SXSW: What It’s Like to Be Black in Silicon Valley

Panelists speak at the “How to Not Hire and Retain Employees of Color” session at South by Southwest on Saturday in Austin, Texas.
Julie Walker

How to solve the diversity issue in tech was one of the topics covered by the South by Southwest panel “How to Not Hire and Retain Employees of Color” on Saturday. The session—part of an initiative to diversify the annual interactive, film and music festival happening now in Austin, Texas—offered a unique first-person perspective of what it’s like to be black in Silicon Valley.

The impressive panel of speakers included two of the first black software engineers at Facebook and the very first hire at Dropbox, who is also black. The panel was the brainchild of Makinde Adeagbo, who is originally from Nigeria but moved to the United States when he was a toddler. His first job after graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was as a software engineer at Facebook in 2007.


Adeagbo said that although much has been made of the pipeline issue—preparing young students for jobs in tech—it’s also a matter of sourcing. “The number of black engineers in the companies is still lower than the number of black engineers graduating from top schools,” said Adeagbo, who now leads engineering recruiting and onboarding at the social website Pinterest, where he was the first black engineer. He suggests that companies prioritize the sourcing and interviewing of diverse candidates to enable more hires.

Panelist Ola Okelola, who is also from Nigeria, began working at Facebook as a software engineer shortly before Adeagbo joined the company. Okelola said that part of the culture of hiring within a small company or a start-up is sometimes, “Do I want to socialize with this person?” because of the amount of time techies spend together at work. This may be a factor that excludes an entire pool of people.

Okelola said it will take more blacks within the company to push for the hiring of other blacks, something he recently started doing: “I personally have not done a great job of fighting to make sure that we hire more diverse candidates. I was focusing on what I was doing, but Facebook is trying its best and doing a good job of getting more diverse people.”

Panel moderator Aston Motes—who was the first engineer at Dropbox and has since gone on to start Assorted Bits, where he develops his own experimental projects—suggested that tech companies need to focus less on the differences they may perceive in a candidate of color and instead hire people and indoctrinate them into the culture of the company.


One interesting point he brought up from someone who used the panel hashtag #Moreofus was the question of whether a Rooney Rule—which requires NFL teams to interview at least one black candidate when hiring a head coach—could work in the tech industry.

The lone woman and Latino on the panel, Ana Diaz-Hernandez—an associate at the social-impact venture capital firm Kapor Capital—has been heavily invested in pushing for a diverse labor pool. She noted that one of the issues that black techies face is the loneliness of being the “only one.” She said that could factor into whether someone accepts a job.


Diaz-Hernandez suggested that companies interview at least a few candidates of color so that they have a larger pool to hire from. She stressed that if you build a diverse company from the beginning, you are less likely to have a diversity problem in the end.

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