We sit down with TJ to talk about how people of color can engage the tech space for their careers.
Learn more about tech: ROOTsTechnology.info
Connect with us: https://linktr.ee/livingcorporate
Ade: I’m sure many of our listeners can relate to the concept of familial pressure, and as many immigrant or first-generation young adults may know, the career path for us is often limited to that of a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. I chose the path of a lawyer when I was younger. However, as I’ve evolved as a person so have my interests, and I’m not alone in this. Many of us have seen leaps in technology that have piqued interest in previously unexplored fields. So with that in mind, it should be of no surprise that it is one of the fastest growing industries in the world with revenue within the industry projected to reach $351 billion. It also makes it an inviting field for groups that have been underrepresented in this industry until now. The question is what does it look like to make the pivot? My name is Ade, and you’re listening to Living Corporate.
Ade: So today we’re talking about non-conventional entries into tech. As many of you may know, this would resonate with me. I’ve shared at least two or three times this season, but for those of you who are new, I’m actively making the career pivot into software engineering, which was not my focus in college. The journey so far has included some extremely long hours, some late nights, a ton of mistakes, a couple of wins–a couple of little wins–and many, many failures.
Zach: Yeah. You know, we could’ve done a better job promoting your journey through Living Corporate’s Instagram because your IG stories are great. Like, I’ll see you posting pictures of your laptop screen with a bunch of code on it, you being in all these all-day workshops, books you’re digging in to help build your technical chops. It’s been inspiring to see.
Ade: Thanks. Thank you. Part of what I am interested in is making tech more accessible. It’s all around us, and engaging in tech means often–more than just being a coder. Being a coder is awesome, but there is so much more to tech than that.
Zach: Right. I mean, to your point, because there’s technology in everything that we do, there’s a myriad of ways to work in tech. As an example, I’m a change management consultant in technology. I don’t know how to code a thing, yet, but I’m still actively engaged in the industry because I bring other skills to the table to help implementations and things of that nature to be more successful.
Ade: Right, and along that train of thought, there’s space for all of us at the table–word to Solange–but it comes down to exposure and engagement. For me, I had two primary barriers. One, I didn’t know what tech meant. It seemed like this vague, really nebulous space, and that was scary. I like when words mean things, and I like when I understand what those words mean. And the second big barrier for me was that I did not know how to get there. I had no road map. I had graduated from college, and there was no counselor, adviser who was like, “Take these classes and you’ll get there,” and “These are the steps.” I had to figure it out for myself, but in figuring it out for myself I came to understand that the tech space is made up of people, some really amazing people, and therefore completely accessible. Just like you are a person, they are people, and so this is a space that you can absolutely find your way in.
Zach: Right, and as you alluded to in the intro, professionals of color as well-served to seek entry into industries that are growing and positioned to be on or around the top, but it would be great if we could speak to someone more about this topic, right? Someone who–maybe they’re, like, a first-generation American who changed their career, made a career pivot after college and got into tech, but not only that, they leveraged their passion and network to teach other ethnic minorities skills to get them into the tech space as well.
Ade: Wait, you mean like our guest TJ Oyeniyi?
Zach and Ade: Whaaaaaaat?
Zach: Sound Man! [makes air horn noises] Come on, drop ’em in. You know it. Just put ’em right in there. Let’s go.
Ade: [laughs] All right. So next up we’re gonna get into our interview with our guest, TJ. Hope y’all enjoy.
Zach: And we’re back. TJ, welcome to the show, man. Thanks for joining us.
TJ: Thank you. Thank you so much, Zach. Appreciate you.
Zach: Hey, no problem, man. So look, for those of us who don’t know you, would you mind telling us a little bit about yourself?
TJ: Yeah. So my name is Tolu Oyeniyi, and most people know me as TJ, which I completely made up while watching Smart Guy one day. I was born in Nigeria, [inaudible], and I grew up in Dallas, Texas. I did my undergrad at UT Austin and grad school at Arizona State, and I am currently in the second year of my career switch as a software engineer.
Zach: Man, that’s amazing. So look, today we’re talking about non-conventional entries into tech. Before you got into technology or the tech space explicitly, what were you doing? And what spurred your interest in the tech space?
TJ: Ah, what was I doing? So I was working as a business analyst at a small health tech company in Austin at the time, and I was also a really big volunteer in Austin. Like, when I moved back to Austin from Dallas for work, I told myself, like, “Anything black,” like, just anything dealing with underrepresented groups, I wanted to volunteer time to just help and, you know, just try to, like, give back any way possible. And I ended up, like, volunteering for a host of different events ’til I stumbled upon this one event called
hackathon at Huston-Tillotson University, which is an HBCU and actually the first higher education institute in Austin during South By, and the purpose of the hackathon was to basically introduce black and brown students to tech, and I volunteered as a mentor to basically help students flesh out their ideas and, you know, ultimately try to build, like, a working product at the end of those two days for the hackathon. And what, like, really triggered the idea of, like, learning to code or just teaching people how to code was when I parked in front of this, like, brand new house across from, like, HT in east Austin, which, you know, used to be, like, an old black neighborhood in Austin. And, you know, this house was a reminder that this area was being gentrified, largely by a lot of people that are–that come into Austin because of tech, and just kind of, like, thinking, “Man,” like, “All these black and brown kids,” and just, like, families in these areas are being priced out of here because they don’t really have access into this industry and don’t really know, like, the basics, you know, to even be able to try to, like, you know, have a chance to, like, try in this industry. And that kind of frustrated me a bit, and I thought one day, “You know what? It would be real impactful if somebody was teaching these kids to code,” and I just, like, jokingly mentioned to a friend–you know, to my friend at the event, like, “Bruh, you know, I think I’m gonna mess around and learn how to code so I can teach these kids to code.”
Zach: Wow. [laughs]
TJ: The guy I was talking to was a software engineer for IBM. He was like, “Oh, really? Can you code?” I was like, “I do,” but I didn’t know anything about coding, bruh. I worked as a business analyst. I did, like, design software, but I don’t actually build it. But yeah, I had the crazy idea of learning to code so that I could learn to teach black and brown kids to code. And I didn’t really learn to, like, make a career switch. I just wanted to basically help other people, like, break into the industry. And I did that for about a year until I basically got this useless promotion at work. [laughs]
Zach: Why was it useless? [laughs]
TJ: It was useless, man. I was–I was working as a business analyst, making–you know, for a health tech company, making 37,500 in Austin–
Zach: Wow. Wow, that’s really low.
TJ: Ooh. Man, you said wow and it just–it brought back all the pain from those days. [laughs] Oh, God. But yeah, and I had gotten a promotion to senior business analyst, right? You know, big time. I’m thinking big time. Everything got a promotion [inaudible]. My [inaudible] got a promotion, my responsibilities. Everything but my salary.
Zach: Oh, no. But that’s really what happens though.
TJ: Yeah. I’m like, “Hold on, bruh.” [laughs] “Hold on, bruh. Wait, what’s going on?” ‘Cause my, you know, coworkers got a raise. Why in the world did I not get one? So I started having this, like, back-and-forth with my manager like, “Hey, man. You know, I’ve been doing all this,” you know? “My output is looking really good,” et cetera, et cetera. Like, I’ve been here for over a year, you know? What’s up? And I just got promoted. So he eventually went to bat for me with the CEO, and they got me a promotion. Like, I–man, I remember that day well. He came into the office and we had a meeting, and he was so happy to, like, announce to me that I had gotten a raise. I was like, “Okay. What’s that money looking like, bruh?” He’s like, “Yeah. So TJ, we’re gonna take you from $37,500 to $39,998.”
Zach: Oh, no.
TJ: I was like, “Hey, bruh. You guys really couldn’t have added a couple dollars more?” [laughs] You know, to at least make it 40K, bruh. Really? I was–I was like, “Okay, wow. Thank you. Thank you, sir. I appreciate it.” I mean, I went back to my desk with this look like, “I’m leaving.” I was, like, mid-twenties, just thinking, “Man, I’m not gonna be fighting for 40K.” Like, “I’m not trying to build my life and career off of that,” ’cause–you know, ’cause the question then was how long ’til I reach, like, 60K?
Zach: Right. No, it’s a real question. Right.
TJ: Yeah. I’m like, “Bruh.” Man…
Zach: God forbid six figures, right? Like, come on. Right, yeah.
Zach: Oh, wow. Yeah.
TJ: This happened, like–man, I think this happened around June or July 2016, and I basically took that job posting and I put it, like, right next to my desk in my room, and I put a date on there. Like, December 2016 was how long I gave myself. I was like, “By December 2016 latest, I should be working as a software engineer. Period.”
Zach: Let’s go. Wow. Yeah, that’s amazing.
TJ: So yeah, basically that is what kind of spurred me making that career change, and it’s just crazy how it all started, how I actually only started learning to code so that I could teach other people so they could break into the industry and make more money when I was over here broke. [laughs] Maybe I should make the switch.
Zach: Right. You know, I’ll say this. It’s funny. I truly believe any time you attach your purpose with people you’re going to see rewards on the other side, right?
TJ: Oh, yeah.
Zach: Right? So your whole angle, your whole mission was “How can I serve someone else?” And then as you were building to serve others, the fates came together to make sure that you were taken care of. So that’s really exciting, and I think something else that I hope our listeners are picking up on is that you were tenacious about it, right? So the information was out there, you did your own research, you put yourself out there, you were willing to be uncomfortable, and you drove to get there. Let me ask you something about this program that you started to teach other folks, specifically youth, how to code. What is the program, and why do you believe coding is so important? Why do you do it today? Like, why do you continue to do it today?
TJ: Well, so the program was called ROOTs Technology, and I was basically teaching classes on Saturdays at the time in, like, a lower income part of Austin. Yeah, and for me, at the time I thought it was, like, a really good chance to provide an opportunity for kids that were already interested in tech somehow to just learn more of the hard skills to try to, like, pick up the chance to try to break into the industry or to ultimately start, like, their own stuff on the side in terms of, like, building websites for people or just, like, building–or just building their own app ideas [inaudible] actually. So yeah, I mean, that–man, teaching is hard, bruh. Teaching is very hard. I always knew that our teachers were undervalued, underpaid and underappreciated, but that, like, knowledge took a different form when I actually, like, experienced being in the shoes of a teacher for just, like, a couple hours once a week, because there were some students in my class that they didn’t know where they were going to eat unless they came to my class because Subway, like, sponsored lunches. You know? So it was like–there were so many, like, hurdles outside of the actual class that basically made it hard for students to retain information and to basically achieve the goal that they set out to achieve. So yeah, that was tough, and I ultimately had to, like, pull back on the program. So now I have the curriculum online, and it is open to any and everybody to use, and I just make myself available as a mentor to help people to get unstuck as they are working through the curriculum, you know? Because everything is online and self-paced, so.
Zach: So let’s make sure that we’ll–we’ll make sure to put those resources in the show notes because I think that’s amazing. I think–you know, certain people–for me as an example, right, I’m a good Googler. Like, I don’t have an issue looking something up and figuring out or, you know, reaching out and talking to people, but that isn’t always–that’s not everyone’s strong suit. Having a place where all of that information is consolidated and available I think is a big deal, and there’s plenty of people out there that really see tech as, like, this big, just amorphous thing that you can’t really wrap your arms around or that it’s only for super, super quantitative math geniuses and things of that nature. So let me ask you this. If you could give people, especially minorities, who don’t have a tech background but want to get into the space three tips, what would they be?
TJ: One, decide what you want to do, and if you don’t already know what you want to do in this industry or you just don’t know anything about tech, just start looking for local tech meet-ups in your area and start attending and just–just ask questions. Like, you will always find people that are willing to just, like, answer questions and at least help you and point you in the right direction. And two, like, find people that want–once you figure out what you want to do, find people in this industry that are where you want to be and approach them to basically help you come up with a plan to get there. And then three, you have to really, like, sacrifice and grind. Like, set a timeline and let other people know to basically help to keep you accountable to your goals and get to work, you know? Like, this–this, like, took me over a year and a half of just, like, teaching myself and just grinding, and my last, like, five months, I actually–like, once I decided that I wanted to make the switch into being an engineer, I think I spent about, like, seven months of just, like, really sacrificing and grinding. No more happy hours. No more brunch. Dollar mimosas, and God knows I love, like, dollar mimosas. Like, I–
Zach: Dollar mimosas, yeah. [laughs]
TJ: You know? I basically I had to give, like, so much up. Like, I was working full-time and coming home, and basically from 6:00 P.M. to, like, 1:00 or 2:00 A.M. I was just studying. Seven days a week. Just grinding and sacrificing. The only people that saw me on a regular basis were my coworkers and my sister ’cause she lives with me, but that was it, you know? I basically went into a hole to, you know, try to put in the work to achieve my goals, and I basically showed up with a brand new software engineering job a few months later.
Zach: Well, see–that’s just so inspirational, right? Because, again, I think we talk a lot about things we say that we want to do, but the reality is it takes work. It takes sacrifice. Anything that you want to really build that’s gonna be sustainable, not a fad or not something passing in any way, it takes time, and it takes actual work. And it’s funny because, you know, you didn’t pull those hours out of nowhere. You had to give up some comfort so that you could eventually get where you wanted to go. So that’s–that’s just amazing. I’m really encouraged by this story. This has been a great conversation. Before we wrap up, TJ, do you have any shout outs?
TJ: Man, I have a lot of shout outs.
Zach: Go ahead. Get it going.
TJ: [laughs] So yeah, first shout outs will be to Dara Oke and Sammy [inaudible]. They were my engineering friends at the time that basically helped point me in the right direction when I was coming up with this self-paced curriculum to, you know, teach people, and then after that, shout out to Yusuf [inaudible] and the African-American Youth Harvest Foundation, which is where the classes for ROOTs Technology were at, and Yusuf was another engineer at the time that basically started learning to code back then like I did and wanted to make the switch over, and he would actually volunteer with me to help teach the class as well. And yeah, again, he achieved it as well. He has been working as a software engineer for the past two years. And also shout out to [inaudible] for just being, like, a really big support–just a really good friend and mentor in this, like, tech journey. Like, E is an engineer. He’s worked at IBM on the Watson project, DO doing, like, [inaudible] stuff, and now he’s over at GitHub, and he always does a very good job of just, you know, trying to help lift as he’s climbing, and I was, you know, one of those people that he, like, really helped along the way in my own journey. And also a big shout out to my fiance Queen and my sister [inaudible], who gave me a place to live while I was–while I didn’t have my own place for a few months. And just a really big shout out to all of my family and friends that were there to support me and to, like, push me on throughout this whole journey.
Zach: Man, that’s beautiful, man, and again, we thank you for your time. We love your story. We definitely consider you a friend of the show. We hope to have you back, man.
TJ: Awesome. Awesome, sir. Thank you so much, Zach. Appreciate you.
Zach: All right, man. Peace.
Ade: And we’re back. I can tell that you and TJ had a lot of fun on that one, and to be frank, I was incredibly energized by his story. It was really motivating to hear because he’s out of the old, so to speak. I’m definitely still in “stay low and build” mode, but hearing his story is encouraging, and it’s motivating, and it lets me know that there is light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak.
Zach: Yeah. I think his story comes down to the power of execution. He made up his mind to do something, and he didn’t use any excuse. He researched, he studied, he prepared, and then he went for it, and he didn’t take years and years. It’s really–frankly, it’s been a super short journey for him, and I’m happy for him because I know he’s just getting started.
Ade: For sure. We’ll definitely need to make sure to list all of those resources and contacts in the show notes because, like you said, there are so many of us out here who are interested in a genuine approach to the industry but aren’t necessarily sure where to start. We’ll have a starting line for you.
Zach: Absolutely. Well, with that being said, we’re gonna be right back with our Favorite Things. Can’t wait to share.
Zach: And we’re back with our Favorite Things. So folk who know me know that I am a blerd, or a black nerd. Two amazing games dropped this month. One was 2K19. Yes, like many younger black men, I loves my 2K, my NBA 2K. For those who are not in the know, NBA 2K is a basketball simulation game. This isn’t even an ad. I really enjoy 2K, especially My Career, where you take a player–you make one, you create one, you take him through the journey of being a rookie to a Hall of Famer. And Spider-Man dropped. Both for PS4, so I’m really–I’m enjoying myself.
Ade: 2K, huh? Okay. So what’s your style? Are you a shot-creating slasher? A playmaker? What’s up?
Zach: I’m actually a slashing, shot-creating small forward. I’m 6’10” on there, and so if you want to catch a body, you want to be put on a poster, you find me at the park. My gamertag is RevNunn, R-E-V-N-U-N-N. I’ll see you out there.
Ade: RevNunn gonna put you on a poster. All right. This week my favorite thing is a book called Weapons of Math Destruction. Yes, I did say math. It’s a book that came out in, I believe, 2016, and it just examines the societal impact of algorithms and big data. We tend to think of–kind of following in the conversation we were having about tech spaces, but we tend to think of data and tech and science, the STEM space, as a relatively bias-free zone because it’s presented to us that way. However, this book just talks about those spaces can actually–and that work, the creation of algorithms, actually can be used to reinforce pre-existing inequality and systemic inequality. I love it. It’s by a mathematician known as Cathy O’Neil, and she talks about, you know, the reinforcement of discrimination using systems that we would otherwise consider or would otherwise hope are unbiased. So it’s been a fun read. Okay, maybe not fun. Fun is definitely not the term I’m looking for, but it’s been a very illuminating, insightful read, and I encourage everyone to take a look at it. Oh, that reminds me. Before we go, we are actually going to be opening up our Favorite Things to you, our listeners. So if you have a favorite thing, please get at us. DM us through IG or hit us up at our email address, which we’ll list later on at the end of this show. You can also contact us through the website or Twitter, and we’ll make sure to shout you out.
Zach: Dope. Well, that does it for us. Thank you for joining us on the Living Corporate podcast. Make sure to follow us on Instagram at LivingCorporate, Twitter at LivingCorp_Pod, and subscribe to our newsletter through living-corporate.com. You know what? Also, we actually bought a bunch of other domains. That’s right. Sound Man, go ahead and drop some air horns right here.
[Sound Man complies]
Zach: That’s right. We bought livingcorporate.co., livingcorporate.tv, livingcorporate.org. We are everywhere except livingcorporate.com. So if you type in Living Corporate you will find us, okay? If you have a question you’d like for us to answer on the show, make sure you email us at email@example.com. And that does it for us on the show. This has been Zach.
Ade: And I’m Ade.
Ade and Zach: Peace.
Kiara: Living Corporate is a podcast by Living Corporate, LLC. Our logo was designed by David Dawkins. Our theme music was produced by Ken Brown. Additional music production by Antoine Franklin from Musical Elevation. Post-production is handled by Jeremy Jackson. Got a topic suggestion? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find us online on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and living-corporate.com. Thanks for listening. Stay tuned.