Fortune

GRIT IS THE NEW MBA

To compete in a rapidly changing world, employers need workers who are creative, resilient, and unconventional. Here’s how to look beyond traditional credentials to find people with real-world potential.
UNDERESTIMATED Snubbed by a computer science professor at her dream school, Erica Joy Baker fought her way back to top engineering jobs in Silicon Valley.

ERICA JOY BAKER has had a succession of dream jobs in Silicon Valley—at Google, at Slack, and now as a senior engineering manager at Patreon, a crowdfunding platform that connects artists with donor-fans. But back in the day, in 1998, she was just an 18-year-old computer geek, sitting in her dream class at her dream school, getting the stink eye from her computer science professor and trying not to cry.

The military brat from Fairbanks had been a self-taught tinkerer, whiling away adolescent hours poking around Microsoft Windows registries and prying the backs off computer cases. Her skills earned her a ticket out of Alaska, to a Florida campus just a short drive from the beach. “I was super fed up with being in a seriously cold place,” she recalls.

But as one of two black students and the only black woman in an entry-level class of hundreds, Baker felt a cold shoulder and took it personally. The professor, a white man, ignored her questions, even as he engaged enthusiastically with white male students. “Every time I talked to him, he made it clear that he didn’t think I should be there,” she says. Her teenage brain wondered if this was a sign of things to come. “I thought, Well, maybe he’s right. Maybe computer science wasn’t for me.”

Baker quit school after a year and went back to Alaska. But so many of the elements that hinted at her future success were hidden in plain sight—if only someone had bothered to ask about them.

Her biological dad, who grew up in Florida, had been so poor that he sometimes skipped school to sell oranges by the roadside to raise cash for food. She moved with her family three times before she was 10, but she thrived where other kids crumpled. And she had a knowledge bank about computer systems on par with any of her college classmates. Indeed, that expertise helped her land an IT internship in the University of Alaska system, where she enrolled after returning home—which soon became a real job. “I wasn’t even 20, and I was making $41,000 a year, more than my [step]father,” she recalls, still sounding incredulous. “And I planned to keep going.”

In 2005, Baker came across a Google job ad on Craigslist; by 2006 she had been hired as an IT field tech. The ensuing years brought big wins and promotions, but also stinging setbacks, as managers waved off her contributions or ignored her concerns, giving her something like the professor’s stink eye all over

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Fortune

Fortune1 min readSociety
38 Ellen Agler
Agler is leading an international effort to eliminate a problem that shouldn’t exist: neglected tropical disease (NTD). Her organization has taken aim at five debilitating and sometimes fatal afflictions—including river blindness and intestinal worms
Fortune2 min read
Making Green
THE LEGAL MARIJUANA INDUSTRY is making billions of dollars in sales and raising hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue for states. But how’s it working out financially for people who work for companies that deal in cannabis? Pretty well, it
Fortune15 min readSociety
01 Bill + Melinda Gates
IT WAS MARCH 2018, AND ONCE MORE BILL GATES found himself behind a podium. In the previous few months, he had given one keynote address after another—in San Francisco, he’d urged drugmakers to focus on diseases that affect the poor as well as the ric