Viewpoint: 'I feel like I was accidentally hired'

BBC Technology 26 Jun 2020 11:50
By Ibrahim Diallo Software engineer
Ibrahim DialloImage copyright Ibrahim Diallo

Ibrahim Diallo got his first computer when he was five, which triggered a lifelong passion for programming.

He has worked as a software engineer in the US for 12 years and in 2018 wrote a much-read blog about how he was fired by a machine, which the BBC covered.

Now, as race issues once again take centre stage in America and beyond, he has shared with the BBC his experience of being a black programmer.

From college to the workplace, I couldn't help but notice that something was missing. Well, some people to be more specific. Where are my fellow black software engineers?

Black people make up 13% of the US population, we are naturally in the minority. But in the tech workforce, we are missing. Among the top eight largest tech companies in the land, black people account for only 3.1% of the workforce. If you only count software engineers and those who work in IT, the number plummets even lower.

Companies report a percentage when asked about the number of black employees. But these numbers can be deceiving. How many presidents of the United States were black? The answer is 2.2%. It feels more tolerable than the reality of just one. So a better question should be, what does it feel like to be a black programmer? The short answer: it is lonely.

Image copyright Ibrahim Diallo

I had so many questions. Who are you? Where are you from? Which school did you go to? How did you become a programmer? But the only thing I said was: "Do you wanna be best friends?" We are still friends to this day.

I worked for AT&T in a department that had around 150 employees. We were mostly engineers and technical managers. Yet, we were two black software engineers. Where are the other black developers? [In response AT&T said that it had "no record of an employee of that name" but that it has been "widely recognised for its commitment to diversity".]

When I work as a consultant, I can talk with the manager many times over the phone. But the day I come to the office in person, they are taken aback. I often get: "I couldn't tell where you are from on the phone." The fact that they have to say it, tells you everything.

I've been to job interviews where the receptionist will take me to a whiteboard room. When the interviewer comes in, he'd say: "I'm sorry, you must be in the wrong room."

I'd go to see investors with my colleagues and for some reason, I'm mistaken for someone who just happened to be wandering in the building. My worst sin as a start-up founder is being present when an investor embarrasses himself by making insensitive comments. When they realise it, the only thing they want to do is leave the room. Good luck getting an investment from them.

If you are black and you join a Zoom meeting where everyone is white, eventually someone will say: "I think someone joined our room by mistake." If you are black and take a group picture with your white colleagues one evening, eventually someone will make the joke that all they see are your teeth. If you are black and hang out with your white colleague, people will always assume you are the subordinate.

Meeting black people on the job feels like we are a fluke in the system. As if we were accidentally hired. Perhaps we are hired to meet a quota to score diversity points. Though a very small quota. I can't be the only black person who wants to work in tech. Though here I am, the only black person in the video conference call in our weekly company meeting.

The computer doesn't care about the colour of your skin. It doesn't care about the group you belong to. It doesn't care if you are a dog. It processes your commands all the same. I got into computing because it was the coolest thing in the world. I developed a passion for it at an early age and saw myself doing meaningful work.

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