Maya Patterson On Why The Tech Industry Can Be A Lonely Place For Blacks & POC

When I called Maya she had recently landed from a trip to Thailand and was feeling a bit jetlagged. We spoke about inexpensive Thai massages, good food and how she met the CEO of Noirefy, Shaniqua Davis before she landed her job at Facebook.
I asked her about getting her start in Product Design, frustrations as a Black person in tech, moving out of your comfort zones and how to create community in the white-dominated tech industry. Here’s our conversation, edited and condensed for length


Name: Maya Patterson
Title and Company: Product Designer at Facebook
Location: Silicon Valley area

Alright just to give the people some background, how did you get started in Product Design?
I wasn’t formally trained in design. I didn’t go to art school or anything like that. I went to a liberal arts college and I got my degree in psychology. But I discovered the field and the summer between my freshman and sophomore year I was super fortunate to be able to shadow an information architect for the summer. And I was doing and very basic, but fundamental, UX skills.

So I had mentors early on through this internship. And then from there I basically had to figure out how I was going to continue to gain skills in the field because I realized that’s what I wanted to do.

I set up an internship that summer going into the junior year in an ad agency called the Digitas Lbi in Chicago. That’s really when I started to find my footing.

So how did you land a role at Facebook?
I had realized I wanted to work on in-house products. I really wanted to understand product better. So I looked up some companies that found that matched my interest and I found Trunk Club in Chicago.

I don’t even know how I figured this out, but I just started reaching out to different companies and people working for the teams that I wanted to work for at Trunk Club.

Rather than applying directly online, I reached to someone and said, “Hey, I see that you have an entry level role. Here’s my experience level, here’s why I wanted to work for Trunk Club.” Basically asking, are there opportunities for me. They came back and told me, “You don’t have enough experience for the Entry-Level role but we would like to bring you on as an intern.” And I ended up being the company’s first intern. And then that transition to full-time role.

Two years later, I was discovered by Dantley Davis at Facebook and I transitioned there after working for Trunk Club.

What frustrates you the most about the state of Black and POC people in Tech + STEM?
I think that a lot of people are talking about this now. So my frustrations match the frustration we’ve seen in the media and that’s been circulated throughout Black Twitter, mainstream Twitter, Instagram – everywhere.

And that frustration point is that – there’s not enough of us. And when you guys do hire us, it’s not inclusive in the ways that we would expect it to be.

I think that there are ways to solve the [diversity issue], but a lot of leaders have not done the job of trying to understand the diversity problem in the same way that they’ve tried to understand how to solve their business problems. And the problem there is that your diversity issue is going to become a business issue because more companies are servicing people that are not themselves.

What processes have you seen, or heard of, that help with discrimination in the workplace?
There are some companies and teams I’ve seen doing interesting things. Where they have in hotlines in place for microaggressions, which sounds really over the top. But actually, I think that sometimes HR is not equipped to handle the reporting of microaggressions.
But I think that underrepresented groups need a space where they can document small things that happen to them and then there needs to be a third party that comes in and reports the overall data to leadership. And they’ll find over time that there are quite a few things happening. And when you compound all of that, the effect it has on your employee base is pretty profound. Things like this drive people to leave, you know.

Absolutely. I think the data gathered from that hotline would be telling not only for leadership but for Black and POC employees. I don’t think we even consider the weight microaggressions have on our mental health or work output.

So this year I hope our communities can be more solution-driven. What actionable steps do you take to combat these frustrations?
It was ingrained in me since I was young to always be connected to my community and remember my roots and to know, “you’re not climbing up the ladder by yourself” and so you should not forget about the people that have not yet made it to where you’re at.

As a black woman, I am constantly trying to get more black women in this space that I am in. I’m trying to pull up my community with me. But that was also not in my job description. I spent a lot of my time outside of work and in my free time doing that sort of labor and that’s okay.

But then what happened at work is that I’m often times called upon to consult with different managers or leaders or team members about how to solve their pipeline problem or how to make the space more inclusive or different things like that. And I think that that’s great. Those are opportunities to be had, but the problem comes in when you’re not rewarded for those labors.

And I’ve experienced being rewarded and not rewarded. And I think if a company is asking, someone to do additional work outside of their job description, they absolutely need to be rewarding that employee for what they’re doing. And it should show up in the way that they want. You know, some people want recognition, some people want promotions, and people want money, and some people want a combination of the two.

Besides being taught to value community, why is it so important for you to actively influence diversity in tech spaces?
I don’t want to be in a space where I’m the only one. I don’t want to be in a space where I have to explain myself…or I feel like I have to be the one voice of every black person or a woman.
I don’t want to be in a space where I’m the only one. I don’t want to be in a space where I have to explain myself or I feel like I have to be the one voice of everybody that’s a black person or a woman. CLICK TO TWEET
So outside of work, I used Twitter, and now Instagram, to talk about my experiences in tech – to connect with other black people in tech, which was something I had never seen before until I started creating a very specific Twitter following on while I was living in Chicago.

Until I met Shaniqua, I had never met another black UX designer who was a woman. Then when I came to Silicon Valley, I actually got the opportunity to not only meet a bunch of them but work with them, and I want to continue to build that community. I try to connect people and give them the resources that make sense for them – whether that’s telling them about different meetups or sending their resumes along.

I think this is the type of work that most Black people do when they’re in tech.
Yeah, absolutely. Kind of being a bridge because you might have met someone I would never come into contact with, and bestow some advice I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. Speaking of sharing knowledge, what’s one of the best pieces of advice you’ve gotten so far? Career or life-related.
It’s funny, I was actually just thinking about this on my vacation cause I was going through a little bit of a rough patch at the end of last year. Just being frustrated with not being able to see what I wanted to do next, not knowing if I was happy or not.

I kept on thinking about some of the things that had gotten me to where I was and where I needed to be. And one of the best pieces of advice I’ve received honestly came from my mom. But I’ve heard it from different sources at different times.

She’d tell me “you’re going to have to learn how to say yes to things that are scary if you want to experience life in the way that you should experience it.”
I guess in college I decided to actually listen to what she was saying and I started to say yes to things that were very scary the first time I really said yes.
Aside from having mentors and sponsors looking out for me, [saying yes] is the thing that has propelled my career the fastest. When someone asks me to do a speaking engagement, which I absolutely am terrified of all the time, I always say yes if it matches with my values and what I am wanting to do for that period of time. And I’m always happy afterward.

I love that. But see, the thing is with that…I’m someone who has travelled to places where I didn’t know the language and for some reason, it’s easier for me to say yes to those things, or any kind of spiritual experience. But as far as work or sometimes even love, you know, I’m a bit more hesitant.
How did you find a way to say yes to everything? Not sure if you did Shonda Rhimes ‘Year of Yes’ thing. (laughs)
I definitely read Shonda Rhimes’ book, that is another level of strength. (laughs)

I think that the way that I learned how to say yes to the right things is by documenting – like actually writing down what my career goals were for the next two to five years. And I look at what makes me happy, what I want to be known for (if I want to be known at all) and what financial state I want to be in. Whatever things are important to you.

I documented what those goals were and what I envisioned for myself. And then from there, it became pretty clear “what things do you have to do in order to get to those spaces?”

I don’t have a surefire way of pushing ourselves besides just like, “if you feel at all guilty about saying no, you probably should have said yes.”

Absolutely. That is so good. Like a checkmark before you, before you make a final decision. Okay, last few questions. What are some resources that you can share with our community that may help propel them or organize their work life? What’s one of your favorite resources that you use?
I think it just depends on what stage in life you’re in.

So if you are in college and you’re looking for job opportunities, LinkedIn. It was, at least for me, the best resource that I had and I would reach out to people and ask people very specific questions.

Twitter was amazing for me in and finding the community that I did not see physically. I was always the only black person or the only black woman. And that was very lonely and I didn’t know what to do because I felt like I didn’t have a way to ask questions or be intimate in the ways I need to be intimate.

So I would say Twitter is really great for building that sort of community in tech.

Then there’s a whole bunch of new websites that curate a whole bunch of people that you can reach out to, or follow, or just keep track of. One of those sites is Wes O’Haire‘s BlackWho.Design. He just launched it this February. It curates black people in tech, which is pretty fantastic. And, and within that website there are links to other resources.

Awesome. I will definitely have to check that out. Finally, what’s been one of your greatest accomplishments so far? What have you been most proud of?
That’s a good question and a hard one for someone who is extremely self-deprecating. I would say, thinking back to [hosting] AfroTech. I’m most proud of how I handled that opportunity.

I felt like I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. During the very last AfroTech [Festival], I was on stage teaching people how I did my job, and how I design and kind of the secrets of building a product. And that felt really, really good and I was proud of myself because typically I am trying to make everything perfect. But this time when I was on stage I was just having fun and I was just trying to be a helpful resource. And I think when I did that, it just kind of click.
But that’s a good question. I’m going to have to continue to think about it.

Awesome. Thank you so much, Maya. Is there anything else you want to share with any young Black techs out there?
I think that the tech industry can feel very lonely and I would love for people to just understand that you aren’t alone and it might take a little bit the find people who help you feel like yourself and feel like you’re having fun in this industry. But continue to push yourself to find people that make you happy in this industry.

It’s okay to reach out and ask for help and it’s okay to be frustrated. It’s okay also to not move as fast as people on Instagram or Twitter. You can move at your own pace.

Oh, awesome. I love that advice. Thank you. I’m sure that will warm someone’s heart.
I hope so. I hope that I’ve been talking somewhat coherently. I have no idea what time it is. (laughs)

Maya wrote a piece for Afro.Tech that she wanted to share with our community. Check it out!

By Michaé Baisden