(Internship) Musings: Working at a tech company as a person of color

[Writer’s Note: This is a series of articles about my experience as a content publishing intern at Microsoft, but also how this experience is colored by my identity. I hope that this will serve as an outlet for reflection and will provide a few helpful tidbits for anyone else doing an internship right now.]

Diversity and inclusion are integral to my identity and values. As a Pakistani Muslim woman, I’m all in when it comes to conversations about being an underrepresented minority (and fighting to feel valid in a world that wasn’t made for me), while also recognizing that my own privilege because my parents attended professional school and provided me with college-prep education that led me to attend the University of Washington today. I feel very strongly about my identity and how I talk about it but whenever I enter a new job or class, I find myself asking, “do I deserve to be here?” This question has nothing to do with my skill set or relevant experience, but my identity who has to fight to feel valid.

When applying for jobs for Summer 2017, I searched for job descriptions with familiar words like “accessible writing” and “passionate about technology,” as well as that embodied everything I wanted to be like “excellent writer who understands how to use everything from a perfectly placed fragment to in-depth storytelling” – the position for content publishing intern for Microsoft fit the bill. I wasn’t sure if I hit every bullet on the job description in my cover letter but when I hit submit on this application, I realized that I wasn’t afraid of failure. I mean, it was a company that reached millions of people with its hardware and software, so I had to give it everything I got and believe that this was enough.

Regardless of the outcome, I welcomed the interview as an opportunity to learn how to sell myself more effectively and align my past experiences or strengths with the desired attributes or values of a company. I strived to bring my identity as a storyteller and writer to the table, while also recognizing that my identity informs my interest in empowering underrepresented voices in higher education and STEM fields. I’m learning to own my skills and strengths and recognize that I have hustled every day to get here, but I also understand that so many people with similar skills could not make it because they lacked the resources/support/mentorship they needed to thrive.

So, enter me as a content publishing intern at Microsoft. It’s hard to turn down an offer like this:  the opportunity to work for a company whose software impacts billions of people, coupled with the free sodas and opportunity to wear jeans every day, makes it all worth it. But even though I was chosen to bring all of my storytelling skills and values of mentorship and inclusion to my work (reminder: your skills and perspective are always a strength), I have to make the choice to believe in myself every single day. I didn’t grow up in Redmond, my parents aren’t in this industry, and I can’t even make my rent without financial support from my family despite working 18 hours a week. As a minority, I always feel like I have more to prove than the average person, as if I need to work 200 percent harder to work up for my brown skin and vocal fry because people who look at me wouldn’t necessarily take me seriously.

I think we all need to do better to create a community that supports people of color and gives them the space to thrive in their work and recognize ensure that benefits like job promotions feel like this is a viable option. There is significant literature about how the workplace benefits from having diverse perspectives – underrepresented minorities know how to solve problems that people with privilege haven’t even considered. We need these voices at the table, especially when it comes to technology and the work of engineering companies. I’m here to do that on my team. As a minority, I can empathetically recognize ways that populations are being excluded but more than that, I have the problem-solving and storytelling skills to translate this awareness into action. I intend to do this in every single job I have, whether it’s at Microsoft or journalism or higher education. I am not here because of a diversity quota but because I worked the last two years to develop strong writing samples that demonstrate my values while constantly seeking feedback from mentors and teachers about how I can be a more effective “interdisciplinary communicator with a passion for social impact,” as my tagline suggests.

Upon arriving at Microsoft, I had a few main goals: 1) Be technically good at my craft of writing and leverage my journalism skills to create compelling content that will help people find what they need. I also wanted to understand what writing looked like at a large engineering company, and how my co-workers saw their previous work or academic experiences as strengths that could inform their approach to working. Amid these professional development goals, 3) I wanted to find empowering women of color and understand what motivates them to do this work, even if they lacked mentors who looked like them when they started.  I hoped to answer questions like, What helped them keep fighting when people doubted their abilities? Most importantly, what stories do they tell themselves to stay in the game or keep choosing this work? I wondered if women at Microsoft experienced moments of self-doubt the way I do. In my mind, they were warriors and trailblazers and leaders, the kind of empowering women I wanted to learn from. So, did they struggle like I did?

One thing I noticed among the women here is their self-confidence. When Dona Sarkar, head of the Windows Insider Program, was presenting during a speaker event for interns, she made the comment, “I could work anywhere, and so could you.” This really struck me – I never thought of my experiences or skills as inherently, so the idea that I could be seen as valuable to a future employer, was almost lost on me. When hearing this, I sat up a little straighter. Maybe I deserve to be here, I thought. It’s important to remember that you are always chosen for a reason, and you don’t need permission to make yourself great or successful – especially as a person of color or an underrepresented minority. I hope that I can keep this advice in mind as I move forward.

So, if you ever experience moments of self-doubt the way I do, remember what Dona said: When someone says that you can’t do something (including yourself), ask why. And don’t forget that you have worked for the opportunities that you have, and internships or promotion offers are ways that people are honoring your skills. Choose to believe that you are profoundly capable and can emulate the leaders who inspire you.

So, yes, I’m sea level at an engineering company as a Pakistani Muslim woman, and I deserve to be at the table with the best of them (in reference to all the software developers, UX designers, and content strategists at the table).  I’m lucky that I get to spend my summer growing through this work while keeping that familiar sight of Mount Rainier in view at all times, I don’t take any of this for granted. Cheers to all the growth that’s occurred in the last few weeks and will continue to occur, but also to the products and devices and text we will create that will always put the user at the center of the system and strive to create delightful experiences.

What kind of workplace do you want to be in, and what values are you looking for? I think this consideration is integral as you start to choose the workplace you’ll enter, or even the culture you want to exist in. Remember this, and that you deserve to feel validated, no matter what company you work for.




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