The “Too many white dudes” problem in software

 A member of my email list responded to yesterday’s email/post on Last Week in .NET, where I wrote:

✅ The .NET Foundation elections are underway and they look a lot less diverse than I was hoping. I don’t run because we don’t need the opinion of yet another white dude; and also because it would be foolish to elect me as my entire platform would be to grow an ecosystem that competes with Microsoft’s first-party offerings and get OSS people paid, and that would be seem to be at odds with the purpose of the .NET Foundation.

[Last Week in .NET #60] – Sourcing your Packages

and they said:

What has skin colour got to do with technology?

Email list’er, who wishes to remain anonymous

They’ve given me permission to share the question and to write my answer in a more public forum, so here let’s get into this.

First off, and perhaps most importantly: None of what I’m about to say is original to me. I’m synthesizing what I’ve learned from others, and where I can, I’ll credit them. At this point, though, there’s so many people talking about this stuff in my twitter feed (though not nearly enough in tech overall), that I may end up not crediting the right person or the ‘original’ source; please accept my apologies for that in advance. The reason I’m writing about this is because it makes sense and I believe it. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t write about it.

So let’s get the standard truisms out of the way:

  1. Skin Color and gender is not intrinsically a differentiator, but given how we treat people of other skin colors and genders in the large percentage of the time, it ends up as a useful lens for diversity. If you took the median white person in America and lined up their life experiences next to the median black person in America, I’m confident you’ll find out they see and experience two different Americas. As just one example, as a white person I’ve always had my parents tell me that “police are there to help, don’t be afraid”, and it wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I found out that Black people have a different conversation with their children about police — one borne out of a desire to stay alive during a police encounter. I hope there’s a time where we don’t treat people differently ever based on their skin color or gender, but until that time comes, this is the world we live in. We should recognize it for what it is.
  2. The fact that people of different colors experience different worlds and lives means that it’s just not possible for me as a white person to fully grasp the world that a person of color lives in. I can be told about it, I can learn about it, but I’m never going to have the fear that a person of color would during a police stop. I don’t live in that world.

Why does this matter for technology? As Kim Crayton points out, Technology is not neutral or apolitical. It is intertwined with how we live and make decisions as humans (what we refer to as ‘politics’).

3. Technology reflects the diversity of the people creating it.

Don’t believe me? Let’s go on a short and incomplete list of ways this manifests:

Kesha Williams even gave a talk at RevConf 2019 on how racial and gender Bias impacts technology. The linked tweetstorm shows screenshots and gives more examples from Kesha’s talk.

My point here is that software affects all of us, yet software (at least in America) is overwhelmingly created by white dudes that come from a middle-class or better background.

So how does this apply to the .NET Foundation? Building an inclusive community means including all parts of the community. Having worked in both Python and .NET, I’ve found that .NET (anecdotally) is a bit less diverse than Python. In order for the things we build to serve everyone well, we need everyone represented. Now, I don’t know if everyone is cycling out of the board or not, but at least from my perspective I would have liked to see few to no white guys, and more women of color and people of color. There are only 6 spots on the board (plus Microsoft’s mandated seat), and so representation becomes really important when there are so few seats.

If we want better software, software that reflects the people that will use it, we need more diverse teams. Reflecting diversity in Software and technology will be even more important as software continues to become the foundation of everything we do as a people. If we want software to help — not harm, then we have to take different walks of life into account when building software, and until we treat people of color the same as the average white-dude (and maybe not even then), that means paying attention to gender diversity and racial diversity in software.

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