7 trailblazers in tech comment on Black History Month

7 trailblazers in tech comment on Black History Month

Their contributions have influenced the technology we depend on today.

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A huge part of what makes working in open source special is working with a diverse set of people from different backgrounds. During Black History Month (BHM), we honor those who've come before us, but I also want to spotlight some of today's incredible, diverse open source inventors and leaders whose contributions have influenced the technology we depend on today.

What does Black History Month mean to you?

"Traditionally, Black History Month has been a time where an emphasis on African-American contributions to American society has been highlighted. I have mixed emotions about this, as African-Americans have been deeply instrumental to American success in so many areas. On one hand, it's somewhat shameful to box us into a single month. On the other hand, it is good to call out our contributions to counteract hegemonic indifference to and suppression of positive African-American value, images, and contributions. At the end of the day, black history is essentially American history—a history which should be recognized and celebrated at all times. On a personal level, Black History Month is a time of reflection of the sacrifices made by regular people in the fight for equality in America. My mother was one of 12 African-American students that integrated her high school. Recognizing her personal strength and courage is relevant and meaningful to me in the context of Black History Month. Honoring and remembering what she and other unsung heroes had to endure provides strength for my own struggles."
Keith Basil, Senior Principal Product Manager, Red Hat

"Black History Month means recognition of the black people and their contributions to our society, arts, sciences, etc. Since it is not regularly acknowledged, it is great to celebrate our community's accomplishments."
Jocelyn Harper, Full Stack Engineer, Capital One

"Black History Month traditionally is about celebrating black people's contribution in society. Here in the United States, we celebrate in February, but rest assured, we celebrate US every day and every month of the year. We reflect on the journey and sacrifices of so many before us. President Obama stated, 'Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we have been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.' We still have so much work to do and the journey doesn't get easier. But BHM also reminds me that I have to do my part in contributing to the work for 'the change that we seek.' I have to work on striving towards equality and liberty for everyone, even if the path is difficult and narrow. As long as I continue to work, I do hope to make progress."
Rosario Robinson, Senior Director, WIT Evangelist, Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology

"Black History Month is a reminder to look both backward and forwards. It is an opportunity for people in this country to become educated together about the history, impact, and experience of black people in America. My hope is that we can use this yearly staple to extend the conversation around the generous manner in which black people have contributed to the American ethos. Whether through the field of science or in the form of literature; through our consistent culture innovations and the vibrations of our music—it should be impossible to negate the value we have created here. The best way to change a mind or facilitate growth is through education. We must share with open hearts upon open ears every day, but BHM provides a platform to really create a unifying conversation about both history and forward movement."
André Bearfield, Product Leader, DigitalOcean

"I think Black History Month is an opportunity to recognize black history, excellence, inventors, and leaders. It is a time to share knowledge that may not be shared otherwise. Growing up in a school district where black history was not included in the curriculum, I remember my mother coming to my grade school to share black inventions with my class. While I did not appreciate it as much as a kid, I definitely appreciate it as an adult. Present day, I would love to see textbooks and curriculums on the aftermath of slavery. Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian novelist, gave a TED Talk called "The danger of a single story." If you have not seen it, I definitely recommend it. In line with her talk, I think Black History Month is an opportunity to share multiple narratives and to provide an alternate narrative to what has been shown in the media
Annania Melaku, Open Source Compliance Engineer, Comcast

"I see it as an opportunity to insert an affirmative narrative about people with African heritage back into our society, to chip away at the damage that is done by the inaccuracy of currently projected negative images. Think of a balance beam that is too often at a heavy slant, but gets a few nudges up toward resting at even every time a real portrayal of African Americans, current and throughout history, is presented. A narrative that shows the many contributions of black people in America and abroad and accurately portrays the intelligence, beauty, sensuality, creativity, progress, collaboration, strength, innovation, determination, resiliency, and love that we consistently bring and share. It's unfortunate that it's sequestered to an approved month to put this narrative forth, but nonetheless, the opportunity should not be wasted, as we still have so much inequality to undo."
Lisa-Marie Namphy, Dev Advocate, Community Architect, Director, Portworx

"I get to remember the sacrifice of not only those who blanket the headlines, like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., or Malcolm X, but the unknown heroes of our culture. The many men and women and children who suffered silently as well as those who persevered under public scrutiny mean so much that words could never genuinely encompass their impact, but I offer a few. I get to take a moment and remember that while we have come a long way, we have so much further to go. Appreciating the freedom gained but also the chance of restoring history, tradition, belief, and the spirit of our ancestry is what Black History Month means as well. It is an opportunity for the world to celebrate the strength and grit of a people who refuse to be bound unjustly, physically or mentally, and reminds me that this same strength and grit is alive, flowing, and always available in me today. Any area of my life where I feel bound or oppressed is never permanent. And while it may take time to break free and start a new paradigm, I have the stuff in me to make it happen and experience dreams, both small and large, for not only my own life but for the lives I encounter."
Melvin Hillsman, Open Source Community Operations Manager, Huawei Technologies

What's the best piece of professional advice you've received?

"The best piece of advice I've received was to build a global perspective. This has been hugely impactful for me. I personally analyzed milestones and growth points in my career and have found that large areas of my professional advancement came from relationships and opportunities with people with culturally diverse or international backgrounds. Similar to the previous question, this positioning brings out mixed emotions because some Americans intentionally or unconsciously hinder the growth and proliferation of American dreams held by those of us willing to out-smart or out-work others to get ahead. In this regard, racism is ridiculously irrational. I believe this is why cultural diversity makes organizations much stronger. The point here is that if we encounter institutional resistance to success, 'going around it' with a global perspective may be a viable approach."
—Keith Basil, Senior Principal Product Manager, Red Hat

"The best piece of advice I ever received is 'You must be twice as good to get half as much.' I have found that to be true with my life experiences. It has fueled my ambition and continues to shape the work I contribute and the choices that I make."
—Jocelyn Harper, Full Stack Engineer, Capital One

"Always lead with unquestionable integrity. It will provide you with undeniable authenticity in everything you do. It will provide others to trust you and respect you for all the good things, but also all the bad things. It will also make you feel comfortable for taking responsibility in good or bad times. I've always applied this to everything I do: family, teams, programs, communities, and technical projects. It's important to me that people know my character rather than worry about my reputation."
—Rosario Robinson, Senior Director, WIT Evangelist, Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology

"The best piece of professional advice I received was to 'sit at the table.' When I was fresh out of college, starting out at my first job, I attended an all-hands meeting. It was hosted in a large room with a sizeable conference table in the front, excess chairs along the side walls, and several rows of chairs in the back. Being somewhat new, I decided to sit in one of the chairs along the wall. One of the seasoned leads saw this and told me to come sit next to him at the table. 'Always sit at the table,' he whispered to me."
—Annania Melaku, Open Source Compliance Engineer, Comcast

"You can do more than you think you can. Whoever you are, whatever your circumstances, you are operating under your potential. Most people stop after delivering only 30%–40% of their potential. Push through barriers. Take the pain. Keep going. Because on the other side of that pain is the confidence that you can do more than you thought possible. And next time, you'll know it in your heart. It might not get any easier, but you'll have proof that it's possible."
—Lisa-Marie Namphy, Dev Advocate, Community Architect, Director, Portworx

"A career in technology is challenging for most people but even more so for a high school dropout, with no college degree, and not to mention a black male. I would say the best piece of professional advice I received was to get to know people and let them get to know you. It was not stated to me this way, but it is how I have come to frame the advice. I have never let my history be a crutch but rather the fuel for me as a self-learner, but I also had to realize I had insecurities—and still do today. But being a professional is more than just having information on theory, because a practical application is paramount to success. Getting to know people and letting them get to know you help to push past what is missing on paper so that folks understand what is in your heart. [They] can see how you have accomplished what you have so far and why you will continue to succeed because of who you are and not because of what you have."
—Melvin Hillsman, Open Source Community Operations Manager, Huawei Technologies

About the author

Shilla Saebi - Shilla Saebi is an open source program manager focusing on community, and has been with Comcast for a little over 8 years. She has spent over a decade in the tech industry in diverse positions ranging from operations engineering, system administration, and network operations. Shilla advocates for developers, is fixated on customer happiness, has a passion for technology and thrives on well-designed architecture and engineering solutions. She is also an open source contributor and actively...