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Tech's racial diversity problem meets its day of reckoning

Tech's diversity problem is under intense scrutiny amid national protests over systemic racism. But the solution goes well beyond simply hiring more people of color.

The U.S. technology industry is being called to account over its persistent lack of diversity amid the national protests against systemic racism, following the deaths of George Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of police.

People of color working in IT, from individual contributors to the C-suite, say this moment calls for a substantial reevaluation of how to recruit and retain a diverse workforce, not just pledges and promises of change.

"It's hard not to be cynical," said Brandon Watson, managing director of KOM Partners, a management consulting firm in Boulder, Colo. Watson also held executive positions at Microsoft, Amazon and Oracle. "I have seen the white interest ebb and flow in my 45 years. There's something very different this time. … It seems like the right people are listening and are verbalizing that change is required."

For example, Apple is starting a $100 million Racial Equity and Justice Initiative that will partly focus on expanding opportunities for people of color. And Facebook plans to spend $1 billion a year to support U.S. companies owned by people of color, women, veterans, LGBTQ individuals and entrepreneurs with disabilities. Facebook also plans to have 30% more people of color in leadership positions.

There are indications that these big tech vendors will be held accountable for the promises being made today.

"At the start of the protests, the old playbook was trotted out, with all the banally trite and condescending PR communiqués hedging corporate positions," said John Obeto, CEO and CTO at Logikworx, an IT consultancy in Marina del Rey, Calif. "Those positions changed as the staying power, and videos, of the protests persisted."

But the lack of diversity in tech spans all enterprises, not just high-profile technology vendors. A 2018 Pew Research Center study found that Black people make up 11% of the workforce but hold only 9% of STEM jobs in the U.S. Hispanics are 16% of the U.S. workforce but only comprise 7% of all STEM careers. Black people represent 13.4% of the U.S. population and Hispanics or Latinos make up 18.5%, according to the latest U.S. Census data.

Diversity in tech hinges on education, recruitment

Now that companies are actively looking for qualified minorities, the next step is to create a pipeline to put more minorities into tech jobs. That starts with providing young minority students with role models they can identify with, Black tech professionals say.

"It comes down to telling the stories of those in tech who can be the 'face like me' that a younger person can find," Watson said.

Building that pipeline also requires new, positive language to make tech more attractive.

"Too often we attribute an interest in technology to being geeky or white," said Kevin Wortham, CEO of AssureTech LLC, an IT consulting firm in Largo, Md. "We need to create new labels that encourage our young people that it's OK to have an interest in technology outside of PlayStation and Xbox."

"We also need to attribute technology to something that is specific and applicable to the wants and desires of the young people in our communities."

Quotes from several interviewees

In addition, some observers say there is subsurface bias in education that unfortunately leads to Black kids shying away from STEM.

"If you mix in virtually criminal underfunding of schools in minority areas, and both overt and covert exhorting of Black children from STEM into liberal arts, it kills the STEM pipeline for minorities," Logikworx's Obeto said.

Obeto, who was born in Nigeria, noted that if foreign-born minorities are excluded from U.S. minority statistics in tech, the numbers would be even more dismal. The situation is especially dire in states like Utah, which is more than 90% white, while only 1.4% of its residents are Black, making it even more difficult to hire Black tech workers locally.

"When you look at the numbers nationwide on diversity in technology, they're pretty bad," said Cameron Williams, director of diversity engagement at Domo, a business intelligence tools maker in American Fork, Utah. "But then if you look at the population of Utah, that diversity is terrible."

As a result, Domo looks for out-of-state talent, he said.

Companies interested in diversity need to change their talent acquisition processes, and one way to do that is by making more effort to recruit tech talent at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), said Terry Morris, national president of Black Data Processing Associates (BDPA), a professional association. Too often, an enterprise will focus on recruiting at schools with massive enrollments, such as Florida State University, to quickly target a large pool of candidates, he added.

"They're looking at immediate returns," Morris said. "Many companies don't have the patience to play the medium-term or long-term game." The latter mindset is what's required to find minority job candidates at smaller, often resource-strapped HBCUs, he said.

Employers also need to reject the notion that only certain schools in certain areas of the country have large pools of tech talent, said Everett Harper, founder and CEO of Truss, a software development consultancy headquartered in San Francisco.

"Where are you looking? Georgia Tech is minting engineers. That excuse no longer applies," Harper said.

Although Truss is based in Silicon Valley, it has developed a diverse workforce by recruiting qualified candidates from across the entire country. Its staff of about 100 is fully distributed, with people in 30 states.

The Valley has never been terribly diverse, and many Black people have left San Francisco entirely in recent years, Harper added. Moreover, tech giants such as Facebook and Apple have massive war chests that give them sway in terms of talent recruitment, he said.

The point is to go well beyond arms-length tactics and build new networking relationships, he added.

"If you go and say, 'Let me find my one Black friend' [if they know a candidate], that person is being inundated right now with 70 requests, and always has been," he said.

The lack of diversity in tech goes deeper than just narrow recruitment and less emphasis on STEM in minority school districts. Institutionalized discrimination prevents many Black people from maintaining careers in enterprise IT, said Peter Beasley, executive director of Blacks in Technology, a professional organization.

"Disregard of Black people's rights in American society, which is also found in tech, leaves some Black people leaving [corporate jobs], saying, 'I deserve and need better control of my life.'"

Before joining Blacks in Technology, Beasley worked in corporate IT and then founded a Dallas-based configuration management database software company, Netwatch Solutions. But new challenges followed him in the form of disparities in venture funding invested with Black entrepreneurs.

A study released in February by the nonprofit Kauffmann Fellows Research Center concluded that more than 75% of all venture capital funding rounds go to startups with all-white founders. The study also found that only 2.1% of startup founders are Black and 2.6% are Latino. Yet diverse startup teams provide a better return on investment through IPOs and acquisitions than all-white teams, according to the foundation.

Overall, achieving diversity in tech is about much more than just hiring more people of color, Beasley said.

"Corporations have to be intentional, making commitments from the board and CEO, and then backing them up," he said. "Companies that are intentional put in programs, metrics, training and funding. They ask and listen to Black people. They buy from Black-run companies and people, invest in Black companies, and change policies and procedures. It can't be just talk about hiring more Black people."

After the hire

However, while getting into tech is one thing, fitting in and advancing are quite different things, said Wesley Faulkner, who is based in Austin, Texas and has worked in developer relations for IBM and MongoDB.

Tech is not a neutral environment, in Faulkner's view. "It's hard to get in, it's hard to be there and it's extremely hard to advance," he said. "It's like the equivalent of being dropped into another country; that's kind of what it's like to be a minority in tech."

Much of the onus of fitting in is put on the person of color, as they have to try to understand and integrate into the environment to become accepted, he added.

"When companies talk about diversity and inclusion, mostly that's like 'We will allow people who are different to come and assimilate into our culture,'" he said. "It's not really discussed that the culture itself is pretty much a monoculture."

Thus, it is critical to focus on a minority employee's experience after they start the job, Harper said. "Who wants to be the first person into an environment where people don't look like them? Identify what in the company you need to do to make a welcoming environment," he said. If a minority is hired and then leaves the job a year or so later, it's likely because that kind of environment didn't materialize, he added.

For people of color who do remain at a job for an extended time, it can be hard for them to advance because leadership roles usually are primarily based on trust, Faulkner said.

"Trust comes from looking at the people who came before you -- which probably is mostly white male -- and seeing if you fit into that mold," he said. "It's hard for a person who doesn't look like the people who came before them."

Words that hurt

Much like the Confederate-era statues that are being taken down in cities across the South, there is an ongoing push in the tech industry to do away with legacy terms such as master/slave and blacklist/whitelist. It's one thing to condemn words and phrases for their inappropriate overtones, but another to take steps against racism that could affect one's own career.

"I see you out there trying to remove master from tech lingo," said Bryan Liles, a senior staff engineer at VMware, who is based in Bowie, Md., in a tweet. "Would you walk away from a job because your boss talked down to one of your female Black co-workers? Would you send an email to your CEO if you sat in an interview review with dog-whistle racist comments?"

Moreover, people concerned with being politically correct may fixate on a specific word rather than the content of a statement or the character of the person making it.

"Removing or changing the words to something society deems more socially acceptable is fruitless if you're not going to change the mindset or the behavior of the person who uses the word irresponsibly," Wortham said.

He recalled being asked to sing a spiritual by a dotcom CEO because of his deep mellifluous speaking voice and of acing tests and interviews only to be denied jobs because he wasn't the right "fit."

However, as a very light-skinned Black man, Watson sees discrimination from a different angle. "Because I can pass, I find myself in rooms where everyone else is white," he said. "Someone in that room will reveal themselves as a racist and say something because they don't realize I am what I am. I get to see whites at rest. It's not like it's an epidemic or anything, but it happens, and it sucks."

Theresa Quitto-Dickerson has a background in data warehouse engineering. She currently works in IT procurement for a government contractor in the Washington, D.C., area and is starting an e-commerce business centered on wellness and organic products called the Natural Mixx Company.

"Sometimes, you know you are the token hire," she said. "I am a Black woman who is LBGTQ, so it's three boxes that get checked, and almost always I am the only one. Most of us in this situation have no choice but to thrive; we have to scrape for our place on the team and gain respect. There are times, however, where I was welcomed with open arms, especially when they were down a team member and in need of an experienced person."

Still, she recalls times in her career when new co-workers initially dismissed her based on her race. In one case, Quitto-Dickerson developed a friendship with one of these people, an older white man. But it took time and persistence.

"I had to learn to stand my ground as a woman and African American," she said. "Women are taught to be silent, and being Black we're taught to be silent and invisible. … We're not monolithic and I can't speak for all Black people, but we worked hard to get where we are and will work hard to move past where we are."

Diversity as a strength

Ultimately, it's critical for enterprises to realize and accept that diversity is good for the bottom line, observers say.

"I do believe diversity is a strength, because insularity can only take people so far before they start making errors that, in medical terms, would be called 'congenital,'" Obeto said.

One example he cited is Bodega, the Silicon Valley startup that came up with a vending machine that was to be like a small corner store with the same name as the company. Bodegas are small convenience stores commonly found in New York City.

The name offended people and Bodega changed its name to Stockwell. The company is shutting down on July 1, 2020.

"If they had had minority players on their team, that debacle wouldn't have occurred," Obeto said. "Moreover, in racial diversity, there's more diversity of thought and ideas, which definitely makes the team's ideas and execution more vibrant."

Diversity also has practical implications.

"As a business owner there are some doors that will not open for me based solely on the color of my skin, but they will open for someone who works for me but looks like the prospective customer or shares the prospect's culture or interests," AssureTech's Wortham said.

Moreover, diversity spurred major events in the history of America, evidenced most recently by white Americans joining in protests as part of the Black Lives Matter movement, he added.

"From Crispus Attucks dying in the American Revolutionary War though a slave, to Martin Luther King partnering with white pastors to help protect Black marchers in the South, and even Malcolm X forming the Organization of Afro-American Unity, which was inclusive to whites to help Blacks with achieving equal rights," Wortham said.

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