I don’t think I was alone to have felt shell shock when I realized the world was about to take a huge time out due to this deadly thing that seemed to roam our streets, from country to country, with no end in sight. I also know I’ve not been alone in questioning everything: “What’s the point of this whole thing”?
There were a few instances prior to the beginning of the shutdown that seeded a question in my mind, but it started to take deeper roots as the spring bloomed. I’ve been mulling for a while. “How do I find the balance between what I do for a living and what can I do in my community?”
This is why I’ve always taken advantage of the opportunities granted by my Google badge: traveling to Africa to teach computer science, working locally with several organizations who focus on access to STEM for underrepresented groups, and volunteering in Google’s summer of computer science program.
That urge to want to contribute and uplift others has led to my current role of SME/Mentor. Yup! You heard it right! A sizable amount of what I do today is spent mentoring individuals but with the goal set on scaling the experience I’ve acquired through my journey in our ranks.
These questions, although born out of curiosity, also bear a painful truth. Like many, I struggled a lot through the pandemic. I say this understanding my struggles were not pegged to my survival. I’m thankful to have been in a field that has not experienced the effects of the pandemic in the way many others did.
Feeling useful to my community, feeling connected to my peers and my world as I’ve known it, fed my professional work. A typical day on campus was a true energy pill. I said hi to everyone, especially the support staff on the campuses, for whom I’m very thankful. I made a point to go find teammates wherever they were hiding. By the time I got to my desk I was locked in, ready to work with a lot to prove. I also got inspired by visiting other campuses and feeding off my team’s energy. I was on the verge of 21 separate offices visited before the pandemic.
The loss of most of my day to day interpersonal inspiration, coupled with some personal challenges made this period even more difficult. In this mirage I lost a dear friend to suicide. The impact of this left a hole in my soul. There are a few more episodes in my life that have left me stunned. As open and vulnerable I consider myself to be, and as outspoken as I am, I’m still unraveling each thread, I barely know what I’m feeling, let alone the words to describe it.
The radio silence of life and the many days spent alone, helped me understand what gets me through the day and what gets me through the quarter. I realized that for me to find fulfillment in my productivity, it must matter, it must make me feel like I’m contributing something useful, it must be interesting. But also it must make me feel full, glistening from within.
Work, as I’ve known it, made me feel super helpful. There’s another level of wings you grow when a kid you mentored is getting accepted to a prestigious computer science program, or one of your prodigies is now a sack of an engineer at a big tech firm. Things like this overjoy me.
Despite the enjoyment I was getting from these opportunities, I started to ask myself whether I was making the best use of my skills. What is it that only I could offer the world?
Sal Khan, creator of Khan Academy, and comedian Hasan Minhaj, host of the Patriot Act, discussed this question in an amazing 30 min interview (Hasan Minhaj on finding your gifts, being authentic, & understanding yourself | Homeroom with Sal. They discussed striking similarities between challenges they faced coming from Southeast Asian cultures and my own experience coming from West Africa. Our parents wanted us to all be doctors, lawyers and engineers and nothing else. I jokingly affirmed to my father that I shall return home with 2 PhDs. Every now and then, I still wake up in a cold sweat stressed about getting started on the first. Imposter syndrome is real, especially when your sister is the fearless Karen Massada, MD (and surgeon).
That interview opened a new thread in my mind about exploring my gifts, while at the same time giving me comfort knowing it’s okay if what I pursue doesn’t end world hunger. It’s okay if my favorite secret talent is curating music (I have a playlist for everything). I found a lot of comfort in the idea of finding things that come easy to me and contributing that to the world.
I decided to launch a project that would have nothing to do with Tech. Or so I thought at the moment. At first it was gardening. I wasn’t particularly good at it. I even managed to kill a succulent.
Then on a long drive, heading out to camp on the oregon coast, my good friend had the idea of starting a podcast. Podcasting seemed to have all the aspects that I wanted. It was creative and didn’t have to do with tech. Right? It bridged the human connection I needed. It brought me closer to my community, while also bringing stories, entertainment, and lessons to the world.
I launched the project under the disguise of fun conversations with friends that span all types of topics: religion, spirituality, growth, geopolitics, economics, love. Remember my hidden passion for curating music? I found a way to include it by reaching out to up and coming artists to let me feature their music on my show. I named this project the “Things We Don’t Say” podcast, TWDS twdspodcast.com.
I’ve debated sharing this in my Professional Networks since a lot of the original conversations revolved around my personal interests and not my techie/professional side. When I thought about mentioning TWDS podcast in these spaces, I realized that I felt a bit of shame around the project. Because of the erroneous thinking I’ve harvested growing up, I convinced myself certain things hold a different value than others. Like I had been taught, I believed that my value and contribution to the world didn’t matter unless it was through being a doctor, engineer, lawyer or somehow saved the world.
However, there’s a tremendous amount of rigor that has gone into bringing this to life, and I know a lot of my peers/mentors will be proud of the journey. Most importantly I’ve learned to be proud of my journey. I hope my future self can read this and find comfort in it, because I know I’ll be getting better at this for years to come.
Before this post gets too long, I must talk a bit about the “black story”. Relax. I’m not about to make you uncomfortable talking about race. Okay maybe, just a little.
As a people, African American, African, Afro-Carribean, Afro indigenous, it is paramount that we tell our stories today because we have a lot of missing pieces throughout history. In an episode of TWDS, my friend Raymond made a pertinent remark: “We are making history today”. Although the assiduous task of recovering our history is important it’s own right, it’s also the only way to be sure that history doesn’t repeat itself. We’ve been bad at recording our lived experiences and even worse about preserving it. This is why you’ll hear a lot of the stories on my platform come from voices you aren’t used to hearing from.
The hilarious part about this project is, it quickly turned technical.
I’m currently working on being my own podcast platform host because I know a thing or two about distributed systems in the cloud. In the process I built a distributed site on GCP, using Let’s Encrypt for auto renewing my certs. I debated Traefik vs Nginx proxy for routing, used Facebook developer tools to detect actions and act on them, and built a website analytics pipeline to understand my listenership.
I’ve also picked up some unusual skills, including some Adobe Creative Suite skills because that’s what the cool kids do. I now understand why so many of my dear co-workers are audiophiles. Sound engineering is the most geeky thing I could do. I had to learn to De-ess, de-verb, gain-translate to UFS, compress, normalize, before I could deliver a clip.
The business aspect is also a fascinating component. I now have more understanding about branding, impressions, click through rate, downloads vs listenership, understanding and growing your audience, and even a tad bit of marketing. I think it’ll be noteworthy to someday talk about all the hats I’ve held at this point in time to bring to you my first season.
You know that inertia from throwing an object you expect to go far, but just watching it fly a few feet at best! That’s what I feel. However, I’m proud that I lunged, put my hips into it and let loose. I’m really excited because it’s the first step I’ve ever taken out of my trade, so may we toast to many more. Maybe after this season no other episode will see the day, but I will always be able to look back at the courage it took to step out of my comfort zone.
Hope you’ve enjoyed this read.