Diversity in the Tech Industry

June 11, 2020

Patrick A When I look at myself in the mirror, I see many things. I see a software developer, I see an educator, I see someone with a master’s in Computer Science. However, from the time I was a child to today and into the future, I also see a black man living in America.

Dealing with racism has always been a persistent source of stress every person of color has to carry with them. It becomes so common that you begin to normalize it and accept it as just part of a daily routine. You make peace with a lack of opportunities, the unfair judgment, and the isolation. You do anything you can just to survive and try to move forward. Myself and many others understand that you have to reach a level of undisputed excellence in the hopes of leveling out the playing field with your white colleagues. In the light of the recent events, we need to do better in various domains of our society to raise awareness, call out unfair practices, and increase diversity.

Appearances Matter

Several years ago, I interviewed at the Pittsburgh offices of one of the global tech giants for a Software Engineer role. I studied hard in preparation for it, memorizing algorithms, practicing coding exercises, and conducting mock interviews with friends. When the day finally came, I was blown away by the tour. They had an amazing facility with all the amenities a young developer needed to be successful and comfortable at work.

I didn’t end up getting an offer but the one thing I did take away from the experience was the faces of the programmers who would be my co-workers. The only people of color I had the pleasure of seeing were janitorial and cafeteria staff. Carrying that energy into my last round of interviews probably didn’t help, but it wasn’t something I could let go. A lack of diversity at work kills the morale of any person of color.

Internal Diversity is Key

In my 15 years of professional experience, I have usually been the only person of color in my team, if not the entire company. I can count on one hand the number of times that was not the case. Despite the disappointment I knew there was little I could do the change the culture and diversity in these organizations. It was the result of people in executive roles who had the power to control the narrative and didn’t view diverse hiring practices as important.

However, since helping to build Raft I find myself in a position to make a change and impact; I no longer need to fight to establish my worth, I matter, and more importantly my choices matter. I’m in a position where I have to conduct interviews for new hires and choose the partners we collaborate with. I test their technical skills, their energy level, their background and get a feel for their personality to assess if they can contribute to our vision. I take note of the heightened fear and nervousness of minority candidates because I’ve been in their seat. We have to do better to alleviate those feelings in our community. We all work hard, we all learn from our mistakes, and we all deserve an equal chance. Being in my position now I take the nervousness away by having an open-ended candid conversation with the candidates.

Diversity isn’t just a numbers game; it has a direct impact on the quality of the product the teams build. There are various examples of racial bias in machine learning algorithms. These biases most likely exist not because the development team explicitly chose to ignore them but rather because the development team was oblivious to the underlying bias in the data used to train the algorithms. This obliviousness can be corrected by having diverse team members who come from different cultural backgrounds and bring different takes on the problem set.

Start Talking to Black Communities

In light of recent events, we’ve begun to see a paradigm shift in how the world views discrimination, racism, and intolerance. The issues that black people have struggled with, and spoken against, are finally being acknowledged on a global scale and we all have an opportunity to do more. From not dismissing resumes with “black sounding” names, to reaching out to the Computer Science programs at Historically Black Colleges and Universities when scouting for interns, these opportunities can have lasting impacts. When I was a child, I would have jumped at the opportunity to attend a coding camp, financial management course, or leadership seminar. These resources would have helped me develop the skills needed to excel as a software developer and understand how to navigate a career in tech. Now I’m helping shape an internship program with my alma matter Bowie State University to bring young folks into our team, educate them about the challenges that can be solved using technology, and provide them with much needed development experience so that tomorrow they can be part of the larger tech community.

There are black people in the tech community who are struggling to find their voice, struggling to find acceptance, and struggling just to exist in their fields. Reach out to them, ask them how they’re doing and how you can help. Don’t consider yourself to be pandering or trying to capitalize on a popular issue. There have been countless sacrifices made to reach this time of change and, now that we’re here, we should do something about it.

I’ve spoken at length on the disparity of representation of people of color, you may not know where to start or who to start with. Fortunately, African Americans have been fighting to address these issues in community outreach programs all over the country. There’s a very high probability there is one located in your town, if not in the city in which your business it located. These groups are waiting with open arms to work with you to address these issues and try to make things better. Local elementary schools, high schools, and colleges have similar programs as well. There aren’t any hoops or special permissions you need to have in place to reach out to their representatives. I only ask that you follow through on your commitment and develop a well thought out strategy for your contributions. We have to establish a culture in which people of color feel welcome in all tech sectors.

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