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Code of practice

GENERATING GENIUS: Dr Tony Sewell’s (pictured) organisation received a £60,000 grant from Google to support the Generating Genius computer science programme

TO A lot of people, the words ‘coding’, ‘developing’ and ‘programming’ invoke images of complex and mysterious worlds reserved for brainy – and probably white – maths geeks.

But with organisations like Barclays advertising “coding playgrounds” for children as young as seven, tech start-ups like Decoded teaching “code in a day” experiences and the national curriculum now placing computer languages on syllabuses, The Voice set out to discover why black students and professionals should be riding the digital wave.

We started our journey on a Sunday morning in east London’s rapidly expanding digital hub Tech City, which takes its name from the proliferation of new digital businesses from Shoreditch to Stratford. This is where the inaugural Black Girls Tech coding workshop took place in swanky offices housed in a converted Victorian factory.

During a break in the programme, the founder of Black Girls Tech, Damilola Odelola, told us about the imbalance she is trying to correct in the industry.

It follows in the footsteps of a similar not-for-profit initiative Black Girls Code in the United States, founded by Kimberly Bryant in 2011.

INITIATIVE

“There’s an initiative to get more women in tech, which is absolutely necessary,” Odelola says “but the industry is blindsiding the fact that there’s also not many non-whites in tech. And where there are, they’re not usually in high positions.”

That’s not to say that computer programming and software development are discriminatory environments to work in. They are largely progressive industries and Odelola acknowledges that the support of online tech communities and the generosity of individuals sharing their knowledge is what allows start-ups such as hers to take shape.

But sexism does exist in the male-dominated environment. In August 2014, the technology sector’s most widely read magazine and website, Wired, published an article about the gender imbalance and suggested that the problem starts in academia.

“It is fairly evident that if only 245 girls chose A-level computing across England last year (compared to 3,513 boys) then that will have a knock-on effect on the gender-balance of the industry,” wrote journalist Kitty Knowles.

The push by employers to alter this male tech hegemony is welcomed by most people in the industry but the concern is that the ethnic minority question isn’t being adequately addressed.

“I’ve realised that when people speak about diversity in tech they’re not talking about racial diversity, they’re talking about gender diversity,” says Odelola.

In May 2014, The Guardian reported on Google’s first ever diversity report. Google had published details of its workforce and revealed that while 30 per cent were women, only two per cent were black.
Google is not an inherently racist company – the report also showed that 30 per cent of its workers were Asian – but one of its senior vice presidents acknowledged that the disparity between its workforce and the diversity of its consumer base was a mismatch and used the report to open a conversation around addressing the challenge.

As it stands, coders like Odelola are battling to represent on two levels: gender and colour.
“I’ve been surrounded by black people my whole life in south London, so it’s weird coming into a space where you look at a team of 27 people and there’s not one black person,” she admits.

PROFILES

“Most tech teams have their team’s profiles and pictures online and there are so few black people. And then if they are black, it’s a guy.”

But she’s not disheartened. Quite the opposite, it’s an opportunity.

She says people see what she’s doing as a type of activism. She talks about a friend of hers – a black woman who has risen to the position of lead developer in the space of three years – and refers to the “hoops she had to jump through”.

There’s admiration in her voice and perhaps a hint of what inspired her to set up her own enterprise.

But she is aware that the lack of black faces in tech departments of major corporations and in trendy shared spaces of digital startups around Old Street’s ‘Silicon Roundabout’ is an issue that needs to be addressed amongst the younger generation.


NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND: The tech industry is both male dominated and predominantly white but a new generation hopes to change that (Pic: Black Girls Code/Flickr)

On her website blackgirlstech.co.uk, she writes: “If I had been exposed to coding at 14, I would have wasted a lot less time.”

Although 22, Odelola speaks like someone with an acute awareness of how tough the job market is for young people. She’s aware that “everything is moving digital and we’d be foolish to go back to analogue.” That said, she might never have ended up here in Tech City if she hadn’t discovered her coding ability through her first love: writing.

Having graduated from Kingston with an English literature degree she wanted to be a writer and when it came to publishing her own blog she taught herself computer languages HTML and CSS and found that she enjoyed it.

At the last minute, she pulled out of doing an MA in African Literature at SOAS to do a three-month boot camp in coding instead at a firm called We Got Coders.

At a cost of £7,000, it wasn’t cheap but it was cheaper than studying a three-year computer science degree and, “more intense and more challenging than a degree.” After just three months, she says, she had learnt as much as computer science graduates who study it for three years.

Later, she worked with another boot camp, Makers Academy founded by Evgeny Shadchnev, which helped her start Black Girls Tech, loaning space in their building to run workshops.

Shadchnev’s organisation also gives out scholarships and financial aid for women.

Odelola encourages those who are daunted by the technical aspects of computer programming to shake off those fears.

POSSIBLE

“The only maths I did was GCSE and I only liked algebra,” she says. “There is a mathematical element to coding but really it’s more about creating something from nothing and making the impossible possible. It’s about asking ourselves what tools we need to make this web page flash when it’s opened in the browser.”

Her new organisation functions almost as a support network. As well as training, development and placing people in roles the aim is, she says, to “create a space for black women and girls to come and not feel intimidated, and see other women in positions they could see themselves in. We know not all of them will go on to be developers but they might have their own business ideas and I want to give them the opportunity to build something. They might want to start a restaurant – so we say, ‘Let’s build a website,’ all of a sudden that restaurant feels more real.”

She continues: “I didn’t know I liked tech until I had to make my own website. I want to get old and young black and ethnic minority women enjoying tech.”

The workshops she runs are also free of charge, something which is important to her. “I didn’t come from a wealthy background,” she says “and I’m guiding rather than teaching, so why should I charge?”

That she is destined for a wealthy future seems clear, however. There’s no hiding away from the fact that a successful career and high income in the modern world is increasingly shifting towards the digital tech sector.

The sooner young black students get on board with that way of thinking the better.
Tony Sewell, a former teacher and consultant in education both in the UK and the Caribbean, founded Generating Genius in 2005 to support high-achieving students from disadvantaged communities.


BLACK GIRL TECH: Founder Damilola Odelola

“We track pre-university students and support them to get to the top universities in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths),” Sewell tells The Voice.

“On that journey we link up with companies like Google, Microsoft and Shell and put on activities to help them. The charity works with students aged 12 to 18 on out-of-school programmes to ensure they get to university. I’d say 80 per cent are ethnic minorities.”

The organisation works with schools to identify students who have the ability to get into the Russell Group universities in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects but need support to steer them in the right direction to get the grades.

GIFTED

Students from UCL, where Generating Genius is based, volunteer tuition for gifted younger pupils and there are 900 children on their books.

“Computer science is not one of the STEM subjects that black and ethnic minority (BME) students are going into and we try to encourage them to,” says Sewell. “There’s evidence to show that if you work with them on that subject area early they are likely to do well in it at university. The thing with coding is, sometimes what happens in life is there are trends and connotations around certain things and populations and stereotypes circulate around them,” he says.

“The stereotype of an academically gifted Asian student is that you’re going to be a doctor. These are generally mythologies which people, especially young people, buy into.

“So coding has been linked into this idea of a young white male in his bedroom with a pizza, without much social aptitude, coding away until past midnight. And there’s a feeling that it’s boring and nerdy, as depicted in the media and films – the coder is invariably a weirdo. It is beginning to change as people realise you can make a lot of money out of it, it’s becoming cooler, but it’s still the same population. And girls aren’t in there either; it’s not cool to them. And for black children there are no models for them in coding. There’s no equivalent of Dr Dre in coding. Somehow it hasn’t reached out to the black youth population.”

But Sewell also acknowledges a sense in recent years amongst black schoolchildren that being geeky is something cool and edgy. He believes this is a positive cultural shift.

“I’m optimistic about this,” he says. “People tend to get entrenched when talking about race but there’s a class shift happening too. Middle class black kids at comprehensives have parents now encouraging them to code and buy them equipment. Computer Science is also on the curriculum now, so from primary school there’ll be a cohort who will probably be exposed to coding, who weren’t before.”

He feels that had big organisations like Google gone after black youth culture earlier they wouldn’t been in a position of trying – and struggling – to fill the race and gender gaps.

But coding isn’t easy, Sewell says. It requires hard work and applying yourself to learn the language.

ASPIRATIONS

And in terms of the aspirations of young black people in Britain, Sewell feels that to break out of a certain culture (or “enclave” as he puts it) the best place is to go off to a good university and aspire to do computer science and other STEM subjects.

The Race for Opportunity Awards 2015 recently published a fact sheet called Ethnic Minorities in STEM, describing it as one of the fastest growing sectors but with one of the lowest numbers of BME employees.

Their data showed that amongst Black Caribbean students studying STEM subjects, only 10 per cent are doing computer science and even fewer Black Africans are choosing it. For both groups medicine is the most popular choice.

CONNECTION

Sewell says it’s even harder to convince girls to study it. The key to convincing both girls and black students, he says, is social enterprise and demonstrating “the connection between the employment end and the academic”.

Anna Burgess, director at Rare Recruitment – an agency that specialises in recruiting top black graduates, agrees.

“Opportunities for students who can code continue to rise,” she says. “Coding is a hard skill. The best firms do not just need computer scientists who can code; they need to have the right degree and the right programming languages to the right standard. Before we even consider race or gender that is a very big filter on talent. The sheer lack of talented computer scientists makes finding the best female and ethnic minority talent a real challenge. Firms recognise this.”

But opportunities are emerging.

Burgess has noticed that firms “also recognise the business case of the majority of ecommerce sales coming from women and the increased spending power and population of UK ethnic minority groups, which makes having a diverse set of coders imperative.”

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KNOW THE BASICS

Software – computer programs (such as web browsers, media editors or games) and the computer operating system. The term also applies to ‘apps’ running on mobile devices and web-based services.

Coding – Or ‘programming’, is the ability to read and write in a language understood by computers in order to get it to generate output i.e. an action produced by a computer system for its user, for example, playing music or storing data

Software developer – Or ‘computer programmers’, design and build computer programs

Web developer – A computer programmer who specialises in building and developing websites

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