Improving Diversity In Tech: Milwaukee Chapter Of Black Data Processing Associates Has Some Ideas

Feb 26, 2019

The federal government estimates the computer science field will need another 500,000 workers within seven years. But how many will be women or racial minorities? Those groups continue to be underrepresented in technology jobs, compared to the groups' population numbers overall.

The Milwaukee chapter of a national association of African-Americans who work in tech is trying to create more diversity. It's an effort based partly on the members’ experiences. 

For Rosemary Smith, her career in technology began when she enrolled in Alabama State University, planning to become an accountant.

"However, looking at the numbers, it was somewhat boring, and I wanted a little more excitement in my courses. So, I took a computer programming class," Smith said.

The class opened doors for Smith. "I love the challenge, I love troubleshooting. I love problem-solving. I love de-bugging," she added. 

Smith graduated from Alabama State with a computer science degree. The African-American woman went on to work for government agencies and the private sector. Smith is now a senior data and recovery specialist at Miller Coors. During her career, Smith says she noticed the demographics of her co-workers changed as her duties incorporated more technology.

"The more technical I became, it was a lot more males in that space, versus the females," Smith said.

By some estimates, the tech sector is more than 80 percent male.   

For an African-American man who has spent many years in the industry, that isn't the only demographic that's noticeable. Albert Thomas says his interest in tech began in high school, when some friends who were in the computer club urged him to join.

"One day they came to me and said, 'Hey, have you ever seen this game called, Star Trek? You like the show, right? '  I said, 'Well, yeah, I love the show,' and they came up and  showed me the computer program, and said, 'If you want to know how to do this, we can start teaching you how to program,' ” Thomas recalled.

Thomas went on to graduate college from Rochester Institute of Technology in upstate New York. He says it's there he noticed the racial make-up of his classmates.

"Because when I came in, I had a little group of African-American IT folks with me. My guessing it would be 20-25. But when I graduated, in the graduation ceremony in the class, there were five of us," Thomas said.

Industry estimates now put the percentage of African-Americans in tech at less than 10 percent. Thomas has kept at it, though, and for many years he worked at Rockwell Automation. He now teaches classes about medical records management and other tech topics for the Milwaukee Job Corps. 

A UNIX computer operating system from the early 1980's.
Credit Wikimedia

What to do about the lack of diversity in tech is something Lynette McNeely ponders. She been in the field since 8th grade, at her father's law firm.  McNeely says that's when she used an older computer operating system called a UNIX, to help her dad collect client information.

"And we as kids, had to do data entry for him. It was very difficult to find people who had the skills, because there was no mouse," McNeely remembered.

McNeely went on to major in mathematics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Later, she added a law degree, and says she now goes back and forth between the tech field and being an attorney.

McNeely says it's hard to know for sure why the tech field isn't more diverse. "I don't know if women and minorities are being allowed to flourish in the discipline. That seems to be the reason in other industries for seeing a lack of participation from diverse groups," McNeely said.

McNeely, as well as Albert Thomas and Rosemary Smith are part of Black Data Processing Associates, a group that is trying to increase diversity in tech, especially through education. Smith is the newly-elected Milwaukee chapter president, and says introducing students to computer programming now may be the key to changing the employment mix.

"Some people think that programming is so hard. 'Oh, you're up all night, it's so complicated.'  But once you allow them to be introduced to it an early age, they automatically get over that fear," Smith said.

Smith says the next series of her group's classes starts Saturday, March 2, at Riverside University High School in Milwaukee. Instruction will include how to make web pages, and write code and programming.  The classes are open to all students grades 8-12. You can find more information here.

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