Can you tell us more about yourselves?
Peter: My name is Peter Cowen, and I’m a UI designer. I was in healthcare for a long time. Thought that I wanted to be a doctor [laughs]. And I was doing research, and I was just miserable everyday. On the side, I loved drawing and stuff and I thought like it would be sick if I could do art and get paid for it. So I was looking for ways to do it and in Chicago there’s a portfolio school and my sister actually found a UXUI bootcamp and I had no idea what UI or UX was but I was like, “You know what? I’ll do it. I’m so unhappy at where I am now. Like, I just wanna like take the risk and whatever happens happens.” So I did that bootcamp and then I got my first job out here in DC.
I think, despite the challenge of being in a new city doing a new job–and not having people here who I knew–it wasn’t difficult because like I was doing something I loved, which was really nice for the first time. But I think I’m still trying to find my stride [laughs].
Angel: I’m Angel Valant. I’m a junior software engineer. Well I mean I’m a nontraditional software engineer. I actually worked in nonprofit administration for about eight years. It wasn’t until I decided that I wanted to learn a little bit more about web development and I remember going to my employer at the time and asking for some professional development funds to go to a class and they told me no, and I was like “Okay cool.” So I ended up just you know going into my own funds and taking class and just getting more involved with the community at large. From there it was just like “Alright… this is kind of cool.” Because I was starting to meet people that were taking a nontraditional path into the profession and I was like “Oh I didn’t necessarily realize that was like a thing.”
I ended up getting some like scholarship funds through Lesbians Who Tech and also through General Assembly, which was a coding bootcamp that I’d gone through so I actually felt like I had a community around me to support me throughout my processes as a student and then also when I decided to become an instructor at GA and then ultimately when I decided to go into the job market… I still had that supportive community around me. Like with Lesbians Who Tech, they always reach out to me to ask me if I want to participate in their events. They’ve also been like very accommodating when they’ve had their big summits to be like “Hey, we want you to come. This is important to us [that you’re here].” And so they’ve given me free tickets and stuff to continue that path progression to continue to grow.
Imposter syndrome is a pretty common experience when you’re starting out… can you share some thoughts and/or experiences related to imposter syndrome?
Peter: [laughs] For me I personally feel like definitely… Sometimes I am concerned that “Okay, I didn’t do four years of design school and I’m not as technically skilled as a lot of other designers…” But I was talking with someone the other day and he was speaking with me about my medical background and how he loves talking to me because it’s a different perspective and because I don’t know all the rules… I don’t have to push myself into a box or a certain path… I just kind of do what feels right.
Angel: I deal with a lot of imposter syndrome because I mean, software engineering has always been generally affiliated with people who have computer science degrees or something along those lines. So yeah, it’s a serious thing that I deal with, but I’ve found that the people around me, especially like at my workplace or just with other groups and organizations that I’m affiliated with… they want to help me get better and improve and stuff like that. So just having that supportive network tends to sometimes like counter balance those feelings of being an imposter. But yeah, it takes a lot of work to power through that particular line of thinking.
Can you help us unpack what it means to have emotional burden of “fixing the diversity problem” at work?
Angel: [laughs] So for myself I am of African American descent, I am 35 years old, I am queer, and I am the only person on my tech team that generally falls into a lot of those boxes, and yeah… it’s stressful. There is a lot of pressure.
And part of that too does go back to this imposter syndrome thing because when you don’t have someone in the room that looks like you, that can relate to you when it comes to certain things like you know… if I’m talking about Living Single and everyone else is looking at me like “What? What’s that?” [laughs] It can make it hard to relate in a very intimate way like that with your coworkers. And sometimes, with your boss.
I think another thing that is commonly associated with this issue is that when you want to raise these concerns in the workplace, if you are the only person that falls into that particular category, sometimes you know the people in the positions of power will try to put the onus on you to try and solve it because they’re like “Well we don’t understand. Try and make us understand.”
And I think the thing that comes important with that is, if this is something that you all legitimately want to fix, like you all have to also put in the effort to fix it.
Peter: Yeah, I think she said it perfectly. It’s just about trying to understand people,
and I think sometimes it’s difficult because people think “Like it’ll just happen naturally
if I’m sitting next to Angel… like through osmosis I’ll understand what it’s like to
be a black queer woman,” and there’s no way I could ever do that.
I have to talk to her about her experiences and then try my best to see what that feels like, but that doesn’t happen naturally. You have to try, and that takes a lot of effort and I think sometimes it’s not a priority for companies, but yeah I think it’s so important.
And you see that over and over again with these companies where they kind of fall short on that and it shows in the product they create too… so I think for us it’s important personally, but also… if I’m creating a product that’s for everyone–or at least the person I’m trying to serve–it’s important to try to understand.
This interview has been adapted from our Emerging Voices interview series. To see the complete video playlist featuring our interview with Angel and Peter, click here.