Alexa leader, Tracy Allen, offers career tips to women and employees of color on navigating the technology industry – and the people who manage them

Arun Krishnan Feb 24, 2022
Black History Month Women of Voice VII

As a Principal Product Marketing Manager for Alexa, Tracy Allen helps brands like Disney, Samsung and LG develop new voice-forward experiences for their customers. Allen also helps shape the strategic go-to-market direction for the Voice Interoperability Initiative, which brings together over 80 companies from around the world to allow customers to interact with multiple voice assistants on the same product.

When Allen was a child, her mother told her about the lives of famous Black engineers, scientists and mathematicians.  “I excelled at math even as a child. From all those stories that my mother told me, I developed a firm conviction that math was something that came naturally to Black people. So, I really applied myself when I came to Math, and excelled at it.”

Allen pursued her bachelor’s degree in Industrial Engineering at the University of Wisconsin – Madison and went on to achieve her MBA from The University of Chicago –Booth. She was the president of the National Black Society of Engineers at her university, and played an active role on campus in helping encourage women and underrepresented minorities pursue STEM-related careers.

“Between my studies and all of these organizations that I was involved with, I was so busy all the time, that I didn’t make time for myself or to have fun during my college years,” Allen says. She says that many employees of color, who often must fulfill their daily responsibilities, while often being tasked with shaping more inclusive environments at their universities and workplaces, are often faced with similar demands on their time.

During her education and her career, Allen has often found herself in situations where she is the only Black person, or woman in the room. Reflecting on these experiences have helped her identify ways that people of color can navigate jobs in the technical industry. In the section below, Allen shares career tips for people like her, and leaders who manage women and employees of color, to help them function as effective allies in helping build more inclusive workspaces.  

1: Don’t just look for culture fits – seek culture enhancements

During my time in the technology industry, I have often been a part of a committee making a hiring decision. One question we often ask ourselves after the round of interviews, “Is that person a good culture fit?” Don’t get me wrong. Culture fits are important. For example, at Amazon, we value candidates that are a strongly aligned with the company’s leadership principles. Our leadership principles guide how we do business, how executives lead their organizations, and how we all arrive at decisions.

However, there’s another question we should all be asking: Is this person a culture enhancement? Often, people interviewing at technology companies might present themselves in a different way – because they come from a different background. However, it is important to recognize that many people are at the interview in the first place because they have incredible life histories. This multifaceted view can be critical in a field like artificial intelligence, where diverse perspectives can help build products and services that are inclusive and truly useful to people all over the world.

#2 Recognize your commonalities – while leaning into your uniqueness

We have more in common than we are different. Throughout my career, my teams have sent me to close important deals, because I make the effort to connect with anyone from anywhere around the world. I have met people with a shared love for Wisconsin sports teams (Green Bay Packers, Bucks, Badgers), love for modern art, or experiences with Vipassana meditation.

Recognizing our commonalities is important. However, at the same time, it’s also important to lean into what makes you unique. You don’t have to think about yourself as being different. Rather, all you have to do is recognize that you are unique, and then have the confidence to lean into that uniqueness.

When you think about it, a lot of success in the business world, for employees and for organizations, comes from being able to distinguish themselves. That’s why it’s vital that after a meeting, you make sure that you are leaving people with a sense of what makes you unique.

I often have people come up and talk to me because I stand out. So, don’t view being different as a reason to feel different – instead, I view it as an opportunity to have the spotlight shine on you.

3: Leverage mentors and affinity groups  

It's often useful to bank on the advice of a mentor to navigate a challenging situation – a person who is more experienced than you, or someone that can exert influence within the organization.

You can forge a connection with a mentor in an organic way, rather than force fit a relationship. One of my mentors is now a CEO of a Fortune 500 technology corporation. She wasn’t an engineer – but she gave a great keynote at a conference involving women in science and engineering. I sent her an email saying how much I enjoyed her talk, and asked her if she was free to meet for lunch. Over the years, we have engaged in thought-provoking discussions, and I would like to think that we have forged a meaningful relationship over this period of time.

In addition to mentors, you should also look to connect with affinity groups in your organization. This will give you the opportunity to connect with people that have shared similar experiences. These might be people who are not necessarily connected to your direct job. As a result, you can be more open about the challenges that you are experiencing.

The trick here is to find balance. You have to fulfill your commitments at work. You also have to make time to connect with your affinity group members in a meaningful way. You have to remember to ensure that you are making time for yourself.

On the flip side, it’s important for managers to recognize that women in your teams and people of color might have all these demands on their time. Yes, it’s amazing that in addition to help advance the team agenda, they are also helping shape the culture of the company – but it’s also important to recognize just how packed their days can be.

Communication is another important aspect of managing employees of color. With the George Floyd murder and other racially charged incidents playing out against the context of the pandemic – a time when many of us have been locked down at home -- the last few years have been particularly tough on Black people and people of color.

I can understand, how as a manager or a colleague, you might find it difficult to broach conversations with a Black person on your team, and ask them how they are doing. All I would say is to be genuinely authentic and caring. You might say something awkward, or use the wrong words: but people can always tell when someone they know is coming from a good place.

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