How I Went From Compton To Google
Anthony D. Mays is 16-plus years into a successful career as a software engineer, and people often ask him how he made it from the hood of Compton to Google — arguably one of the most desirable workplaces in the world.
As a software engineer, Mays helps to maintain Google’s software systems, particularly in the area of data visualization. That’s “just a fancy way of saying I help people make charts and graphs,” Mays said in a Buzzfeed video.
Google has tons of data and some of it has been a source of embarrassment for one of the world’s largest tech companies.
Google released its diversity numbers in 2014 for the first time, and admitted that just 2 percent of employees at Google are black and only 1 percent of employees at Google are black in a technical role. Since then, not much has changed.
When Mays first started working at Google, he remembers feeling uncomfortable initially:
“All throughout my career I’ve known about something called the Black tax,” Mays said:
“The Black tax is this idea that as a black person working in America you have to work twice or three times as hard as someone who’s not Black to get as far as they might. For me I’m always in that mode of defending who I am as a professional and as a black man. At Google it’s the same sort of deal: work extra hard and try and do as much as possible … I looked to my left and right and realized I’m one of only three Black people in my office out of 400 people. From that moment onwards I began to commit myself to helping to do what I could to improve diversity and inclusion in tech, and helping to even more aggressively pay forward everything I had learned and gained in my own career.
If you’re in Harlem, Chicago, Africa, India — wherever you are, you can do this too if you’re willing to put in the work and spend the time.
Born in Omaha, Nebraska, Mays moved to Compton at age 4 in 1988. Compton is a city in Southern Los Angeles County, California, south of downtown Los Angeles.
“Straight Outta Compton,” the debut album by hip-hop group N.W.A, had just been released, putting Compton on the map, Mays said. “I began to realize that if you’re going to live in Compton, you have to endure this sort of baptism of adversity and challenge.”
Mays grew up on Myrrh Street, and was amazed by the people he was seeing.
Here’s more from Anthony Mays, as transcribed from a Buzzfeed video:
Mays describes what he saw growing up in Compton: … this sort of corner-central image of these old-style cars, booming hip-hop music, mothers pushing their babies in strollers down the street, dudes just hanging around at the corner and I found this fascinating. Confusing. It was loud but it was amazing. I grew up on a great street but still I had this fear as a young person of being shot. Police helicopters — the ghetto birds as we called them — were always hovering over our neighborhood so everyone was aware of what was going on in the city. Even if you didn’t know the details you knew there was something to be afraid of.
“Compton to me is a rosebush of beauty and pain.” — Anthony Mays
Compton to me is a rosebush of beauty and pain. You see people that deal with despair, struggle, and they’re just trying to get by, but you see this resilience, strength, courage, to keep on persevering. I’ve met some very beautiful people in Compton and I’ve had some of the toughest experiences of my life.
On how he entered foster care: I first entered foster care after I entered elementary school. My kindergarten teacher questioned me about some marks I had on my neck and my back. At first, I told them that it was a bully because that’s what I was told to say. My teacher didn’t believe me, and when they asked me again I said my dad had beat me because I was being a bad boy. The police came and picked me up, took me to Martin Luther King Hospital where a doctor confirmed I had been physically abused. I was put in foster care, bounced around to a couple of homes,
(Mays and his three brothers were united in the home of their former babysitters, where they found a permanent home.)
Not a lot of kids get that opportunity. They bounce from foster home to foster home and eventually end up homeless. By the grace of God that wasn’t my story. A lot of people that I grew up with, you felt like you only had three options; it was either sports, rap music, or drugs.
I knew I wasn’t good for those things and I didn’t want to go to jail. Fortunately at school we had a computer lab.
On why he gravitated to technology: I remember using a computer for the first time, getting to engage with this technology, and it wasn’t something that was static. I could do things and it would react to me, like it was a conversation. That conversation was something I couldn’t let go of. That was my first experience with technology and with computers. I loved it so I paid attention in class, got good grades and I felt like education was going to be a better option for me. I experienced bullying. They would call me “oreo” — that’s a person who’s Black on the outside and white on the inside. My parents tried to find the best education they possibly could for me in Compton. My school district was being taken over by the state so I was in a really bad situation.
On being mentored in tech: In middle school I went to NFL YET (Youth Education Town) — a school funded by the NFL. There was this computer lab there and the administrator was this Black guy. I wanted to go in and play games and play rap lyrics. “Bone Thugs-n-Harmony” and “See You At The Crossroads” had just come out and nobody knew what they were saying. That was like my popularity card. I was like the guy that could print “Bone Thugs-n-Harmony” lyrics. The administrator said if you want to use these computers you need to know how the internet works. You need to know what the www means. I began to learn from him how to do these more advanced things with computers.
I had another mentor who got a few of us together in a lab and told us straight up: “Whatever I know, I’ll teach you.” He taught me how to build computers and how to take them apart. (In high school) I started to experience imposter syndrome. I felt like I’m not really smart enough to hang with all these really smart people. I just wanted to keep up. I felt like all these people are doing better than me. They’re stronger and smarter than me. It took me a while to get used to being in college. I really really struggled. I was usually the only Black person in my classes. I had to deal with cognitive dissonance that comes with that.
First approach by Google: I remember being approached by Google. There was a recruiter on campus that handed me a pamphlet and wanted me to apply for an internship. I remember looking at the pamphlet like, “You don’t want me. Y’all don’t want no black man from Compton, former foster kid, working at Google.” I threw the application away, graduated from UC Irvine on the five-year plan, bounced around to a couple of jobs.
Second approach by Google: Google caught me in 2011, 13 years later, and I was so excited I ran around my house three or four times. I tried as best as I could to prepare. I’d heard that Google tested candidates based on brain teasers so I studied brain teasers for two weeks. Turns out that was a complete lie and I was totally unprepared. The Google interview didn’t go well. I really struggled with that. When people found out I had applied they were really cheering me on. I had people at church who were praying for me. (Mays didn’t get a job offer.) I didn’t feel that I’d just let myself down but that I’d let down a whole community.
Third approach by Google: So when Google called again to interview in 2012 I told them “no” because I didn’t want to go through the embarrassment of failing again.
Fourth approach by Google: Fortunately Google called me again in 2013 which was just ridiculous, because who does that? When I got that phone call I was like I’ve got to try that again. While I was on the bus and the train, I would have a notepad and a pencil to study programming problems. I was studying that every day, three, four hours a day. I was studying at lunch, before work, after work, my wife practiced with me. I knew exactly the day a recruiter was going to call me and tell me whether I got an offer. I was on pins and needles the whole day. I thought I was going to die. The phone rang. I almost jumped out of my socks. I almost had a heart attack. Laszlo Bock, head of people operations for Google at the time, (came on the phone and said) “I’m just proud to be able to tell you that we’d like to extend an offer to you at Google.” Everything he said after that pretty much turned into noise.
On telling his story: It was a moment where I felt I had achieved what I was put on Earth to achieve. I called my kids and they sang me a song: “Happy Google to you …” People in my church were shedding tears. I was just floored by it and humbed by the reaction. I think about those moments all the time. I think about the people I represent in the community that I come from. About how important it is for me to do a good job, to do good work, to teach others what I’ve earned, to pay that back. It’s good to have that fire and to keep moving that forward. It helps me to deal with the fact that I made it out when a lot of friends didn’t.
“I made it out when a lot of friends didn’t.” — Anthony Mays on growing up in Compton
I had a friend — we were the same age — and when he was 19 years old he was shot and killed. I always think about what was so different about him and me that I made it out and he didn’t. I don’t think that there was anything really different about us. I believe I didn’t deserve to make it out any more than he did. I could’ve died just like he did. I don’t think I’m the hero of my story. I think God is the hero of my story. I’m just along for the ride but because I’m in this position I have a responsibilty to make the best of this. I carry this burden with me because if I don’t, who else will?
View the original Buzzfeed video here.