Security Enginerr Jamesha Fisher found several supportive communities to boost her career amid the white-dude dominance of Silicon Valley.
By Linda Dishman
Strong Female Lead
Fast Company, October 6, 2015 — For as long as she can remember, Jamesha Fisher liked to figure out how things worked. Fisher, a former Googler who is currently a “DevOps security pirate” at CloudPassage (where she helps keep automated infrastructure up and running safely), credits her father, who worked in electronics and construction, for instilling in his daughter an early interest in taking things apart and figuring out what makes them tick.
Fisher’s budding passion soon turned towards pulling computers apart. High school classes trained her in both computer mechanics and Linux and security programming, then she went on to earn a degree in security engineering at DePaul University. The opportunity to learn just as the Internet was really taking off was unparalleled, Fisher tells Fast Company, and she says she never thought much about the fact that she was a “double minority” (both female and black) in a world dominated by white men.
Fisher’s education and career path are an exception to the rule. The numbers still indicate that women are underrepresented in the information and communications technology sector. Thirty years ago, women earned 37% of all computer science bachelors degrees, and that number has fallen to 12% today. Statistics from the National Science Foundation show that about 25% of those employed as computer scientists are female, while women make up about 17% of the engineering profession, and only one in five software developers is female.
When she landed a coveted internship at Google in Boston, Fisher moved through her work learning as much as she could. It was impactful, Fisher says, because, “postcollege graduation in 2009 meant being unemployed, [Google] gave me an edge and tons of networking connections.”
A SYSTEMATIC STIGMATISM
It wasn’t until Fisher landed back at Google, this time in the Bay Area, that she started becoming aware of something she couldn’t easily pull apart to figure out. “It was just kind of back of mind, the way people treated me,” Fisher explains, pointing out that she didn’t see it as a challenge. Rather, she says, it was a “systematic stigmatism that is very under the radar.” Fisher confesses that when someone would question her credentials, she would second-guess herself. Then she thought, “I wonder if they would have asked a dude? Would you tell a dude that that they’re not capable of learning another language
Fisher is quick to point out that no one ever overtly said they didn’t support diversity. “But culturally, when it comes up, people don’t know how to deal with it.” People do tend to seek out others like themselves, even when we know that diverse teams are more innovative and productive.
THE LACK OF MINORITIES IN LEADERSHIP POSITIONS
Fisher admits that when she first arrived in Silicon Valley, she felt like “the odd egg,” and that can make it hard for anyone to find mentorship. Additionally, she observes, “Most minorities are in lower-level positions like contractors or support positions. So when she was asked to take on a leadership position herself, Fisher not only questioned whether or not she wanted to take the step up, but she also wondered if they chose her because of her credentials, or if they wanted her because she was also a minority.
DECIDING TO LEAVE GOOGLE
After her two-year residency at Google ended, Fisher attempted to see if there was something else she could do for the company. Twice she was met with offerings that were just not in her area of specialty. “They have really good tech positions in sales, but that is not my deal,” Fisher asserts. So she put it behind her.
This was no easy feat, says Fisher. Pursuing employment at a company less well known as a relative newcomer to the area is daunting. “It might be the scariest thing in the world,” she says, “but it is doable,” especially if you find yourself in a position that just isn’t a good fit for your skills.
BUILDING A COMMUNITY
One of the things that helped pull her through was her small but growing circle of support, especially on social media. Within six months of starting at Google, she explains, two people close to her died within a couple of weeks of each other. A stressful job coupled with grieving forced Fisher to reach out to other minority friends both in the workplace and outside of it.
On a larger scale, she says, she’s not interested in being a trailblazer just to set a precedent for other women or minorities in tech. “No job is worth losing your mind over,” she says. “If you feel like you are suffering as a double minority or feel stigmatism is too much, don’t stay there. You have all the right and power to go.”
Even if you’re not facing cultural issues, Fisher says, sometimes you have to make the decision to leave to take another position that will afford you the opportunity to grow. “I don’t think anybody should be like, ‘Stick it out,’” she says. The key to making the leap less scary is to tap the support of communities.
A self-professed ambivert who used to suffer from social anxiety (“Sometimes I am extroverted, but sometimes I need space and I am afraid to talk to people when they are new”), Fisher understands that reaching out—especially if you’re an introvert—is one of the hardest things to do. That’s why she advises, “Do it your own way.”
For the socially reluctant, Fisher suggests texting or using social media. She used Reddit, then an industry mailing list to start meeting people locally. Initiating conversations on screen can often lead to invitations, Fisher notes, then when the meeting date comes, you’ll feel obligated to go. “It’s a little less pressure,” she adds.
ADVOCATING FOR OTHER WOMEN AND MINORITIES
While she does consider herself an advocate for other women and minorities, even offering to help them gather the courage and support to leave a position that isn’t working for them, Fisher contends that what she does is not activism on a grand scale.
She prefers to speak at conferences, to the press, and on social media, and creating opportunities for women and minorities through diversity scholarships. Fisher also holds different meetups that are led by women, creating safe spaces for them to discuss the industry and other relevant topics. Of her CoffeeOps in San Francisco and East Bay, Fisher says, “There is a lot of female presence there, more than guys, which is great.”
Fisher is also hoping to hold a diversity conference at some point in the future. “It’s a few years off,” she points out, but recognizes the impact such an event could have on the tech industry. “It becomes a different landscape. It becomes better,” she contends, adding, “I haven’t seen anything in the news where it is a bad thing when a minority is leading something.”