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Want more Minority or Female Engineers? Stop What You're Doing.


You might be mistaken…

If I’m standing around in casual clothes, particularly after a week of not shaving, it’s hard not to assume I’m just another large Latino guy who doesn’t know much. I admit sometimes I step into places this way and stay quiet to see how long it’ll take before someone notices that I’m paying full attention and tracking with whatever discussion is being had.

Between you and me, when no one is looking, if you see a large Latino guy in sweats, with a ball cap on, what’s your inclination? You think business exec? Computer geek? Public speaker? Probably not.

Hey I don’t blame you. I once presented some technical matters to a group of business folks from a native American tribe, and I (unhappily) admit that I wondered if they could even track with what I was saying.

We’ve all been there – as sad as it is to say. But I want to share two stories with you today and then make some observations.

Story One: Berkeley

Way back when I applied to universities, I was accepted at Berkeley in their engineering department.

Before school started, my freshman year, the engineering school offered two weeks of classes just to prep students. It was open to any engineer that wanted it – but it was sponsored for minority engineers and funded for students who hadn’t had Chemistry or Calculus taught at their high schools. They told us all that college was really hard and we should do everything we could to prepare.

I’d taken Chemistry and Calculus AP courses in high school and passed with A’s. And the program was tons of hours and hard work, but I still did it.

In the end, it might have been for naught because I quit the school of engineering. They weren’t ready for my socialness.

Story Two: Berkeley Lab

When I first started working at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, as a software engineer on things related to the Internet, I had a senior guy invite me to his office to share some insights. He told me how hard a life it was to be technical on something like the Internet because of how rapidly it changed. He told me I’d have to spend a lot of time (extra time) keeping up, if I was going to be able to sustain a career in web technology.

That was 19 years ago. Since then I joined, built and sold several startups. And then I finally joined Emphasys. For almost two decades I’ve been building software as a service (SaaS) web products, and I still say up late to read about things so that I’m aware of what’s changing. Things haven’t gotten easier.

My Observations

Why did I share with you these two stories?

There’s been a lot of talk in the communities I’m in about women in software engineering. I’m not a woman so I can’t really speak to the challenges. But I’m a minority, so that’s got to count for something. And I find that many of the practices I hear as being “helpful” are exactly the opposite of what I would suggest.

I hear people encouraging conference planners to make sure enough women present. I hear people plan and run events specifically for female software engineers. And I reflect on my own experience and think these approaches are wrong.

I speak at conferences all year long – but never because someone said there needed to be some Latino representation. I speak at conferences because I do that pretty well. And I do it pretty well because no one put me on stage before I was ready. Instead, they told me how hard it would be and how much I should practice. And practice I did.

I lead software engineers in building complex and large software systems. But I was never hired because someone needed Latino managers. I was hired in each job because of a track record of effort and accomplishment. And I achieved those accomplishments because people prepped me in advance for how much work it would be.

I know a lot of minority and female engineers who work hard. They’re successful not because they’re role models of public speaking or event attending, but because they’re role models of hard work.

Am I saying that it will be easy? Not at all. Of those engineers I took classes with at Cal, over 60% dropped out the first year. Not of engineering. Out of school. So we need many approaches to help. But what I don’t think we need are artificial ways to separate people by race or gender.

Instead, our focus, in everyday and local contexts, should be to encourage greater involvement and attendance of minorities and female engineers to get started. And to provide real assistance to keep them engaged.

In the end I find that the single thing we can do, with more impact than almost anything else, is to encourage others – by telling them how hard things will be. The more we create opportunities for people to learn to work hard, the better off we’ll be.

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