If you have ever bought anything from the online retail giant, Amazon.com, you probably didn’t know that a multicultural woman is one of the managers leading the work behind the scenes with software developers, user interface (UI) designers and product teams to help you spend your money.
In an age where the tech industry has increasingly come under fire for being mostly male and for its lack of diversity, women like Erica Gomez are serving as role models and urging others to break through the technology ranks. Currently Amazon's Senior Technical Program Manager, Gomez has also worked at Microsoft as an engineer and program manager for the Bing search platform and at Boeing as a software developer for real-time aircraft monitoring programs.
A lover of trivia and a tennis athlete, Gomez illustrates the proliferation of people who identify with multi-ethnic backgrounds since the U.S. Census began allowing respondents to check multiple boxes for their racial and ethnic identity in 2000. She is also an example of the growing diversity among Latinos.
Gomez's mother, who is of Japanese-Scottish descent, was born on an Air Force base in Texas and grew up mainly in Taipei. Gomez's father is Puerto Rican; her grandparents moved from Puerto Rico to Los Angeles before her dad was born and he grew up bouncing between the island and Los Angeles. His family eventually settled in San Clemente, California, a sleepy surfers' haven in Orange County.
“Because of my background”, says Gomez, “I relate to being both Latina and Asian-American, but I also relate to being multi-ethnic, which is as much about living in and navigating between spaces as it is relating to any single culture.”
Dr. Natalie Masuoka, Associate Professor of Political Science at Tufts University, co-authored a book on the relationship between racial identity and the politics of belonging, and is currently working on a new book on multi-ethnic identity formation. Masuoka says that California is home to the largest number of persons with multi-racial identification.
“Californians do not see multi-ethnic identity as a unique or strange marker of identity," says Masuoka. "Other regions, however, may find that striking and create difficulties associated with difference in the workplace.”
According to Amazon.com, about 4 percent of their managers are Hispanic and 18 percent of their managers are Asian. One in four of Amazon’s managers are female. Verified numbers are hard to come by, and Google’s much publicized release of demographic data on their workforce left much to be desired, with statistics that were low even by tech industry standards.
In the fast-paced tech culture of Silicon Valley and Seattle - where minorities are few and far between - black tech-entrepreneurs such as Tristan Walker are rarities. Latino entrepreneurship is still in its infancy and the list of role models for aspiring minority and female techies continues to be sparse.
In terms of women, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos recently named Maria Renz to a key executive role as his technical advisor. Her position brings her closer to the billionaire where his mentorship has traditionally led to key roles in the growth of the company.
And as Gomez's background illustrates, the rapidly diversifying workforce will increasingly include more workers like Erica, whose multicultural background will make it more difficult to use older measures of identifying how women and people of color are succeeding in the workplace.
Still, role models in Silicon Valley and the tech world are hard to come by, Gomez acknowledges. “Perhaps the closest [role models] were developers who designed and built my favorite games like David Perry, Will Wright, and Sid Meier”, she says, “but growing up I didn’t personally know other hobbyists who were women or minorities”.
Pioneers in technology like Ada Augusta, Grace Hopper, and Margaret Hamilton continue to escape the popular lexicon even in today’s digital age. Most women wouldn’t know that Ada Augusta is largely regarded as the first computer programmer, or that Grace Hopper’s programming language revolutionized the computer. While Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong are household names in space exploration, few know that they would still be floating in outer space if it wasn’t for the software developed by Margaret Hamilton for NASA.
Despite these accomplishments, budding women programmers today are still more likely to grow up not knowing that there are others out there whose contributions they can use for inspiration to model their own pathways through the tech industry.
In Gomez's case, she says she was fed by an insatiable appetite for video games such as the Final Fantasy franchise, anything by LucasArts Games, Civilization and Fallout. She got her first console in 1987, an NES, and never looked back. A bit of a fantasy geek, Gomez says that she read The Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones) some fifteen years ago, before it was cool.
With a Computer Science degree from UC Irvine and a Master’s degree in Software Engineering, Gomez's success in one of the most competitive environments on the planet takes more than just a comfortable familiarity with computers and math. While she strongly recommends taking AP computer science classes and as many math classes as possible, she says she also finds great assistance in navigating through the tech industry from knowledge about abstract social science concepts, such as “implicit bias, impostor syndrome, and stereotype threat”. These terms help her understand how roles, expectations, and underlying assumptions associated with her background can influence anything from group work relationships to promotions.
Empowered by the knowledge about the role that race and gender play in intergroup dynamics, Gomez has been able to walk the delicate line between a male-dominated industry and her own unique perspective, which is invaluable as teams work to come up with better solutions for their diverse customer base.
Gomez's advice to women and minorities who want to get into the tech industry is to seek out mentors by getting involved in “hack days,” and to find and join local women’s and engineering groups.
“Network, network, network”, she emphasizes. “I can’t underscore enough how important networking is for women and minorities at all levels of the tech industry.” As networks grow, this makes entering a tough and mainly male industry a little easier.
Gomez says the emotional and social support of people with similar backgrounds has been an important component of her growth, and she continues to try to help others with similar aspirations.
“Be a maven who connects the best people you meet to one another. Learn to leverage your network and sing your own praises, and then encourage other women to do the same,” Gomez says. She also works on behalf of Latin@s in STEM with the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers.
But ultimately, success in Silicon Valley and the tech industry requires a love for the field. When asked what she does with her spare time and what her favorite hobbies are, Gomez's answer is, “Writing software, of course!”