3 Things the Inner City taught me about being a professional Engineer - Especially #3

How the ‘hood made me a better software engineer

I am a product of South Central Los Angeles in the 1980’s, an area infamous (at least at the time) for gang violence, police brutality and hopelessness. The dreams of many lay in the NBA and the NFL as we all practiced hook shots like Kareem Abdul Jabbar and no-look passes emulating the great Magic Johnson. If one was lucky, dreaming the dream overshadowed the nightmare of drugs, gang violence, welfare and crime. To achieve any level of success required a set of skills where hard knocks was the professor; skills that a suit and tie couldn’t cover up. Ironically life in the inner city prepared me for being an engineer in corporate America. It is fair to say that I wouldn’t recommend submerging any child into the abyss of violence yet I can’t deny that the ‘hood gave me the mental toughness and the drive in my belly that says “…never give up.”

Be home before the street lights come on

Often I was teased by friends because my mother had a hard curfew that was public on the “block.” I listened to lots of laughter from friends as I broke Carl Lewis’ Olympic records (unofficially) racing home. There was so much danger in the streets after dark, in my mother’s mind the street lights were an early warning system for certain violence and at a minimum the onslaught of gun fire and police mishaps. If I were to miss curfew, let me just say that her hospitable, southern background was replaced in favor of corporal punishment on steroids. Sadistically this instilled a healthy respect for both time and consequences. No matter what I was doing or where I was before the street lights were fully on, I was in the house with the door locked behind me!

Even though the tough hand of my mother isn’t a consequence of missed deadlines (perhaps it should be), the street-light respect for time would prove to serve me well. Somehow the pressure of a customer deadline paled in comparison to the sound of gunshots in the middle of the night. True success in software is no doubt inextricably connected to time. There are rare cases where the mantra of “it’s done when it’s done” works. After you count the 3 times that’s worked in history, you quickly realize that it’s better to manage time and be responsive to both company and customer commitments. A healthy sense of urgency is often rewarded with revenue and better still profit. When the street lights turn on in business terms, customers churn or worse. Fundamentally speaking timely delivery of good software is a component part of the formula for success. Many books predate this essay and essentially they all converge on a very simple concept; keep it simple stupid and you only have a product if enough people buy it and the subsequent revenue can sustain the business.

“Mounty mounty you momma is on the county”

What exactly does this mean? I have no idea where the origin of this chant comes from, but I do know this is what bullies would yell during school lunch as those in need of social services stood in line to get government food. The stigma of welfare was very real. I can’t count the number of lunch periods I skipped to escape the shame of using a lunch booklet. As the hunger in my belly would inevitably win over pride, I would suck it up-lump in my throat-and grab lunch. To survive required a great deal of positivity, thick skin and the will to continue to redefine yourself. It required a heightened focus on what you did well and a level of unwavering confidence. If you were on the county but you were able to dunk a basketball at 5′9″ with bravado, well maybe it wasn’t so bad. There were other options like “socking” someone in the jaw or perhaps being a genius. For the rest of the kids attending inner city schools, you had to repackage yourself to avoid calling the suicide hotline or just giving in to everyone’s poor expectations of you. One brilliant coping mechanism was “bagging.” Someone longer in the tooth might call this “playing the dozens.” Bagging required a gift for gab and quit wit. As part of this process, you accentuate all the positive attributes of yourself while pointing out their short comings. Oddly enough you develop the proverbial chip on your shoulder. It is this attitude plus moxie that would later provide me with engineering chops and plenty of corporate confidence.

As a small company you are often required to use the corporate sling shot to slay giants like Amazon. Challenging a behemoth is often an exercise in reveling in what you don’t have. To forge forward you must possess a confidence that enables you to produce and sell products that have less features. I embrace the practice of focusing on what you do well and then accentuating the hell out of it. Startups often stand in the welfare line relative to resources, budget, customers and features. Essentially you have a choice; cry about what you don’t have and give up or lean heavy on the positive and laser focus on what you do well. Old habits die hard as I tend to gravitate towards companies looking to slay the great giants. With a sling shot in hand, I take my thick skin and hood attitude into the flaming fire of customer complaints, bugs and production issues, never to be denied.

The Crip Algorithm

It wasn’t until I was 30 years of age that I could wear the color red. I lived in ‘Crip’ territory. This infamous, highly organized group reigned over my neighborhood. There were many unspoken highly enforced codes such as what color you wore and what shoes you purchased. You wore blue or you could be beaten, literally. From the outside looking in, it was clear to the press and police who were the enemies of the Crips (i.e. the bloods), but underneath and in the crevices of the neighborhood were rulesets and complexities that make big O notation look like simple addition. There were subdivisions of gangs within the entire Crip organization that didn’t exactly get along. Those subdivisions- if you will -peppered the neighborhood. What did this mean to me? Well if I wanted to play basketball north of my house I couldn’t wear all blue because that was a different territory and they wore brown. Most certainly I couldn’t wear red anywhere! That said I couldn’t all blue(no brown) if I was walking to school because that was yet another gang. [If wear brown + blue else if south wear all blue to make it to school.]

I’ve seen grown men cry in corporate America because they had a tough day, tough quarter or an asshole boss. Forgive me if this puts a smirk on my face. Although extreme and maybe for some traumatic, the politics I learned were taught by the streets. Again you could argue this was an unhealthy existence, but my takeaway is pretty simple; one must know what the end goal is and be willing to leap political hurdles and rival factions within company, understanding that somehow you are still on the same team.

I learned many lessons and will never forget the journey from South Central to college. Growing up watching grown men shoot dice in an alley to the college classroom where I learned about Eulerian paths is to say the least, an edge case. And while my existence bucked the norm, I can’t see a challenge before me that I can’t overcome.

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James

Williams

Motivation