Monday, August 29, 2011

Around 8% of computer programmers are black

Half Sigma writes:
As far as I know, no employer of computer programmers has ever been sued for discrimination, even though there are no black people working in programming. OK, that’s a lie, there was one black computer programmer. But he was not a typical black man, he was actually a black Hispanic; he was born somewhere in Central America and moved here when he was a young child.
He's obviously exaggerating to make a point, but having a very good friend who is a systems and network administrator, I've heard stories from a frustrated narrator about more than a handful of incompetent black programmers who this friend "knows" to be beneficiaries of affirmative action policies (though because he cannot specifically identify these policies, he refers to the process as one of "soft" affirmative action). So I was skeptical about the claim that there are virtually no blacks in the programming profession.

Using ISCO88 occupational classifications, the GSS reveals the following racial distribution among computer programmers (n = 144):

White -- 75.6%
Black -- 8.1%
Other -- 16.3% (most of whom are Chinese or Indian; breaking the numbers down by ancestry, 7.6% of all programmers are of Chinese descent and another 8.2% are of Indian descent, for a Chinese-Indian combined total of 15.8%. Tangentially, none are of Mexican ancestry.)

Seems like the threat of sex discrimination charges would be a greater worry for employers of programmers than complaints about racial discrimination would be, as 71.6% of GSS programmer respondents are men (and the GSS slightly over-samples women).

GSS variables used: RACE, ISCO88(2132), ETHNIC, SEX


Ed Tom Kowalsky said...

Would it be unfriendly to suggest that in the absence of so-called "affirmative" action, the percentage of black programmers would be cut approximately in half?

Son of Brock Landers said...

what is the racial % breakdown by private vs. public sector for programmers?

Audacious Epigone said...


Don't strive to be tactful, strive to be truthful!

Son of BL,

The GSS doesn't provide that information.

Ed Tom Kowalsky said...


In most precincts today, even broaching the topic if affirmative action's insertion of irrationality into the hiring market is not merely tactless, it is grounds for punishment!

Anonymous said...

I know one black guy working in a startup, and he is good (real good). I have met a few other (2-3) in high-tech companies, although one is now in management, and they seemed good.

I suspect that the incompetent get weeded out of those companies that depend on their coders.

I think the numbers are lower than 8% in private industry. I would say no higher than about 3%.

Anonymous said...

I'd guess 70% are in the public sector, where blacks are disproportionately employed precisely because profits, losses, efficiency, and dead-weight are of little consequence.

Half Sigma said...

I guess that these black "programmers" are acting more like systems analysts than real coders.

b199er said...

Interesting figures. I presume these are in the US. A UK take on matters...

Black people are generally portrayed as being less into tech. (while Asians being more into tech.) with respect to the Average (i.e. White person). I think much of this is media portrayal, and in quite stark contrast to what is actually happening. - Unfortunately if you don't work in the industry, you won't know.

In my case I work for a top multi-national software company (we're about as house-hold name as you get). Within our offices, our team of 15 programmers, working on real cutting edge stuff consists of roughly:

2 British born Asians (1 Indian, 1 Pakistani)
3 British born Whites (3 English)
2 British born Blacks (2 Caribbean)
1 British born "Black" Mixed Race (Caribbean/English)
3 Asian born Asian (1 Indian, 2 Chinese)
5 European born Whites (2 Eastern European, 2 Southern European, 1 North European)

The line '-----' dividing British born and foreign born is probably more important than the racial line. Certain countries are known for producing bulk-load 'grunt' work programmers e.g. India. While home-grown talent (which at the top level means back-bedroom programmers - you can't just pitch up at university, do a 3 year course and become a super-fluent elite programmer overnight) is more evenly spread across the population.

Interestingly among the (8) British born programmers at our company. 37.5% are White, 25% are South Asian, and 37.5% are Black. While the UK ethnic breakdown is somewhere around: 86% White, 7.5% Black, 3.3% Black. Even taking into account the 2.2% Mixed Race population. It's clear that in this case Blacks are over-represented, and in turn Asians.

Of course this is just one case, and many of the other teams can be completely non-black, and in some cases very Indian.

So I would be tempted to say that it's a case that, for Asians they're featured in the tech industry in large numbers, but average a lower skill (which is incidentally why outsourcing to India is a good idea for the less complex projects). While Blacks are featured in the tech industry in smaller numbers, but average a higher skill (many ascend to senior roles and/or management, and tend to work on the more complex, ground breaking projects).

For the US, I think the figures are not surprising. While for Black people as a group, a lot are not doing to well. There is still a substantial minority of Blacks that are incredibly talented, as talented as the next person (be they White, Asian or Latino).

Main problem with most Black people (at least in the UK), is that they don't believe they can achieve much, so never bother trying. - This is becoming less the case as more and more African immigrants travel here whom have a similar mindset to Asian immigrants to succeed.

Anonymous said...

I 've been a programmer/software developer for over 10 years and I guess my heritage makes me "black" in America.

I work with people with and without degrees. I'm a graduate of a top 25 program but yet i often find myself having to 'prove' myself over colleageues that don't have a degree or have much less experience.

The fact of the matter is our field is not used to diversity so unfortunately there are a lot of jerks who get away with terrible prejudices.

People assume you got your job and work history because of "affirmative" action, or claim the "soft" variety even when such policies do not exist. (Pretty sad for those who espouse their quantitative reasoning skills).

That is essentially saying that blacks aren't smart enough to be present without special policies and is a very racist proposition.

I will add that my experience in computing stemmed from my immigrant father's purchase of a computer in the 80s. I think you'd see more black kids in computing if there was more exposure at a younger age.

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Anonymous said...

For @b199er:

You talk about skills.

How about start with the right count. You mentioned 15 members in your team, but listed out 16.

You associate talent with race and color of the skin, which is precisely what the author is arguing against.

Unknown said...

BLS data shows that Blacks are 4.1% of "Software developers, applications and systems software". See -- which means they are grossly under-represented in this discipline.

Blacks do constitute 8.1% of "computer programmers", according to the BLS, same source, but this is a lower skill occupation, and under the BLS definition includes people who test software.

See for definitions

Mike said...

I'm a black developer. No degree although I went to CWRU for EE and Columbia for Math/Econ for a combined 6 years. I've been coding since I was 8. I've been with 4 startups (2 exits, 1 big cluster and my current one), 1 small consulting firm, and 2 Fortune 500s. In 31 years I've worked with no black devs, I've interviewed no black devs and I've met no black devs. So I decided to find and actively train them. I'm tutoring my cousin, a 16 year old high school student. I've also started working with a friend on connecting inner city youth of all races and ethnicities who have a demonstrated interest in development with Cincinnati startups, accelerators and incubators. I have two points. First, in my experience there are very few black developers. Second, if people think that is a problem then those people must do something about it similar to the number of groups formed around addressing the gender gap in tech, e.g. Girl Develop It.

Anonymous said...

As a black programmer I find that the absolute lack of other black programmers as thoroughly shocking. I work in the UK, and to date have only met one other black programmer who actually knew what he was doing. We are now good friends.
I would like to work with other black programmers.
The prevalent attitude amongst the whites and Asains is one of intellectual snobbery/racism. I am sick of their rascist elitist attitude. They simply do not believe that blacks have the ability to program. And why should they? The sheer lack of black programmers would suggest that blacks do not have the right genetic make-up to code.
I make no excuse for blacks. I am sick of their lazy attitude. It takes years of study to learn to program well. I was prepared to do so. I have meet a few blacks who would like to learn to code. But when they realize to long hours of study, isolation, and sacrifice that is required they run scared. I have met plenty of blacks who fancy themselves the next Steve Jobs, but are terrified of being Steve Wozniak.
Until the black community learns to view technology less as fashionable gadgets that enhance one's cool factor; but as a tool to transform their lives and others, the next generation of black programmers will be a tepid trickle.
In the mean time I'll continue working amongst these average whites and Asain programmers, who either view mean me as a rarity, or as outcast who only ended up programming because he couldn't find the way to the gym...or the chicken shop.

blackProgrammer said...

I am a Black programmer and feel that I can speak on this issue with a little more experience than others. The issues with the lack of Black programmers stems from many categories, education and social constructs are the two I will focus on. I will keep this short as this topic can easily be a 100 page essay.

1) Education: Most Black people lack the education to thrive in the technical field. For many Black people, it is difficult to complete technology centric programs because there are not many of us pursuing these degrees. I have a MSCS degree, and it was always very difficult for me to complete my courses. Anyone who has taken CS courses know that collaboration is huge for passing courses! But often times, no one wanted to group up with the token Black student. I had to literally beg for people to group with me, and then had to endure their praise of how they were surprised that I was smart. Not to mention that an Asian kid literally told me I was in the wrong class and prompted me towards the African American Studies department without any inclination presented to him that I was confused about my location. He just assumed that is where I belonged. There are other issues I can bring up, but I believe you get the picture.

2) Social Constructs: It is no fun being at work and being the ONLY Black guy. From my experience, especially since I am a mobile developer, all my co-workers are Indian. They speak in their native language, most immigrated, they eat specific foods, they have specific holidays, they have specific traditions, ect. All of these things that isolate the token Black guy. You would think that it isn't enough to depress you while at work, but it does. I have been very depressed at many jobs I have worked because I was not invited to lunch, to after work events, I did not know what was being said throughout the day because I cannot speak the language, no one is interested in what I am interested in, when attempts are made to identify with me it stems from stereotypes, there are less opportunities to showcase my skills because I cannot speak Indian or Chinese, ect. It is simply not easy. And most Black people buckle under this pressure.

I do hope that more Black people become educated and become programmers but the truth of the matter is that we are a minority, and that won't change for a very long time.

Anonymous said...

I know that this is a long shot, but I would love to get in contact with the above Black programmers, Mike and "Anonymous". If any other Black programmers want to contact me feel free!

@Mike: I, too, actively train other minorities (w/ emphasis on Black youth) how to program. I would love to team up with you if you are interested.

@Ananymous (UK black programmer): Lets come together and create some software. I am always up for side projects, and I am in need of a business partner. I do have a MSCS, have been programming professionally for 15 years, and would make a good partner.

Obviously we have found this blog and made posts because we feel strongly about the lack of Black programmers that exist. Well, lets be friends. If you ever find your way back here and are reading the comments connect with me at