Leslie Miley hopes that Silicon Valley will become a more inclusive environment for ethnic minorities and underrepresented groups. Now the Director of Engineering for Growth at the San Francisco-based tech company Slack, the outspoken digital specialist is in a position to ensure that more diverse people have a seat at the table.
The self-taught professional is the highest-ranking African-American engineer throughout the entire organizational communication platform’s company, responsible for all user interface components that every new user will use. Unlike his previous role as Director of Engineering for Product Safety and Security at Twitter, where he was also the only engineer of color in leadership, close to half of Slack’s leadership team is diverse.
“It doesn’t take a lot to be different from other companies in Silicon Valley,” shares Miley. “You can walk around Slack and see many brown faces, much more than you would normally see. You feel like you can be more of yourself. You can reach out to people, and they’ll understand. Slack is definitely doing better than most others.”
Four of Slack’s 12 directors and senior managers, Miley adds, are women. “It would be great if we had other African-Americans in engineering and leadership,” expresses the San Jose native a few hours following his participation in a panel discussing tech opportunities for men of color at this year’s Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) America. “I’m trying to change that. That makes for a much more comfortable working environment for me personally.”
As a kid, Miley had a nontraditional STEM education. The inquisitive young man would often frequent computer stores to avoid getting beat up by neighborhood gang members. Those visits became Miley’s safe haven.
“People were inviting,” remembers Miley, an avid reader who often took machines apart. “When you’re living in the suburbs, there aren’t many places to go. They encouraged me to not be afraid or intimidated by technology.”
Close to two decades later, Miley has acquired rotations at Apple, Google, ModCloth and Walmart. Several instances at those companies allowed the slightly comedic yet conscious decision maker to witness in Technicolor what white privilege, or what he calls “a self-reinforcing cycle,” looks like. Google in particular, Miley reveals, would only recruit from a list of certain universities like Stanford, Cal State or MIT.
Many of the high profile company’s new (often socioeconomically advantaged) hires landed high salaried positions with relocation expenses and bonuses included but no student debt. “They’re only looking for people that are like themselves,” says Miley. “Google would say they’re only gonna recruit from seven or eight schools. There was a list. They do that and recycle the privilege.”
Miley’s three-year stint at Twitter, on the other hand, wasn’t much different. Always advocating to staff and organize a diverse workforce, the outspoken engineer often inquired to his superiors at the microblogging social network about what efforts they were implementing to bring in people representing various races, ethnicities, genders, cultures and religions among others. He even suggested to Twitter’s senior vice president of engineering to create a Diversity Engineering Manager position.
His concerns and pitches often landed on deaf ears. Another devastating blow occurred during Black Tech Week in Miami in 2014 when Twitter’s CEO requested Miley verify a photo in a post for news media. Miley noticed a black body in the street with a police officer and the f-bomb refraining three times.
The photo was Michael Brown’s body. The moment still leaves Miley speechless, adding that his father lives on the next street outside of Ferguson, MO. “These experiences are very close to home as a human being and as an African-American,” says Miley. “Then, you have a company that keeps saying it supports diversity and wants change but is actively acting against it.” The trauma and stress began to take a toll on Miley’s morale in the workplace.
Co-workers were noticing how miserable Miley was at work. Miley himself points out his interactions with his colleagues as dysfunctional, empathizing with another female project manager dealing with ongoing sexism. Miley proclaims that those experiences created post-traumatic stress.
“They were under stress, and so was I,” says Miley. Once he submitted his resignation from Twitter in Oct. 2015, the company then tried to offer him a severance package and lay him off. Miley didn’t accept. “For the first time in 17 years, I felt free,” says Miley, drawing an analogy from Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. “I felt a freedom to finally speak my mind and finally have an authentic conversation around my experience in tech, what it has done to me and what it’s done to tech.”
Miley devotes a great deal of time these days to mentor and empower burgeoning tech entrepreneurs of color in cities like Detroit, New Orleans and Miami. Similarly to his appearance at CGI America, he often shares his experiences and lessons learned so that the next generation of tech experts can avoid some of the mistakes and pitfalls he’s encountered. He encourages women and minorities quite often to be resourceful and to contact the few people of color in Silicon Valley to build alliances and for assistance.
“They don’t know that we exist in Silicon Valley,” declares Miley. “I put a face on what we look like and give them the story because they probably have more in common with me than most of the people I work with, not by virtue of ethnicity but socioeconomic position and being self-taught.”
Miley continues, “We have access, networks and resources new entrepreneurs don’t have. We find each other not on purpose. There are people who exist in tech who will encourage you even though you have a nontraditional background and who will take a chance on you.”
Miley also shares some of the advice he imparts to those entrepreneurs. “Keep learning. What you think you know today will not be worth what it was tomorrow. Find sponsors, not mentors. Accept the mistakes you’re going to make.”
The tech industry is what Miley calls “a very exclusive, dysfunctional working place.” Despite the elitist attitudes, Miley, crediting his mother’s strength as his muse, enjoys his responsibilities at Slack, further acknowledging the support he has from his team.
Miley perseveres, hoping and reiterating that he continues to succeed but strives to build a stronger presence of color throughout Silicon Valley. “Black women and men churn out of tech at very high rates,” says Miley.
“Shit just falls into my lap. I’m not kidding. That’s the strength that allowed me to continue to work in tech and continue to build my skills so that I could have the career that I have. There’s a lot out here that’s not for us. Once we learn that and how to navigate it, we’re all going to be much better.”
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for The Burton Wire. He is also a contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.