CEO, Profectio

Technology is an international language, but looking around vendor conferences and IT events often shows one major group relatively underrepresented: the black IT professional. ComputerWorld Canada spoke to a variety of black members of the Canadian (and American) IT professional community in search of an answer as to why this is, and whether it’s changing.

All the interviewees love their jobs, and have had a positive experience all along the way, but being a black IT manager meant going against the grain from the very beginning.

“There’s no doubt about it — the black community has been sluggish in adapting to new technologies,” said Darryl Philip, TD Bank system infrastructure manager. This came from computers being a luxury for a while, which led to what Philip calls the “intimidation factor” filtering down.

This is, of course, changing, now that technology has gone so mainstream, but economic factors still can play a part. IBM Canada lead architect for the mainframe center of competency Mike Edwards said that high-school drop-out rates among black youths are still prevalent, along with a high number of single-parent families, which can make it difficult to provide the funds and time for math and science tutoring or college studies.

Even things like access to broadband Internet can hamper someone’s IT literacy and interest, said CATA president John Reid.

Parents play into it, too, said founding president of the defunct Black Information Technology e-Professionals (BITePRO) Leesa Barnes, who now runs Caprica Interactive Marketing. Many push their kids toward other high-paying professions because they might not be as aware of the potential to make a lot of money in IT.

Dave Forde, CEO of technology communications Web site Profectio and the chair of the Toronto-based IT event Tech Week, said that he’s always noticed the lack of fellow black people in IT. “IT and engineers tend to be predominantly European and Asian. You don’t see a lot of brothers and sisters in there,” he said.

Getting them interested sooner rather than later is important, and the onus for this often falls on black IT professionals working in the more visible IT companies, said Carin Taylor, senior manager of inclusion and diversity for Cisco Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif.

You need to have more black IT professionals at the management level to truly enable diversityDave Forde>Text

“The African-American community needs to come to the math and engineering sciences in general, and we need to get them a lot earlier, like in elementary school,” she said.

Citing black role models in the engineering and IT fields is one of Edwards’ tactics when addressing youth.

“I ask them, ‘Do you know what a SuperSoaker is?’ And then when they say, ‘Yeah…’, I tell them that it was invented by a black NASA scientist.”

Another way to win them over is to emphasize the business utility of IT. Ian Grant, general manager of engineering and architecture for Toronto Pearson International Airport’s IT division, said this might prove more attractive to possible applicants, plus it can give those with business acumen a better chance at eventually busting into management.

Outreach efforts could include advertising in the local community papers; mentoring those who express interest in computer science, math, or engineering; partnering with black associations to spread the word; and job-shadowing and internships. “It’s important to go back to the community and mentor, and be an active and visible representation (of the black IT community),” said Barnes.

This visibility is important, as it will give younger people concrete evidence of black success stories in IT and hopefully swell the ranks of those entering IT and, eventually, reaching the management suite. “You hear these companies saying how diverse they are, but they are the ones staffing the help desk and the call centre,” Forde said. “You need to have more black IT professionals at the management level to truly enable diversity.”

“Mentorship (from those at the management level) is really important, as IT moves so quickly,” said Aldin Jno-Baptiste, a program manager of tools and telephony for end-user services at IBM Canada. “Teachers might not know what is going on in the industry right now.”

Involvement with senior pros clearly is important. The long-running American Black Data Processing Associates organization has benefitted from the States’ larger black population (and thus a larger pool of black IT professionals) and a few decades of experience, but also through a chapter structure that uses both local and centralized leadership, a diverse membership (including IT professionals at all stages of their career, including students and entrepreneurs), and offering a variety of resources, from conferences and professional programs to job-seeker tools and student scholarships.

This model has flourished, spawning 55 chapters and thousands of members, but Canada has not been as successful — BITePRO was only functional for several years before it shut down in 2005 as a result of a lack of senior IT exec involvement, said Forde, along with funding issues and the management team moving on to other projects.

But, once a fledgling black IT professional enters the field, more and more companies have internal groups to support them. This includes IBM Canada’s Black IBM Network Group, and Cisco, with its Black Employee Network. IT manager Jeneen Baret of Cisco headquarters said that the purpose of the Cisco Black Employee Network isn’t to isolate or segregate the company’s black community. She said, “It’s open to everybody, so that people can understand different cultures by bringing people together.”

The future is not-so-white

Slowly yet surely, said our interviewees, more black people are entering the IT field. And, while progress is gradual and requires more community interaction, advocacy, and recruitment efforts, they have seen some changes, and are optimistic about the future. To help speed things up, said Forde, companies should start seeing diversity as an advantage, rather than an obligation.

“Canada is one of the most diverse countries, so there has to be an advantage there,” he said, suggesting that companies’ black IT staffers can be an asset in giving insight into new and foreign markets.

And, in a time of skills shortage, the black community should also be seen as a somewhat untapped asset for the IT industry. “Minority groups have traditionally gained the most when there was a market shortage, and with a tighter and tighter environment, employers are encouraged to spread a wider net when it comes to recruitment,” said Reid.

Hopefully, more and more black people will not only enter the industry and rise through the ranks, but will be visible IT advocates to those of the black community looking for a fulfilling, lucrative career choice. “(Black IT managers and executives) don’t get profiled enough, so people don’t know about them,” said Forde.

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