The short BuzzFeed documentary “My Unlikely Path to Becoming the 1% at Google” opens with Anthony Mays lamenting that “fear is the chief export of Compton.” Mays, who moved to Compton at age 4 and spent time in foster care before a couple he knew took in him and his two brothers, views Compton as a “rose bush of beauty and pain.” He talks of struggle but also resilience, and while many of his peers felt that “sports, rap music or drugs” were their only options, Mays exemplified a different path.
He learned to play the keyboard at age 7 and found a passion for Gospel music. “I’ve been serving as a church musician nearly every Sunday since I was 9 years old,” he says. By age 9, he had also already discovered “superpowers” stemming from his interest in computers. After a childhood of BASIC programming, he went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from UCI’s Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS). He then started his career as a junior programmer at City National Bank through the INROADS internship program. Years later, despite his assumption that “Google was never going to hire a Black former foster kid from the hood of Compton,” he spent eight years working as a software engineer at Google.
Just this month, Mays decided to leave Google to be a full-time entrepreneur and to further his work in promoting diversity in tech — work that earned him the 2016 INROADS Trendsetter Award. He is now turning his attention to the tech career coaching firm he founded in 2019, Morgan Latimer Consulting, named after African-American inventors Garrett A. Morgan and Lewis H. Latimer. Mays plans to continue speaking at public schools and other student organizations, leveraging his experience in “opening up doors for the next generation of tech talent.”
What led to your early interest in computer science?
I fell in love with computers the first time I had the opportunity to use one in the second grade. After some begging, I convinced my foster parents to buy me a computer for Christmas. They couldn’t afford a real desktop computer, so they and my birth mom bought educational toy computers. One of them came with a programming mode that let me code in BASIC. I learned how to code using the instruction booklet that came with the computer and realized that I could build things that nobody else was able to build. That was the first time that I understood that computers gave me superpowers.
Later, in middle school and high school, I’d have the opportunity to learn more about how the internet works on a protocol level, and about how to build and maintain servers. I was already soaking up so much computer knowledge that it seemed only logical for me to pursue a computer science degree.
And what led you to UCI?
I didn’t want to travel too far for school and needed to find something I could afford on my own. As part of my high school experience, I did a number of college tours, which included UC Irvine, UC San Diego and Cal Poly Pomona. I made sure to apply to all of those schools and ultimately got accepted into UCI and Cal Poly Pomona. The two things that convinced me to attend UCI was that UCI was more affordable for me given scholarships, and I had the opportunity to meet members of the Black Student Union and learn more about the Black community on campus. That was important to me at the time, and made the transition to college life much easier than I think it would’ve been otherwise.
Can you talk about your journey to Google?
I remember being approached by a Google recruiter on campus during my senior year at UCI. They handed me a brochure and asked me to apply. I’m sure I was polite, but later that day I threw the application away. Google was never going to hire a Black former foster kid from the hood of Compton, California, and I wasn’t going to entertain the thought that I might actually have a chance. Fast forward five years, and I was contacted directly by a recruiter over at LinkedIn. Excited doesn’t even begin to explain how I felt when offered the opportunity to apply. I knew that getting into Google would be a game changer for me, my career and my family. Unfortunately, I didn’t know the first thing about succeeding at big tech company interviews. Despite studying for two weeks, I ultimately failed due to my trusting some misinformation about the interview process.
For the next two years, three more recruiters would reach out in an attempt to get me to try the interview again. I always say that I felt that I had let down myself, my family, my church and all Black people everywhere, so I wasn’t eager to go through that emotional journey again. Yet my last recruiter convinced me to give it another shot and really armed me with trustworthy resources. And after a month and a half of studying, I practically sailed through the interviews.
What would you say is the most important takeaway from your journey?
There are two big takeaways from my experience. First, despite living in the age of the internet, it is still difficult for people from underrepresented backgrounds to gain access to trustworthy information that’s more readily accessible to others. By God’s grace, I found a network of people who empowered me with the knowledge to succeed.
The second big takeaway from my experience is that failure is an important part of the success story. Had I not been exposed to the Google interview, I wouldn’t have had the right mental model to help me prepare properly the second time. I’ve grown to appreciate the learning opportunities that come from failure and to remain optimistic in spite of setbacks.
What is it like working as a software engineer at Google?
I never cease to be amazed by the quality and caliber of tools I get to use, never mind the fact that I get to run my work on global-scale infrastructure. But even more important than the tools are the people that you get the opportunity to work with. Google is full of problem solvers, and there’s an environment of trust, so you’re entrusted with big, meaty, sometimes not-well-defined problems. I find that exciting and scary at times, but it’s fun when you get the chance to work on problems like that.
What motivated you to start Morgan Latimer Consulting?
My passion is for helping people like me who are willing to work hard to succeed in tech but don’t have the knowledge or the confidence. As I began providing resources for free and speaking all over the country, I noticed that way more people were asking for help than I could afford the time to assist. Thus, I decided to start Morgan Latimer Consulting to better formalize the work I was doing in my spare time and to build something that would be sustainable and scalable.
How do we better expand opportunities and communicate more options for youth from underrepresented, resource-scarce communities?
The words of civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson come to mind: “It’s actually in proximity to the poor that we hear things that we won’t otherwise hear, that we’ll see things we won’t otherwise see.” It’s imperative that we get into these communities to first learn and then offer support, working alongside those previously marginalized by institutions of power and privilege. I appreciate that UC Irvine continues to show up in my hometown of Compton. [Read about UCI’s GEAR UP project, which supports under-resourced students in Compton.]
How has your ICS education helped you throughout your career?
Honestly, I kind of hate to say it, but it’s been a mixed bag! At first, it didn’t seem like my ICS education was much help at all outside of serving as a credential that justified a higher paycheck. It almost seemed like no one really had time to engage in the more robust disciplines of software engineering and construction. It took time for me to realize that there’s a big difference between working for a company that makes money from the software it builds and working for one that does not. Getting the chance to work for actual software companies helped to validate, in my mind, the value of the CS education I received at UCI, especially when it came to technical writing, algorithms and data structures knowledge, and software development methodology.
Can you share any memorable ICS moments or tell us about an influential professor?
I remember casual conversations I would have with Lecturer Shannon Alfaro who taught the “Compilers & Interpreters” course (ICS 142). I believe she was pregnant at the time, and we would just chat about life and school when we crossed each other between classes. It seemed like a small thing, but for someone like me who struggled with imposter syndrome and confidence in an environment where I felt nothing but different, it was incredibly meaningful to have those two- or three-minute conversations. I’ve never forgotten those small gestures, and I’ve tried to pass that on as I’ve built relationships throughout my career.
Did you ever think you’d leave Google? What’s next for you?
I did! I wasn’t sure when or under what circumstances, but what I found truly surprising was that I began to understand how easy it would be for me to retire as a Googler. Considering that I thought I’d never be hired, that’s saying a lot!
However, I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur and I knew that the clock was ticking once I started Morgan Latimer Consulting. I’m now dedicating myself full time to running my company and opening up doors for the next generation of tech talent through technical interview coaching, sharing my story more broadly, and working with companies to consult on DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] strategy.
Any words of advice for students hoping to follow in your footsteps?
It’s kind of like that Shia Labeouf meme from a few years ago — JUST DO IT! I spent so much time doubting myself that I didn’t take many worthy risks like pursuing undergrad research or applying for Google internships or starting a business until late into my career. It took time for me to stop self-selecting myself out of opportunities, and I want those who come after me to just jump in and know that things will be alright if you put in the work. It will be messy, but that’s the job. It gets better.
Connect with Anthony D. Mays at anthonydmays.com/links, where you’ll find everything from free tech interview resources to YouTube videos of his keyboarding skills, including a cover of the music from the Animal Crossing New Horizons video game. You can also learn why he always wears his Compton hat, representing what his roots bring to the Silicon Valley table.
— Shani Murray