A BITCON 2018 Recap: Stomping The Divide

Nana attended the inaugural Blacks in Technology conference in October 2018 and reports back on how we can all work together to "stomp the divide" in our industry.

As a minority developer in this industry, I have sometimes struggled to find a cultural fit in my career. However, I am thankful to work at Sparkbox, a close-knit web-development company that supports underrepresented people in the tech industry.

Last month, fellow Sparkboxers and I attended the inaugural Blacks in Technology Conference in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota. It was a conference aiming to Stomp The Divide. Stomping the divide entails establishing a blueprint of technical excellence and innovation by providing resources, guidance, and motivation to surpass the industry standards as a minority.

Ben Callahan, Rob Harr & Nana Thompson standing togather at BITCON2018
Sparkbox President Ben Callahan and Vice President Rob Harr accompanied me to the conference. This is what support from your company looks like.

The highlight of the conference to me was seeing the workshops and the interactions of the participants who came from so many different backgrounds. Below are my takeaways from BITCON about how we can all stomp the divide.

Culture of Empathy

Tech companies have long noted that web developers with the necessary skills and expertise from minority groups are underrepresented in the industry. Some have blamed it on a pipeline issue. The idea of “cultural fit” in an organization is a prevailing checkbox throughout the recruitment process, which can put an underrepresented person at a disadvantage. The reasons for this include:

  • Employees at the company may not look like them or fall into the same demographics
  • Stereotypes of respective underrepresented groups may factor into evaluating the person without getting to know them
  • Lack of empathy for underrepresented employees

Company cultures with a strong understanding and practice of empathy is so important. At BITCON, Saron Yitbarek, the founder of the Code Newbie podcast, introduced her concept of empathy with underrepresented people trying to break into the industry. Yitbarek said that she sets up her interviews with industry leaders on her podcast as if she is not knowledgeable on the subject matter, which is usually not the case. This creates the opportunity to ask great questions and truly connect, rather than putting the pressure on herself or her guests to fit into a box of what’s expected of them. Approaching interactions as honestly and empathetically as possible truly gives everyone, including minority employees, the chance to shine.

Become a Tech Influencer to Change the Game

The career path for a minority developer such as myself may be the same as any other person seeking a way forward in the industry, regardless of their race. One of the biggest differences for minorities, however, is the bias that occurs in recruiting due to stereotypes. To help dispel these stereotypes, minorities may find it useful to become “tech influencers,” to serve as shining examples of what success looks like when diversity and inclusion are embraced in a company.

Tech influencers in this aspect are not the characters you see on social media platforms, but ones who help companies understand the importance of having a diverse perspective in all aspects of how they recruit, retrain, support, and promote employees. This quote from Catherine Pulsifer, who has published a series of motivational books, encompasses this idea:

“We are all different, which is great because we are all unique. Without diversity life would be very boring.”

At BITCON2018, I met Steve Buchanan and Shonnah Hughes, tech influencers who work to promote products created by Microsoft and Salesforce respectively. These two tech influencers discussed in their workshop the unconventional paths they took in their careers, which included these tips:

  • Know your why
  • Build your brand
  • Help others

One of the core tenets of being a tech influencer is to help and inspire others who aren’t as knowledgeable or advanced in their career as you may be. Apprenticeship programs, such as the one Sparkbox runs, are a door through which underrepresented development or designs aspirants, such as myself, can seek to be influenced by industry leaders such as Sparkbox and the litany of sponsors at the conference.

Join a Community Committed to Diversity

My last big takeaway from attending BITCON2018 is the importance of attending community-building events like it. Conferences such as BITCON help serve as a blueprint for diversity and inclusion programs to stomp the divide. BITCON2018 creates a good start to help underrepresented groups obtain opportunities to work in the tech industry. Investing in diverse communities helps serve as a framework for collaboration with underrepresented communities. I myself was hired at Sparkbox after a chance meeting with Ben at a Blacks in Technology meetup in Cincinnati, OH. If underrepresented people are hired on at a company and are successful in their respective roles, it’s a good start to a pipeline for recruiting and creating a strong network of diverse professionals both locally and even across the country.