I recently saw the above photo of the Github team at their annual conference. I looked at it for a long time and eventually found myself upset.
Why? No one in this picture looks like me.
Now before I continue, I should probably offer two things:
- A WARNING: this might offend some people;
- A DISCLAIMER: I don’t care.
That said, here we go.
Maybe it’s just my perception, but the lack of Black/African-American men and women in technical fields like web design/development, computer programming/science, game design and hardware design really bothers me.
When I do encounter Black people in computer-related fields it’s either graphic design — in the form of the “flyer man” who makes all the club promotion materials for the eleventy-gazillion production/party planning groups in [insert city] — or it’s system administrators/IT-for-hire who took a few courses at DeVry, ITT Tech, Sandford Brown, etc. and started referring to themselves as a programmer, but little or no desire to continue learning all the new stuff that has come out since they graduated. It’s as if the “craft” of these professions has been reduced to a vocation or trade.
Now let me be very clear, I don’t think there is anything wrong with a technical or trade school. And as someone who likes to think of himself as a pretty advanced computer science guy — who has yet to actually graduate from any place beyond high school; I think self-learning and practical experience play huge roles in the development of some of the most influential players in the tech field. So I’m not discounting that road.
But this isn’t about my feelings on how you get to become or be called a “computer nerd”. Maybe there are millions of Black programmers/designers/developers out there (please point me in the right direction). My upset stems from something else: Why don’t I see people who look like me among the groups, societies, forums, conferences and presentations that push the computer/design field forward?
I’ve said to a number of my friends that I’ve often felt like Black people get into computer-related fields for what they think is good money. I think everybody else gets in it for everything else first and money later, something I call the 3C+1C — the challenge, the craftsmanship, the contribution and only finally; the cash. I think it’s the difference in these paradigms that creates this split. It appears that the Black people I’m referring to in computer fields think specs, standards, conferences, meetups, user groups, IRCs, etc are a waste of time. It’s like the idea of contribution — giving back techniques and best practices to the industry you’ve taken information from is not a priority or goal. It’s like craftsmanship is an afterthought as opposed to an integrated part of design and development. It feels like the challenge of computers is treated as pointless; because why should you have to understand how that algorithm or code snippet works if it gets you to something you can sell or have already sold.
My brother has an internet radio show about video games [1Life2Play]. I remember asking him back when he was getting started if he would talk about why so many of his Black friends play video games (at a much larger proportions than his White friends I would argue) yet none of them had considered designing a game. Of course this launched a salon-style debate on how much is the ability to enjoy something related to your ability or desire to create it — or something like it. But I argue, people that like great dishes want recipes so they can make them. People that like to watch sports tend to enjoy playing that sport. These situations have little to do with whether or not the person is a good cook or athlete — it has to do with the lengths people will go to integrate and put into practice the things they enjoy. The point being: we (Black people) are the consumers of so many cutting edge tools and technologies, but we’re anemically represented in the circles that do the work to make those technologies possible.
Of course this is all followed by the clichéd: I do know some Black people in the computer world/industry. I follow some of them on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, etc. But I gotta say, finding them was certainly the proverbial needle in a haystack. If you could see how internally excited I get when I see a well-designed website or application, well-formed markup or innovative design technique and then discover the creator was a Black person — I’m overjoyed.
Now for those of you who would read this and think computers are somehow race-agnostic and the point I’m making is somehow contrived: I beg to differ. Computer science as a field is definitely skewed in all kinds of ways. One glaringly obvious way is the fact that the vast majority of programming languages have vocabularies that favor the English language. Who exactly is that in favor of?
I just want to go to the next Mac/Adobe users group and not be the only Black person there. I want to tell my friends I’m working on a web project and not be asked who it’s for and how much they’re paying me — that they don’t baulk at the idea that I’m doing it to test out some new library I found, or brush up on a certain coding practice, etc. I’d like to see us in a photo at the Github conference or at the snapshots of WWDC. We’ve got Black boys and girls now feeling like they could actually be President — why can’t we inspire some of them to feel like they could be Mark Zuckerberg.
P.S. I’m glad to see there are a number of women amongst the group though.