“I was born in Thailand in 1980 in a refugee camp near the border of Thailand and Cambodia.”
“I am a half Puerto Rican trans woman.”
“I’m a Canadian queer artist/activist who went back to school at 30.”
When most people conjure a vision of “techies,” it does not include stories that begin like these. Photographer Helena Price borrowed the loaded, somewhat derogatory term for an art project that highlights 100 designers, engineers, and product managers–including those quoted above–who don’t fit into the stereotypical tech mold. Techies, a collection of portraits and interviews that Price published today, aims to tell an oral history of the tech industry from the perspective of people who are underrepresented inside of it. “For people who are outside of the industry looking in, I want them to know that there are people who come from hardship; they aren’t all Ivy League wealthy young boys,” she says, “It’s a mix of people who are here, and they’re passionate about building stuff.” For others who work in tech, she says, “If you decide that diversity is important, here are the things that you need to know about and solve for.”
Over the last few years, technology companies have publicly acknowledged their problems with inclusivity by publishing the demographic data about their workforces. They showed that African Americans and Hispanics made up just 5% of the workforce at top tech companies in 2014, compared with 14% nationally. Women were underrepresented at every level.
Price, who has worked in tech for six years, first as a head of communications and currently as a commercial photographer, wanted to add qualitative experiences to this data by telling the story of tech from the perspective of its underrepresented groups.
She began by posting a Medium post calling for subjects. “I want to know your triumphs and accomplishments as well as struggles and hardships,” it said. “I want to know how you made it to Silicon Valley and joined tech in the first place. I want to know how hard it was for you to get here and why you stay. I want to know what you are proudest of and the setbacks you fear you’ll never overcome.” Within two weeks, she had 500 applications, which she whittled down to 100.
Like many of her subjects, Price has experienced the obstacles that come with being an atypical demographic in the tech industry. “I felt that isolation just as a broke white girl in tech,” she says, “I couldn’t imagine what other people were feeling.” The subjects of her interviews range from well-known entrepreneurs (including Kleiner Perkins partner John Maeda, Walker & Company CEO and founder Tristan Walker, and Gigaom founder Om Malik) to people who are just beginning their careers in tech. Price photographed each in her apartment studio, with a goal of making each portrait as elegant and personal as possible. “I wanted it to feel very un-techie,” she says.
Techies’s interviews follow a basic line of questioning about how subjects got started in tech, what they’ve accomplished, and the obstacles they’ve faced. The ways in which their perspectives diverge from what’s considered a stereotypical techie narrative inevitably insert themselves. “We survived on very little— $24K a year of government assistance, which my mom miraculously made work somehow,” says Chanpory Rith, the cofounder of Mixmax, a startup that adds tracking and other enhancements to email. “Nowadays, I hear complaints about how small the apartments are in SF and how making $175K/year isn’t enough.” Other interviews convey what it’s like, for instance, to be a 55-year-old working in an industry about which a 22-year-old Mark Zuckerberg once famously said that “younger people are just smarter”; or someone who grew up in poverty and now works in an industry where bonuses often eclipse poverty-line salary; or a transgender woman looking for a job as an engineer for the first time since presenting queer. “It’s pretty easy to sabotage somebody in the interview process if you want to,” says February Keeney, an engineering manager at Github. “And I’m sure anyone with a non-privileged background faces these exact same type of things where all it takes is, ‘I don’t think they’re a good fit,’ or, ‘Nah, they made me kind of uncomfortable,’ or, ‘I really didn’t like the way they answered this one thing’…I’ve had to learn a lot about this privilege thing, and how much I had, and how much I’ve lost.”
Many of Price’s subjects have a complicated relationship with the technology industry. They are passionate about what they do, but have also experienced a sense of “otherness” throughout their careers.
Filters like “women,” “disability,” “developer,” and “VC” are partly a play on the diversity numbers technology companies report as percentages—there are 100 profiles, after all—but they’re also practical. Price imagines how someone who is discouraged to start a career in tech because they don’t see anyone in the industry who looks like them might use the site. “I want to say ‘no, here are a ton of them,’” she says. “There’s a place for you here.”