Memo to the Lone Black Programmer

Photo by Noah Silliman on Unsplash

The BBC recently published a Viewpoint article written by Ibrahim Diallo entitled ‘I feel like I was accidentally hired’. Mr. Diallo is an experienced software engineer who is also a black man. I don’t know Mr. Diallo, but I have met people who share his perception. In the article, he reflects on how his professional life has been marred by many interactions that strike me as racially demeaning. He portrays his career as one replete with condescending and racist encounters, which leave him with two distinct feelings: That he is lonely and that he does not belong in this profession. As I read his piece, I can relate to his feelings of professional loneliness; however, I have reached a different conclusion regarding my place in the software industry. I will explain by sharing my experience.

I endured consistent poverty, violence, and fear being raised in Newark, New Jersey. I graduated high school in 1980; so, driven to escape that environment, I enlisted in the U.S. Navy. In my first tour I was deployed aboard the aircraft carrier USS Constellation. My job in aviation logistics included access to a Wang word processor.

That Wang word processor was the first computer I had ever seen in my life. My supervisor had been trained on it, but he never used it, so it just sat there. One day I picked up the programmer’s manual. The computer had the GW-BASIC programming language on it, so I started to play around with that. I was immediately hooked! I was on that computer around the clock. The programmer’s manual was all I had so I read every page over and over. That manual was with me at all times. I read it in bed. I read it while I ate. I stashed it in my locker whenever we made a port call.

I used GW-BASIC to create some programs that impressed my peers and supervisors. By late 1982 I had been promoted to Petty Officer 3rd Class. My Supply Chief asked me to give a presentation of my work to a panel at a Navy Supply Corp event. I was the only black person presenting at the event. That was the first of many times where I would be the only black person in the room.

My passion for software engineering was ignited when I realized that I can create some pretty valuable stuff from an empty space. That space is supported by some memory and a brain — but it is magical. So, I do have the Navy to thank for inadvertently launching my career.

As I said, I was the only black person at that Navy Supply Corp event. Over the years, I have frequently been in organizations with scores of software engineers, and only one or two were black people. When I have hired people, I have tried and struggled to find black and Latino candidates. I have mentored black co-workers and interns and hired people with non-traditional backgrounds like my own; but finding black and Latino candidates has always been difficult.

Software engineering is a STEM field; so, to find answers I’ve invested time reviewing STEM demographic research. One valuable source is the 2018 Pew Research Social & Demographic Trends Report. It contains a wealth of information regarding diversity and perceptions of discrimination in STEM careers. In this report we see that black people comprise 7% of computer careerists; considerably less than our 11% representation across all STEM fields. When considering STEM education, I could find only a few reports. But they do reflect similar participation levels in STEM education programs through 2018.

Black people constitute 13% of the U.S. population. So that alongside the factors supported by research, leads me to conclude that the racial disparity in computer careers is more likely caused by fewer black people choosing to enter the field relative to other races. Discrimination may have some influence in our under-representation, but evidence and my experience lead me to believe that career choice is a considerably stronger influence.

Once we have the job, discriminatory treatment can certainly happen. The incidents that Mr. Diallo describes are inexcusable reflections of the speakers’ ignorant assumptions. It is sad that some people still hold these false assumptions, but that cannot affect my pursuit of happiness.

We have a deep history to remind us of what is truly important. Remember that Ida B. Wells did not belong. Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan did not belong. They were openly demeaned in ways that shock the conscience. They were also powerless to make it stop. Instead, they stayed focused on what truly mattered. They made a difference.

While digesting Mr. Diallo’s article, I became concerned about conflating under-representation with discrimination. His experiences influence his perspective which justifies his conclusion. But my experience and perspective have been quite different.

I have been a contractor for most of my career, so I have been interviewed by phone, video, and in person by many hundreds of people. I speak with a mild New Jersey accent, but otherwise I tend to be fairly articulate. I also have a name that does not hint at my race, so I share those characteristics with Mr. Diallo.

I am certain that I have surprised some people upon meeting me. They didn’t have to say anything. They were exposed by their facial expressions and immediate discomfort. I can recall only one instance however, where a person said out loud: “Oh, you’re black”. I have worked on trading floors and in technology centers where I was the only black software engineer or technology manager among at least 300 people on the floor. And yes, I still look for the other black person when I attend conferences.

In spite of that, no one has ever suggested to me that I was in the wrong room. I have been in many boardrooms and worked with many top executives. Not once has anyone ever mistaken my presence. I have presented at events and participated in panels where I consistently got a fair share of challenging questions right along with my non-black peers. I have also been approached by audience members with follow up questions.

I have had painful incidents as well. I once reported to a verbally abusive CTO — I quit before landing a new assignment. I was fired by a short-tempered person who had unrealistic expectations. I was fired by an incompetent project manager. The worst for me was the time I was lured into a business partnership and then cheated out of more than $50,000. All of those were career and life lessons that I hated learning. But none were personal nor had anything to do with my race.

I share my experience not to reduce Mr. Diallo’s experience or opinion. I acknowledge that he cannot be the only black software professional with many negative racial interactions. At the same time, I believe that I cannot be the only black software professional with so few negative racial interactions.

Regarding our under-representation, I have been committed to helping increase the number of black people in technology — especially in software engineering. I have volunteered and spoken to student groups and I would love to do more. I’ve heard feedback from students who express intimidation at computer science. What they haven’t heard though is that this profession desperately needs more input from people who are female, black, and Latino.

That day in 1982 may have been the most important day of my career. My anxiety and insecurity were obvious. Thoughts that “I don’t belong here” ran through my head. As I started my presentation, I stumbled over my words so often that the Commander, sensing my nervousness stopped me and bellowed “Close your eyes. Now take a deep breath. Blow it out hard! You can do this son.” And I did. The Navy ultimately used some of my work to automate several squadron logistical functions that measurably improved squadron readiness.

I want greater racial and gender diversity in my profession, but no career is without problems. As a black or Latino software engineer, yes, you will be part of a very small group. But every new member makes the group that much bigger. I figure there are difficult people everywhere, so I might as well enjoy what I do.

I am still amazed at how I can create something incredible from an empty space. I feel pride when I walk the floor and see hundreds, or even one person using my creations. No disrespectful comment or small-minded person can ever take that from me.

Today I share my passion by helping people, teams, and organizations to produce better software. I have been the lone black programmer for almost four decades, but I have never been lonely. I belong in this profession and so does Mr. Diallo.

Agile coach to high performing software engineering teams.