More action and less talk to tackle the lack of diversity in tech now Black History Month has ended?
This year’s Black History Month was an especially busy one for me. The annual event, which celebrates diversity and the contributions of black Britons, drew to a close at the weekend, and this year it took on extra significance in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests and killing of George Floyd.
What remains to be seen is whether any of the talk of change and wanting to do better translates into meaningful action. Tech, an industry I’ve spent my whole career in, is certainly one of the industries with a woeful track record when it comes to racial diversity.
A June 2020 report by BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, which used data from the Office of National Statistics Labour Force Survey, found that only 2 per cent of people working in IT in the UK were black while only 9% of IT specialists at director level were black or from ethnic minority backgrounds.
In the US, where more data is available, research showed tech giants were still performing badly when it comes to diversity.
In the six years since the mega-cap tech firms started publishing diversity data, there has been very little progress according to CNBC analysis.
These companies made a lot of noise in the summer following the BLM demonstrations. But the data speaks for itself.
Facebook has gone from a firm that had a 3% black workforce, to 3.8% in the past six years. In the same period, Twitter moved from around 2% black employees to 6%.
The dismal figures are one of the reasons why, during the first lockdown of 2020, Code Untapped and Mindscape merged to launch Codescape.
Codescape is made up of a tech social enterprise that Jason Halsted and I founded called Code Untapped
and Mindscape, a company that builds software teams using its innovative e-learning platform, founded by Paul McGolpin and Siri Narasimham.
I know how vital it is for tech companies to be more reflective of the world we live in.
I’ve been interested in tech since I was a kid growing up in Lewisham. I played the arcade game Double Dragon at my local swimming pool and was immediately blown away by what you could do with a computer and the virtual worlds that could be created.
But this drive wasn’t supported by my school and there were no role models who looked like me in this space.
When I got a bit older I applied for programmer internship roles as part of my Computer Science degree but none of the companies I approached was interested, for one reason — I had performed poorly at GCSE and A-Level. I went to a school with a five A-C pass rate of just 14% and there was little to no encouragement to excel.
I got a break via Lehman Brothers but I feel like I was one of the lucky ones.
I know there are young people across the country, especially those from underrepresented backgrounds who could absolutely excel in tech even if they don’t have terrific exam results. They need the encouragement that I lacked at school which is what I and my co-founders want to provide.
We also live in a world dominated by technology and if young people, as well as those whose jobs have been impacted by Covid-19, want to future-proof their careers, they need to develop digital skills.
Codescape, the tech skills platform we have launched will do just that.
At the core, we are building a company that specialises in supporting underrepresented technologists, helping them to find work and training them remotely at scale. To do this we put on events such as Hackathons, training days, competitions, innovation labs and talks while partnering with organisations that share our vision.
We are championing the argument that if companies want to think outside the box then you need people who have lived outside the box.
Ethnic minority groups have also been hit the hardest by Covid-19. People from underrepresented communities have lost their jobs and even had to rethink careers and the field they are in. But within this ‘new normal’ there has also been a paradigm shift in remote working and learning, for which we are uniquely positioned.
Users don’t have to go into an office for training. They can sign up to our platform and gain the skills they need while being sponsored to do so by our corporate partners. To date, we have worked with the likes of the Department for Education, Vanquis, Amido, esynergy and Fnality. And a great example of how our model is already proving itself is from the event we did with the DfE. We had one young man who attended and within two weeks he was pitching an idea to both their senior leadership and design team. And this youngster was actually a Korean nurse who had never worked in technology before. He’d heard about Code Untapped through a friend and decided to attend one of our events.
The fact is the top five most valuable companies today are tech-enabled companies. Amazon, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Samsung. Facebook is number 7. All of these companies are powered by technology and software engineers. It’s these people who create the products we subscribe to and the algorithms that power them.
These companies are not only extremely wealthy but also wield extreme power and influence. If the people behind these companies don’t reflect our society what will be the repercussions? We are already seeing the damage that companies like Facebook and Twitter have caused to our democratic systems. What happens if more kids like me failing their A-levels aren’t given a chance to work at companies like this? If we want to have a chance at creating change it’s vital that we are part of the companies that are capable of driving that change.
Would Donald Trump have been elected if Facebook was run by a black woman? Would Brexit have happened if Twitter was run by a black man?
Who knows… But I look forward to the day that we can find out.