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Minority Software Engineers are the Canary in the Coal Mine

Posted: October 31st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Companies, Programming | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

After reading Mitch Kapor’s post “Beyond Arrington and CNN, Let’s Look at the Real Issues” on minority software engineers and founders in Silicon Valley, I felt that I had to respond. I think that we are missing the real point of what it means that there is a dearth of qualified African-American candidates for employment, or as technical founders. What I have found is that in Silicon Valley, the quality of fairness is crucial. Everyone living and working here in the tech industry is terrified of biases of any sort, as it indicates a level of irrationality that would make any engineer nervous. Everyone here prides themselves on detached analysis of value.

I think we are all, including myself, a black engineer and entrepreneur, missing the point. The rate of incarceration, dropping out, divorce, alcoholism, drug-addiction, etc… are all far higher for black americans, also holding true for most minorities, than the mean. No matter what else happens at the point of hiring, the number of people available to hire will suffer, in general there will be fewer potential candidates period. No bias necessary. Many of the people who would have become the artists, programmers, and brilliant business people end up washing out by getting caught in the aforementioned traps.

Why do minorities get caught in these traps? Lack of education for their parents, breeds lack of education for the children. Lack of empathy for the parents, breeds lack of empathy for the children. Data bears this out. This is bad and it needs to be fixed, before attempting to hold industry accountable for their hiring practices.  While the desiccation of minority groups’ chances for success in this country is a serious problem, what is worse is what it portends for the rest of the country.

All of the above traps, are catching more and more people from other groups as well. The decay of the quality of basic education combined with the reduced capacity of many to find meaningful work at the entry level has all but stopped caste movement in our country. Just look around, how many people do you know who have transitioned from poverty to middle-class wealth who was born in the past 20 years? I can tell you, not many.

Eventually, it will not be a situation limited to minorities, the only people who will have the capability to found and or work at a high level in an engineering capacity will be the very few wealthy Americans, foreigners, and immigrants to this country who have had a quality education. Quality educations do not just happen in school either, they happen in a child’s free time. Does your kid just play Call of Duty? Or does COD make your kid curious as to how they make it so that they play COD interleaved with reading books on OpenGL?

It would be trivial to refactor the educational and social systems of our country to facilitate this curiosity, but the other problems of unstable home life, uneven attendance, huge differences of wealth in school districts, and criminally low standards for teachers as well as well as ridiculously low pay make it as impossible as bipartisan budget resolutions.

Startup founders, or people even in a position to think about creating a startup, are a minority of a minority of a minority. There are, strictly speaking, too many variables that could create the appearance of bias to be certain there is one. Only when you have minority founders showing up on Sand Hill Rd with 3 million active users per month, and a 3% conversion rate to paid, but still getting turned down left and right should we think there might be a problem. And let me tell you, if a green 2 foot alien showed up in Mountain View with those numbers, every VC in the valley would be lining up to fund them.

The most important thing for us to do now is to think about what prevents people from getting to the stage where they could consider starting a company, no matter their color, and fix those problems. Until then, it is a useless indulgence to talk about biases in the tech industry.