Kyle Woumn — a speaker at AfroTech 2019 and a software engineer at Twilio — is no stranger to technology or the culture. If you take a look at the engineer’s LinkedIn, his tagline says it all.
“I came up with that tagline, ‘Creating Dope Technology For The Culture,’ earlier this year because I was trying to think about who I am and the kind of work I wanted to do and put out into the world,” Woumn said.
The world of technology is not new to Woumn. As an only child, born and raised in a traditional nuclear family in Atlanta, GA, he has always been a creator. His intense passion for learning and technology prompted his mother to enroll him in STEM summer camps in the Atlanta area at a young age. He attended youth programs at Spelman College and Georgia Institute of Technology.
His enthusiasm for engineering persisted through high school and he eventually enrolled at the prestigious Georgia Institute of Technology to study computer engineering. However, he quickly found that his real passion was computer science and switched his major.
Introduction to Silicon Valley
Despite snagging several internships, including one at General Electric in Salem, VA — he admits that getting your foot in the door at technology companies is hard.
The engineer discovered Twilio at Georgia Tech’s annual career fair. While confessing that he had no prior knowledge of them, he was determined to work in the Bay Area. Plus, they had one of the shortest lines at the event which made it fairly easy to strike up a conversation.
Woumn continued researching them online and made a connection with a recruiter, who also happened to be an engineer at the company and a Georgia Tech alumnus. At the time, he didn’t have a solid portfolio of personal projects but was involved with the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). He also highlighted his leadership skills as a strength.
While in school, he completed two internships with Twilio, one in both 2015 and 2016, then joined the team as a software engineer upon graduation.
One of Woumn’s biggest passions is music. The combination of his passion for both tech and music led to a dope creation for the culture, Drakestagram, an app that spits out Drake lyrics based on keywords provided by users.
“I really like music, and I really like culture — being from Atlanta — and so I wanted to see how I can work at the intersection of technology and culture,” he said.
Clearly the creator is true to his tagline of creating dope tech for the culture.
Diversity and Inclusion in Silicon Valley
Woumn revealed that he was one of the only two Black engineers at Twilio when he started at the company. While the situation didn’t surprise him, it forced him to find camaraderie and friendship with other Black engineers through external organizations like DevColor, which has chapters in Atlanta, the Bay Area, New York, and Seattle.
DevColor’s activities gave him the platform to share his experiences with other Black engineers and get advice from industry veterans. One of the most practical skills he learned from them as a newcomer to Silicon Valley was compensation negotiation, a topic from which he had previously shied away.
“I would say that I also suffered from imposter syndrome — especially being surrounded by a lot of different people from different ethnic backgrounds,” Woumn said. “I was always thinking that they were smarter than me.”
He also points out that Twilio is more intentional in their efforts to correct internal imbalances.
According to TechCrunch, their goal is to make the company 50 percent women and 30 percent underrepresented minorities by 2023. They are trying to accomplish this through Hatch, a six-month software engineering apprenticeship that offers training and mentorship for underrepresented groups. They’ve also partnered with HBCUs to conduct more campus outreach and recruit more Black talent.
The Atlanta native has high hopes for the future of Silicon Valley but laments that the diversity and inclusion problem stems mostly from a lack of knowledge. He also acknowledges that tech companies are becoming more transparent by necessity.
“Sometimes people can throw around ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ as buzzwords but I think there’s a lot more pressure for companies to put out their numbers. We all know there is no pipeline problem,” Woumn said. “You and I both know tons of Black engineers and other people of color out there. The problem is the companies aren’t venturing into our spaces and meeting us where we are, like recruiting at HBCUs and going to conferences.”
He says companies need to put their money where their mouths are and commit to attending conferences like AfroTech and NSBE if they’re truly interested in correcting their diversity numbers. Woumn points out that companies will sometimes claim they don’t have the funds to attend minority-led professional conferences but often allocate generous budgets for other industry events.
Among the many issues Black techies face in Silicon Valley, he puts a lack of recognition at the top of the list. While he hasn’t faced this issue himself, he’s heard from several fellow Black engineers in other companies that they often don’t receive peer recognition for their good work. He says incidents like regularly being undermined or diminished as a Black engineer can be demoralizing and upsetting, leading talented Black techies to seek professional fulfillment elsewhere.
It’s no secret that Silicon Valley struggles to hire from diverse talent pools on top of its high attrition rate for Black and brown technology workers. Take Google for example — only 4.8 percent of its new-hires are Black. Their alleged toxic work environment has inspired frustration-filled memos and their attrition rate was highest among Black Googlers in 2018. However, Google is hardly unique from the rest of Big Tech.
How to Score Interviews in Silicon Valley
The engineer’s first bit of advice to aspiring software engineers looking for jobs in the Bay Area is to network. He encourages job-seekers to attend companies’ after-work events and make a good impression.
“If people really like you, they are able to give you a referral, and generally, internal referrals hold weight. So, someone’s almost guaranteed an interview when someone inside the company refers them,” Woumn said. “I’ve personally never gotten a job interview from applying online; it’s always been from in-person interaction.”
He also encourages new software engineers to have a portfolio of personal projects — separate from class projects — to set themselves apart from their peers.
As for technical interviews, he says, “practice, practice, practice!”
“Technical interviews are an art, and I personally don’t even believe that technical interviews should carry that much weight. They should carry some, but you can have a bad engineer who’s really good at interviews and a good engineer who’s bad at interviewing. But the person who does the best at the interview gets the job,” Woumn said.