Closing the Gap Between Black Computer Science Grads and IT Jobs

By John Conley III

Dallas (ABoD) – Let’s face it. There’s a gap between the low number of Blacks working in IT and the increasing number of Black IT grads. How do we close this gap? Is it racism? Is it lack of academic preparedness? Is it just tough to find Black and Hispanic talent in IT? Are Black and Hispanic IT grads interviewing properly? Is it some combination of all the above?

On June 1, 2015, The Guardian ran a story about the diversity of Google’s staff based on number Google itself voluntarily divulged. It showed that only 2% of its workforce was African American, and only 3% Hispanic. The vast majority were Whites (59%) and Asians (35%), most of these being men since women generally represent 17% of the workforce. Google acknowledges it has some more work to do in recruiting blacks in IT, which is better than the usual excuse where, as a USA Today article from October 2014 put it:

“What do dominant groups say? ‘We tried, we searched but there was nobody qualified.’ If you look at the empirical evidence, that is just not the case.”

This quote came from Darrick Hamilton, professor of economics and urban policy at The New School in New York. He was commenting on the flawed but prevalent practice where “technology companies blame the pool of job applicants for the severe shortage of blacks and Hispanics in Silicon Valley.” USA Today started the article with the following conclusion:

Top universities turn out black and Hispanic computer science and computer engineering graduates at twice the rate that leading technology companies hire them, a USA TODAY analysis shows. [Emphasis mine]

So if prestigious and well-respected universities are graduating Black and Hispanic computer budding professionals at more than sufficient numbers, then what’s the real reason behind the drop in the bucket numbers of blacks in IT? Coming from personal experience, having been in IT as a software developer and designer/architect, I can tell you it’s all about perception and either intentional or unintentional (conditioned) bias. I don’t think overt racism is common, but neither do I think it’s rare. It happens in IT. I also don’t think all forms of racial bias are the same. I say this because there is still the fact that Chinese, Japanese, and Indian grads are part of that 35% number Google published. So how did that happen and how can we learn from that phenomenon and adapt accordingly?

The answer lies partly in the sheer numbers of Chinese and Indians in the world. China and India combined represent about 1/3 of humanity. So that, combined with those cultures heavily emphasizing technical education (as opposed to nontechnical liberal education) inevitably leads to higher numbers of these groups in IT. What also makes this number grow is that the more difficult the IT job (software engineering/programming, computer engineering, etc), the more difficult it historically has been to recruit for these jobs. Thus, many years ago, companies began looking to the East to recruit IT grads. Over time, hiring managers became conditioned to Chinese and Indian IT workers as being normal and therefore they adjusted their comfort zone to accommodate these non-white IT worker groups. For the Japanese, they benefited from the fact that Japan had long been associated with technological superiority, but this was not always the case. For those old enough to remember, there was a time when Japanese cars and technology were considered inferior to American and Western technology (circa 1950s).

What did Japan do in response?

They hired consultants like the father of modern management Peter Drucker (with whom I corresponded briefly, and even got an invitation to meet with him, before he died) to help turn around Japanese company management styles to outcompete Western companies. And the one area of management in which they beat up the West is the failed notion of “planned obsolescence.” With this approach, American companies got the “bright” idea that they can make more profits by purposely sabotaging their own car and electronic products to die within a planned number of years, thereby forcing the consumer to buy more. In other words, the shorter the product lifespan, the more frequent the consumer buys their products and thus more profits. This dumb idea gave Japan the advantage as Drucker advised them to instill quality measures throughout their manufacturing and management processes. The Japanese listened, turned their companies around, made superior products, and have beaten the Americans (at least by perception in later years) ever since.

I tell this story because along the way, Americans became conditioned to view Japanese knowledge as superior to that of America. I could look no further than my own father for evidence of this because he was so convinced of Japanese technical superiority that he even thought Apple was a Japanese company. Movies and TV shows depicting certain Japanese actors as geeky with glasses and pocket protectors help fuel this conditioning. Over time, hiring managers came to expect the “look” of a computer geek to include Japanese people (and Chinese since many Americans can’t tell them apart). Again, they adjusted their comfort zone to include the Japanese computer geek stereotype.

Now that brings me back to Blacks and Hispanics. If you look around on TV, in movies, in the news, in music, you hardly see any images depicting American Blacks (aka African Americans) and Hispanics as technologically comparable to the new standard of the computer geek. Instead, the overwhelming images and conditioning are negative. Whether they admit it or not, a lot of hiring managers in IT, when faced with two equally qualified candidates, will likely pick the one that represents his or her ideal of the technically superior computer geek “look.” The IT hiring managers comfort zone is realized by how he or she was taught through conditioning. Some years ago, not that long ago actually, there was that white female Harvard student who wrote a serious paper about her theories for why blacks were mentally inferior to whites. A lot of hiring managers (but not all) secretly feel this way. I know this from personal experience, besides the many studies and undercover work by investigative journalists who uncovered patterns of outright bias (look at the June 2015 story of the Muslim woman who got a favorable Supreme Court victory over Ambercrobie for discriminating against her due to her headscarf not being compliant with their “dress code.”).

I have been successful in IT for a few decades because I put myself in a position of being in demand and needed. Believe me, if I were only just as good as white or Asian candidates, I would likely lose out on jobs more often than not. My muscular build and dark skin puts me outside the comfort zone of some hiring managers, but I never let that hold me back. I simply make sure I add rare or complex skills to my repertoire so that the bottom line is the bottom line: they’d rather make money hiring me with my specialized skills rather than hire someone without the necessary skills and experience. I encourage my fellow younger Black IT grads to do likewise. And it is incumbent on us more experienced black professionals to help our grads land jobs. I’ve helped some in the past and will do so in the future. Colleges and universities need to also help bridge the gap by reaching out to Black and Hispanic IT professionals to pair with new grads. If you’re a university career counselor, email me and I’ll do what I can to help point you to professionals near you or you can have your grads reach out to me directly.

A lot of IT jobs come through networking online. Unfortunately, as the USA Today article pointed out, hiring managers at the top tech companies keep going to the same universities and colleges to recruit talent. Of course, these schools tend to be dominated by mostly white students (and Asians secondarily). Another article in The Guardian (June 2, 2015) put it this way regarding technical jobs and the obstacles faced by minorities in landing them:

Demand for Stem-trained (science, technology, engineering and math) workers continues to grow. Stem job vacancies take more than twice as long to fill as those in other fields and many businesses have a hard time finding qualified Stem applicants. Yet there is a great potential pool of Stem talent: America’s minorities.

If you are a student from a minority background, you are much less likely to know someone in a Stem career than other students and more likely to be the first in your family to go to college. If you find yourself interested in a Stem degree and career, chances are you will need to look beyond your immediate family – and even your schools – for guidance. I know I felt this way as a young woman interested in science and math.

So until more hiring managers get it in their heads to expand their source of talent, you’ll have to connect with them at other popular sources of talent. As computer science students, Blacks and Hispanics should already have a LinkedIn profile long before graduating. Be sure to put your photos on LinkedIn so that these companies know your ethnic background. If privacy is a concern, you may want to make sure your profile at least highlights your ethnic background as more tech companies are really trying to improve their hiring practices (and we don’t want to give them any excuses for saying they can’t find Black IT talent). You should also be active on “geek” blogs related to the area of IT they are interested in: Software development, computer hardware infrastructure, computer graphics and animation, computer networking, security, artificial intelligence, etc. Attend events in IT. Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, Cisco and other big wigs in IT host or sponsor events around the country (and the world). If more of us show up and engage them in dialog, over time, we can condition them to adjust their comfort zones when it comes to hiring Blacks and Hispanics in IT.

It might also help if grads move to cities high in IT jobs like Silicon Valley, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Houston, Austin, Atlanta, Charlotte NC, New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, etc. Living in a very rural country area with a computer science degree may not do much good.

The kinds of classes you take can also make a difference. Right now, the hottest computer programming languages are C# and Java. So if you’re taking only courses in COBOL or Pascal, umm you might want to take some C# or Java courses asap! If you just graduated and didn’t do this while in school, go ahead and take some of these classes at a 2 year college near you (or online). Computer and network security is also very hot in the IT industry right now, as is setting up computer server hardware and networking them.

Now if we can just get entertainment industry executives, as well as famous Black and Hispanic talent,   to balance out their negative portrayals of minorities (comedians and rappers included), it will make our job of re-conditioning hiring managers that much easier. Yes, negative portrayals in the media, whether admitted or not, help reinforce the idea that Blacks and Hispanics are not smart in fields of technology. Hollywood conditioning seeps into the subconscious mind slowly over time, and before you know it, bias creeps up out of nowhere in the hiring decision.

Resources:

https://www.whitehouse.gov/issues/education/k-12/educate-innovate

http://girlswhocode.com/

http://www.computerscienceonline.org/cs-programs-for-minorities/

http://www.cs.virginia.edu/tapestry/

http://www.blackgirlscode.com/

http://iurbanteen.org/

http://code.org/

http://www.codefellows.org/

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