A black man walks into the San Francisco CTO Summit

A black man walks into the San Francisco CTO Summit

On May 8, 2017, at precisely 11:41 a.m., I walked onstage at the San Francisco CTO Summit to give a talk titled "Tech and Inclusion. Why So Difficult?"

At $995 for the session, and with over 200 attendees, the event was billed as being presented by senior engineering leaders from startups (more than 75% are chief technology officers, vice presidents of engineering or directors of engineering). Previous presenters were the CTOs and VPEs of Stripe, Coinbase, MongoDB, Zenefits, Warby Parker, Squarespace, Shopify, Birchbox, Tumblr and CustomInk.

As I took my place on the stage, I looked out at the crowd and posed the question, "Who identifies as an African-American?" 

No one responded. 

I looked out at the crowd and posed the question, "Who identifies as an African-American?" No one responded. 

It was if no one had noticed until that moment that the makeup of people in the room and the title of my talk were strangely in alignment.

With all the ongoing conversations and controversy surrounding inclusion and diversity, it is surprising that a tech conference in San Francisco — which bills itself as a place to learn and connect with your peers — allows this to happen. 

Let’s unpack what makes it difficult.

1. Inclusion takes work. 

You have to expand your network and ask for help from people you are not accustomed to asking for help from.

2. Inclusion is uncomfortable. 

The conference organizers knew the title of my talk months in advance. How awkward would it have been for the conference organizers to ask for help in finding people of color to attend and present? Probably less awkward than me calling it out onstage.

3. Inclusion means changing the way you think about everything. 

For example: There were no affordances for hearing-impaired or physically limited people to present. Whereas when I moderated at Silicon Valley Comic-Con, there were two sign-language translators.

Inclusion is not free. It takes time, effort and money. If you are willing to spend money on swag, you should be willing to spend money on inclusion — #JustSayin.

If you are willing to spend money on swag, you should be willing to spend money on inclusion. 

I greatly appreciate every opportunity to speak on diversity and inclusion. However, this was a very uncomfortable experience for me. The time spent preparing slides, practicing and rehearsing was affected by the stark lack of diversity and inclusion I was there to talk about. 

This is what happens to Eng Women and people of color in the workplace all too often. It is very difficult to be at your best in those environments. 

It does not have to be this way — and it will take upfront, concerted and deep work by conference organizers, employers and people to change.

This article first appeared on Medium and was republished with permission.

Leslie Miley (@shaft) is a Silicon Valley native who has held engineering leadership roles at Slack, Twitter, Apple and Google. He has been featured in USA Today, TechCrunch Disrupt and Wired's 2017 Next List. He advises several startups founded by women and minorities and is an investor in a fund dedicated to diverse entrepreneurs.