Black developers tell how the UK tech industry could do better

InfoWorld UK speaks to two Black British software developers about their experience in the industry and how it could do better on diversity and inclusion.

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As the Black Lives Matter protests and subsequent racial justice movement continue to shine a spotlight on the lack of diversity and inclusion in all corners of society, just how representative is the small but influential software developer community?

There is a distinct lack of statistics at the engineer level of the industry, but the broader picture is shocking, even by the tech industry’s low standards.

In London, the UK’s biggest tech hub, only three percent of technology workers identify as Black, according to data compiled by recruitment firm Hired for its UK Tech Workplace Equality Report. London’s overall population is 13 percent Black/African/Caribbean British, according to the latest census data.

In the startup community, where many software developers get their start, it is a similar story. Atomico’s 2019 State of D&I in Europe report showed 84 percent of all European founders identified as White/Caucasian and less than one percent self-identified as Black/African/Caribbean.

Furthermore, 80 percent of all respondents said they had experienced a form of discrimination in the past 12 months while working in the European tech industry and those who self-identified as Black/African/Caribbean reported they had experienced discrimination on the basis of their ethnicity.

The underlying issues are deep rooted and will take time and effort to change, from biased and insider-y hiring practices, to lack of access to STEM skills, but the excuses for a lack of Black representation at UK technology companies are starting to wear thin.

To get a better picture of what it’s like to be a Black developer in the UK today, InfoWorld UK spoke to two Black British developers about their routes into the industry, what they would like to see change and any advice they would give to a younger version of themselves, tempted by a lucrative career in software development.

Efua Akumanyi: Higher expectations make the career path trickier

Efua Akumanyi arrived in the UK at the age of two when her parents emigrated from Ghana. Today, she is the head of technology at the London-based startup Furnishful and an experienced IT consultant. Having graduated from the University of Sussex in 2001 with a degree in computer science and AI, she spent ten years at the medical technology startup InferMed, and has since contracted for famous brands like Network Rail, House of Fraser and St John Ambulance.

There were very few women and just one other Black person on her course at university, which “wasn’t something I necessarily noticed at the time—as I was just interested in building things and computers—but was soon made aware of by the women I was hanging out with,” she says.

Akumanyi believes that there are higher expectations of Black women in developer circles, adding an extra layer of pressure to an already tricky career path. “As a Black person, you need to check all those boxes, so that there is no question that you are qualified,” she says. “A degree is not a guarantee you are qualified, as you haven’t put any code into production.”

This led her to refrain from putting her hand up in meetings for years. “I was painfully shy and when I became a contractor I knew I had to push myself. I was so uncomfortable in those environments, but you just have to keep on going,” she says.

Once she found her feet at InferMed, where the head of technology was a woman, Akumanyi started to see a path for herself. “I thought this was what tech was and women could ascend to positions like that easily, so I stayed there for ten years.”

It was only when she started contracting for more traditional enterprises that she realised that this was not the usual experience for a Black software developer. “I am still often the only Black person in many rooms,” she said.

Then, once Akumanyi joined the group Coding Black Females, she started to develop a network of peers that weren’t predominantly white men.

Today, she is seeing more people that look like her in developer roles, but also would like to see better Black representation at the more senior levels. “I feel like it has been an uphill battle to get to where I am and feel comfortable as a tech lead and a consultant,” she says. “I couldn’t look easily to those positions and see a road map.”

Mentorship wasn’t forthcoming for a younger Akumanyi, but she now sees how valuable that can be for younger developers entering an industry where few senior people look like them.

Finally, what would Akumanyi tell a younger version of herself?

Firstly, “I would have liked to have known that once you are comfortable with code, look at the company as a whole. You don’t develop for life, I hear of people who hit their forties and they don’t want to become managerial, but maybe should consider getting good breadth of experience.”

Secondly, “it is all about networking, I wish people had told me about that before.”

Ola J Otaiku: Active pathways and networking are key to career development

Londoner Ola Otaiku has had a passion for technology and engineering since he was a child, breaking down computers at home before embarking on a computer science degree at the University of Hull, in the north of England.

It was there he discovered the importance of building communities of people from similar backgrounds to help navigate university and professional life. This led to his founding the group Xuntos while in Hull and later helping to establish the group UKBlackTech as a founding member in 2017.

Both of these groups aim to break down stereotypes and barriers for Black developers entering the tech industry. For example, through partnerships with universities and corporations like Bloomberg and PwC, UKBlackTech has been able to create better pathways into the tech industry for young Black people. “Representation is very important,” Otaiku says, “imagine walking into a room and no one is like you, it can feel like you can’t get into that room.”

The latest research of its kind, by the Council of Professors and Heads of Computing (CPHC) from 2013, found more Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) students studying computer science than other science or engineering subjects. However, those graduates from the top ‘Russel Group’ universities had a 17 percent unemployment rate, far above the average rate for other graduates, at seven percent.

Otaiku managed to break through, getting an internship at the broadcaster Sky in 2017 and turning that into a software developer job the following year. “A lot of students beat themselves up for not having the skills, but they need the opportunity,” he says. “I think you have to believe in yourself and your ability and let your character and the excellence of your skills speak for you. I have been the only Black person in the room and not let that affect me and my ability to showcase myself as best as possible.”

His tips for doing just that are to “network horizontally,” outside of your existing networks and to showcase your work as much as possible, be that through social media, a blog or in the open source community.

“The industry is becoming more diverse but there is a lot more work to be done,” he says, “you see the same faces at events and, looking at the statistics, it doesn’t match up. We need more accurate reporting and companies need to promote and sustain promotion of developers from underrepresented groups.” Sadly, accurate data on BAME representation at the individual company level is hard to come by in the UK, especially when you drill down to the software developer job role.

Routes to achieving this aren’t rocket science, such as better unconscious bias training and a concerted effort to hire with objectivity. “The industry should continue to create more opportunities for marginalised groups with passion and not just to fit diversity quotas, with sustained plans for long term support and career growth,” he advises.

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