Creating Pathways: Mentoring Kids and Diversifying the Tech Space
Alloy Digital | February 5, 2024
Derrick Strong, M.S., is a software engineer at Alloy Digital, and an advocate for diversity and inclusion within the tech sphere. For over ten years, he’s made an impact within his community through the mentorship of 11th and 12th-grade high school students at Kendrick High in Columbus, GA, empowering these students to pursue careers in tech, a field traditionally lacking in diversity.
This Q&A session delves into Derrick's journey, his passion for mentoring, and how he feels about creating pathways and representation of what diversity looks like within the tech industry. Join us as we explore his insights on bridging the gap, fostering inclusion, and shaping a brighter future for aspiring technologists.
Derrick, tell us about the beginning of your journey volunteering with kids and teaching them about the tech world. What inspired you to get involved? Why is this effort important to you personally?
My journey started around 10 years ago. I had just started a consulting firm and I wanted to give back to my home community as a way to say thanks to those who had influenced my life. I was asked by a good friend of mine, who had become a well-known graphic design teacher at our old high school, to speak with his class about careers in tech.
Initially, I was kind of nervous. I thought that I needed to prepare an exciting, interactive presentation that would capture the attention of everyone in the audience. However, just three minutes into my speech, I remembered that I once sat in those same seats and those kids needed to hear from someone who could relate to their story and their journey. I shut down the projector and began speaking from my heart. I was honest about my path, my experiences, and what I learned along the way. This opened the door for meaningful discussions around preparing for a career in tech, expectations once in the tech sphere, potential challenges, and the many possibilities and career paths within the space.
After a pretty lengthy Q&A, where I had only half of the answers, a couple of students walked up to me and asked me for my business card. One student in particular asked if it was okay if she reached out to me regarding her career plans after graduating high school. She asked if I would be her mentor for her senior class project. She told me that she didn’t know anyone outside of her teachers who had professional experience in tech, especially someone who looked like her. I was struck by her honesty, and confidence and knew that I had valuable experience that I could share so I agreed to be her mentor.
Being a mentor became important to me because, in that moment, I realized that her story was my story. I had a family full of professionals from lawyers to teachers to engineers. My mom and dad were in the dental and medical field. However, coming out of high school, I didn’t know anyone directly involved with technology. I saw an opportunity to go back to where it started for me and help kids who otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to technology as a viable career path, especially by someone who looked like them.
Can you talk a little more about what it might mean for the kids to have access to a successful black professional thriving within the tech industry?
Representation matters across all industries but especially in the tech industry. When black kids see someone who looks like them thriving in a field that typically lacks diversity, it sends a powerful message that there is space and opportunity for them as well. Access to a successful black professional in tech shows these kids that talent, skills, and determination all matter in achieving success. Access helps these kids to know that a tech career is a viable option when often they aren’t aware of the many paths in tech due to limited exposure. Finally, access provides insights, advice, and a roadmap to navigate the complexities of the industry. I hope that my involvement inspires at least one kid to find a fulfilling and successful career in tech. I want them to be a catalyst for change by using the lessons and connections they have acquired to reach younger generations.
What specific organization, activities, or programs do you engage in with the kids?
Over the years, I have typically worked with high school students who have an interest in technology as a career at my former high school, Kendrick High in Columbus, GA. For a long time, I was a committee member and program advisor for the ACAD/Graphics Communications program.
What kind of impact do you believe your efforts have on the kids' lives?
I believe my impact has been substantial in the lives and direction of the kids that I had the privilege of mentoring. I have watched kids who were completely unsure what their life would be like after high school turn into business owners, college graduates, and inspirational leaders in the community. Most importantly to me, I’ve literally witnessed the moment when a kid started to believe in themselves and that is rewarding for everyone involved.
Have you encountered any challenges while volunteering?
Yes, I have faced many challenges! One particular challenge was gaining buy-in. Not all of my mentees initially understood the opportunity in front of them. Several students knew they needed a mentor for their senior project or to develop a business idea, and maybe heard from friends or teachers that I might be able to assist. However, a few of them didn’t take the experience seriously. I have dealt with students missing scheduled meetings, or not coming prepared to discuss the topic at hand. In those cases, I placed the responsibility in their hands to be accountable for their actions and inactions. Once my reputation for being a fun, fair, but firm mentor got out, I rarely had a problem.
I would say my biggest challenge was time. For most of my time as a mentor I lived in Alabama and my mentees lived in Georgia. Although we did a lot of video calls and phone calls, it was important for me to spend face-to-face time with them as well. I wanted to let them and their families know I was accessible and engaged. So I came home to attend football games, homecomings, design competitions, etc. to show support. However, there never seemed to be enough time.
What have you learned from working with these young minds?
I have learned that kids are extremely impressionable and extremely knowledgeable; it is our job to help them think creatively and pull out what they already possess inside. I have learned just as much from them about tech and myself as I hope to have shared with them.
How has this experience influenced your perspective on volunteerism, technology, and their potential for social change? And in what way do volunteerism and mentorship empower the next generation?
My experience has taught me that being a volunteer is extremely important for the advancement of social, political, and economic change. Our kids want and need guidance and everyone’s journey no matter how straight or off the beaten path it may be can help guide our kids to positive and productive futures. Volunteerism and mentorship show the next generation that seeing is believing and with belief in themselves, they can do just about anything.
How do you see the future of tech benefiting from initiatives like the one you're involved in?
I believe the future of tech will benefit from initiatives like mine because over time the tech industry will begin to appreciate the need for diversity not only in faces but in experiences and thinking. This type of diversity opens up doors for innovation and opportunities for real advancement especially in tech.
What advice do you have for others who might be interested in volunteering with kids in tech?
Do it! Now! Don’t hesitate to share your wealth of experiences and knowledge with those who will become future leaders in the industry. Gatekeeping does not have to be a thing. Let mentorship be your legacy.
How has your mentoring experience shaped you as an individual and enriched your passion for tech and education?
Mentorship has taught me just as much about who I am and what I want to be as it has been a tool for me to reach and teach others. My experiences will forever be with me and have been a driving force in my quest to complete graduate school to gain a master's in Management Information Systems, and continue to educate myself on my industry at large.