By Kamau High
Special to the NNPA from the Afro-American Newspaper
Unless you are a White or Asian male, you are unlikely to work at some of the biggest technology companies in America. And while things like President Obama’s recent efforts to make community college free for more people are attempts to change that, the lack of diversity in the tech field is likely to take some time to change. So, minus a new civil rights movement focused on forcing technology companies to increase the number of women and minorities they hire, what can be done?
The AFRO spoke with a range of recruiters, outside organizations and people who have forged their own path to make Silicon Valley more equal in its hiring practices. Two ideas emerged from these conversations: 1) Don’t wait for the government to help you because it will take a long time for any appreciable difference to be made and 2) If these companies aren’t hiring the right people, then it’s time to strike out on your own.
That’s what Tiffany Thomas-Randall, a Columbia, Md. resident, did when she lost her government job doing background security in 2010. While sending out resumes in early 2011, she enrolled in a computer security program at the University of Maryland University College. Despite having taken a few computer classes while an undergrad, she felt lost. “I went in not knowing anything,” she says. “I did a lot of reading in order to catch up with the other students.”
An adviser suggested she go into computer forensics, the science of examining computers for evidence of a crime. She eventually broke into the field and worked for a year a half before going back to school for her master’s in cybersecurity. “Where I worked I was the only Black female. People who passed me in the hallway would say ‘Stick it out,’” she says. “I tell others [Black women] to do the same thing.”
After moving on to another job at a large consulting firm, she decided to start her own computer forensics firm called SCORPION: Digital Forensics last October. She is currently in the process of filling out the proper paperwork to become certified as a government contractor. Asked what type of people she is looking to hire she says, “I’m looking for someone willing to learn. You have to want to know more. It doesn’t matter how old they are as long as they have a good work ethics. I’m not looking for 8-5 Monday through Friday. You could have to investigate something in the evenings or on the weekends.”
When it comes to who the largest tech companies in America are hiring, the numbers are depressing. Names like Yahoo!, Facebook, Amazon, Google—sites we use every day—started releasing their hiring statistics last year after pressure from civil rights groups. The Federal government requires large companies to file ethnic and gender breakdowns of their employees. However, the numbers are confidential so it’s up to individual companies to release those numbers to the public. Known as EEO-1 reports, the statistics pretty much live up to the stereotypes of the technology world: White or Asian men are over-represented with Blacks, women and Hispanics underrepresented. Some are better than others but for the most part, it’s a sad state of affairs.
How did we get to this state? It’s a familiar tale that anyone who lives in a community with low property taxes will know. Property taxes, in general, are the second largest chunk of the money schools get right behind income and sales taxes. If property taxes are low, then the schools don’t have much money to work with. This translates into old and outdated equipment as well as not enough money to hire the right people to keep a school’s technology up to date.
One organization trying to deal with that is Hack the Hood, a San Francisco based non-profit that attempts to engage school-age kids in the tech world. Hack the Hood does this by sponsoring six-week technology boot camps that incorporate field trips, network, practice public speaking and build websites.
Only in its second year, Hack the Hood received a grant of $500,000 from Google last year to expand its programs. “We are in a unique position of living in the center of where the majority of tech companies are,” says Zakiya Harris, co-founder of the organization. “When Twitter goes public and there are 30 new billionaires living in that area that affects them [in the form of gentrification]. We give them the knowledge and expertise to move not just as consumers of tech but as creators.”
While other articles in this series will explore the educational environment that has led to such a paucity of Black workers in the tech world, Harris offers this observation, “Does every young person who goes through our program get a job in tech? That remains to be seen. We have people who are training at tech companies, one of our young people started making his own video game. As for the longer term impact? We’re still figuring that out.”
In addition to teaching young people to operate in tech circles, Hack the Hood also focuses on getting entrepreneurs to start their own businesses. When people finish with Hack the Hood the organization wants them to be ready to join a company or form their own. “Major tech companies are insular and hire people who know someone who knows someone. Lots of our young people don’t move in those circles. We’re trying to teach young people how to operate in those networks,” says Harris. “If we look at diversity and inclusion when it comes to the corporate world it still needs lots of change. Is the tech industry going to be any different?”
One person trying to answer that question is Frank Odasz, who works with rural Native American groups in Montana on getting them up to speed in technology. He draws some interesting parallels to the Black community when it comes to getting more young people into the tech world. “Rural communities are similar to urban ones,” he says. “Everyone has a self-reinforcing belief that they are incapable of doing amazing things even though in their own neighborhoods there are examples of people being successful.”
These include the person making a web site for the neighborhood barber shop and the local nail salon. As Odasz says, “Most innovations don’t come from big companies. The founders of Facebook and Google dropped out of college. You can teach yourself anything you want to know with the open education resources on the internet. Jobs have not been coming from big companies, instead they come from grassroots entrepreneurship.”
Echoing that sentiment is Nicol Turner-Lee, vice president and chief research and policy officer of the Minority Media and Telecom Council, which, full disclosure, provided a grant for the AFRO to produce this series. MMTC is a non-profit focused on civil rights in the communications industry. “We as a community need to shift from being consumers to producers. We remind kids that instead of buying an Xbox you can create that game,” says Turner-Lee. And it’s not just creating technology. “Someone’s got to write the bill, record the data, be the greeter at the front desk and deal with legal concerns. We treat the tech industry like it’s the grown and sexy stuff. It’s an eco-system and they are generating [lots of different kinds of] jobs.”
For Blacks who do make it into the tech industry just being there can be an isolating and frustrating experience. Justin Edmund, an early hire at Pintrest in Silicon Valley, wrote about this extensively on Medium.com. After the protests in Ferguson, Mo., following the death of Michael Brown, he took to the Internet to express his feelings. “In today’s America, I could walk to the store right now and be shot dead in my tracks because of a misunderstanding, or perhaps for no reason at all. There are people in the world that will never see past the color of my skin. Instead, they will shoot me dead for walking home from the corner store with Skittles and an Arizona iced tea. For many of you fortunate enough to read this blog post, you will never know how frightening that is.”
So what can we do? Like many answers to such a question, it depends. If you’re a parent there are plenty of organizations working to get Black kids into things like making web sites and computer programming. See box below.
For students in college who are either already in or thinking about engineering, one of the key degrees, besides computer science, for tech companies there are organizations that offer everything from help to refresher courses. One of those is the National Society of Black Engineers. Sossena Wood, chairperson of the NSBE, says the protests spawned by the killing of Michael Brown and Eric Garner are sparking protests on college campuses demanding more minorities be recruited. “If you push policy at schools and force them to recruit more African-American and poor minorities that will make a difference. Everything going on with Michael Brown is waking up my generation because students are realizing they have a voice,” she says. “It’s not necessarily speaking out about police brutality but about injustice at their institutions. Students can drive more change than they necessarily know.
For adults and mid-career people there are options such as recruiters. Cindy Gallup, who in addition to running makelovenotporn.com also recruits for tech start-ups among other types of companies. “The lack of diversity in tech won’t get addressed until it gets addressed in an emotional and direct way,” she says. “When I give talks I speak from the point of gender diversity but it applies to other forms of diversity. I say to the audience, ‘I want to talk to the men for a moment. Men: it’s very comfortable hiring people like you. Working with people like you. Starting companies with you. And hanging out with people like you. If you want to own the future, you have to get uncomfortable.’”
In the course of this investigation the AFRO reached out to some of the top tech companies in America including Google, Facebook, Yahoo!, LinkedIn, Microsoft and here in Baltimore NorthrupGruman. Beyond some of them providing us with a perfunctory statement on their efforts to improve diversity all of them declined to be interviewed about this important topic.
Thanks to the efforts of activists such as Jessie Jackson and the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, among others, many of these companies are at least making moves to rectify the situation. Intel, for example, just announced it was going to spend $300 million on hiring minority and female talent. But like all things, only time will tell if these are more than just empty gestures to divert the attention of people who are rightfully upset at these companies’ discriminatory hiring practices or lack of genuine attempts at reform.