REDMOND, Wash., Feb. 7, 2005 — Before taking his first tour of Microsoft’s corporate headquarters, Jonathan Porter wondered if contemplating a career in IT was a waste of time. He remembers even asking one of his friends if any African-Americans actually work for the software company. He was only half-joking.
Stafford Mays, Senior Outreach Manager, Microsoft Corporate Diversity
From his vantage point, the question was logical. Porter attended Garfield High School in the inner-city of Seattle — 25 miles west of suburban Redmond. Nobody he knew worked for Microsoft or any of the Puget Sound area’s other large technology companies. He didn’t even know any African-Americans who had majored in computer science in college.
But now, three years later, the 18-year-old plans to make computer science his college major, and he’s got the resume to back him up. He has three summer internships at Microsoft under his belt, and a mentor at Microsoft with first-hand experience at overcoming the challenges of being a racial minority in an industry where minorities have long been underrepresented. Perhaps most telling, Porter can now envision himself some day working full time for Microsoft.
Porter’s outlook on Microsoft and the IT industry didn’t change by itself. It was nurtured over time by a handful of organizations at Microsoft and in his community that are working to open doors for minority students in the high-tech world. With Microsoft’s support and financial backing, these organizations have built a support system that includes everything from college scholarships to providing access to current technology.
One of the longest-standing events in this collective outreach effort will take place later this month, when the Blacks at Microsoft (BAM) employee resource group welcomes students to four Microsoft campuses around the United States. The 14th annual BAM Minority Student Day — on two separate dates in February – will give students in Redmond; Las Colinas, Texas; Charlotte, N.C.; and California’s Silicon Valley a chance to see what it’s like to work at Microsoft and in the software industry.
“Outreach efforts like Minority Student Day are vital to the future of these students, to Microsoft, and to the IT Industry,” says Jeff Raikes, group vice president of the Information Worker Business at Microsoft and executive sponsor of Blacks at Microsoft (BAM). “They allow us to connect with communities that are sometimes overlooked, contain a great deal of untapped talent, and are playing an increasingly important role in the future of this industry.”
Filling in the Colors of the Rainbow
Jonathan Porter, a senior at Seattle’s Garfield High School, talks with his mentor, Justin St. Clair, application developer within Microsoft’s Small and Midmarket Solutions & Partner Group, at the 14th annual BAM Minority Student Day, Feb. 11, 2005. Click image for high-res version.
The increasing global presence of Microsoft and its products has transformed the company into the IT equivalent of the United Nations; people from more than 135 different countries and regions around the world now work for Microsoft. Ensuring that minority groups are adequately represented within this rainbow is an ongoing effort at Microsoft
Studies have shown that the number of women and people of color at Microsoft is consistent with other percentages for the IT industry. But being a member of the pack isn’t good enough if Microsoft wants to continue to build its base of customers in all communities around the world, company executives say.
“We know Microsoft and most IT companies don’t yet fully reflect the diversity in the communities we serve,” says Stafford Mays, senior outreach manager for Corporate Diversity at Microsoft. “But we are making progress by the work we are doing within the community and by offering young students opportunities to learn about the IT industry.”
More than 400 students, ages 14 to 17, from these underserved communities are scheduled to take part in activities on Feb. 11 at the Redmond, Los Colinas and Silicon Valley campuses, and on Feb. 25 at the Charlotte campus. The students will attend a keynote presentation by Microsoft Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer, take part in hands-on technology labs and see how Microsoft employees work to create the next generation of software and online services. If history holds true, in between these activities, they’ll find time to ask the question that every teen-ager who has ever toured a Microsoft campus asks: “Do you really get to drink all the soda you want — for free ?”
Renee Bell, career development coordinator at Garinger High School in Charlotte, considers Minority Student Day the most valuable field trip of the year because it opens students’ eyes to possibilities most hadn’t considered — for potential careers and how they will use the skills they are learning in school. The students, many of whom don’t yet have computers at home, also get exposed to technologies they’ve only seen on television or in magazines. Last year, they got to try out Tablet PCs. The year before it was Pocket PCs.
“If not for the Microsoft trip, these students would not get see these newer technologies,” says Bell, a 25-year-veteran educator. “They would only get to see the standard they have at school, which is years behind what Microsoft shows us.”
As they tour the offices each year, students first notice the employees’ casual dress and the refrigerated cabinets full of soda. But the enduring lessons, Bell says, are learned when the students see how employees must organize their day, sometimes working independently and sometimes in groups, and how they must constantly learn new skills and take classes to increase their knowledge. And they are most surprised to see employees who look like them. These African-American and other minority employees often are recent college graduates who dress like them, have the same interests as them and attended the same kind of high schools as them, Bell says.
As these employees share their excitement for their jobs and the products they help build, as well as give students a sense of the benefits they receive, “I end up wanting to work there,” says Bell with a laugh.
While he was in high school, Porter remembers his classmates undergoing a similar change in perspective after attending the day-long gathering at the Redmond campus. “I never would have thought about working for Microsoft,” he remembers classmates saying during the bus ride home. “But this has opened my eyes.”
BAM Casts Broad Net for Minority Outreach
BAM has spent the past 16 years trying to open the eyes of students from a broad variety of ethnic and other groups that are underrepresented in the IT industry. Formed in 1989 to provide Microsoft’s black employees support and networking opportunities, BAM now has 500 members and chapters in nine locations, including three outside of the United States — South Africa, Kenya and Italy.
One of more than 30 resource support groups at Microsoft, BAM has proven vital for employees such as Justin Saint Clair, an application developer within the Small and Midmarket Solutions & Partner Group. Unlike many African-Americans on the Redmond campus, he didn’t have to move far to take a job at Microsoft. He graduated from Seattle’s Garfield High School several years before Porter. But Saint Clair worried that when he arrived at work he’d lose the sense of community and support he received in the multicultural neighborhood where he grew up — and which he struggled to find at the University of Washington in Seattle, where he was usually the only African-American student in his computer science classes.
BAM members offered a primer on Microsoft culture, helped him solve technology problems at work and at home and invited him to BAM movie nights and dinners. “It ended up being a pretty great safety net,” says Saint Clair, who now serves as vice president of outreach and community affairs on BAM’s governing board.
But soon after the group formed, BAM members realized a safety net wasn’t enough; they also needed to build the base of African-Americans at Microsoft and in the IT industry. Of the 310 million computer science graduates in the United States in 2002, fewer than 23 million — or 7 percent — were black. And while enrollment of minority students in university science and engineering programs is growing faster than enrollment of white students, black students still only make up 7 percent of those enrolled in these programs. Hispanics make up 6 percent, while less than 1 percent are American Indians or Alaska natives. Students of Asian and Pacific Island heritage were 10 percent, the second largest minority group behind women, who comprised 35 percent, according to a study by the National Science Foundation.
BAM opens the Minority Student Day to more than African-Americans. Students from other ethnic or racial groups, as well as girls, people with disabilities and others underrepresented in the IT industry, are also invited. In addition to promoting technology-based jobs, BAM exposes the students to employees from finance and other less technology-focused jobs at Microsoft. All stress the value of technology skills in their careers and most others today.
“You many not be able to write computer code, but having some background in technology helps in any career,” says BAM member Latosha Byrd, a business manager on the Redmond campus who never envisioned working for Microsoft until she took her job five and a half years ago.
Growing Range of Resources Expands Opportunities for Minority Students
Porter, now a freshman at Seattle University, will serve as a role model at this year’s Minority Student Day. To those who seek his advice, he’ll have much more than the insight gained during previous Minority Student Days to share.
He has benefited from the increasing array of programs and resources BAM, Microsoft and other groups now provide minority students who display an interest in technology. Growing up in Seattle, Porter was able to develop his interest in computers at a community technology center maintained by the Technology Access Foundation (TAF), an organization founded by former Microsoft employee Trish Millines Dziko that provides computer education to underserved students in the Seattle area. As his skills increased, Porter received internships sponsored and hosted by Microsoft. During his summer breaks, he helped groups at Microsoft build Web sites and performed testing on components of the next version of the Windows operating system, code named “Longhorn.”
“I got to work on software that millions of people will use,” he says. “I got to put my mark on it, however small.”
The high school internships are among 30 that Microsoft sponsors each year for minority students, garnering almost universal praise from the interns. The 2004 follow-up survey conducted by Microsoft showed that 96 percent of the interns felt they had ownership of projects during their internships, while 94 percent said they developed skills that would help them in their careers. Just as significantly, 97 percent of the interns said they would recommend the company as a good place to do an internship.
Along with developing his IT skills, the internships helped Porter learn how to meet deadlines — and how to ask questions and learn from his mistakes. “All the things I didn’t learn in high school,” he says, “I learned during my internships at Microsoft.”
When Porter graduated from high school last year, BAM awarded him one of two $2,500 annual scholarships it sponsors, along with another resource, the value of which can’t be as easily quantified. Saint Clair serves as a mentor to the teen-ager, providing support and answering questions that many of these students’ families can’t. Saint Clair, one of several BAM members who serve as mentors, is helping Porter build his resume by promoting him to serve on community technology committees. His wife, who attended Seattle University, also plans to help Porter choose the best classes and professors once he begins work on his major.
“If he can come from the same high school as me and make it in this career, then I know I can do it,” Porter says.
Saint Clair’s example may prove especially helpful if Porter confronts the kind of questions his mentor received — questions about his ability to cut it in the IT industry because assistance programs helped open doors for him. These questions may be more prevalent for Porter because in addition to be African-American, he has muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair, Saint Clair says.
“Support systems have helped him overcome challenges, but this doesn’t reduce the legitimacy of his talent or dedication,” Saint Clair says. The advice he will give Porter: “Prove with your hard work that you deserve to be there.”
Even if Porter never becomes a full-time Microsoft employee, Saint Clair and others at the company consider the teen-ager’s achievements so far a well-earned victory in an ongoing challenge to make the IT industry more diverse. As for Porter, he’s just happy someone has helped give him a chance to follow his ambition.
“Microsoft has invested in my future,” he says. “They have given me an opportunity, affected my life, like no other corporation has.”