Life@ Elastic | Black History Month

February is Black History Month. Hear from two of our Elasticians — Alyssa Hester and A.J. Angus — to find out what Black History Month means to them, who has had an impact on their lives, and why sharing who they are with colleagues is important.  

Life@ Elastic: Hi Alyssa and A.J., thanks for joining us! Please tell us a little bit about yourselves and what you both do here at Elastic? 

Alyssa Hester: I'm a consulting engineer on the Professional Services team and have been at Elastic for about a year now. Basically, that involves going to work with different clients, and helping them gain success with Elastic products by giving them architectural guidance, best practices, or even doing code implementations. Sometimes I also help out the Elastic Education team with training delivery. And that's always fun, like when I get to go to Elastic{ON} and help with the trainings there before moving over to the AMA to help people dive deeper into their questions.


A.J. Angus: Hi everyone, I’m A.J. I've been with Elastic for three years. For my first two years I was dedicated to our CRM Engineering teams, which included building up our Salesforce implementation for our customers and employees. This past November though, I made a change into product management within IT -- where I think I've always wanted to be. 


I've never really been sure if I'm a business person who knows about technology or a technology person that knows about business, and product management is kind of at that nexus. So now I'm getting the opportunity to do it, managing a new system that's still a work in progress. I've been learning a lot and it's been great to be a product manager and start to build something from scratch here at Elastic.

Tell us a little bit about what motivates you to get up and “go to” work? Or how you get your days started off on the “right” foot? 

Alyssa: I love solving problems and helping people solve problems. And to get my days started, a good cup of coffee, a yogurt, and some sunshine.

A.J.: I have two dogs so everyday, at 7AM sharp, I’m up and we go on a 1.5 mile walk. Rain or shine! Scout is two years old and Shadow is nine months. If we don’t get in our walk, they are crazy! And after the walk, it’s time for meditation. I lead our daily “e-Pause” session for our U.S. Central & Eastern time zones. ePause is a virtual meditation that we host around the globe, four sessions a day, so that Elasticians in all time zones can participate. We do this together using Zoom video conferencing and the Headspace app. 

What do you both enjoy most about the culture here at Elastic? 

A.J.: I can be my authentic self at Elastic. I feel like we do a good job of letting people be who they are, kind of because we have to since we have people all around the United States and the globe. There's not one dominant culture or experience. We have to be inclusive of more than one monolith, otherwise we wouldn't be able to operate as a company.

Alyssa: It's just easy to be who you are because like AJ said,  we're so distributed. And since there's no one predominant culture, it's actually so much easier to find other people you have things in common with. It's more freeing, more liberating.

What would you like to share as African Americans to others of color in the tech sector? Or to a young person of color heading into the workplace?   

Alyssa: I guess really what it comes down to for me is, when you see all these narratives about black people and when you see all the stuff in popular culture, it can really weigh you down. It can weigh you down and make you diminish yourself and your own ability. But don't let other people's opinions of you influence what you are going to do. 

It's easier said than done -- and it's a constant struggle -- but keep pressing forward, and know that you're not alone. Rely on your foundations, and the people who love you to help get you through those tough moments of self-doubt that you might have. Don't hold yourself back because of what other people might think. You can't control other people, but you can always control your own actions and how you feel about a situation.

A.J.: I think for me it's kind of escaping some things that Alyssa was alluding to, like me escaping the feelings of imposter syndrome. I know things, and I know that I know things, but then I work with PhD computer scientists, and I forget that I know. But I need to remind myself that I know what the hell I'm talking about! And you're going to have to do that too.

I think that if you look at people in the black community, not as many go to the name brand and Ivy League schools that most tech companies, historically, hire from. Remember that you have a foundation of knowledge through your education and through your life. You just need to get to that place where you have confidence in yourself when you talk to people. It's easier than you think. Get out of that imposter syndrome. You know what the hell you're talking about!


So, what does Black History Month mean to each of you?

Alyssa: For me, Black History Month is about recognizing all of the fantastic work that black people have done, as well as raising awareness about black issues continuing today. Without understanding the past, we can’t hope to understand the present or improve the future. You can't really move forward without a clear grasp of what's happened in the past. 

Today, some of the narratives persist, even just comments that people make, come from a lack of knowledge around black history. Positive African American representation is rare in the mainstream, so it is important for people -- and especially kids -- to understand the rich legacy they come from, and to know that there have been people who look like them who have done incredible things across all industries.

It's also important for illuminating the disparities of both the past and the present. For example, understanding health disparities in African Americans becomes a lot clearer when put into the historical context of past medical experimentation on African Americans and knowing that African Americans have been treated as having less pain than others and still are by some doctors.

A.J.: And for me, Black History Month means honoring and celebrating the people who paved the way for me to live my life today. As a mixed-race person who's father is from Jamaica (Scottish/West-African) and mother is from Illinois (Irish/Scottish), it's taken me years to see how I fit in with what it means to be black in America. I've recently gone back in history and read the autobiographies of historical black figures like Malcolm X, W.E.B. Dubois, Booker T. Washington, and Sojourner Truth. Reading about their lives now as an adult has really imprinted their struggle for basic rights that I surely take for granted. It's set me on a course for how I can make a difference for the people who will come after me. 

Who are the people from black history whom you admire or who’s made an impact on you?

A.J.: Malcolm X. Reading his biography really changed my life. There is a perception of him as a radical with a lot of hatred. Although I can understand that viewpoint, I think Malcolm was simply reacting to a world he was living that was unfriendly to his skin tone. You can see a clear change in his viewpoint after completing his pilgrimage and meeting people abroad who treated him positively in a way he never saw in America.

Aside from the Autobiography of Malcolm X, some other books I'd highly recommend are The Mis-Education of the Negro, The Talented Tenth, Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and Souls of Black Folk. Let me know when you get done with those and I'll give you more.

Alyssa: I really identify with the books of James Baldwin a lot. He wasn't just a black man, but he was also a gay black man. And to speak about it and write openly about it at that time was incredible revolutionary. I identified with his books a lot as a member of both the black and  LGBT+ communities. Reading The Fire Next Time, reading Notes of a Native Son, reading Go Tell It on the Mountain, reading Giovanni's Room ... it was cathartic. Just knowing that someone has walked a similar walk as you before is a relief. IMG_6625.JPG

Are there people making Black History today in your opinion?

Alyssa: Arlan Hamilton. It takes an incredible amount of courage to boldly step into an industry where you seem like an outsider from many angles and disrupt it. 

Also, anyone who’s doing the best they can and also giving back to their community and working to raise others up.

A.J.: Anyone and everyone working on reforming the criminal justice system in the United States. The current system disproportionately affects African Americans and people of color. Books like The New Jim Crow and reporting like Season 3 of Serial put a spotlight in this area and offer commentary on the current situation and what some reforms could look like. 

Thank you both for your insights! If there is one more thing you’d like to share, what would it be?

Alyssa: Being a minority can be tough and confusing as you seek to be yourself while navigating the culture around you, especially in industries where you’re underrepresented. Sometimes it’s confusing if you’re not sure that the way you’re feeling is normal, or whether you’re being true to yourself as you find your way in the world as an African American.

By speaking up about Black History month, and by celebrating loudly (sometimes Black History Month is glossed over), we hope to encourage a younger generation and other people of color that yes, you can be heard as a minority.

We hope this interview will be a fresher, more personal way to show that these feelings and struggles are normal. Pursue your passions and what’s important to you, surround yourself with people who understand your struggles and joys, but also share with colleagues who want to learn more about who you are. #ShareBlackStories

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