Black developers tell how the US tech industry could do better

Black developers have long been underrepresented in the US technology industry, but four share how that could change now that diversity is again top of mind.

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Help Scout / Tech by Choice / Twitter

As the sustained heat of the Black Lives Matter and racial justice protests that have raged across the country in the days following the May 2020 police killing of George Floyd dies down, the technology industry once again finds itself facing up to its diversity problem.

The number of computer science graduates—a big source of the software development community—from minority backgrounds remains stubbornly below 10 percent of total graduates in the US. Progressing in the industry also remains difficult, where attrition rates for Black employees remain high. A lack of senior sponsorship and effective role models, combined with ineffective hiring and retention incentive structures for managers, has seen Black talent wash out of the industry more often than rising to the highest levels.

As a result, the people writing software don’t come close to reflecting society, nor are the rewards for developers equally distributed.

To get a better picture of what it’s like to be an African-American developer today, InfoWorld spoke to four people about their differing routes into the industry, what they would like to see change and advice they would give to a younger version of themselves, tempted by a lucrative career in software development.

Nick Caldwell: Combatting isolation with lots of hard work

Nick Caldwell is the VP of engineering at Twitter, a role he started in June 2020. He previously held senior positions at Microsoft, Reddit, and Google after it acquired the business intelligence firm Looker, where he was the chief product and engineering officer.

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Nick Caldwell, VP of engineering at Twitter

After growing up in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Maryland, Caldwell graduated from MIT in 2003 with a degree in computer science and electrical engineering, with a specialty in the then-nascent field of machine learning. He turned that into a role at Microsoft, where he joined the speech and natural language group as an intern and later a software development engineer.

Caldwell developed an interest in computers from a young age, as his public defender father typed up his casework on a Tandy 1000 PC. He soon learned how to code in C++ and started to see coding and the early internet as his gateway to opportunity. “They say talent is evenly distributed but opportunity is not. I saw coding and the early internet as a great equalizer,” he tells InfoWorld.

Then came the hard part: getting through the undergrad computer science program at MIT. “The biggest challenge, as an African-American person, was isolation,” he says. “The sheer difficulty of the work, not having people I could talk to, and fear of falling behind. I got into the mindset that its was a personal challenge to power through it all by myself. Nothing has been as difficult for me since going to MIT for undergrad.”

Going from MIT to Seattle gave Caldwell a soft enough landing in the corporate world that he ended up staying there for 15 years. ”I stayed in the same team at Microsoft for longer than I should have. I was afraid to take risks on new opportunities because of how far I’d climbed the ladder. I was making good money, had stability, and didn’t want to screw it up,” he says.

So knowing what he does now, what advice would he give to a younger version of himself? “It took me a long time to realize that my skills and ability was all the safety net I needed,” he says.

Beyond that mindset change, Caldwell has grown to appreciate developing knowledge of the business he is working for beyond the code base, and to value his network as highly if not higher than his formal engineering skills. “The code you create as an engineer is a depreciating asset, but your network is an appreciating asset,” he says.

Speaking about the developer community more broadly, Caldwell believes the industry is “open and inclusive in the way anyone can submit a pull request to GitHub, but there is another level around it being welcoming of diverse perspectives and inclusive in a way that attracts more diverse talent.”

Getting better representation in tech is something Caldwell admits is a complicated problem, but one that could be improved upon with some relatively simple steps.

First is “embracing new funnels of talent” for entry-level positions beyond just candidates with a traditional four-year college degree. Those candidates must then be supported with mentorship, sponsorship, and apprenticeship programs to avoid churning out. “We see a lot of people dropping out of the industry, so you need to give a feeling of community and safety. If a company doesn’t have enough to do that themselves, they should fund those people to do that externally through groups like /dev/color,” he adds, an organization on whose board he sits.

Second, “tie goals related to diversity and inclusion to executive leadership’s incentives and you will see change immediately.”

In terms of his personal responsibility, Caldwell now finds himself in a position where he can help younger people get into the technology industry. “Historically there has been a frustrating stigma associated with investing in diversity and inclusion efforts. Recent events have pulled in more people who were hesitant or afraid to help,” he says. “Now is the time to act as a mentor, or even better a sponsor, for the underrepresented in tech.”

Third, be visible. Another useful program for pulling Caldwell out of his own comfort zone has been the “accountability squads” at /dev/color, where people share goals and then hold each other accountable regularly. “This helped me blog more, speak at events and network with venture capital groups, all things I had put off in the past,” he says.

Caldwell says that taking on these more public-facing activities can be difficult for Black people in tech, which brings additional—and unwarranted—layers of scrutiny. “If you are successful as an underrepresented person, you will be accused of being token anyway. It’s not enough to be excellent, you have to be phenomenal,” he says. “That makes it harder to ask for help and build a network of supporters. I have only recently overcome those fears.”

Anjuan Simmons: Why sharing your privilege matters

Anjuan Simmons is an engineering coach at Help Scout and the author of Minority Tech. Born and raised in Texas, he formally learned how to code at the University of Texas at Austin and later at Texas A&M University, but his love for engineering was born out of an interest in something far more universal for self-professed nerds everywhere: Star Trek.

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Anjuan Simmons, engineering coach at Help Scout

“Picard was always my favorite captain, and the engineer was Geordi La Forge, a Black man. Being that young and that much of a sci-fi nerd gave me a vision of what you can be in engineering,” he tells InfoWorld.

Simmons was also fortunate enough to benefit from a high school program that looked to get more Black people to see themselves as engineers, not something that all kids can claim. “That made it feel within reach to me as a student,” he says.

With an electrical engineering degree under his belt, Simmons landed a job in 1997 within the technology practice at the consultancy Accenture in Houston, where one of the partners was a Black man. “He had done good work diversifying the talent pool,” Simmons says, “that allowed me to see myself at work.”

However, when he hit the road, Simmons often found himself as the lone Black person on a team, and he was regularly overlooked as a team lead by clients. He gives an example of a typical experience he had:

I would be the team lead, and my team and I would be holed up in a conference room at the client site. A member of the client executive team would walk into the conference room and assume that one of the white members of my team was the team lead. That team member would point to me and let that person know that the questions they were asking had to be answered by me.
These are not overt racist actions but part of a systematic structure where there are not a lot of Black people being represented as leaders in the industry.

The importance of those role models for people in technology from minority backgrounds cannot be underplayed, and they often become important sources of sponsorship and mentorship. “I had experiences being sponsored during my career,” Simmons says. “One of my first projects was led by a white man, and we had to deploy software to hub sites in Lagos, Hannover, Dubai, and Cairo. He picked me to be his tech lead—that was someone who lent me some of his privilege to do that.”

Simmons notes that networks and routes into tech have opened up for people of color, and he finds Twitter a particularly useful personal resource. “I see more Black people in the tech industry. And Twitter is a great way to find people that look like me; I find more people there than in my everyday life,” he says, “but there is still a lack of representation at the senior level.”

While Simmons believes tech truly wants to be open and inclusive, people in the industry “often have trouble seeing the ways it is not. Most people don’t have a great view of what the experiences of a Black person is and the ways the developer community is set up.”

While increased conversation around diversity and inclusion are good steps, Simmons and many of his peers see more of a need for tangible action by companies to address the issue. In his 2017 talk “Lending Privilege,” Simmons explains: “Diversity can be a numbers game, but inclusion requires empathy. Corporations aren’t designed to be inclusive, they exist to deliver value to shareholders. … HR departments aren’t going to help make our industry more inclusive.”

“I wrote ‘Lending Privilege’ to be something they can do,” he says. These steps include clearly defining diversity at your organization, expanding hiring pools, and white team leads lending their privilege where possible.

What advice would Simmons give to a younger version of himself? “Act like you are a startup of one,” he says. “You have to build your expertise. You have to do marketing and you have to understand personal branding. You have to look for investors, those are the mentors and sponsors.”

Valerie Phoenix: Taking the self-taught route

Valerie Phoenix is a senior software engineer at logistics software startup Mastery Logistics Systems and also the founder of Tech by Choice, an organization aimed at increasing diversity in the science, tech, engineering, and math industries by offering low- to no-cost skill-building events and virtual gatherings.

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Valerie Phoenix, senior software engineer at Mastery Logistics Systems and founder of Tech by Choice

Born and raised in California, Phoenix studied psychology and art at California State University at Northridge, where she supported herself with a job at a small Los Angeles-based startup Estify, doing data entry and customer support.

It was there that she took a keen interest in the engineering side of the business, seeing a big career opportunity in software development, so she started to learn how to code in HTML and CSS on her own time.

As she honed her front-end development skills, Phoenix built a website for a mural reveal she was working on as part of her art class. This caught the attention of a professor at the college’s MetaLab programme, which specializes in developing mobile web applications for the university and some external clients. “MetaLab was a great support system, and even after I landed jobs they would help me with my resumé and I would always share my wins with them,” Phoenix tells InfoWorld.

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