IT needs more 'brothers and sisters'

Some black IT managers say young kids need to be encouraged to take math and science in elementary school. How the SuperSoaker comes into play

Technology is an international language, but looking around vendor conferences and IT events often shows one major group relatively underrepresented: the black IT professional. ComputerWorld Canada spoke to a variety of black members of the Canadian (and American) IT professional community in search of an answer as to why this is, and whether it's changing.

All the interviewees love their jobs, and have had a positive experience all along the way, but being a black IT manager meant going against the grain from the very beginning.

"There's no doubt about it - the black community has been sluggish in adapting to new technologies," said Darryl Philip, TD Bank system infrastructure manager. This came from computers being a luxury for a while, which led to what Philip calls the "intimidation factor" filtering down.

This is, of course, changing, now that technology has gone so mainstream, but economic factors still can play a part. IBM Canada lead architect for the mainframe center of competency Mike Edwards said that high-school drop-out rates among black youths are still prevalent, along with a high number of single-parent families, which can make it difficult to provide the funds and time for math and science tutoring or college studies.

Even things like access to broadband Internet can hamper someone's IT literacy and interest, said CATA president John Reid.

Parents play into it, too, said founding president of the defunct Black Information Technology e-Professionals (BITePRO) Leesa Barnes, who now runs Caprica Interactive Marketing. Many push their kids toward other high-paying professions because they might not be as aware of the potential to make a lot of money in IT.

Dave Forde, CEO of technology communications Web site Profectio and the chair of the IT event Tech Week, said that he's always noticed the lack of fellow black people in IT. "IT and engineers tend to be predominantly European and Asian. You don't see a lot of brothers and sisters in there," he said.

Getting them interested sooner rather than later is important, and the onus for this often falls on black IT professionals working in the more visible IT companies, said Carin Taylor, senior manager of inclusion and diversity for Cisco Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif.

"The African-American community needs to come to the math and engineering sciences in general, and we need to get them a lot earlier, like in elementary school," she said.

Citing black role models in the engineering and IT fields is one of Edwards' tactics when addressing youth.

"I ask them, 'Do you know what a SuperSoaker is?' And then when they say, 'Yeah...', I tell them that it was invented by a black NASA scientist."

Another way to win them over is to emphasize the business utility of IT. Ian Grant, general manager of engineering and architecture for Toronto Pearson International Airport's IT division, said this might prove more attractive to possible applicants, plus it can give those with business acumen a better chance at eventually busting into management.

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