Our Black in Tech series features the career path & advice from Black professionals in the tech industry. In this Q&A, Jenner Thomas - Software Quality Assurance Associate at America's Test Kitchen shares his story.
VentureFizz: Where did you grow up and what were you like as a child? What did your parents do for work?
Jenner Thomas: My family and I are originally from Freetown, Sierra Leone. I immigrated to the United States in 2005 when I was just 10 years old and we made our home in Lowell, Massachusetts. My father worked as a residential program director while my mom raised me and my little sister at home.
As a child, I kept to myself since my English was very poor at best. However, I enjoyed taking weekly piano lessons, playing video games, and watching anime. My father had always encouraged me to read more, but I already had hobbies that I enjoyed. He also encouraged me to play sports, which gave me the opportunity to be more social and competitive. I played soccer, football, and ran track & field.
VF: What inspired you to get into the tech industry and what was your first role in the industry?
JT: During the summer following high school, I was in the public library when I picked up a book titled “Building a Website for Dummies.” After weeks of trial and error, I created a simple website using HTML and CSS. I truly enjoyed that experience and I haven't looked back since.
My very first role in the industry was as a customer service associate for a property management software company. I transitioned into a product specialist during the time that I was there and eventually moved on to my current role at America’s Test Kitchen.
VF: How did you learn about Launch Academy and how did it help your career?
JT: I learned about Launch Academy through conversations with developers from work or public events. My experience at Launch helped me fill in the blanks left behind by most online courses and tutorials. Additionally, I was able to make several professional connections.
The process of completing Launch was very revealing for me. Launch was treated like a work environment and It challenged me in ways that made me realize that this was a career that required a great deal of patience, curiosity, and diligence.
VF: Can you share the high-level responsibilities of your current position as a Software Quality Assurance Associate at America’s Test Kitchen?
JT: At Americas’s Test Kitchen we provide a first-in-class online destination for home cooks. My responsibilities are focused on developing test cases for our online platform through automated and manual methods.
VF: What has attributed to your success thus far and what types of obstacles have you had to overcome along the way as a Black professional?
JT: My ability to be receptive towards criticism is a key component towards my success. My parents were very supportive but they never held back in their honesty. When you don’t take feedback personally and focus on what is being said, you can motivate yourself to perform past your own expectations.
Personally, my biggest obstacle is finding a peer or mentor that I can connect with. I believe that it is important to have someone, whether it be personal or professional, that can assist you with navigating through the tech industry.
VF: What types of programs and initiatives does America’s Test Kitchen have that supports diversity, equity, and inclusion?
JT: This past fall, ATK promoted our own Elle Simone to the newly formed role of Inclusion Leader. Elle joined ATK in 2016 and is the founder and operator of SheChef, a mentoring and networking organization for women of color in the culinary field. In December of 2019, we founded ATK's first Diversity Council, a group open to staff who are passionate about creating and supporting Diversity and Inclusion. The council has since sponsored activities and talks in the ATK office.
In light of recent events, ATK closed business for a day in June so employees could participate in a Day of Reflection. Additionally, ATK introduced a gift matching program to the following organizations: NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Black Farmers Fund, and the Detroit Food Lab. Next week, all staff will be participating in unconscious bias training being put on by She+ Geeks Out. In addition to addressing bias, our goal is to increase our employee population of people of color to 25% by the end of 2021.
VF: What advice would you give to other black professionals who are interested in joining the tech industry?
JT: Do not fear failure or rejection - it is a part of the process. It is best to focus on your strengths and use them to your best advantage. Remember that you do not owe anyone anything - make decisions that are best for YOU! This is very important as you continue to develop in your career.
Finally, spread your knowledge and experiences to other Black professionals that are not presented with the same opportunities. You never know who might be a long-term connection, mentor, or friend.
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?
JT: This is a difficult problem and there isn't a clear-cut way to solve it. However, a great start would involve having a mind that is open enough to make a REAL attempt to understand where the shortcomings are.
In the past couple of weeks, I have read several articles about companies pledging to “do something” by coming up with an action plan to make the workplace more diverse. From my perspective, a company must first be able to attract and retain black professionals through hiring and promoting from within. How a company presents itself on their major platforms plays a significant role in attracting more diverse groups. At the end of the day, the public faces of your company should match your message of diversity.