CATALYSTS INTERVIEW: Tracy Jon Sargeant
Tracy Jon Sargeant (He/Him), Security Engineer at Check Point Software Technologies and Founder of Multicultural Development Center of Iowa (MDC Iowa), embodies social justice advocacy and racial equity every day. Through his diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts at Check Point and MDC Iowa, Tracy Jon supports the next generation of Iowa tech professionals through his leadership, mentoring, and strategic outreach.
Can you give us an overview of your career and how it has evolved?
I have a somewhat unconventional technology career path. I did not go the typical path of getting a college degree and chose to be self-taught. My first tech job was helping a friend start an ISP and then working for a computer training company with the benefit of unlimited classes. After that, I jumped right into a role as a technical recruiter and started helping people find their dream tech jobs. Over the course of a few years, I worked my way through networking fundamentals, some programming, and security but had not figured out what I wanted to do in tech. Still, I realize I had a natural ability to understand complex technology quickly and translate it to non-technical people.
I have always been a bit of an overachiever when it comes to my career. If I liked something, I put my whole heart into it. So, I created stretch goals and decided I wanted to be in security, which was always the super cool part of IT. From then on, everything I did in terms of career opportunities was designed to get me there and would make me more valuable someday as a CISO.
What is Check Point Software Technologies, and how does its company culture contribute to diversity and inclusion efforts?
Check Point Software Technologies is a global security provider for cloud, network, endpoint, data, and IoT. We’ve been the gold standard for security management from the beginning, inventing the stateful firewall in 1996, and we hold the patent for that. So we’ve been a leader in the security industry for almost 30 years.
We are an American-Israeli multinational company and have a culturally and geographically diverse group of employees. We have offices throughout the world, and we serve every continent. Our leadership has always supported employees who want to be part of the change they are committed to making. One of the things that I love about this company is how our leadership embraces change. This company is about action, and they have a strong focus on helping to improve female representation in technology, which is important. We started FIERCE, an employee group that focuses on diversity and inclusion, and have had the full support of our executives and senior leadership. So, we have DEI built into our core principles, and it is in our DNA.
Check Point also does a great job of addressing the digital divide. They understand that there’s a gap between the people who have access to technology and those who do not. They have even supported my nonprofit with a donation and make their curriculum available to train underrepresented people. They put their money where their mouth is and make it a point to do everything they can to help support and promote that diversity, equity, inclusion, and lead by example.
Throughout your career, what are some tried and true principles that you feel are translatable to all companies?
For me, being the change that you want to see in the world has always been a guiding principle, and it has served me well. I always keep a coin in my pocket that an artist engraved with the words on it. It’s a constant reminder that it’s up to all of us to be the change that we want to see. We can’t expect someone else to do that.
Leading by example is another principle that I believe translates to all companies regardless of size or industry. Leadership is critical, and it’s an essential part of being a change agent. It’s important to remember that leadership is not a title or position but rather an approach to using your influence to serve a greater purpose. I’ve been in management roles and was a VP at one point, but regardless of what position I’ve had, I’ve always been a leader.
I believe that cultural humility and allyship are principles that could serve every organization regardless of location, industry, or company size. Therefore, I think all organizations would do well to embrace cultural humility and allyship as their core principles which support diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Lastly, creating a culture of belonging and acceptance is another principle that I believe applies to all companies.
How do you encourage innovation and idea-sharing in your community, in the Iowa City area?
When I moved to Iowa ten years ago from Wisconsin, I initially felt like an outsider. I did not feel very welcomed or have many organic opportunities to connect with other technology professionals. So, I went back to utilizing one of my core principles about being the change you want to see. Instead of waiting for people to invite me into conversations, I started reaching out to any individual or organization where I thought there might be synergies or an opportunity for collaboration. Eventually, I found like-minded people and community organizations that shared my love for technology and passion for racial equity. The idea-sharing started immediately, and after a Strategic Doing workshop, I had the framework for even more productive collaboration sessions.
I try to remember a few quotes by Brené Brown about connection and vulnerability. I bring my various passions for technology, 3D printing, cybersecurity, and racial equity to as many conversations as possible. I seem to be constantly putting myself out there, sharing part of my true self, not just the surface information or strictly professional details. I strive to foster innovation, collaboration, and idea-sharing in all these discussions by finding a balance between talking and listening and leading by example through openness and vulnerability. It’s a full-time effort on my part to constantly innovate and talk about how we can improve our lives through technology.
What was your passion growing up, and what did you envision for your career before you got into IT?
As a Black kid growing up in a small town in rural Wisconsin, my dream was to become a businessman or lawyer one day. Unfortunately, my school did not have any programming or technology classes, and I had no access to a computer. My parents were entrepreneurs, and I thought I would always take over my family’s manufacturing business. However, circumstances changed, and that was no longer an option. So I had to reinvent myself, and as I mentioned earlier, I stumbled into technology, and I fell in love with it right away.
Once I realized I could actually “do this,” I jumped in with both feet and focused on learning as much as possible. So, if I was not working, I would take a class or spend the night at Barnes & Noble. Almost every night, I camped out there because I could not afford to buy the books or take expensive computer classes that my company did not offer. So, I had to learn things that way, and I would show up with a legal pad, pen, highlighter and write down what I thought was relevant to my goal.
What is the Multicultural Development Center of Iowa (MDC Iowa), and what drove you to start this organization?
I have worked in various roles that allowed me to travel from coast to coast, working with state organizations and corporations throughout my career. As a Black man, I was usually the only person of color in the room, and it made me sad because I knew the lack of diversity would limit the project, but I did not understand why this was happening. And then, my eyes got opened, and I started to understand systemic racism and racial equity. I started to become aware of some of those limitations that prevented people of color from a career or degree pathway in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
Once again, looking for the change that I want to see in the world, I decided not to wait for someone else to determine how we solve this problem. So, four years ago, I started the Multicultural Development Center of Iowa (MDC Iowa) as a nonprofit 501(c)(3) providing free training to underserved and marginalized people.
MDC Iowa is, first and foremost, an organization that focuses on improving diversity in STEM. We do that by providing year-round access to STEM-related learning experiences for people of color. We cannot embrace inclusion by excluding anyone, so our programs are open to everyone, but we emphasize serving those who are historically underrepresented in STEM. To eliminate financial barriers and to remove socioeconomic status, we never charge for any of the services that we provide.
We also started a BIPOC Business Accelerator program called INCubate, a 16-week, hands-on, instructor-led class for entrepreneurs and business owners. We focus on business operations, best practices, the legal structure of an entity, supply chain management, competitive analysis, market value, GPM, marketing, and much more. It’s like a mini MBA program designed to cover the fundamentals that will help the small business sector not only survive but thrive in this new economy.
We are also building partnerships with local financial institutions to create lending opportunities to combat limited access to funding due to systemic racism and create growth capital for minority-owned businesses. So I’m sure we will continue to evolve and adapt, but our programs will always be community-focused and address racial equity.
We all have some form of privilege, and leveraging that for someone else is what I believe we’re here for. And for me, advocating for social justice, racial equity, and diversity in STEM is important to me, and I try to do that any way I can.
Tell us about any mentors you may have had and/or currently still have and how they’ve influenced your career path.
People talk about teachers that they had that were positive influences. I didn’t have that. I had the opposite. I had teachers that were pretty harsh, blatantly racist, and told me, “You’re never going to amount to anything. You have no potential.”
After my family’s business failed, I needed a job and applied for everything I saw regardless of pay or industry. They say the job market is a numbers game, and after 50+ rejections, I finally got an interview. This is when I first met the man who would become my first mentor. His name was Bob Glass, and he gave me my first job at the computer training company that ultimately led to my career in technology. He saw something in me and taught me the importance of understanding how technology can help businesses and that it is more than just profit and losses. You need to figure out how technology can support the business objectives. Unfortunately, Bob left us too early, but he lives on in me as the first person who took a chance on me.
A few years later, I was trying to make strategic career moves but having trouble getting hired for any positions higher than entry-level. Shawn Feiler is someone who gave me an opportunity when I was applying to a large defense contractor. I did not have a degree, but he did not define my value based on a piece of paper. Instead, he saw people for who they are and what they could become when given the opportunity and support.
After developing a specialty in application virtualization, I found an opportunity to join the consulting industry. I met Jim Freeman on my first consulting engagement at SunTrust Banks in Atlanta. Jim was a VP of Infrastructure at the bank but eventually left and became my manager at the consulting company. Jim was new to the game and looking for someone he could rely on. I think he saw something in me, and I quickly became his right hand. I asked him to be my mentor and coach me on my career trajectory. He was so instrumental and continues to be a reference for me. Jim is the model that I use when I mentor others and try to pay it forward.
These three mentors imprinted on me and helped me understand what a good mentor is, but maybe more importantly, how we can all help someone else by leveraging our privilege. All of them were white men that I think recognized that diversity in tech does not happen automatically. They saw something in this young Black man who desperately wanted to be part of an industry that is not always as accepting and welcoming as it could be.
What advice would you give a young person considering a tech career path or aspiring to a tech leadership role?
The first piece of advice is finding a mentor and becoming part of a mentorship group that can give you access to individuals who have already done it. People that have paved the way, we talk about standing on the shoulders of our ancestors, and I believe that’s true, but we also stand on the shoulders of our alums who are there to help us. So take advantage of those allies and any mentor that you can get access to, and learn from their lived experience.
If you are looking to become a leader or have a tech leadership role, I go back to my principle that leadership is not a title. Anyone can be in a leadership role. So, if you feel that you have the right tools, the right personality characteristics to be in a leadership role, you can take on that responsibility without having that official role. You can’t act as the CIO if you’re not the CIO, but you can act as a leader regardless of your title. I believe that people see that. I’ve had many opportunities to be in management roles, and I think that’s because people saw that leadership quality in me. So if you feel you have that, do everything you can to develop and fine-tune that skill, and then look for opportunities to show your leadership capabilities.
Why is it important to have people of different backgrounds in technology?
Having people with different lived experiences and cultural backgrounds enriches innovation and is the core of why we think improving diversity in STEM is so important. My friend Jay Flores is a STEM ambassador and recently lost a friend to cancer. Jay’s focus is to make sure that we encourage every person to consider a STEM career because you never know who might be the one that comes up with the cure for cancer. That struck me because we all have different abilities and different lived experiences. If we encourage and support everyone to get into these fields, there is a greater possibility that we will find and support someone who creates the next big thing. If we do not do that, those things may not happen in our lifetime or at all.
As you look to the future, how would you like to see talent development and workforce grow in Iowa?
As I look to the future, I want to see a more diverse technology workforce that we develop in Iowa and then do everything we can to retain that talent. Most likely, it will come down to more public-private partnerships where we can collaborate with the business sector to establish a direct pipeline. Some of the largest employers in the state can leverage their privilege to help develop and support this talent.
I must tip my hat to Pearson for what they did this summer with their cloud architect program in picking a handful of individuals to give them an opportunity to get some hands-on learning and create job opportunities. There is no reason why other employers cannot be doing the same thing.
I would love to see the governor allocate more funds directly to organizations that are closest to the problem and can help influence change. Those of us who are boots on the ground, who focus on local issues, are probably the most qualified and need those funds to create programs like what MDC Iowa does that help create that pipeline and do more outreach and find that next generation of talent. That’s what I see as the future of the IT or technology workforce in Iowa.