I enjoy technology conferences, and, being a Black Technologist, I often find that I am often one of a handful of People of Color at most tech events. As shown by the diversity numbers released a couple of years ago, Blacks are almost universally represented as two percent of the workforce at most tech companies. In my experience, this two percent number holds true for the representative number of Black people I usually see at tech events. In a nod to W. E. B. Du Bois, I often refer to my fellow Blacks in tech as the "Talented Two Percent in Tech".
Several years ago, I noticed that other Black Technologists who I followed on Twitter would often use a hashtag when attending conferences. This would allow those of us who were minorities to have a "back-channel" to understand the best sessions, receptions, and after parties to attend. It was extremely empowering to go to a predominantly White tech event and see a Brown face walk into the room.
These Twitter hashtags evolved as group messaging apps like GroupMe hit the scene. These apps offered a far more focused experience than the noise of Twitter which even hashtags could not filter out. The benefits of these back-channels grew proportionately to the the size of the tech conference. For example, South by Southwest (SXSW) is a giant tech conference with a labyrinthine set of things to see and do. However, year after year, I could trust my GroupMe cohorts to find the best panels and parties to attend.
Black Technologists Meeting Up through GroupMe at SXSW 2011
It was during my experience at SXSW this past March that I heard about another group of Black Technologists using a channel in a Slack group for a back-channel. I had used Slack at work, but this was the first time I saw it used outside of a corporate setting. I was immediately struck by the power of Slack as a social community tool. While GroupMe had many great features, I saw that Slack's channels, team directory, and integrations were superior.
As SXSW came to a close, I wondered if the great experience we had in our GroupMe channel during the conference could persist. In past years, the GroupMe back-channel was created before SXSW started and then abandoned when it ended. What if we could create a permanent back-channel? Pursuant to this, I posted this in the Black SXSW GroupMe forum:
Several people indicated that they were interested, and I created a Slack group called Black Technologists. Slack groups are private, and invitations have to be sent for each individual who wants to join (unless you have a corporate account where people can register using a common email domain). To manage this process, I created a Google form and linked it to a URL shortening service to create an easy to share link (bit.ly/BlackTech). I could send this URL to anyone who wanted to join the Slack group and get the information I needed to create each person's account. The form also included additional information like social media profiles which helped me make sure that only individuals who would positively contribute to the community would be added to the Slack group.
Every Slack group has default channels called #general and #random. Being geared toward Technologists, I created #tech and #tech-jobs to help our members geek out about tech and also find jobs. I made use of Slack integrations to create channels called #autopost-technews and #call-for-speakers that were automatically updated by public tech-related Twitter accounts. These Twitter integrations provided fresh content in the form of breaking news and opportunities to speak at tech conferences. I also created a #faq channel to help new members understand the purpose of the group, contents of each channel, and the expected behavior required of each member. I also created an #introductions channel for new members to introduce themselves, an #advice column for people who need help with a personal or professional issue, and a #vent channel for the times when members need to get things off their chest but without the risk of a supervisor or family member seeing it on Facebook or Twitter.
As the group grew, members asked for additional channels. There were enough members from the EdTech space to justify an #EdTech channel, and, in response to the desire to talk about code, I created a #coding channel. A number of members are involved in tech startups so I created a #startups channel. One fun integration allows Slack groups to play Jeopardy with a bot so I configured it and created a channel called #trebek. Our channel list grew to include #events, #gaming, and #money which have self-explanatory purposes.
Members from GroupMe were the first to join the Slack group, but the ease with which existing members could send the link to the Google form made initial growth occur at a rapid pace. As of this writing, the group has 135 members composed of developers, designers, security analysts, project managers, legal experts, and other professions.
We have members from the Bay Area to New York and even one in South Africa. Several members of the Slack group, surprised to find that other Black Technologists were just a few miles away, organized meet-ups in their cities. I have organized two in Houston, and there have been others in Austin, D.C., and other locations.
The two meetings of the Houston cohort in the Black Technologists Slack Group
One of the most powerful aspects of the group is the sharing of information that often does not flow directly to communities of color. For example, several members have hiring authority and post job opportunities to the #tech-jobs channel. Also, a few members are passionate about increasing the visibility of Black Technologists at tech conferences. They post information from tech conference organizers who, given the industry's focus on diversity, often offer financial support to speakers. Several members of the group have received paid travel expenses to tech events that they may have never heard about without the Slack group.
A few weeks ago, members of the group began wondering if we could launch a startup given our cross-functional skill set. I dubbed this effort “Maker Summer” and created a private channel for the members who wanted to take part. Our primary goal is to launch a product by the end of the summer, but, at the very least, we want to learn from each other.
Given the low representation of Blacks in technology, I find the Black Technologists Slack group to be a force for empowerment. I have personally benefitted from access to those who understand my journey through technology and also share the Black experience in America. While the technology sector continues to struggle with becoming more diverse, the Black Technologists Slack group strengthens People of Color already in the tech industry and provides a useful resource for Blacks who will start their career in the future.