Hidden Figures: Spotify Technical Lead Nikki Reid On How to Play Chess, Not CheckersFeatured

When it comes to being a woman of color advancing to a senior technical role, Nikki Reid says it’s all about the long game

Hidden Figures is a new column on Elpha that shares the experiences and insights of women of color in the tech industry, as told to Elpha writer Cassie da Costa.Nikki Reid (@inikkivalentine) Technical Lead at Spotify, arrived at her role in what she calls, “the most hilarious of ways.” That is, she found it through Myspace. When she was an undergraduate in college, she took up HTML and CSS to modify the design of her profile page. Ten years later, after she graduated from an MBA program, she was looking for a job in business. Her friend told her to look for something in tech.Reid applied for a business ops job at a small tech company in New York City, but once the hiring manager saw that she knew HTML and CSS, things took a turn. “I had also done some light manual testing for a friend who has an app, which just means using the app on your phone. You don't have to be that technical to do it. And so when they interviewed me, they said, ‘We see you know HTML and we see you've done manual testing, we want to hire you as a manual tester.’”But Reid wasn’t done yet. As soon as she began working, she noticed that the startup had no process. She took it upon herself to learn as much as she could about the business and technology so that she could implement better operations. “That turned into becoming a technical project manager, running a QA team in Jordan of about four people, and then eventually getting into the technical side. After doing that role for five years, I found my role at Spotify.”Elpha sat down with Reid to learn about her experiences as the rare black woman in a high level technical role and what she believes other women of color need to know—and do—to get there, too. --Introducing Nikki ReidI am a Technical Lead for the premium partnerships team. What that means is, anytime there’s a partnership between Spotify and another company, I consult with our partner’s tech team. One partnership Spotify just released to the market is with AT&T. So, for example, when we wanted to partner with them via their marketing channels, it required a lot of back-end integration so that all the billing, flows, and websites could work together between Spotify and AT&T. My job is to “speak API” and actually consult with our partners on how integrating our systems and testing them will work and how our products are set up on the back end. I have to be an expert on the technology and how it’s built. When I started at Spotify, there was a learning curve for me, but I had a lot of support from the organization. They hire for people and train for skills. When I started, I wasn’t expected to know everything, I just had to demonstrate I was willing to learn.The absence of other WOC in the technical spaceIn the seven or so years that I've been in tech, every time that I'm on a partner call, there is a woman of color on the other end only about five percent of the time. And if there is a woman of color on the other end, it's typically in HR, marketing, the commercial side—almost never technical. And if she is on the technical side, it's typically strictly in an engineering role because I think that's all that's being advertised. One of the biggest misconceptions is that if you want be in tech, you have to be a coder. That’s false; not everyone in tech is an engineer. And so I find that in a role like mine, I never see black women. We had a summit earlier this year for people joining Spotify, which was about forty people globally coming from at least ten different countries, and I was the only black woman in the room.Even to this day, most of the time when I meet people and I tell them what I do, they say "First of all, what is that? I've never even heard of that job." And also, "Wow I've never met a black girl who does that."Creating a space for black women in tech at SpotifyI joined the company in October. So I'm still a relatively new employee; most of my involvement with the Black employee resource group has been conversational so far. There are two leads for the ERG, and one of the first things I talked to them about was needing a group specifically for women. So that was started about two months ago. It’s great because I think there’s a separate conversation that black women have to have with each other. In 2020, I want to start contributing to programming. Outside of Spotify, I'm also a life coach. So there’s a lot of work that I would love to bring into Spotify to start conversations and offer support for the black women who are here. Just from the individual conversations I've had with a lot of women in the group, we're all more or less going through the same thing. But these conversations aren't happening.Advice for working up the ranks on the technical sideHere’s one of the things that helped me: explore and talk to as many people as possible. Pull aside anybody and book 15 to 30 minutes of their time to find out more about what they do and which skills are required. That's anybody from project managers to people on the product team, engineers, front end developers, designers, and brand strategists. Ask, What is your job? What are the paying points of your job? What are the skills needed to do your job? And that actually may bring about a position for you that didn't exist before. A lot of times in tech, especially if you're at a start-up, they may not know what they need, but if you do enough research yourself and you talk to enough people, you can create a case for a new role. The more that you uncover needs, the more likely you are to move up in the company.Also, your personal relationships are everything in tech. I find that if you want to move up in tech, you absolutely have to have the buy-in of RND or the engineering team. If they don't like you, you're not going far.A lot of times I see people come in, and if they're project managers or they're not quite engineers, they tend to have more of a combative relationship with engineering because obviously the goals are very different. I've seen women of color be cut off from promotions simply because the engineering organizations did not like them. And when it comes down to it, behind the scenes, their opinion matters because you're working the closest with them as you implement their software. If you don’t establish mutual respect, it can be a huge blocker to your career. How to deal with power dynamics as a woman of color in techIt’s important to master interpersonal relationships. There are power dynamics in every organization, regardless of who you are. Most of the time, as people of color (especially women of color), we're not taught about those power dynamics. So we go in, we see something wrong, and we go full force, one hundred percent, pointing out the problems. Even if your ideas are correct, that method of tackling issues can be perceived very poorly. A lot of times you could also be stepping on the feet of people you may not deem important because of their title or, "Oh they're not in my group, they're just an engineer, their opinion doesn't matter." That kind of thinking puts people off the quickest. And so what I would say is: Spend a lot of time observing who is actually in power. And not just people with fancy titles, but who are the actual decision makers? Who has the power to influence your job; who should you be trying to convince?It’s also important to know when to step back. I think a lot of time with black women, we are not willing to engage in the power dynamics—or office politics—and, unfortunately, that can hold us back. There are a lot of times that you have to, and I hate to say it, allow someone else to get the credit or allow someone else to look like they're in front. That ability to know when to hang back versus when to step up and take charge actually gets you further, but unfortunately a lot of times as black women, we're not taught how to take a long term view and play that chess game. And that's really critical.How to overcome bias and keep moving forwardDon’t allow your ego to ruin your job. And what I mean by that is the way you perceive people treating you or that you perceive things going on around you. Because as a black women again, you'll see systemic racism. You'll see being mansplained to. You'll see women being treated a bit differently. All of this is fact, but if you put yourself in the victim position, you'll respond that way and it will actually tear apart what you're trying to build in your career. The best position you can be in is to not be the smartest person in the room. If you reach a point in your career where you know everything, you're not learning. The biggest leap forward that you can take is to take an ego cut and move to a position where you don’t know everything. It doesn't mean you won't have a body of skills that you're amazing at. But it means you're putting yourself in a position where you can actually learn, which will eventually get you very far. --As you can see, Nikki has thought a lot about power dynamics in the workplace and what black women, specifically, might do to continue to move up in an organization even in the face of unfavorable power dynamics. We hope you found her advice as illuminating as we did. But we also know that there are different approaches for dealing with office politics. What are yours, Elpha members? Do you engage in the power dynamics and “play that chess game” or do you assert yourself no matter what? Does it make sense to choose a mix of the two? Is there a third way? Tell us in the comments; we’d love to hear what you think.
This:"Here’s one of the things that helped me: explore and talk to as many people as possible. Pull aside anybody and book 15 to 30 minutes of their time to find out more about what they do and which skills are required."SO important, especially from a human level as well. From a professional standpoint, the more you know the more you can accomplish/ tools you have. It's also critical to knowing your colleagues and understanding how their work impacts yours and vice versa.
I am so grateful to see this article right now and I am receiving it with an open mind and heart! It took me 15 years in and out of college, while working full-time, mothering 2 kids and being a wife that I finally earned my degree. I started in Business Admin and didnt think twice about Computer Science until someone who loved me questioned me over and over as to why I was not pursuing the very thing that I was so passionate about. I've been helping people with and working on computers since I was 9 years old. Now here I am 38, an IT Manager and needing to take a break from my career. I am EXHAUSTED. The struggle to get to where I know I want to be has been so rough that I've thought about switching to another career. I'm in a city that is not so kind to diversity, let alone to a black woman in IT. Im dealing with attacks from co-workers who seem put off by my mere presence in the room. As if I have the audacity to believe I belong in a seat at "their" table. Reading this validates exactly what I was told by another WOC I met who works for Microsoft. She said the same things about playing chess. It's not easy always having to make others comfortable with your presence but I'm not going to quit! I'm going to take this time off (which I am blessed to be able to do) and focus on learning and obtaining more skills. Then, I'm getting back out there renewed and ready to PLAY CHESS! This was exactly what I needed to read. Thank you, Nikki! And thank you Elpha!
I love the reference to Myspace! I think of this all the time when people say they can't code and remind them that 15 years ago we were all coding to change the songs, colors, and top 8 on our Myspace pages. I really like the discussion around tech being more than engineering and further, what skills are necessary to move up and how to work on them. There are always questions around how to move up and the point of creating your own position is so great. Thanks Cassie for writing and Nikki for sharing your knowledge!
Thank you Nikki! Did you mean "paying point of your job" or "pain point"? Paying point seems like an interesting untapped question.