Creating Equitable Pathways to Access the Tech Industry with Kevin RobinsonJun 17, 2022
Kevin is a president and chief technology officer of RTriad Enterprises who is doing some beautiful work around equity and tech. You’re in for a treat today!
Q. Give us the backstory of how you got into tech.
I went to engineering school at Boston University in 1978, but left school early and started a family. I started to look for what else I could do and started climbing poles for telephone companies, but soon realized that I wouldn’t be able to make the kind of money I wanted to be making with my lack of years of experience. I ultimately stormed the unemployment office of IBM and with a great deal of confidence, I made a good impression and was hired.
When I look back, I can really see how they invested in me and I stayed with them for another 40 years. I retired in 2017 to start this company. The main takeaway from everything I have learned to this point is that you’re only limited by what your mind says you’re absolutely limited to. I got a lot of mentoring and coaching late in my career and I saw that as a key differentiator for young people entering the workforce. If they had the right guidance early on, and they were able to close a lot of the gaps in their particular skill sets and be directed to opportunities, that would make a huge difference.
Q. Walk us through the practical process of storming IBM?
You have to know what your super powers are and what your skill set is. I walked into the office quite arrogantly and applied for a job. The guy I was speaking to told me they didn’t have any openings at the moment and I told him that they weren’t going to find another candidate like me for another 15 or 20 years and that they needed to find a place for me because I’m available right now. I spoke from a place of confidence and knowing.
Remember, it’s going to be a person that gives you your next job and that person’s impression of you is what determines whether they give you an opportunity or not. I told him what field I wanted to go into and I got sent over to speak to someone else a few days later. We spoke nothing about the position, he got to know me as a person and he asked me when I wanted to start. I told him, “I start today”, but in all seriousness, I started the following week. He began mentoring me that day, even though at the time, I didn’t recognize it as such. They hired me because he recognized that I was motivated and without that, there isn’t much you can do.
Q. Walk me through the steps to moving through the ranks and some of the potholes you may have navigated.
There are a number of factors that go into it.
- Your mindset. When I entered this field, there was no one there who looked like me. I didn’t have any role models in my family or friends that had done it before. I started looking for help and none of the people looked like me or really wanted me to be there and it’s a pretty hostile work environment. It’s not for everyone. I see the culture is changing slowly within certain companies, but there is more work to be done.
- You have to develop some thick skin. When I don’t understand something, I use the Columbo Method; I ask the dumb question. This gets people annoyed and causes them to offer up more information than they would have offered unprovoked. With this info dump, I am now in possession of the information I need to be successful.
Q. What did the process of moving up look like for you?
Situational awareness is key. I moved up the ranks from Tape Librarian to Operator. As a tape librarian, I would sit there for four hours at night and no one said anything, but there’s all these manuals down there and I started reading them so I was ahead of the game when they finally brought me up to operations to teach me the commands etc.
I began to excel in that area and what ended up happening was as an operations manager, you print the checks for the entire company and I learned what everybody in the company made, which was a heck of a lot more than I was and I decided to do something about that.
Q. What did you do to address the problems you saw?
I would go into a meeting with my manager and I wouldn’t leave without finding out what the next level of pay was and how I could get there. A lot of times, they leave you with this mysterious talk that I refuse to accept. I tell them that I know there is a practical path to get there and that if they’re not willing to tell me, I’m going to go elsewhere. I make it very clear that I know they are very successful, and it is my intention to be as successful.
Q.What was your ambition? What was the thing that kept you moving forward on tough days?
My wife and I got married early and we had dreams of what our children would have and how we would provide for them in terms of education, housing, and safety, etc. We had to map out how to manifest that, and I took some risks and we developed some high risk tolerance.
We moved to Connecticut when no one else wanted to move there and bought our first house at 23 years old. We were originally told that we didn’t qualify, but my wife flew into a rage and said we’re not leaving here until we get a yes. We went and sat in the president's office until he came and we had him explain to us exactly why we didn’t qualify. We explained that we had the money and the means and were able to qualify for the loan. With those sorts of things, you have a dream that you will not let go of.
Q. Talk about the role of persistence and determination on your journey.
This is where your “why” really matters. It doesn’t matter to them, it matters to you, which is why you have to develop that thick skin for those moments where you hear, “no” or “not now”. My internal process is that this matters to me. I need to get on top of my game and I need to know that I gave it my all. At the end of the day, I know that if it doesn’t happen, it won’t be for lack of effort. There will be things in our lives that are beyond our control, but they are few and far between. We ultimately have to do our part.
Q. What made you come out of retirement?
I reached a point at Microsoft where I realized that I had outgrown my ability to contribute and we were growing in two different ways. We were suggested a book called, “A growth mindset” by Carol S. Dweck Ph D. and it took me a while to accept it, but over time, I internalized it and bought into what the principles were.
I went to my management and pitched them on some things that I needed in order to grow and thrive. I suggested that I take a more leadership based role and build teams, but they declined so I decided to retire so I could step out and do it on my own. I declared that I was building a cloud army and what that means is when I went around the country helping them deploy cloud security and large enterprises, there were many people that I met who were in IT already and had no idea what was going to happen next. They didn’t feel job security and no one knew the magnitude of what was coming, but I did.
I was informing them that if they were already in IT or wanted to get involved, they were going to want to know something about the cloud so they can be valued in IT and get the big bucks and exciting jobs.
Q. Talk about the work that you’re doing now at RTriad.
From the time I worked at IBM, there was talk of “The Digital Divide”. I see it as an opportunity. I grew up a relatively poor kid in NY and I’ve had extraordinary opportunities to travel the world and see things I never dreamed of being exposed to and that exposure is really key.
When I started this company I knew that what I really wanted to do was to create a difference in our community's ability to be successful, and the way to do that is to give them exposure. When we look at tech a lot of people say that there’s a skills gap, but my partner Clyde says, “It’s not a skills gap, it’s an opportunity gap”. That’s where we step in.
Q. What are you doing about the opportunity gap, boots on the ground?
- I inform people that education is a business that’s not particularly focused on us. Even though I didn’t finish my degree, I still received that bill. HBCUs do a pretty good job of making sure you complete your degree and several of my children have attended HBCUs.
- I did a lot of mentoring and college hires. I saw people coming out of that structured environment into a highly unstructured environment where they throw you into the proverbial water and expect you to swim well (solve problems). I saw that culture matters and that whatever culture you come from and your preparation for the culture that you’re going into matters.
If I sit you in a classroom and the teacher is lecturing you and acting as if they’re the authority with all the answers, but then I put you in an environment where your boss is a facilitator and says that they need you to tell them what the solution is, you’ll notice that that’s a dramatic shift in roles and responsibility. It can be overwhelming.
Now add being Black or a woman to that potentially hostile environment. I tell my mentees all the time, “Don’t walk into a football game in basketball attire”. Know what game you signed up for and how to play the game. Make a plan of execution for what success looks like for you.
3. I tell people don’t go to college and get a big bill, scaffold your career. Get some knowledge, get some money, get some more knowledge, and the cycle continues. With our apprenticeship, we connect them with tech professionals and give a broad and expansive introduction to what IT is and prep them for the environment they’re walking into, which is key for their learning and career development.
Q. Can you break down career development for us?
It starts with you. We take students through some training that is centered around self, called “Life Design, what would or could I do with my life?” We walk them through questions like, “What are your strengths, talents, and experiences that you bring to things that are unique?” Make it clear and know it for yourself. We then walk our students/apprentices through a number of things:
- IT Fundamentals. During this period of time, they’re working in the environment.
- Social Capital Building. This is key in team building.
- Working with experts. It’s important that students learn who they are and what their experiences have been.
- Working with mentors. We have our students working with people who help them see what career gaps they have and help them develop a career plan; scaffolding as I mentioned before.
- Coaching. There are days where you want to give up and collapse and in those moments that having someone support you is so vital to your success. You need people who dig to get a deeper and different perspective on different situations. It’s ok to succeed once, but it’s a whole different ball game to succeed consecutively. You have to realize that what you did last year to grow, may not be the same thing you need in order to win this year.
There is a lot of indoctrination in school education, but it is OK as long as education is the goal of the student and it truly helps them meet their goals. We’ve seen through our work and implementation of Life Design. We start there and it’s been proven through data that it makes the difference in the outcomes. If the work or the education doesn’t matter to the student, they’re not going to work as hard.
Q. Give us a step by step introduction to getting started in the tech-centric field.
You have to be mindful of a few things:
- Your Mindset
I tell young people who are just getting started in the field that they are just as valuable if not more so than someone who has 20 years of experience on them. What comes out tomorrow, everybody has to learn at the same rate and he who learns and applies that new knowledge the fastest wins.
My definition of an expert:
- Someone who can learn
- Someone who can apply what they learn and minimize the impact of their mistakes. We all make mistakes. That growth mindset tells us to fail fast and fail often. Einstein said, the man who knows every way to fail is the expert.
Who’s going to give/offer the opportunity? You have to be your authentic self and give the energy that is due you. If you think you’re due love and have the mindset that you love yourself, what you’re doing and how you show up and what you show up with, people are going to see that and be drawn to it. Show up prepared with a new skill set that you’re actively acquiring.
- Don’t suffer in isolation
Build a community, talk about the hurdles and help one another by nurturing one another and sharing resources, information, and experiences. Our mission is to empower people in organizations and communities with technology.
Q. You keep coming back to “WHO” will give me the opportunity. How do you benign the process of connecting?
- Have a LinkedIn profile. Express who you are there and begin to search for other people with talents and skills that would potentially help you fill in your gaps. Reach out to the Black leaders in companies.
- Networking events. Go to networking events with focus and intention. Know why you’re there and what kinds of people you are looking to connect with.
- Don’t be transactional. Walk into interactions with people with the mindset that says, “How can I help you?” I don’t believe in coincidences. You may not get business from someone you interact with on the same day, but you may somewhere down the line.
When you’re networking, it can come across as a sales pitch. I look at sales as the opportunity to problem solve. A lot of IT companies see us as the solution to their diversity problem, but I see us as our community’s opportunity to solve our upward mobility problem. It all depends on your lens.
Q. Tech is an opportunity for me to change my scars and my community scars. It’s that shift in mindset allows others to go and choose elevated experiences as well. What are your thoughts on that?
I’ve seen it happen. I grew up in NY in the 1970s during the emergence of hip hop when we were plugging turntables into the base of lamp posts to host block parties, but today it’s a multi-billion dollar business. The evidence is there, but I will say there are some twists and turns in how it gets defined, commercialized and capitalized. I see more leaders in hip hop now who are determining their own destinies and that mindset of an entrepreneur, the Jay Z’s, the Lebrons and Shaquille O’Neal’s… They now understand the business side of things, so study them.
We tend to look at things as consumers, but we get to a place where we have to decide whether we’re merely that or if we’re going to become a producer as well. Don’t be ashamed of consuming, but you need to be able to produce your own message in order to advance your own agenda.
Q. What are the next steps that someone could take to move the needle?
The next person to give you an opportunity is a human being. My email is [email protected]. I talk to people everyday and we have a meetup once a week every Wednesday, which is free to join. It’s the IT Certification Hump meeting. We do a study group on Tuesdays. You can also reach us at Knowwon.com, which is our community building site, that we’re currently rebranding, so what you see there today may look a little different tomorrow.
We’re invested in learning and career development. Know that there will be some ceilings you’re going to hit and the best way to break through them is through mentoring, coaching and sponsors.
Darren and Erik Mckee at SaaSBros. focus on software sales. They would love you to get in touch with them on their LinkedIn page.
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