Arif Gursel sat in his new office and reflected on his good fortune. He was 22, his first day as a Microsoft employee, and his job would be enviable even to an industry veteran: shaping the multimedia capabilities of the company’s Xbox video game console, set to release later that year. Private offices at the Redmond-based software company aren’t typically occupied by young, inexperienced workers, a fact Gursel relished all morning before heading to lunch.
Then he entered the cafeteria.
“It’s one of the instances in my life that’s burned in,” Gursel recalls, more than 15 years later. “I’ll never forget it.” In the dining room Gursel was met by hundreds of pale-skinned, staring faces. He was the lone black person.
“I open the cafeteria door—I’m a young kid with dreadlocks, walking into this homogenous environment of white males, who are responding by looking at me like, ‘Who’s this?’ ” Gursel remembers wandering the cafeteria, weathering awkward eye contact until J Allard, Xbox’s cofounder, finally called him over. “It was like the first day of high school, but there you can find a cultural connection with someone. Here, I was just isolated.”
Since then Gursel has held managerial positions at Microsoft and Zillow, among others. His career track, however, is unusual. African Americans in tech positions, even in 2017, are rare. Gursel, now 38 and still smarting from experiences like the one in the cafeteria that day, is poised to help change that.
In 2014 the industry’s most prominent companies began releasing demographic details of their workforce. There wasn’t a lot to be proud of. Google, for example, reported in 2016 that 81 percent of its tech employees are male, 94 percent either white or Asian, and just 1 percent are black. Apple claimed a 77 percent male tech workforce, with 9 percent of its workers identifying as black. As of September 2016, 17.5 percent of Microsoft tech workers were women. Roughly one in 42 Microsoft tech employees was black.
These companies have responded with a flurry of well-meaning diversity initiatives to address the lack of minority candidates available to hire. A common method has been to partner with coding schools, commonly called boot camps, that cram the basics of in-demand coding languages into a few intensive months of instruction, and the students typically land jobs starting at around $65,000 a year. Over a dozen such schools exist in the Seattle area, and most of them claim more than 90 percent of their graduates land tech jobs after completion.
They’ve hardly made a dent in the problem.
“We talk about diversity and inclusion, but we don’t disaggregate what we’re talking about,” says David Harris, the City of Seattle’s startup liaison. “There are intersections between race and gender and other things, but we definitely need specific strategies for each of those.” Harris worries that blanket approaches to diversity disproportionately affect certain populations, and might even sway the discourse around company policies. Consider the oft-cited stat that women make, on average, 80 cents for every dollar men earn. It’s a problem worth addressing, but focusing solely on that statistic hides the fact that black women earn only 63 cents on the dollar.
Tuition, meanwhile, can top $10,000 for a three-month coding boot camp. While that might be cheaper and faster than a college degree, it’s a sum that disqualifies those who do not have the means. In Seattle the median black household income is $37,000 a year.
It’s a wonder that anyone’s able to break through these seemingly impervious barriers in the first place.
Arif Gursel grew up in New York City. His mother and stepfather, both attorneys, sent him to the prestigious Brooklyn Technical High School, where he remodeled brownstones (architecture was a passion) and earned $50 an hour on the side teaching architects how to operate drafting software. A skilled music producer, Gursel flirted with going straight into the music industry after graduation. He wouldn’t have been the first family member to take that path. Ali Shaheed Muhammad, of A Tribe Called Quest, is his cousin. But Gursel’s mother, who represents clients in the entertainment industry, persuaded her son to forgo a record deal so he could focus on college.
The campus of Tuskegee University in Alabama, its landmark buildings constructed in part by its first students during the Reconstruction period, drew the young artist south. Tuskegee, founded by a former slave and a former slave owner, also gave Gursel a chance to live and study for the first time almost exclusively with fellow African Americans. “It’s a beautiful experience,” he says, “because you get to remove racism, prejudice, judgment.”
Two years in, he switched his major from architecture to computer science. A meeting with a Tuskegee alumnus at Microsoft led to a brief internship at the company the summer after his junior year. A year later he received the phone call that would change his life.
Jeff Stone, a manager at Microsoft, revealed over the phone to Gursel that the company was about to release the Xbox. Stone wanted somebody with musical talent and technical expertise to help build the multimedia experience—audio, photos, video—for the gaming console. Gursel dropped out of Tuskegee and headed out west again.
The awkward incident in the Xbox cafeteria his first day was just a taste of what was to come. Throughout his time at Microsoft, and later at Zillow and at retail mapping company Point Inside, Gursel claims he witnessed again and again the vagaries of discrimination and racial insensitivity. People sharing an elevator with him might clutch their bags and move to the corner. A “Good morning” was often met with phrases like, “What it do?” (“People are always trying to dap and ‘bro’ you,” Gursel says. “Man, that shit pisses black people off.”) At Zillow, he says his floor of developers blasted rap music laced with the N word. (“It was, ‘nigger, nigger, nigger,’ ” he remembers. “It would never be ‘kike, kike, kike,’ or ‘fag, fag, fag,’ because some of them are Jewish, and some of them are gay, so that’s important to them.”) At Microsoft, a team leader, drunk at a party, allegedly bemoaned the required interviewing of minority candidates; another said he hoped Gursel appreciated the “Aunt Jemima” motif of a party.
“The pan-African community is damaged by years and years of institutional racism. We’re walking around with PTSD—posttraumatic slavery disorder. Four hundred years of trauma, and it’s never stopped,” Gursel says. “Trump says, ‘Make America great again.’ Name one day that was great for my community. We’ve always lived under the thumb of systematic oppression.”
That history and his experiences in the workforce have convinced Gursel to help his community in multiple ways.
Today his many passions—art, music, computers—are on display in his Belltown office, which includes a recording studio and mixing board. Young proteges frequently drop in to record, and Gursel is known to play tracks—including, recently, a haunting number by local artist Kamari—for guests.
“If you’re a member of the pan-African community...and you want my help, I feel it’s my obligation to help,” he says. “I can’t say no to that.”
Gursel had been mulling the idea of creating his own nonprofit coding school years before the summer of 2015, when he caught wind of Floodgate Academy, a school founded the previous year in Oakland, California. DeVaris Brown and Kaiton Williams, both former Microsofties themselves, had been inspired by stories of workers who easily landed jobs after dropping a few thousand bucks on coding classes during the late-1990s tech boom. “A bunch of people who did that back in the day are still developers,” Brown says. “A lot of people of color missed out on that. They didn’t have access to capital.”
Gursel teamed with Brown and Williams, and now, beginning January 2017, Floodgate Seattle will run 10 students through six months of training and six months of an internship, possibly at Vibeheavy, the firm that’s a reboot of the music consulting company Gursel originally started with his cousin from A Tribe Called Quest. There’s no tuition, and classes will be held three times a week on nights and weekends so students can maintain a day job.
The tuition-free program is funded in part by a four-year, $3.8 million federal TechHire grant aiming to get more minorities in the tech field. (Floodgate’s share of the grant is $250,000 over two years; the rest of the organization’s funding comes from its founders’ pockets.) The grant will also fund two other boot camps: Ada Developers Academy, which targets women and nonbinary people, and Unloop, which helps train men and women in prisons.
A black-run organization, Gursel maintains, dispels notions that there’s a ceiling to students’ capabilities. “When people don’t see someone like themselves in class, in the instructors, achieving success, there’s not a reinforcing concept that you can succeed," he says. By teaching students himself and deploying a roster of black mentors, Gursel will communicate a simple but profound message: Black people can do this on their own.
Domonique Jones, a 31-year-old small business owner from Tukwila, will be one of Floodgate Seattle’s first students. Her company provides administrative services for small businesses, and she pulls just $30,000 a year. Some of that money is spent on her 10-year-old son, who splits time between her and his father in Alabama.
Jones and Gursel met at a networking happy hour hosted by Vibeheavy. When he learned she was taking classes at Seattle Central College to hone her computing skills, Gursel persuaded her to try Floodgate. It will be a refreshing change from her college classes, she expects; at SCC her classmates are primarily Asian and white folks who are younger and more well versed in technology than she is. And Gursel himself serves as validation that she can build a successful computer science career.
“You don’t hear about African Americans and successful IT businesses. You don’t hear about African Americans and, well, anything successful,” she says. “A lot of the ways we’re portrayed are negative—criminal activity...things like that.”
It remains to be seen if boot camps like Floodgate will have a lasting impact with the populations they serve. Walda Katz-Fishman, a Howard University sociologist and historian, views these efforts through short- and long-term lenses. In the near term, Floodgate could be useful because it gives black people a shot at jobs in an industry that has largely shunned them. But the long-term solution, she says, in which organizations like Floodgate eventually aren’t needed, requires “a revisioning of society.”
That daunting task is outside Floodgate’s realm, but Gursel argues those larger coups can’t be attained until marginalized populations break through the lower barriers in society. “We’ll teach you to feed yourself,” he says. “You can’t change your race, but you can change your income, and going from $30,000 to $50,000 is huge.”
Gursel also envisions Floodgate Seattle doing something else: making sure that black people even consider jobs in tech. And that’s something he wants to take global. Later this year he’ll pilot an online program with a high school in Ethiopia. People there will watch free tutorials made by black coders here and sign up for in-person classes if they choose to dive deeper. And if they’re ever hired by a tech firm?
They might see other employees who look like them in the cafeteria.