Joshua's Story

“Technology is not reserved for the people that have been coding since they were eleven or the Good Will Hunting natural geniuses. Technology is more accessible than it has ever been and taught in more styles than ever before. The barrier to entry is a baby gate, and you are a capable undiscovered Lebron James that can easily hurdle it if presented with the fact that you can do so. It’s cliché but if They/I can do It, so can you!” – Excerpt from my book, Venti Fried Chicken

Technology saved my life.

I grew up in Orlando, where I had a great mom and a close-knit family. Even though we didn’t have a lot of money, we always made it work. I never got into trouble and was always a nerd; I loved all things tech, obsessing over Dragon Ball Z, Pokémon, and Star Wars. That was, until my senior year.

I know, it’s a weird time to start getting into trouble.

I had begun hanging out with misguided youth (which made me one of them) and was myself suspended after getting into a fight at my high school. I am happy to report the majority of those misguided youth eventually became technicians, business owners, and authors and are married with children now.

The funny thing is that I was a good student through the eighth grade. The following year, I was thrust into a prestigious high school in an affluent area, which was a huge change from the schools I had gone to previously. I didn’t understand the schoolwork, and I didn’t know where to get help because my mom was working all the time. So, I gave up.

I knew this wasn’t me. I knew I wasn’t meant to just fit in. But in moments of self-reflection, I realized I didn’t have any postgraduation prospects. I was interested in tech, but as a mediocre student, I couldn’t even consider a trade to focus on.

I knew I could do a lot more with my life, but that if I didn’t make a big change, I’d either start a dead-end job or make a bad decision that would weigh on my life forever. Or maybe both.

So, I cut off the bad influences and decided to join the United States Army, a controversial decision to make during the height of the Iraq War. Now that my immediate future was set, I decided I didn’t need school anymore. I wanted to drop out.

Thankfully, with encouragement from my mom, grandparents, and Army Recruiter, I condensed a ton of my senior-year work into a few months and ended up graduating before heading off to bootcamp in 2006.

I went home for the holidays at the end of 2006 and met the woman who would become my wife at a New Year’s Eve party. We stayed in touch online while I was doing my Iraq tour and quickly became friends over the complaints of failed relationships. During one of our discussions, she offered to send me a care package, never having known anyone serving in the military. In that moment, I said that if she was up for it, I would date and eventually marry her. We prepared for marriage during long phone conversations, emails, and guidance from Chaplain Zell, who was voted the best Chaplain in the Army. When I got back in June of 2008, we eloped.

Coupled with my marriage, the military was an amazing experience—one that instilled a work ethic and awesome memories that will follow me forever. It was a great place to learn about mental fortitude, which built me into the headstrong person I am today. Sure, there will always be people out there who are smarter than me, but I feel like I will never be outworked.

Leaving the Army, on the other hand, was not so easy.

After serving four years active duty and two years as a reservist, I needed to adjust to civilian life.

Once you get out of the military, you’re a hero on paper for serving your country, but you can easily get lost in the shuffle once you’re back home. I had felt danger for so long that I struggled with PTSD, and I had to learn how to be a normal person again. Thankfully, my wife of almost 13 years at this point helped me successfully rehab back into society.

My favorite staff sergeant told me as I was leaving that I needed to get an education because all I had to my name was a car. And I knew he was right. I needed to go back to school, but wasn’t interested in a traditional degree.

I always had an interest in music, so I went to school at Full Sail University in Florida for audio engineering, where I got a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. After I graduated, I moved to Atlanta for a job in the music industry, where we lived for six months.

Due to refusing to sign a bad contract, I was left without a job and without any income to pay rent. I had $50 to my name. Two days away before our rent was due, my wife and I decided to be proactive and pick up and leave before we were evicted. We sold everything in our apartment over the course of two days and packed the car with what we had left, with no idea where we were going to go.

After much deliberation, we decided to go stay with my wife’s grandmother in Orlando, who at the time was fighting pancreatic cancer. We didn’t want to bother her, but it was either her floor or a shelter. It took two months, but my wife and I finally found jobs again as her grandmother’s health deteriorated.

After us scraping enough together to get an apartment of our own and furnishing it with just air mattresses, she tragically passed away. It was a traumatic time, but we learned a lot. Making it through something like that sticks with us to this day. I can be having a bad day at work, but I often put it into perspective with what I’ve been through…and then it doesn’t feel so bad.

I won’t lie and say this period in my life was easy. But I decided I wasn’t going to be a product of my environment. I know there are so many people out there that end up doing terrible things because they are in bad situations.

I had seen with my own eyes, as a veteran and a Black man, the struggles people often have to overcome to find their place in the tech world. I wanted to help others, like those who have helped me.

“What I am trying to get at is, our circumstances don’t stop who we are. We all possess inherent skills, but unfortunately, we suppress them from our environment, or our environment suppresses or alters us … Technology is one of the few fields that gives second chances, whether working for a startup or yourself.” – Excerpt from my book, Venti Fried Chicken

I had suppressed my love of technology for too long, so fate swooped in. One day, I ran into my friend Orrett Davis, who invited me to an Orlando Tech Meetup.

I was hooked.

Over the course of four months, I regularly went to meetups and was able to pick up some amazing mentors along the way. They loved my enthusiasm and my honesty about what I didn’t yet know. I never pretended that I had it all together.

I quickly got my first technical role in 2015 coding emails for a major magazine publisher. I continued to immerse myself in the industry and attend the meetups, but my friends and I began to realize that we were usually the only Black people in the room.

So, we went to a coffee shop, brainstormed on some napkins, and Black Orlando Tech was born. Since 2016, we’ve been a nonprofit that works to get more minorities into tech, with the vision to train and inspire 10,000 minorities in Central Florida to enter tech by 2025. I had seen with my own eyes, as a veteran and a Black man, the struggles people often have to overcome to find their place in the tech world. I wanted to help others, like those who have helped me.

Over the years, Black Orlando Tech rapidly grew to more than 1,000 members. I am so proud that we are reaching this many minorities in the area, but it came with a catch: I could no longer give people the same one-on-one focus I was so accustomed to giving. So, I thought, why not write a book? And Venti Fried Chicken was born. It’s a comedic, autobiographical rant that explains how I went from the military to homelessness to a tech leader, and all the things I learned along the way.

“The only STEM I knew of grew on fruit. In a nutshell, I was never anyone’s first pick for almost anything for the majority of my life. If I’m to be blatantly honest, much of my imposter syndrome when I first started in technology stemmed from me being surprised people were excited about me and my skills.” – Excerpt from my book, Venti Fried ChickenIn 2017, I was giving a talk at an Orlando Tech Meetup, and there was a Deloitte employee in attendance. She told me my talk was great and encouraged me to apply for a role at Deloitte.

So, I did. Four years later, I’m a solution architect within Cloud Managed Services. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. My first year was difficult. I was learning a new field, and I felt like an alien having come from the startup world. The firm is so vast, it was hard for me to know who to go to when I had an issue. I often felt like I didn’t belong.

I got through it by working with my leadership and recognizing I didn’t need to drastically change myself. Deloitte hired me because I was different, and I learned that I shouldn’t conform to what I think Deloitte is. Once I was self-aware and stopped ostracizing myself, I was able to make a bigger impact at work.

Speaking on behalf of numerous Black employees I have the pleasure of working with, it’s jarring being the only Black person on a team or at a client site, and it happens more often than you probably think. To be clear, Deloitte is doing a great job of pushing DEI consistently and focusing on its Black professionals.

But, with that said, I think there are lots of conversations we can continue to have to keep Black employees at the firm and make them feel like they belong. During the pandemic, we’ve seen tragedy after tragedy in the news, yet we’ve still needed to show up to work and be our best selves. It’s been exhausting. I am proud to say that I am now also a lead within DEI at Deloitte and have been blown away at how passionate our leadership has been about attacking this issue from all angles.

That’s why I try to lead with awareness and empathy, something I think even more people can try to do. I want to be someone who cares more about people than deliverables. I want to get rid of the “suck it up” mentality that can be felt and focus on well-being—so much so that I even won an award from our engineering lead for being a champion of well-being.

I think Deloitte should continue to listen to its practitioners and help make sure everyone feels like they have a voice. I’ve been a big advocate of being your authentic self, especially with Black practitioners, where oftentimes fear of perception stops us from speaking up. As I reflect on my time as a younger practitioner, I realize I didn’t have the self-awareness to self-govern my own well-being all the time.

I think for us to foster a place of well-being, we, as leaders, will need to frequently intervene on behalf of those who report to us—to help them avoid burnout and ultimately establish that we care about our people more than the work. Having hard conversations can’t just be a box we check once a year; it needs to continue to have real impact. I hope part of that impact can be fueled through our continued work with grassroots efforts that attract more minorities and veterans to the firm (especially in tech), as well as continuing to champion well-being.

Tech really saved my life, taking me from my lowest moment to where I am today. I know there are so many others out there wondering where their journey should begin, thinking they don’t belong, and waiting to find the career that will change them. Perhaps even save them.
 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely Josh’s own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Deloitte or its personnel.

Photos by Kirth Bobb

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