It’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day and nearly the end of Barack Obama’s presidency. America has made tremendous strides in improving racial equality, but clearly there’s a long way to go in many different areas — including the technology field.
Tech leaders routinely tout the importance of increasing the number of underrepresented minorities in their sector, yet huge gaps persist in employment numbers. Fewer than 9 percent of American tech workers were African American and nearly 7 percent were Hispanic or Latino, according to a GeekWire analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data from 2015. The numbers are worse for people of color in executive level positions.
So we asked seven black tech leaders in the greater Seattle area to share their thoughts on racial diversity in the industry, and we received wonderfully thoughtful, varied responses. They’re an inspiration, roadmap and a reality check for anyone concerned about this issue — and that should include everyone.
Many feel like discrimination and different standards persist for black tech professionals, while some believe the high demand for tech workers makes any bias meaningless. Most believe in the importance of mentors to landing jobs and moving up the ranks.
Others hope that the awareness of the disparity, and increased attention to actively engaging African American and Hispanic and Latino kids, will help improve the situation. Many point to a variety of resources available, dozens of which are outlined in the Washington Technology Industry Alliance’s Tech Diversity Champions report.
But some still fear that a lack of investment in minority-led tech ventures will continue to hamstring progress.
Here’s what they had to say.
Where are the biggest gaps in the efforts to educate and recruit more people of color to tech jobs? To see real change requires earlier intervention than college or even high school. The closer we get to the root of a problem, the higher likelihood of significantly moving the needle. Small changes around the edges can certainly happen further up the pipeline. But introducing science, coding and engineering to young children of color at an early age — through school curriculum and activity — is how we move the needle in big ways. Teaching the school curriculum is not the only part of the equation. Young people of color need people to look up to — people who look like them, people they can see themselves in. They have to be shown that this is a world as much for them as anyone else.
What are the best resources for people? Mentors. For me, getting to the next stage of my career or landing that job can often be tied back to one or more mentors. I try to make sure I’m not limiting myself by only choosing mentors within my comfort zone. From one of my first mentors in college who counseled me on the right internships to apply for, to a mentor I met four years ago who helped me break into the Seattle tech community, I’ve relied on my mentors for support, advice and connections when navigating my professional life. I wholeheartedly believe in the virtuous cycle of mentorship and feel like I have a responsibility to pay it forward whenever I can.
What are the biggest challenges facing people of color in Seattle’s tech community? Our numbers are small, which sometimes makes it hard to find opportunities that allow us to connect at scale.
You are a leader in your field. Has race affected your ability to find success? I do believe race affects my work mostly because it permeates all aspects of my life, but I don’t believe it has limited my success. We live in a world where I experience stereotypes, biases and sometimes blatant discrimination so it would be naïve to claim that has no effect. If anything, these experiences feed a fire and hunger in me to be successful.
What are the most significant changes that you’ve noticed in terms of diversity in tech? I’m very new to the tech world (two years new, in fact), so it’s hard for me to speak to significant changes.
What are you hopeful about in the tech sector as relates to people of color? The legacy of optimism found in both MLK Jr. and President Obama comes in part from the idea that one person can effectuate change. President Obama has said over and over again, most recently in his Farewell Address, that change comes from ordinary people who stand up and do their part — whatever that may be. When you hear the stories of why [fill in the blank] tech company was created, it was often borne out of some frustrating experience the founder(s) had and they wanted to fix the problem.
There are a lot of frustrating experiences that disproportionately impact under-served communities and I believe there is fertile ground for new technology innovations to solve some of these long standing social problems. Efforts like 1776, a fairly new endeavor that’s a global incubator and seed fund for startups tackling social challenges, is a great example. Incubators like 1776 can help ordinary people with a tech solution to a social issue stand up and do their part. That makes me optimistic.
Where are the biggest gaps in the efforts to educate and recruit more people of color to tech jobs? The gaps are obvious, and tech companies need to get serious about it. Blacks and Hispanics are severely underrepresented at tech companies. I’ve been at some of the best — Microsoft, RealNetworks, Amazon — and I know when those companies get serious about something, they go to work.
This straight up is a recruiting problem. There are more blacks and Hispanics with technical degrees than ever, but they are not being hired at the same rate. From a recent New York Times article: “Among young computer science and engineering graduates with bachelor’s or advanced degrees, 57 percent are white, 26 percent are Asian, 8 percent are Hispanic and 6 percent are black… but technical workers at Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter, according to the companies’ diversity reports, are on average 56 percent white, 37 percent Asian, 3 percent Hispanic and 1 percent black.” There’s something very wrong there.
What are the best resources for people of color?
- Hack the CD. HACK Nation is a collective of self-determined social innovators whose mission is to help neighborhoods build inclusive innovation communities through creative development. Currently, we’re focused on answering the question, “How might we create fertile ground for the African American community in Seattle to grow with the city’s current tech boom?”
- Rainier Scholars (I’m on the board). Rainier Scholars cultivates the academic potential and leadership skills of hard-working, low-income students of color. By creating access to transformative educational opportunities and providing comprehensive support to scholars and families, we increase college graduation rates and empower new generations of leaders. Students of color account for two-thirds of all students in Seattle Public Schools. Yet by high school, they make up just 10 percent of the students in the district’s advanced learning programs, the most rigorous academic preparation for college success.
- Greater Foundation. Greater Foundation, a non-profit organization that empowers youth to become leaders in their communities.
- Technology Access Foundation (TAF). TAF is a nonprofit with a mission to equip students of color for success in college and life through the power of an interdisciplinary STEM education and supportive relationships.
What are the biggest challenges facing people of color in Seattle’s tech community? It’s funny, I think less about the challenges once you’re in the tech community, and more about the access and how more people of color can get in to that community in the first place. The tech community largely operates as a meritocracy, so once you’re in and demonstrate your skills, you are rewarded. However, getting in is the hardest part. The dictionary defines meritocracy as “an elite group of people whose progress is based on ability and talent rather than on class privilege or wealth.” It’s the elite part that is the most difficult.
You are a leader in your field. Has race affected your ability to find success? It’s really hard to know for sure ;-) Does a deal take longer? Is getting funding more challenging? Is it harder to recruit top talent? I really don’t know if race played a role. I only know what’s going on in my head.
What are the most significant changes that you’ve noticed in terms of diversity in tech? The two that pop into my head are the dramatic increase of South Asian engineers and the increase in women’s representation overall (although less so in technical roles) — but we have a LONG way to go.
What are you hopeful about in the tech sector as relates to people of color? I’m hopeful that tech companies get really serious about seeking out top talent, participating and/or sponsoring activities in their respective black communities. I’m on the board of Rainier Scholars and as they say on their website, “The playing field isn’t going to level itself.”
Where are the biggest gaps in the efforts to educate and recruit more people of color to tech jobs? Employers are not being creative enough with how they are recruiting and retaining people of color. We need to change the culture of tech so that it is inclusive to diverse groups, and that means talking about areas that make people uncomfortable (bias, overt/implicit discrimination). I don’t think the “pipeline” is an excuse anymore. We are seeing more people of color in the candidate pool, we just need to be open to hiring non “brogrammers.”
What are the best resources for people of color? Locally groups like ChickTech, HERE Seattle, NewTech, WTIA, Latinos in Tech, BlackDot, Blacks in Tech Seattle, Lesbians Who Tech have been critical support resources for folks. There are a ton of niche meetup groups and slack channels and communities on GitHub. And there are amazing tech podcasts like Revision Path, Two Black Nerds, Code Newbie, Tomorrow, Blacks In Tech, Slack Variety and The New Stack.
I recommend joining or creating affinity groups for folks of color and women in big companies like Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon are doing this, but it would be nice to see midsize and small companies take the initiative to create these groups.
For those specifically interested in coding and development there are a ton of free classes to help you get the basics: SheCodesNow is offering a bunch of free Java, JS, HTML and other tech workshops for the community. There are great programs and scholarships specifically for people of color and diverse communities like Ada Academy, Code Fellows, Dev BootCamp, NYCDA, FlatIron School, Northeastern University, etc. Seattle has very strong community colleges that folks should explore, as well as four-year programs at schools like the University of Washington.
What are the biggest challenges facing people of color in Seattle’s tech community? There aren’t enough people of color in leadership positions or even represented in tech companies. Recent diversity numbers are discouraging and show that organizations aren’t making it a priority. The industry isn’t doing a great job of being inclusive. People of color as a whole don’t have the same type of access to resources (education, mentorship, connections) as their white counterparts. We need more allies to support diversity initiatives, including mentorships.
You are a leader in your field. Has race affected your ability to find success? It’s hard to say exactly. I know that I don’t see a lot of people that look like me in tech unless I seek them out. I like to think that I am a voice for people of color and other diverse communities.
What are the most significant changes that you’ve noticed in terms of diversity in tech? I’ve seen more people of color and women start to build their own supportive communities. The industry and nonprofit organizations have really stepped up to ensure that the pipeline isn’t really issue. It’s great to see programs like Ada Developer, Apprenti, Year Up, El Centro De La Raza, etc. that support folks who want to transition into tech from a different field. There are more organizations helping minority startup founders succeed.
What are you hopeful about in the tech sector as relates to people of color? I see tech being a great equalizer. It’s allowing people of color to build successful businesses, contribute to innovation and give back to the communities they come from. I’m hopeful for the initiatives like Tech Hire to help ensure that diverse communities are able to take advantage of this booming industry. I’m very passionate about helping kids/teens of color have access to mentors and programs that allow them to build technology.
Where are the biggest gaps in the efforts to educate and recruit more people of color to tech jobs? In my humble opinion it begins with access! If you are not exposed at an early age to STEM, you are less likely to go into the field.
I was lucky, growing up in the Tri-Cities (Richland, Wash.) where, because of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, my community was replete with engineers and scientists. So from a young age I was exposed to science and technology. An engineer by the name of Phil Harness allowed me to hang out at his house all night banging away on the computer. My parents, in-turn, purchased a Gateway computer to further my FORTRAN skills. If we want our kids to go into tech, we must expose them at an early age.
What are the best resources for people of color for education, employment and/or professional support? It’s no different for people of color. We have some of the best resources in our state — UW, Bellevue College and Seattle University to name a few. There are plenty of code schools such as Ada or Codecademy that do not require several years of college to get into software development. Tech has no color. People of color can work on projects to help each other with problems unique to our community like getbevel.com or to help small businesses in general like callbase.com. The possibilities are endless and luckily binary knows no color.
What are the biggest challenges facing people of color in Seattle’s tech community? People will say the industry is full of “brogrammers” and “hipsters” so that people of color are on the outside looking in. I don’t believe this is true because in the Pacific Northwest and Washington state, people will help each other no matter what color they are. People in startups and technology are in this business to be successful and they love doing the work. Success and passion are color blind! You want someone who is capable of doing his or her job and who can help you achieve your goals as a company. Race and gender are irrelevant.
You are a leader in your field. Has race affected your ability to find success? No! There are more open-minded people who couldn’t care less about race, gender or anything else for that matter, than closed-minded people. If you didn’t get a job due to race, it is OK. It is not a place where you wanted to work anyway.
What are the most significant changes that you’ve noticed in terms of diversity in tech? More opportunities to enter into tech along with more ways to fund a business. There are a plethora of roles. Everything from software developers, testers, UX to marketing. Anyone can come up with a good idea and ask for funding through crowdfunding or Techstars.
What are you hopeful about in the tech sector as relates to people of color? Technology is becoming more ubiquitous, it forces us to be more inclusive of everyone — it’s a forcing factor. We need a more diverse workforce to create products that have a broader appeal.
Further, every person needs a Phil Harness and a support system regardless of color to be successful. As a community, we need to do our best to be that support network.
Where are the biggest gaps in the efforts to educate and recruit more people of color to tech jobs? I always categorize this in the bucket of “belief and behavior.” In our K-12 system we tend to have this belief, and most people won’t admit it, that only a certain set of kids can succeed in STEM fields. Our behavior reflects our beliefs about kids and kids of color.
What are the best resources for people of color for education, employment and/or professional support? If we have a system that proclaims that they have so many jobs that they can’t fill, why does there have to be a special place for people of color to be educated and employed? You have this wealth of brain power that is under-developed because of what our beliefs are.
Why would I look for a different place to be educated as a black woman? The fact that we have to ask that question, should tell us a little bit about ourselves as a nation and how we see people. It says so much about our society, it says so much about who we believe is smart enough.
What are the biggest challenges facing people of color in Seattle’s tech community? There is a loneliness. There aren’t that many people being recruited. You find yourself being in that 2 percent population.
Who I am as a black woman, that is just as important for me to bring to work as my talent. I need to be comfortable being myself without having to assimilate. White guys should be happy to know me, that they know someday like me and can mine information from me. It’s not just the Seattle tech community, but it seems to be worse because we’re such a white city.
You are a leader in your field. Has race affected your ability to find success? I spent 15 years in the industry and I think about year 10 was when I realized I had to decide how hard I wanted to work to please somebody who doesn’t look like me. Success is about how to relate to people and I wanted to do it in my own way.
I remember a particular conversation I had in the next-to-last department I was in. I was supposed to go to a recruiting fair, but my manager found a man who was mixed race and sent him in my place. She said, “He’s half black, he can do it.” When I complained that I had wanted to attend the event, my boss’s manager cautioned me against saying anything, warning “This can ruin your career here.” I said, “I don’t have a career here.”
Every single place that I worked I had incidents like that, where I really felt like they don’t want me here. I knew I could outperform most of the people in the place, but they look at me and just see a black woman. People won’t tell you the truth, but behind closed doors, they’ll tell you about the daily crap. You just keep your mouth shut and do your job. I won’t keep my mouth shut. If I’m going to work my ass off, I want acknowledgement for it.
What are the most significant changes that you’ve noticed in terms of diversity in tech? There are a lot more diversity and inclusion departments in companies. Millions of dollars are being spent on that industry with very little change.
One thing that has changed is unconscious bias lets people off the hook. They are making tools to identify unconscious bias, but are you going to do anything about it? There has been more talk about getting women into the workforce, but they really mean white women. Honestly, there hasn’t been anything very significant at all.
What are you hopeful about in the tech sector as relates to people of color? The thing I’m most hopeful about is there are lots of efforts across the country, not here, to get black venture capital together, to get young black entrepreneurs to seek out investment from various venture firms to highlight and daylight that the black community has a lot of assets that can be put to use in the tech field in people and knowledge.*
There are several organizations in the last three to four years working to really build up the communities of young black tech workers and I’m very hopeful. This generation of black millennials is doing a really good job and if they keep it up, the black Gen Z kids will have something to look to and be a part of.
We have to scrap a little, work a little harder. An investor who wants to bring up the next generation of coders would rather invest in a someone who looks like them, but doesn’t come from our community. That poses some problems. The best ideas come from the community that looks like them.
*Black Dot is really new, and I’m well aware of it. Given the increasing gentrification of Seattle’s Central District neighborhood, which is where Black Dot is located, the question is how does Black Dot survive.
Where are the biggest gaps in the efforts to educate and recruit more people of color to tech jobs? Most people only started caring about this a few years ago, when the numbers revealing the lack of diversity in tech roles began making national news. Before it was made public people really didn’t care, so the efforts are in the early stages.
Programs that are designed to educate people for tech roles such as boot camps, universities, adult education programs are expensive and do not do outreach in the areas where people of color live. When you go to a community center in an underserved community you see information on how to be a dental hygienist or medical assistant, not how to be a data analyst.
Government dollars are given to boot camps, nonprofits and universities but not to individuals to help supplement their income while they are attending school. A lot of people of color would love to go back to school for a tech role, but can’t support their families.
Not enough people of color are doing outreach to kids. We all know it’s important for people to see people like them in roles so they can truly identify with being in that role. Obama’s presidency, for example, has open the door for so many kids of color who see him on TV and dream about being president themselves. I am 41 years old and as a kid, growing up in Florida, president of the United States never even seemed like an option to me.
What are the best resources for people of color for education, employment and/or professional support? There are a few. TAF Academy is a great STEM school for kids. Girls who Code is a great program going to local libraries and teaching girls how to code for free. Ada Developers Academy is an excellent program for women who want to learn how to be a software engineer. The WTIA has the first technology apprenticeship program actively looking for people of color and veterans. Our organization, HERE Seattle, is a community designed to support minorities in tech and creative roles in Seattle, giving them a community to lean on and an outlet to give back and create more lanes for people of color in the future.
What are the biggest challenges facing people of color in Seattle’s tech community? That the majority of the efforts and outreach in the areas of minorities are around white women and veterans. Now don’t get me wrong, we need outreach in these areas and I am an advocate for these efforts, but there is a lack of that same spirit for people of color. In my experience, the Seattle tech community as a whole continues to say there is a pipeline problem when it comes to people of color. I continue to talk to people of color in Seattle who say they are having a hard time getting an opportunity. The Seattle tech community really doesn’t know how to go about reaching people of color as a whole.
You are a leader in your field. Has race affected your ability to find success? I have been successful navigating the system, but I know that I am not going to get away with the same things my white colleagues are. You are more in the spotlight for sure.
What are the most significant changes that you’ve noticed in terms of diversity in tech? It’s not swept under the rug anymore, it’s out in the open that there is a huge discrepancy when it comes to these roles and who works in them. I think people like Trish who started TAF knew more than 20 years ago that this was an issue, and she started working on these specific issues then. Years later, the rest of the tech community are taking notice and making efforts to do better.
What are you hopeful about in the tech sector as relates to people of color? I am hopeful that the tech industry will continue to see the importance of equality and continue to put dollars and outreach where it is needed. Now that the numbers are out in the open, let’s make things right. We know that it will not only benefit people of color by joining the tech community, but we also know that companies get a better return on investment. There have been a few studies showing this, including a 2015 study by McKinsey and Company.
Where are the biggest gaps in the efforts to educate and recruit more people of color to tech jobs? Most of the gaps continue to persist in public education institutions. Staff, faculty and administrators not adopting philosophies and policies or executing on practices that create a culture and experience where all students feel welcome and a sense of belonging. It’s a very steep climb if you’ve been raised in a school environment that positions tech as something for the “smart” kids. Just as we place importance on literacy, numeracy and creativity, we must place importance on computation, math, gaming, and engineering. I would venture to say computer science is becoming a core “literacy” of the 21st Century.
Young people today have discovered they can engage in new ways of learning that actually sidestep traditional education systems to gain what they need to be a part of the opportunities that lie ahead in the workplace. Many are closing the gap on their own despite our systems.
What are the best resources for people of color for education, employment and/or professional support? I always say the best resources are a small yet mighty team of mentors. They may change throughout your profession or career trajectory as you grow and gain knowledge. The windows I’ve peered through and the doors I’ve gone through have been because of the mentors and the relationships I’ve had over the years. Some have been formal. Most are quite informal.
The other resource is your own confidence that you belong. These are not the “resources” that most raise, but I firmly believe it all starts with you.
Others one might look to include: MESA, College Success Foundation, Washington State Opportunity Scholarship, Washington College Access Network, TAF, GoodCall.com, and all of the diversity affinity programs at companies throughout the region.
In my company Swurveys, creating an inclusive business that reflects the world we live in is in our DNA. We formed the company to be a resource to the industry. The founding team reflects who we want to attract as customers and investors. Therefore, we reflect racial equity, sexual orientation, age ranges, geographic origin and tech expertise.
What are the biggest challenges facing people of color in Seattle’s tech community? African American and Latinos don’t represent a critical mass in Seattle and our numbers are diminishing. The excuse of the “pipeline” has persisted. It has provided an out to hiring managers, executives, the board room, recruiters, contractors, HR professionals to wear as their “get out of jail” pass in the country. It’s an insult and tries to say the lack of inclusion in tech is a numbers game. Sure there are the numbers, but it’s a lot more than that.
It’s the Seattle “nice” effect, the cost of living, very few black and Latino institutions, unwelcoming neighborhoods, just plain not seeing people who look like you in the workplace or where you live. The lack of focus on African American and Latino cohorts at the area’s business schools, computer science programs and engineering programs has pulled great talent to other communities. Yes, in the last few years there have been efforts to turn this around, but these are systemic issues that created great divides. Racism and poverty have been at their core. It takes long-term, costly investments to change practices and make the Northwest attractive to African American and Latinos pursuing technology as entrepreneurs and employees.
You are a leader in your field. Has race affected your ability to find success? Yes, in countless ways. From being asked to serve the coffee in meetings I’m chairing to someone asking if I’d have the organization I was working with (I was the executive in charge of the department) send someone over to “pick up the check.” Invitations to meetings where the decisions of who and what to invest in are few and far between. Only in the last two to three years have people who look like me come into fashion in the investing community. And I can tell you our ideas aren’t any more amazing than they were two years ago. Without the mentor who opens that door, gives you the credible stamp of approval, you are likely just a polite invite, not a serious investment. We are fashionable now. As African Americans and Latinos we must maximize on the opportunity!
What are the most significant changes that you’ve noticed in terms of diversity in tech? The most significant has been the surprised awakening of the majority population that they are going to have to change. That the demographics of the population change is now. It is upon us. It’s real and we are not prepared. The influx of black and brown students and entrepreneurs is awesome!! We are moving forward despite the barriers and creating our own companies, launching our own programs and schools, creating our own investment funds. We are seizing the moment and making it our own. At Swurveys, we knew if we didn’t do it ourselves no one else was going to do it for us. We created a product that appeals to the curious, young mind who wants to give their feedback now. It’s perfect for people of color who haven’t been heard or engaged!
What are you hopeful about in the tech sector as relates to people of color? My hope is that we will continue to be futurists, creating and innovating, exploring and breaking the molds as people of color. We are amazing and President Obama broke a long-standing mold. He and his presidency showed millions of people of color around the world it is possible! We are important! And you can too! You can’t put what has happened back in the bottle. Young black and brown people will continue to be at the center of what is new and innovative in our lives. I am energized and excited!