T. Holt Russell
We can easily see the numbers of African American people employed by technology companies is woefully low. None of the technology companies in Silicon Valley has more than 7% of African Americans in their total workforce as of 2014 and a total average around 2%. Data to back this up is readily available on Websites such as Computing Research and News. For me however, the most intriguing question is why.
For my own school, which is between 10% to 12% African American, I have a very difficult time recruiting and retaining those students that look like me into my cyber security club. I constantly try to recruit students and if I’m lucky they will actually show up at one of our cyber security meetings. But when they do show-up, they’ll sit around with the other students to watch what they do on the computer, and maybe ask a couple of questions. But after only a few minutes, they give me a polite smile, raise their eyebrows and shake their heads. This is body language I’m very familiar with. It means “Thanks, but no thanks”, and I’ll never see them at another cyber security meeting again.
From the time I started the cyber club I figured that one of the reasons it was difficult recruiting African Americans students was because they were not introduced to computer literacy and cyber security early enough. Of course this is true, but it is true for everyone. And while I know that this has to be corrected at our elementary schools, I struggle to find out the other reasons the numbers are so low. The one thing I want to take off the plate from the very beginning is that it has nothing to do with intellectual aptitude and has much more to do with culture. It known that blacks use technology just as anyone else. But a peek behind the numbers can reveal much. For instance, black and Hispanic households access the net by cellphone much more than desktop or laptop computers. In light of those numbers some are saying that cell phones are closing the digital divide. Another point behind the numbers is that blacks and Hispanics are cellphone dependent when it comes to Internet access. In other words they don’t own desktops or laptops so the cellphone is their only portal to the Internet. I don’t think it’s a leap to say that those cellphone dependent users are not running any engineering design, or database application analysis software on their phones. Twitter is used by a higher rate than by blacks than any other group and their interest in sports and entertainment is the cause for this according to the Huffington Post report on the results of a survey conducted by Eszter Hargittai and Eden Litt, called, “The tweet smell of celebrity success: Explaining variation in Twitter adoption among a diverse group of young adults.” I’m sure this can be cleared up with statistics and numbers but it is also backed-up with empirical knowledge that I’ve obtained over the years. To become good at anything, it takes practice. Cyber security, like other disciplines requires a lot of time and effort and there’s not short cut to put someone in front of the line without them learning to master at least a baseline skillset. Computer Science offers may monetary rewards but it has to be paid for on the frontend with time, dedication and determination. The prescribed mindset of a successful person pursuing such a career is having the maturity to sacrifice short-term satisfaction in favor of long-term gain. Sounds simple, maybe, but it can be very difficult to convince any teenager of this way of thinking in our digital revolution age.
Statistics show evidence that there’s a higher average of blacks majoring in computer science than the average number represented in the workforce. Even though 9 percent of blacks receive computer science degrees, they only represent 1 percent of the total workforce in companies such as Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter and Google. USA Today states that top universities graduate twice the amount of students that companies hire. Some of the reasons for this are prejudices of African American sounding names when reviewing resumes. Many African Americans take support jobs in those companies such as administrative and logistic positions, and black students are not in the network where companies typically recruit. Companies tend to recruit from schools such as UC-Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon, UCLAS and MIT while ignoring the large number of blacks and Hispanics that graduate from other elite computer science departments of other schools. Some companies give whiteboard interviews, where a problem is presented and the interviewee is expected to work out the problem on the board in front of strangers. According to Code2040, a nonprofit organization that creates pathways for minorities’ success in technology, blacks and Hispanics students are unprepared for such interviews because they are not informed about it.
I believe that all of the reasons above are part of the reason why there’s such a shortage of African American and Hispanics enrolled in computer science courses and hired at the top tech companies. I live and fight in the academic trenches so my angle gives me a slightly different view. Many of the successful students, those that majored in computer science and moved on to successful careers in Silicon Valley, and other tech companies in the United States, have been coding since they were in elementary school. They were students who were exposed to technology early and maintained interest throughout high school. Computer technology was their sports, their girlfriends, their video games. This does not in any remote way suggest they did not do those things. It means that in addition to doing what typical teenagers do, coding and hacking was very prominent on their list of things they really liked to do. By the time they graduated from high school they had 8 to 10 years experience, and it was only an obvious assumption that they would continue this interest and sometimes obsession, into college. These are a certain type of student; they are into Pokémon, gaming, Star Trek, and other pursuits along that line. This is not 100% of them, however, whether someone wants to believe in certain things about particular groups – it’s not politically correct, there are certain commonalities in groups that easily separates them from others. Birds of a feather flock together.
Many minorities are not exposed to programing before college. While in college, they pick computer science as a major and start from scratch, already 8 to 10 years behind the students that are enrolling in the traditional recruiting pipeline colleges. Howard University, with on of the best computer science programs among historically black colleges and universities, rarely have students that started coding before college.
Also, minority students, though brilliant as they may be, don’t readily fit into the Google culture. As one Google contact stated, they are not “Googley enough.” At a place like Google, it’s simply not a matter of technical ability; a person has to fit in with the team. Most of the students from Howard University for example did not grow up playing Pokémon, or knowing the different iterations of Star Trek, but when they are out to lunch with their fellow Google workers, they have to somehow fit themselves in the conversation. I don’t think Google would accept someone who it deems as being too black. Don’t take this the wrong way reader, but there’s a certain type of person Google is looking for. You could be a great programmer, but if you sound or act like Lil’ Wayne, you will not be hired by Google. However, if you were a lesser programmer, but spoke and acted like a safe Negro, meaning that your taste and background and manner matched theirs, you are more likely to be hired. I do not believe that Google is consciously denying African Americans and Hispanics employment, it’s just they are less likely to hire someone whose manners, and habits fit into something outside of what their experience and lives are used to. In this case, minorities fit into the category of “others.”
In the summer I run a cyber boot camp. It is a weeklong camp and is geared towards elementary and middle school students. I go to those schools to recruit minority students but most of the time those students rarely apply to attend. At this point I’m doing a very poor job of recruiting students of color. Sometimes when I meet officials from other school districts they ask me or invite me to speak to students in tier school in the hope that my black face will convince the students with black faces to gain an interest in cyber security. I wish it were that easy. I could walk into a room full of black students and like the Pied Piper; they will follow me out of the room and straight into a college computer lab. There are other teachers in Colorado who have the same problem. They are mostly white so society expects them to have a difficult time recruiting black students. When I attend CyberPatriot meetings, luncheons, seminars and training with other teachers in Colorado, I’m usually the only black teacher/mentor in the room. In the Colorado area, it is rare for teachers and students, to be involved in the emerging cyber security industry. They expect me to recruit black students easily. I have no trouble recruiting white students. But if there was a sure way to recruit black students in high numbers, I’d write a book that would be much more popular than the Harry Potter series. Even though it’s difficult for me to recruit black students in sufficient numbers, I still have ideas how the numbers can increase, maybe not overnight, but a steady improvement over a period of five years.
One of the things we need to do is start teaching computer literacy as soon as students go to school. I don’t mean kindergarten or the first grade; I’m talking about pre-school. Computer tablets with its touchscreen technology, has opened the world of computers to children at one or two years old. But by the time they reach pre-school or kindergarten, computers are not always a main part of the curriculum and sometime they are not used at all in certain districts. That’s a break in continuity from the start. We should make computers and even bigger part of the technology landscape of these early years. Student have to learn how to use technology, learn with technology (such as common core courses i.e. history, English and math), and they also have to learn about computer literacy or technology literacy as I like to call it. Computer ethics has to be taught the moment they sit at a computer for the first time. The impact of technology on world culture is an important aspect of learning that I could never overemphasize. Since most computer users are consumers instead of innovators, we have a generation of technology users that no nothing beyond entertainment, games, music and social media. But by teaching the history of technology, students will get a deeper understanding of technology and may be able to think more creatively after learning the nature of technology and this could convert them from consumers to innovators. Technology is not simply something that we use blindly; technology is a tool to use to solve problems.
Just as in sports you hear people say “it’s just a game,” people in the know are fully aware that it’s more than just a game, whether it’s high school, college a pros. It’s the same when we talk about teaching computer skills early. It’s simply not to play games or shop on the Internet. There are many other benefits, such as hand-eye coordination, improving language skills, promoting cognitive development, developing a capacity of visual attention, enhancing social interaction skills, developing problem solving skills, and it preparing them for a future of computers that will be even more ubiquitous than it is now.
Another way to make things better is to find as much mentors as possible. It’s great when industry professional take some of there own time to mentor students. Again, this should start in elementary school and continue through high school. I know there are several mentors and mentor programs out there. And I’m sure they are providing a great service. We need to continue this and target the school that has a large student body filled with under represented minority students. These mentors can come from all corners of technologies. And for the minority students and the female students, these mentors should look like them whenever possible. That is not a prerequisite. I would not turn down a mentor because they are not a minority or a woman. That would be stupid. But what I’m saying in is that it would be great if we had more women and minority professionals to volunteer for mentorship.
Lastly, parents and teachers should push for more technology applications to be integrated in school. Parents and teachers working together for a common goal is a very powerful concept. All school should have computer hardware that can upgraded easily, software should be easily and quickly reviewed before acceptance, by the schools, software made for collaboration instead of competition should be a priority. Teachers and parents need to press politicians for more funding that supports equity in technology resources so all students can decide at an early whether or not a career in computer science is for them. There are people out there who could have been excellent musicians, writers or engineers. And the only reason that they are not is because they lacked the opportunity and resources to be exposed to those things. With our world’s continued reliance on computers, we can’t afford to continue in the direction we are heading without suffering the global and national consequences of exclusion in the computer science field. The ideas mentioned earlier are small manageable steps we can take to mitigate this situation. We cannot afford to overlook large portions of society that have so much to offer our nation.