What is AfroTech?
Recently, I flew to San Francisco for Blavity’s second annual AfroTech conference. It’s billed as a conference “where the founders and employees of some of the fastest-growing tech startups will present the tactics and strategies they use to grow their products and businesses.” The conference sits squarely at the intersection of two big parts of who I am: One, black, and, two, into tech. So, of course, I was all in.
AfroTech took place at Pier 27 ― right on the Embarcadero ― with stellar views of the bay. It was spread across two days of panels, workshops, black-owned food trucks, tons of tech demos and one after-party that was lit (I really hope I’m using that term correctly). Many of the Bay Area’s tech elite, including Google, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, eBay, Uber and Reddit, were there, either as sponsors or as recruiters, and offered plenty of opportunities for students to introduce themselves. Incidentally, R/GA was the only advertising agency I recall seeing there, though given the success of this year’s conference, I can’t conceive of any reason that that would be the case for much longer.
One question people might ask is why does AfroTech exist (or any event specifically for black people in tech)? Why not just a tech conference for everyone? I’d answer that, because there’s such small representation of us in the industry, it’s necessary for us to see ourselves reflected, to have visual affirmation that we do exist and to get to know each other, so that we can help broaden our representation in—and impact on—the game.
With that said, here are some of the major keys (🔑’s) that I got from the conference ― may they be helpful reminders for everyone looking to boldly blaze along their professional paths:
1. Lean on UX as a Vessel for Empathy and Inclusive Representation in Outputs
If you pay any attention to diversity and inclusion (side note: it’s a topic that I’m personally passionate about and one that I’m helping shape the efforts around at my gig at Droga5), you already know that empathy—the ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes—is a major component of breaking down barriers and getting people to treat each other with basic decency. UX, or user experience, has a pretty fancy definition if you look it up on the interwebs, but what it boils down to is making interfaces that account for all of the different ways that users experience our content. Salih Abdul-Karim, Experience Designer at Airbnb, achieves this using a six-step framework comprised of discovery, planning, exploration, refining, launching and analysis. The bottom line is we need to have a wide range of perspectives to make better products, services, experiences or output of any sort; whether it’s is an app or an ad or a soap dispenser, the output can only be better if we’re representing all of us in its creation.
2. Solve a Problem Before Getting Lost in the Idea
This was an important one for me. Coming from the perspective of long years in advertising, I’ve come to view the idea as king, almost a sacrosanct thing, which everything else exists in service of. However, in response to a question about being able to fund a launch campaign to get the word out about a product to the maximum number of people, Michael Seibel, CEO of Y Combinator, stressed that when it comes to startups that get funded, the idea is almost secondary. The key is to solve a problem for as few as 10 users, listen to them and iterate on solutions and adding features, and they will use your product. This allows you to grow and scale at a sustainable pace, and it makes it cheap to communicate with them. You don’t need a blowout budget for marketing—after all, did Facebook have a launch ad campaign?
3. Assemble Your Superhero Squad for Tackling the Problem
Another important tip Michael Seibel gave tech founders was to have at least four full-time members on your founding team, and if it’s a tech startup, one of those four should be an engineer or developer, because VCs want to see that you have the right talent in place to grow and respond to the inevitable competition that will crop up in the space. I think we can extrapolate this and apply it in a more general sense (i.e., in our own daily lives). We need to surround ourselves with a team that is uniquely skilled in different areas and that can help us see problems and solutions from different angles; maybe there’s the type-A homie that will help us get focused when we’re being all impulsive and scattered or the one with a knack for listening when we just need to get something off our chest.
4. Understand That the Talent Exists and You Simply Need to Lay a Different Pipeline
Just about everyone said that they were “the only one in the room” at their place of business if they worked at a tech company. I found myself simultaneously stunned at the number of really, really knowledgeable people that were at the conference and incredulous that we all had the same experience. Judging from what I experience at AfroTech, if your company is stymied in the efforts to hire tech people of color and other underrepresented communities, it’s not because the talent isn’t out there or the “pipeline is broken.” As Nick Caldwell, VP of Engineering at Reddit, says, “Build a new pipeline.”
5. Never Stop Learning, Teaching and Honing the Craft
I sat in on a great panel called Navigating My Technical Career that was mostly aimed at students and one of the questions asked was about continuing to grow as a professional. The answers all touched on education, either via workshops or classes, from places like General Assembly or Treehouse, but one of the panelists stressed the importance of teaching as a tool for growth. Whether it’s something as simple as making a YouTube video or more formal, like volunteering (or getting a paid gig) at a school or bootcamp—or even at your company—teaching is one of the best ways to ensure that you really know your subject matter and can identify weak spots in your knowledge base that need strengthening. I myself have taught several Photoshop classes, starting with presentations in the theater at the Apple Store in SoHo and then moving on to guest lectures at NYU and finally teaching a few trimesters at Miami Ad School here in NYC.
There were many valuable lessons I walked away with from AfroTech, both for me as a developer and as someone who is committed to the fight for diversity and inclusion in the creative and technology industries. I met tons of really smart, like-minded people as well, and I’m very grateful for having had the opportunity to make these connections. Perhaps the most important takeaway I got from AfroTech is simply this: we’re here. There are intelligent, motivated, tech-minded, eminently qualified black people that are either ready to go to work for you or poised to launch their own enterprise—so you might someday work for them.
I would encourage anyone who’s interested in meeting and vibing with one of the most creative, talented group of people to attend this conference. Next year’s event has already been announced and is taking place November 8–11 in San Francisco. See you there?
Simon Abrams is a Principal Interactive Developer at creative agency Droga5. You can find and follow him at @flysi.