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Something has to change: Kimberly Lowe-Williams

Michael Hunter


Welcome to Uncommon Leadership.

I’m Michael Hunter with Uncommon Teams.

Today I’m talking with Kimberly Lowe-Williams.

Kimberly is a Black female director of infrastructure in site reliability, with over ten years of experience as a leader and people manager. She prides herself on being a leader who empowers her team, promotes diversity, and values everyone’s opinion. She’s broken down barriers and challenged stereotypes, inspiring others to do the same. She is also the founder of a nonprofit that for many years provided opportunities for underrepresented individuals in the tech industry before it closed its doors following the pandemic.

Welcome, Kimberly!

Kimberly Lowe-Williams 0:49

Thank you.

Michael 0:52

In your journey to seeing people as people and learning to leverage their unique gifts to best accomplish your goals, what have you struggled with recently?

Kimberly 1:04

Honestly, the biggest struggle has been the economy.

Keeping people motivated.

As you know, there has been a lot of changes, reduction in forces, customer turns, different things like that in the economy that has really greatly impacted the tech community.

Managing and developing engineering managers as well as engineers, it’s really been a struggle to keep people motivated, to keep their eyes on the prize, to keep them focused.

That has honestly been the biggest struggle right now.

As the economy goes, these things always are circular.

This is not the first time I’ve seen this in my career.

It’s my first time in tech, though, I will say.

I wasn’t around for the big bubble and all that fun stuff.

That’s actually when I started in tech, so I wasn’t managing humans at that time.

Even the pandemic was a different type of struggle.

But the jobs and the economy were actually going up during the pandemic.

So that was a different atmosphere.

The current atmosphere now, though, makes it really challenging when developers and engineers and engineering managers especially see that the economy out there is not supporting their career growth the way that they had hoped.

So, trying to keep them motivated and encouraged during this time is definitely the current struggle that I’m dealing with.

Michael 2:44

How are you finding your way through that when you don’t have the flexibility you might have had in the past to give them lots of stock options and promotions and all those typical sorts of incentives?

Kimberly 2:58

I’m teaching people to be really selfish.

By that, I mean I’m teaching them to focus on their individual personal development along whatever track that is.

For individual contributors, use this time to really immerse yourself into new tech stacks, learn new skills. There’s a bunch of virtual conferences and opportunities like that that they can jump into.

I encourage them really to, this is the time where you dig in and you learn and you just think about yourself.

“What else do I need to do? Maybe there’s something nontechnical, maybe there are some nontechnical skills that I have gotten feedback that I need to work on.”

This is a perfect time and opportunity to do that.

In a lot of organizations, this is what we affectionately call “KTLO time.”

It’s just “keep the lights on.”

Not a bunch of spending on all the new things.

Let’s see how we optimize and make things the best we can so that we can keep churning and keep doing what we have to do.

For my engineering managers, it is a really good time for them to think of professional development within leadership, which we know there’s many opportunities and there’s a lot of resources, right Michael, for that type of development.

So I’m teaching them to be selfish right now.

This is a slower time workwise.

Use that opportunity to upskill yourself and focus.

So we have a lot of those like career development conversations and finding opportunities to learn and grow.

Michael 4:32

Are you finding that everyone is jumping at this opportunity? Or do you have some people who are sort of dragging their feet and saying, “This isn’t what I want to focus on.”

Kimberly 4:42

Not really.

Because I’m trying to keep it open, where it’s an area that they find interesting.

Being selfish is something that they’ve been maybe putting off, that they wanted to do but they were always so busy.

Another thing that I have encouraged people to do is to find more fulfillment outside of work.

I’m directing managers, and I’m telling them, “Go do something else.”

Sometimes just being able to unplug and shift gears.

So there’s really no one who’s like, “I don’t want to care about myself right now.”

A lot of people just need that nudge, and some people even need permission.

Some people need permission to go ahead and to shift focus. That it’s okay to do so.

So I grant them that permission.

Michael 5:37

As you give them that permission, are you finding that they all then jump at it? Or are some people so used to not perceiving their permission that they need some help figuring out what to do with that now that they have it?

Kimberly 5.53


Usually, though, people jump right at it.

They’re like, “You’re right. I have been putting this off. So I know what I need to do.”

There have been a few people, they are definitely in the minority.

I think of one individual, he just tickles my heart.

He’s very ambitious, very driven, and likes to figure out hard problems.

He’s an engineer, “Go there.”

He has been doing this for so long, that the ability to just turn off is really difficult.

So I have a lot of coaching conversations.

Honestly, I partner with this individual.

He reports to me, he’s in my direct reporting line.

However, he’s a very senior engineer.

He knows exactly what he needs to be happy.

I try to coach and encourage him to do those things so that his brain gets a little bit of a break.

He does it a little bit, then he’ll fall back and he’ll go, “I’m back into this.”

At the end of the day, if he’s content, even given the current economy and the opportunities that are available, knowing that people are adults, they manage themselves pretty well.

I’m just there to pitch in when the going gets tough, when they’re kind of struggling with exactly what direction to go into.

Michael 7:21

And to help them to see perspectives that they may be missing a little bit.

As you say, so many of us are used to doing the things we’ve been doing for so long that focusing entirely on that we may have missed some of the things that we might also enjoy because they’ve been so focused on whatever it has been our focus for so long.

Kimberly 7:48

Yep, exactly.

Michael 7:51

I appreciate you for using this time of trial to help people spread out their focus and reframe it from, “It’s a tough time. There’s nothing I can do for you, sorry,” to, “This is a time where we can’t do what we’re used to doing. So let’s readjust our focus to all the other things this lets us do that may have been more challenging to prioritize in the times in the past.”

Kimberly 8:22

Fortunately, and unfortunately, I have a lot of experience in having to do that.

We use our life lessons, our professional lessons, and we try to use it to encourage other folks.

That’s what I try to do.

Michael 8:37

Your teams are blessed to have you leading them.

Kimberly 8:43

Thank you. One day you’ll have to interview one of them and see what they say.

Michael 8:50

Sounds great. Let’s follow up with that. Hook me up with them and we’ll make it happen.

We started with what you’re struggling with recently. What is something that has surprised you recently?

Kimberly 9:11

I’m very rarely surprised. I’ll be honest.

But what has surprised me, I have been a bit surprised at the reaction of tech companies to this ever-changing economy.

The decisions that we’re making as to how to manage it and how to handle it has surprised me.

We’ve seen a large amount of layoffs and a lot of change occurring at companies of all scale.

How they choose to retain their employees and who they choose to retain, that has been surprising to me.

Michael 10:11

How have you brought that surprise into your leadership and exploring that with the people you lead and the people up your and across your management chains?

Kimberly 10:30

Starting with up, is when I have the opportunity, I do voice my opinions, even when it’s tough decisions.

I’ve been impacted by and I’ve had to be part of a layoff where I’ve had to make decisions as far as who do we retain? How do we keep growing? What do we do after the RIF (reduction in force)?

Also I have been impacted by one.

Even when I have been impacted by a RIF, I still try to advocate for the individuals within the company that I feel deserve and would be best suited for the type of environment that would be left.

That’s a consideration that I do voice to leadership.

What I do encourage them is to do the spreadsheet, look at the numbers, and then let’s look at the humans.

Because there are certain people during a layoff that will be more heavily impacted for a longer period of time than some of the others.

If you look at the bottom line, the number, the percentage, may not be that big of a difference.

As a matter of fact, most likely they’ll come out ahead.

Just to be quite blunt, the more expensive employees, the ones who are more senior, who have the fancy titles, they can usually pivot a bit faster.

They usually have a little bit more of a nest egg.

They usually have a little bit more foundation.

They can make it and survive through a layoff a bit longer than someone who’s in the middle of their career, who’s still trying to look for those opportunities.

When a company is not necessarily doing so well, this is when I talk to my peers or my directs, encourage them that this presents a very unique opportunity for your individual career growth.

I know because I’ve been there.

I speak a lot from experience.

Were you look around and the department has been sliced, it does present itself with a lot of opportunities for you to get some cross-functional skills for you to take on more of a leadership role.

For you to show up in a way that you may not have had the opportunity before just because there are a whole bunch of people.

It does present its own unique opportunity.

I do encourage people who actually are making that decision, when I get the opportunity to be part of that decision, to consider the humans and not just the number.

That’s how I deal with it.

I don’t see that happening across a lot of tech companies.

I know it takes a bit more time and it takes some consideration.

But when you have that big of a change, that impactful of a change, everyone should stop and think about both things before acting.

Michael 13:25

I’ve seen those distinct differences as well.

Where some companies are just applying some perhaps arbitrary formula across deciding who will be let go.

Where other companies are taking a much more human-focused approach.

I remember one case where one of the individual contributors had let their manager know that they were going to be leaving the company; they had found another job.

The manager went to tell their manager, because this was a key person on the team, so it’s going to have big implications across much broader than just that one team.

And their manager said, “Let me talk to my manager,” because it turned out, a few levels above that individual contributor, they all knew that there were layoffs coming.

What they did for this person is, they said, “If you can give us another couple of weeks, we will actually lay you off instead of you just leaving. Then you get the whole layoff package.”

That is a super human-focused caring approach to layoffs and people leaving, and just people management in general.

Kimberly 14:45

That speaks highly of a company, that you can go that many levels out and they’re like, “Let’s do this. Let’s do (what I would consider is) the right thing.”

Michael 15:02

That’s one of the most heartwarming stories around reorganizations that I’ve ever heard.

Kimberly 15:11

So many words for it.

Michael 15:15

How else are you helping people through the trauma of all the crazy things that are happening in tech these days?

Kimberly 15:25

By making myself available, to be honest.

I blog about it, I talk about it, I write about it, I get on Zoom calls and talk to people about it.

Just making myself available as a resource, as a person who has lived through it, always goes through it, comes out on the other side of it, has to deal with it from a few different vantage points.

I try to make myself available.

Because at the end of the day, the harsh reality is we can’t change what happens, and we can’t necessarily control all the things. But we can at least be there to support each other and have those conversations and help where we can.

I pass resumes and I’ve been doing that for a very long time at this point.

I’m not a recruiter.

I’m not someone who does job placement.

I will help people find jobs whenever I can.

That’s my contribution to it.

Michael 16:25

Is that maybe one of your biggest wins?

Kimberly 16:36

My biggest win, professionally, outside of my almost 30-year marriage and four beautiful children, my biggest win professionally has been my work through the Difference Engine.

You mentioned in the intro that I founded a nonprofit.

Through that nonprofit, I had over 200 apprentices come through my doors and find opportunities within tech to basically change their lives.

I get to see the fruits of that on LinkedIn when they post these updates saying they got a new job or they are now doing this and they’re doing that.

These people came from all types of different backgrounds, different careers.

The funniest one for me was I had an accountant who became a software developer.

What we really worked through more than anything was the culture shock. The difference in work environments, working in a banking accounting-type background, and then coming into tech.

It was hilarious.

It was watching people come from that, or people who literally were working at a fast food place, that were so smart and were able to do things I can only dream that I would ever be able to do.

They came out of there.

They took one programming class and did some online courses and they could code, they were good.

They were really good programmers without any formal education.

But they did not know how to pivot their career, how to make that difference.

And then to see them…

All I did was literally put all these people together and provide a community for them to work in and some opportunity to work on some web applications.

They did the rest.

To watch that, you create a environment for people to grow, and to watch them grow, that has to date been my biggest win.

And I’ve had I feel like I’ve had some really good professional wins that maybe would look good on a shelf, I can get some trophies and all that kind of fun stuff.

But nothing for me really beats watching and knowing that you know over 200 humans came through that program and are now working in a career that has changed their lives and the lives of their families.

That’s my biggest win.

Michael 19:05

I can see that through your career and what you post about on LinkedIn and other places that that has been a throughline for everything that you’ve done, probably through your entire life I would hazard a guess.

Kimberly 19:20

I don’t know about my entire life. But surely after thirty.

Michael 19:27

You may not have been as conscious as you are now that that’s what you’re doing. But I bet that you had a strong focus on that throughout your life. That seems so central to who you are.

Kimberly 19:40

it definitely is.

Michael 19:47

Now you understand how important this is to you. When did you first start recognizing that this might be a key thing for your life?

Kimberly 20:03

I would have to say, when it changed my life.

Changing my career and focusing on something that I was always passionate about but a little bit too afraid to do really gave me the hindsight to say, well, if I could do this, clearly, other people can do this.

Just getting over that fear of it.

For example, I did not even begin my professional technical career until I was in my early thirties.

I had already had other careers or jobs that I pursued as an adult.

Before that I was a real estate agent.

I worked in retail.

I managed sales departments.

All types of weird random stuff like that.

Again, mom of four, so that kept me a little busy.

It wasn’t until my early thirties that I actually finished college, got my degree in computers that I had been trying to get since 1995 but was deferred for a bunch of various reasons.

The most impactful to me was fear.

Fear was the biggest thing that stopped me in the beginning.

Because I was different.

I walked into a classroom of people who no one looked like me. No one spoke like me. Everyone had more—well, not everyone but most people had more experience than me even going into college.

So that was super intimidating.

And I was just like, “Well, maybe this isn’t the right thing for me.”

Although I had loved computers since third grade and I knew the moment I sat down…

I think almost every computer engineer, programmer developer will say this.

Something happened, when they were young, and they’re just like, “This is my life. This I can connect with for whatever reason.”

Technology, especially from a user’s perspective, was very intuitive to me.

I could figure a lot of the things out.

I had never officially programmed.

Although I grew up with DOS as a system. So if you touched the computer, you basically were programming because we didn’t have a graphical interface.

I fell in love with them.

I knew this was a thing.

I didn’t know anyone who did it.

I had no type of mentors or professional examples that I could see of other people doing it.

But that didn’t thwart me.

I was like, “This is what I need to do.”

 But what did intimidate me was the actual walking into, after high school, walking into college and saying, “This is what I’m going to do,” and people looking at me really weird.

And the lack of collaboration and the ability to just jump right in.

So I procrastinated.

Because when we’re afraid of doing something, we tend to procrastinate.

We delay.

We put it off.

I did that for years, until finally, I got to a point in my life where I did have my children, I was married, and we were living in poverty, to be quite frank.

I had never lived in poverty in my life.

I did not grow up poor.

As an adult, I discovered it .

I was like, “This is not okay. Something has to change.”

It was that drive to provide for my family and to provide a better life that got me over my fear.

Once I got over the fear and I really immersed myself in it, I got my degree, I got my first job in tech out of college, it was a no-brainer.

“Oh my god, this is what I should have been doing. I want to do more.”

So that pushed me to find even more technical opportunities.

Because those were really hard to come by as well at that point.

And the big thing—and this is the one thing that I always taught at The Difference Engine—was, just be comfortable with being uncomfortable.

That’s a big thing now, but it’s the truth.

Because when you come from a different background and you walk into a room full of people who maybe have a little bit more experience, or even just have a better ability to collaborate with the people there because they’re more familiar, they know each other, or they just look alike, they sound alike, they have similar backgrounds, it’s harder to engage.

My biggest thing is always, “Just do it anyway. It’s worth it. Just do it anyway.”

Once I did that, and I really started to push for my own career journey, then it all started to fall together.

That really did inspire me to say, “Okay, everybody, let’s go. You can do this too. This is attainable. This is achievable. You just have to figure out what part of it you want to do and how much you’re willing to commit to get there.”

If there’s one path within technology, there are many paths, right?

There’s not just one thing.

You don’t have to just be a software engineer, you don’t just have to.

That’s how I ended up into more of a DevOps SRE-type (developer operations, site reliability engineer) of background.

I did a lot of administration and analyst work and things like that that require you to think a little bit differently than just write a program.

So, exploring that.

I’ve gotten people into even project management within tech or you know, TPM (technical program manager), or Scrum Masters, or whatever the thing is that most resonates with their skill set and what they’re willing to put their time into doing, what’s interesting to them.

I say, “Go for it.”

I really encourage people to just keep going.

Michael 25:57


Kimberly 26:00

That was a long story. That was a long story to get to that.

Michael 26:05

I love long stories. So that was great.

Our whole conversation today has been great, Kimberly. What else should I ask you?

Kimberly 26:15

What else should you ask me? You can ask me what I’m doing next.

Michael 26:27

What are you doing next?

Kimberly 26:31

Currently, and hopefully in the future, I’m looking to keep moving up the engineering leadership ladder.

As you’ve heard me talk about my drive to try to help people progress along their career, one of the things that has concerned me was not losing my technical chops.

Which I think everyone talks about how that’s a struggle to balance technical skills when you’re going into more of a leadership role, because you definitely want to give people the room to grow and to do the work.

Executing is not something that I’ve been doing a whole lot of.

That has bugged me for years.

Really, really bugged me for years.

I had to, at one point, accept either that I’m—because ever since I started in this career, as an adult with a family, I didn’t have the time or the energy or the wherewithal to dive really deep into deep technical subjects and spend hours upon hours building outside of work, outside of the classroom, doing all these extra projects, contributing to open source, doing all. That’s not my reality.

But I have had the foresight to learn how to manage and lead humans.

So what’s next for me is to dig deeper into the thing that brings me joy.

Even though it does come at a cost of saying I’m not going to dive even deeper into more technical subjects.

I’m going to always keep my finger on the pulse, of course, because it’s interesting, and I like to nerd out about that.

But I realized that me nerding out about it, and then someone who that’s their only job nerding out about it, it’s completely different.

I love and accept that because that’s the person that I want to partner with, those are the people that I want to work with.

So, at this point in my career and in my development, I am looking at developing myself past the director level, into executive-level roles.

Because I think having a seat at the table is going to be crucial as these companies go through all types of changes.

What has happened now in our economy has really shone a light on that.

It’s telling me, “If you’re not at the table, they’re not going to act any differently. Things are not going to change.”

It’s a hard decision.

I’ve grappled with it for probably half a decade, to be honest, trying to decide.

Because I felt like I needed to validate myself so much within the technical industry, that I needed to know more, learn more.

At this point, I’m like, “Forget that.”

Forget that because it’s a distraction for me at this point, because we have so much bigger problems.

We have bigger problems in this industry.

There’s tens of, thousands of, hundreds of thousands, probably, of developers who can solve the technical problem.

The bigger problem that we have is having technical leaders who understand how to lead people.

Who see people as people.

And understand how to motivate, how to lead, how to do it empathetically but firmly, in a way that actually gets stuff done.

So that’s my focus.

That’s what I’m doing next.

Michael 30:02

Can’t wait.

When we get to a world where all of our leaders are people like you, I’ll have no concerns about where we’re going.

Kimberly 30:11

It can happen. It can definitely happen.

Michael 30:14

We’ll get there. With you on your way, it can’t help but happen.

Kimberly 30:19

I have a kid in college who’s getting a computer science degree. So I’m working on it.

Michael 30:25

That’s great. We’ll infiltrate from the bottom.

Kimberly 30:28

We’ll infiltrate. It’ll be a Williams takeover.

Michael 30:35

You would like to talk with people. Tell us more about that. How do you want people to connect with you and what do you want to talk with them about?

Kimberly 30:44


I have a newsletter called Unsolicited Career Advice, because I’m gonna give it. Here you go. Take it.

I have Unsolicited Career Advice, giving a lot of the tips and tricks of leadership.

It’s specifically talking to leaders, but it can apply to whether you’re a people manager or you’re just a leader within your role.

Tips and tricks on how to do that better, ideas.

I would really appreciate being able to talk to people.

I have people that I mentor and colleagues that I talk to that I bounce ideas off with.

I read profusely, leadership books like crazy, and a lot of that information and a lot of that sharing, I like to say, “Okay, but this is what it feels like in the real world.”

Let’s have that conversation.

I love to coach and talk to people individually about their problems and some of the things that they’re seeing at work or, or even their own professional growth, what to do next.

Once you’ve decided what you want to do next, then what?

I’m available of course on LinkedIn, I’m on Instagram.

I’m open to doing live Q&A sessions.

A couple of people have asked me; if more people are interested in having a live Q&A with me, then I’m willing to do that.

Like I said earlier what I’m doing right now is making myself available so that we all can try to get through these times together, because I think that’s the only way that we’ll get through them.

Michael 32:16

That sounds great. And I’ll have links for all that in the show notes. With all my curious audience and everyone else in the LinkedIn world we got to make this happen.

Kimberly 32:30

We got to make this happen.

I’ve never been one of those people who, I’m not good at playing the victim.

For better or worse, that has a good and a bad side to that.

I don’t like to stand around and talk about, “These are all the problems and these are all the things,” and do nothing.

When I possibly can, I try to do something.

Even if it’s small.

Even if it only helps one person or two people.

That makes a difference.

We can make a big difference if we all mobilize and talk about it.

The first step is to talk about it and then we can start to do something about it.

Michael 33:20


What would you like to leave our audience with today, Kimberly?

Kimberly 33:29

What to leave with?

I would like to leave people, especially people within the technology industry, or any technical field, with the not-so-uncommon idea that there are more to smart people than what they can do technically.

I would like for people to really consider and look holistically at the folks around them.

The people that you’re working with.

They’re just not cogs in a machine.

They’re humans.

Humans who are full people and need to develop in different areas.

For a number of years, we focused exclusively in engineering on what it is that you can do, as opposed to who it is you can be.

I would like for people to focus especially, and I’m so used to talking to other leaders and managers and things like that, but I think it’s important for everyone, even if you’re looking, you’re working collaboratively with appear, and they may not show up in a way that you feel is something that you may not find pleasant, talk to them as a human.

There’s a way to do it professionally.

But realize that you’re working with humans, not robots at this point.

Even the humans are programming in the robots.

I know it was like, “Oh, but AI,” those are humans feeding this robot, feeding artificial intelligence what it needs to know and say and think and feel.

Recognize that we work together and that the only way that we can strive and get through any of these things, even in the best of times, is that we still recognize that we’re working with humans and we have to be realistic about our expectations.

We need to be a bit more empathetic about how we collaborate and how we work together.

Be honest and open about what it is we want to get done and who we are, and set a good example.

That is what I would like to leave people with.

Michael 35:46

Thank you so much, Kimberly.

Kimberly 35:49

Thank you, Michael.

Michael 35:52

Thank you, audience for joining us today.

Please let us know: how does this land for you? How can we help you? Kimberly and I want to know. By email and in her live Q&A that your emails will help us create.

Thank you, and have a great day.

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