From an African Refugee to an American Techie

November 30, 2023

Stories

From an African Refugee to an American Techie

A (Tech) Road Less Traveled with AWS's Les Williams

by Elizabeth Drolet

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Maya Angelou once said, "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." 

Les Williams, technical business development manager for Amazon Web Services (AWS), is an unforgettable man. 

His tall stature, the fact that English is his second language and that his hometown is on a different continent makes him stand out in a crowd. However, his sincere, genial, and kind demeanor makes him most memorable.

His attentive presence is evident in the connections he effortlessly makes, and a resilient optimism is present in every conversation he has. Les calls himself a realist optimist.

"I'm realistically optimistic. I'm big on facts. I think a lot and dive deep into things. I know what is not going to work. But I also know what can work, and I will always drive towards that," Les said. 

"You should never stop evaluating where you can find a solution instead of another problem and imagine what else is possible," he continued.

Sierra Leone

He is originally from Sierra Leone, West Africa, and was born into the Kio tribe in the capital city of Freetown. Les's international travels are vast, and he considers himself a global citizen. 

"I thrive as an American because I can appreciate the diversity of the many origins that make up the American cultural tapestry," he said.  

Les is a descendant of formerly enslaved people who emigrated to settle in Africa.

"Freetown was named after freed slaves who were returned to Africa from England + the Americas. The first organized group of freed slaves departed from New York to Freetown on February 6, 1820," he said.

How the U.S. Became a Home

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In Freetown, Les became certified in accounting, computer science, and computer information systems. However, he eventually hit an educational ceiling in Sierra Leone.

According to Les, neighboring countries once called Sierra Leone the "Athens of West Africa" because of its reputable higher education. However, regarding technology, the U.S. is the "pinnacle of innovation."

"When it came to getting to the top of technology studies, I had always seen the U.S. as a part of my journey. Sierra Leone is still in the process of bridging the digital divide,” he said.

Working in the U.S. became a dream. He never thought a catastrophe would make it a reality.

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Life As A Refugee

According to the Political Economy Research Institute, the Sierra Leone Civil War began in the East in 1991. The conflict spread to the North and South in 1995 and reached Freetown in 1998.

"When it got to Freetown, I had to evacuate. So through a mix of all of that, an opportunity opened up for me to come to the U.S. I came here as a refugee, and I went back to school," he said. 

Gaining a permanent footing in a new country came with difficulties, but it was an occasion Les loved rising to. Acclimating to American culture was a "fun challenge." His outgoing personality craves interaction with different types of people, and he loves to explore and learn about new cultures. 

When Les talks about his native culture, he recalls the beautiful white sand beaches, the delicious organic food, and the incredible resilience of the people. 

"No matter what, they're still happy and friendly people. And the fact is that it's still a developing economy, working hard to find its way," he said.  

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Working on the Global Stage

Today, Les resides and works in New York City as an American citizen with a successful career at AWS. 

He is additionally a telecommunications and global IP business development professional with 15+ years of professional experience in several facets of the telecom business for global data center and telecom services providers. He has previously worked for companies like Telstra, Tata Communications, and Digital Realty Trust/Telx. International business relations have been at the forefront of Les's career, and his international background has prepared him for his role at AWS today. 

"I'm always working on a global stage. I work with different time zones, cultures, and people daily," he said.

His deep understanding of building relationships with different cultures has been integral to his career.

"In Sierra Leone, when you speak to elders, you don't look them in the eyes, and when you enter the work environment, you refer to people as Mr. and Ms. This shows that, 'okay, I trust you,'" he said. 

However, in the U.S., "looking folks in the eyes conveys confidence and trust; this is very different," he continued. 

According to Les, it is imperative to understand culture and body language and go "beyond what meets the eye" to build partnerships.

les-water

A Reason to Smile 

Les has been an active member of the NANOG Community since 2011. He currently serves on the NANOG Programming Committee, Outreach Program and DEI Committee. 

If you know Les, you also know his smile. An authentic smile can be a tough commodity in a competitive, fast-paced environment that requires constant problem-solving, but the reason behind his good nature is simple.

"I'm always smiling, and that's genuine because I find things around me mostly beautiful and exciting. As a young man, I have seen wars, suffered great losses, and dealt with many challenges in coming to a new country. But I've always maintained an optimistic outlook. I don't necessarily take the easy route. If I'm here, I'm here for a purpose, and I will give it my all," he said. 

Are you Interested in serving as a NANOG mentor or being mentored by one of our inspiring NANOG members? Find more here.

Find more career stories in our series: A (Tech) Road Less Traveled here.

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Elizabeth Drolet

Elizabeth Drolet is NANOG's Multimedia Story Producer

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