Thoughts on Diversity in Tech

On April 28, I participated in a panel and Q & A on the intersection of race & technology.  My 2 co-panelists and I each had 15 minutes for a monologue regarding our personal experiences with how race and the tech industry intersect.  This post will excerpt my prepared remarks.

Excerpt of Prepared Remarks

How did I end up writing software for a living anyway?  I blame LEGOs, science fiction, and video games.  While I’ve never actually worked in the gaming industry, I’ve built software solutions for many others—newspapers, radio, e-commerce, government, healthcare, and finance. Tech industry salaries, stocks, and stock options have given me a lifestyle that could accurately be called  upper middle-class, including home ownership and annual domestic and international travel for work and pleasure (at least before the pandemic).
For all the financial rewards the industry has had to offer though, “writing software while black” has meant being comfortable with being the only one (or one of two) for the majority of my career–going all the way to my initial entry to the field.  As an undergraduate computer science (CS) major at the University of Maryland in the early to mid-nineties, I was on a first-name basis with all the other black CS majors in the department because there were never more than 10-12 of us in the entire department during my 4 1/2 years there–on a campus with tens of thousands of students.  In that time, I only ever knew of one black graduate student in CS.  My instructor in discrete structures at the time was Hispanic.  Even at a school as large as the University of Maryland, when I graduated in the winter of 1996, I was the only black graduate from the computer science department.
Unlike law, medicine, engineering, or  architecture, computer science is still a young enough field that the organizations which have grown up around it to support and affirm practitioners of color are much younger.  The National Society of Black Engineers for example, was formed in 1975.  The Information Technology Senior Management Forum (ITSMF), an organization with the goal of increasing black representation at senior levels in tech management, was formed in 1996.  The oldest founding year I could find for any of the existing tech organizations specifically supporting black coders (Black Girls Code) was 2011.  I’d already been a tech industry professional for 15 years at that point, and in every organization I’d worked for up to that point, I was either the only black software engineer on staff, or 1 of 2.  It would be another 2 years before I would join a company where there was more than one other black person on-staff in a software development role.
I’ve had project and/or people leadership responsibilities for 8-9 years of my over 20 years in tech.  As challenging as succeeding as an under-represented minority in tech has been, adding leadership responsibilities increased the scope of the challenge even more.  As rarely as I saw other black coders, black team leads were even scarcer until I joined my current company in 2017.  It basically took my entire career to find, but it is the only place I’ve ever worked where being black in tech is normal.  We regularly recruit from HBCUs.  We hire and promote black professionals in technical, analytical, managerial, and executive roles in tech.  There are multiple black women and women at the VP level here.  The diversity even extends to the board of directors–four of its members are black men, including the CEO of F5 Networks.
Perhaps most importantly–and contrary to the sorts of things we hear too often from people like James Damore and others about diversity requiring lower standards–this diverse workforce has helped build and maintain a high performance culture.  This publicly-traded company is regularly in the top 25 of Fortune Magazine’s annual best places to work rankings.  But this year–even in the midst of the pandemic–it jumped into the top 10 for the first time.
The company uses its size to the benefit of under-represented minorities in tech with business resource groups.  Two of the BRGs I belong to have provided numerous opportunities to network with other black associates, to recruit and be recruited for growth opportunities in other lines of business.  As a result, it’s the only company I’ve worked for in my entire career where I’ve had the ability to recruit black engineers to join my team.  These groups have even provided a safe space to vent and grieve regarding the deaths of unarmed black men and women at the hands of police officers.  When we learned that Ahmaud Arbery had been murdered, I had black coworkers I could talk about it with–all the up to the VP level down to the individual contributor level.  We were able to talk about George Floyd’s murder at the time, and in the aftermath of Derek Chauvin’s trial.  As long as these deaths have been happening, this is the only employer I’ve ever worked for where I know there is a like-minded community where I can talk through such issues with–as well as sympathetic allies.
Not only has this company put millions of dollars into organizations like the Equal Justice Initiative, they set up a virtual event for EJI’s founder, Bryan Stevenson,  to speak to us and field our questions.  Ijeoma Oluo and Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr have participated in Capital One events as well.  Capital One is just one of just three Palladium Partners with ITSMF.  I recently completed a program they created for us called the Leaders of Color Workshop for the purpose of helping black managers advance within the organization.
All the good things I’ve shared doesn’t mean it’s a perfect employer (as if such a thing existed).  I found it necessary to transfer to a different department and line of business in order to find a manager interested in helping me advance my career.  Talking to my classmates in the most recent workshop revealed quite a few stories of far more negative experiences than mine from people who have been part of company much longer than I have.   They’ve had at least a couple of instances of viral Medium posts from former employees whose experiences were far more negative than mine.  But at least in my experience, it’s been and continues to be a great place to be black in tech.
Because the majority of our workforce is women, and nearly 1/3rd of the staff comes from minority groups that are under-represented in tech, the company has done a pretty good job of avoiding the sort of missteps that can put you in the news for wrong reasons.  Seemingly just in time for the discussion we’re about to have, the founders of Basecamp (the very opinionated makers of the product of the same name and the HEY email client among other products) are taking their turns as the proverbial fish in a barrel due to their decision to follow the example of Coinbase in disallowing discussions of politics and social causes at work.  So it was very interesting to read the open letter published to them by Jane Yang, one of their employees currently on medical leave.  She writes in some detail about the founders’ decision to exclude hate speech and harassment from the initial use restrictions policy for their products.  Read Jason Fried’s initial post and David Hanson’s follow-up for fuller context.
Basecamp is a small example (just 60 employees), Coinbase a slightly larger one (1200+ employees), but they are good proxies both for many companies I’ve worked for and companies orders of magnitude larger like Facebook, Amazon, and Google who have recently been in the news for discriminatory treatment of underrepresented minorities in their workforce.  Their failures, and those of the tech industry at large to seriously address the lack of diversity in their recruiting and hiring practices has resulted and will continue to result in the creation of products that not only fail to adequately serve under-represented minorities, but actively cause harm.  In the same way monoculture in farming creates genetically uniform crops that are less-resistant to disease and pests, monoculture in corporate environments leads to group think, to more uniform, less-innovative products with a higher risk of automating and perpetuating existing biases.
I recently watched Coded Bias, a documentary available on Netflix (and PBS) that highlighted the failings of existing facial recognition technology and the dangers it poses–to people of color in particular (because it tends to be far more inaccurate with darker-skinned people) but to people in general.  Were it not for the work of Joy Buolamwini, a black woman research assistant in computer science at MIT, we might not have learned about these flaws until much later–if at all.  These dangers extend beyond facial recognition technology to the application of algorithms and machine learning to everything from sentencing and parole determinations, hiring and firing decisions, to mortgage, loan, and other credit decisions.  Particularly as a bank employee, I’m much more conscious of the impact that my work and that of my team could potentially have on the lives of black and brown bank customers.  Even though it’s outside the scope of my current team’s usual work, I’ve begun making efforts to learn more about the ML and artificial intelligence spaces, and to raise concerns with my senior leadership whenever our use of ML and AI is a topic of discussion.  Despite all the challenges we face being in tech as under-represented minorities, or women, or both, it is vital that more of us get in and stay in tech–and continue to raise the concerns that would otherwise be ignored by today’s tech leaders.  Current and future tech products are quite likely to be worse if we don’t.

Does Diversity & Inclusion Disadvantage Poor Whites?

I came across a Twitter thread today (it begins here) which argued that diversity & inclusion is “systematically marginalizing disadvantaged people from majority groups”.  Having read the full argument and thought about it, the assertion has a number of problems in my view.  The argument suffers from a fundamental error of attribution.  If any member of the majority is disadvantaged, it is in economic status—and capitalism is the primary culprit there.  The diversity part of D & I only began in the 1970s and 1980s, adding barriers to inclusion as a focus in the 1990s.  Capitalism by contrast has a head start of approximately 300 years.

Capitalism has always exploited the economically-disadvantaged.  Ethnicity is a variable often used to determine which of the poor to exploit first.  This doesn’t mean that white people could not be disadvantaged—some of them certainly are.  We should be clear that whiteness did not always include Eastern Europeans, Italians, Scots-Irish people, etc—they faced real limits in what kind of work they could do, where they could live, etc for many years until whiteness expanded to include them.

That said, Thomas Chatterton Williams (among many others) has already noted that historically, economic alliances between the poor that span ethnicities have been purposely attacked and broken by those who serve the interests of capital.  If you’ve read about The Great Migration (black people fleeing north to escape domestic terrorism from the KKK and others between 1915 and 1970), black migrants arriving in the north often faced discrimination and violence from newly-arrived immigrants not yet even fully-included in whiteness.

Beyond the attribution error, the argument fails on a second but related front—the assertion that a single ideology built around D & I is marginalizing poor whites.  At least one other ideology exists regarding D & I—an ideology built to oppose D & I.  This ideology scapegoats some immigrants for blame when it comes to the economic disadvantage suffered by certain members of the majority—even as the capitalists it supports continue to exploit cheaper, non-white labor for increasing profit.  Perhaps even more insidiously, it selects certain other immigrants as proof that capitalism is somehow meritocratic and just when quite often it is not.

To extend the analysis to higher education, the argument against D & I weakens even further by skipping over the gigantic inflation of tuition prices, the continuing existence of legacy admissions (which predominantly favor the majority group, and the wealthiest members of that group), and the role that gifts to schools from wealthy donors have in admission of their children, you should question it.  Selective (if not dishonest) arguments like this are why my alma mater (which still uses legacy admissions) was ordered by a court ruling to open its Benjamin Banneker scholarship to non-black students. It’s how Abigail Fisher received a ruling 7-1 in her favor from the Supreme Court on the basis of the 14th Amendment—one of 3 passed during Reconstruction to recognize and protect the citizenship of newly-freed slaves.

I will extend my observations further, into K-12 education.  The author of the Twitter thread touched not at all on residential segregation—or the funding formulas primarily dependent on property taxes—which have the effect of reinforcing and perpetuating inequitable access to quality teachers and facilities.      I’ve read any number of news stories and watched a documentary about wealthier, whiter school districts breaking away from poorer and more diverse ones. This cannot help but impact what every incoming freshman class at colleges and universities nationwide looks like.  This doesn’t mean that there aren’t white people suffering from poverty as well. But a combination of deliberate government action, followed by neglect, combined with white flight does mean the impact of poverty is disproportionately felt by black and brown people.  Zoning decisions as well (for example) tend to result in facilities with negative health impacts being situated near neighborhoods that are predominantly populated by black and brown people.

The reality of residential segregation prompts me to touch on a particular pair of tweets in this thread that stood out for me:

“Another thing that bothers me about these movements is their condescending behaviors.  Yesterday, a proponent told me I was tone policing persons of color.  I wasn’t.  I was tone policing an ideology.”

“Whether you believe it or not, this ideology argues that it is totally reasonable to suggest that, systematically, a woman or POC understands *the* majority viewpoint, but members of the majority cannot understand members of minority group.”

As a black man who has navigated majority white schools and corporate environments successfully enough to begin making a six figure salary around the time I turned 33, having at least some understanding of the majority viewpoint in those particular context was necessary to achieve some level of success.  I’ve watched enough white flight in real time—even in an allegedly liberal place like Montgomery County, Maryland—over the decades I’ve lived here to be relatively sure that a majority that doesn’t even want to be my neighbor probably isn’t terribly interested in understanding me either.   

Whatever you think of D & I efforts in either the academic or corporate spheres (and as an aside I don’t personally believe that representation can or should match nationwide demographics in every field), the argument made in the thread suggests that D & I is somehow more powerful than capitalism—an assertion which beggars belief (to put it mildly).

Thoughts on the Damore Manifesto

I’ve shared a few articles on Facebook regarding the now infamous “manifesto” (available in full here) written by James Damore.  But I’m (finally) writing my own response to it because being black makes me part of a group even more poorly represented in computer science (to say nothing of other STEM fields) than women (though black women are even less represented in STEM fields).

One of my many disagreements with Damore’s work (beyond its muddled and poorly written argument) is how heavily it leans on citations of very old studies. Even if such old studies were relevant today, more current and relevant data debunks the citations Damore uses. To cite just two examples:

Per these statistics, women are not underrepresented at the undergraduate level in these technical fields and only slightly underrepresented once they enter the workforce.  So how is it that we get to the point where women are so significantly underrepresented in tech?  Multiple recent studies suggest that factors such as isolation, hostile male-dominated work environments, ineffective executive feedback, and a lack of effective sponsors lead women to leave science, engineering and technology fields at double the rate of their male counterparts.  So despite Damore’s protestations, women are earning entry-level STEM degrees at roughly the same rate as men and are pushed out.

Particularly in the case of computing, the idea that women are somehow biologically less-suited for software development as a field is proven laughably false by simply looking at the history of computing as a field.  Before computers were electro-mechanical machines, they were actually human beings–often women. The movie Hidden Figures dramatized the role of black women in the early successes of the manned space program, but many women were key to advances in computing both before and after that time.  Women authored foundational work in computerized algebra, wrote the first compiler, were key to the creation of Smalltalk (the first object-oriented programming language), helped pioneer information retrieval and natural language process, and much more.

My second major issue with the paper is its intellectual dishonesty.  The Business Insider piece I linked earlier covers the logical fallacy at the core of Damore’s argument very well.  This brilliant piece by Dr. Cynthia Lee (computer science lecturer at Stanford) does it even better and finally touches directly on the topic I’m headed to next: race.  Dr. Lee notes quite insightfully that Damore’s citations on biological differences don’t extend to summarizing race and IQ studies as an explanation for the lack of black software engineers (either at Google or industry-wide).  I think this was a conscious omission that enabled at least some in the press who you might expect to know better (David Brooks being one prominent example) to defend this memo to the point of saying the CEO should resign.

It is also notable that though Damore claims to “value diversity and inclusion”, he objects to every means that Google has in place to foster them.  His objections to programs that are race or gender-specific struck a particular nerve with me as a University of Maryland graduate who was attending the school when the federal courts ruled the Benjamin Banneker Scholarship could no longer be exclusively for black students.  The University of Maryland had a long history of discrimination against blacks students (including Thurgood Marshall, most famously).  The courts ruled this way despite the specific history of the school (which kept blacks out of the law school until 1935 and the rest of the university until 1954.  In the light of that history, it should not be a surprise that you wouldn’t need an entire hand to count the number of black graduates from the School of Computer, Mathematical and Physical Sciences in the winter of 1996 when I graduated.  There were only 2 or 3 black students, and I was one of them (and I’m not certain the numbers would have improved much with a spring graduation).

It is rather telling how seldom preferences like legacy admissions at elite universities (or the preferential treatment of the children of large donors) are singled out for the level of scrutiny and attack that affirmative action receives.  Damore and others of his ilk who attack such programs never consider how the K-12 education system of the United States, funded by property taxes, locks in the advantages of those who can afford to live in wealthy neighborhoods (and the disadvantages of those who live in poor neighborhoods) as a possible cause for the disparities in educational outcomes.

My third issue with Damore’s memo is the assertion that Google’s hiring practices can effectively lower the bar for “diversity” candidates.  I can say from my personal experience with at least parts of the interviewing processes at Google (as well as other major names in technology like Facebook and Amazon) that the bar to even get past the first round, much less be hired is extremely high.  They were, without question, the most challenging interviews of my career to date (19 years and counting). A related issue with representation (particularly of blacks and Hispanics) at major companies like these is the recruitment pipeline.  Companies (and people who were computer science undergrads with me who happen to be white) often argue that schools aren’t producing enough black and Hispanic computer science graduates.  But very recent data from the Department of Education seems to indicate that there are more such graduates than companies acknowledge. Furthermore, these companies all recruit from the same small pool of exclusive colleges and universities despite the much larger number of schools that turn out high quality computer science graduates on an annual basis (which may explain the multitude of social media apps coming out of Silicon Valley instead of applications that might meaningfully serve a broader demographic).

Finally, as Yonatan Zunger said quite eloquently, Damore appears to not understand engineering.  Nothing of consequence involving software (or a combination of software and hardware) can be built successfully without collaboration.  The larger the project or product, the more necessary collaboration is.  Even the software engineering course that all University of Maryland computer science students take before they graduate requires you to work with a team to successfully complete the course.  Working effectively with others has been vital for every system I’ve been part of delivering, either as a developer, systems analyst, dev lead or manager.

As long as I have worked in the IT industry, regardless of the size of the company, it is still notable when I’m not the only black person on a technology staff.  It is even rarer to see someone who looks like me in a technical leadership or management role (and I’ve been in those roles myself a mere 6 of my 19 years of working).  Damore and others would have us believe that this is somehow the just and natural order of things when nothing could be further from the truth.  If “at-will employment” means anything at all, it appears that Google was within its rights to terminate Damore’s employment if certain elements of his memo violated the company code of conduct.  Whether or not Damore should have been fired will no doubt continue to be debated.  But from my perspective, the ideas in his memo are fairly easily disproven.