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Our Voice - Never let prejudice and disadvantage hold you back.
It’s a regular thing at Sagittarius to do Q&A sessions with the board and senior managers. It has proven to be an excellent way of breaking down barriers across teams and global offices and making sure everyone knows our individual voices are valuable. We are an open book and approachable at all times.
This week’s Q&A was with Kingsley Hibbert our CTO and amongst his personal tales, we gleaned insights about his love for “The mighty” Spurs, driving lorries, processed cheese and Floridian culture.
We are always time-limited during the working day so I thought this was a great opportunity to extend the conversation. Kingsley briefly covered his early years and the positive and negative things that shaped him both as a man and as a digital industry leader so it seemed only right to explore some of the themes he touched on in a public forum.
Kingsley, how are you doing? Did you enjoy your session with the team earlier?
Hey Ian, I’m doing great thanks – The session was great and so much fun. You never know what to expect in a Q&A forum but I think the team enjoyed learning more about me, my family and my career
You mentioned growing up with your mum and five siblings in South London. Sounds hectic? I’m guessing that was the 70/80s so tell us more about that whole period of your life?
That’s right, when I was around 5 I remember moving to a tree-lined leafy area of the borough – a modern council estate. I was the youngest of five siblings and at that time our family were the extreme minority. When I started my new primary school I was the only black child in my class – not that I noticed this, that realisation came when I was much older. As a young boy someone’s background, race, the colour of their skin was not a thing – people were just people to me and my mum instilled values and respectfulness in us.
As a single-parent family of six, we couldn’t afford lavish things and so we spent most of our time in the garden. One of my first experiences of prejudice was from our neighbours. If any of our toys accidentally made it over the fence and into their garden (most often footballs) - they’d be tossed back a few days later, damaged and rubbed in dog excrement.
As much as my mother tried, they simply didn’t want to acknowledge us as neighbours.
Academically I did ok at school and had a large peer group of friends - however, I stood out and knew I was “different” - It was usual for the other kids wanting to constantly touch my hair or teachers asking me what those “foreign food items” in my lunch box were.
Secondary school was a similar experience. My school had a good reputation but being one of only two black kids in my year was no easy experience. However, a friend from my previous junior school had a well-known older brother so they looked out for me to make sure I was ok.
Teachers originally dismissed me at the school, thinking I was this random black kid that somehow got into this school by chance - For me, I was focussed on learning (that was my always mum’s goal for us) so I had my head down and worked hard - My progress came as a surprise to many of my teachers. At the same time, I was also made to feel different as my family couldn’t afford luxuries like summer holidays away, the latest toys or even basic school meals - I used to secretly sneak to the school office each morning to collect a free school meal token to buy lunch. I was teased about my hair, the colour of my skin plus the stigma of being from a poorer household. It was tough.
My older siblings made it to university so they indirectly became my mentors. This drove me to succeed at school. I made extra efforts just fit in and be accepted by my peers and although I matched others academically, I had no true inspiration to be like them. It was a challenging time as all the images and experiences of successful black people given to me by the school and the media were in the sports and entertainment industries.
Despite being excluded from certain social circles, having parents tell their kids not to play with me or invite me to their birthday parties, being shunned on buses to and from school or verbally abused when out and about, I see myself as fortunate to have come through that era for many of my wider family they had much tougher ordeals.
I know that Technology piqued your interest early on and you chose to follow your brother into a similar career. I’m guessing he was proof of a way into something you loved? What was that journey like and did you face any unique challenges?
That’s right, back in the day we had a BBC Micro B (my mum worked all the hours she could to save up and buy it for my older brother) and I quickly became fascinated with it – I followed suit because my brother was someone relatable to me. If he could do something constructive and progress, then so could I if I put in the hard work and effort.
Even though my secondary ‘careers advisor’ politely suggested I should look at other careers, I pressed on. I was now excelling ahead of others at school so there was no reason for that advice. That was probably my first experience of blatantly being held back as a person of colour.
Progressing to a different environment for further education, I faced no such challenges – a 1000+ student college averaging 25% of BAME students.
This was a new experience. Surrounded by peers that I could directly relate to (race, culture, family, upbringings) but still, on my Computer Science, Mathematics and Geography courses there were no other BAME students. I recall many of the lecturers being completely dismissive of me because young people that looked like me were often on vocational courses and not being guided to university. Therefore my presence in all ‘white’ classrooms was quite intimidating and also highlighted my isolation in such environments.
I recall even on my path toward university, my year tutors provided only basic information whilst the other students were often given frequent ad-hoc guidance. My default mode was to work hard and prove them wrong. Even though I was excelling at Computer Studies the tutor wouldn’t recognise it. I formed a great bond with another high performer who was white and he’d constantly get the recognition - we’d laugh about it though as I’d regularly get higher marks in tests and help him with class practical work.
When I got the grades to go to uni my tutor seemed surprised. I already knew he didn't believe in me, regardless of my consistent homework marks or mock exam grades.
At uni there was still under-representation of BAME students, however, there were fewer obstacles. It was an environment where these groups were socially and academically connected. This meant less isolation, more integration and good encouragement and support from the lecturers.
Throughout my working career, I’ve had interviews where I’d be questioned if I was the right person coming for the interview - The way I spoke on the phone and the details on my CV didn’t fit the stereotype held by some when I showed up for the interview. Unfortunately, this was common and a series of job rejections was hard to deal with. Nevertheless, my strong family role models gave me perseverance and determination to keep going, despite the adversity.
Even in later parts of my career the new proverbial glass ceilings still existed. It wasn’t that long that I had to leave a role due to the unjustified treatment from a newly appointed manager. I’d worked in a number of great roles and progressed with recognition but in this particular scenario all my great work wasn’t acknowledged - It was an organisation that had zero diversity but in a sector that globally thrives due to diversity! Because of my race, it was felt that I “didn’t fit in”. It was a troubling time as I was dealing with professional institutionalised racism first hand.
Even as I was leaving for a senior role, one of my co-workers asked about the new job and joked, “right, no really what is the role?”. Some people hold beliefs that people from BAME communities can only achieve limited career progression. My fellow white colleagues wouldn’t have had the same response.
Do you think the barriers you experienced exist today?
Unfortunately, these barriers still exist today, be that in education or in the workplace. I’ve experienced it first hand and my wider family and BAME friends regularly share their personal experiences with me. It’s a tragedy. It requires a new generation, those coming through the ranks now, to oust these former strongholds of racism and oppressive behaviour. Without defending people sometimes the perpetrators are wholeheartedly unaware of the biases they impose.
In your Q&A session, we learned that you are an Americanophile who loves everything from Mickey Mouse and Diners to Skittles and Theme Parks. You’ve also got family out in Connecticut. In recent weeks we’ve seen shocking scenes of police brutality in the US re-igniting the conversation around racism and racial bias. What’s your perspective on the troubles and the ripple effect resulting in the division on the streets of the UK?
Unfortunately, what we're seeing is the result of decades if not centuries of systemic prejudice and racial bias that BAME people like me know exist, not just in The US but here and other countries also.
The shocking first-hand video footage that we’ve all seen recently just illustrates another state of the nation. Hundreds of occurrences before it have not been as well documented or accessible. Social media means savage incidents like this become instant news within minutes of being taken.
As much as some may like to deny it or think it’ll be all forgotten in a few weeks, these events have caused an awakening of humanitarian racial equality in a white generation that does not want to be privileged because of the actions, purposeful divisions and gains of their parents, grandparents and forefathers. There is also the realisation in the black communities that enough is enough and we want our, and future, generations to be on a level playing field with unbiased opportunities available for all. It’s about equality and using all available platforms and media to get the message heard. The debate and conversations that then flow will lead to transformation instead of sugar coating the problem with a temporary fix or marketing gain.
Here in the UK, we have seen the protests on the streets with people from all backgrounds wanting to stand against institutionalised division and racism. The change and equality will come by the hearts and minds of existing leaders being transformed and by a generation of new managers and executive leaders emerging into our businesses and organisations.
In our industry and the professional social bubble of LinkedIn – the Black Lives Matter conversation quickly turned to accessible career paths and ultimately commentators like Mark Ritson questioning the notion of supportive brands not having a board team that demonstrates their commitments. As a black man and a c-suite member, what’s your perspective on this?
I tend to agree that it’s all well and good jumping on a train because it has the ears and eyes of the world, but what were you actually doing before the train was moving and became a transworld bullet express?
Diversity means being just that, diverse - not your interpretation of it.
It does make me uncomfortable when I see the executive levels lacking the commitments that their brand loves to declare as holding dear to their hearts. I’ve seen many a former company espouse their great diversity achievements by merely showing how many extra females, they’d hired whilst still, the seniors represent an inner circle of middle-aged white males often from elitist universities or economically prosperous backgrounds - but still, they think all is ok.
I take my CTO role as an honour to serve and deliver for my company, but also for those from BAME backgrounds to look at and help them aspire for where their own careers can head if they desire - no glass ceilings and no limits, just hard work and hopefully fewer struggles for them.
In my part of the industry (creative and marketing) we’ve long fought for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds or from BAME communities to gain better access to the profession. There is still much work to be done but what does that issue look like on the coding and development side of the fence?
Personally, I believe that in the UK this has got so much better. Young people are experiencing greater opportunities to enter the field than I originally did - There are wider resources in schools/colleges/universities, experts and seasoned BAME individuals in the technology field that are able to infuse first-hand experience and knowledge. However, it’s still not as accessible as other sectors and we need to level the playing field - Tech employers have a big role to play in that too.
Your experiences forged who you are and you admit to always harnessing that to drive you onwards. If you could advise kids who are just like you were back then, living in the same circumstances and facing the same challenges, what would your advice be in navigating the world we live in now with a view to seeking a career in digital engineering?
My two pieces of advice would be:
1) Work hard & prove yourself - Unfortunately, there is still a climate where people like me have to go one better or further than our peers.
2) Never give up your passion for achieving and supplement this with access to a mentor. This should mean getting advice from a mentor who has walked the path you seek to tread. This is crucial and relatable – the road isn’t easier, but resources exist to provide support.
At Sagittarius, we are committed to the wider diversity issue. We are proud of our huge mix of staff including our majority female senior management team. But because we know it’s a continuous conversation where process and culture must always be reviewed and refined what type of action would you like to see us prioritise over the coming months and years?
Yes, it’s about that constant and iterative conversation - Nothing should be off the agenda based on our own preconceived biases on the issues. It’s not about getting across a line or creating a marketable story, it’s about a wider social responsibility where we can make a change and an influence. Making ourselves accessible to communities around our office locations that have been historically disadvantaged by institutions and societies - these are partnerships and long term relationships that can create new career paths and visibility of our actions that impact those in areas that need us the most.
You are passionate about mentoring and leaving a legacy – tell me what that would look like for you? What would you like to see changed
Based on my life experiences and those of my family I’m passionate about being a role model for those who are continuously misrepresented. An often misunderstood younger generation that can really benefit from tangible diverse figureheads from the professional world.
For example, many black boys aged 11-20 have been open to hear and learn about my career history, challenges, struggles and successes - which has opened their eyes to what is achievable through hard work and focus whilst in school. For me, being a positive influence, being supportive and being able to offer routes and connections into work opportunities that others can follow is something I strive to pass on.
Real connections with schools, colleges and universities is one step - but not purely as a breeding ground for sourcing new talent, that is merely a beneficial by-product.
Furthermore, I’m still learning more, to then be able to share more. My journey is not over yet!