Our Black in Tech series features the career path & advice from Black professionals in the tech industry. In this Q&A, Debo Adejumo - Systems Integration & Validation Engineering Manager at Starry shares his story.
VentureFizz: Where did you grow up and what were you like as a child? What did your parents do for work?
Debo Adejumo: I was born in Ondo State, Nigeria, one of the southwestern states in the country. I grew up bilingual, speaking English and Yoruba. I was raised by a father who was a college professor and a mom who was a business owner and high school teacher so I was very school-centered. I vividly remember that the readily acceptable justification to my parents for missing the routine house chores was to make excuses for having to study or doing homework. However, I did play soccer as an apt way of cooling off after a hectic day and enjoying the weekends.
In this part of Nigeria, education is perceived as one of the best legacies parents can give their children as education is often seen as the key to success. In fact, an education in medicine is highly regarded so it was a bit of a surprise to my parents for me to follow the technology and engineering path.
I was more drawn to finding out why things work the way they do, love for breaking things apart, fixing things, and understanding how they operate. That passion for problem-solving showed up in my math classes as I enjoy solving math problems and don’t feel at peace until I am able to solve the problem. Although I was inspired by my father’s career in sciences, I was ultimately drawn to engineering by my love for math.
VF: Where did you go to college? What did you study and what did you do after graduating?
DA: I have a bachelor's degree in Electronic and Electrical Engineering from Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria. I chose this major because it was a broad engineering major where one can specialize in Power, Control Systems and Instrumentation, Communications, and Computer Engineering. This major would allow me to explore different areas that piqued my interests within engineering.
It was in college that I got my first hands-on experience with internet systems. Internet (Wi-Fi) was not available in our dorms, so I offered a monthly subscription-based service to share my internet connection over Wi-Fi using my PC and a dial-up connection. I got away with that for a few months before the dial-up company shut down my service. This opened my eyes to computer networking, radio frequencies, antenna design, and telecommunications.
After graduation, I worked with a telecommunications company as an RF/Network Optimization Engineer in Nigeria. Then, I decided to attend Minnesota State University to pursue a Master's degree in Electrical Engineering. Making the decision to continue my education in the United States opened my eyes to more diverse opportunities in the field of engineering and allowed me to explore a career in technology and telecommunications here.
VF: What inspired you to get into the tech industry?
DA: I love challenges. Challenges bring out the best in me. Even from my high school days, I took delight in solving tough math and physics questions. I enjoyed the think-through process and systematic ways of answering those sophisticated questions.
The tech industry is about fixing the problems that face humankind and finding a more efficient way of resolving an already solved problem. The dynamic challenges of the tech industry have consistently inspired and helped me stay motivated in my career as an engineer.
VF: What has your career path looked like in tech and the various positions you’ve held before joining Starry?
DA: I have worked at various companies where I have held different positions from an intern to leading teams in network architecture, Wi-Fi testing, validation, and optimization.
Before Starry, I worked at CenturyLink as a Lead Architect (Wi-Fi/Network) and that experience prepared me for my position at Starry.
I decided to make the jump to Starry because the start-up culture is fast-paced and challenging. I am the most motivated in an environment like Starry where there is a quick turnaround to implementing recommendations and improvements and interesting technical problems that need to be solved.
VF: Can you share the high-level responsibilities of your current position as a Systems Integration & Validation Engineering Manager at Starry?
DA: I lead and manage the WiFi-CPE team of passionate engineers that validate and optimize our Wi-Fi devices for the overall seamless system performance that Starry is known for. The team is specifically involved in:
Software feature validation and regression testing: We participate in each sprint with Software, Firmware, and other engineering teams. We develop automated regression tests that run against nightly and milestone releases of our system software. We are responsible for releasing upgrades to the field and providing engineering level support throughout the process.
Full system validation and verification test system development: We design and create automated testers to validate system requirements during the prototype and development stages. We also design and create test automated testers to verify the functionality of each unit at manufacturing time. This work involves understanding the operation of the complete system in order to be able to configure and analyze all parameters and execute usage scenarios.
System performance optimization and issue investigation: We leverage expertise in software, networking, electronics, and communications systems to investigate critical performance and functional issues
VF: Attributed to your success thus far and what types of obstacles have you had to overcome along the way as a Black professional?
DA: Hard work, strong work ethic, and self-determination are a core part of my family values. Until I came to the United States, the concept of limited opportunities based on the color of one's skin was foreign to me. As a matter of fact, I never paid much attention to the color of my skin until I moved to the US; however, the sense of self-doubt is universal.
Early in my career, I worked in spaces where I have been the other or only Black professional around. In many cases, that was the team's first interaction with a Black colleague, so it took a while for me to feel a sense of belonging. This showed up in meetings where my ideas were outright ignored or second-guessed, but I quickly learned how to be an effective advocate for my work and strived to compel the system to assess me beyond my skin color. I have long realized that it is easier to tell a success story than having to justify why you failed. Unconscious bias against men and women of color is a barrier; rather than letting it discourage me, it became an impetus for a strong work ethic.
I have also been in situations where leaders have an archetype of what "senior" talent should look like, which resulted in missed opportunities and recognition for the outcomes and impact of my work. However, I feel fortunate to be with Starry; they’ve provided me with complex problems that pique my interest, recognition for the contributions of my team and myself, and leadership support to grow my career.
VF: What types of programs and initiatives does Starry have that support diversity, equity, and inclusion?
DA: Starry has been working to create a multifaceted approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Our CEO is a person of color who has been open about how his life experiences have shaped his views on discrimination. It’s important to him as well as everyone here at Starry that our actions towards increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion aren’t hollow. It’s important to ensure that we’re not putting out just words and empty statements.
Starry is an internet service provider and we’re founded on the simple idea that everyone deserves affordable internet access. Internet access is the bridge to economic opportunity, education, health care and so much more. Internet access can fuel social advancement and wealth creation, unlike any other utility. And yet, millions of Americans - the vast majority of whom are people of color - are locked out of that opportunity.
We created a program called Starry Connect which provides ultra-low-cost broadband access to public and affordable communities. There are no disenfranchising credit checks, complex eligibility requirements, stifling data-caps, handcuffing long-term contracts, or predatory extra fees. As part of our fundamental belief that internet access can have an equalizing effect, Starry has continued to broaden and expand this program. In 2020, we’re doubling down on serving public and affordable housing communities and finding new and creative ways to deliver free and low-cost internet access.
Starry understands that fostering a diverse and supportive working environment that reflects the communities we serve will enable our company to succeed and advance. How can we build products that people love if our workplace doesn’t reflect our society? Our talent acquisition team partners with many groups to identify and recruit diverse talent. As a manager, I want to hire people who aren’t just a good ‘cultural fit’ but rather, a cultural add - people who bring diverse perspectives, experiences and skills to the workplace. We’re investing in expanding our engineering co-op program to reach a more diverse set of schools; right now, we tend to focus on the Boston area because it’s our backyard, but we know there are lots of great engineers around the country. We’re making gains on diversity, but we must and will go further.
VF: What advice would you give to other Black professionals who are interested in joining the tech industry?
DA: My biggest advice to Black professionals would be to be yourself. Bring your authentic self to work, build connections and communities; make it a priority to be in the right association with people who genuinely believe in you and want to see you progress personally and professionally.
Be consistent in building a strong work ethic as a professional in the tech industry; this may include but is not limited to, investing in continuous learning and development. The problems we are solving today are increasingly complex, so employers are seeking employees who not only have the skills for today but are willing to up the ante by learning the skills of tomorrow.
When you have a voice, use it. Use your voice to pave a path and inspire others to change policies, practices, culture, or habits that don't create a safe space for all. It sometimes might feel intimidating to be the "face of the race," but there are others who are inspired when they see someone that looks like them at the level of achievement that you have.
Finally, give back. It would be nice if someone warned you about bad weather or road construction ahead on your regular route to work that might affect your commute. In the same vein, give back by providing mentorship to other professionals who may benefit by taking comfort in your successes and lessons from your failures.
VF: While general awareness of the problem of diversity in the tech industry is a step forward, to make a lasting change, real actions need to be taken. Do you have any ideas or suggestions on what companies or employees can do to step up and make a difference?
DA: We need intentionality and genuineness! There is only so much a company can do. Without real people who are personally invested and willing to genuinely change the status quo, then it will all be passive diversity messaging. It is not enough to just have a diversity quota or pledge as camouflage; companies need to actively take actionable steps that are timely, sustainable, and impactful.
Many studies have shown that companies that take diversity seriously are more profitable than those that don't. Organizations need to invest in programs that promote diversity and inclusion from the lower echelons to the boardrooms. If you serve a diverse audience, then the leadership of the companies should reflect the communities they serve. Beyond leadership, representation is investing in direct professional opportunities for black students providing mentorship, internships, or early career programs to give the needed support to be successful.
As for what employers can do, front line leaders need to adjust the archetype of what they look for when it comes to promotions and really come to terms with whatever unconscious bias they have. The keyword here is unconscious, but understanding it might be a starting point to changing the status quo. I believe the key to unlocking the gains of a diverse workforce is inclusion. It is not enough to have folks show up in the workplace with different ideas and a diversity of thought. Individuals and teams should work hard to curate a safe environment where all views are represented and everyone feels a sense of belonging.