Steve Buchanan caught a break as a teenager 20-plus years ago when a relative referred him to someone who worked for a small computer-consulting firm.
The connection worked, although Buchanan remembers feeling a little off as the only Black worker in a group of white people.
"I got my second job because I was in a barbershop and the barber knew an African-American guy who owned an IT firm," Buchanan said. "And I got my second job in tech."
A couple of years later, Buchanan became an information technology contractor at Target.
Today, Buchanan, 39, is a director of cloud architecture at the Twin Cities office of Avanade, the IT-consultant owned by Accenture and Microsoft. And he is a diversity ambassador through Avanade and associations, such as Blacks in Technology. He's also a blogger and podcaster.
"Tech is a game- changer and equalizer," Buchanan said. "It can take someone and lift them out of poverty. You don't need to be a math major."
It also helped that Buchanan eventually earned a college degree and some technology certifications, and that he networked like crazy. Buchanan ticks off names of Black mentors, including Tyrone Spratt, a longtime executive who is the chief business technology officer at Minnesota IT Services, the technology agency in state government.
"There can be problem if you are the only Black person" in the department, Buchanan said. "You go to work and your colleagues are talking about going to the cabin. Most African-Americans don't have cabins."
It's Black History month. It should also be Black Future month in the economy.
Software and IT are growing. Professionals typically make $50,000 to $150,000 for senior managers. And minority employment is growing at up to twice the rate as the market, according to state-labor statistics.
RealTime Talent, a St. Paul-based provider of labor market information, reported 8,556 IT job openings in December. That was up 32% from 2019 in a Minnesota profession that has grown to 92,854 jobs. There are 123,000 jobs overall in scientific-technical services.
Inclusion has helped expand the economy. Labor growth is now driven by minorities and immigrants, the fastest-growing segment of the state's population.
Traditionally, IT was the province of mostly white males with degrees in math or computer science. That's changing, as demand for IT workers increases and employers realize that they can onboard trainable, creative workers, disproportionately women and minorities, through community colleges and training programs.
And there are thousands of IT job openings in Minnesota, according to MnTech, the industry association.
"With baby boomers leaving the tech workforce in large numbers over the next 10 years, we need to think differently as to how we inspire our next generation to pursue STEM careers … how we engage historically overlooked and untapped sources of talent [and] and how we develop and retain talent once onboard," MnTech CEO Jeff Tollefson wrote his membership recently.
Buchanan recently did a Blacks in Tech podcast with Greg Greenlee, a systems engineer and founder of Blacks in Technology.
"Traditionally, the Black athlete and the Black entertainer have always been front and center in our culture," Greenlee noted. "The Black technologist, however … is depicted as really awkward. We need to be protecting our brand and trying to highlight our brand, which is one of the core principles of BIT."
Buchanan observed that young Black males often see such portrayals in media. They prefer to identify with "someone in the NBA," he said.
"I think it's important for any of us in the Black community that are in tech to really think about that as we're putting ourselves out there," Buchanan said. "Basically, we need to make sure that anyone coming into tech knows that it's OK to bring your whole self. We're not just nerds.
"I have always played basketball … and I used to run a hip-hop website and was into hip-hop shows. A lot of us share the same interests, and also share an interest in tech. There's a lot of us who are into these different things. That's one thing I love about the BIT conference. I was around people in tech who I can also talk with about the new Drake album.''
The emergence of Black tech leaders and intensified drive on recruiting and retention is starting to pay off in the Twin Cities. It makes us a better community.
"I am encouraged," Buchanan said. "Companies have been more about discussion and acknowledging that diversity is important. It's smart economically. It's not exclusive. It makes the pie bigger."