So much has been written about the lack of diversity in tech but it’s less often that we get access to the candid career advice of those black professionals who have successfully navigated the corporate ladder in the industry.
Dell Technologies’ Najuma Atkinson, the only black woman senior vice president at the tech giant, recently shared some of those insider tips with students of color from HBCUs and minority-serving institutions during a panel on building the tech pipeline at the Dell BE Smart Student Symposium.
Afterward, she sat down with Black Enterprise for an exclusive interview about her 20 years at Dell, her career advice, and the responsibilities that come with her position. “I’m the only but I can’t be the last,” Atkinson, the senior vice president for customer advocacy, insights & analytics, says.
“I have a unique seat at the table now that I didn’t have. And so when we’re talking about roles or new projects that come up, and we look at the slate of candidates, if I don’t see diverse people even being considered, then I ask. It’s my responsibility. Someone did that for me. They found something in me that was important, and they wanted to invest in this. I have to invest in others.”
Part of Atkinson investing is others is making herself available to professionals of color on the come-up and sharing her experiences and her learnings. Here’s her career advice for young professionals who want to succeed in tech:
Be open to everything
“I think, because we invest a lot in ourselves, particularly students from underrepresented populations, we feel a tremendous pressure to do things to achieve. But the learning comes in the learning. The university says you don’t have to declare your major in the first year; you want to go and do a bunch of different things. Because it is those skills that you’re building that prepare you for the senior roles. And you want to take things that make you uncomfortable, that are not in your area of expertise. You want to do things where you are learning, so you constantly want to challenge yourself.”
“In technology, you become irrelevant very quickly. Technology changes very fast. And so your adaptability and capability to do so is critical to your success. You may have spent six months on a project and we’ve decided that that’s not important. Don’t get your feelings hurt. The importance is that you can pivot to say “what’s next?’ and ‘let me figure out where the value is to the organization.’ Know that you want to be constantly changing and be flexible, and understanding what is the value. And then what does the company need from me? Why is it that they have invested in me and how can I make a difference?”
“There were times when I got some really direct feedback about being aggressive, about being direct, about being very passionate. And I would internalize that. So I found myself trying to adjust. There was probably a period of five years of my career when I was in middle management when I was adjusting, and it was awkward, and you could tell. And I don’t think that I was very effective all the time. And then there became a point in time when I was like this is who I am. If you say to me, this is an environment where I can bring my whole self to work and you’re going to embrace it, this is what it means in my thought, my perspective, how I present myself, and what you accept from me. So then it became a conscious ‘I’m going to embrace me, and I’m going to show you why people like me can be successful.'”