A graphically designed collection of Erik's face.
Cover Image © Erik Walker

Black Perspectives #03: Erik Walker (Electrical Engineer)

Keeping it Professional

SSD: What inspired you to get into what you’re doing?

EW: I fell into electrical engineering. In turn, I fell into my first, second, and third jobs. None of my career moves have been overtly intentional, to this point. I count that [as] more of a blessing than anything else. There will be some intentional moves coming in the next few years, but I am definitely not upset with where I am now.

Busy at work.

SSD: What do you think is the largest misconception people have about your line of work?

EW: That’s a tough one. I honestly don’t know what most people think my job is. It seems like a lot of people view engineering in general as a big black box. When I tell people I’m an electrical engineer, some of them immediately think electrician. Some people just hear the engineering part and think I can design and build anything.

I’m not an electrician. That’s a whole different profession. And I suck at designing and building things. I’ll leave that to the mechanical engineers.

SSD: What do you hope to accomplish as you continue to pursue what you’re doing?

EW: Independence. My hope in the future is to make some moves that will allow me to free myself to spend more time with my family and also to give my children more options as they get older.

SSD: What’s a tip that you’d give someone who sees you, is inspired, and wants to follow in your footsteps?

EW: One thing that my parents instilled in me growing up was that I was always thinking about the consequences of every decision I made. I didn’t have some rules that some of my friends had (curfew, bedtime, etc). I was given enough freedom to learn that while I may enjoy doing something at the moment, the consequences of that choice could hurt tomorrow.

I grew up thinking a lot about the effects of today’s choices on tomorrow. That, I think, has helped me to make some good decisions throughout my life and career.

But, there were also some hard lessons that I had to learn early on in my career. As an introverted Black Person, I was a bit of an anomaly to my first boss at my first job. There were a lot of things about corporate politics of which I was completely unaware. It almost got me fired.

“Success”, as I saw it at the time, required me to be the opposite of “me”.

Erik Walker

SSD: Wait wait wait – first — Why do you think your introversion as a Black Person made you come off as an anomaly?

EW: When I graduated college and started working, I was conditioned to think that work was like school. I thought that, like school, my performance would be the thing that would make me successful.

That was not the case.

While my performance was part of it, the perception of me and my work was way more important. When I had been on my job for a few years and started asking about a promotion (it took me a long time to realize that I needed to ask), I was literally told to set up meetings with my manager’s counterparts so that they could get to know me. I was told that I needed to be more visible.

As an introvert, being visible was outside of my comfort zone. And as a young Black Man, there was a perception of me that I had before I ever talked to any of these people.

An old promotional image of Erik used for recruitment fairs by his original employer.

It became clear to me that the people who successfully climbed the corporate ladder (like I thought I wanted to do) were either Type A personalities or really good at pretending that they were. I was neither. And I wasn’t interested in putting in the energy to learn to fake it.

“Success”, as I saw it at the time, required me to be the opposite of “me”.

SSD: Ok, and what were the things about corporate politics that you were unaware of?

EW: It seems simple now, but I didn’t know that people wouldn’t just recognize me. I didn’t know that I would have to put myself out there and meet people in order to move around to different positions. But even if I wanted to stay in the position I had, I didn’t know that my performance alone wouldn’t carry me. I didn’t know that I needed to also manage my perception. I thought I could put my head down, do a good job, and get recognized for it.

Politics are different at every company, but I wasn’t perceptive enough to even know that I should be trying to learn them [at my company]. I wanted no part.

That, I later found, is a recipe for being forgotten.

So, I guess in short, I was unaware that they existed. And once I realized that they existed (it took me a while to realize that) in some way, I had to play. I had to find my place in the [workplace] politics. I wish I would’ve had someone to explain it to me directly.

I had tons of uncomfortable conversations, including one that started with the question, “Why do Black People get so offended when White People say ‘nigger’?”

Erik Walker

SSD: Interesting, and totally understandable. I think navigating corporate politics and orbiting that giant hairball are rites of passage everyone goes through in their own way in corporate life.

Semi-related — Do you ever feel out of place in your profession due to a “lack of you” there? And if so, has that feeling grown or declined over the years of your career?

EW: At my last job, absolutely. It was a small company with a headquarters in Detroit but with satellite offices all over the country. There were about 100 or so employees total. I accounted for half of the black people.

During the 2016 presidential election, I felt pretty alone. I worked in an office of six people, and I was the only one who didn’t vote to make America great again. In fact, on election day, my boss actually told me that he looked forward to going to the polls and canceling out my vote.

I had tons of uncomfortable conversations, including one that started with the question, “Why do Black People get so offended when White People say ‘nigger’?”

My current job is a bit different. There are people of all shades from all over the world. Not everybody is Black, but not everybody is White either. It makes for a completely different feel in the office. Diversity is good.

SSD: That… Sucks. At least, the situation at your last job, anyway. I’m going to pivot the discussion.

If you weren’t an engineer, what would you do and why?

EW: I’d be a creative of some sort. I lowkey wish I were doing something creative now. The only thing that prevents me from doing that is, um, talent. I would love to be a musician or paint or do graphic design or write. I just don’t have any talent in any of those areas, and at the moment, I don’t really have the time to cultivate it. Maybe I’ll find a way to merge programming with art in some way in the future. *shrug*

SSD: You mentioned your children earlier. As an educated Black Man involved in STEM – does your chosen profession shape any expectation of what fields you’d hope your children get into? Why or why not?

EW: Not really. I feel like I was steered toward STEM because I liked science and math in school. I could never think of anything else I wanted to do in college, so I just stuck with it. Fortunately for me, I’ve always enjoyed the programming aspect of my job.

If my kids end up in STEM, that’s fine. But I want them to try a bunch of things and find the thing they love. That’s more important to me than anything else. I just really hope that whatever it is that they love is also lucrative enough to support them.

And also, legal.

I need them to do something legal.

Erik Walker with his son.

It’s way too early to call, but my guess is that my son (two years old, at the time of this writing) will be an artist of some sort. He’s had this thing with music since birth. He’s always loved it. My daughter (seven months old) will go into STEM. She has this determination about her that is uncanny. She sees what she wants and nothing else; obstacles don’t matter… Call it a hunch.

Check with me in 20 years to see how that’s worked out.

SSD: And that, ladies and gentlemen, is called “proper parenting.”

Anyway — Who, famous or non-famous, do you admire and why?

EW: Probably Kobe Bryant. Granted I couldn’t stand him when he played in the NBA. And the argument that he’s anything more than the 2nd best shooting guard of all time is insane.

The thing that I admired about him, though, is his complete lack of fear of failure. He seemed to approach the game of basketball, and life in general, with a perspective that the only way to fail, was to not try.

I admire that because I’m a bit risk-averse. If at all possible, I want to raise my children to not fear failing in the same way that he didn’t.

SSD: Ok, we’re on the last two questions, but they’re a mouthful. First – an industry-slanted question for you, but I am curious about what you think as it pertains to the context of this interview…

Do you think that the further automation of warehouse facilities across multiple industries will positively or negatively impact Black laborers? And what do you think those employees could do to better shield their livelihood from the growing industry trend?

EW: It will definitely have a negative impact on Black laborers. There’s no way around that. I honestly have no idea where this ends. Automation can be bad for manual laborers.

People at the top are doing all they can to squeeze costs out of the manufacturing/distribution process; which eventually leads to more automation, more jobs being shipped overseas, and the elimination of a bunch of positions. In the end, the only people making money are at the top. But what happens then? Eventually, the former workers don’t have money to spend, so no one makes money. I don’t know where we’re going, but something is going to have to change at some point.

Many manual labor jobs are going to be eliminated, and everyone can’t just “go get a degree”. The most discouraging thing to me is that the idea of “starting at the bottom and working your way up without a college degree” died a while ago. Upward mobility is all but impossible for most people.

I think the best thing people could do is to read the tea leaves at their place of employment and make a call. Maybe it’s time to jump to a new job. Maybe it’s time to learn a new skill. Maybe it’s time to earn a new certification or degree. Maybe it’s time to start something of your own. The answer is different for everybody, but some soul-searching will definitely be required.

SSD: That’s a fair response. Last question. Engineers solve problems. That said, I imagine you’ve developed a keen sense of identifying them as well.

What do you think are the top 3 problems Black Americans could focus on to make our collective lives a little better?

EW: That’s an enormous question!

I tend to shy away from generalizing all of us in that way, given that we all have different experiences. However, I’ll do my best to answer the question as it was posed…

We have a lot of stuff to be angry about. Racism is infuriating. Seeing racism peddled in the mainstream makes it feel like we’ve all jumped in a time machine and sped toward the first half of the 20th century.

There are a ton of legitimate things to be mad about, but sometimes I feel like we create more things just to keep ourselves mad. Candace Owens is a good example. Her lane is to say dumb things, press buttons, and make people mad. And every time she says anything crazy, she trends on Twitter as everybody trips all over themselves to see what she said and comment. I mean… we really don’t have to do that.

So, #1 is: With all the dumb stuff in the world that makes us all angry, let go of the things that aren’t necessary to hold on to. Find a way to find some happiness.

We can get together and march and protest George Floyd. Inflammatory comments from Candace Owens, though? Nah, man. Those things deserve 0% of our collective time or mental capacity.

In a bit of the same vein, the current political climate makes it pretty easy to demonize people that disagree with us in any way. In the last handful of years, I’ve seen that bleed over in a couple different ways outside of politics. It’s become really easy to build strawmen and assign some level of evil to them. There are some exceptions; hate will always be evil.

So, #2 is: Sometimes the best way to overcome our disagreements is to talk it out and actually listen to opposing viewpoints without making our adversaries out to be Hitler by default. Again, I’m not talking politics here; just life.

Third, I wish we all supported each other better. That means consumers supporting Black-owned businesses, but it also means Black-owned businesses not stereotypically treating customers badly.

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