My father was IBM’s first black software engineer.
September 22, 2019 7:23 AM   Subscribe

First black software engineer The racism he fought persists in the high-tech world today
posted by robbyrobs (8 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
I just started a new tech job and realized after a few days that the site is 100% white and 90% male. It's a small office but people work from home most days so it took most of the week before I met everyone in person. I mean I do live in what is by some measures, the whitest city in the country but even for us, the situation feels weird.
posted by octothorpe at 9:01 AM on September 22, 2019 [4 favorites]

The company I work for is substantially more diverse than a lot of other tech companies, due to a decade-long effort, and yet there's still only one black person in our office of ~150 people. It's pretty fucked up.
posted by tobascodagama at 9:36 AM on September 22, 2019 [2 favorites]

Good piece, but I don't like the false dichotomy of "Recent studies conclude this is not a 'pipeline' problem — qualified candidates can be found." It's both. The same racism that keeps qualified candidates from being selected for these positions keeps many of them from getting to the point where they could be considered in the first place. This is not to in any way absolve hiring managers of their responsibility to foster a more diverse workplace -- that still needs to happen -- but if all of the black and latinx candidates applying for tech jobs were hired tomorrow, we'd still be depriving many future ones of their opportunity because of racially unequal education policy that prevents them from reaching their potential.
posted by tonycpsu at 12:05 PM on September 22, 2019 [6 favorites]

In my 30+ years working in Technology, I have worked with so many White, Indian and Chinese people that I cannot possibly remember them all. However, I can still remember each one of the Black people I worked with, because there were so very few of them!

Tech companies haven't moved more than a millimeter towards hiring more Black engineers in the past few decades. Even today many Tech companies recruit at lily white institutions like Brigham Young University, but very few recruit at HBCUs.
posted by monotreme at 12:08 PM on September 22, 2019 [7 favorites]

we'd still be depriving many future ones of their opportunity because of racially unequal education policy that prevents them from reaching their potential.

I think when people say "it's not a pipeline problem" in this context, they aren't intending to say that the pipeline is totally fine. It's a response to an earlier wave of people who kept insisting it was the pipeline that was THE problem, the single problem, the thing that definitely they couldn't change, or maybe they could only fix if you gave a bunch of white guys a bunch of money to found alternative education programs that... still didn't do great for anybody from a marginalized background, mostly. It's not that the educational system isn't a problem, it's that the people blaming the educational system are almost always trying to insist that they're already doing as well as they can.

It might not be full proportional representation if all the hiring problems went away tomorrow, and that would be the pipeline problem. But saying "it's a pipeline problem" has been a way to dismiss that qualified people from these groups are already out there, un- or underemployed. URMs have gotten told that if we exist, we can basically write our own tickets, and it is so not true. It's not "a pipeline problem", it's a whole-system problem, and nobody at any step of that system gets to tell themselves it's somebody else's problem to fix.
posted by Sequence at 12:44 PM on September 22, 2019 [11 favorites]

Also! Tech workplaces are shitty for black people well past hiring. They're shitty at good work assignments and granting responsibility, shitty at suppressing implicit bias in evaluation and promotion, shitty in dealing with microaggressions and worse. The shitty never quits. [And this is not a complete list.]

Rule: nobody can say "pipeline" unless they have their own house in order. I mean at least recognize your own problems and take action.
posted by away for regrooving at 2:39 PM on September 22, 2019 [8 favorites]

Oh let me trace my pipeline in reverse chronological order! Spoiler: it's shitty all the way back.

I don't know a single black person in my job function.

None of the three(!) black colleagues I have worked with are descendants of American slaves. One used to be in my job function but changed to a program management position, reasons unclear. (People should have the right to change job functions whenever they deem it appropriate to their personal goals, but there's also a significant drift of underrepresented minorities -- this time including Asian and white women -- into technical program management, program management, and management.)

The one black woman in my CS program got her masters and then moved back to Mississippi(?), and there were no black men. I don't even recall TAing any black men. (similarly, the one fat white woman from a less well-off background did the same, to Wisconsin)

There were two Asian kids in my honors classes, plus one black kid, who was literally a prince from Ghana. My (good public suburban) high school was built exactly small enough so that it did not have to participate in programs that would have bused in kids from the nearby city.

Before my parents bought a house into that good public suburban school system, there were plenty of black kids in my classes, but I don't think people from those schools aspired to Big Tech as even within the realm of possibility (i.e. they did not send people to schools where big tech recruits).
posted by batter_my_heart at 1:14 AM on September 23, 2019

My company has had good success battling the pipeline/diversity problem by making use of headhunters. They are highly incentivized to deliver, and if you say X% of the candidates must be of the demographic you are looking for (or construct the formula however you wish), it is amazing the lengths they will go to to deliver.

In our case, we were focusing on gender, so after the first candidate they provided (almost invariably male), we simply would not accept another male candidate until a female candidate had been provided. Because you can go with many recruiting agencies at once, this is not as limiting a strategy as it might seem.
posted by SNACKeR at 5:07 AM on September 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

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