Ibrahim found life as a very lonely black programmer
Ibrahim Diallo won his first computer at age five, which sparked a lifelong passion for programming.
He has worked as a software engineer in the U.S. for 12 years and, in 2018, wrote a widely read blog about how he was fired by a machine, addressed by the BBC.
Now, when racial issues are back in the spotlight in America and beyond, he shared his experience of being a black programmer with the BBC.
From college to the workplace, I couldn't help but notice that something was missing. Well, some people are more specific. Where are my fellow black software engineers?
Black people represent 13% of the US population, we are naturally a minority. But in the technology workforce, we are losing. Among the eight largest technology companies in the country, blacks represent only 3.1% of the workforce. If you rely only on software engineers and those who work in IT, the number drops even more.
Companies report a percentage when asked about the number of black employees. But these numbers can be deceiving. How many presidents of the United States were black? The answer is 2.2%. It seems more tolerable than the reality of just one. So a better question should be: what is it like to be a black programmer? The short answer: it is lonely.
I am a Guinean citizen, attended French school in Saudi Arabia and now lives in California. I grew up listening to several languages spoken around me every day. It was this experience that shaped my unusual 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 have a hard time guessing where I am from phone interviews. They can never say that I am black.
Ibrahim wants to see much more diversity in the technology industry
In 2011, I worked for a company that employed 600 to 700 people. That meant that, on my 30-person team, I was the only black person. On the entire floor were four blacks, each on his own team. The first time I met one of my black classmates, it was like a school break.
I had so many questions. Who are you? Where you are from? What school did you go to? How did you become a programmer? But the only thing I said was, "Do you want to be a best friend?" We are still friends today.
I spent years working as a consultant, jumping from company to company, carrying out projects that lasted from a few days to a few months. In all the teams I worked with, I met only one other black software developer.
I worked for AT&T in a department with around 150 employees. We were mainly engineers and technical managers. However, we were two black software engineers. Where are the other black developers? (The BBC 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, on the first day I show up for a job interview, the interviewer always looks surprised. As if he didn't expect me to be black.
When I work as a consultant, I can talk to the manager several times over the phone. But the day I arrive at the office in person, they are surprised. I usually receive: "I didn't know where you are from on the phone". The fact that they need to say it, says it all.
My surname is not common in the United States, so it is difficult to put myself in a specific group. Because of my education, my accent is equally unusual. I can't help imagining that if I looked more African-American or just African, I would be having fewer opportunities. However, I have a 0% success rate in video interviews.
I have been on job interviews where the receptionist would take me to a whiteboard room. When the interviewer enters, he says, "I'm sorry, you must be in the wrong room".
I was on the stage of a technology conference where I talked about building our infrastructure. When I leave the stage, the speakers ask all my technical questions to my non-technical colleagues.
I was going to see investors with my colleagues and, for some reason, I'm mistaken for someone who happened to be wandering around the building. My worst sin as a start-up founder is present when an investor is ashamed of making insensitive comments. When they realize, the only thing they want to do is leave the room. Good luck getting an investment from them.
I believe that these can be honest mistakes. Sometimes people make assumptions that turn out to be wrong. It's just human. There is no reason to accuse someone of racism. But when it happens repeatedly, you can't help but feel frustrated. You realize that people's natural instinct is to think that you don't belong here.
If you are black and participate in a Zoom meeting where everyone is white, someone will say, "I think someone came into our room by mistake". If you are black and take a group photo with your white colleagues one night, eventually someone will joke that all they see is your teeth. If you are black and stay with your white colleague, people always assume that you are the subordinate.
I would like to believe that my work speaks for itself. That the years I spent working with computers are reflected in my words. That my passion for programming exudes when I speak. But I also can't help thinking that I'm stuck in a numbers game. I am the 0.1% of black people who end up working as programmers.
Meeting black people at work seems like a fluke in the system. As if we were hired accidentally. We may have been hired to meet a quota to mark points of diversity. Although a very small quota. I can't be the only black person who wants to work in technology. Although here I am, the only black person on the videoconference at our weekly company meeting.
Peter Steiner, a New Yorker cartoonist, captured the main spirit of technology in one of his comics. It shows a dog sitting at a computer table, talking to another dog. It is captioned: "On the internet, nobody knows you're a dog".
The computer does not care about the color of your skin. You don't care who you belong to. It doesn't matter if you're a dog. It processes your commands in the same way. I got into computing because it was the coolest thing in the world. I developed a passion for it at a young age and found myself doing meaningful work.
But what I didn't know is that I don't belong. Wherever I go, I am the only black programmer.