Written by Rory James
Photographs by Tristan Hallman 

Brandi Richardson

I’m an empathy-driven engineer,
I’m not just creating code or building technologies to communicate between computers


For Brandi Richardson, driving diversity in the technology landscape is as important to her work as building innovative products. The industry, where both women and Black people are vastly underrepresented, was always one she felt she was looking in on from the outside.

“I had always wanted to transition into tech, but was fearful. First because I’m a woman. Second because I’m a Black woman,” she says. “I didn’t see a lot of representation of people like me across the industry.”

While half of residents in Brandi’s hometown of Atlanta, Georgia are Black, it’s a striking contrast to the tech companies that have dominated the zeitgeist over the last two decades, which are overwhelmingly populated by white men.

Recent studies found Black people only make up 3.7% of roles at large tech companies, a depressing one percent increase since 2014, while even more distressing is that Black women only make up 0.7% of the tech workforce.

In 2019, Brandi was working as a recruiter for Delta Air Lines, perhaps one of the unluckier jobs to find oneself in with the incoming pandemic laying waste to the global airline industry, however, it did spur Brandi to effect the change she had long put off.

“When the pandemic hit I realized now is the time. I started teaching myself to code and began attending Codesmith’s Pair Programming classes, before going on to the Full-Time Immersive Software Engineering program.”

In the intervening years, Brandi went from someone doubting her potential as a programmer, to a leading engineer at tech giant Microsoft, developing innovative products for industries across society, while actively clearing the path for other women and people of color to follow.

I’m an empathy-driven engineer, I’m not just creating code or building technologies to communicate between computers

Microsoft, and Empathy in Engineering

Brandi recently transitioned from Software Engineer to Technical Program Manager (TPM).

“In my TPM role I’m still engineering, but I also wanted to be across strategizing, working on the user side of products, and focusing on solutions design.

As an engineer on Microsoft’s Industry Cloud Team, Brandi led the design, testing and implementation of industry cloud solutions, building proofs of concept, prototypes and demo walk-throughs.

“My team built out specific products for specific industries like retail, healthcare, financial services and sustainability. For example, for retail, we built out an app for the Chipotle restaurant chain’s server staff that demonstrated how to package customer orders, or which ingredients were needed for a rice bowl or a burrito.”

While this particular product may seem less significant than the other ways code is being leveraged to change the world, for better or worse, Brandi has also led on building products which demonstrate its potential for bettering society and benefiting people’s lives.

“Technology, including AI, should be used for the advancement and benefit of human beings,” she says. “With everything I strive to do, in the back of my mind, I always think, ‘how can I keep humans at the center of this technology?’”

One such product was a power virtual agent (PVA), or AI ChatBot, that is now used in hospital patient portals to communicate with patients, some of whom are chronically ill. One of Brandi’s tasks in the development of this PVA was to craft personalized conversation scenarios to enhance the patient’s experience. 

“The PVA may not be able to communicate all of its emotions like a human being would, so my job was to humanize AI and create more of a connection.”

Technical and Ethical Considerations

There were a number of ethical and technical considerations, often overlapping, that went into designing this product she explains.

“I’m an empathy-driven engineer, I’m not just creating code or building technologies to communicate between computers. Whatever I build, there’s going to be another human, designer, engineer or user that’s going to have to read or look at the things I build.”

The questions she and her team asked themselves were:  Is what we want to build feasible? Who will be using the product? And, how can we ensure an accessible and user-friendly experience?

Empathizing with the patient experience and their desire for acknowledgment was something quickly identified as key to this product’s success with users, particularly the seriously ill.

Brandi ensured the PVA was built to address the patient by name, greet them with specific information about their location and kindly ask about their symptoms, before directing them towards the next steps.

“It helps for people working in tech to realize that we’re creating this technology for other people, because sometimes everything is so lofty and brainy for engineers. Everything is seen through binary, zeros and ones and algorithms.

“There are pros and cons to that because, yes, you find many brilliant people in tech, but sometimes you need to insert more emotions and empathy into the work.”

Other ways Brandi’s work has been informed by these kinds of considerations include building products that use diverse imagery so users can see themselves reflected in demos, avoiding certain fonts to help prevent distractions for people with ADHD or building intuitive demo environments so users can move from section to section without frustration.

Brandi’s efforts to integrate empathy into her work extends beyond the products she builds, she also works to nurture compassionate, high-performing teams, encouraging her colleagues to become leaders in the company, not blind followers. Part of this means motivating her peers to be unafraid to ask if and why a product should exist.

“In tech, in general, everyone’s pushing for innovation, innovation, innovation to see how far we can go. The questions we get asked are: ‘can we create this or is that possible?’ But what we really need to ask is: ‘should we create this and what impact will it have if we do?’” Brandi says.

This, she believes, is key to the industry moving forward both ethically and meaningfully.

“ I knew I wanted to work for one of the bigger companies like Spotify, Twitter or Microsoft. After receiving offers, I made Microsoft compete with Twitter, which is something women in tech should always do ”
“I had always wanted to transition into tech, but was fearful. I didn’t see a lot of representation of people like me across the industry”

Journey Into Coding

Graduating with a degree in Public Health from Albany State University, Brandi then worked for Delta Air Lines covering talent acquisition, tech ops and, somewhat ironically, employee retention. 

As planes worldwide were grounded, Brandi was furloughed, leaving her to consider her future and opening the door to a new career. It began with listening to tech leaders like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, whose ideas made her more curious about computer sciences and what she may be able to achieve.

She started teaching herself code and looking into other ways to expedite her entry into the industry. Like many, she saw that bootcamps, while incredibly mentally challenging, were a great option for accelerated learning.

Coming across Codesmith, she was attracted to the focus on building advanced applications and was impressed with the work of former graduates who had gone on to prestigious companies. 

“I started to code officially around January or February of 2020, but didn’t start going to the Codesmith sessions until April that year.”

She started with the Pair Programming sessions on offer, which she credits with providing her and her cohort with one of the most important skills a software engineer can possess, technical communication.

“In pairs, one person is typing out and coding the given problem for that session, while the other person is talking through the problem. And we would keep doing that, challenging one another and asking questions all the time. It was the best thing for me in improving my technical communication,” she says.

This technical communication turned out to be invaluable. One anecdote from her job hunt highlights just how it was the difference between her getting her job at Microsoft or potentially losing out to another candidate.

During the technical interview at Microsoft there was a particularly tough problem she was presented with that she simply couldn’t crack and, while this may have been the moment she stumbled, the fact that her technical communication around the problem was so strong the interviewer passed her, and she was offered her current job.

On top of that, Codesmith’s Black Engineer Scholarship, covering the entirety of tuition fees, acted as a sign that this was her path forward. She was awarded the scholarship and moved into the Full-Time Immersive Software Engineering program in the October 2020 cohort.

“I live in Atlanta, but as everything was remote, I joined the course in the L.A. timezone so I could wake up a little later.”

She explains that the 12 hour days, plus the extra work before and after scheduled classes, was tough, but exactly what was needed to prepare her for the industry.

“Twelve hours are the norm. But you do way more than that. At Codesmith, even after classes finished, at 8pm, we did study sessions in our group.

“During the project building phase, a huge portion of the program, you’ll end up putting in 14 to 15 hours a day sometimes.”

For her final project at Codesmith, Brandi built an app called Pinnocchio, a codeless test generator for Puppeteer, Google Chrome’s high level API that controls headless Chrome or Chromium. 

“When we launched it we actually got into some newsletters, a JavaScript newsletter and another software engineering newsletter, so it was really popular,” she says.

“It would be really fun for my group to come back together and revise it, do some iterations and launch it properly, because it’s a really great tool.”

She describes the software in layman’s terms as allowing “engineers and app developers to create test selectors and provide a testing boilerplate to test run their app” avoiding the hassle of manually creating tests through more code.

Building such high-level code as this, as well as something so functional for other programmers, put her in a great position to begin the job hunt after Codesmith. But Brandi still had to hustle to get noticed by the kinds of engineers whose careers she admired, and the companies she had always seen herself working at.

Reaching out, Embracing Rejection and Making Companies Compete

“LinkedIn is one of my best friends. I would message other engineers and prospective employers, asking if they were open to having a coffee or a quick Zoom call to meet me,” she says.

Given one of her main aims was always to use technology for good, and to increase diversity in the industry, it made sense to her to work at a tech giant, whose founders were those who first inspired her to learn to code.

“I knew I wanted to work for one of the bigger companies like Spotify, Twitter or Microsoft,” she says. She ended up receiving job offers from all three, but not before an exhausting job hunt filled with rejection.

“Getting used to rejection is really important” for any software engineer, she says. Although there is great demand for engineers as the world’s industries grapple with the enormity of digitization, getting a good job at a company that is right for you is no easy feat either.

Being kind to yourself in these moments is important to help see the process through to the end as well.

“For every ten rejections I faced, I went and bought myself a cupcake. I got so many rejections before I got my first job, I even stopped counting after I got to 120 rejections. I was living off my savings and didn’t have a huge amount of time to secure the right job. In the end, I got my first software engineering job after three months.”

She says one of the main hurdles to overcome was simply getting her “resume out there, or getting a referral.” Following that the biggest challenge was technical interviews. Here employers devise intense technical challenges to test the engineer's ability to overcome problems on the spot and find creative solutions that the company could put to good use if they hired that person.

In the end Brandi was offered her job at Microsoft, but not before negotiating a better deal, “I made Microsoft compete with Twitter, which is something women in tech should always do.”

Incidentally, this is one of the benefits of Codesmith, where residents are coached in negotiation and even receive help in negotiating salaries, “the last few weeks of my time at Codesmith was dedicated to learning how to do this.”

As part of her employment package, Brandi enjoys wellness benefits where she can get things like massages and personal hobbies reimbursed. Microsoft also has a great paid time off and pays for Brandi’s healthcare, vision and dental care.

“The pay and stocks are also amazing and an obvious good bonus,” she adds.

Brandi’s Set Up

Working at one of the world’s biggest manufacturers of both software and hardware comes with its perks. Microsoft provides their engineers with a Surface Pro laptop, a desktop computer and monitor and even a pair of Surface Headphones, which make up Brandi's work setup.

“I love listening to jazz music in the background while I work. So I usually have a jazz station on Spotify or any sort of calming music. I love to play that in the back because it helps me think and clams me.”

On the software side, Brandi and her team create their products using the Azure Cloud platform, a suite of over 200 products for developing applications that supports the majority of programming languages.

Dynamics 365 by Microsoft is something Brandi uses a lot. D365 is a set of business apps that help achieve operational efficiency and improve customer experiences by collating sales and customer data into a single system to provide a more complete view.

“Microsoft Clarity, a data analytics tool that can figure click rates and things like that, is another tool I use a lot,” she says.

Microsoft has its own apps that their engineers and teams use. For example, where other companies’ engineers often use Slack and Zoom for communications, Brandi says that at Microsoft everything goes through Microsoft Teams. 

Where many companies use Asana for productivity and work management, at Microsoft it’s apps within the Azure Cloud.

“Azure DevOps and Azure Boards come in really handy. That’s where we track all of our tickets across different projects. So that’s a really important planning tool that I use all the time.”

Brandi also decorates her work space with personal things that help keep her centered, calm and focused. 

“I have Bible verses and affirmations hanging up around me that I read often. I like to start my day with a sense of peace, as it plays a part in how I work. It helps me to be level-headed and to keep my purpose and mission at the forefront of my work,” she says.

“I also have a manual timer that I bought off Amazon to help me take breaks. If I don’t have meetings and I’m just straight working all day, then I’ll work for 30 minutes, the timer will go off, and I’ll take a break for eight minutes, and so on.”

She also leverages the power of AI ChatBots in developing new products, such as when building the PVA for hospital patients, but always with a view to humanizing it as much as possible.

While on her job hunt, Brandi was also a prolific user of LeetCode problems, which provides real interview questions to improve coding technical interview skills. 

“They’re not the most fun, they’re really hard and challenging, but the reality is you have to be good at LeetCode problems to get a great job, so they’re very beneficial for that,” she says.

Another platform that aided her job search was levels.fyi. This platform reveals the salaries of software engineers, and other roles across the tech industry, to demystify the numbers for those perhaps on the outside who might potentially accept a lower salary to gain a position.

Knowing what was industry standard, and what her skills were worth, allowed Brandi to push a little harder in her job negotiation. 

“I didn’t answer the question ‘what’s your salary range’ when interviewing for a job. I flipped that question around and asked them what their salary range was for the position I’m interviewing for. 

“I also never immediately accept an offer in the moment before I’ve given myself time to really think it over.”

“ It’s very rare that you are in an environment in tech, where there’s nothing but Black people ”

As a Black woman in tech, Brandi is a big fan of Afrotech, the world’s largest Black tech digital platform. It’s part blog, part news site, and it’s dedicated to keeping the tech industry apprised of all news relating to minority tech companies and opportunities for people of color in tech. 

The site recently launched a podcast to complement this called Black Tech Green Money, with the company’s CEO Will Lucas, and each year they host the world’s largest expo for Black people in tech in Austin, Texas.

Brandi was part of the company contingent that attended Afro Tech 2023. “I went for the first time this year. Microsoft sponsored tickets for roughly 300 Black employees to go and it was amazing. 

“25,000 Black people from all over the world, from different tech companies, all in one place, it was a great experience. It’s very rare that you are in an environment in tech, where there’s nothing but Black people.”

Despite the strong showing at Afro Tech, Brandi says all tech companies could be doing a better job in hiring Black people.

“Where it gets really tricky is with hiring Black people in technical roles. Companies may have a Black recruiter, or secretary but how many Black software engineers are there? Or program managers, data scientists, data analytics, product designers? 

“There needs to be an increase in representation at Microsoft, and at every tech company.”

This leads to reflections on the fairly unique experience of being a Black woman in a white male dominated industry.

“ It’s important to recognize when you’re struggling with imposter syndrome versus when you’re actually just in a toxic environment ”

Coding and Identity

Imposter syndrome is something many software engineers struggle with, particularly at the beginning of their professional careers, but for women in tech it can be a bigger obstacle. For a Black woman, it is multiplied by an order of magnitude.

Brandi says that the key to overcoming these phenomena, as a woman, and specifically a woman of color, is in the “truths we tell ourselves and making it clear to ourselves that we do belong in an industry” even though there may low diversity, and that “we are capable of overcoming any of the challenges in the job” that present themselves. 

“A lot of people in tech tend to sound smarter than they really are. Men tend to speak with a lot of confidence even if they don’t know what they’re talking about. 

“Once I was in a presentation given to my—all male—engineering team and afterwards I asked one of the men presenting to explain a concept which I hadn’t fully understood. He said that he didn’t really understand it either and told me to ‘fake it till you make it.’ ”

Her advice, based on her experience as a minority in tech, is to surround yourself with the communities that speak to you as an individual. One way Brandi does this is by participating in Women in Tech and Women of Color in Tech groups.

Previously, Brandi struggled with the sentiment that she needed to work twice as hard as others to offset any views other people may have had about her only succeeding or achieving promotions because she is the “token woman” or “token Black woman.”

“It’s also important to recognize when you’re struggling with imposter syndrome versus when you’re actually just in a toxic environment. Sometimes we may actually be dealing with racism, misogyny, microaggressions and other prejudices that affect our ability to excel as software engineers.”

Early on at Microsoft, Brandi felt a pressure to conform to the expectations society places on women to be passive, nice and endlessly polite. But modern engineers, she says, must be leaders in their companies, and there are times when they will need to speak up or even speak out against something.

Today, she is comfortable being a Black woman in tech, with no pressure to push herself unduly hard in a job she knows she excels in, “I have nothing to prove, I got here through my own skills, abilities and intelligence.”

Using these experiences, Brandi also works on various side projects to help cut a path for other women and minorities to achieve successful careers in the tech industry.

“ It’s important for women and minorities not to be seen simply as a diversity hire to reach some kind of quota ”

Side Projects

Brandi is active in Microsoft’s own employee resource groups for Black people and sustainability in tech. This includes CodeHouse, started by Microsoft and Google engineers, which works with Historically Black Colleges and University students aiming to smooth their path into the tech industry.

“There’s lots of HBCUs in Atlanta, like Spelman, Morehouse Park, and Atlanta, so we do things like career days, workshops and resume reviews with the students,” she says.

Another organization she is part of is Microsoft TEALS (Technology Education and Learning Support), a Microsoft Philanthropies program that builds sustainable computer science programs in high schools, where Brandi contributes by “helping them with career development skills, resume trainee, any career advice that they need or even giving mock interviews.”

“ One Black boy told me how he’d always played video games, but never thought he could be the one building those games ”

One of the more memorable moments doing this for Brandi was when Microsoft partnered with the Atlanta Hawks basketball team.

“We joined up for a STEM camp with them at a few schools to create a game keeping track of how many basketballs they can shoot. We had a Hawks player come in and get involved.

One thing that stood out for Brandi was that—as there were a lot of Black and brown girls and boys—a lot of the boys said that they had always dreamed of being a basketball player, or working in sports. But they never thought they could work in tech.

“Generally, society tells young Black boys they have two avenues to be successful in life. They can be a basketball player, like LeBron James, or a rapper like Jay Z or Lil Wayne. It was good to open their eyes up to a different path to success. 

“One Black boy told me how he’d always played video games like NBA live, but never thought he could be the one building those games,” she says.

Brandi speaks to students of all ages, from elementary to college, about her software engineering career. 

“I’m always pushing not just to expose kids to STEM but also give them permission to dream big,” she says. Even when given tools and mentorship, girls and people of color don’t always allow themselves to dream or explore new career opportunities because they don’t see themselves reflected in the industry.  

“I did not see anybody that looked like me working in tech, let alone in more technical roles. Because even if you work in the tech industry, when I see women or people of color, they may work in business or recruiting, but rarely do I see people that are engineers, designers or data scientists.

“This can make the industry feel very unattainable for many people. So I tell them not to be afraid to take the first step towards it. And be sure to be your authentic self when you’re there.”

“ I can honestly say one of the reasons I’m now in tech is because of other women ”

Black Girls Code and Girls Who Code are organizations that also Brandi volunteers with. 

The first is “a Black non-profit that teaches Black girls how to code” and works to draw young Black girls into the tech industry through outreach programs. Girls Who Code’s mission is to close the gender gap in technology and change the image of what a programmer is. 

Brandi contributes through teaching code, mentoring and affirming to the participants that the tech industry is open to them if they want to join, despite any preconceptions they might have.

“A lot of the work with these two groups is done virtually, and we teach them how to think like an engineer and things like building a computer game. Not from scratch obviously but by providing them with the right platforms to do that.”

She is also a member of the WomenTech Network, which promotes gender diversity in tech by connecting professionals with leading companies in the industry.

In addition to these groups, Brandi is also still involved in Codesmith by helping new cohorts as an Alumni Advisor. In this role she acts as a mentor to residents, provides technical cloud coaching and makes tutorials and blogs for future cohorts.

Outside of official organizations and roles, Brandi is also keen for people to contact her, just the way she reached out to others on LinkedIn when she was finding her feet, “a lot of women in tech were very responsive to this,” she says, “and I can honestly say one of the reasons I’m now in tech is because of other women.”

She is keen to help those reaching out through LinkedIn and Instagram looking for advice about the industry or interview process. In particular Black, Latinx people and women. 

With many companies across the board now on diversity drives to increase representation of people of color, often to “reach some kind of quota,” Brandi makes “an effort to reply really quickly and help them prepare, as it’s important for women and minorities not to be seen simply as a diversity hire.”

Beyond working to help others into her industry, Brandi is involved in a lot of local social groups in Atlanta unrelated to tech.

“I do a lot of mentoring outside of work and I do a lot with my church. However, I’m off work for vacation soon and I’m going to start making some travel plans.”

A keen traveler, Brandi says she has whittled down her top three destinations she next wants to visit as Thailand, Kenya and of course the tech paradise, Japan.

“All of their cultures are so intriguing and I just want to learn more about them beyond what’s portrayed on TV and movies. I want to go and experience life there, immerse myself—respectfully—and see the world from their perspectives.”

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