Meet Justin Washington, SnapChat Engineer

Written by Ann Brown

Growing up, Justin Washington had two loves — technology and music. Both won out. During the day he’s a SnapChat engineer. Other times he’s into music production.

Washington was drawn to technology at an early age. “Before I even knew what I was getting into, I picked up on some knowledge during middle school that engineers make a lot of money!” he told People of Color in Technology (POCIT). And he also realized technology could go hand-in-hand with his desire to do music. “When you’re a software developer, you create something from nothing, and the same goes for when you’re an artist; you start with a blank canvas and end up with a beautiful song. I realized how much of a cross-pollination there was with the two disciplines,” he said.

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And after his internship at Microsoft Washington was hooked. “It was great! I even got to meet Bill Gates at his house!”

Washington, who grew up in Detroit, graduated from the University of Michigan in 2010 and worked as an engineer at Apple and Twitter before joining SnapChat.

On his journey into the world of technology, Washington often found he was the only African-American in the room. But this, he says, never really fazed him. In fact, he was often the only African American in his EE classes of 70 or 80. According to Washington, at the University of Michigan the campus population was 4% Black out of a rough population of 40,000.

This trend continued even into his career.

“My first full time job was at Apple. I started off on the iOS QA team. There were three Black people on my team, out of twenty-something people total,” he said with a laugh.

Washington does admit there have been some challenges. “The main obstacle was obviously coursework, etc. but also as a minority in tech, finding that support group of friends who would help you carry on. For me it was a struggle; I didn’t pick it up easily. But the thing that I had was the interpersonal skills, networking, and hustling,” he shared.

But for the most part being a POC in Tech hasn’t been an obstacle for Washington. “I’ve actually had a really delightful experience. I’m interested in seeing if the Valley really puts its money where its mouth is with all this ‘diversity’ talk though, and gives more talented people of color a shot. However, I’ve had a blessed road thus far,” he said and added, “I also made it a point that my work spoke for itself, in case there was any doubt based on the way I looked.”

Washington does have some keen advice for others looking to follow his lead into the world of tech.

“The resources are so vast now for learning to code. If you’re a kid spending a lot of time on Snapchat, Vine, Facebook, Twitter, etc., then you can spend a few hours learning to code. It’s always worth it. Working for Snapchat and interacting with celebrities/musicians etc., they view me as a ‘rock star’ by helping build the products they use everyday. Having the technical skills gets you into so many different rooms. I never imagined I’d get to meet Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, being just a young kid from Detroit,” he advised.

And for Blacks seeking entry into tech, Washington added, “I know as African-Americans we are heavy consumers of these products, and that we move the needle when it comes to pop culture. But we need to be on the inside influencing decisions internally as producers.”