How to hire and retain Black tech pros — for real

Turning diversity intentions into reality means going outside your comfort zone and making a sustained effort engage, honor, and understand the African American community.

woman using a laptop stands outside a server room / data center / coder / developer / programmer
Christina Morillo (CC0)

American companies are once again promising to increase minority hiring and retention in the aftermath of the 2020 police killings of George Floyd and other Black people and subsequent Black Lives Matter demonstrations. But Black people have heard this promise before — for decades, in fact — with little tangible change in the low employment numbers of Black engineers, developers, and IT pros.

For companies that really do want to change their staffs to better reflect diversity in the US, it’s time to go beyond words and take action. To help you do that, Computerworld talked to several people in the frontlines of promoting the hiring of Black people for tech jobs. Their advice was strong and unambiguous: Define the business case for diversity, then follow up with a determined action plan and establish the metrics to monitor the results and adjust course as needed. And perhaps even harder, learn to truly connect with the Black community to establish the relationships that lead to sustainable diversity.

Some of what they had to say may make you uncomfortable, given the mixture of frustration, weariness, and determination they experience. But a common theme was that the dominant, privileged culture — mainly white and Asian — in tech needs to get outside its comfort zone and get a glimpse of the world the Black community experiences.

“White people haven’t lied to Black people about how they see them,” said Mike Jackson, CEO of the jobs site and consultancy Black Tech Talent, referring to America’s ugly history of slavery, institutionalized “Jim Crow” segregation, and casual discrimination. “But white people lie to white people about where things stand,” he added, referring to an insular culture in which even white people with no intent to discriminate reinforce a false narrative outside their own bubbles.

Tackling systemic racism takes a systemic effort

While there are some individual racists in society and in organizations, it’s systemic racism that thwarts broad progress. Systemic racism doesn’t mean racist intent or action by individuals; it means that the system is designed or has evolved to function in a specific way, reinforcing itself over time in a way that keeps leading to the same results. in the case of tech employment, they work to the disadvantage of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people, as well as women in general.

“Current systems are set up to propagate what we already have,” says Lauren Romansky, managing vice president of Gartner’s HR practice. Simply put, people hire people they know from sources they know, so their hires are like them. The result is exclusion, though not done intentionally.

The insularity of an organization is especially problematic “when you are hiring for roles that are complex, networked, or need results yesterday,” Romansky says. In those situations, “the inclination to hire what you know is greater. The pool you are pulling from is not diverse from the beginning.”

That phenomenon may partially explain why the tech industry especially struggles to hire Black and other non-white workers. By contrast, government, finance, and healthcare have done better in hiring Black IT professionals. Larger organizations in those traditional industries typically have more explicit processes around hiring from a diverse community and take a longer, more systemic view of staff development. For example, they may rotate promising staffers among jobs to build their expertise for eventual management roles.

In government, such processes are typically mandated, and not just for staff — contractors and vendors must typically meet diversity requirements. That creates a network of diversity within and adjacent to the organization.

That reality speaks to the need for an intentional, broad, long-term effort to increase diversity, Romansky says. It greatly helps if there is a business case, too. “You need to know why you are doing it. Often having a team with different perspectives helps increase profitability and success. Sometimes the business case is around societal value,” she says. “You also need to know the consequences of not doing it. You will be further away from the societies you will be serving and operate within.”

Two Black executives — Black Tech Talent’s Jackson and Elizabeth Cotton, executive director of Black Tech Link, a San Diego-area nonprofit and meetup — who are focused on increasing the hiring and retention of Black people in the tech sector, go further; they say a business case is essential to ensure that the commitment is both real and sustained, as well as measured. Jackson says it is critical to not treat Black employment as a charitable effort. That makes it discretionary.

mike jackson black tech talent Black Tech Talent

“Most [Black employees] would leave a company for a more inclusive one. And most would stay for cultural fit over money.” — Mike Jackson, CEO,
Black Tech Talent

“There has to be a business advantage to be sustainable,” he says, “because these are corporations. You need to have those conversations at a high level from a business standpoint, not a charity standpoint.” Those business advantages can be filling unfilled positions, creating better products by having diverse perspectives, and reducing the costs of future hiring by increasing retention.

Based on his surveys, Jackson notes, “If they are in the right culture, most [Black employees] would stay for a large part of their career.” Likewise, he adds, “most would leave a company for a more inclusive one. And most would stay for cultural fit over money even though they come from less money.”

Only once you have the business benefits clear can you come up with metrics and processes to increase diversity, Gartner’s Romansky says. You also need governance. “Only then can you begin the conversation about sourcing.”

Often, organizations put the hiring burden on HR and diversity councils, yet it is not they who do the actual recruiting, evaluating, and hiring. “Hiring managers are distributed, with multiple objectives and goals,” she notes, and it’s easy for them to neglect diversity awareness and actions, given that recruiting, hiring, and managing are just part of their work. “It’s really a change-management process.”

It’s also a long-term sustained process. “It’s not a surface-level challenge, and so it won’t have a surface-level solution.... You need a lot more patience and tolerance for what it takes,” Romansky says. Although the emphasis on speed and agility in recent years has worked against long-term staff development efforts, “organizations are still committed to development, just in a more chaotic and unpredictable environment,” she says.

As Black Tech Link’s Cotton says, “This is not something you do for Black History Month. You have to do it all year, every year.” Success means having roughly the same percentage of Black people in your company as in your community, not just one or two, she adds. But often, the diversity effort stops at that one or two. Cotton recalls talking to an employee at a local company who was initially excited to have been interviewed by her company for Black History Month — “until she realized she was Black History Month at her company.”

Making a real connection

Even if they reach out, many organizations don’t actually engage with the Black community in a meaningful way. Showing up at a jobs fair or posting listings at a Black-oriented referral site is not enough. Styling your website logo in red, black, and green, or issuing a press release supporting Black people may make you feel good, but such actions don’t actually bring about diversity.

elizabeth cotton black tech link Black Tech Link

“Take yourself out of your comfort zone and reach out [to Black organizations].”
— Elizabeth Cotton, executive director, Black Tech Link

For example, Cotton recalls a Black engineering fair she was involved with in Minneapolis some years ago. She got a large consumer goods company to help fund the event, and the company sent a group of representatives to the fair. But, Cotton says, they were all members of the diversity and HR teams, not a single engineer or scientist.

“So the Black student and engineers couldn’t have real conversations. It was a missed opportunity for [the company's] technical teams to be in the room.” Not only did it send a message that the engineers didn’t really care about Black prospects, it meant that the crucial networking that so often leads to hiring couldn’t happen.

Likewise, in her current work in San Diego where she leads the Black Chamber of Commerce and the local chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers, in addition to running the events firm Career Mingle and the nonprofit Black Tech Link, Cotton recently worked with a local group called San Diego Code School that teaches Black high school students how to code — an effort to bring Black people into the tech employment pipeline. Despite ongoing diversity-outreach relationships with several of the city’s major tech firms, she says not one has offered apprenticeships for the program’s Black students.

Cotton cites a three-year effort to engage Intuit, for example, that did lead to its executives speaking at Black events. “But what I really want are apprenticeship opportunities for African Americans,” she says. Intuit told Computerworld that in January 2021 it began discussing possible programs with San Diego Code School and that it has begun working with on a software apprenticeship program for girls, among other educational efforts aimed at underrepresented communities. For Cotton, that extended timeline has been frustrating.

Overt racism is rarely the cause of such misfires. Instead, it’s a consequence of staying in your comfort zone. So “take yourself out of your comfort zone and reach out,” Cotton advises. She recalls the Portland, Oregon, FBI office reaching out to her after realizing there were no Black workers in that office — a simple action that is often lacking.

And, she notes, “acting on it is not having white male managers put it on a white woman to figure it out.” It can’t be just something handed off to HR or the diversity team — everyone has to engage, especially hiring managers and the staff they seek to augment.

“For a diversity advocate to make a recommendation on hiring is one thing, and those HR people may advocate for [engaging these Black] professional organizations, but if your technical teams and hiring managers aren’t in those same circles, they don’t hire Black candidates,” Cotton says.

Black Tech Talent’s Jackson advises including Black people in your diversity strategy’s formulation from the get-go, and if you don’t have any, “hire a consultant — call me.” But don’t just assume your Black employees will join your diversity efforts, Jackson says. Some will want to, but others will want to focus on the job they were hired for and not have to take on diversity issues simply because they are Black, Jackson notes. Announce your intended efforts to the company at large so interested Black workers can choose to participate on their own, he advises.

It’s also critical to treat each group as a group, not lump everyone who is not a white male into the diversity bucket. “Each group requires special attention,” Cotton says — they have different cultures, different experiences, and different histories. “Did you take the time to talk to the Divine Nine sororities and fraternities, to Black engineers and Black PR organizations, or did you just show up?”

Color-blindness can also be a problem. You have to see race to make the effort to change your mix, so you can explicitly look for diversity and acknowledge the differences that exist. White people typically have very different experiences than Black people, but they aren’t aware of the differences. Black Tech Talent provides a podcast that discusses issues around hiring and retaining Black technologists, which can help companies see beyond their own experiences.

Such cultural blindness can lead to miscues in interviews and beyond, Jackson says. “To have a successful interview, you need a sense of relatability with the hiring manager. But as an interviewer, you need to be careful that your ‘get to know you’ references aren’t exclusionary, like golfing, hunting, or going to the cabin. Don’t feel guilty about those differences, but know what they could be. Instead, be open-ended, like asking, ‘What are you into?’, ‘What are your hobbies?’, ‘Tell me about yourself outside the job,’ or ‘We want to get to know you as a person.’”

Hiring is just the beginning

Bringing more Black people into tech is important and necessary. But the effort does not stop there. You want to retain and develop the people you do hire, and keep looking for more. There are a lot of issues involved, but the experts we spoke to outlined some to prepare for:

Beware the token approach. You don’t want a Black employee (or your staff at large) to feel they were hired only because they are Black, or that they must act as the champion, cheerleader, or ambassador of all Black people. “You don’t want to tokenize,” says Romansky. “People didn’t sign up to be the spokesperson for their group.”

As Jackson says, a Black engineer trained to be an engineer, not a diversity lead. And both Jackson and Cotton describe the weariness that Black people can have in constantly having to advocate for their communities and educate white colleagues, especially as change is so slow, and not being seen primarily for their skills and other attributes.

Also be careful in your career development efforts, advises Romansky: “Don’t pigeonhole people based on their background, but do encourage and adapt to what is different.”

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