Preview: Soaking Up Game

By Ayori Selassie

Ayori Selassie

Ayori Selassie

Last week I sat with a group of young girls in Amman, Jordan to have a frank and open discussion about Faith and Technology. The session started with 10 seconds of silence to allow for everyone in the room to get in touch with their spirit, inner drive, concerns, aspirations, God, beliefs or whatever was important for the individual to get in touch with. Then we started the discussion. What is Faith to you? What is Technology? Is there a relationship between the two? The dialog was personal, compelling, compassionate and supportive and was shared with women and girls of various belief systems, technical backgrounds and experience levels and social economic backgrounds. At the end of the session one girl remarked that this was “Just what I needed” because she’d been struggling with the parallel of being a gifted young woman in tech, but having family members that don’t see technology as critical, but saw God and religion as having greater importance.  When your spiritual practice drives a meaningful dialog between yourself and a higher power, whether that higher power is God, or science, or the universe, technology and innovation clearly become a means, not an end. We don’t innovate to innovate; we innovate to have a positive impact on our world, to fulfill our mission in life, to go where no man or woman has boldly gone before. In my heart and soul I know that without that connection between my spirit and God that I would not have had the courage or audacity to do the things that I have done in my life which have brought me to being the mother of an incredible and gifted young girl, to having a successful career that was borne out of integrity, hard work, drive and skill, or to having a commitment to making our world a better place by investing in people.  Leading the discussion with the girls in Jordan gave me an opportunity to re-engage my own inner drive for the creation of innovation and usage of technology – life, people and love. If I am going to share with you my successes and how I overcame challenges I have to be open with you about my motivations.

One of the defining moments in my life consist of me getting ready for bed one evening in our overcrowded (counting my mom and her 8 children there were at least 9 individuals housed there at any given time), overpriced 3 bedroom apartment in West Oakland, CA. Just as my head hit the pillow the front door slams open and 15 boys run into my house that I don’t know, followed by about 10 special task force agents. I pop up out of bed and watch in confusion and shock as strangers run into my home and out my windows. My heart beats out of control and eventually my eyes and ears are able to focus on my mother who is talking to an agent. The agent grips one young boy in cuffs. “I didn’t do anything! Tell him I didn’t do anything!” the boy pleads with my mother. “Then why were you running!” the agent asks forcefully. “Because I saw everybody else was running and I got scared so I ran too!” the boy responds. He was clearly scared out of his daylights and the tears in his eyes illustrate his fear and shame of being arrested.  I was 6 years old and this memory sticks out because it was my first introduction to the prison industrial complex which gripped the African American community in a web of drug abuse, gun violence, trauma, abuse of power and potential wasted by broken family and community structures, failed educational institutions, glorified illegal occupations with zero entry criteria and stereotypes.  For any single event, just like a drop of water in the sea, there is a ripple effect on the people around it.
I have broken this event down in my head to try and understand the impacts; the children who witnessed this complicated ordeal of both innocent and guilty being hunted by “the law”, there were the law enforcement agents who would monitor and pursue children and adults in and out of unstable and unsafe conditions in a race against infinity that never left the agents or the communities safe in the “war on drugs”, the single mothers (and guardians) who struggled to keep their boys and girls safe from a predatory environment with highly sophisticated tactics of influence and moral destruction, the kids themselves who whether innocent or guilty had to deal with the trauma of imprisonment and eventually recidivism that would follow most into and throughout their adulthood, taking them in and out of the criminal justice system. And lastly the rest of the world that at times seemed to both ignore and fear poor people. I frequently look back on this event in my life and search for solutions calm the ripples and heal the trauma, strengthen the will to succeed, and eliminate the urge for people to try and rise to the top by stepping on the faces of others. 

Out of the desire to help my community I developed an intense hunger, desire and drive to succeed and to live a better life that was challenged only by the intensity of my commitment to leave things, people and places better than when I found them. Translating these principles into a career meant that I couldn’t afford to wait for others. If a trail hadn’t been made I had to blaze the trail. If people warned me that I would fail, I had to thank them for their advice and risk failure. Nothing was worse than stagnation, than accepting a pre-existing condition, being fooled into weak negotiation by one’s own fear, not taking the shot when you see an opening. There were times when I didn’t eat unless someone brought me food and put it directly into my hand because when I was working on a project and I was in the zone, neither sleep nor hunger could get me to break my concentration, even if just to reach for nourishment. There was entirely too much on the line, too many mouths to feed, too many people who desperately needed education, and far too many lives to save.

That isn’t to say that I didn’t feel pressure, or selfishness, or fear. One day I found myself at Moffett Field in San Jose, CA getting ready to join the armed forces. I took the entry test and scored in the highest percentile which according to the recruiter meant I could pick any career I wanted, and they encouraged me to pursue engineering and technology. I was 19 years old and the potential to escape from the hood, have my own bed (I’d spent the last few years sleeping on the couch), have money for college, and an income that was more than 3 times what I was making at the time was more than compelling. I felt in my heart, this could be my out; this could be the great escape from the hood! I tempered the urge with the reality that I would be operating within an institution that would take me away from home for years and that the military was inexplicably linked to violence, and ultimately death. I backed out at the last minute with a promise to myself. If I didn’t “make it” by the time I was 25 I would return and enlist. My definition of making it meant the establishment of a successful career, a path to further success and financial security. With that promise I walked out of the military recruitment office in East Mount Mall and walked into a career in the fastest growing tech company in the world, 

There was some stuff in between walking away from the military and of course. There was community college for example where despite my misguided counselors telling me that “computer science requires a lot of math, you should try something else because math is really hard”, I pressed on and continued to study software development on my own time. I can remember the day I reported my first production bug to a major software vendor. I’d been working late at “the shop” (where my brother and I operated a computer consulting operation) and I discovered an issue where Adobe Photoshop would crash under certain conditions if Macromedia Fireworks was open at the same time. It had to do with some conflict in resource allocation or usage. I reported the product variance to Adobe with steps to reproduce the issue, screenshots and lo and behold, they actually replied to my bug to confirm that the issue was a bug, and to thank me for reporting it. Shut the front door! I felt a strange sense of satisfaction roll over my body that would become more prone the next year when I landed a role doing quality testing at a local startup called EI (Energy Interactive). By the way, I used the story of the Adobe bug to get the job at EI. 

My time at EI was key on many levels because I learned the dynamics of working with people of various nationalities, learned more intimately the production release processes of on demand software, what is now called “cloud” thanks to my new boss Marc Benioff. At EI I wore many hats, and I didn’t complain. I didn’t stay late often but when I did, I thought it was kind of cool. Years and years of struggling had developed within me an intense work ethic and need to succeed I continued going to school and working to support the household. I went through two acquisitions in this company, and 3 rounds of layoffs. I learned the good lesson of making oneself indispensable by doing excellent work without much guidance. I learned the value of leveraging your team mates and asking questions, scheduling time, and “soaking up game” as I like to call it. 

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