Black engineers join forces to boost diversity

Black engineers join forces to boost diversity

Makinde Adeagbo knows how isolating it can be to live and work in Silicon Valley as an African American. He says it’s even more isolating to be a software engineer here.

Adeagbo, who is an engineer at the San Francisco company Pinterest, says he can go weeks without spotting another black engineer in America’s tech hub.

“It’s not only that you are the only black person in the room or in the company, often times you are the only black person you see in Palo Alto or Menlo Park,” says Adeagbo, 30.

About 1% of engineers at Facebook and Google are African American. The population of Palo Alto, Calif. is 2% African American, Menlo Park, Calif., is under 5%.

Over the summer Adeagbo founded /dev/color, a nonprofit group for African-American engineers that officially launched on Wednesday. The group brings together engineers from top companies such as Facebook, Uber and Airbnb to provide support and a voice to African Americans and give them the opportunity to raise up the next generation, Adeagbo says.

Adeagbo says he hit on the idea while volunteering as a mentor to a couple of computer science students.

“These students knew they had someone who had their backs, whom they could look up to and reach out to when they needed help. I thought to myself: Every black software engineer could accomplish a lot if they had someone like this,” says Adeagbo. .

The name /dev/color is a reference to a common directory on computer systems “as well as our efforts to strengthen the community of Black software engineers, engineers of color,” he says.

Adeagbo’s /dev/color is joining Black Girls Code, Code 2040 and the Hidden Genius Project, a new and growing wave of enterprising organizations founded by African Americans aimed at addressing the scarcity of African Americans in the tech industry.

“Other black software engineers need to provide this for the black engineers coming behind them,” says Adeagbo, who is splitting his time between /dev/color and Pinterest. “We all need to work together to pull ourselves up and make sure we are accomplishing all that we can.”

The challenge is daunting: A fraction of the tech work force in Silicon Valley is African American and little progress has been made to address the problem. 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, the ones that back tomorrow’s Facebooks and Googles, are African American.

High-tech’s diversity problem is being met with a growing sense of urgency. The predominantly white male industry runs the risk of losing touch with the diverse nation — and world — that forms its customer base. At the same time African Americans are being excluded from the fastest-growing, highest-paying jobs in the nation.

“We are a community that helps one another, and part of that is that younger people get to see these role models: black software engineers who are getting into management, or trying to start their own companies or are becoming real experts in their technical domain,” Adeagbo says of /dev/color. “Those examples help lead someone to believe: I can do this because someone like me is doing this.”

The group has held fireside chats with tech pioneer Ken Coleman and Facebook’s chief technology officer Mike Schroepfer, and plans more in the coming months.

“It was a fun and engaging conversation,” Schroepfer says. “There were lots of great questions about careers in general and career advice, people talking through things any engineer or aspiring engineer would be interested in as well as the specific challenges of diversity in tech.”

To help make a concrete difference in members’ lives, /dev/color matches each member with another to offer guidance and set goals. In an online community members pick up the skills and connections needed to advance in the tech industry. Social events give African- American engineers a rare opportunity to mingle in an industry dominated by white men.

Rev. Jesse Jackson, whose Rainbow PUSH Coalition has urged the tech industry to take meaningful steps to close the racial gap, commended the effort.

“They are not just talking about the problem. They are acting,” he said.

It’s in Adeagbo’s nature to take action.

Born in Nigeria and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, Adeagbo says his parents nurtured his interest in science and math, sending him to every summer program they could find. Academic programs helped him prepare for college. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he honed in on software engineering.

“What always blew me away with mechanical engineering is that if you wanted to build a new car, it takes millions in capital, but if you want to write software to compete with Excel, you have access to the same tools as Microsoft does,” Adeagbo says. “It’s empowering.”

During summer he landed internships at Microsoft and Apple. He says he rarely saw any other African Americans. At Microsoft, he was the only African American on a 100-person team.

His first job out of college was at Facebook when it had about 300 employees. One of his first assignments: Work on the popular social network’s frequent service outages.

Adeagbo says he was drawn to solving big problems in the tech industry and beyond, in search of ways to make people’s lives “tangibly better,” working on software for schools in Kenya and coaching track in East Palo Alto, Calif.

Aston Motes, Dropbox’s first employee, was Adeagbo’s freshman roommate at MIT. He says his friend ascribes to the “each one, teach one” model of giving back that drives him to teach programming and chess to kids.

“One of the biggest things for Makinde the whole time we were in college was how much of an impact certain pre-college programs had on him. I think he’d agree that he and I probably wouldn’t have ended up at MIT without them,” says Motes who is on the board of /dev/color. “Throughout our professional careers, we’ve both gotten even greater appreciation for how guidance from mentors on seemingly small stuff like how to choose one startup over another can end up making a big difference.”

With /dev/color, Adeagbo is filling “a pretty big hole,” providing mentoring and fellowship for African-American engineers in Silicon Valley, Motes says.

“I think as the organization grows and matures, the mentor-mentee relationships are going to be where the big impact will come from,” Motes says. “We expect all of the mentees to end up super successful due to the advising they get. And then we expect them to become mentors, to give back to the organization what they got. And, as the network of super successful engineers grows, members will have a larger and larger pool of resources to tap in order to take their careers to the next level.”

Right now dev/color has 20 members, but Motes says /dev/color has ambitions to reach engineers around the globe and give them a place to start and stay in the industry.

“Kind of bold, but I think we can create an organization that can eventually be home to engineers of all career levels, all helping each other be better, all around the world,” Motes says.


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