My journey to tech leadership as a minority

My journey to IT leadership as a minority encountered many barriers. Perseverance and persistence have led me to turn those experiences into fuel for excellence.

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In the past few years, we have witnessed many incidents surrounding race and racial divide in the nation. Everyday there are stories related to racial tension on most major news channels.

My journey to becoming a chief information officer in higher education technology has also seen its share of challenges as a black male in a majority white leadership environment. While my experiences could have very well been barriers in my success, perseverance and persistence have led me to turn those experiences into fuel for excellence.

From programmer to supervisor

During my early years in technology as a programmer, I was judged primarily on my skills and performance. Nonetheless, it seemed like the more I progressed professionally, the more roadblocks were intentionally placed in my path to hinder me. After a few years of being a top-performing programmer, I was assigned my first supervisor role. Almost immediately I began to face criticism from colleagues who felt years of service were more important than job performance and accomplishments. Complaints were made to my supervisor and almost daily I was engaged in conversations where colleagues tried to prove they were more knowledgeable. 

This was more of an annoyance, as I completed two to three times more projects than others. Instead of letting others’ reactions to my advancement get to me, I always measured my output and worked extra hours to ensure I stayed at least twice as productive. 

Becoming a director

Becoming an IT director was a major challenge the first few months. It was the first time I felt my race was an issue in my career. I was deeply hurt after learning about some of the negative comments made about my ability to lead a department by people I considered to be close friends. Individuals who had not gotten along previously became allies to try to discredit my vision for innovation in higher education. It seemed like some people only accepted me when I was lower on the organizational chart than them. Being equal or higher was unacceptable regardless of my excellent work history. 

For the first time in my career I began to question my own abilities. I allowed others’ opinions of me to knock me down for a moment and doubt led me to question whether I would succeed or fail at building an enterprise reporting and student success solution.

After much reflection into my life I realized that nobody could predict my future or what I am capable of doing. One cannot base his or her capabilities and future on the mental limits of others. I made a personal decision to turn others’ negativity into energy to reach my goals faster. I also made a conscious effort to not hold others’ feelings toward me against them -- even if they wanted me to fail. Being negative and harboring bad feelings makes you weak and tired, leaving little energy to reach new goals.

I continued to be friendly and offer assistance when needed. I did not allow negative energy to take me off my course. I made sure not to let emotions influence any decision, but focused solely on what was best for the organization. This resulted in our teams making many accomplishments, some receiving national recognition. Our IT departments became known as leaders in innovative higher education technology.

Earning the chief information officer position

Nothing could have prepared me for the level of criticism that applying for the chief information officer position brought. At the time that I applied, some of my departments had been recognized throughout the state and country for innovative technology. Our IT staff had gotten pretty excited about the direction we were taking to introduce new and innovative solutions to the university. A series of complaints made locally and to the state office, however, took me by surprise. 

A large number of the complaints that were made were from people outside of the division of information technology. A few fought strongly to have my application denied for consideration, and shortly after being selected as CIO, I had to interview with the state office for compliance and ethics after the office received complaints that I was not qualified.

My interview with a state director happened a few days after I was notified of being selected for the Computerworld Premier 100 IT Leaders for 2015, but I never mentioned the recognition, as I was curious to what the outcome of the investigation would be. The state director called me a few days after finishing his report and, to my surprise, apologized for having to investigate me. Although it was his job to investigate such complaints, he had realized during his investigation that those complaints had nothing to do with my qualifications.

Overcoming subtle and blatant barriers

Very early in my career, I knew that exemplary work would be my biggest advantage. Growing up I had been taught that as a black man, I would have to work twice as hard just to be considered equal. Working long hours and multiple jobs were the only ways older generations in my family could provide basic needs. My dad and most uncles were carpenters who left home before sunrise and did not return until dark. Sundays, Thanksgiving and Christmas were the only days they did not work. Birthdays and anniversaries were just workdays to them. 

My grandmother always told me stories of how she could pick over 600 pounds of cotton daily and be home before sunset to do household chores. She instilled in me daily that if I was to do a task, it had to be done right. I remember having numerous chores at the age of five. By 10, I could handle almost any job on a farm including driving tractors and backhoes.

I carried that mindset of hard work into my career. Working long hours and weekends were natural for me when I started working in information technology. In fact, I viewed some people in the workplace to be pretty lax compared to the work I had to do growing up. For the first few years working in such a setting, I felt out of place because the work environment seemed too laid back.

While growing up, I was told of negative experiences my loved ones faced and, since then, have had many myself. As a black male I am frequently reminded of the color of my skin. I do not believe I have ever gone a full month without hearing statements like "you speak so well" or being referred to as "you people." The three times I have been pulled over on the highway in rental cars because the license plate did not match the color of the vehicle, every officer asked if I was going to a job interview. I guess black men only wear suits on the highway when going to an interview.

At community events, I am sometimes asked whether I am a student while my white peers and colleagues are asked what they do at the university. However, the worst comment that has ever come to my attention was made just one year ago by an individual that I barely know. The person said that with one phone call they could have me back picking cotton.

Situations like these have shown me that no matter how I look or what I do, some people’s mindsets will always only allow them to view me in a certain manner and there is nothing that I can do to change that. At the same time, there are people, from all races, who appreciate what I bring to the table and never think twice about the things that make us different -- unless it is from a standpoint of embracing diversity. With this in mind, I am encouraged to always do my absolute best and make sure that others are treated equally at all times -- speaking up for anyone, any race and any gender being treated unfairly. I am grateful for anyone who has fought for equality in history. Although issues still exist, we continually move in a better direction and improve on our past.

Over time, I have developed a great level of resilience and stamina that enables me to accomplish anything I put my mind to -- despite what others may think. I was taught to stand up for what is right and never be afraid of failure. Furthermore, I understand the importance of helping and encouraging others to be successful.

People who look down on you due to race or gender are only in your life to make you stronger. Stay in pursuit of your dreams and treat everyone the same regardless of differences. Every great story has a series of huge challenges that will almost break you. During those low points you will grow the most and continue to reach new dreams. 

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