March 25, 2021

Racism in the tech industry: a brief anecdotal history of surviving in a fast-paced, white male dominated industry

I work as a DevOps engineer and have been doing systems engineering/DevOps/Site Reliability engineering work for at least a decade at this point. It's a career that requires a lot of in-depth knowledge of the inner workings of an operating system, big picture reasoning around many moving parts across several different teams, and enough knack to cobble together a best fit solution within several constraints, along with knowledge of how to write in at least one programming language. It's been a thankless job for most of my career; thankfully, this has started to shift with cultural movements toward greater collaboration between development teams and operations teams (DevOps as a term is supposed to be a description of that sort of environment), but for most of my career, we aren't noticed unless something breaks - at least, that's the narrative that a lot of people in this space have experienced. I've had a bit of a different experience as someone who's a part of an underrepresented minority within tech - even though Asians make up a large part of the tech industry, East Asians and South Asians are often overrepresented within that slice.

Filipinos have a wide range of phenotypes, with different outcomes associated with skin color and how we appear. We often have Spanish last names. I don't think it's had a huge effect on my chances on getting in the door, but I've had microaggressions thrown my way around assumptions about my race and my name. There's a few that come to mind right away:

  • At one company, someone asked me if there was "sum ting wong" when I asked a technical question on our HipChat channel. I ignored him, waiting for someone to answer my question honestly. He then pulled up that image from the Asiana Flight 214 crash where someone submitted a bunch of racist Chinese names for the pilots involved in the crash to a news channel.
(the other engineer clipped the "Sum Ting Wong" bit to send to me on HipChat)
  • At the same company, I've put in hours of work in architecting a solution to a problem, then within 30 seconds of me talking it over, the other guy said, "we're not going to use your solution because it's trash. You're going to do exactly as I say"
  • At another company, a solutions architect was talking about food then turned to me and said something about tacos, making a huge assumption about my ethnicity based on my last name.
  • In that last company, I wanted to become a solutions architect. I was told to attend a "business communications" class ran by two white women from Boston (eyeroll) - they thought it was a great idea to have people say things about themselves, then make some sort of mnemonic to make their last name easier to remember. Of course, a lot of us BIPOC had last names that weren't the canonical white names that people are used to, so all of us had trouble trying to come up with mnemonics for our last names. We had a smaller session the next day, and we had to do a sample presentation so that the instructors could give suggestions on how we can be better at communicating business ideas to VPs or SVPs. Other people got suggestions around how to phrase things, how to whittle their thoughts down more effectively, etc. The instructors told me I was too "nasally" and had zero feedback on the actual way I was presenting my ideas. I figured out after all of that that being a solutions architect was a role that was not in the cards for people like me.
  • At yet another company, I was asked to speak about Filipino American History Month (because I volunteered the information on that heritage month to a D&I committee that formed only after George Floyd was murdered.) I waited for a follow up and heard absolutely nothing after that. After the month passes by, I saw that they acknowledged other months and weeks that were dedicated to other ethnicities while listing out facts about each ethnicity as if it came straight from the CIA handbook. After calling them out on it (and CC'ing a good third of my company because a lot of people joined the D&I committee after the wake of George Floyd's murder), I was asked to do even more emotional labor and volunteer for the D&I group that's headed by all white people in positions of power. I declined for obvious reasons. I also regret that I was put in a position to write the email in the first place.
  • At countless other companies, I've been talked over a lot by other white people, often having my meetings being deep sixed in favor of whatever the loudest white guy wants to talk about.

Often, I have to contend with environments that is headed by mostly white people and rub shoulders with mostly white male engineers. I have had to modify how I approach meetings, how I talk in a business setting, how to get a word in edgewise, and how to play office politics via technical decisions and soft power projection just to eek out a small amount of respect and space. In nearly every job where my immediate team was BIPOC, the vibe is very different and much more collaborative, but we are also incredibly honest with each other and can also talk about subjects that we all just know a base level of understanding around.

There is something I do want to bring up that I believe helps cement power structures and betrays any critical understanding of the dynamics in a tech company: the no asshole rule. The rule, on its surface, is very innocuous: pleasant people are worth a lot more than a negative but proficient person. However, when applied systemically across an organization, it's impossible to levy any critical feedback unless critical feedback is encouraged in an upward direction. This ensures that any person at a disadvantage – think not only individual contributors, but also BIPOC workers, contractors, subcontractors, etc. – cannot hope to change the culture that is imposed from the top of the hierarchy. The flip side of that is the typical tech environment where all of the engineers are indoctrinated in a cutthroat ideology and are prepared to throw other engineers under the bus if that means they get to keep their job.

This is also assuming that there are no levers such as unions and the like in the mix. A tech union could be the key antidote for the atomized niceties that are required when operating in a no asshole rule workplace. A union can demand proper representation of workers across all backgrounds. A union can demand conditions that allow for freedom from assholes but also enable critical evaluation of priorities, values, and hierarchies.

A union can demand full time work for "independent contractors" and benefits for an entire underclass that tech often relies on to enable their platform to function. We can demand to not build software that directly harms BIPOC people and undermines collective action.

I started writing this blog post months ago when my feelings were coalescing around my own work history and how I've had to deal with racist systems at nearly every job I've worked at. With the wake of the tragedy in Atlanta, I've been reflecting more and more about all kinds of microaggressions and power structures that have whittled away any sort of sense of collective power and self-actualization of our identities.

Any effort to dismantle these harmful white supremacist power structures and not only encourage a more inclusive society, but also replace the power structure with a new one that puts on-the-ground workers (who often make up the majority of the underrepresented people in the workforce) at the decision-making table, is what we ought to work toward. DE&I efforts in corporations are often a perversion of the social justice underpinnings that make up some of the key components of DE&I programs, but without the radical components and with all of the lawsuit-avoidance that it confers on a corporation. These microaggressions that I have experienced (and many other BIPOC have experienced too) are simply ways that the white supremacist power structure leaks out so casually into basically everything.

So, again, where do we go from here? We should form unions. We should continue to critique and dismantle power structures across all of the systems that cast a long shadow across our present and past history. We need to continue to enable underrepresented minorities to speak up and critique systems within companies.