Diversity in Tech and what we’ve already lost

UC Berkeley’s Sather Tower, “The Campanile”

This is a personal piece of writing. Unlike other things I have posted, I will not back this story up with data. This is a story with an n of 1. Those of you who recognize your own experiences in this story know that there is no n of 1. The n is multitudes of untold stories. I hope to learn yours one day.

To understand why I work on diversity in tech professionally, I’d like you to know a little bit about my family. Like yours, mine is filled with tales of resourcefulness, strange luck, good timing, bad breaks, lean years, and clever escapes. This story is the character arc that is my father.

Reynaldo Santiago Sanchez was born to Paz and Jesus, two immigrants from Mexico, in 1944. He was the youngest of 11 children and grew up poor in East LA and Montebello, CA. Being the youngest, he was spared the arduous life of a farmworking kid that many of his older siblings experienced. Rey was not just a good student; he was whip-smart and mastered damn-near everything he set his mind to. Math was Rey’s best subject, but he could also write well and craft an air-tight argument on the fly. He was funny, likable and a star athlete. As a senior at Montebello High in 1961, he was the starting quarterback and courted the most talented, funny and beautiful junior at the school, Diane (Foreshadowing! We now know her as “mom.”).

Rey’s dream college was UC Berkeley and he had his sights set on mathematics as a discipline. Upon acceptance, he scraped everything he had together to travel the 375 miles north and seek out a new life. My mother recalls being at the train station in downtown LA, saying goodbye to her first — and only — love, and sobbing.

Montebello High School, 1962

Let us pause for a moment. This is the part where the hero has done everything right. He listened to his parents and teachers and older siblings. He worked hard, showed promise and pointed himself directly at a bright future.

In 1962 there was no federal financial aid program, no affirmative action, no ethnic theme dorms or student centers. Reynaldo, a 6ft-tall gangly and idealistic 17 year-old, knew he belonged at this university. He loved the giant lecture halls and the way that higher math stretched his brain. It was here that he got his hands on some of the first mainframe computers to be made available at a university and loved to tell stories about the sounds they made. He and his classmates would compete to see who could program the computer via punch cards in such a way that the mainframe would “play” (via vibrations) recognizable songs. According to UC Berkeley’s own history, “During the early 60’s computer systems research led to one of the first practical time-sharing systems, implemented commercially in 1966 as the SDS 940 (later, Xerox 940) series of computers. Graduates from Berkeley’s programs became leaders both in industry and in academic institutions, nationally and worldwide.”

A couple of those leaders who would have been his classmates include Ken Thompson, who designed and implemented the first Unix operating system and Jim Gray, a software designer and researcher who was a pioneer in database management systems. I don’t know if my dad knew these guys, but it gives you an idea of what it must have been like to build a career starting with a UC Berkeley education in the early 60s.

Like most low-income kids who enter the life of a full-time college student, figuring out the cheapest way to live is a course in itself. For many months, Rey lived on an apple a day and lost 20 pounds in his first semester. He contracted German measles which, he joked, wasn’t all bad because he got fed regularly while quarantined.

Toward the end of his first year, he learned that living in a fraternity would be his least expensive housing option as a sophomore. He rushed, pledged, and created a much more sustainable plan for the coming year.

This is going great! Our hero dodged a health scare, a lack of food, kept his grades up, and figured out how to get on better footing for the fall. His future is so bright! Work hard, stay in school, the best and brightest will rise to the top!

It’s hard to imagine that my last name would be unfamiliar to someone in California. But this was the case in 1963 when a fraternity brother asked my dad… “What kind of name is Sanchez?”

I’ve often imagined this moment. Did Rey hesitate? Did he know what was just below the surface of the question? Did he consider lying? Did he feel an immediate defensiveness well up inside him?

Or did this 19 year-old think it was a casual kind of question, one that people ask while getting to know each other? Was he naively thinking that this “brother” of his was just idly curious?

All I know is that at some point, Reynaldo Santiago Sanchez answered truthfully. Mexican. Mexican-American. The son of immigrants, a kid from East LA.

After being asked to de-pledge and move out of the fraternity house, my dad attempted to stay in school. He slept where he could, went back to eating an apple a day, but the setback was too great. He headed home to Los Angeles and, somewhere around New Year’s, his girlfriend — a recent high school graduate — became pregnant with my eldest sister. In February of 1964, Rey and Diane were married in his brother’s living room.

Despite heading back to Berkeley with one, then two, children in tow, he was unable to finish his math degree. Some time in the mid-60s, he found work at a hamburger stand in Oakland. This is where he reported to work, 5–6 days a week, for the next 30 years.

I know, that’s not what’s supposed to happen is it? The American Dream is supposed to be fulfilled after a long montage of scenes of hard work and following the rules. This is a meritocracy, right? And yet.

Rey’s love of math never wavered. He spent more than 20 years tutoring kids in my hometown in math, for free, at our dining room table. It was his way of channeling a passion and investing in the next generation, including me and my three sisters.

Dad’s tutoring notes covered the dining room table

Those of us working on diversity in this field know that we have been losing talent like Rey’s since before tech was considered a viable industry. Even worse, we continue to lose it today in countless stories just like his. “Diversity in tech” is only a new concept to those who have remained willfully ignorant of the systemic inequities blocking Black and Brown people from full participation. For generations, we have been robbed of their intellect and creativity. Our industry cannot afford this decades-long leak of Black and Brown brilliance.

My dad died in June. His life was more than this one arc, but those twists and turns are not my story to tell; maybe one day my three sisters and I will piece it all together.

I have been doing diversity and inclusion work for over 20 years, and I am proud to have built some of the nuts and bolts of diversity in tech specifically. But in many ways, this has always been the work of my family. We just called it by other names — survival, hustle, resourcefulness. They are the bedrocks of my orientation to diversity in tech. And I am proud to say that I learned them from Reynaldo Santiago Sanchez, a kid from East LA.