re: engineering management
notes on software development, leading teams and changing the way we work

Black In (Tech) America

TL;DR The question isn’t “Why aren’t there more blacks (or other non-Indian/Asian minorities) in tech?” The question is “Why are we still asking the wrong question?”

Black In America 4: The New Promised Land - Silicon Valley

Let me start off by saving that I loved the CNN special, Black In America 4: The New Promised Land - Silicon Valley. A while back I had a short email exchange with Hank Williams and connected with him on LinkedIn. When I saw that he was one of the founders that would be part of the NewMe Accelerator program, I set a reminder to watch the show. I watched with great interest and it’s still on my DVR as I’ve watched it several times now. It was a great program and should be required watching for anyone in technology, no matter your race.

That said, something was nagging me about all of the companies that were being profiled. With one or two exceptions, I found myself asking the same question:

Why do you need venture capital?

This is an important question that kept surfacing as I followed the debates that followed.

Arrington’s Not A Racist…He’s Just Dishonest

Black in America triggered a lot of debate in the tech community. The ever-volatile Michael Arrington started a bit of a controversy with his comments on the special and subsequent blog posts. Hank responded quite eloquently with a post that inspired this section header. I think it accurately reflects a very large part of the problem. Hank says,

“So to conclude, no one is accusing Arrington of being a racist. But it’s clear he is (or at least his writing reflects him to be) incredibly insensitive to issues of race and privilege.”

You see, there’s racism and then there’s RACISM. A lot of what people are quick to call racism is usually attributable to ignorance and/or insensitivity. Believe me, I know the difference as I’ve experienced both. However, I think that people often mistake the former for the latter. True racism stems from hatred and fear and I’ve found that a lot of people who are labeled racists do not exhibit the qualities of hatemongers. They are merely ignorant.

Let me tell you a bit about my background. First, if it isn’t obvious (or, you couldn’t bother to look at my avatar on Twitter or LinkedIn or half a dozen other places) I am a Black man.

Quick note: I never refer to myself as an “African-American”. Personally, I think it’s a funny term as we ALL originally come from Africa, so how is this descriptive? It would be more accurate to call myself a “West Indian-American” since my parents are from Trinidad and Tobago, but even that’s wrong. I was born in Brooklyn, NY so I’m just an American. And, I’m Black. Plus, for those of you who don’t know this already but REAL Africans actually dislike African-Americans. So, why would I self-identify with a group of people that wouldn’t accept me in the first place? But I digress.

My mom was a registered nurse and my dad was in construction management and trained as an architect. They both worked their asses off to ensure that I got a good education. I went to a Catholic grade school and junior high in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn, which was mostly an Italian neighborhood. Growing up, I was mostly surrounded by white kids. Our class size was fairly large, usually around 45 kids with a maximum of 6 of them being Black. And yes, my first encounters with racism occurred on the playground. Mom got called to the principal’s office almost once a week from the first grade through sixth until she finally said, “Stop calling me in here from work every week. I have a hard time thinking that my child is the only culprit in all this bad behavior.” Amazingly, I stopped getting sent to the principal’s office after that. By the time I graduated, I was an honors student and voted Most Likely To Succeed.

I attended Brooklyn Technical High School, one of the three specialized high schools in NYC. When it came time to apply to colleges, I applied to a lot of great schools and got accepted. Carnegie Mellon, Columbia, Rochester Institute of Technology, Penn State, CalTech…the list goes on. And, I pretty much got accepted to them all. However, I ended up passing on a lot of these schools because they made it clear that the reason I got accepted was the fact that I was Black. I was part of an under-represented minority. Yes, a couple of the acceptance letters actually said that!

I ended up at Polytechnic University (now part of NYU) in Brooklyn. Ironically, one of my high school pre-calculus teachers told my parents that I would never get accepted there and he would know as he was a professor there. So, on my first day of college was particularly sweet when I bumped into him in Rogers Hall. I walked up, tapped him on the shoulder, said “I’m here” and walked away.

I did OK in college, but I was no genius. I aced most of my Computer Science classes (except the hardware ones) and skated by on everything else. I mostly wanted to code and socialize. Eventually, I ended up working in a research lab and switched to part-time status so that the job would pay for most of my classes (I had a partial scholarship, but I still wanted to reduce the burden on my parents and lessen the debt I would have after graduation).

After graduation, I continued working in the research lab until the start of the dotcom boom. From interactive agencies to startups, I moved from being a technical lead to Director of Engineering. After a combination of being laid off and a personal tragedy, fate had me respond to a job posting for Adobe. My wife and I sold our home in NY and moved across the country to Seattle. Today, I’m a Sr. Engineering Manager at Adobe working on a pretty cool project.

Am I My Brother’s Keeper?

(If you don’t instantly recognize this pop culture, not biblical, reference then stop reading this post now and go watch New Jack City. Seriously.)

I didn’t write all of the above just to give you a mini-biography. I’m just setting context. You see, while I have experienced more than my share of racism in my life I faced very little of it in my professional career. I’ve never been passed over for a promotion. In fact I was promoted, given raises and stock and moved into management (and I still code when I can). I’ve been a hiring manager for over 15 years now and managed engineers of many races, both men and women. In total, I’ve probably had about 100 people reporting to me throughout my career. Of that group, fewer than 10 were Black.

Now, ask yourself why is that? Is it because I did not seek Black engineers out? Maybe. I didn’t explicitly say, “Find me some brothers and sistas” to my recruiters. I didn’t camp out at Howard University. Why? Because color was never an issue. Talent was. I rarely lacked a large pool of potential hires at any of the companies I worked for in the past. The problem was that there were very few (if any) black people in the pool.

More importantly, I ask myself whether I should have been working harder to recruit and hire Black developers? I am pretty convinced that the answer is No. I know some might say that I need to “give back to the community”, but which community would that be? The Black community? My neighborhood? The tech community? The professional community?

Not all Blacks have the same experiences, so the stereotypical expectations don’t always apply. When I’ve attended meetings or conferences for Black professionals, they always seemed to rub me the wrong way. They seemed to mostly perpetuate the “We’re being held down” mentality of people who are still looking for reparations for slavery. While I am well aware of the social injustices that we’ve faced as a people, they are not a part of my identity.

This is just my opinion, but I think there may be a hint of truth in it. I think there is still a lingering bitterness and distrust of white people that is preventing Black people from achieving their goals. If you think you’re being held down by The Man, then you are. It’s just that “The Man” is you.

You Can Hate Me Now

I’m sure that there is a percentage of people that will call me a sellout, an Uncle Tom or some other derogatory term. Whatever. That would essentially be the same level of ignorance I referred to earlier with respect to white people that some think are racist. It’s ignorance, not racism.

What I’d like is for us to address the real issues. I don’t think that my story is all that unique, nor should it be. Let’s look at what I think are the defining characteristics:

  1. Loving, caring parents at home
  2. Education always deemed important
  3. Letting the work speak for itself

Ask yourself honestly, if more minority kids had these attributes growing up would they be better set up for success? If their parents focused on instilling these attributes I think that they would be doing them the biggest favor of all. Let’s stop living in the past. I don’t mean that we should forget history, but we should stop using history as an excuse.

No, I’m not a damn Republican.

Wrapping Up

At the beginning of this post, I said I wondered why so many of the NewMe founders were seeking venture capital. For what they were building, why not bootstrap? That would eliminate a lot of the VC “pattern matching”. Figure out how to charge money for your product or service and work your way up to a profitable business. Isn’t getting rejected by Sequoia or Kleiner Perkins another version of “being held down by The Man”?

I was watching NBC’s The Voice while starting to write this. I think we need something like this for funding. Let’s come up with a way to pitch investors “blindly”. Maybe if investors can’t pattern match and have to judge a startup purely on the idea and proposed business model this might increase the odds of getting more minority-led companies funded. Just a thought…

I’m not chugging haterade. I wish Angela and Wayne nothing but the best with the NewMe Accelerator Program. I may even apply one day. I just grow weary of the constant Racism (or Sexism) in Tech memes. Let’s change the nature of the discourse. Talk to me about improving people’s notions of parenting and education. Bend my ear about self-sufficiency and independence. Tell me how I can help you start a business that will be long-lived and prosperous, as opposed to trying to win the venture capital lottery.

You’ll get my undivided attention.