Let's talk about what we can do to help underrepresented people and methodically reshape the technology sector so we’re more inclusive, diverse, and welcoming.
Access to technology has increased exponentially over the past decade. Devices and applications are ubiquitous, but just because we can all consume the technology doesn’t mean we know everything it took to make it a reality. Who’s all involved? How does an idea start the conversion into code development and then become a product? While asking these questions you may then become interested in making a tech idea a reality yourself, and ask ‘what do I need to start my technology journey and why is access to technology for the underrepresented a challenge?’ These are some of the questions we’re going to discuss as well as our thoughts, ideas, and perspective on how we can make a difference and make a way out of no way. To quote the late civil rights icon, John Lewis, make some ‘good trouble, necessary trouble,’ to solve this issue. The path to a career in technology is arduous if you’re in one of the underrepresented groups, but we can all help in various ways. It’s paramount that this is an industry-wide effort, dare we say even a paradigm shift. Let's talk about what we can do to help the underrepresented by giving exposure at impressionable ages, providing access to resources such as the internet and laptops, and methodically reshaping the technology sector so we’re more inclusive, diverse, and welcoming.
Black in tech
To illustrate this problem we can consider our own career histories. Jason started his career at a telecom company editing websites in Frontpage (for those old enough to remember that convoluted html editing software). He worked there for nearly two years with no hope for opportunity and was eventually laid off. After that he worked at a small software shop. This is when Jason came to the realization that there weren’t many people that looked like him nor had his background or perspective. However, due to the education system leading him to believe that this was the norm, he thought nothing of it. Jason tried to find ways to fit in, instead of standing out, by working 2 or 3 times harder while appeasing his counterparts because internally he hoped to be treated equally. However, that never came to fruition. They continually defaulted to their biases and prejudices. These challenges are what all underrepresented people face. After Jason’s third technology job and working with some talented engineers, he started to realize that these disparaging numbers couldn’t only be because he was a minority. There had to be something more that was missing and he was determined to figure out what it was, how he could help, and if there was a way in which we could build momentum and permanently alter the landscape of the technology sector.
Jason had an idea in his head and a heart filled with passion. This plan was unobtainable for him when first starting in his career, but five years in he wanted to come up with an idea, do something with it and hopefully make a difference. But what? Then he thought, ‘you work in IT and they’re always selling antiquated hardware to a reseller. What if we could donate them instead?’. Jason asked and to his surprise he got approval to take away some desktops and give them to his church. Church had been a sanctuary for fellowship and education in Jason’s community for generations, and so he contacted his pastor and told her about the idea. She thought it was great, so after work Jason packed the trunk of his car full of the donated desktops and headed to the church. He drove over, dropped them off, briefly talked to the pastor about how this would work and explained how technology could have a substantial economic impact on their community. No longer was there a cost barrier to entry like going to a college or university. He told her, ‘all you need is a computer, the internet, the right attitude, and the right aptitude’. However, Jason didn’t think through this plan at all. He provided the raw materials, but never thought about the next steps of exposure, mentoring and training for those interested in utilizing this donation.
Ways to change
Unfortunately these days there is still a sizable tech knowledge gap for groups that have been traditionally underrepresented in the field. Many reasons for this have been postulated (lack of pipeline, educational opportunities, and early exposure for youth are a few that come to mind).
It goes without saying that White men dominate college computer science departments. Companies looking to hire talent tap into this pipeline, thus skewing the numbers we see in the industry as a whole. One way to increase minority participation is through organizations such as Black Girls Code and Code.org. Giving minorities an early introduction to technology gives them exposure to the field that many possibly would not see. In a 60 Minutes news segment, Hadi Partovi, the founder of Code.org, stated that one way to close the gender gap in the tech industry would be to give girls access to technology at an early age before high school. There is a documented point in middle school where a girl's interest in STEM areas ‘drops off a cliff’. To combat this, he advocates early exposure in STEM areas (even as early as kindergarten). Code.org is also seeing a shift in their classroom demographics where 50% of students are girls, Blacks, Latinx or Native American. This shift in classroom demographics shows that with proper exposure, underrepresented groups can also grow and thrive in technology.
A college degree in a STEM field has traditionally been the gateway to a career in technology. As educational costs rise, this route has become a harder one for many to follow. However, this does not need to be a showstopper for anyone interested in pursuing a career in tech, as there are routes that do not necessarily involve a college degree in a STEM area. For example, bootcamps are a great avenue for many to level up their skills and move into the tech industry, and can be specifically marketed towards underrepresented groups, but unfortunately they can still be prohibitive due to the cost of them. Companies looking to increase their talent pipeline of underrepresented groups can help tremendously by offering scholarships and other financial assistance for those who are looking to pursue this route. In addition to bootcamps, companies can use internships and apprenticeships as ways to tap into overlooked talent pools.
Even before someone chooses their route into tech, they need hardware and internet access. As with the story in our intro, some companies and local education boards have the ability to provide partial/fully subsidized equipment and internet connectivity for those who need it, but some only provide the former. With schools, universities and offices closed, COVID-19 has highlighted the need for universal internet access. If we are going to ask our students to participate in remote/online learning, what good is it for them to be provided with a laptop if they do not have adequate access to the internet? Governments and those companies looking to build and diversify their talent pipelines should band together and make internet connectivity a basic utility for all. As we confront the new normal under COVID-19, these resources - the stepping stones for a career in tech - are desperately needed by those students who cannot afford the technology needed for remote/online learning.
If you are a hiring manager you may have come across these problems and identified the immediate impacts you can have on the tech industry. These impacts may include hiring, having a diverse candidate pipeline, writing gender-neutral job descriptions and giving underrepresented groups an opportunity. This is the ideal state. If that’s the case, we have a lot of work to do. Each time we open a job requisition we get flooded with what we expect: White males. That’s not to say they should be excluded from the pool of candidates, but we must keep in mind that they are not the only qualified candidates available. Hiring managers should be intentional with their recruiting and hiring by focusing on diversity. Aptitude and attitude should be weighted much higher when assessing a candidate. A baseline knowledge of computer science, systems, or experience is needed, but drafting a job description that someone can grow into is paramount. As we start including more people from underrepresented groups into the tech industry, we’ll begin to bend the demographics of our industry. The multiplier will be the inclusion of these people in influential positions. Getting a seat at the table is critical to dismantle the ‘bro culture’ stigma in technology and to hear everyone's voice. The change starts with us asking that question, ‘what can I do to make a change?’.