Being a half-Black dude from Oakland who didn’t grow up using computers, most people I know were a little surprised to hear me switching careers at 30 to become a software engineer. Channeling my addictive personality to study code and write loads of useless toy programs and horrific sites served me well and I studied myself into a job through persistence and some luck 😉.
Growing up as a mixed dude that looked more Latino than Black made me hyper-aware of how important race is in our daily interactions. Even today, the first thing people usually ask when they meet me is where my parents are from, or what’s your ethnicity, or what are you mixed with? Basically, what the hell are you? I’m used to it, and I’ve been privy to a lot of conversations I might not well have been if people knew my true identity. Like a race spy.
I always knew I’d be a minority in the field of software engineering but sometimes I’m a bit surprised by just how homogenous the field is. In the last 5 years, I can count the number of Black software engineers I’ve met on one hand and still have enough left to grip a teacup. Every year, StackOverflow releases its developer survey results and I am re-shocked to learn less than 5% of professional developers surveyed are Black. Similar disappointing results abound for women, Latinos and other non-White male groups.
But who cares?
Well, outside of the moral implications for denying or restricting access to upwardly mobile careers like software development to certain groups, how do companies propose to create products for our increasingly diverse world? Imagine a team of 14 year olds, who build a dating site that takes off but has a significant amount of users who are 50 and older. They quickly brainstorm the features this group may like and ham-handedly add an option to filter potential matches by age. The icon for this filter: an old man with a cane. Older users expectedly aren’t too keen on this and leave the app. A lame apology is issued and people scratch their heads at how they could have possibly thought that would go over well.
This may sound pretty far-fetched but think about recent events (I know there’s been a lot lately) like Gucci releasing their Black-face sweater, a fresh-take on old school racism, or now that the US has decided to care about Black people for a bit, how many companies have been falling over themselves to show how un-racist they are before they incur the wrath of a newly woke public? Being racist isn’t just bad for your soul (as its always been) it’s probably bad for your business too.
It makes logical sense that teams with a diverse array of thought, experiences and talents are exactly what is needed to foster innovation as well as better reflect diverse end-user populations. Black Twitter anyone?
There just aren’t enough (insert coveted minority here) candidates
I know, I know. Your company combed over 1,649 resumes and only found a handful of “diverse” candidates. I mean, you can’t just pick them out of thin air. Or maybe you can…
Larger companies absolutely have the power to create internship to job programs where they can aggressively target all those groups which aren’t currently represented on their teams. Give people who may not have all the checkboxes ticked off on their resumes a chance to learn on the job. Have your senior engineers mentor these incoming prospects and then fold them into your organization if/when they are ready.
At those even larger companies, planting some seeds in the local school system by offering free workshops, funding STEM programs and perhaps high school internships could dramatically reshape the landscape of your workforce and offer some opportunities to people who might not have even know that a career as a software engineer is within their reach. Heck, if I had know more about this a young lad, I wouldn’t have waited until I was 30 with 2 kids to begin writing code.
While White America has seemingly just found out about this thing called racism, for the majority of POC, race is an inescapable factor that colors so much of our day we don’t even notice it… or at least, we’ve come to accept it. We wonder if our colleagues respect us or think we are a charity case to increase diversity, we see all White C-Levels and don’t think twice, we get asked to show our badge a little more than others and when off-color jokes about rap music or Black culture get made pre-meeting we sit uncomfortably and hope no one impersonates Cardi B.
As tech companies in particular continue to be some of the most vocal advocates of diversity, it’d be nice to see this commitment translate into a workforce that looks more like their user bases and the communities that they call home.