IT Industry Lags Behind Nation in Hiring Blacks

FRAMINGHAM (01/28/2000) - African-American information technology professionals lauded IBM's appointment of fellow African-American Al Zollar to the top spot at Lotus Development Corp. But they also said there's still work to be done before there is adequate representation of African-Americans in IT's ranks.

Zollar, an executive at IBM for 23 years, will take over as CEO for departing chief Jeff Papows this week.

"The fact that I happen to be African-American is a positive sign, relative to demonstrating a commitment to diversity [on IBM's behalf]. But I hope it's the talent of individuals that are allowed to shine without any blockage or barriers that are artificial," Zollar told Computerworld. "Technology is one of those industries where it's easy to become color-blind, because it's about the skills that you bring to the table."

African-American IT professionals at Lotusphere 2000 last week said Zollar's appointment is encouraging.

Freeman Fridie, Lotus Notes architect at PricewaterhouseCoopers in New York, praised IBM but said he would like to see more minority hiring at all levels in the IT industry. "Obviously, it's a great start. There is very little color in the high-tech industry," said Fridie. "In general, there are very few blacks in information technology, and there needs to be more. But to have someone black at the top is a great start."

"I see [Zollar's hire] as a stepping-stone for more African-Americans to enter the IT field and to have someone there as an example to lead the way," said Catherine Moore, Lotus Notes administrator at insurance broker Aon Corp. in Chicago.

Optimistic sentiments aside, data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the hiring of African-Americans in high technology has improved only slightly during the past decade and lags behind total U.S. employment rates for African-Americans. From 1989 to 1999, African-American employment in high tech increased from roughly 5.6% to 7.1%. But African-Americans made up 11.4 % of all U.S. employees last year, up from 10.3 percent in 1989.

The biggest hiring gain in the high-tech sector came from Asian, Pacific Islander, American Indian and Eskimo groups. This category more than doubled from 6% of high-tech hires in 1989 to 12% in 1999.

In the executive suites of high-profile IT companies, African-Americans are still rare, but are becoming less so.

Last April, Symantec Corp. hired John W. Thompson, 50, a former IBM executive who is African-American, to head the antivirus software firm. Symantec, in Cupertino, Calif., posted $634 million in revenue last year. Other African-American CEOs include Dwayne Walker at Inc. in Seattle, Curtis Crawford at Zilog Inc. in Campbell, Calif., and E. David Ellington at NetNoir Inc. in San Francisco.

Looking back on 20 years in the industry, the career paths of minority job candidates has improved greatly, said Denise Street-Robb, president of Mitchell Street Associates Inc., an IT recruiting firm in Atlanta. "It used to be hard to find minority candidates at the executive level, but the situation is improving."

Street-Robb has urged high-tech companies to form closer ties with and recruit candidates from colleges and universities with a strong track record in educating minority students.