Cracking a culture from the inside

If there's one thing that the nation's competing information-technology companies say they have in common, it's that they're all accepting of the array of bright, creative, and often-eccentric personalities that have contributed to their success.

These same personalities have helped to shape what is sometimes affectionately known as "geek culture."

The thinking goes that if any workplace culture should be welcoming of people from various ethnic backgrounds, geek culture should.

After all, the humor, hobbies, lingo, and work habits of many skilled IT employees seem more rooted in a shared passion for new technology than anything else.

To a certain extent, this may be true. Before retiring from the IT workforce as a millionaire, Trish Millines Dziko worked inside Microsoft's systems division in a technical capacity.

While she was one of only a handful of African Americans in her division, she was respected for her abilities and was able to move up in the company.

But when she changed occupations to become a diversity administrator - and started raising issues of ethnicity within the white-dominated workplace - Ms. Millines Dziko says some employees seemed to feel bothered by her position.

Michael Gatlin, an African- American electronics engineer working at Lucent Technologies' Acoustics and Speech Research Department in Murray Hill, N.J., emphasizes that the "geek culture" he's immersed in is also a culture that has been shaped and defined by whites.

But that's understandable, he says, given the fact that whites were dominant in the field early on.

"The way it is with minorities is that we come in and [try to] fit in. With me, it was pretty difficult to fit in and feel comfortable," he says.

Mr. Gatlin is one of only three African-Americans working in a department of roughly 75 employees.

The comfort issue for minorities within IT companies is unlikely to change, he says, until larger numbers of people of color are able to move into leadership roles and, consequently, begin to affect the communication styles, hiring practices, and culture of IT companies more directly.

In the meantime, Gatlin says, he takes a pragmatic approach toward the career potential inherent in his chosen field.

"Technology is changing things pretty rapidly," he says. "This is the point in time where many of us [minorities] are getting new opportunities to become successful."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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