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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This was a welcome change from her role at Estify, where she encountered resistance to her transition into engineering. “I was one of the few women and the only Black person who worked there, so I think that added to their displeasure or distrust of my ability,” she says. “I had to deal with the engineering lead, who didn’t really like to see my transition into those roles, so I was given tasks way out of scope and didn’t have a lot of help because of that.”

Undeterred, Phoenix continued to sharpen her skills. “My only option to stay in these positions was to learn and to learn quickly,” she says. The MetaLab and various online communities proved valuable in the absence of a professional support network for Phoenix, specifically the CodeNewbie podcast and Slack group in the early days.

“That is where I learned the vocabulary,” she says. “Through that I found out about Meetup and discovered local communities. Now I have noticed more people who come from diverse backgrounds who are looking to connect, so I am seeing more groups pop up to support that.”

The next step for Phoenix was the scariest: landing a bona fide engineering role. Her mentors at the MetaLab proved invaluable here, helping her to hone her résumé and prepare for technical interviews. She soon found herself in a junior developer at Zenith Insurance, where she was not only the youngest person on the team but also the only Black woman. There she learned the value of process and project management skills, before returning to the startup world with Mastery in 2019.

What would she tell a younger version of herself, knowing what she does now? “I wish I knew I didn’t have to learn all languages and frameworks and should focus on one and master that before moving on,” she says. “Knowing when to leave a company is also important to understand. When a company gives you tasks that don’t make you ready for the market or outdate your skills and you get stuck, that is when it’s time to look elsewhere.”

Speaking more broadly, Phoenix doesn’t see the software developer community as a particularly open and inclusive place. “I want to say we are trending in the right direction and it is nice to see corporates recognize a problem and speaking out, and it is nice to amplify Black voices but if you aren’t paying them properly and establishing proper policies, all of the support and donations mean nothing. It’s performative allyship; that is not really helpful,” she says. Instead, she would like to see management incentives aligned with hiring and retaining more diverse talent into organizations.

Mentorship also plays an important role—specifically people who are willing to give up their time to push underrepresented groups “to make the next steps in your career, write that first book or speak at a conference, and get paid for it,” Phoenix says. Only then “will retention rates go up for diverse candidates.”

Then there is her work at Tech by Choice, which aims to open up avenues into technology for people who may not have the network or the means to break into the industry. “Being a self-taught developer was hard, and I relied on community support to do that. But even those communities were not that accessible to me,” she says. “Some courses cost $100, so I had to decide whether to pay my phone bill that month or take the course.”

Tech by Choice offers events and online courses that cost as little as $5 and is “focused on getting people in but also leveling people up from entry level to the board and C-level who make these decisions and write policies that will actually make tech diverse,” Phoenix says.

What is the next step for Phoenix personally? “Management. I haven’t cracked that code yet,” she says.

‘Eric’: Don’t set yourself up for disappointment

Eric (a pseudonym because the developer wanted to remain anonymous) moved to the US at a young age. After graduating with a degree in computer science and mathematics from a top university, he has worked as a software engineer for several startups and more established firms in the financial services industry.

eric anonymous black developer Metamorworks / Getty Images

“Eric,” a Black software engineer who wishes to remain anonymous

A prodigious programmer, Eric says he relied on his coding chops to excel in college, where he “doesn’t remember any other Black people in the program through my four years. … I felt comfortable in the computer science program, and the benefit of not having to spend time worrying about my computer science coursework meant I could spend more time in other liberal arts programs, which were much more diverse.”

Eric says small groups did form, mainly around certain teaching assistants and gaming circles, which he admits can be difficult for minorities to access. “They tend to not be the most socially inclusive people,” he says. “This was an era where those [exclusionary] behaviors were more normalized. I didn’t find the culture inclusive, but I worked through it. I’m not the kind of person that looks for belonging, so I focused on competence.”

Since leaving college, Eric was able to get an associate developer role within a department he admits wasn’t “the most glamorous.” But he was soon able to progress toward more exotic, exciting technologies and opportunities.

He admits to feeling underestimated throughout his career, but he has managed to turn that to his advantage. “Starting as an associate software engineer, the expectations are very low and of me were particularly low—I was put into a program with nonprofessional coders with the expectation that I wouldn’t know anything,” he says. “I felt underestimated, but I wasn’t looking for validation.”

Mentorship is something Eric has valued throughout his career, but he sees its limitations when it comes to the important decisions regarding promotions and pay. “I had a lot of mentorship early on, and your peers and direct managers tend have a better sense of your potential,” he says, “I was able to attract good mentors based on what I produced and on my personality. Despite that, systemically speaking, the barriers were pretty significant. Having one person or team on your side is different to a committee making promotion and pay decisions.”

When it comes to the broader software engineering community, Eric thinks there have been important steps taken in recent years around the language of diversity and inclusion, but that behaviors around promotion and pay haven’t budged. “They are seemingly trying but many of the problems are systemic and psychological. Yes, the language has improved, which is important, but I don’t think the behaviors and the numbers have changed all that much,” he says.

In terms of actually changing those behaviors, Eric sees a need for the incentives around corporate diversity and inclusion to be realigned. “You have to reward managers for having inclusive and diverse teams, for example,” he says. “At the very least you have to audit your pay and promotion process to ensure that there are no systemic inequalities.”

What advice would Eric have for a younger version of himself starting out now? “I would say don’t go by what people say they value or the marketing; come in with an open mind. What is important is behavior and recognizing if that doesn’t align with what they are saying. Don’t set yourself up for disappointment,” he says.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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