Minority IT pros face glass ceiling

Robert D. Blackwell Sr. has seen a lot of progress by African-American IT professionals since he first joined the industry nearly 40 years ago. After graduating from Wichita State University, Blackwell started his career in 1966 at IBM Corp., where he designed applications for hospitals and universities.

In 1992, after working his way up the management ranks at the company over more than 25 years, he started Blackwell Consulting Services Inc., an IT consulting firm in Chicago. With nearly 300 consultants and an estimated US$36 million in revenue last year, Blackwell’s firm has become one of the largest minority-owned management and IT firms in the U.S. Late last month, the company announced a merger with another Chicago-based IT consulting firm, Electronic Knowledge Interchange.

Computerworld spoke with Blackwell, 67, about the merger, the state of the IT consulting market and the challenges of being a black IT professional.

Tell me about the fit between Blackwell Consulting and EKI.

It’s a very nice fit. They specialize in application development, and we’re more of an old-line classic IT consulting firm, where we do several things, including application development, network and management consulting. So we think it’s a perfect blend.

And we’ve known them for a long time — we’re both based in Chicago, and we’re both in the same building. So it’s very convenient, and we’ve worked together in the past, so we feel very good about the opportunity, and it gives us a chance to scale. We have about 300 people in our firm. Together we’ll have about 400 people. We’ve got everything in agreement; we should sign the documents this week.

How is the market for IT consulting right now? Has there been an uptick in demand for consulting services and, if so, has that led to an increase in consulting fees?

It is getting better. I’ve been in the business since 1966, and I tell people the IT business is a great business every year I’ve been in it. But when the dot-com implosion, 9/11 and a bad economy hit you all at once, it’s been a very difficult environment.

But this year and at the end of last year, things were getting a lot better. We grew our revenue base by about 20 per cent. Pricing is getting a little bit easier. It’s getting so you could make a little money. For a while there, people were preoccupied with rates, and it was a dog-eat-dog market. The market from a pricing point of view is getting a little bit better. I wouldn’t write home to Mom about it yet, but it is getting a bit better.

What are the key challenges your organization faces as an African-American-run IT consulting firm?

Well, I’m 67 years old, and I think you have to put this in perspective. When I was in college in my 20s, I couldn’t stay in a lot of hotels around the country. Has there been a lot of progress made? Yes. But if you look at the top 100 black enterprise accounts and the IT firms that are in there, we are about seventh or eighth. And every one of those firms is doing work for the federal government. That suggests to me that IT consulting, like a lot of other consulting, depends upon relationships, reputation.

If you’re an African-American firm, it’s almost certain that you’re a small firm, and companies prefer to do business with known brands. Also, African-Americans aren’t as integrated into society, so when it comes to being in fraternities together, going to church together, living in the same neighbourhoods together, people have formed relationships with people they trust and have done business with over time — so African-American companies find it hard to land high-caliber work.

That’s the challenge — trying to connect with higher executives to do high-caliber work. You keep pushing after it, but it’s difficult.

What steps can be taken to address this?

First of all, you have to demonstrate to people that you can do the work, get yourself reasonably well known in the community to build relationships with decision-makers and publicize your story. But the most important thing you have to convince people (of) is that diversity is a good thing.

We have 35 developers and architects whose first language is Spanish. Nobody would think that an African-American firm would have that many Hispanics working for them. We also have many Indians and Russians working for us. When you have these very diverse cultures coming together, you benefit from language expertise and differences in approaches.

How would you characterize the current environment in corporate IT for African-Americans?

There’s been a tremendous amount of progress over the past 25 to 30 years. Having said that, you don’t see very many African-Americans in the top (IT) jobs. There’s this sense that there’s a glass ceiling as they move forward.

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