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Black Is The New Black: Diversity In The Tech Industry...From A Black Computer Scientist

By Dr. Nicki Washington

Let's be clear about one thing from the start: I'm a Black female with a Ph.D. in computer science. No shade, Sheryl Sandberg, but I've been "leaning in" since birth.

This topic (and blog post) has been a long time coming. I wasn't sure, at first, how to best put my thoughts to words. Then I wasn't even sure if I should say anything at all, since it may ruffle some feathers. In the end, I didn't care. Some things need to be said. Most people think it, but few say it. I'll take one for the team.

We've all heard the story. Earlier this year, many of the Silicon Valley tech companies, such as Apple, Facebook, Google, Amazon, and more, released their employee demographic data. It was no surprise that there were few, if any, Black and Hispanic employees across the board. The news came right at the peak of a number of efforts over the last few years to increase the participation of underrepresented students in STEM, especially computer science, a field historically dominated by White and Asian males. From the White House to local non-profits, there are a number of organizations focused on exposing students of color to computer science and keeping them in the pipeline through high-school, college, and beyond.

So what's wrong with that? This is great! There's finally a focus on more students of color in CS *fist bump*. If only it were that simple. Everyone's been talking about diversity in technology. We've heard from the CEOs of major tech companies, President Obama, folks at Code.org, hell, even Jesse Jackson has voiced his opinion (didn't see that one coming). There's been one major voice missing in most of these discussions, articles, and debates: a Black or Hispanic who is actually a computer scientist. So here's one Black computer scientist's opinion on all of this.

The problem is that, now, in 2014, there is a huge push for more students of color in CS....by the same individuals and organizations who, for the longest, statistically had no interest in these same groups of individuals. Now it's "cool" and "the big thing" to create a program that teaches students to code, create mobile apps, or participate in any CS-related activities. But how many of these are actually led by individuals who look like these students? Very few.

Black computer scientists have been neck-deep in this struggle since the day we created our first "Hello World" program. If you chose a career in industry then, for years (and decades for some), you struggled with being too marginalized to be able to push for major diversity overhauls. The numbers speak for themselves. You can't exactly expect folks at the top who don't look like you to fully understand or appreciate your struggle. If you chose a career in academia, then you virtually spent your entire career (including many heated debates now) about the relevance of this work, and why it is, in fact, research and not simply "outreach." It won't count towards tenure, so therefore you shouldn't worry about that. If I had $1 for every time I heard that, then I could've retired 5 years ago.

It's been a no-win situation for most of us. However, despite these obstacles, we've all pushed for more access and opportunities for those coming behind us. Many times we were met with opposition, by the same powers-that-be who now are (supposedly) "committed" to diversifying their workforce.

The truth is I'm more than skeptical about most of these efforts. I'm skeptical for a number of reasons. First, there's no accountability. If the diversity of the field doesn't increase, then what? Do these companies lose money? No. Do they suffer in any way? No. Second, the focus is on increasing the numbers, not on ensuring every student has access to CS and is able to see themselves as succeeding in the field. Next, those who are now at the forefront of this fight have never been the type of student they are trying to now reach. Finally, I don't have a reason NOT to be skeptical.

I've had my own experiences with these same powers-that-be and, for lack of a better way to put it, " tech profiling." After having several telephone conversations with a hiring manager at a tech giant who shall remain nameless (for now), scheduling an interview, and being contacted about travel arrangements for a next day flight out to interview ASAP (because said hiring manager verbally expressed he/she was pretty much sold and it was basically "formalities"), I was abruptly told in a matter of 24 hours that the position was no longer being filled by a recruiter, my flight was canceled, and all emails ignored by said hiring manager. I later learned there was concern by someone else that I wouldn't "fit" in the corporate culture and said hiring manager didn't want to stir the pot *insert blank stare*. Let's rewind and bring this into perspective. I'm a Black female with a Ph.D. in computer science. I could run circles around most in my field. Yet somehow, my skills or 10+ years experience were never questioned. What WAS questioned was if I would "fit" in an environment created by White and Asian males FOR White and Asian males. I'll let you marinate on that...

Even if I looked past the point that said hiring manager didn't even have the boldness to stand behind his/her commitment and choice, there's also the bigger issue that he/she never even gave me the courtesy of then picking up a phone or sending an email apologizing for the entire situation and how it was (mis)handled. So now, there's an expectation that these same types of individuals, the ones who make the actual hiring decisions, are committed to the cause?

What happened to all of the Black and Hispanic computer scientists out there? Are our struggles, voices, and efforts now irrelevant, because we don't have the notoriety of a Steve Jobs, Zuck, or Larry and Sergey? Aren't each of us the best representations of how to not only survive, but thrive in a field where the odds are against us from the start? Where are the board members, consultants, and senior-level execs that have the firsthand experience to help students succeed? What about the trailblazers like my mother, godfather, and others who spent their entire 30+ year careers at organizations and intentionally served as recruiters to help diversify companies like IBM from the 1980s through the early 2000s?
So while I'm absolutely 110% all for diversity in CS, I'd be more optimistic if the spotlight was actually on the folks who've made this a lifetime mission, instead of those doing it for the moment because the spotlight's on.

Dr. Nicki Washington is a computer science professor and author of “Prepped for Success: What Every Parent Should Know About the College Application Process” and “Stay Prepped: 10 Steps to Succeeding in College (and Enjoying the Experience).” She is a featured speaker on computer science education, diversity in computer science and STEM, and preparing for college.
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