If I’ve learned one thing through reporting it’s that people respond more powerfully when you humanize an issue. Statistics are important, but readers can easily brush them off. Much harder to ignore is a story that gives readers a window into the struggles of a fellow human being who personifies the numbers. That’s what I was missing in my technology diversity reporting.
In recent years, tech companies have released reports that confirm they are doing a terrible job when it comes to hiring women and minorities. I’ve covered this topic regularly since last summer. I’ve written about the problem within major companies like Google and Facebook and so-called unicorn companies like Uber, Dropbox and Slack, and within the predominantly white investment community.
But I hadn’t written about what it was like to be a minority and apply for a job at these companies. Diverse candidates were in demand, but somehow the companies kept finding ways to not hire them. I needed to put a face on this story. I needed to find someone who was qualified enough to work in tech but was not being given the opportunity.
I reached out to my sources in October, asking if they knew any credible women or minorities who were struggling to find work. Every single source knew someone who fit the bill, but those individuals did not want to share their stories. Part of the problem is that people rarely want to label themselves as “the diverse candidate.” Nor do they want to scare off potential employers or – for the sake of their reputation as well as their sanity – be the person who claims that racism or sexism is what’s keeping them down.
It’s tough to share your struggles publicly, but when someone does the story is pushed forward by leaps and bounds. I needed to find someone who understood this.
Hack Reactor, a coding boot camp, came through for me. The program connected me with a few recent graduates who were looking for work, and I interviewed them in November. One candidate intrigued me: Justin Webb. A proficient software engineer in his late 30s, Webb was a father of two who had been coding for a living for non-tech companies since the early 2000s but was now finding scant interest from tech employers. Webb was the only person in his cohort who hadn’t found a job. He was also the only African-American member of his class.
When we met over coffee, Webb spoke with enthusiasm and was optimistic about his outlook. My feeling that the story would focus on him was confirmed during our second interview. Unlike earlier conversations, Webb’s voice rang through the telephone with despair. His job interviews had yet to yield an offer, and after being out of work for months, his bank account was running on fumes. He was facing eviction and didn’t know what to do.
Here’s the thing companies that struggle with diversity often fail to understand: their hiring processes are stacked against people who have low incomes. When you ask someone to come in for a full day of interviews, you are also asking the candidate to give up a day of work. When your hiring process requires several days of interviews, the sacrifice is greater. Now consider the time commitment required for seeking several positions. The candidate has to give up weeks, if not months, of work. That may be feasible for someone with a wad of savings or a support system that can carry the searcher through the process, but it’s much tougher for others. If the job hunt lasts long enough, candidates reach a point of desperation and may accept a lesser role and remove themselves from the talent pool.
That is what Webb’s job search showed me, and it’s what my story needed to illuminate. With a sense of urgency, I got to writing.
The narrative required colorful writing. It wasn’t enough to tell readers what happened. I had to show them. Reporting the piece meant stretching myself as a writer. Normally, I write news stories or analyses, which require reporting important facts but rarely call for more than that. For this story, I needed every tiny detail, which could help me paint a portrait in words.
Every day, I’d call Webb and collect more details. At night, I’d work past my shift and edit my work. In the mornings, my editor at the International Business Times would read it, provide feedback and push me to strengthen the story. For two weeks in December, I worked on the writing until the piece was where it needed to be.
Just before we published it, Webb got some good news. A tech startup made him a great job offer that would help him avoid eviction and buy his kids gifts in time for Christmas. It was the happy ending Webb deserved.
Telling Webb’s tale and doing it justice tested my skills as a journalist and forced me to evolve as a writer. I am one of the few Hispanic members of the tech press. Covering diversity in that industry is my highest priority, and I was proud of my body of work in that area in 2015. Webb’s story was its crown jewel.
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