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Where Are All The Black People in IT?

05 July 2014 3 comments

4 minutes


Recently, I flicked through the faces of all of the presentations titles from Google I/O 2014 videos, I saw only one person who was black. She was from Ethiopia and was talking about a very worthy cause, solving the food shortage in Africa and making the cost of food production cheaper so that everyone could eat and be entitled to a decent life expectancy. She is Sara Menker, she flew in from Nairobi to give a valuable speech on Solver for X talk.

The proposition to improve food production is great and I don’t think that this purely the fault of the organisers, I am just sad that in the 21st century there are not a lot of black IT developers, designers or even architects around. For a profession that is much newer than a say Law. The London Metropolitan Policing in the United Kingdom has been found to institutionally racist, it is disappointing. In fact, I certainly have only ever seen a few black senior managers in my personal career. I can count them on three fingers and I met one of them a few times when Sun Microsystems was running JavaOne at the Moscone Center. When I worked at Deutsche Bank in the year 2001, my boss’s boss was a black senior manager responsible for OTC Derivatives IT trading desk. The other fellow worked in another financial organisation in the early noughties and I am not sure where he ended up in recent years.

When I look at this video listing page for I/O 2014, unfortunately it confirms my belief that the industry has failed to attract black people with significant talent or allow them to progress up the food chain. This is a massive big technology conference about mobile computing platforms and about exciting IT project; it has global attention. I am sure that there are good or great black people working at Google or outside in Android / Chrome space. Perhaps, they work in the background, or do not want the publicity (or celebrity). Probably smacking down Google is not fair, one can also point the finger at other technology businesses too, like Apple for instance.

As I scroll-flicked my touch pad up and down this videos page, I had an introspective. I looked within myself and I wondered why I had no trust with companies roles that promised great projects, exciting challenges and the prospects of career progression. I knew the answer to the riddle, somewhere I had learned to remember, “I believe it, when I see it”. That was what eventually said to myself. I remember begging my manager at the time, in 2002, at Deutsche Bank to use my allocation annual training budget so that I could visit JavaOne in 2002. The answer I got from him was typical and patronising, “How does this [JavaOne trip] help the business?”. No matter how much I tried to convince him about Java development and this conference was better than eyes forward training. He wouldn’t budge, so from then on, I lost my faith with companies and trust with senior management, I suppose. They talked a good game about your career, but seriously they couldn’t give too monkeys, because they were only concerned with theirs, and the truth was, that you in their eyes were just a resource that arrives at 9AM and leaves 18PM in order to complete yet another system integration or migration. I knew then that I had to find a way to make JavaOne by myself and achieve my dreams and future inspirations. I wanted to improve myself and get good at what I do. Eventually, two years later in my first stint as an IT contractor, I funded the whole trip to San Francisco. It was so worth it, there was no free ticket, just the conference, hotel and plane tickets. I was flush enough. It was also this experience with management that led to my foundation of the JAVAWUG, the Java User Group. There simply had to be other software developers out and about in London who cared about their experiences outside of the boundaries of commuting daily into and out of the workplace.

Never trust just words: It is a tough lesson that I learnt in my younger career and one that I hold up as rule of thumb. People say all kinds of things, usually laudable ideas that appeal to the greater or common good: but until they actually do it then it is not worth even remembering platitudes; and that is perhaps one more reason, why I choose to remain as an IT contractor, at least for the time being. It appears that I am not one of those fortunate people with the skin colour or the background who reach the IT Director or chief architect level. Sad, but true, so I go my own way, hard-core, no compromise.



  1. Well ! Complicated topic. First I would say I think it’s not a good thing to define yourself as a “Black IT guy”, you’re a good developer or not, and it doesn’t depends on the colour of your skin. I mean, when it comes to hire someone, the first criteria has to be skills (IT skills, Relational skills …) and not ethnicity. I would feel bad if a company hires me just because I’m black, instead of someone else who is little bit better than me for example.

    It interesting what you are pointing out on your article, but I think you focus on the effect and not on the cause. I live in France, so I’ll talk about what is happening there.

    In France, we don’t have good example for black person. When you see black people in TV, most of the time they are just dancing, singing or doing stupid things. It’s not a good example for the young blacks.

    You will rarely see a black person talking about programming, or writing a nice book, or something intellectual. When the politics come to our suburb, where most of black people are, they just say like “guys, you should lean how to dance, and sing or play football, maybe you can be the next snoop dog or the next Zidane”. The truth is, for 1000 persons , only one would make his career this way. So it’s not a good idea out push black people in “show business” direction : few will success. They say they are not racists but they keep pushing us into what they say is good for us.

    If we want more black people in IT, we should provide more example of black successful people.

    Comment by J.undernet — 07 July 2014 @ 10:51 am

  2. J.undernet

    Thanks for commenting on my blog article.

    You point out a probable “cause” for the under-representation of black people inside industry that there is lack of role models, people who have achieved success before and are visible to other people who inspire to make a career in IT.

    Much of what you say is about the current situation in France, I make the assumption. It reminds me of the state of affairs in the United Kingdom during the late 1980’s, when I was growing up, on TV where the only black person you saw were entertainers, actors, sports and musicians. When I started to learn computing science, I grew up in London with no black role models in IT and, yet, I found a way to believe and achieve my dreams. For anybody who wants to achieve anything in life, believing that you can do it is the path to success; and it does not matter what colour, creed or race you are part of. Information technology in the 1990’s or whenever did not have the hang-ups of law, because it was a relatively new sector. From your comments, it sounds like living and working in France right now is a difficult place to be professional and be black person. If you have the talent, and put the work into learning, applying rigorous practice then it eventually you can overcome whatever barrier organisation or people put in front you. This is the meaning behind my allegory about the Levee. Here is a free one “If the organisation won’t change, change the organisation” – vote with feet, leave and find a better, or start a better one. Here is a second one, from Rita Warford, “It’s easy to work for someone else; all you have to do is show up.”

    You feel that other people are pushing black French people back and preventing them from achieving success, then the only way to solve it is to buck the trend, go against the flow of water. After all, somebody has to make that first step over the hurdle. I do kind of agree with your frustration to a certain extent, that the bar on the track-and-field pole vault is always appears to getting higher, somebody in the system is doing it every year, or it feels like that: there are more university graduates now in 2013 then there were in 1993.

    In my article, I noticed that there was under-representation of black people at a popular conference in the USA. I drew attention to the visual mode and not necessarily the reasons. The root cause can be many things, including the lack of education, the failure of the industry to attract (or keep) talent, the failure of people already inside the profession stepping out and having higher visibility, people who may have had an initial interest in IT and then but gave it up for another career, and so on. This cause list is not exhaustive. What does worry me is the possibility that senior management are not promoting the very little existing talent, which may or may not exist in organisations up the food chain. In particular, I drew a reference to the lack of high profile black directors or visible architects in such organisations.


    Comment by Peter Pilgrim — 07 July 2014 @ 7:48 pm

  3. Hi Peter,

    I agree with you. “For anybody who wants to achieve anything in life, believing that you can do it is the path to success”

    But the thing is “if you want”, and this is the problem.

    Actually it’s not hard in France for a black person to have a brilliant career. The problem is the politics don’t do anything to make us want to learn IT. Like you said, education is important. The situation is, in France, most of black people live in suburb, and we have bad quality education. Being a smart person in the French society is assimilated to be a kind of looser, specially in suburb. As a black and young black person, it’s better for you to be assimilated to a nice Rapper than a bookwork. That’s why there are few black person in IT.

    More than that, in TV, when it come to TV show for young people, the message is clearly “everybody can get rich and famous being in reality show”, and recently, they put a lot of people from suburb in those shows. So, again, most of the young black guys/girls want to be “one of those guys from reality show” because it’s cool and fun.

    There is also the problem of criminality. If a black person does something wrong, politics will say “oh, it doesn’t matter, he is black and poor so we have to understand him” and they will let you go. First, and on short term effect, you think it’s good, and they care about us. But it’s a trap : the long term effect is doing like this, we will never learn how to be a good and smart person, we will keep staying in our bad situation because “the politics protect us”.

    I agree again, when you said we need to change the organization. That’s what I’m trying to do. It’s hard because our opponent is really powerful. But anyway, I believe someday we will reach our goal. Thank you for this this great article !

    J. undernet

    Comment by J.undernet — 08 July 2014 @ 2:54 pm

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