Ibrahim Diallo had his first computer when he was five years old, which sparked a passion for life for all programming.
He worked as a computer engineer in the United States for 12 years and in 2018 wrote a widely read blog about how he was fired from a car, covered by the BBC.
Now, as race issues return to the center of attention in America and beyond, he has shared his experience as a black programmer with the BBC.
From college to the workplace, I couldn’t help but notice that something was missing. Well, some people to be more specific. Where are my fellow black software engineers?
Blacks represent 13% of the United States population, of course we are in the minority. But in the technological workforce, we miss it. Of the country’s top eight major tech companies, blacks represent only 3.1% of the workforce. If you only count the software engineers and those who work in IT, the number plunges even further.
Companies report a percentage when asked for the number of black employees. But these numbers can be misleading. How many presidents of the United States were black? The answer is 2.2%. It seems more tolerable than the reality of one. So a better question should be: how does it feel to be a black programmer? The short answer: it’s alone.
I am a Guinean citizen who attended French school in Saudi Arabia and now lives in California. I grew up listening to multiple languages spoken around me every day. This experience is what shaped my less-than-common accent. My French is not French, my Fulani is not Guinean, my Arabic is not Arabic and my English is certainly not American. As a result, interviewers find it hard to guess where I come from in the telephone interviews. They will never be able to say that I am black.
In 2011, I worked for a company that employed 600 to 700 people. This meant that in my team of about 30 people I was the only black person. On the whole floor there were four black people, each in their own separate team. The first time I met one of my black colleagues, it was like a rest in elementary school.
I have had so many questions. Who are you? Where are you from? Which school did you go to? How did you become a programmer? But the only thing I said was, “Do you want to be best friends?” We are still friends to this day.
I have spent years working as a consultant jumping from one company to another realizing projects that lasted from a couple of days to a few months. In all the teams I have worked with, I have met only one other black software developer.
I worked for AT&T in a department that had around 150 employees. We were mainly engineers and technical managers. Still, we were two black software engineers. Where are the other black developers? (The BBC has asked AT&T for an answer to this, but has not yet received one.)
I don’t think it’s accidental. My experience of getting a job as a software developer is full of unfair treatment. For example, the first day I introduce myself for a job interview, the interviewer always seems surprised. As if he didn’t expect me to be black.
When I work as a consultant, I can speak to the manager on the phone several times. But the day I come to the office in person, they are taken aback. I often get: “I can’t say where you’re from on the phone.” The fact that they have to say it tells you everything.
My surname is not common in the United States, so it’s difficult to fit into a particular group. Because of my education, my accent is equally unusual. I can’t help but imagine that if I played more African American or only African, I would have had fewer opportunities. However, I have a 0% success rate with video interviews.
I’ve been to job interviews where the receptionist will take me to a chalkboard room. When the interviewer arrives, he says, “I’m sorry, you must be in the wrong room.”
I was on stage at a technology conference where I talked about building our infrastructure. When I step off the stage, the talking heads instead ask all my technical questions to my non-technical colleagues.
I’d go find investors with my colleagues and for some reason, I’m wrong for someone who has just been wandering around the building. My worst sin as a start-up founder is to be present when an investor embarrasses himself by making insensitive comments. When they realize it, the only thing they want to do is leave the room. Good luck getting an investment from them.
I believe these can be honest mistakes. Sometimes people make assumptions that turn out to be wrong. It is only human. There is no reason to accuse anyone of racism. But when it happens again and again and again, you can’t help but feel frustrated. You realize that people’s natural instincts are to think they don’t belong to this.
If you are black and attend a Zoom meeting where everyone is white, eventually someone will say, “I think someone joined our room by mistake.” If you are black and take a group photo with your white colleagues one evening, eventually someone will make the joke that all they see is your teeth. If you are black and go out with your white colleague, people will always assume that you are the subordinate.
I’d like to believe that my job speaks for itself. That the years spent tinkering with computers are reflected in my words. That my passion for programming exudes when I speak. But I can’t help but think I’m involved in a numbers game. They are 0.1% of black people who end up working as programmers.
Meeting black people in the workplace seems to be a fluke in the system. As if we were hired by accident. Maybe we’re hired to meet a quota to get diversity points. Although a very small share. I can’t be the only black person who wants to work in technology. Although here I am, the only black person in the video conference during our weekly corporate meeting.
Peter Steiner, New Yorker cartoonist, captured the central spirit of technology in one of his comics. It shows a dog sitting at a computer desk talking to another dog. It is subtitled: “On the Internet, nobody knows that you are a dog”.
The computer doesn’t care about the color of your skin. It doesn’t matter which group you belong to. It doesn’t matter if you’re a dog. Process your commands anyway. I was passionate about computer science because it was the most beautiful thing in the world. I developed a passion for this at an early age and saw myself doing a significant job.
But what I didn’t know is that I don’t belong. Wherever I go, I’m the lone black programmer.