Beyond the Racial Ravine

FRAMINGHAM (01/31/2000) - How can the information technology profession close the gap between affluent people and impoverished members of minority groups with little exposure to technology or opportunity to move into the field? One organization working toward that goal is Black Data Processing Associates (www.bdpa.org) in Largo, Md., a leading organization of African-American IT professionals. We invited four top BDPA officials to discuss their work with Allan E. Alter and Martine Severin.

Computerworld: What have you found to be the most effective ways to bridge the racial ravine between computer haves and have-nots?

George K. Williams: Going into the schools and sharing our knowledge about computer technology while serving as mentors and role models.

Yvonne Sharpe: Allstate was one of the first corporations to partner with the national BDPA, but my experience is with the Chicago inner city. We work at all levels. We support a computer competition for high school students, an intern program for college students, and have computer learning centers in churches on the South Side geared for first-graders through high school seniors.

Curvie Burton: At the computer competition at our annual conference, teams from around the nation compete to show what they know about IT. They win prizes and scholarships but also get to interact with IT professionals. The overall program touches more than a thousand students nationwide, and it's growing.

CW: What gets young people most excited about careers in technology?

Burton: The best programs are engaging, interactive and allow them to exercise their creativity, but [they] also provide structure, so that they learn not just IT but about life.

CW: What obstacles have you encountered?

Williams: Making the time. Everyone is so busy doing their respective jobs. And making sure that companies understand what we're trying to do. Once we've aligned the goals and objectives, there really are no obstacles.

Burton: Resources and desire are the biggest obstacles. By resources, I mean both financial resources and skilled technology advisers and volunteers. We've found that schools in our cities don't necessarily have the budgets or know-how to deploy technology properly.

Joe M. Thompson: The BDPA is also closing the gap in [recruiting] IT executives. Some middle and senior executives in the BDPA teach younger managers, to help them enter jobs in industry, government and education.

CW: Given the shortage of workers, this should be the best of all times for your efforts.

Williams: There's probably no better a time. At the same time, we are somewhat behind. We must recognize the country's changing demographics and raise awareness of IT for this future workforce. Companies should set goals and allow their employees the time to do community service work as part of ongoing and long-term recruiting efforts.

CW: Right now, only 3 percent of CIOs are African-American. Are you happy with that percentage?

Thompson: The federal government and private sector would like to have a diverse workforce, but there just simply have not been the numbers. There has not been the development opportunity. One must have mentors and people to talk to and advise you.

Williams: There is a well-qualified, educated and experienced African-American technical force in this country. I am concerned that more have not reached the senior ranks in their field, but I have confidence it will change as the population continues to change.

CW: And yet you've written that many human resources people complain they can't find minorities with the right skills.

Thompson: We have résumés from hundreds of IT professionals who are ready to go to work tomorrow. Many of them are employed; they are not just looking for jobs but [for] properly matching jobs.

Sharpe: Of Allstate's 50 IT intern slots, 50 percent are to be filled through the BDPA. We have not had any problems in getting 25 qualified students each year. Qualified minorities do exist, but if you are relying on a single individual in HR to go to this or that university to find minorities, you're not going to get the biggest bang for your buck.

Burton: Let's look at another way many IT jobs are being filled: visas. We could fill those same jobs, without language barriers, training in American business practices or providing housing and transportation, if we give American youths, entry-level managers and middle managers the same kind of start. It will reduce costs and increase productivity at a much faster rate.

CW: Sometimes stories on African-Americans in IT generate angry letters. Some argue that IT is a meritocracy and that African-Americans and other minorities shouldn't receive any special treatment or affirmative action. What would you say to them?

Thompson: Among CIOs, affirmative action is simply not an issue. There is such a dearth of talent and a need for skills that special treatment is required by everybody for everything.

Williams: The question is, do you have a talent? That's what all companies are looking for. All anyone can ask for is the ability to compete without fear of prejudice or preferential treatment to others. We want to compete, and we're not looking for any favors, and let the best talent win. We've evolved as a society. We recognize that people are people. While we still have pockets of old-time racism, if our country recognizes a problem, we should have enough sense and hopefully enough resources to address it.

Alter is Computerworld's former department editor, management. Severin, a former Computerworld intern, is a student at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass.

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