Promoting diversity + access in Internet tech

A conversation with Charisse Stokes + Trent Edwards of the Montgomery, Alabama Chamber of Commerce.

Brandi Herrera

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We believe our industry should reflect the true diversity of the world we live in.

That’s why NANOG works to bring greater access to our tools, resources, and programming to remote, resource-strapped regions of North America, with a focus on the education and empowerment of those often left out of the conversation — students, women, and people of color.

We recently had the honor of visiting Alabama, where Charisse Stokes and Trent Edwards of the Montgomery Chamber of Commerce hosted NANOG Executive Director Edward McNair. From Valiant Cross Academy, Alabama State University, and Air Force University, to Tech MGM, MGMWERX, and Trenholm Air Force Base, Edward participated in two days of STEM-focused talks, lunch + learn sessions, and community meetings to share NANOG’s perspective on the latest industry trends and careers in Internet tech.

We had a follow-up conversation with both Charisse and Trent, where we got to talk about the initiatives they’re currently working on, and how those align with NANOG’s mission to empower people and inspire change.


Tell me a little bit about yourselves, and what you both do:

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TE:

My name is Trent Edwards, and I’m the Senior Vice President for Military and Community Development at the Montgomery, Alabama Chamber of Commerce. I recently retired as a Brigadier General in the United States Air Force, after 30 years of service and experience leading people and organizations. I’m passionate about growing, mentoring and developing people, organizations and communities, and am especially committed to growing the next generation of leaders with the diversity of background, experience, and thinking to allow our nation to remain competitive in a changing global society.

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CS:

My name is Charisse Stokes, and I’m the Executive Director for TechMGM, an initiative of the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce, and a collaborative effort to provide economic, community, and workforce development strategies to advance Montgomery’s technical competitiveness.

You both have a real wealth of experience and are involved in such important tech initiatives — how did you happen to find out about NANOG’s outreach programs?

TE:

I was introduced to NANOG by Charisse — who brings great acquisition and tech-sector experience to our team, and helped arrange Edward McNair’s visit to Montgomery — along with Marcus Holt, and Ben Venable, who are frequent participants at NANOG events. Montgomery is changing our thought process and approach to business and outreach, and we think a partnership with NANOG is mutually beneficial to our local youth who need to understand current and future employment opportunities in the tech sector.

CS:

The Montgomery-area IT professionals Trent spoke of are NANOG members, and have raved about your organization, its conferences, and benefits. In speaking with them, I learned of NANOG’s outreach mission, and had an opportunity to then speak at length with Edward about this vision, and how Montgomery could be a special part of that growth.

I love that our organizations were able to connect and collaborate in this way. Was there anything else that made you want to get involved in bringing NANOG to Montgomery?

CS:

As the information technology field continues to evolve, it’s important for communities to keep their citizenry abreast of the latest trends, training opportunities, and exposure to market-leading organizations. NANOG is one of those leaders that provides a wealth of information, experience, and expertise.

TE:

At one point in my military career, I was responsible for leading the team that trained every enlisted member in our Air Force. We provided basic military training for approximately 33,000 Airmen each year, as well as technical training in disciplines such as finance, contracting, logistics, and cyber. I understand the importance of training, education, and building a team of highly qualified leaders, and it starts with our youth. So anytime I can meet, talk, or work with others who share the same passion, I’m all in. After spending a few short hours with Edward, it was obvious we shared the same passion and commitment to inspiring, educating, and empowering people and communities.

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Hear hear to all of that! How, specifically, do you feel NANOG is able to support communities like Montgomery in fostering the education and empowerment of the next generation of Internet technologists?

CS:

We’ve made significant investments in our infrastructure, and are now connecting the dots with our educational entities. NANOG’s visit to our local community, with a special emphasis on our high schools and college students, gave our youth a better understanding of the various careers in network operations and beyond.

TE:

NANOG’s outreach program and vision of creating opportunities for more diversity align with our desire to create more diverse and inclusive opportunities for Montgomery’s citizens and community. Our city and our nation need to develop leaders who can compete globally, and that will require building a diverse and highly qualified team that can think in a more agile, creative and innovative way. I believe our diversity of background, thought, and experience — as well as race and gender — give us the best opportunity to compete, and succeed as the world becomes more technically advanced.

CS:

NANOG seeks to not just expose students to technology and careers, but also to educate IT employers, and faculty and staff at educational entities, on the valuable benefits they can be afforded. As career IT professionals, we must ensure that we’re always in an environment where we’re continuously learning. NANOG’s outreach programs provide learning opportunities for all levels; those contemplating a career in network operations, those actively working in those areas, and even more so, those that are influencers.

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Speaking of career IT professionals, would you be willing to share one of your favorite moments during NANOG’s visit, or something you personally learned?

TE:

What I most enjoyed about the NANOG visit was observing Edward’s passion and commitment to our youth, which came across in his conversations with them. There was this one moment when he was speaking to a group of students at Valiant Cross Academy — an all-boys academy committed to teaching the necessary skills to become productive citizens and leaders — when he boldly stepped from behind the podium and started talking “with” the students instead of “to” them. I loved seeing the students light up, and all of a sudden one, two, three, four hands went up to ask questions. That’s when it became a conversation instead of a briefing. It was magical. After the conversation, Edward stayed behind, and the students gravitated toward him for pictures and more questions. From this, I learned that he knows how to genuinely connect with students and inspire them to want to be the responsible and concerned leaders of tomorrow; the leaders we need them to be within the tech sector space, and for our communities and nation.

CS:

During Edward’s visit, we spoke at length about the inequities in gender and race within network operations and IT. In addition, we explored the barriers of entry into these fields, and his experiences in welcoming more diversity there. Our community is well postured to tackle this issue, and to bring more people of color, and women, into IT. Changing the narrative across many issues has been something the Montgomery community has been successful in accomplishing, and we believe we can do so with IT and network operations as well.

Any final thoughts you’d like to share?

TE:

The Internet is a huge platform that needs to advance in an open, secure, robust, and responsible manner. We can inspire our youth to engage along those lines, and I love that Edward has a similar vision for NANOG.

It’s a wonderful vision! Thank you both for your time, and for sharing more about your experiences in collaborating with NANOG.


Interested in learning more about NANOG Outreach, or partnering with us as an ambassador of your community? Read more, here, or reach out to us to start a conversation — we'd love to collaborate with you.

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Brandi Herrera

Brandi Katherine Herrera is NANOG's Senior Content Strategist.

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