By Erin Quinn-Kong
Whitney O’Banner is on a mission to bring diversity to the tech world. The former Apple engineer experienced isolation and self-doubt while working in Silicon Valley and found her place—and footing—at a Dev Bootcamp in San Francisco. Now the Austin campus director of Dev Bootcamp, O’Banner is helping others to find their place in the tech world. “The larger goal of what we’re doing—of what I’m doing—is to really change the face of this industry,” she says. “That’s not with color, that’s not with race or gender. It’s really putting people in the market who are empathetic and know how to collaborate well on teams, who have these cognitive skills to really change what this industry looks like and to change how this industry feels.”
When did you first become interested in tech and computers?
I was very young, and I received a PlaySkool Vtech Pre-Computer from my parents. I had a thing as a kid about reading manuals, so I read the manual for this computer that they got me just to play games on and discovered that I could actually program the computer. I couldn’t have been older than 8 or 9. And later on, when I was in the fifth or sixth grade, we were able to use the computers at school to program this logo, which was basically making a little green turtle. I was doing all of this when I was just a kid, but I didn’t realize at the time that I was programming. I had no connection to technology or STEM or interest in doing it as a career. I just thought it was fun and cool that I could do it on the computer. So I was introduced to it at a very young age, but I didn’t make a connection and actually get introduced to programming and development as a potential career until I was in college.
You ended up interning at Apple twice while in college and wrote a great essay for LeanIn.org about feeling isolation and some hostility there. Was it a very bro culture?
Short answer: yes. The bro culture I encountered was more in the environment of Silicon Valley than at Apple, specifically. Just living in San Francisco and being around a lot of people who were working at venture capital and working in technology. That environment already made me feel isolation being in the Bay Area during that time. At work there were people of color, and obviously women there on campus, but we were so spread out with the campus at Apple being so large and expansive, that the feeling of isolation crept in. I would go to lunch, and it would be rare to see someone like me. I knew we were there; I knew we worked at the company. I would see people in passing sometimes. It felt very isolated, and I would actively seek out diverse members of the Apple community who looked like me in order to engage with them. It wasn’t as if I could go to work every day and encounter other black women.
I thought it was interesting then at one point you left coding and moved to what you call a “tech adjacent” career. Talk a little bit about that.
Yeah, it got to the point where I shifted into a career where I was doing no programming. I ended up moving more toward quality assurance and developer relations from coding, and the people I was working with were so much more accepting. I was around peers who had similar backgrounds, and it just felt like a joy to go to work every day, which was a little disheartening considering I didn’t find that same joy when I was doing software. I was doing no development work, and I was reviewing apps for the app store. It was really engaging, but it wasn’t what I set out to do initially in my career.
You’ve said that in those few years, everything you knew about coding became obsolete.
I felt so far behind with what I needed to know to actually compete with other software developers to seek a job as a developer again. Not only was the language different, but the methodologies were different. So that was a big shock and realization that technology had moved so quickly. You have to be in this constant state of learning, and I wasn’t—I had stepped away from it for two years. So I wanted to dive back into that, and I found that the easiest and fastest way to do it was to go to a boot camp.
And you learned everything you needed to know during the 19-week boot camp?
I did. Because I attended the boot camp with a computer tech degree, I was sort of an anomaly of the program, and it allowed me to look at the program with a more objective eye than some of my peers. I was looking at this from the perspective of, “Will this actually work?” and “Will it actually prepare myself and my peers for the technical interviews I’ve already faced, and prepare us for the jobs I’ve already been in?”
Why is it so important for women and minorities to go into tech?
Women and minorities are often consumers of technology. We use Twitter and Facebook and various web applications and hardware. We use MacBooks and iPhones, but the power is being the producers of these technologies. By power, I mean we have the ability to shape what it is that we and our community use every day. Often times, we just lack the knowledge or the skills, considering there aren’t many of us in this industry. So it’s important that we gain these skills and obtain this knowledge so that we can create what it is we consume. There’s a limited perspective that goes into some of these products that we use every day. A limited perspective in that if a white man is creating this product, he’s creating from the perspective of a white man, from his experiences and his understanding of the way that the world works. But for myself, as a black woman, he may not understand some of my needs, some of my wants, my desires, my experiences, simply because it’s a difference in perspectives. That says nothing of his intent, but because we come from different backgrounds and because we come from different communities, there’s a perspective that is left out of these products and these things we consume. So women and minorities have to step up and step into this industry creating things that we want to see, solving our problems and responding to our needs.
women and minorities have to step up and step into this industry creating things that we want to see, solving our problems and responding to our needs.
What is your typical day like now, as the director of a boot camp?
My days are full. I oversee operations on a day-to-day here on-site, so that’s meeting with staff—I pay sharp attention to where we stand with enrollment focusing on the admissions piece of the boot camp—and I get to interact with students here on-site, which is great. That’s a big part of my day, understanding their experience and making sure it’s optimal. We also do a lot of employer outreach and networking here in the community to make sure that they’re aware we have graduates who are going to be entering the market with these skills and this level of empathy that would be valuable with their team. Because the larger goal of what we’re doing—of what I’m doing—is to really change the face of this industry. That’s not with color, that’s not with race or gender, right. It’s really putting people in the market who are empathetic and know how to collaborate well on teams, who have these cognitive skills to really change what this industry looks like and to change how this industry feels. So that when people come along who are like myself, they don’t feel that sense of isolation when they enter the industry.
What is the makeup of a typical camp?
The Austin campus right now is actually 40 percent women, which we’re extremely proud of. When Dev Boot Camp started in 2013, we averaged only 17 percent women. And then a couple of years later, in 2015, our population of women was 33 percent. So we are are ahead of the industry in that regard. As far as racial makeup, of the people who actually report their ethnicity, we’re about 20 percent of unrepresented racial groups in tech right now. So we are ahead of the industry in this regard, but we still have potential and room for growth. As a black woman and a campus director of the boot camp, I see nothing but opportunity to enable more unrepresented groups to come into Dev.
What do you do when you’re not working?
I’m working when I’m not working! But actually, I just bought a little Yamaha scooter, so I can scoot around the city and really take it in.
If you could kind of go back and talk to your 20-year old self, what would you say, knowing the challenges you’ve faced?
I have this motto that I’ve had for myself that I like to put out to the world, and I’ve passed this on to my students: You have to be brave before you can be good. And I don’t think I understood that well enough as my 20-year-old self. I would encourage myself to stay and show up, to be present, to set an example to other people coming behind me. Just exercise courage and good will come.
What would you tell a high school student or college student thinking, “I want to work at Apple.”
She can create her reality. If there are any limitations or obstacles or anything like that she’s up against, it’s all rooted in her mind and in her perception. It sounds so cliché to say, but she really has the power and ability to work at Apple if she wants to work at Apple. Also, don’t consider a rejection a failure. There will be another way. If you want it, go get it. That’s all it comes down to.