What It’s Like to Be Young, Black And Trying to Make It in Silicon Valley
Turns out, sometimes interns at fast-paced tech firms need some specialized coaching in order to thrive at their fancy temp gigs. “I wasn’t getting any of the Star Wars jokes,” laughs Josuel Musambaghani, a 21 year-old math and computer science student at Morehouse College. “Everyone talks in Star Wars jokes.” At other times, a crippling anxiety known as “imposter syndrome” threatened to de-rail his confidence. “But I was prepared and I had someone to help me adapt.”
Musambaghani is a two time Code2040 Fellow, a Google-funded non-profit. It seems to be doing an unusually good job anticipating the needs of talented young technologists who come from non-traditional talent pools – black and Latino, specifically – and helping them succeed at big tech companies.
He is also exactly the kind of person who is poised to thrive in Silicon Valley, but would never have gotten his foot in the door any other way. More on that in a moment.
Code2040 was started by two Stanford B-School pals, Laura Weidman Powers and tech entrepreneur Tristan Walker, in the summer of 2011. Both were struck by the level of opportunity in technology, but also the glaring lack of diversity among its coding stars. “The narrative at the time was that it was all a meritocracy,” says Powers. “You deserve to be here. And if you’re not here by now, then you don’t.”
The Fellows Program helps identify, and support qualified tech talent of color, and gets them in front of some 30 tech companies – Apple, Intel, LinkedIn and Lyft, among them – who are looking to diversify their summer intern ranks. The Code2040 staff spend a lot of time smoothing the path on both sides of the equation, and the organization has learned a lot about what can predict intern success at tech companies. “It’s more than just making sure students are showing up prepared,” says Powers. “It’s helping companies do a better job vetting and onboarding them, too.”
The fellowship program started five years ago with five fellows. This year, 87 students accepted offers of paid internships from a pool of 880 applicants and over 200 finalists. Code2040 helps the students find housing in the Bay Area, and it helps create an instant network of support and advice.
Musambaghani is a stand-out in any crowd. He grew up in Democratic Republic of Congo, the son of a university professor and now, a stay-at-home mother. “She has a theology degree she isn’t using,” he explains.
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He grew up a witness to conflict or its aftermath, first on the heels of the genocide in nearby Rwanda in 1994, and the subsequent crisis that flooded Goma, his home city, with refugees. Then, there were two Congo Wars. He specifically cites the overrun in 2012 by an armed rebel force called M23, which brought renewed chaos and violence to Goma. “It was all so uncertain,” he says simply. “You never knew what tomorrow would be.”
The uncertain nature of a challenging world has given Musambaghani an almost preternatural drive. He ticks through plans to bring tech innovation and social change to anyone who needs it. “I feel an obligation to explore every opportunity and give back what I can.”
He chose Morehouse partly because recruiters traveled to Goma to meet with prospective students. (Also because it’s the school Martin Luther King Jr. chose.) “I’d been applying to schools all over the US, but meeting them really impressed me.” And, they had the kind of tech program he wanted. “My dad bought computers for us, but we were limited in what we could learn on our own.”
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Morehouse is also an Historically Black College. Although he speaks five languages fluently – French and the four indigenous languages of DRC – English wasn’t one of them. “I had to learn the language. Being around people who looked like me, I thought, would make that easier.” Evidently it did; he learned to speak English in six months.
As his first summer as a student approached, he began applying to, basically, any internship program that would get him close to tech. When he got a response from Code2040, one of the few programs that would accept freshman applicants, he fell in love with their mission. “They understand that we are talented, we just need a way in,” he says.
His first internship was at Jawbone (JAWBONE) in the summer of 2015. He admits the transition was tough. There were very few people of color at the company – he was the only one on his floor, and the only freshman. And reality hit.
“It was very emotional for me to see that a person like me could do this work,” he says. Star Wars jokes, aside, he wasn’t sure he was ready. He says the organization’s Welcome Weekend, an action-packed orientation event, helped him understand what was expected of him, and what challenges he might face. “We had already talked about the ‘imposter syndrome’ and you really do worry about it.”
But most important, he says, he was matched with a mentor who could answer any question that might come up, from meeting strategy to the physics of The Force, to whether he was really good enough. “It was everything.”
This year, Musambaghani got an offer from Slack, where he is half-way through a 12-week position.
It’s a different experience now that he’s seasoned. “I feel very confident and am part of the team right away.” And, he’s not the only one who looks like him.
“I joined Slack because it’s clear that the people at the highest levels, they do care about diversity,” he says. That was affirmed when Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield circulated a memo after the police shootings in Louisiana and Minneapolis, denouncing the events and expressing understanding for anyone who was feeling traumatized. “It was amazing,” he said. “I really feel supported working here.”
Then, a few days ago, he got a personal note from Butterfield, wishing him a happy birthday and thanking him for choosing Slack. He sounds incredulous as he recounts it. “It was on a Sunday,” he said. “That meant a lot for me.”