April 29, 2021

A transcript from a talk I gave about the intersections of race and tech

This talk was given at a panel hosted by Contraband Wagon on Wednesday, April 28th. The event was titled "The Intersections of Race and Tech", and a lot of the discussion was around not only personal experiences around racism in the workplace, but also the structural racism that tech has enabled and encouraged. What follows is the speech I gave during my fifteen minutes, alongside two colleagues on the panel.

Hi all, glad to see all of you here. Shout out to my parents and my brother for joining as well. My name is Ian Paredes, I’m Filipino-American, and I’ve been in tech for over 12 years. I’ve worked in a lot of different places such as Amazon and Disney, and have landed most recently at Pear Deck, where I work as a Site Reliability Engineer for a platform that enables teachers to add interactivity to their lessons, something that has become massively in demand during the pandemic.

For those who don’t know what a Site Reliability Engineer is, we are often responsible for the computing infrastructure that runs the business’s core product. We work side by side with Software Engineers in order to make sure that what they deploy is reliable and safe to run in front of potentially millions of customers.

I’ve seen and personally experienced the gamut of racism across the industry - these range from the very explicit, where someone has asked if “sum ting wong” when I was asking a question about a part of our infrastructure I was trying to figure out, to the subtle, such as when I’ve had to fight countless times to even have a voice in meetings where mostly white people have dominated the conversation, to the structural, where we see mostly white people in leadership positions and C-level positions. I’ve observed many engineering teams seek “the top 1% of talent” and employ interview techniques that often are more discriminatory without explicitly mentioning any protected classes - things such as five to six hour gauntlets that require one to have the ability to take a day off of work, or live coding interviews, which often favors those who can drill for live coding exercises.

Many tech workers are seen as flush with cash, but there’s a very large and underrepresented group of tech workers who are often in precarious positions of employment and do not make nearly as much money as full time employees: the H1-B contractors often living with many other visa holders doing the same thing, and 1099 contractors who deliver your food and drive you around.

This also doesn’t mention the countless unethical applications of tech that we engineers often either happily implement because the nitty gritty details are interesting (without considering the ethical impact of the product we are building), or the original product was much less ethically questionable and the company all of a sudden becomes interested in military-industrial complex contracts, or because we do not have any collective power to push back against unethical practices that may otherwise force us to build systems that track worker behavior, or employ facial recognition systems for apartments (with a wildly inaccurate rate of identifying darker skinned people), or even automate debt collection, all of which disproportionately affect working class BIPOC.

Recently, Basecamp, the software company known for not only project management software but also for core Ruby frameworks such as Ruby on Rails, wrote a blog post that declared that politics and social issues are not to be discussed at work, following the lead of companies such as Coinbase. This is a trend that I can see other companies following as soon as the idea of DE&I feels too difficult to tackle; there are valid criticisms of DE&I programs, but buying into the idea of making silent the issues that are incredibly material to our lives is, quite honestly, incredibly tone deaf at the very least, with possible lasting consequences for underrepresented groups in the tech industry. Banning talking about politics in tech companies is, essentially, an admission that the founders’ politics are what’s acceptable, that unexamined capitalism is the default, that whiteness is what we all need to conform to. And to think that the reason that they started clamping down on discussion was due to a decade-long practice of making fun of people’s names, especially BIPOC names when they would come up in their customer service pipeline - we want to just live, politics is not a football game to us where one side wins but we all shake hands at the end of the day. People think that banning politics at work is akin to banning something like talking all day about Pelosi or McConnell, or talking a ton about socialism or some other thing like that - a lot of the time, it’s banning something like talking about your pronouns, talking about your cultural background and identity, and talking about events that have left many people who look and have the same identity as you maimed or murdered. Imagine being a leader at your company and saying with a straight face, after receiving some criticism of the “funny names list”, that it’s okay because only six people identified on the “funny names list” sounded Asian. Contrary to that at least, my current company has been incredibly supportive when the six Asian women were murdered in Atlanta last month and allowed us to talk about our feelings around being Asian in America, and it’s helped tremendously with healing as a community.

There is already a huge pressure to act white in tech despite the existence of DE&I programs. I remember wanting to become a solutions architect at a consulting firm that I was working for a few years ago; the feedback I received after doing much of the work is that I needed to learn business communication skills, with a specific class that was recommended. I went to that class, and I distinctly remember that the two white women running the class had some sort of ice breaking exercise where we had to come up with a mnemonic device for our last names; this is an exercise that is easy for white people (someone had the last name of Ferrari, so you know, his answer was “remember me for the car name”), but ridiculously difficult for BIPOC people where our names are often mispronounced to begin with. My last name is Spanish for walls, so I mentioned that as a mnemonic, but the white women pressured me to think of something else that actually rhymes with my last name. I told them that my first name was Irish or Scottish for John, and they told me to sit down. When we had our small group classes, the advice they had for me was that I sounded nasally - everyone else got detailed feedback around the content of what they were talking about. Either I already was good at business communication (such that the solutions architect job could’ve been a slam dunk), or they refused to engage with anything I was saying.

I’ve smoked cigarettes outside with other solutions architects, and I instantly knew the answer: I was not white enough. I did not have the proper intonation or particular upper class white way of saying or thinking about things. I knew, at that point, that those upper crust sorts of jobs would be completely out of reach unless I wanted to amputate the bits of my personality that made me “not white.”

I’m proud of being Filipino-American and there were many, many times when I felt I really wasn’t that proud of my identity or felt I couldn’t be proud of my identity. One of the things I’m proud of in Filipino-American history is our historic role in forming the farmworker union, UFW (United Farm Workers of America), in the aftermath of the Delano Grape Strike in full solidarity with the Mexican farm workers. This is a good segue to what I want to conclude my thoughts with.

We need to form labor unions in tech - there are a few examples already, with Kickstarter, The NY Times tech division, and NPR’s Digital Media Division being recent examples, as well as organized actions within companies such as Google and Amazon. There’s rumblings of possibly the same thing happening at Basecamp, if their current engineering staff doesn’t jump ship right away. Unions are the one mechanism that can get our voices a seat at the table when it comes to deciding whether we’ll actually build the tech that is used to ultimately systematically deny access to BIPOC and enable state violence. Unions can enable equal pay for equal work. Unions can enfranchise contractors and grant them actual benefits rather than squeezing every last penny out of them and leaning on “feel good” stories such as a pregnant woman in labor who finished a ride out before driving herself to the hospital. Unions can push back against companies like Basecamp or Coinbase trying to silence us talking about issues that affect us on a day to day basis, or even just talking about our own identities. Labor power can guarantee inclusive hiring practices and ensure that managers do not drive engineers out of the industry via systemic exclusionary practices and long, grueling hours. We need to claw back the idea of DE&I and get back to its roots in community organizing and demand material power and representation for workers. There are a few, but important, examples in the relatively short history of tech organizing, and we ought to look into doing the same to pave a better future for all of us in tech.

Thank you all. Solidarity forever.

A few links related to this talk: