Black engineers in Silicon Valley get big assist by Jessica Guynn

Black engineers in Silicon Valley get big assist by Jessica Guynn

SAN FRANCISCO — Ime Archibong was eating lunch on Facebook’s Silicon Valley campus with former colleague Makinde Adeagbo last year when Adeagbo pitched the idea for /dev/color, a nonprofit organization to bring together and grow the ranks of African-American software developers.

“We sat outside, right in front of the ice cream shop, and he was painting this vision for me of what he wanted to do,” Archibong recalls.

Adeagbo, who at the time worked at Pinterest, was one of the first black software engineers at Facebook and had forged a career path for other black engineers to follow. Now he aspired to do the same thing, only on an industrywide scale.

“That is something I cannot help but get behind,” Archibong, a software engineer who is now Facebook’s director of strategic partnerships, told USA TODAY.

/dev/color, a support network for engineers of color, officially launched a year ago and has since grown to 114 members, all black, many of whom often found themselves feeling isolated while navigating an industry dominated by white and Asian men.

On Friday, /dev/color held its inaugural conference on Facebook’s campus — “Onwards and Upwards: Advancing the careers of black software engineers” — headlined by venture capitalist Ben Horowitz and Facebook chief technology officer Mike Schroepfer and featuring sessions on such topics as how to go from engineer to manager and how to build a business with an engineering background.

The conference marks a major milestone for /dev/color, a reference to a common directory on computer systems and a nod to the organization’s mission. It’s expanding its offerings and its geographic footprint to New York with the backing of seven corporate sponsors that include Facebook, Google, Uber and Pinterest. And, for the first time, it’s inviting industry leaders to become members.

Adeagbo’s /dev/color is one of a growing wave of enterprising organizations — Black Girls Code, CODE 2040, the Hidden Genius Project — founded by African Americans that are aiming to close the racial gap in the tech industry.

Adeagbo came up with the idea for /dev/color while volunteering as a mentor to a couple of computer science students and worked on the project part-time while at Pinterest with the company’s blessing. Adeagbo left his engineering job at Pinterest earlier this year to dedicate himself to /dev/color when it was accepted into Y Combinator, Silicon Valley’s most famous — and most influential — incubator, graduating companies such as Airbnb, Dropbox and Reddit.

“We believe one of the best ways to inspire change is by empowering employees to be the change,” says Candice Morgan, Pinterest’s diversity chief.

The challenge before Adeagbo is daunting. A tiny fraction of the tech work force in Silicon Valley is African American. Only 1% of venture capital-backed start-ups are led by African Americans and less than 1% of general partners at major venture capital firms in Silicon Valley are African American.

Progress in changing the demographics is slow, and yet high-tech’s diversity problem has a growing sense of urgency. The tech industry, especially in its power center of Silicon Valley, runs the risk of losing touch with the diverse nation — and world — that form their consumer base. At the same time, African Americans are being shut out of one of the fastest-growing, highest-paying sectors of the American economy.

Hence the need for an innovative organization like /dev/color that can help black engineers form community and gain mentors, says Archibong.

“For folks who are underrepresented in a particular organization or in a particular industry, their ability to build that community, their ability to find mentorship and sponsorship from folks that look like them, it’s just challenging,” he says.

Archibong says he personally benefited from the example and the support of key leaders in the companies he has worked: Rodney C. Atkins, a high-ranking black executive at IBM, and Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer and author of the national bestseller Lean In.

“That Makinde is trying to intentionally build that into the fabric of the community is a beautiful thing,” Archibong says.

He lent his own support at Friday’s conference, leading a discussion on how to make the leap from software engineering to business leadership.

So far /dev/color’s “bread and butter” has been convening black engineers so they can learn from one another. Now Adeagbo’s opening up a new type of membership called “boost” so industry leaders can participate in small group dinners with black engineers.

“It helps build the networks of black engineers, which will support their careers long into the future. It also extends the networks of industry leaders to include black software engineers, allowing them to really get to know folks from this group,” Adeagbo said. “‘Do you know any awesome black engineers that you could hire?’ We want the answer to be ‘yes’ for every leader in the industry.”


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