Tech Spotlight: Johnny Austin

The Abernathy Tech Spotlight series highlights black professionals working in tech, from freelance developers to non-technical founders. Complete this form to submit your profile.

What is your current role and where do you work?
I’m currently working as Senior Engineering Manager at Social Tables. I lead a team of talented product engineers who work on Social Tables’ platform.

How did you get into tech?
I sort of “fell into” tech. My original major was Aerospace Engineering. Towards the end of my freshmen year, I realized that wasn’t what I wanted to do. One day, my roommate’s buddy was hanging in our dorm room and I randomly asked him what his major was – to which he replied “Computer Science.” I figured, hey I like downloading music – technology is cool! So I changed my major immediately. I wrote my first program the following semester at the age of 19 and immediately fell in love. Programming was definitely for me.

What’s your favorite technology to work with and why?
Well the term technology is very encompassing. I’m going to assume you meant consumer facing technology. To which I would have to respond, Google’s search engine. I know, I know not exactly Virtual Reality or any of the more popular techs, but Google’s algorithms are highly sophisticated and are really great at understanding what we humans are asking of it. When it’s all said and done, we all just want to be understood.

Technology, at it’s essence, is a way for humans to extend our capabilities in ways nature hadn’t intended. Being able to simply speak a question out loud and have one of the world’s most advanced computing engines understand you, and give you back relevant results is amazing. We’ve gotten to a place where we take this capability for granted but I think we’d be wise to humble ourselves and remember how far we’ve come. For example, I was just at the African American History museum and there’s a portable CD player on display. That’s insane!

What project are you most proud to have worked on and why?
I’ve worked on so many software projects I’d be hard pressed to pick the one I’m most proud of. I’d like to point out my time working as Co-Curriculum Development Lead for Black Girls Code. There’s such great work being done within that organization. Seeing the young ladies so engaged in the learning process and being excited for technology is great. My favorite part of the workshops is at the end of the day when the girls get to show their parents what they’ve built. The parents are so proud that their daughters get to actually program computing devices – it’s like magic to some of them. The kids are proud, the parents are proud, I’m proud…it’s an amazing experience.

What do you see as the most interesting technology on the horizon?
I’m really liking augmented reality. Most folks are really into virtual reality – which is great but the practical application for AR seems like a better fit for day to day life. I have a 2 year old at home and so I’m likely not going to strap a device to my face and completely immerse myself in that experience because it takes me out of the moment. But if I can see a virtual environment inter-spliced with the real world which allows me to interact with virtual entities and also make sure my kid isn’t burning down the house that’s a win-win.

Wouldn’t it be cool to see a fully built piece of virtual furniture which somehow comes with instructions on putting it together? You could see exactly how things fit together long before getting to a point where you can imagine it. Maybe it can help my to stop randomly attaching some piece upside down!

In general, technology has been removing us from the human experience. It’s evident when you go out to eat and everyone at the table has their nose in their phones. I was in Santorini last month and even though I took my fair share of photos, I found myself simply enjoying the scenery and trying to remain “present” in the moment. When I’d look around, I’d see most other people viewing everything through their camera or completely turned away from all that beauty in service of capturing a selfie. I think we should be focusing on developing technology that keeps us in the moment whether than taking us out of it.

If you weren’t working in tech, what would you be doing?
I’d 100% be writing/producing movies. I have all these great ideas for really cool science fiction stories – well, I think they’re great anyway lol. It would be great to see some of that come to life. And if that didn’t work out I’d be a theoretical physicist. I’ve always had a deep curiosity about the fundamental nature of reality and our place in it. I’d love to explore stories that address those questions and come up with some creative answers.

What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned in your tech career?
Work shouldn’t be your everything. I lost a lot of time in my mid and late 20’s learning as much as I could outside of work. I thought it’s what I needed to do in order to get where I wanted to be in my career. There’s no point in working harder than everyone else if all you have to show for it is more money. They say time is money, but I reject that. I can always make more money. Time lost is lost forever. I’d much rather work as hard as I can at designated times and spend the rest of the time living life to its fullest.

What can companies do to create more inclusive environments?
This is a big one. First off, start with people. Looking for talent in schools with diverse student bodies is a good start. There are a lot of groups in DC dedicated to educating people who belong to underrepresented groups in tech – there are always job seekers there. I’d say take a good hard look at your interview process to ensure that you are doing everything you can to mitigate biases.

Not everyone is a 22 year-old recent college grad. Make sure you are thinking about folks with families when instituting a set of benefits.

Not everyone drinks very often (or at all). Make sure celebratory and/or social events don’t necessarily center around the consumption of alcohol.

Don’t focus on culture fit. Your culture should grow organically through the people you hire. I’d lean towards coming up with a set of core values which encompass everything you think your work and mission important. You should then hire people who align with those values. At that point, whatever age, gender identity, race, lifestyle choices, religions, or drinking preferences come into your workforce help to enrich your culture. A company culture should align around what you’re trying to accomplish, not around around who you are or where you come from.

Obviously exceptions include people who are likely to exhibit abusive behavior towards others based on race, gender identity, religious beliefs etc. I wish that could go without saying, but given the current political climate, I’m afraid that’s not the case.

What keeps you busy when you’re not being a technologist?
Did I mention I have a 2-year-old lol? Seriously, when I’m not nerding out I’m being a father and husband. I love spending time with my family even though they drive me crazy. I’m thinking about getting back into power lifting that was my thing a few years back – we’ll see how that goes!

I’d like to do more writing. Not just around technology but explore more personal stories about myself. I’ve even considered writing a book based on my life. I’ll definitely be traveling more over the next few years so I’m looking forward to that as well.

The Abernathy Tech Spotlight series highlights black professionals working in tech, from freelance developers to non-technical founders. Complete this form to submit your profile.

By Johnny Austin

Johnny is an experienced engineering leader with an interest in everything from user experience to distributed systems architecture. He is an active member of the open source community, contributing to projects such as Node.js. As Technology Director at iStrategyLabs, Johnny has led the development of various projects for clients such as Facebook, Kroger, Volkswagen and more. He serves as an IT advisory board member for the National Academy Foundation and as a technology advisor for Black Girls Code. Currently, Johnny is helping grow and lead the engineering team as Senior Engineering Manager at Social Tables in Washington, DC