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Sole Black VMware principal engineer aims to diversify tech

VMware's only Black principal engineer talks about his rise in the cloud-native world, how to bring in a new generation of minorities and the future of technology.

Uh yes, yes, y'all, and you don't stop
To the beat, y'all, and you don't stop

Those are the opening lines of the rapper, actor and activist Common's paean to hip-hop, "I Used to Love H.E.R." -- released in 1994, long before the artist H.E.R. of today broke on the scene. It's also the track Bryan Liles, the sole Black principal engineer at VMware as of mid-2021, said describes his relationship with hip-hop, the music that helped shape his view of the world and, to this day, drives his outlook on life and approach to technology and business.

This is the first piece I've written for TechTarget in the first person, because the story is familiar. In fact, it welcomes me home. Speaking with Liles was like speaking with a cousin I hadn't talked to in a while. You've got to tell that story first-hand.

For instance, Liles said when he was 11 years old, he taught himself the C language. His dad, a drill sergeant in the U.S. Army stationed in Maryland not far from my hometown of Baltimore, came home with a computer and said he could only use it if he learned to write programs.

Well, he knew his son, because Liles got hold of the Army technical manuals for the C language his dad brought home, figured things out and began to produce working software. (That reminds me of a story Grady Booch, IBM's chief scientist for software engineering, told me of being around the same age and dumpster diving at an IBM facility near his home, finding Fortran texts and learning to program from those.)

The higher you go, the bigger the odds

In October, Liles was promoted from senior staff engineer to the more prominent position he now holds at VMware, but his engineering goal remained the same.

"It's great that I have lots more power and much more influence, but I don't see myself as, like, that boss man," he said. "I don't really carry myself like that. I just want to continue doing good work."

Bryan LilesBryan Liles

On any given business day, Liles will interact with 30 to 40 people, listening and sharing ideas and deciding which course to take. At the time of this writing, his focus is the 5G field for VMware.

"Now everybody's getting 5G on their phones, but there's so many interesting things that we can do with it," he said. "I spend a lot of time thinking about that, and then either writing code or writing documentation or mentoring."

Humble beginnings

After learning C at an early age, Liles began to write computer games. This was pre-internet, so he picked up skills from books and magazines. Then, when he reached high school, the Linux OS arrived. It appealed to him because he had a cheap PC with a 20 MB hard drive and 4 MB of memory that couldn't run Windows well. He ran Linux on the command line throughout high school. And, in the meantime, he learned how to program kernel drivers, because his sound card didn't work.

"I just thought everybody did this," he said.

Liles applied to the Indiana Institute of Technology. He attended for a year, but the workforce beckoned and he took a job in tech support at an internet company in Fort Wayne, Ind., which he refers to as one of the greatest experiences of his life.

"That's the first time I really realized that my skin color wasn't a barrier," he said. "I wasn't going to let it be a barrier."

Journey to the cloud

By the age of 19, Liles said he headed up all of tech support. He then took on a similar but broader role at Digex, one of the first large web-hosting companies in the country, headquartered in Laurel, Md.

Digex set the tone for Liles' future. There, he got an intuition for what would become the cloud. It also was the beginning of his opportunity to work on bigger issues and a broad variety of equipment he'd be hard pressed to find in short order. He learned to use all kinds of hardware and OSes, including Solaris, CentOS, HP-UX, BSD, Ultrix and more.

"I've had a really unique journey from [Digex] on out to about every job I've had," he said.

Liles also did stints at USinternetworking, an early application service provider and pioneer of the SaaS industry, in Annapolis, Md., as well as some consulting before landing at DigitalOcean. There, seven years ago, Liles wrote a command-line tool that is still in use today.

From there he went to work for Capital One as a developer/engineer but left after he got pulled into management. And from there he joined Heptio, the company started by Joe Beda and Craig McLuckie, two of the three co-creators of Kubernetes. Heptio provided services for companies adopting Kubernetes.

Interestingly, Heptio was the first time Liles worked with a Black vice president of engineering, Kevin Stewart, who is currently vice president of engineering at Harvest.

"You don't come across them very often; it was mind-boggling," he said.

However, in 2018, Stewart left Heptio for a similar role at Fastly. Stewart said he had an opportunity to hire Liles, except Liles was interviewing with one of the Big 3 cloud providers at the time.

A code to live by

Liles grew up just south of Baltimore in Glen Burnie where he saw life come hard for some -- some who met their end before exiting high school, he said. Liles' code is to be true to self and to set the tone for those coming behind.

Every time we can find a person of color, or someone who doesn't present themselves as male, and they have a leaning towards technology, we encourage them.
Bryan LilesPrincipal engineer, VMware

In that regard, Liles mentors young people both inside and outside VMware, though he had no formal mentor of his own as he moved up the ranks, he said. He also feels obligated to hold himself to certain standards and to be seen in a certain way by others.

"I never want to be 'the angry Black man,' and that just makes me do better," he said.

That reminded me of Vernon Jordan, a Black business executive, lawyer and civil rights activist who had a similar code. Jordan knew style, presence and perception were equal to substance in terms of building powerful coalitions, and he sought to maintain an image for Black and white folks alike to see someone like him in the halls of power.

I remember seeing Jordan one night in New York City. It was a quiet summer evening in a Park Avenue residential neighborhood and there was no mistaking it was Vernon Jordan coming my way.

Before I knew it, I had awkwardly blurted out to no one in particular, "That's Vernon Jordan!" And just as awkwardly, I gave him the brotherly head nod and balled my hand up into a power fist and pumped it slightly in front of my chest. Jordan flashed his trademark smile, nodded back and, as I remember it, made an almost imperceptible fist of his own.

As imperceptibly as Jordan acknowledged the awkward respect I showed, Liles sets the same kind of tone in the cloud engineering ranks and through giving back. He's doing it, but he doesn't advertise it.

One way to begin chipping away at the issue of diversity in tech? "Every time we can find a person of color, or someone who doesn't present themselves as male, and they have a leaning towards technology, we encourage them," Liles said. "And then we use what little privilege that we have to get them their first and second jobs. That's how we're going to have to change it."

Liles said he has noticed more Black developer job candidates in the tech industry recently. "Not enough, but more," he said.

Liles has demonstrated his value to the tech and cloud-native community, co-chairing the 2019 KubeCon conference in San Diego and earning a place of honor and respect among peers.

Nicole Forsgren, a DevOps consultant and vice president of research and strategy at GitHub, said of Liles, "He's one of those rare people who can shift my thinking a bit, turn things on their head to a new perspective and uncover a corner I didn't quite know I was missing."

Meanwhile, Liles is old school; he said his favorite programming language is Go, and his favorite tools include the Vim editor and the fish shell.

His favorite part of his job is helping other people get wins; it's all about rising the tide to lift everyone up.

"A lot of people think that only large efforts move things forward. I learned that building up people around you, creating community and making people around you better pushes you forward, too," Liles said.

Even as he builds a team to accomplish major goals, Liles still has to pinch himself.

"I've been the first Black person in a lot of situations," he said. "But getting to this level of VMware -- I have 38 peers out of almost 40,000 people -- that's big."

Oh, the hip-hop? It's still there. It still drives Liles to tell his story authentically, unapologetically. Don't try to go toe-to-toe with him on the Notorious B.I.G. or Outkast or Kendrick Lamar, because he'll hurt you.

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