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Black network engineers juggle building networks, being seen

2020 didn't transform diversity and inclusion in companies, according to some Black network engineers. But diversity in their careers and networks goes beyond hiring practices.

2020 was a monumental year in ways beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. The surge in social and racial justice movements compelled people to reflect on the role race plays in their daily lives and led companies to review their hiring practices and company culture.

Despite this surge, many Black network engineers and professionals didn't see a change in how their companies engaged with racism or anti-racism in hiring or culture -- for better or worse. However, social media sites saw a major uptick in posts, hashtags and reactions to racial justice movements. These platforms already housed strong communities of networking and technology professionals and have enabled many Black network engineers to find people who looked like them in the same careers, regardless of whether they saw this representation in real life.

Senior network engineer and CCIE By 30 blogger Deirra Footman said social media played a critical role in building both support and education networks throughout her career and in helping her overcome impostor syndrome.

"Overcoming impostor syndrome was a big one because I realized ... everyone's asking questions. You have people with three and four CCIEs [Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert certifications] who are like, 'Yeah, I still Google.' So, it definitely helped in the confidence category, support and finding new ways to learn," Footman said.

Still, a network on social media is no replacement for respect and representation in one's daily life. So far, the lessons learned from 2020's heightened social and racial justice movements haven't significantly moved the needle for many companies internally, according to Footman and other Black network professionals.

Danny HardyDanny Hardy

Black network engineer experiences pre-2020 vs. post-2020

When Danny Hardy and Derek Winchester started in networking in the 1990s, they entered what they both called the "old boy network." Hardy, an associate director of network engineering, said this network involved friends hiring friends, or friends of friends, and not people they may not know -- particularly people of color -- who were qualified for the roles.

Derek WinchesterDerek Winchester

Winchester, owner of Gotcha-6 Technologies, based in Leominster, Mass., said that, even though years have passed, many companies still have pockets of these networks.

"What the good old boy network does is invalidate people based on looks, based on who they are," Winchester said. "There's opportunity for diversity. 'OK, we have a slot [open] -- we can put a female here.' Or, 'We can add a Black person here.' But it's still … good old boy culture."

Scott WareScott Ware

Not all Black network professionals have felt this exclusion in their careers, though. Security engineer Scott Ware said he felt lucky that he never felt left out because he's Black but recognized his experience isn't universal -- especially for women. Tiffanie Thorogood, a network administrator, said the culture at one of her previous jobs made her feel like she was under tight constraints and that she had to keep her mouth shut to keep her job.

Tiffanie ThorogoodTiffanie Thorogood
Deirra FootmanDeirra Footman

Similarly, Footman said she had a "crash course" in the old boy network from a former co-worker who was combative with younger network engineers -- herself included -- and made her feel disrespected, lonely and unmotivated to return to the job. While she persevered and found projects that didn't include that co-worker, she saw little change in her professional life after 2020's increased visibility of racial justice movements. She wasn't surprised, either.

"There are times where I feel like -- particularly in my situation -- [companies] value continuing to make money, and they'll take steps to make sure you're comfortable. But how far does a person have to go before they're actually reprimanded formally?" Footman said.

Ware and Hardy didn't notice much change, either, because their companies already had diversity and inclusion efforts in place. Hardy praised his current workplace as the best he's experienced in terms of diversity and inclusion, while Ware said, even though he's still fairly new at his company, he could tell it prioritized diversity in hiring and company culture.

However, Ware noted that some previous companies he worked for made diversity efforts feel empty, more like a checkbox than a genuine initiative. To combat this, he suggested companies provide all employees with spaces to freely express their feelings about company culture and share their experiences regarding discrimination in the workplace or ways they feel the company can improve with diversity efforts.

"I think giving employees a platform to express their feelings and frustrations [can help] -- even if it is with the company. That's one thing that I think [my company] does really well is you always feel like you have a place and people to talk to about things and ... it's not going to come back at some point," Ware said.

Building support networks for employees -- and employees of color, in particular -- can help them feel more comfortable and supported in the workplace and ensure they won't be penalized for speaking out about negative experiences.

Du'An LightfootDu'An Lightfoot

Creating a network of network professionals

Social media platforms have also become places where Black network engineers build support networks and can share their experiences in a safe, comfortable setting. One such community that social media helped spark is LabEveryday, a blog, YouTube channel and community founded by network engineer Du'An Lightfoot.

LabEveryday originated in the 2010s, inspired by Lightfoot's former music career -- where he called his studio "the lab" -- and his consistent mindset of working every day to improve his skills. Lightfoot said, if he wasn't working every day, he'd lose the progress he made in developing his skills. So, LabEveryday came from his commitment to the lab, and entering the lab, every day.

And, although it sometimes takes longer than we actually want it to, you can't turn the ship around like you can a car. It's going to take a lot longer.
Danny HardyAssociate director of network engineering

Since its inception, LabEveryday has taken off across the networking community and inspired thousands of network engineers globally -- including Footman, who said she barely knew any other network engineers online before she found Lightfoot's YouTube channel. When she stumbled across his page, she found Black network engineers and female engineers -- what she called "a whole other world" from what she had known in her day-to-day jobs.

In turn, Footman's CCIE By 30 journey inspired Thorogood in her own networking career. Thorogood said it's amazing to watch the success and career progression of a woman who looks like her, and social media as a whole has not only increased her community, but helped advance her career, too.

"It's a great community. Any career, resume, salary or certification questions -- anything that I need -- I could just tweet it out or DM [direct message] someone. … The community is so tightknit. Everyone has just been super helpful, very motivating -- everyone just pushes each other, so it's been amazing," Thorogood said.

In addition to Twitter, Lightfoot and Winchester both said LinkedIn groups can aid network professionals in building professional networks. Winchester noted that LinkedIn opened a world of network engineers -- and Black network engineers -- that he never knew existed. Social media platforms have helped people find communities that don't exist in their daily lives and enabled them to feel seen.

While LabEveryday doesn't encompass Lightfoot's entire career -- which spans from his time in the U.S. Air Force, to his first civilian help desk job, to networking -- he said the experience has been a blessing.

"If I could say anything about LabEveryday and my career, I think it's the fact that I inspire other people to get out and want to help people. I think that's the most impact that I've had. I inspire so many other people to want to do the same thing and actually do it way better than me. That's been amazing," Lightfoot said.

What it means to be seen within companies

Hiring practices and company culture are not the only systems many people thought required change after 2020's racial justice movements. Systemic change is necessary to provide people with more opportunity to succeed, Lightfoot said. Yet, at a corporate level, hiring and culture changes are places to start.

Something both Hardy and Winchester noted was the idea of being seen. On one hand, Hardy and many of his co-workers "don't see color," he said. To him, what matters is how people do their jobs, their dedication and the experience they have. He also noted he leads one of the most diverse teams at his company.

On the other hand, Winchester said he thinks a problem with this world is that no one sees him. "My whole career, I've dressed, I've talked, I've written, I've communicated like a white male would. … [Just] because you see black, brown, what have you, faces in a room, that doesn't mean it's diverse. Diversity is when you see people. ... Just because you have diversity does not mean you see different races. And that's the problem in this field," Winchester said.

Winchester continued to say that, culturally, people may dress one way at home and a different way at work. In the workplace, everyone looks, talks and acts the same, he said, and that sense of different cultures is lost. He said he wants to see people dress in the workplace in ways that would make their parents and grandparents proud.

This issue of being seen isn't strictly an IT or networking dilemma, and Hardy and Winchester aren't necessarily arguing separate points. At some point, companies could reach a balance between the two sides -- hiring people for their skills and enabling them to represent their cultures in the workplace, to see both their talents and their backgrounds. However, this ideal may remain distant for the foreseeable future.

"I think upper management knew this was going to happen -- that you'd have to integrate all people," Hardy said. "And, although it sometimes takes longer than we actually want it to, you can't turn the ship around like you can a car. It's going to take a lot longer, right? So, I've seen that in the industry. I think it's still growing."

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