Tell us about yourself
I started off doing most of my work in the customer service field. Even though I went to school for computer science, I wasn't able to finish and, subsequently, wouldn't be able to find a job doing it (the main barrier being that I didn't finish my degree, not whether I had the skills or not). After finding a program called LaunchCode that focused on technologists from non-traditional backgrounds, I was able to get my first technology job as a systems engineer, 16 years after leaving college.
After my first position in tech, I transitioned to a software engineer. During this time, I had a lot of publicity for my story, and word had gotten around to the Obama administration where they created the TechHire Initiative to fund, nationally, programs very similar to LaunchCode. My story was used as the prime example of "hidden talent". I interviewed a lot about being a person of color, and woman, in tech. This led me to do some diversity work for many businesses who were struggling to hire, retain, and recruit folks like me.
3 years later, I founded my company, L. M. Lewis Consulting, that focuses on providing these services for companies, nationally. I've done speaking engagements, roundtables, panels, and one-on-one consultation with companies and organizations steadily, since then. I'm currently working as a Director with the St. Louis Equity in Entrepreneurship Collective, which has a main goal to shine a light on issues that diverse entrepreneurs have with receiving capital and resources. I saw it as a natural transition, and putting my talents where needed.
How did you first get started in your career in tech?
Even though my first job wasn't in tech (my first job out of college was as an afterschool van driver for high school kids), I used every opportunity I could to squeeze in some IT knowledge and not let my skills "die". At that job, I seized the opportunity to help during the impending Y2K bug (this was around 1998/99). I had gained the trust of the IT workers there, and they let me assist with upgrading the BIOS for most of the computers in the building.
I then took hold of a database program that no one wanted to learn. It was supposed to keep track of students during their tutoring sessions, their grades in school, attendance, and other information. The IT guys were already packed with other responsibilities. I took it upon myself to learn the database, and kept calling the manufacturers asking about specific questions regarding the code behind it. They encouraged me to get certified, and I became their on-site technician for the metropolitan St. Louis region. However, I was still employed by the same organization, so my official title was still related to van driving, although I did teach computer courses to the kids and helped them design their first websites.
After encouragement from my family to move on from the job, I decided to go with a few temp firms to try to get into a more technical role. One firm, founded by women, found me a job as a Help Desk Analyst, and told me how I could use the job as a jumping-off point into higher technical roles. They also informed me about certification programs, and that I should self-study and try to get certified. I did, and received a CompTIA A+ certification that would allow me to be a PC technician. I accompanied that with a Help Desk Institute Help Desk Analyst certification, and looked for ways to move up the ladder.
My options for advancement were limited at that job, so I freelanced on my own for a bit until I found a job as a Help Desk manager at a university. I took advantage of the tuition remission program and retook some of my computer programming courses until a couple of my instructors told me about LaunchCode.
What are the most important skills in your current position? How did you develop these skills?
The most important skill in my current position is perseverance. It's also been called "stubborn" and "hard-headedness". The reason I find it now as a strength instead of a weakness is because it got me to where I wanted to go when placating and "waiting my turn" did not. I would have to give it to my mother for encouraging me to stick to my dreams, and for lifting me up even when she, herself, was sick for many, many years. My mom is alive and well today, and I often talk to her to get a level on any situation that I'm dealing with.
What are some resources that helped you in your journey in tech?
Certification is a great pathway to learn at your own pace, and find out what you know and don't know already. After I started working as a Systems Engineer, I decided to self-study for and take the CompTIA Server+ certification exam, which is proctored so you can't just take it online like some others. I didn't expect to pass, I just wanted to use the results to tell me what I needed to work on, as it would come with a summary of where you did well or where you need more improvement. To my surprise, I passed it right away the first time. I had only been working my job for 6 months, and before then, I hadn't touched a server system in 10 years.
I highly encourage folks to take certifications because they can truly be a non-biased way to assess your knowledge. Your score doesn't depend on what the instructor thinks of you, and any hidden issues they may have. Either you know the answers or you don't. Which is what I've been trying to achieve in my knowledge assessment for many years.
What difficulties did you face in your career? How did you overcome them?
One of the major hurdles I faced in my career has been bias, either implicit or explicit. Many times, people don't mean to be biased against me, but they often make the assumption that I only got a position because either the company/business/organization needed to increase their diversity ratio or because I used charm to get in. At my first tech job, I quickly found out that I was the only person with a programming background on my team, and after taking my certification test, I was the only certified one in my field.
I started talking to the other team members and found that many of them didn't even study computers and had degrees in non-technical areas. The skills they learned were less than 5 to 10 years old, whereas I walked with nearly 15 years of hands-on work-related IT experience with 3+ years of college computer study. I never actually had a title to match, so the assumption was that I must not have "been good enough". This quickly disappeared when I took over a major server migration project which I largely dealt with on my own. And then I ended up also patenting an idea based on the technology we worked with everyday.
Looking back on your career, what advice do you wish someone had given you that would have helped accelerate your career?
We underestimate how jealousy and fear reign in many industries, and especially in the computing realm. If I would have known that, I would probably be even further in my career now. Instead, I listened to these fearful folks and held myself back in times where I could have truly shined. But I did learn how to value myself and my knowledge more, so it was all worth it in the end. I would have liked to do it with a little less tarnish and frustration.
Always take the chance to get certified, even if you don't think you're ready. If you (or your company) can afford it, it's worth doing so that you can get an unbiased opinion on your knowledge base. That way, you not only have that, but also ammunition to ask for promotions, bonuses, etc.
Also, ask for what you're worth. Even if you think you're not going to get it. It's a good muscle to build as you continue through your career. Eventually, the world will catch up with you!
Thank you for sharing your story with us. We really appreciate it. How can we support you?
Thank you for asking! For anyone looking to have me come and speak at their company, feel free to reach out to me on my website, lmlewisconsulting.com . It contains an online calendar where you can even schedule time to talk to me or meetup if you're in the St. Louis, Missouri region!