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“I see myself everywhere!” How AWS is outdoing its peers when it comes to Black representation

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett February 23, 2023
Summary:
The personal experience of data center engineer Kordell Williams in his career at Amazon.

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Kordell Williams

Although Black people make up 13% of the US population, they represent just seven percent of the computing workforce. And this number is not really shifting upward. Between 2014 and 2021, there was only a one percent increase in Black representation within technical roles in large tech companies, according to the ‘STATE OF TECH DIVERSITY: Black Tech Ecosystem’ 2022 report from Kapor Center and the NAACP. 

At the more senior level, representation is even lower, with Black talent accounting for just four percent of board, technical and executive leadership roles. And those Black workers who do manage to get a job in the tech industry are paid four percent less than their peers on average, and often hired in lower-level roles than their qualifications justify.

One company tracking above average and making faster progress when it comes to Black representation in tech is Amazon. According to its latest workforce data report, in 2021 28% of US Amazon employees were Black, a three percent increase from 2018. 

This progress is mirrored at more senior levels. At the Corporate Employee L4-L7 level, Black representation was 8.5% in 2021, up from five percent in 2018; while Black workers account for 5.5% at the L8+ Senior Leader level, up from 1.5% over three years. 

Amazon has set itself clear targets to push these numbers up further, including increasing L4-L7 Black talent across the US by at least 30%, and L8+ Black leaders by at least 35%. 

To that end, Amazon and its Amazon Web Services (AWS) subsidiary have introduced a range of schemes, which are helping the business increase diversity in its workforce, and ensure those staff stay and progress in the company. 

These include the Amazon Future Engineer program, designed to inspire students from underserved communities around the world to pursue careers in computer science; the AWS Impact Accelerator, a $30 million fund for Black, Latino, women and LGBTQIA+ founders; and the AWS Innovation Fund, which offers AWS employees micro-grants to make a positive impact on underrepresented communities.

Talent

AWS also runs the Grow Our Own Talent program, which offers students, graduates, Amazon employees and others a route into a technical career. The program consists of 12 weeks of paid, full-time, on-the-job training, and has been effective at providing new skills for entry-level candidates with non-traditional backgrounds, according to the company.

One of the people to have taken advantage of this program is Kordell Williams, a data center engineer at AWS, who got the role after completing a technical apprenticeship program at Northern Virginia Community College.  Coming out of high school in Northern Virginia, Williams had no background in technology. He recalls:

I had no degree, no certifications, basically nothing on my resume besides customer service. I did not see any future going into the tech industry before coming into Amazon.

After leaving high school, Williams worked for the Post Office as a supervisor, sorting mail at a warehouse. Having worked at the organization for three years, he wanted to advance in the business:

I tried interviewing for other positions with the Post Office, I tried talking to managers, supervisors about moving up and nobody could give me a clear answer.

With no success at his employer, Williams decided to take an IT course in Linux at his local college. During the course, the instructor told him about the AWS Work Based Learning Program, part of the Grow Our Own Talent scheme.

Once he had his certificate in Linux, Williams applied to AWS for an internship and was offered an interview, an interview that wasn't entirely what he'd expected, in a good way:

What's crazy is for the Work Based Learning Program for Amazon, they didn't ask me one technical question in my interview. It was all about customer service and how I approach and treat customers. It was a lot about yourself.  I remember them telling me, they can teach people the technical side, but they can't teach people how to be a good person. They're more looking into people that are customer obsessed and that have a good mindset.

The internship started in June 2021 and lasted 90 days. During that period, Williams was paid on an hourly basis for 40 hours a week plus overtime: 

They gave you an hourly salary, which was actually more than my warehouse job, which is why I came to Amazon. The 90 days was about exposing us to a data center and learning the basics of our position - I was an engineering operation technician. I learned a little bit about how power came into the data center, into our critical load, which is our racks.

At the end of the internship, Williams had to apply and interview for a full-time position. The process was transparent the whole way through the program. He explains:

They told me that when my 90 days was up, they told me the day of my interview and they told me if I didn't pass the interview, what would happen. They gave me a clear view of what would happen and they gave me options of what I could do if I didn't get the job.

Fortunately for Williams, it didn’t come to that and he got the job. Interviewed on the Thursday, he was given the job on Friday, and during the weekend, he just had to fill out some paperwork, so that:

When I came in on Monday, I was officially full-time.

Onwards

While Williams admits that he had no idea what he was getting into when he signed up for the internship, once he’d completed the 90 days, he knew he definitely wanted to pursue the role.

As an AWS data center engineer, Williams works 12 and a half hour shifts, 5:30AM to 6:00PM, four days one week and three days the next. He explains: 

A typical day is coming into the office, sitting at my desk and I have to check what maintenance we have for the day. You never go into a shift blind because you know what maintenance is going to happen that day. You go on through your day doing maintenance, doing courses that Amazon gives you so you stay up to date with the new technology. We're talking to vendors, creating work tickets for vendors and our techs. We're also on standby at all times, making sure our critical loads are always available to customers.

The only downside to the shift pattern is having to leave his dogs at home - but he has a dog walker to keep them busy.

When he first joined AWS, Williams participated in the Amazon Black Employee Network for the first four or five months, but he opted out of that group - not for any specific reason, just as he wasn't participating as much. However, he’s involved in various communities within the company, including jiujitsu, basketball and rock-climbing groups:

My biggest community that I am still involved in is the anime group. I just reach out to anybody in that community that's in Virginia and I'll either just talk to them about anime or I hang out with them outside of work. AWS employees can also create their own, so if I'm interested in tattoos, I can create a tattoo community.

While the statistics show that the Black community remains under-represented in technology and the industry is skewed towards white men, Williams personal experience is different: 

I don't believe it's a white man's game because when I come into work, my managers don't look at me as a black employee at all. They look at me just as another employee that they can help, they see potential in me and they're always trying to help me move up to wherever I'm trying to go. 

I see people like myself in management positions. I see myself everywhere.

Williams got his original L2 role in September 2021, he was promoted to L3 in July 2022, and is now working towards L4. He is currently taking a web development course with Amazon that the company is fully funding, and graduates in six months.

Williams is pretty confident he will move up to the next level, thanks in part to the instructors leading the course, who prepare graduates for an interview and help them get that job:

I will 100% try to stay with the firm because of what they've done for me. Definitely switch to a different department, but stay with Amazon.

Williams would encourage anybody from under-represented and minority groups to pursue a career in technology, and wishes he’d been pushed in that direction when he was back in school:

I was at a job before where I honestly felt trapped because I did not see myself moving forward in the company. Now that I'm with Amazon and now that I'm in the tech field, it's ridiculous how many opportunities I have at my disposal.

My take

Most large tech companies now have their own DEI programs, and/or participate in shared schemes. Many of these schemes have been running for multiple years, but as the Kapor Center/NAACP report highlights, progress is painfully slow across the industry. So it’s encouraging to see a company like Amazon - that doesn’t always have the best record on employee welfare – making strides with Black representation at the firm, especially at the senior levels. Perhaps setting specific goals and making these goals public should be followed by all businesses to support further progress.

It was also refreshing to speak to someone like Williams at the early stage of their career to get a real-world example of how D&I programs make a difference and the type of support that’s crucial – and what’s not so necessary. 

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