It’s no surprise that Black people lack in numbers in tech. Because of this, we’re seeing more annual reports, more initiatives allegedly being put in place, but not as much real talk around the experience of someone that is Black in tech.
In our new recurring series Coding in Color, you’ll hear from Black technologists that work for startups and top companies, freelancers, and CTOs. These techies not only share how they got introduced to tech and how they perfect their skills, but they also unapologetically share deets on what most people avoid talking about (i.e. how they deal with microaggressions, racism, not fitting in with the workplace culture, codeswitching, and so much more).
Recently, we connected with Fred Burns, based in Dallas, Texas, who is a tech founder at Safr Management and a former corp America technologist. Fred sat and talked with us about his experience working while Black in Tech …and it got a lil juicy...
He shook the table a bit.
Get into his article below!
I’m Fred Burns, based in Dallas, Texas. I went to Jackson State University, an HBCU in the south.
Born and raised in Mississippi, I got a degree in Computer Engineering, but since graduating college, I’ve been more of a software engineer.
I got into tech basically from very humble beginnings….The lack of not having much in life…birthed a sense of innovation in me.
As a young boy, I’d get remote-controlled cars for Christmas.
I have nine brothers and sisters and everyone knew that remote-controlled cars were ALL I wanted.
I’d take the motors out or connect different power sources to make the motor go fast so…I have always been curious about opening things up and putting them back together.
Also I’m a boy from the hood…
I didn’t know anything about computer engineering. I didn’t even know what an engineer was in High School much less have seen code before.
My curiosity led me down many roads.
As I mentioned I was the kid that would try to figure out how drink machines made their selections or, messing with radios and at one point…I even made my own tattoo Gun, although that’s not something I’m necessarily proud of.
I graduated high school as valedictorian, and because I went through so much in my life, I always wanted to use my past experiences to help someone else.
I went to school to be a psychiatrist. I mean…I did a news interview and everything. But I had a mentor named Tyrone Keys, who knew about my past. He introduced me to an engineer named Carl Ray Fur and that opened my eyes to what an engineer was.
I joined Mississippi State University in the engineering facility, stayed for two and a half years and then transferred to Jackson State. I played football there and formed the base of my computer engineering background.
That first year was pivotal because that’s where I fell in love with it (coding)….It was the first time I saw a Mac lol
That’s why when I tell you I’m from the bottom of the bottom I mean it….But I wouldn’t trade it for nothing because it taught me how to make a way out of no way. So I stayed there. Took some programming classes. Learned how to create different devices. I’ve been in love ever since.
Without a doubt, people of color, especially Black people, are lacking in numbers in the tech field when compared to our racial counterparts.
Based on your experience and knowledge, what difficulties would you say black people are facing when trying to get jobs in tech? Is there a problem with the interview process, finding the jobs, or something else?
As an adult, I definitely recognize that there is a lack of black people in the tech field and a slew of unique issues we face trying to find jobs. This is something that I’m very passionate about. Because even from the interview process there are issues.
As an African American, we have to oversell ourselves in the interview process.
We’re being interviewed by people that don’t look like us. I’ve never been technically interviewed by another African American.
I was lucky because I was able to get into American Airlines. They gave me my first corporate America position working as a Software Engineer.
Luckily, they had a recruiting program, where they went and got the best of the best from around the United States.
But the truth is, my HBCU had a lot to do with that.
And although American Airlines is a great company and started this program from a good place….they still also wanted to make sure they hit their inclusion numbers.
To be clear you still have to perform. There are hundreds of people applying and they only select two but if we’re being real, that’s how I got in. My HBCU had a lot to do with it.
In terms of general interviewing, I didn’t know how hard it would be and how ingrained biases were until I started looking to leave American and began interviewing elsewhere.
People have unconscious biases against what a coder should look like and I’m 216 pounds with an athletic build. If I go to work or anywhere really without a suit on no one would ever think I write code.
But other races can come into the office with their GitHub t-shirt on and a pair of jeans and be thought of as a coder.
I don’t fit into that box.
It’s frustrating that we have to conform to what a coder looks like in order to even get to interview for these kinds of positions and then you’re interviewed by people that have a different background and a preconceived notion of who you are and what you should look like.
Another issue is that we’re not the demographic that heavily dominates the tech field.
We as African Americans have to be perfect to get noticed. We cannot fail or make mistakes compared to others interviewing for these roles.
They’re willing to take chances on those people that probably don’t know anything and it’s ironic because they get past the interview process and they come sit beside me and work and I’m like, I thought you’re supposed to be like this amazing coder???
That’s when you realize that these individuals were just given the opportunity.
But how do they get that opportunity?
Someone took a chance and passed the torch.
And my people, when they come and try to interview, they can’t get that opportunity.
They have to know everything. There’s no room for failure.
You have to go above and beyond to be the absolutely best candidate.
But with other races they’ll give excuses for hiring them like – Oh well, we like his personality. He has great potential.
And that’s why you see a lack of their representation.
Lastly, I worked at a Fortune 500 company in corporate America, with approximately 100 team members on my team. I was the only African American.
How’s that diversity and inclusion?
So how would we fix this?
The truth is, every culture takes care of each other and it doesn’t stop with the Indian population.
Different companies will have different rules and laws in place to say you have to meet a certain diversity percentage, but those rules and laws still equate to a very small amount.
Even if a company meets those percentages, that does not make those companies diverse at all.
And diversity does not just come from the color and background. It includes dealing with people across the world and in different phases of life.
This creates innovative products and different points of view.
It’s also important to encourage thoughtfulness around our unconscious and conscious biases. For example, not expecting every coder to wear a pair of jeans or a T-shirt or wear a suit, things like that.
It should be mandated that diverse people of minority backgrounds be hired in leadership positions. Because even if I recommend someone, I’m just a developer, not a manager. I can recommend a friend, but a manager is the person that pulls the trigger.
I do a lot of teaching back and giving back and to be honest the African American community lacks resources. So I am a part of an Academy coding camp that teaches kids. I write grants to expose individuals to these opportunities.
We touched on this a bit but what about the issues (if any) that happen once Blacks actually get a job in tech? How did you thrive and be successful in a field where you’re not the majority?
Once someone gets hired there are definitely ways to thrive.
The best thing to do about that is just to find a mentor. I have a mentor named Elton Forget who has been pivotal in my tech career.
It’s important to get a lot of mentors actually. I have a few but Elton is a senior iOS developer and pretty well renowned.
Mentors will help you grow because although school teaches you how to think, it doesn’t necessarily show you how to apply the knowledge to a real-life application.
So, you have to find a mentor, no matter what color they are. Let them show you the ropes and take you under their wing. Be willing to learn, want to be better and grow.
You can work on your own but having a mentor that has been there before and can show you the right ways…is how you thrive.
Companies want to hire one black person and say we are solving the diversity and inclusion issue but they aren’t.
There are so many issues inside of this and what’s worse…is that they treat you like you should be happy to be here.
This is so important to talk about. Thank you so much for sharing here!
Alright. Alright, so now let’s get real.
Do you think code-switching is necessary? How can people thrive all while being their authentic true self in a workplace that doesn’t necessarily reflect them from a cultural standpoint?
You have to because, unless you own the ‘the game’ in which you can create your own code and modify the players..then you have to play by their rules.
For example, Tyler Perry while you were waiting at a seat at the table, I was building my own table.
You can build your own table but you gotta have the wood and resources to build your own table.
In order to get the resources to build your own table, you got to get a job in corporate America and stack your coins up.
Get your 401k savings so you can take out a business loan and start to do your own thing, or pay off your college debt that you have even though statistically speaking Blacks are coming into these jobs with more debt than anyone else.
So we have to do certain things from when we get our first checks and learn how to manage funds to pay off our debt and get those resources up.
If I go into the parking lot bumping Future, which I absolutely love, and the CEO of my company pulls up next to me, it’s going to be a different response than If I were bumping Taylor Swift.
Keep in mind my development experience can be the same as Peter, or Rajesh or Venkat but I can’t afford to wear a T-shirt and blue jeans. I have to play a role. And it’s unfortunate that you have to play until you create your own rules.
And people can say just stay true and go work at an African American company but how many African American companies are out here paying the same salary and are able to hire you that velocity?
We want to get there. But that’s not the reality of it right now.
And so you build, you play. You finesse and do what you have to do the legal way until you don’t have to answer to anyone anymore.
My favorite story I always tell people is of Tristan Walker from Bevel. He’s my California homeboy from the valley.
He told me that he brought in a barbershop on company grounds and to me that’s culture because black people want to get their haircut!
So me being a developer, getting my hair cut at work is amazing!
That’s an example of someone creating their own table.
That’s what we need but we are slowly getting there.
So just getting those black-owned companies that allow people not have to code-switch that’s been helping move them the progress forward.
Any concrete examples of overcoming obstacles as a person of color in tech?
Yeah, I met someone before this whole starting my business thing…
…and I had to realize that it’s not everybody’s goal or responsibility to save the culture.
Every African Americans’ job isn’t to save the culture.
So I met someone that I was cool with, and I wanted him to agree with me on certain things and he was like, “No bro, I don’t feel that way.”
And that made me feel like bro you ain’t staying true to who you are. But the reality of it is, and he’s the one that gave me this quote, is that “It’s not my job to save the culture.”
And so that’s something that I deal with.
It even goes back to the slavery mentality of which we’re so happy to get into the house.
When we are being real with ourselves, we have to program ourselves to unfeel the competition and to make sure that you tear down those walls of competition and say, ‘You know what, I’m going to bring my brother up.’
‘Each one reach one’ because when you first get in there (corporate America), you don’t want to bring certain people in because you don’t want them to come in and ‘mess it up’ or you assume they view you a certain way.
We want to only bring in people that will keep this perception up and you don’t want to take chances on people.
When African Americans reach a certain critical level of success, unless you have subconsciously, reprogrammed your mind to not suffer from the Willie Lynch syndrome, you have a tendency to want to be the only one or two. You want someone to do good but not do better than you.
You have to reprogram yourself to not think that way.
Honing your craft as a programmer. Sites you go to stay sharp and keep relevant?
- Medium.com is a Godsend.
I subscribe to different medium channel topics in regards to tech and programming. People are constantly publishing and it allows me to keep up with the latest and greatest.
I used to follow TechCrunch and read all these different sources and they’re great but medium.com curates extremely relevant and up to date content I care about.
I force myself to do iOS or other tech exercises and stay on top of things.
That’s one thing I rave about.
- I get updates from the Ray Wenderlich tech blog; I’m subscribed to him.
- Also, I’m subscribed to Swift Weekly, the Medium Swift Channels, and the 9-5 Mac Blog site.
- Patreon – I’m subscribed to Mark Moeykens, an expert iOS programmer that comes out with new books and tutorials.
I get these things daily. You absolutely have to.
I make sure to attend tech conferences with my friends as well.
Three tips that you could give someone who wants to pursue either programming or being in the tech industry?
One, find a great mentor.
Two, learn by doing. The only way to learn how to code is to code. Simple as that.
Third, find a problem in your community or your world to solve using your new skills and things that you need to learn.
It’s going to force you to learn and force you to grow. It’s going to force you to look at new things and that’ll motivate you to solve problems that are close to you.
For example, say you got a problem with African Americans with bad credit scores. How can I create AI to help them either remove bad items for your credit or something like that.
That opens up an infinite amount of technology that’ll you’ll have to learn to solve their problem.