“Tech Diversity is the next civil rights step,” Rev. Jesse Jackson reportedly announced last month. As an African- American woman with 20-plus years in the field of technology, I respectfully disagree with Jackson’s opinion. As a matter of fact, I believe this type of rhetoric serves as a smokescreen and is not conducive to bridging the racial and gender technology gap. It simply takes our eyes off the prize.
Jackson’s lobbying of tech companies and asking them to disclose their hiring data is to be commended. However, now that the numbers have been exposed, this is an opportune time to shift the conversation. This issue is about an empowerment movement in our African-American community. A movement involving empowering us to proactively engage in the field of technology. A movement to transform technology consumers into coders.
There are science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs for young people in every state. Coding and technology classes for adults are plentiful (although some are one-hit wonders with no employment opportunities tied to them, but that’s another conversation). The aforementioned being true now raises questions and shifts the conversation to how we can collectively:
1) Improve community awareness and encourage active participation in technology training programs and career opportunities.
2) Empower minorities to believe they can succeed in the technology field.
3) Engage work opportunities in the right roles, given the many aspects of technology jobs, not merely “coding.”
4) Engage committed technology employers in a conversation, which will lead to hiring entry-level, nontraditionally educated technology professionals.
Shifting the conversation must also involve a discussion about a full-cycle program of helping successful non-tech workers re-career into the field of technology. We are missing an entire population of adults who are unemployed, underemployed or simply looking for a change.
In our Detroit-based organization, Sisters Code, we call it “Awakening the Mature Geek,” and I’m living proof that it will work. After college, I was an aspiring mortician and middle school teacher. At the age of 25, I participated in a corporate training program where I learned to code in seven different languages in 13 weeks.
My life was instantly transformed and I emerged as a mainframe programmer. I went on to become a global technology corporate executive, deputy CIO, and technology CEO. If I did not have my personal technology “awakening,” my life would not be what it is today.
Although my perspective is different from Rev. Jackson’s, it does not mean I don’t recognize the need for deeper engagement across our ecosystem. There must be opportunity awareness in the community, identification of individuals who are interested in exploring careers in technology, training and workforce development programs with a direct link to jobs, and corporations who are committed to hiring nontraditionally educated employees.
Speaking from the experience of often being the only woman and person of color at many technology tables, the workforce technology diversity numbers aren’t shocking, but I’m 100 percent sure we can do better. If we are really serious about bridging the racial and gender technology gap, there must be accountability and engagement among all concerned parties.
Count me in.