All this month, our friends at Tell Me More are digging into the role of blacks in technology. You can join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #NPRBlacksInTech.
Software development is a huge and growing industry, and there are likely to be far more jobs in the future than there are folks to do them. But today, there's a paucity of blacks and Latinos in software development positions.
One of the spaces you might think would be a gateway for developers of color to enter the industry is through open source software development. You don't have to know somebody or have a degree in software engineering or get hired to participate in an open-source project. You can jump right in and start writing some code.
In theory, at least. The reality is a bit messier.
Betsey Haibel, a software developer in Washington, D.C., is a textbook case of why open source could help diversify tech. She didn't have a traditional computer science degree, but contributing to open-source projects helped her land her current job.
But in Haibel's experience, the open-source world is even whiter and more male than the world of proprietary software. "It's very clear that the open source community is whiter than the software community as a whole," she says.
Which is to say: pretty darn white. According to a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than eight in 10 software developers in 2012 were white. We should note that while white developers were overrepresented, so were Asian-Americans. So it's not like people of color are not in software development; but blacks and Latinos are significantly underrepresented.
Ashe Dryden, a blogger whose focus is diversity in tech spaces, noticed something very similar. After an influential tech entrepreneur wondered aloud on Twitter if open-source experience should be a requirement for all applicants to web development jobs, Dryden noted that the overwhelming majority of the most active users of GitHub — one of the most popular open-source code hosting services — were white guys. (That's only one data point, but there isn't a whole lot of hard data out there on race in the world of open source.)
There are larger societal factors that contribute to the whiteness of the tech world, more broadly. Blacks and Latinos are more likely to attend under-resourced schools, they're underrepresented in math and science fields at every level of higher education and increasingly so the higher they go, and are less likely than whites to have Internet access outside of the home.
"The physical resources are a tremendous barrier, especially for communities of color and people of lower socioeconomic [status]," says Kimberly Bryant, the founder of Black Girls Code, a group that aims to get school-aged black girls interested in software development.
Those barriers are still true in open-source development, but you can add several more. A big one is time, which isn't a luxury that many people who are lower on the socioeconomic scale have. Dryden puts it this way:
[Open source software] contribution takes time; I don't think anyone would contest that. Getting familiar with a project, finding out where you can fit into it, reading and responding to issues, testing and submitting patches, writing documentation. All of that requires a good deal of time.
Marginalized people in tech — women, people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ people, and others — have less free time for a few major reasons: dependent care, domestic work and errands, and pay inequity.
"A lot of people cannot take on more work without compensation," Haibel says.
The fact that software companies often subsidize time their employees spend contributing to open-source projects adds another hurdle for outsiders to the industry. Lots of folks in tech sector jobs do coding on the side "for fun" — but that downtime is often time set aside by their companies that they're paid for. (Google famously allows employees to set aside 20 percent of their paid time to work on their own projects.)
Network effects often also play a big role in which projects fail and which succeed, but also which projects people find and decide they want to work on.
"Your pool is initially [those] around you who know you," and the people who you know tend to be "demographically similar," Haibel says.
She says that while using open-source might be beneficial to some applicants who don't have traditional tech backgrounds, requiring that applicants have open-source experience might exacerbate the coding gap. Newcomers to the space might not get onto the "right" projects because they don't "know" the people working on them. "Participation in the open-source community is a function of comfort in the community before that," Haibel says.
Before she was a software developer, Bryant was an electrical engineer, a field even less brown than computer science. She's trying to get her young, black coders up to speed, and she pushes all of them to regularly use GitHub. She says she wants them to get used to having their code reviewed by other developers and using the tools that the professional developers are using.
But she hopes that eventually more schools make coding part of their core curriculum.
As Dryden points out in her post about labor and open source, free and open-source software can also be a big boon to people of lower-economic status, a sizable number of whom are Latino and black. Photographers who can't swing the $700 for Adobe Photoshop can use GIMP as an alternative. Graphic designers might turn to Inkscape instead of Adobe Illustrator. Free, open-source frameworks such as JQuery and Backbone.js make it easier for newer developers to employ some of the flashy techniques of advanced coders.
But for all the potential advantages that open source might provide to Latinos and blacks, a new pathway to employment doesn't seem to be one of them. Folks like Kimberly Bryant and Ashe Dryden are trying to change that. We'll be watching.
Attackers used guns and bombs to assault Yemen's defense ministry compound Thursday, in a bold daytime attack that was reportedly carried out by gunmen dressed in Yemeni military uniforms. At least 20 people were killed in the violence, in which a gun battle followed a large explosion.
"The attack took place shortly after working hours started at the ministry, when a suicide bomber drove a car into the gate," a defense ministry source tells Reuters.
The Los Angeles Times reports, "Windows were shattered for blocks around in the district, which is also home to the country's central bank,"
That's when the other attackers opened fire, beginning a battle that seems to have continued even as ambulances arrived on the scene. The violence also spilled into a hospital in the compound.
From the BBC:
"Officials said a second car followed whose occupants opened fire at the complex, and a battle ensued involving gunmen in military uniforms.
"The gunmen occupied a hospital at the complex, they added, but security forces later regained control of the building, which was badly damaged."
The death toll in the attack, which is being reported by various media as between 20 and 29 people, includes both the attackers, civilians, and people in the defense compound. Dozens more were reportedly wounded.
No group claimed responsibility for the attack, but several analysts have noted that it resembles operations by Al-Qaida.
Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell is more than a little aggravated with the Senate Conservatives Fund, and who can blame him.
The youngish but well-financed Tea Party organization has targeted McConnell, a five-termer from Kentucky and highest-ranking Senate Republican, by helping to bankroll a primary challenger and using the race as an intraparty, us vs. them proxy.
McConnell in recent days has publicly accused the fund, which supported the government shutdown as an anti-Obamacare tactic, of "giving conservatism a bad name" and "participating in ruining the [Republican] brand." He reportedly scolded a Senate candidate from Nebraska in private for linking arms with the fund.
And last month McConnell's influence was apparent when the national committee that works to get Republicans elected to the Senate said it wouldn't do business with an advertising firm affiliated with the fund.
This is what former McConnell staffer Josh Holmes, now with the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told The Hill newspaper about that decision: "SCF has been wandering around the country destroying the Republican Party like a drunk who tears up every bar they walk into. The difference this cycle is that they strolled into Mitch McConnell's bar and he doesn't throw you out, he locks the door."
The fund's response went something like this: McConnell is a bully, full of threats and bluster.
Fighting words, indeed.
For those who don't slavishly follow party machinations and political money, we thought we'd take a quick look at the Senate Conservatives Fund, its money, and why it is causing McConnell and other establishment Republicans so much grief. The Kentucky conservative is just one of seven GOP Senate incumbents facing primary challenges of varying seriousness from the party's Tea Party wing.
Brainchild Of Tea Party 'Godfather'
The fund, a political action committee, was founded in 2008 by then-South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, a small-government conservative viewed by many as the godfather of the Tea Party movement.
When DeMint left the Senate earlier this year to become the president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, the fund, led by a cadre of his former staffers, including Matt Hoskins, got a national boost.
In taking the helm of Heritage, DeMint provided himself and the fund with an "institutional base," says Michael Bowen, "that most ex-senators who try to make policy don't have."
Bowen, author of Roots of Modern Conservatism, says that with the resources of Heritage, "DeMint will remain a force — Heritage has a well-deserved reputation as a leader in the right-wing movement, and he's not going to go away."
That suggests that the DeMint-McConnell battle in which the conservatives fund is a key player will also continue beyond the coming election cycle — assuming McConnell survives the primary against businessman Matt Bevin and can defeat the Democratic candidate, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.
Jonathan Strong, writing this week in the conservative National Review, traces what he characterizes as the DeMint-McConnell "feud" back to 2006, when they clashed over the issue of earmarks.
DeMint wanted a war on the congressional sweeteners, Strong says; McConnell did not.
"Their feud has been one of the most enduring — and important — clashes within the ranks of the Republican Party. Team McConnell thinks DeMint is a self-destructive showboat whose tactics, such as the government shutdown, can lead only to disaster. Team DeMint thinks McConnell is a petty, vindictive tyrant who pushes a mushy agenda behind the scenes. The battle raging in Kentucky is the culmination of seven years of on-and-off conflict."
The stakes in McConnell's Kentucky race, says Republican strategist John Feehery, can't be underestimated.
"This is a big fight," he says. "McConnell's got to make the case that this primary is a real waste of money, and that he's a real conservative.
"But [the SCF] has been able to tap into the anger of a lot of rank-and-file conservatives, and get them to give up their money," says Feehery, who characterizes the fund as a disruptive "nuisance."
Efforts to reach Hoskins, the fund's executive director, and Tom Jones, its political director, for comment were unsuccessful.
Big Money, Small Donors
The Senate Conservatives Fund raised and spent nearly $16 million in the 2012 election cycle. One of their top donors was Koch Industries. The fund invested more than $385,000 in Texan Ted Cruz's successful run for the Senate and also helped Arizona's Jeff Flake vault from the House to the Senate.
But it also backed ideological candidates who proved unelectable statewide, including Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana. That blunted gains the GOP was banking on, repeating a scenario that played out two years earlier when the fund backed general election losers like Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle.
In 2012, the fund spent about $10 million against Republicans, including longtime Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, who lost to Mourdock in a party primary.
The Center for Responsive Politics reports that the fund has already raised and spent more than $6 million on the coming 2014 cycle, including about $21,000 against McConnell. It has invested $105,895 in Bevin and this week sponsored an online effort to put together a $400,000 money bomb for the challenger.
The SCF says on its website that it "does not support incumbent Senators, but instead looks for new leaders who will stand up to the big spenders in both political parties." This year, it is extending its largesse to House candidates.
"They are one of the new standard-bearers for the Tea Party, and they represent the new 'take no prisoners' approach," says Sheila Krumholtz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which at Open Secrets compiles information on money in politics.
The fund, she says, acts as an "earmarking" organization, collecting targeted individual contributions and passing them along to specific candidates.
"They are a major player in Washington and Congress," Krumholtz says. "Raising more than $15 million last cycle? That's serious money."
A comparable organization on the Democratic side, she said, is the left-leaning MoveOn.Org, which raised more than $19 million in the 2012 cycle.
A superPAC affiliated with the SCF, Senate Conservative Action, has also raised $1.3 million this election cycle. It has already made a $330,000 ad buy attacking McConnell for making a deal that ended the government shutdown; and it has invested $263,000 in ads for an insurgent Senate candidate in Mississippi where incumbent GOP Sen. Thad Cochran is up for re-election.
The pro-McConnell superPAC, Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, has invested $340,000 in an ad buy critical not of the incumbent senator's primary challenger but of Democrat Grimes. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is also running ads supporting McConnell.
Just to note: As of Sept. 30, McConnell's campaign committee had more than $9.7 million in cash on hand. Bevin, a Louisville businessman, reported in October that he had collected $222,000 in contributions and lent his campaign $600,000 of his own money.
Club for Growth Model
More than a decade ago, a largely unknown group of economic conservatives and tax-cut advocates called the Club for Growth was fomenting similar intraparty battles. It alarmed moderate Republicans with attacks on GOP Sens. Olympia Snowe of Maine and George Voinovich of Ohio and its backing of a primary challenge against veteran Republican Sen. Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania.
The Club for Growth collected $4.2 million in 2002. In the 2012 election cycle, it spent $4 million against Democrats and $10 million against Republicans. And, like the Senate Conservatives Fund, it invested heavily in Flake, Cruz and Mourdock.
But the Club for Growth, which gives McConnell an 84 percent "lifetime score" for votes he has taken on the group's key issues, has so far stayed on the sidelines in the Kentucky primary.
We asked the club's Barney Keller what the organization planned to do about the Kentucky primary, and when it planned to do it. "We're watching the race," he said.
Watching, we asked, as in "will continue to watch until it's over," or watching as in "we may jump in if we see fit"?
The club has lots of company.