Your dad should have a gun because he’s black.
A first-grade girl said that to Anjuan Simmons’ daughter when she showed her classmate her family drawing, a class assignment. Simmons is a Houston-area agile project manager for a construction software company.
“When you think that all these perceptions about black people have gotten better, you have a first-grader say that about me,” Simmons said. “That showed me that, wow, if we don’t act now and work really hard on making this world appreciate diversity, 50 years from now first graders will be doing the exact same thing.”
We Can Do Better
Simmons does not consider these real-life moments setbacks. They're motivation to continue what he started years ago for the tech industry and world at large: to educate and make the world a “more diverse and inclusive place.”
Simmons shares that mission with the man and namesake of this Monday holiday. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., an activist and leader during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, was assassinated in April, 1968.
Simmons authored "Minority Tech: Journaling Through Blackness and Technology," a book that explores how the African American experience intersects with lack of diversity in the technology sector.
The book, Simmons told CMSWire, looks at the often uncomfortable realities of being in an underrepresented group, the positive benefits minorities bring to the technology sector and why technology companies should embrace diversity and inclusiveness.
“I'm practical enough to know that prejudice is everywhere,” Simmons said, “but I've seen enough to know that it touches more aspects of our everyday lives than we realize.”
Naturally, some scenarios are even worse than the first-grader’s perception of a black father. Simmons blogged that while he was a student at the University of Texas at Austin studying electrical engineering, he came home to a message taped on his dorm room door.
“What’s a (racial epithet) like you doing studying electrical engineering,” the note said.
“I was a 22-year-old college student about to embark on my career,” Simmons blogged, “and I had to deal with this. The disbelief in my abilities.”
Nearly 20 years later, Simmons is still dealing with such perceptions — no longer the college hallways, but in tech company offices.
Simmons is a Certified ScrumMaster with nearly 20 years of experience in waterfall and agile software development. He holds a bachelor's in electrical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin and a Master's with a focus on information technology from Texas A&M University. He’s worked at Infosys Technologies, Accenture and Deloitte Consulting.
Despite the resume, Simmons said he knows what sometimes comes through someone else's lens in a workplace environment: he doesn't look like most of the people in the room.
“I’ve been very fortunate and have had a great career and have made a lot of progress in technology,” Simmons said. “But a lot of the roadblocks can be subtle.”
Case in point: a meeting with clients of a past Simmons company. Simmons was team lead on the project.
“I was in the room with a lot of colleagues, and the client came in and started talking to the white male,” Simmons recalled. “He had to say, ‘Well, Anjuan is actually team lead.’ There are those assumptions that you’re probably not in charge. You have no benefit of the doubt sometimes. If you’re a black person in technology, people often assume you’re not in charge.”
So what happens in those situations? What’s the impact for people like Simmons when you’re doubted or discounted merely by assumptions?
“It makes you feel that you have to work that much harder to make it where a white male would more naturally walk into that role,” Simmons said. “Every report you give you feel needs to be of the highest quality because there are already doubts. My responsibility is that my work is at a high level where my competence goes unquestioned.”
Those moments of doubt is where minorities walk away from tech, Simmons said. Play around with this interactive chart on diversity at major tech companies and see for yourself. Some big tech companies are trying to become more diverse.
“A lot of people feel, 'I must not belong here because people don’t think I should be here,'” Simmons said. “It’s one big reason why there’s not a representative number of minority women in tech. A lot of them say this is not for me. It’s that little moment where you’re doubted because of who you are or what you look like. My effort is to prevent that and encourage people that they have a role to play.”
A more diverse workforce means better products, solutions and more innovation, Simmons said.
“If everyone has the same background,” Simmons said, “you’ll get the same ideas.”
Simmons’ work for better diversity in tech began simply by things he had seen. The technology workbooks that never had a person of color on the cover. The workforce teams that did not have any minorities outside of himself.
Through his book of essays, he could create, he thought, literature that “people of color could read and realize they’re not the only black person” in technology. And they’re not the only ones trying to work through self-doubt.
He refers to his efforts as “privilege lending,” the idea that people should lend their privileges to others. For instance, he made sure he provided a seat at a tech-conference roundtable to a Latino woman.
Or, it could be as simple as a white person “liking” or retweeting a minority’s tweet, he said.
“If you have a privilege you can lend that to the people,” Simmons said.
He considers his effort grassroots, just like Dr. King’s at the outset more than 50 years ago.
“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. created a grassroots movement of people getting together,” Simmons said. “I have hope that Americans can, through daily one-on-one interactions, realize that we are at our best only when we recognize the unity of our shared humanity. If we can see ourselves as fellow travelers along an uncertain road, we can transcend our differences and find a better pathway together.”