and they’re trying to frame it as if it’s like some sort of new, innovative, equitable alternative. And it’s not, it’s predatory and it’s getting students into debt and not giving them anything in return.
KC: And it’s kind of—like a payday loan is shitty—but I don’t think you can borrow $85,000 in a payday loan, you know? It’s like the scale of this is ridiculous.
KL: Yeah, it is ridiculous. And so with my bootcamp, it was a tuition deferred. So you have a set amount of tuition—I believe it’s like 19,000 [dollars], whatever—and then you pay it back after you get a job. So, you know, I’m not 100% against models like that. The good thing with my bootcamp is it wasn’t a percentage, it was like a set number. It’s not like whatever percent of my income, it’s like no matter how much I make, it’s 19,000 [dollars], you know. So there’s that. And the second thing is, I got my money’s worth. So it’s like when I pay my monthly payments, I don’t like it ’cause I don’t like paying bills, but I know that I went and I got a good education and it was worth it.
KC: And that’s how I feel about my student loans. That’s how I feel about my student loans. Every part of my education that I have, oh my god. I don’t want to pay that. But I really am satisfied—I couldn’t be doing the work I am doing now without that background. Without the degrees and stuff that I’ve earned. Yeah. Couldn’t do it.
KC: Impossible. So, yeah, I get it. One thing I wanna—is there anything else you want to say about the bootcamp thing? Because I know you—like I said—you were the one who was just like, “Oh, somebody else is talking about this.” And somebody else is having—because I was talking about it from an educator’s perspective—I didn’t have real live people to talk to. So that was really interesting to see you sharing people’s lived experiences with this.
KL: Mmm. Yeah. I just want to say to anyone listening to this who was considering going to a bootcamp, there are a few—maybe like two or three—good bootcamps out there, like, do your research. Don’t take those—you might see reviews on Course Report or SwitchUp—don’t listen to those reviews at all. Read them if you want to but honestly, every bootcamp on there has like, 4.5, 5 stars. They can’t all be that good. And that’s because they’re not. That’s because some of those reviews are—not gonna say necessarily they’re fake—but I know like with Holberton School, for example, they did give their students gift cards to leave reviews on those websites. So don’t listen to—and also there’s an incentive there—so I believe SwitchUp or Course Report—I believe they get some sort of referral bonus or something for like… they’re basically used to advertise for bootcamps. So you can’t really trust them for fair reviews.
The best thing to do is find someone who actually went to that bootcamp and just DM them and ask them if they’re willing to share their experience or if I’ve done a thread on the bootcamp you want to go to, just go on my Twitter and read that thread—and I’ll be doing some more in the future. So do your research and don’t waste your money on a bootcamp that’s not gonna educate you, you know, and get your money’s worth. And at the end of the day, a lot of people do end up getting into tech, just studying on their own. They’re plenty of great resources online. Even if they’re not free resources, there are courses you can get for like $20 or for like $100 a month, like a subscription-type thing. So there are many different ways to get into the industry. You just gotta study hard, find a community who can help you, and, you know, it takes time, but it’s doable without a bootcamp.
KC: And wow, community is the number one thing there. That’s why I’m saying, get you some people, go to the Starbucks and work it out. Because what these bootcamps are doing at this price is not much different.
I want to pivot here because I really want to talk about the organization you work for.
KL: Okay. [Laughs]
KC: Because it has been—I have heard—first of all, there are two people there, you and Cher, that are in, you know, just in the network that just popped up out of—again—out of nowhere. But my first encounter with this group, this organization was when your CEO didn’t go on vacation and, he said, “Well, we’re gonna spend this money—my family decided to spend this money on giving it to people in the community.” And so I get this DM like, “Oh, my god, you have been requested so many times and we’re giving you this money!” and I’m just like, “Who the hell are you? But thank you!” [Kim and Keziyah laugh] Literally! I was at Write Speak Code in San Francisco, and I was like “Who the hell are you? But thank you!” That just kind of blew me away.
And then I’ve seen Cher—[inaudible] doesn’t talk much that I’ve seen, but I don’t follow him either—but I’ve seen Cher talking a lot. And then I was so impressed when you were like, “We have this job and it’s going to a Black or brown person.” And I was like, “Hm! Okay, they’re doing something different there.” And then when I shared it in a Slack group, someone said—a Black woman said “I’ve heard some bad things about this company”. And so when I went to DM Cher, she’s like, “yeah, people say we’re a cult”. I was like, “please explain this to me!” So I mean, I want to know more about—because your leadership—and I include you in that leadership—is doing something that I think can be copied in other companies. And I want to talk about the good and bad and the ugly of that. So go ahead.
KL: Okay, where do I start? Well, we’re not a cult. I’ll just put that out there. [Laughter] Just for the record. [Laughter] I think a lot of—it is interesting that there are certain Twitter personalities, I guess, and we all happen to work for the same company, and we all kind of… I don’t know if we all believe the same things, but it seems like there are certain things that we have in common in terms of things we stand for and things we believe in. And, you know, I can’t really speak for Vlad or Cher, but I personally feel like it’s… a lot of people when they work at places, they just feel like they’re afraid to stand up for certain things. Like they can’t talk about diversity or they can’t talk about social justice. Or they can talk about this or that.
And I’ve never really felt that way working at the place that I work. Granted, even if I wasn’t “allowed”—with quotation marks around “allowed”—to talk about things that I talk about on Twitter while working at this place, I would still do it anyway because I just don’t give a fuck. But it is nice to work somewhere where I can express my views on certain topics, I’ll put it that way. Yeah, I don’t know. I think it’s interesting that… I’m glad that we do have the leadership that we have. You know, Vlad does seem to care. Well, not “seem to”, he does care about certain things. About being equitable, about being fair, about being kind. And I’m glad that’s something that kind of empowers the rest of us to not be afraid to express those same things on social media or in our personal lives or just in general. So I think that’s pretty cool.
KL: …on social media or in our personal lives or just in general. So I think that’s pretty cool.
KC: Yeah, the reason I wanted to talk about it is because, like I said, there are three people from this small company that are, when I look at, you know, how many people who follow me who work for Microsoft or who follow me work for Stack Overflow or whatever. You have these larger spaces so—that to me aren’t moving in the direction that is—they’re moving incrementally, if they’re moving at all. And it’s so interesting because I had a client—I did a consultation recently—and he was like, “Oh my god, I just realized I’ve gotten to a point where I cannot incrementally make these changes. These have to be leaps.” And I’m like “Yes!” You cannot incrementally change harm. This is not just “Oh we don’t like this”. This is fundamentally parts of our system and how we work that’re actively causing harm on a daily basis. You cannot incrementally change that.
This is—fundamentally we have to make a hard shift. Yes, people gonna be—when I said that I just had this idea of a bus that just makes the hard shift and, you know, everybody in the bus just like slings to the side—that’s gonna happen. It’s gonna be uncomfortable, it’s gonna be painful for some people. But we have to have the hard shifts so we don’t hit the people in the road. It’s just the bottom line, you know? And I’m seeing—so I’m encouraged that this company run by this white guy is, you know—people know how I feel about whiteness, particularly white dudes in tech—who says, “Hey, I’m gonna do this thing and I’m gonna follow through on this thing”. You know? “I’m not just gonna give lip service”, so that was—like I said—when he gave me the money, that was like the first thing I was like, “Oh, this is interesting”. And then Cher popped up. And I was like, “Oh she work”—I didn’t even notice it at first—and then you popped up and I was like, “Oh, this is interesting”. And then it just really hit me when you made that announcement about the hire. So I wanted you to talk about that, because you got some pushback on that.
KL: Yeah. And I just want to be clear that I wasn’t saying in that particular tweet that we weren’t going to hire a white person. Obviously, anyone can apply to any of our jobs. But what I said was basically a different way of saying “underrepresented minorities encouraged to apply,” which is something we see on a lot of different job descriptions. But yeah, a lot of people had an issue with the way that I was wording it and, yeah, I mean, I think a lot of people—this is my personal opinion—I think people don’t like seeing their privileges named like that. I think in the tweet, I specifically said, something about physically non-cisgender, heterosexual white men. I think seeing that description specifically might have made some cisgender or heterosexual white men upset.
Which I mean, on a personal level, you know, it’s what it is, you know, having white people think that—or privileged people in general—think that when their privileges are named or anything like that, that they’re automatically being excluded from everything. And it’s like, “No, you’re a cishet white man. You’re not being excluded from anything, you’re not being excluded from tech. You’re literally the majority of people who work in tech. You’re literally the majority of people who work as engineers at the company I work for.” So like, where’s the exclusion of—what are you being excluded from? You’re not being excluded from anything.
I was just saying like, “Hey, it would be great if we could get more of these other people in our hiring pipeline” and then, you know, once we do that, of course we’re gonna hire you whoever is best for the job. I hope. I’m not really involved in hiring, so I don’t make that decision. But, you know, I just wanted more people in the pipeline because diversity’s something that we do hear about at the company. Something I personally care about. And let’s try to diversify our pipeline a little that’s all I was saying. But everyone was like, “Oh, you’re being discriminatory. I hope your legal department sends you an email on Monday.” And blah blah blah. And it’s like come on. Just like this shouldn’t be a big deal.
KC: And it’s so funny that—and I just created a video this morning—now this will air months from that. But I just created a video this morning because when I say that all whiteness is just racist by design and can’t be trusted by default without consistent, demonstrated behavior, that is the first point of the thread. That is the rules of how we engage and one of the rules is, if you have the privilege, please put your pronouns—you know all these things—but they get stuck right there because whiteness is never evaluated, has never looked at it. It’s so the default that when you say no cisgender, I mean, when you put all that out and it becomes them, anything that is about equity is about oppression for them because it’s this idea of “We’re all having the same lived experience.” So if they’re not making it, it’s something about them as an individual. Whiteness is always about—so when you say that, it’s the individual white dude who’s like “Oh, wow, why can’t I do this?” But for us, as Black and brown people, we are like, “Oh, wow. Okay, they’re saying we can’t as a group!” because we’re so used to being grouped that we even think that way.
KC: Whiteness is always about the individual effort. “You know, Elon Musk he did all of this on his own.” No, if you look back at his history, he did not. If I had apartheid at my back, if I had these rich professor parents—and then I heard that his family stole an emerald mine from some folx—all this stuff at my back I would be—I would expect me to be—to have all the time, just literally to have a computer as a child that I could take apart. Hell, I had a computer, but I couldn’t take that bitch apart. “Take it apart if you want to. Get yo’ ass beat.” [Laughter]
KC: It was not about experimenting. And so it’s like, no, if he didn’t have that, he’d be a mediocre white dude just like the rest of ’em. And this is what I’m always getting pushback on. Always getting—I’m gonna continue to say it. I’m gonna continue to say it loudly. Because until we collectively name and put a name to the thing, we’re not gonna change anything. We have to stop skirting around this stuff. No one has a problem with Black. No one has a problem with the fact that they don’t trust Black people. No one has a problem with the fact that when we come around, they grab their purses, they cross the street. No one has a problem with the fact that Becky and Chad and Zach can call the police on us for just livin’ our everyday lives.
But when I say that I don’t trust whiteness by default, oh my god. I have just crucified Christ. It’s like, “wait a minute”. And so that’s why I say whiteness against Blackness. Because Blackness is a construct of a group and I’m not gonna treat you—why am I gonna treat you as an individual when you treat me as a group? I’m gonna treat whiteness as the same. That’s the only way we can get equity. That’s the only way we could have an equitable conversation.
KL: Yeah, that’s such a—that’s a really good point. White people are always seen as individuals, and people don’t see whiteness as a group where whiteness is like, you know, an oppressive power structure. Yeah.
KC: Oh, well, whiteness gets to always craft the narrative of being a hero or a victim. It is never the villain. I don’t care. They could be fundamentally, actively hacking someone up. And there’s a narrative that the person did something to deserve it.
KL: Yes, I’m thinking about the Amber Geiger verdict and how they were hugging her in the courtroom. And just those pictures of her brother and the judge—I kind of understand from the brothers perspective, like his brother died and if he needed to do that to help him move on whatever. But then the judge hugged her and it was like, “Okay, you’re a judge, you’re supposed to be—you’re a Black judge and you’re hugging this woman and it’s like…”
KC: And also, I explain it through internalized white supremacy, anti-Blackness—we have to deal with our own shit. So this is what I tell—no one escapes white supremacy unharmed, including white people. We have to deal with our own internalized white supremacy, and anti-Blackness. One of the things about that hugging was about the Christianity part. And Christianity—the Bible is the biggest enslavers of the Black mind. Period. And that book has been used historically in the United States as a tool of oppression and as a way to manage the behavior of slaves and on. Because that was the only thing we could read. If we could read anything. And when someone tells you—has control of what you can read—that right there tells you you’re not free. That tells you that’s a part of oppression.
And that’s why I say “fuck civility”. Because civility is optional for white people but it’s expected behavior for marginalized groups because it enables us to manage our own behavior so that they don’t have to deal with it. So until we can name a thing and make it clear and you be uncomfortable, then we don’t get anywhere. And so I’m gonna keep naming the things.
KL: Yeah, for sure.
KC: So how did you—tell me something I don’t know about you, a little bit about your background because you are a young Black woman who’s a force to be reckoned with in tech. And I commend you for that. So give me a little bit about your background.
KL: So… my background. So I’m a Floridian—born and raised in central Florida. My parents are from Trinidad. So I grew up here and, let’s see, in terms of my professional background, I went to college for sociology, French, and Spanish. I thought I was gonna work in nonprofits and save the world. Worked in nonprofits for a couple years, decided that I did not want to save the world and that the world could not be saved. [Laughter]
And then after that, I… yeah, that’s all. [Laughter]
After that I was an ESL teacher abroad for a couple years. I worked in Spain for one year and Saudi Arabia the next year. After I got back from Saudi Arabia, that’s when I decided to learn to code. Just ’cause I just really wanted to do something different and wanted to make more money, wanted to do something that was kind of creative. And so, yeah, I spent about a year and a half learning to code, going to my bootcamp, and finding a job. And then I got my first job in tech last January, at a VC fund, and then this year started working at the company that I’m working at now, so that’s…
KC: See, and I wanted you to tell that story because that is a typical story of a person from a marginalized group. That is our story. People think there’s a trajectory. People making this shit up in tech every single day. I just need people to stop creating barriers. Let people get in wherever they fit in, as we say, “get in where you fit in”…
KC: …and stop creating barriers to their success.
KL: Yeah. Yeah, definitely.
KC: Because that lived experience of you being an ESL teacher, of you being a child of immigrant parents, of you, teaching abroad… Oh, my god, that nonprofit, whew! If people want—and I shock people all the time. All you people wearing Toms shoes. If you knew the story—if you knew, the thing about Toms shoes. For every pair of shoes you buy, yes, they give ’em away for free. But what they have done is destroy the shoe industry in those native countries. They have destroyed—because why would you buy shoes from your local tribesmen or Kenyan or Venezuelan or Guatemalan? When you can get a pair for free? It’s—oh my god, whew! NGOs, lord have mercy.
KL: Yeah, yeah, there’s a lot overseas like NGOs that help out overseas in other countries. It’s ridiculous.
KC: It’s all missionary work. It’s all “Let’s go save the poor”. And you’re destroying economies in then you’re—there’s a…I can’t think of the name of the documentary right now—Oh! “Poverty Inc.” Everybody needs to watch “Poverty Inc.” It was on Netflix, but I think right now it’s on [Amazon] Prime. Can’t remember where but watch “Poverty Inc.” because they break all this down. There was a talk about how Kenya had the most diverse cotton crop in the world. But when we started exporting cotton from the US—because “we need it”, you know, US needed some new people to send their cotton to. We decimated the cotton industry in Kenya. So now Kenya, which had the most diverse cotton in the world, now has to get their stuff imported. There is nobody [inaudible].
KL: Wow, that’s wow.
KC: That’s shameful.
KL: That’s horrible.
KC: Yeah, and we do it in the name of “I’m their ally. I’m doing it in the name of good” and da da da da da. But you don’t look at… Yeah, mhmm.
KL: Yeah, it relates to what we were talking about earlier. Like people who are supposedly well intentioned, doing something to help underprivileged people. And inside it ends up fucking everything up.
KC: And that’s why impact is more important to intention.
KC: Yeah, yeah. Well, thank you so much for being on the show. What would you like to say in your closing moments? Because we’ve talked about a lot of shit.
KL: I know! We have talked about a lot of shit. I guess I want to encourage everyone to, you know, don’t be afraid of speaking up when you see something wrong. I was just talking about this on Twitter the other day. There’s a lot wrong with our industry. And I understand why people are scared of losing their jobs or losing their connections if they don’t name names, but you know, if you have the privilege of just saying something, just say something. You don’t have to say something on Twitter, but if everyone continues to be silent, then nothing in this industry is ever gonna change ’cause no one’s gonna talk about it.
The second thing is, if you are a junior in tech or if you’re trying to get into the tech industry, whether you’re a designer, developer, data scientist, whatever, sign up for my newsletter, juniorsintech.com. Right now it goes out every other week. Just has, like, a bunch of helpful links on things like how to get a job. And I always include a really short list of junior developer and design jobs. So sign up for that, if you want. And I’m on Twitter @KeziyahL and yeah! Thanks for having me.
KC: Thank you so much. It’s been a great conversation.
KL: Yeah, I really enjoyed it.
KC: Take care.
KL: All right. Bye.