The way we access good tech jobs in this country is essentially a pay-to-play model: you need to spend a lot of money to make a lot of money. If you don’t have the opportunity to graduate from college, you’re shut out of many of those jobs. And that’s it. There die our hopes for an equitable tech workforce. There’s not a DEI workshop in the world that can change that, and we need to stop pretending that there is. Equity cannot be achieved by coloring inside the lines of a system that is inherently inequitable.
Tech workers will have to rally around a shared vision, led by Black and Latinx perspectives, of what an equitable workforce would look like. We’ll need to work together to delineate a body of principles. And we need to realize that body of principles by organizing for their adoption throughout the industry.
Access to jobs is a resource like any other. It’s like gold: valuable precisely because it is exclusionary. There is a class of people who benefit materially from the exclusion of another class of people. This is not an unfortunate byproduct of the model; it is the model.
Equitable education is only part of the solution. In 2014, I launched Resilient Coders to this end. It’s a highly competitive free and stipended coding bootcamp for people of color. I led that organization for eight years, and we’ve connected hundreds of alumni with jobs paying salaries averaging in the mid-nineties. We’ll do more under the leadership of Ayanna Lott-Pollard. But let’s not mistake the tourniquet for a cure. We, as an entire field, are still in the business of marching against the wind. It's time to shift the direction of the wind.
My own take boils down to four truths. They are not meant to be comprehensive or monolithic. It’s a framework, not a prescription.
Wealth and race must cease to be factors in someone’s ability to launch, sustain, and advance a career in tech.
Let's break that down into three example corollaries.
We must level out the privilege of time. Some young adults are able to hang out at home, or in their dorm room between classes, rather than work. This affords them the time to self-teach, upskill, and build the side projects that will impress their interviewers. They can also hold out for their dream job and be a little picky rather than taking the first offer they get. For some folx, the need for income is too great to wait.
Democratize the professional network. Young people from affluent families are more likely to be exposed to lucrative career opportunities, more likely to regard those career paths as accessible to them, more likely to receive the sort of informal mentorship and preparation that will give them a leg up over competitors, and more likely to know someone who knows someone who can connect them with a job. If we want race and wealth to cease being factors in someone's professional success, we must build recruitment efforts that counterbalance the privilege of network.
No more demanding that candidates have a bachelor’s degree. We can't begin a conversation about equitable employment in tech until training is free to the student. This brings us to our second truth.
The economically oppressed must have access to top-tier education that is radically free to them, relevant to industry, and conducive to high-paying careers.
The cost of tuition is ballooning out of control and creating a massive crisis of student loan debt in America. In the year 2000, we had, collectively, $200 billion in student loans. In 2020, we reached $1.7 trillion, with the average college student graduating with $32,000 of debt. This is wildly out of reach for the average American, who cannot produce $500 in a medical emergency. For the impoverished, this is not even remotely an option.
It's also not a great filtering tool if you're trying to hire for talent. The wealth and socioeconomic status of a student’s parents are more important than her actual talent when it comes to graduating from college. If she has low test scores but her parents are among the top socioeconomic quartile, she has a 70% chance of graduating from college. If she has top test scores, but her parents are among the lower socioeconomic quartile, her chances of graduating from college are 30%, according to a study by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. Talent matters; privilege matters more.
The onus of paying for training cannot fall on the student. Unfortunately, subsidized education is unlikely to come from the government right now because we have elected to chronically underfund public education. A wave of conservatism swept through White America in the late seventies and early eighties, during which state budgets were slashed and public amenities defunded. State universities, once a model of economic mobility, became unaffordable to most students; particularly to Black people, whose parents and grandparents were not allowed to benefit from the postwar boom. The chasm is still widening today. There’s no reason to suspect or hope that this will end anytime soon, even though economic mobility is good for tax revenue and for business.
We can't sit around and wait for education to become affordable again; rent's due at the end of the month, and it took Congress a week to elect a Speaker. We'll need to do it ourselves.
For starters, we need to remove the bachelor’s degree requirement and conduct on-the-job training for all early-career engineers. Companies should be doing this anyway. Allow your new engineers to experiment, fail, learn, and grow. Be clear about expectations, and reasonable about timelines. Make sure they have the resources necessary to continue their journeys and feel like they're in a space in which it's safe to ask questions. Formalize this somehow, such that everyone understands what the expectations are. Too many first-time managers who don't know how to manage are bullying out their “non-traditional” hires by moving the goalposts. This allows them to neatly fire the employee that had been thrust upon them by their executive leadership and make the case that they need to hire someone with a more “traditional” background. This happens all the time.
Companies have a civic responsibility to the cities that host them and to the people that live there.
Companies are importing their workforce from privileged communities, paying them lots of money, and essentially underwriting a skyrocketing cost of living as affluent newcomers pay an expensive game of musical chairs with each other for a diminishing number of available homes. Is there a role for companies to play in neutralizing their own contributions to the gentrification crisis? Can they—and should they—aspire to be “gentrification-neutral” by committing to hiring and training equitably?
This is not charity. It's justice.
Workers need not be treated as requiring “help” or charity, which are dynamics that can lend themselves to inequitable power constructs. What we need is justice. As long as one person’s economic liberation is dependent on another person’s charity, they can never be equals. We need to need each other.
I’ve written this piece for a specific reason. And such is also the case for my book. I grew tired at Resilient Coders of launching our graduates into the stratosphere just so they could land on the bottom rung of someone else’s ladder. We’ve grown tired of warning hardworking Black and Brown people that they might have to contort themselves into pretzels to fit into someone else’s space, culture, and expectations because the pay is good. There is a strong leftist counterculture within tech that needs to come up off the bench. This is a call to organize around a shared body of principles, based on the lived experiences of people of color in tech, of what equitable employment really means. There’s no cavalry coming. No one will fight for economic justice except for those who choose to do so.
About the Author
David Delmar Sentíes is the founder and former executive director of Resilient Coders, a highly competitive, free, and stipended nonprofit coding bootcamp that trains people of color from low-income backgrounds for high-growth careers as software engineers. Resilient Coders was recognized by the White House in 2016 and has been featured in national media, including NPR and TechCrunch. He is the author of What We Build with Power: The Fight for Economic Justice in Tech.