What Is It Like To Be Black In The Silicon Valley Tech Industry?
What is it like to be black in the Silicon Valley tech industry?
This question originally appeared on Quora, the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.
Answers by Makinde Adeagbo, Henry Robinson, Karim Liman-Tinguiri, Eghosa Omoigui, Jacob Vincent and Anonymous
Makinde Adeagbo, Black software engineer and founder of /dev/color
First: How I got here. I studied CS at MIT and then interned at Microsoft (twice) and Apple. I then started my career in 2007 as an engineer at Facebook, then Dropbox, and most recently Pinterest.
Outside of a few sporadic, and interesting, cases, my race has not affected my day to day life as an engineer. I haven’t felt like my ideas or viewpoints were looked down upon because of my race. Yes, I’ve had an interviewer ask me why the Black kids sit at the same table. Yes, I’ve had a coworker ask me if Black people really are as smart as Asians. While these cases were disturbing, they don’t define my experience.
Day-to-day life outside of work can be lonely. I’ve spent much of my time out here living in Palo Alto and Menlo Park. Both of those cities are less than 5% Black. This can affect one’s social and dating lives. I believe this is a big factor that keeps people from moving here from places like Washington, D.C. and Atlanta, both around 50% Black.
I’ve found that the Black folks in Silicon Valley have a really strong community. Everyone is always willing to help and share opportunities, which is an extension of the mentality that most folks of any race have in Silicon Valley. It was this spirit of helping one another that led to the formation of /dev/color in Summer ’15. Black engineers come together to help one another reach their career goals and build a deep sense of community. So far it’s supported more than 60 Black engineers in the area, and is expanding to more places around the country later this year.
Henry Robinson, Technology Enthusiast
I have lived and worked in several regions of the US (Northeast, Midwest, South, Silicon Valley). One thing I have noticed about being black in Silicon Valley is that (and I am generalizing) people tend to rely less on stereotypes when assessing people for the first time. Versus, when I lived in south and midwest where stereotyping minorities was very common.
It’s also been my experience that engineering and technology environments tend to be far more meritocratic than say a marketing department for example. Probably because it’s easier to measure contribution and cooperation/teamwork is valued over cutthroat competition.
BTW, a disclaimer. I don’t intend to suggest that there isn’t racism in the Bay Area or Silicon Valley. One just has to look at how segregated we all live to see that we aren’t living MLK’s dream.
The best way to describe the difference is that I feel far less racial tension in Silicon Valley. I don’t feel like I need to carry the “wait was that racist?” chip on my shoulder like I have had to do living in other places. For example, when a store clerk decides to help a white customer that is clearly behind me in line (this happens A LOT by the way!), my first instinct is not to break my foot off in his ass anymore. Because of the lack of tension, it’s easy to brush things off. In other parts of the country I don’t think that is the case.
Karim Liman-Tinguiri, worked at Facebook
Nothing special really. I just showed up everyday and coded like everyone else. I have never really felt like I was being treated differently (neither positively nor negatively). But then again, I only spent three months doing an internship at a single company (Facebook) in Palo Alto, CA so my experience is not necessarily statistically significant.
Eghosa Omoigui, Stage/Geo-agnostic Tech Investor & Startup Advisor
It makes one memorable, particularly if you have put in the 10K+ hours required to become a franchise player (hat tip to ‘Outliers’). Huge advantage, once you figure out how to use it. Being more of a giver and less of a taker helps.
Jacob Vincent, worked at Symantec
To my wife and I, race isn’t as much of an issue as in other cities where we’ve lived.
I’m always aware that I’m a black person, but it doesn’t feel to be as much of a publicly-imposed defining characteristic. Though this statement may seem naive and oblivious, I believe that the dearth of ‘soul’ (as my cousin likes to call it) is more due to factors within the black community, as opposed to groups of people actively trying to keep me out because I’m black. (Feel free to message me for elaboration, but I don’t want to take this discussion off-topic).
Maybe it’s because the Valley attracts the highly-skilled from all over the world. Maybe it’s because I live in the bluer area of the state. Maybe it’s because everyone is highly educated. Maybe it’s because everyone here have been indirectly forced to accept integration per se – whether it’s being funded by an Indian, or taught by a Nigerian, or meeting a Brazilian with whom you share enough of an idea to tap as a co-founder. Yes, from time to time I feel like the only black man or the only black family in the room/group/etc., but I do not feel as if I am treated differently or defined by that.
Updated Dec. 5
I work in Silicon Valley and find that people genuinely appreciate working in a diverse environment. Although Black Americans are underrepresented as compared to Asians, Europeans and other groups, I feel that I still get the advantages of working under such diversity. People are not surprised when I, an Black American, finally meet them face to face. In fact, people seek my advice, include me in making decisions, support my efforts to succeed and get promoted, and so on.
It still begs the question: why aren’t we more represented in the workforce? I can think of many reasons, none of which would include the fact that Black Americans don’t want jobs in The Valley. HR departments and hiring managers need to look beyond stale requirements and criteria for jobs. In my experience, there is a culture, competitiveness and intensity in The Valley that requires an adjustment of expectations. There are also many programs to help acclimate and advance those with the drive. Black American who are willing will find the tools to succeed.
In addition to competency, you are expected to have certain ‘soft-skills’, which are not easy to teach, learn or study if you haven’t had the exposure. There is little tolerance, patience or willingness to teach competency or soft-skills on the job and you are to have both on the first day. It’s highly competitive with many people applying for the same jobs in The Valley. It’s is also grueling work, requiring many hours, long commutes, and personal sacrifice. Black Americans understand and have demonstrated competency in such executive type skills and are no strangers to sacrifice and hard work.
Right or wrong, I do feel that much talent is over-looked by looking to narrow standards for candidate criteria, which probably hurts Black American candidates the most. Black Americans aren’t strangers to acclimating ourselves to new environments or hard work, but anyone, of any race, needs to have the right expectations about what The Valley demands and what it takes to survive in it and succeed. I think there needs to be a meeting of the minds between Valley employers and Black job seekers/workers.
Anecdotally, if you are a programmer or engineer, you don’t seem to need these ‘soft skills’. Unfortunately, Black Americans seem underrepresented – scratch that – Americans in general are underrepresented when it comes to degrees in math, science and technology, so to no surprise, the one easy way to get a job based on pure qualifications without soft-skills are unattainable for those who don’t have this specific experience; though it seems like a younger generation with STEM training is likely to change this in the upcoming years.
I must say, though, that I feel that being a woman presents more challenges, or at least the disparity seems more apparent. In many areas women represent a higher percentage of the workforce, yet occupy none or very little C-level positions. Personally, I’ve worked in a department where women represent 90% of the workforce, yet all the managers are men. In many ways, it is like a good –ol’ boys’ club, and whether you are Black American or not, if you are male, you seem to be regarded, or rewarded, more highly.
In summary, being Black in Silicon Valley may present more racism, but in certain ways, can seem better in this respect than other industries due to the opportunities available if you can get in. People are people and come with their own agendas, biases or prejudices, but the intensity, drive and corporate culture in The Valley lends itself to dampening the effects of such human weaknesses and if for nothing else, because there is a genuine need for high numbers of specialized workers and employees of different races to get the job done – at least at public companies that need to meet that bottom line. The bottom line is the bottom line, and if you can meet it, I’ve seen Silicon Valley turn a blind eye to race.
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