The Importance of Being Inspired by Someone Who Looks Like You

So it’s been a couple of weeks since the premier of Black Panther and everyone has had their take on how great the movie is and it’s cultural impact on black America, the greater African diaspora, feminism, and black feminism.

I wanted to write a short and personal treatise on its impact on children and people who look like me specifically. After all of the challenge chants, action sequences, and cultural essays, there was one philosophical underpinning that resonated with me in the extreme. (There were actually two, but that’s for another day on leadership)

I had to get my own sports car towed this week. Where's Vibranium when you need it.

I had to get my own sports car towed this week.

*Spoiler Ahead*

It was one specific scene. The end sequence when T’Challa and Shuri are looking across the street from the apartment building where his father, T’Chaka, killed his brother, Erik Killmonger’s father. There, T’Challa informs Shuri that he bought the condemned building and its surrounding property to turn it into a series of Wakandan Outreach centers. To get a sense of why, he looks at the boys playing basketball, pulls out his car remote, and flicks it. His hovering ship decloaks and lands in the middle of the basketball court.

Stunned in wonder, a bunch of kids rushed over to the ship, calling it a floating Bugatti. One mentioned selling it.

But then, there was this one kid who hung back.

It was this kid. Except not in a tuxedo.  It's hard to find good stills from this film.

It was this kid. Except not in a tuxedo. It’s hard to find good stills from this film.

He didn’t gape at the ship. He didn’t run over to kick its tires, or figure out how to get some money out of it. Instead, he looked over at T’Challa and asked, “who are you?”

**** If I may ****

My all-time favorite scene in the movie is the fight sequence in the casino featuring Okoye’s ass kicking stylings. I could watch Okoye do her thing in this clip all day.

But, the scene in present day Oakland resonated with me, and as a movie moment will stick with me forever. Just like the scene in The Last Starfighter when Otis tells Alex Rogan he’ll get his chance to leave the trailer park, but you gotta hold on tight. I once lived in a trailer park. It’s true. It’s true.

**** Back to the Kid ****

Why?

Because that’s the kid who’s going to make something special. He’s the curious kid. The dreamer and builder.

I was that kid.

You can see the 1s and 0s twinkling in my eyes.

You can see the 1s and 0s twinkling in my eyes.

As my SO likes to continuously point out, I was one of those TRS-80 nerds who have known what they wanted to do since 7; but it wasn’t until one kairos moment that showed me my life choice was possible in real life.

That moment wasn’t on a playground, it was a career fair at Arcadia High School. And it wasn’t a flying limo, but a Silicon Graphics IRIS Indigo workstation. And just like how T’Challa nonchalantly decloaked his ship, it was Ryan Turner who casually ran through the demos and features that the Indigo is capable of.

This guy was definitely not at a career fair on the Eastern Shore.

This guy was definitely not at a career fair on the Eastern Shore.

It was the dude on the left.  That's his son on the right.

It was the dude on the left. That’s his son on the right.

It really was a simple thing he was doing. Playing videos, showing the ButtonFly demo, and a snippet of a system I’d eventually work on, the Wallops Ship Surveillance System.

My iPhone X has more power than this machine, but I still want one of these former $25k workstations.

My iPhone X has more power than this machine, but I still want one of these former $25k workstations.

While the other kids were dazzled and amazed and asked a few questions about the computer, I hung back. I asked him, “who are you?” and, “what is it that you do?” And of course I peppered him with questions about the machine, what processor was inside, all the nerdy stuff. But he humored me and answered my questions. Before letting me go, he told me something to the effect, “you’re really into this stuff, and you’d be a good candidate for the SHARP program.” SHARP was NASA’s Summer High School Apprenticeship and Research Program.

The first chance I got, I went to the guidance office and applied for the SHARP program. I was accepted, and worked my first summer in the metrology section, wound up hooking up with Ryan Turner. Ryan Turner became a mentor by proxy and introduced me to a couple of different groups. I learned how to solder that summer and earned a certificate, Mr. Turner gave me a copy of the Turbo C++ compiler and helped me learn C and C++, and he introduced me to two engineers in Range Safety. And it was there that I wrote my first “real” program. A task I still carry on my resume in which I wrote a program that calculated trajectories for tubular rocket launchers on Wallops Island. At the age of 16, I wrote software that helped guide rockets safely into low Earth orbit.

I finished that summer a changed manboy. I thought I knew I wanted to “work in ‘puters”, but now I had an idea of what I could do. After that summer, I went back to NASA for another summer and worked on AWOTS and the Ship Surveillance System, and I continued to go back for a few semesters in college.

Being the kid that hung back to ask a man who looked like me, “who are you?”, led me down a path of meeting and being mentored by Jay and Pam Pittman at NASA, which led to drinking the elder Ron Forsythe’s coffee who is the father of a future professor, later turned customer of my company, to a short and memorable stint at IBM Global Finance, launching more rockets with Ryan Turner on Lockheed’s Vertical Launching System, a life of dotcom and being a paper millionaire, telecommunications in IRAQ and hating my life, to a couple of patents, the Emerging Technology Center, TEDCO venture capital, McKesson, speaking around the world on technology, radio hosting, riding a camel in Dubai, helping build the world’s largest data capture system, journalism and MoDev, a book on technology, a bunch of citations, and then today.

Today, I repay Ryan Turner and all of those who helped me by helping kids look forward realize they can live their own reality by speaking to kids a few times a year, running high schoolers into the ground through our intern program, helping kids build a game in an hour for the Youth Entrepreneurship Conference, and most recently helping an all-girl high school team win an app challenge.

A lot has been written about the cultural impact of Black Panther, and a lot has been written about how the billions BP will earn from the black community could have been better spent in the black community. Debatable sure, but one thing is undeniable. Seeing people who look like you can have a bigger impact on people than the amount of capital spent.

I’ve worked with, for, and learned from many great people who were black, white, Asian, Indian, African, and every other ethnicity. But…

Seeing someone who looked like me who is a master in computing definitely helped inspire me to try and create my own reality, and hopefully; one day, become a master in computing myself.

WLM3

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