Lessons Learned While Working to Build Black Tech Community

I weigh the challenges we face against the spirit of our group. We embrace our blackness, we love black identity, and we are proud to be coders.

by Dominic M. Liddell on December 11th, 2014

Let’s start at the beginning. That’s always the best place to start, I think. My marketing associate, design intern, and I were brainstorming a project. Our goal was to create a database of achievements by black technology professionals to aid students with their research and homework. We were amazed by some of the people we’d never heard of but who had made major contributions to the tools and gadgets we use today.

We learned about Jesse Russell who played a major role in developing cell phone and 4G technology. We learned about Frank Greene, who is considered one of the first black technologists and developed high-speed semiconductor computer-memory systems. We also learned about Gerald Lawson who created the first game system that uses interchangeable cartridges. The more we learned, the more inspired we became about sharing these stories with others, as well as highlighting the ongoing achievements of blacks in technology.

It wasn’t long before our project had evolved into a community that worked to highlight black technology achievement, provide access to affordable education, and diversify the professional community.

Mission now in hand, I found myself in a conference room at the Starter League one April morning. I was attending the Chicago #YesWeCode roundtable. Van Jones led the discussion, with a rousing pep talk about how we were at the forefront of the change, the movement to bridge the gap and change the face of technology. I waited nervously as we went around the table and introduced ourselves. I had agonized over the group name and it was now time to debut it to a live audience.

“Hello, my name is Dominic M. Liddell and I am the founder of Coding While Black.”

Since then the group had grown to 115 members and we had 13 meetups. Here are some of the top lessons that I’ve learned over the past year.

The power of names

Coding While Black logo

Most people laugh the first time they hear the name of our group if they get the joke. It’s one of those tongue-in-cheek situations. The name Coding While Black speaks to the reason we exist, but there’s an unspoken history conveyed with. It’s something that most black people can connect with immediately.

Blacks get shot for walking while black. Blacks get arrested for driving while black. There are a lot of things that can happen to you in life if you get caught doing them ‘while black’. I had been thinking of the name for days, when I was harassed outside of my apartment door because I fit the description. I didn’t, unless they were looking for Urkel. Later that night, I thought of the name.

Coding While Black is a call to the community to get caught achieving excellence in technology. Change what the profile looks like and give our children a different source of role models. It’s an answer to those who say that are a lack of blacks in the technology community. We are here and we want to get caught coding while black. Hire us and fund our projects. Give us the same opportunities that you give to nonblacks.

I’ve had advice that I should change the name. A respected member of a related group told me a story of how his group had found themselves placed on a government watch group because the name had “black” in it.

I sometimes wonder if I’ll have an issue next time that I fly, but I’m okay with not changing the name on those grounds. I will admit that I think about changing the name occasionally. I think that maybe it will be difficult to form employer partnerships and get job opportunities for my members with a name like that makes many so uncomfortable. I think that it will make it seem that we are only open to black members, when in truth we welcome all members. I think about how we don’t have the word “women” or “girls” in our name, which seems to make us a little less approachable.

Then I get angry with myself for these thoughts. Why is it okay for other groups to proudly proclaim the communities that they represent, but the word black makes so many uncomfortable?

Black tech community is a must

We do get messages asking if the group is open to other ethnicities. We welcome everyone who believes in our mission to join Coding While Black and help us reach our goals. Being a safe space for of all ethnicities, genders, ages, sexual orientations, and gender expressions is something that we strongly believe in; our meetings have always served the dual purpose of helping our members to become more comfortable in technology-centered environments.

Coding While Black loves and embraces black culture; we thrive on black community, but we also appreciate and welcome our allies.

I weigh the challenges we face against the spirit of our group. We embrace our blackness, we love black identity, and we are proud to be coders. Changing our name would become another case of weakening our identity to make ourselves more approachable; instead, we’ll just continue to be welcoming and form strong alliances with diverse partners.

I’m always inspired after a meeting with the Coding While Black community. So many people come out from different backgrounds and career levels. There is something about those meetups that feed the soul.

A typical work day for me often involved a train ride to the Loop where everyday someone clutched their purse or acted as if I were going to rob them. I’d arrive at work where I was the only black person besides the janitor. I’d spend most of my time being ignored by my co-workers; many of whom often set me up to fail by not providing me all the information needed to complete a project. A CEO once told me that he hadn’t understood why I was in the room until after group introductions had been made and he realized I was an employee. Visitors to the office would overlook me as staff. It got to a point that I almost always wore my staff hoodie at work.

Having community to turn to in situations like these is a major help. Not so much as a place to share war stories, but to be around people who share a similar cultural background.  Even within the black community there are so many diverse backgrounds to learn from and share.  Black community networking events provide an oasis and fortify us for to better deal with issues in the workplace.

As I have worked to help grow Coding While Black, I’ve been encouraged by those who embrace the idea and tell me that the group is needed. I’ve also been frustrated by those who feel that “race is no longer an issue”. Rather than be visible as a black coder, they’d rather blend in and not be “othered”. I agree with the sentiment of not wanting to be singled out because of skin color, but I also think we need more role models and mentors. Being visible as black coders helps to change the image that we are just consumers of technology.

Look back and keep moving forward

A graphic of the Coding While Black timeline. Founded March 2014, meetup group launched in March 2014, first meet and greet & first group outing May 2014, first planning and training sessions in June 2014.

Graphic via Coding While Black.

As a new organizer, I can say that one of the scariest things about launching a new group is that you must do it in public. Every tweet, every Facebook share, every web page update; it’s all out there for the world to see if it succeeds or flops.

It’s easy to overestimate what you can achieve when you’ve never actually done it before.  Learning by doing often means some very hard lessons.

If you can’t make a mistake in public, you won’t last long these days. You have to be able to recover and bounce back. Some mistakes are huge. Recently, we’ve had to re-establish our Meetup group due to an administrative snafu. This is a pain to say the least, but it’s also an opportunity to exercise resiliency as a community.

We didn’t achieve some our bigger goals this year and as frustrating as that was, we still managed to achieve a lot more than we would have had we never tried. We hosted networking events, held workshops, went on outings, and participated in training. We made new friends and started a budding local community of black coders who are ready to do amazing things together. And we’ve been working to form employer partnerships and develop a job board so that our members have access to opportunities at some of the top technology companies in their area. We’re helping employers who say they have trouble acquiring diverse applicants by partnering with them to attract qualified black technology professionals.

The face of technology is definitely starting to look different with such an active movement to diversify the industry. The black community is beginning to not only embrace their geekhood, but also revel in it.

Coding While Black is proud to have played a small role in spreading awareness and building community. We’re looking forward to making a bigger impact as we focus on providing our members with the resources they need to achieve excellence in their technology education and careers.