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

Platform Summit 2014

This year I attended the second annual Platform Summit in Atlanta, Georgia. The event was held at Morehouse College and co-hosted by Morehouse and Georgia Tech from October 24 - 26. It was two and a half days worth of talks and networking with a highly diverse group of attendees.

Created by Hank Williams, Platform intends to provide the underrepresented (primarily, Blacks, Latinos and women) increased opportunities and access to the innovation economy. To achieve this goal, Platform focuses on highlighting multicultural role models for future innovators. This is such an important point and I’ll return to it later in this post.

This year’s Platform Summit was organized in sections based on a particular theme. Each section would have several speakers, followed by a panel discussion on the topic. Interspersed there were several one-on-one conversations with influential figures in the community. I won’t summarize all of the talks; they will be posted on Youtube and I recommend that you watch them. I suspect others will write recap-style blog posts that capture the spirit of the event overall. This post will go in a slightly different direction.

Black in (Tech) America, Revisited

It has been over two years since I wrote Black in (Tech) America and a lot has changed in that timeframe. Ironically, that post was definitely a source of disagreement between Hank and myself at the time. Now, with the passage of time and more understanding I am actually somewhat embarrassed at the Am I My Brother’s Keeper? section of that post. A combination of ignorance and not recognizing my own privilege is on display throughout. Still, I wrote it and I own it.

Since the time of that post, I have had to deal with getting passed over for promotion. I struggled to understand how I could contribute so much to such an important effort for the business and not be rewarded accordingly. The more I probed, the more it appeared that I just did not fit the archetype of a senior engineering leader. I received mixed messages of You’ve absolutely earned it already and You have certainly improved and are on track for it. At first, I did not see what was right in front of me. Or perhaps, I just did not want it to be true.

I’ve also achieved a better understanding of the economic systems that have created barriers for people of color. The idyllic Shangri-La that is The Valley is just plain inaccessible to most non-white, non-male innovators. Pattern matching is real and extends further than most people realize. More importantly, the lack of empathy in most tech companies tends to drive women and people of color from the field entirely.

Re-reading that post, I still stand by some of the things I stated in the You Can Hate Me Now section. The love and support that children receive from their families has a direct impact on their future potential. I still believe that the following characteristics set young people up for success:

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

If I were the type to rewrite history via blog post, I would delete just about everything else and just leave those traits behind.

Platform Summit 2014, Revisited

As I struggled with my feelings about my company, the tech industry and what I wanted to do with my life one question kept surfacing: What can I do to help others in my situation? It was that question that led me to pay my own way to attend Platform Summit 2014.

Van Jones talks about the founding of #YesWeCode and how Prince made the thought-provoking statement, When an African-American kid is wearing a hoodie, people think he’s a thug. But when a white kid is wearing a hoodie, people think he’s the next Mark Zuckerberg. This is real. I have a young son and I have real fear that as he gets older he may lose his life due to some person perceiving him to be a threat.

I think about my love of technology and how I’ve wanted to be in this field since I first was exposed to an Apple II. My heroes/role models were Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. I didn’t know of any black people that were successful in software. I couldn’t name one that had created any killer applications or game-changing platforms that I had used. There was no one that looked like me (that I knew of) doing the the things that I loved.

Logic, however, cannot be denied. I eventually discovered people like John Thompson, Paul Judge and of course, Hank Williams. There are others…they are out there. I met many of them at Platform Summit 2014 and there are even more yet to be discovered. The answer to my question became clear.

Be visible.

Last year, I attended the AWS re:Invent conference in Las Vegas. For the first time at a tech conference I felt noticeably uncomfortable. Sure, there were a few Black and Hispanic attendees but not a lot. (I will admit that there were a lot more women than I expected, both as attendees and speakers) Still, whenever I saw a person of color they were more than likely a member of the hotel staff. Contrast that with the GopherCon event I attended this past April where there was a diverse mix of both speakers and attendees. I found myself striking up conversations more easily and enjoying myself more because I felt more at ease.

I am not likely to be the next Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. I don’t need to be. I have built a successful career, work for a well-recognized company and I have succeeded. If I can achieve this level of success, so can other people of color. They can exceed my accomplishments. They just have to know that it’s possible.

The thing that I can do is share my experiences. A lot of us suffer from Impostor Syndrome. The more we can demonstrate people of color succeeding in this industry, the better chance we have of combatting this problem. We absolutely need people leading the charge in creating spaces where young minorities can learn to code. We also need people attacking the legal, social and economic barriers to success. But, we also need people that represent all of us working on the apps and services that people use every day.

People of color are voracious consumers of technology but they often do not have as much of a say in creating it. Personally, I find the whole idea of Black Twitter isolationist. I love Twitter, but I don’t want there to be separate neighborhoods or, worse, ghettoes. The serendipity of discovering new people and information is what makes Twitter Twitter. My challenge to Twitter the company is to get better educated on how PoC communities use their product and increase their influence on the overall product design. What better way than to employ more women, Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans and LGBTQ engineers and product managers?

These ideas are not mutually exclusive. We can work to get more kids interested in technology at a younger age and increase the pipeline of qualified engineers to technology companies and attack the socioeconomic barriers that create an uneven playing field and identify and promote role models to help inspire the next generation of innovators. Doing any one of these things is certainly necessary, but it’s not sufficient.

I plan on doing my part by being more visible. I will blog more often and engage on social media even more. I will not just attend conferences, but submit proposals to speak at them. I will support efforts like Platform and #YesWeCode in any way I can to address the other issues affecting the diversity in tech problem. Why? First, I don’t want people with a strong interest in technology to feel uncomfortable or unwanted in our industry. More importantly, I want that young person of color wearing a hoodie to be regarded as a possible innovator and not a threat.