Black in Tech in 2019: An Honest Look from My Porch

I have a friend who used to always say, “That’s just the view from my porch.” This statement usually emerged after he volunteered his opinion or gave a lengthy analysis of a situation or trending topic. In essence he was saying, “That’s just how I see things.” Since we have just concluded Black History Month, I wanted to write an article about my takeaway thoughts from this past month and others that have surfaced over this time. I’ve seen some awesome events celebrating being black in tech, but I also have some observations I’d like to share, all with a “view from my porch”.

For those who may not be familiar with southern culture, especially southern black culture and black culture in general, the house porch often holds a prominent place in the community. There are two awesome articles written that can give you an informative background to this phenomenon, one put out by the New York Times (“On the Front Porch, Black Life in Full View”) and the other by Blvck Varchives (“American South: The Front Porch”). I would direct you there to understand the real significance to the idea of “porch talk”.

Since this is my first Medium post, I wanted to give a bit more about my background. I’m a non-traditional software developer who comes from a social sciences background. I did really well in high school, graduated summa cum laude as an undergraduate and earned a Master’s degree from Yale. However, it wasn’t until after my formal education that I got into software development. Instead of backtracking in my educational gains and reentering the academy to earn a computer science degree, I chose to enroll in a coding boot camp (Coding Dojo) like so many these days. Shortly after graduating I entered the web development field professionally and have been in the industry ever since. To make a long story short, I’m an academic turned developer. Apart from this curriculum vitae presentation of myself, I’m also a black software developer. I’m technically bi-racial since my mother is white and my father is black, but let’s just say, no one’s ever mistaken me for a “white guy”. Ok, enough about me. Let’s continue.

If you’ve spent any amount of time in the tech world something will quickly become evident: there are very few black individuals in tech and even fewer in software development and engineering. Now, I could stop here and complain about the alarming statics regarding the big tech companies’ lack of people of color or whine about underrepresentation, but the long and short of it is, it won’t help anything and may even worsen the situation. I’ve decided rather to take a step back and approach the topic from a less critical angle and try to isolate the situation in a more constructive way.

Before diving into the discussion at hand and addressing the issues, I want to preface my analysis by first commenting on a few basic assumptions I am making:

1. The tech industry is not racist. Though there may be a few exceptions, I generally don’t think there are blatant anti-minority agendas within tech or secret technical societies where everyone dresses in white and don pointy dunce-like caps.

2. Statistical results don’t necessarily reflect administrative ideologies. Though the biggest tech companies in the world have shockingly low minority representation (I’m specifically referring to black individuals in this article), I, again, don’t think this is by design. You could probably walk into the office of any top CEO and find they were far from being anti-inclusive.

3. The scarcity of diversity in tech is not a mystery. There are efforts (small and large) being made to change the statistics by various companies. Diversity programs, diversity recruiters, Black History Month celebrations and corporate events inviting people of color to discussion panels are all examples of this.

4. Things are changing. Although the progress is very, very slow at this point, it is progress nonetheless. Though I do think efforts can be reassessed, methods of engagement with the black community bolstered, and innovative solutions more thoroughly explored, increasing numbers of black technologists are entering the tech scene daily.

So, now that we have established some basic assumptions we will now turn to examining several issues. Here are the main issues I see (the view from my porch plus a few rants):

1. We (hereafter meaning black people) are capable of leadership beyond “Diversity Departments” and “Diversity Roles”. I’m in no way belittling these types of departments or efforts, nor those who hold admirable positions within them, however, I’m merely suggesting companies take a step back and think outside of the box. In a sense, if we’re not careful, a diversity program can (definitely not always) further hinder the propriety of inclusivity by creating an “us” versus “them” disjunction. I don’t want anyone to think I’m saying we should remove diversity programs, I would actually maintain the opposite position; more of these diversity programs should be conceived. All I’m suggesting is that if we create too much exclusivity while utilizing these programs, we can accidentally propagate isolationism instead of integration.

2. We are not producing enough qualified candidates for big tech roles. I, in no way, am suggesting any population should receive handouts based upon ethnicity. All people must work and earn these coveted positions in tech companies. A solution: go further down the tree and create more programs and access in predominantly minority areas among various age groups which offer more than educational programs, but strong and personable mentorship as well. Unfortunately, there are socio-economic constraints that many in minority populations undergo. Often, people in this context just need a positive role model and someone like them who did make it out of socio-economic peonage and mounted up to some sense of equality. This leads to point 3.

3. There are too few black faces in the lime light of tech. I can think of a few off the top of my head, but ultimately, there is a discernible deficit. Now, the following little story I’m about to tell is comical, but also demonstrates an amazing point. When I was in middle school and high school, I used to love the Jim Carey movie “Me, Myself, and Irene” (2000). The movie itself was considerably funny, but the part I enjoyed most was watching Charlie’s (Jim Carey’s) sons (Anthony Anderson, Jerod Mixon and Mongo Brownlee). Jim Carey’s character, Charlie, was about the most stereotypical “white guy” around but had three black sons who were stereotypical “inner-city black kids” (I know, stereotypes are pretty bad). Yet there was a major idiosyncratic twist that lessened the stereotypical blow; these sons were literal geniuses in the movie. My three favorite scenes demonstrate this vividly:

(Scene 1) The three brothers are shown in their room studying with hip hop playing in the background and the youngest (Jerod Mixon) studying quantum physics. He is struggling with a problem involving the calculation of the atomic mass of a deuteron. The placement of a lingering electron in reference to the calculation of the atomic mass shows the struggle is real (wow, that sounded way deeper than it was). One of the other brothers, Jamaal, hazes him about not knowing what to do about the electron and suggests others might think he’s stupid. About this time Charlie enters and asks his young, struggling son how he’s doing to which he responds, “If I don’t buckle down I’m gonna get myself another B+” (as though that was bad).

(Scene 2) The second scene that stands out to me is where the sons have to “steal” a police helicopter to rescue their dad. None of them had flown a helicopter, so the youngest pulls out the helicopter manual which happened to be written in German. One of the other brothers says, “Don’t you speak German?” to which he responds in the affirmative, but says it doesn’t mean he knows how to read German. After this remark Anthony Anderson’s character begins conversing with him in German, reading the manual, and telling him how to operate the helicopter and they finally take off.

(Scene 3) Jamaal (Anthony Anderson) is shown tapping away at the computer performing a hack. One of the other brothers comes up to the computer and tells him to quit hacking into the Pentagon files and that if he continues messing around he’ll get his Yale scholarship taken away (wait…is this why I went to Yale because of a subconscious suggestion?) and end up at Stanford (as though that was a bad thing).

Ok Anthony, you might say, we’re talking about a fictional movie here, with fictional characters, a fictional plot, and a comedy at that. How does this relate to black in tech and how (or why) did this leave such a deep impression on you? Well, for starters, as a middle schooler/high schooler at the time, I saw three young black men who spoke “Ebonics” (properly called African America Vernacular English, or, AAVE), listened to hip hop, and “looked” like me but were also the smartest guys around and outright geniuses. Unfortunately, the crowd I was rolling with at the time thought it was “cool” to do bad in school, fail classes, and get detention (some crowd, huh…trust me, I didn’t hold the same view). This comical movie, although entirely fictional, painted another possible portrait of what I could be. Throughout my educational pursuits, believe it or not, I literally thought about these fictional characters from time to time and made it my ambition to actually be the embodiment of this idealistic portrayal from a silly movie. To me, I understood that what I perceived as “cool” could also be radically intelligent and that being intelligent doesn’t mean you have to be something or someone different from who you are or as they say on the streets an “Uncle Tom”. This leads to point 4.

4. The solution is not just adding more black people to tech, but adding black culture too. This point seems a bit loaded up front, but let me explain. “Black culture” is not a one-stop shop and I am quite aware of that. Black culture is itself diverse as are all cultures. So, perhaps a more kosher way to state this is that among every culture there are distinct cultural norms that are shared by a substantial amount of the population represented of the said culture. So, when I say “black culture” I refer to common ethnical norms, values and commonalities that are shared by sizable numbers of the black population. I am well aware that there are plethoric amounts of variations within the black population, but we all know that there are certain things that are, for lack of better words, “more colorful” in nature, or at least are adopted by a substantial portion of black people.

I think this is an eggshell topic that few want to talk about: a person shouldn’t feel that if they want to be a part of the tech industry that they have to somehow change themselves culturally to “arrive” and integrate by dissociation from their own unique and distinctive cultural norm. Diversity, therefore, is not just about getting people of different ethnicities to be a part of a company or the tech scene, but also accepting the distinct cultural contributions they bring to the table which will, in turn, become part of the company’s unique culture. Since a company is itself an androgynous, multicultural entity, the culture a company possesses is in fact multifaceted and based upon its employee makeup. Now, if companies embrace the people along with their distinctive cultures we will make far more advances in the area of diversity. Being uncomfortable with another person’s cultural norm is no excuse to avoid them or exclude them. If anything, it’s an excuse to join them in some participatory way to enjoy diversity.

5. Don’t shy away from open discussions. Too many people who are not minorities are afraid to discuss issues of diversity and inclusion for fear of saying something wrong. I don’t blame them because as soon as they mess up, even if by accident, they are brutally attacked or defamed. That they even have the audacity to start the conversation in the first place should be respected. We also must listen with minds of understanding and leave room for error in our discussions without entering defensive mode too quickly.

6. Push for immersion, not just awareness. Awareness is one thing, while cultural immersion is another. Awareness is often a quality of an outsider, but immersion brings that same outsider inside. I hear a lot about cultural awareness, but the next step is cultural immersion. Invite the “others” in or join the “others” in some definable way. This works both ways. Again, we must avoid the “us” versus “them” fallacy.

Think about awareness like this: I am personally “aware” of starving children and starving people in many impoverished areas of the world and also the USA. I am “aware” of human trafficking and child prostitution. But my awareness will do nothing to change these situations until I act upon this awareness. If I were to go to these places of the world and use my time, resources and strength to help these individuals escape such circumstances by immersing myself in their context to some degree or inviting them and their cultural norms (perhaps rescuing them) out from their situation of turmoil, then I would have acted upon my awareness. Let our goal be immersion as opposed to just awareness. This is similar to the difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is an outsider’s emotional response to another’s often tragic situation while empathy is an insider’s emotional response because they have been in the same situation. There is a deeper connection that is made on the grounds of empathy.

To sum things up, the biggest takeaways are the self-derived thoughts you had as you read this small article. I know the topic is far more complex than presented here, but again, this is meant to be an ongoing discussion as opposed to a monologue. I only brought up six points, but there are many other issues that need to be discussed with both respect and openness. Honesty, open-mindedness and exposure are key ingredients in moving forward with issues along these lines. If we continue to “beat around the bush” we will continue to be in a maintenance phase as opposed to a growth phase. Consider these things and thank you for reading this article!

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