Pando

Here's what happened when we invited one of our most scathing commenters to our Don’t Be Awful event

By David Holmes , written on February 10, 2015

From The News Desk

Richard Bottoms is one of Pando's most prolific -- and scathing -- commenters.

He routinely calls out what he considers to be extreme racial biases among Silicon Valley investors and entrepreneurs. Often he views Pando stories as part of the problem, owing to his perception that our writers -- particularly one David Holmes -- do not go far enough in acknowledging the racism that manifests itself in the national tech scene. Bottoms is certain to comment on any story I write that's even tangentially related to race. He is also likely to comment on any story I don't write about race, asking, "Why aren't you writing about race?"

For example, in response to an article I wrote about inaccurate claims made by a Twitter account called @UberFacts (no relation to Uber), Bottoms wrote:

With all the Neo-Nazis and other racists deluging us with spam & hate @UberFacts is what you're upset about?

I'm pretty sure it's been a least a decade or two since the Klan was directly responsible anyone getting killed, Uber on the other hand is responsible for a dead little girl 360 some days ago on New Years Eve 2013. I write a piece calling out wildly popular peddlers of false information and before I know it we're talking about Neo-Nazis, the KKK, and automobile fatalities?

While many web publications would simply dismiss Bottoms, letting his voice drown in a cess pool of less worthy comments, we did the unthinkable: We had him speak at one of our major events.

At last month's 24-hour "Don't Be Awful" fest, the 60-year old mobile developer and web designer joined me to discuss his decades-long career in technology for a segment he called, "Why Am I the Only Black Guy Here?"

"The name says 'Don’t Be Awful,'" Bottoms said, "and I’ve been saying the most awful things about practically every one of you for the past year."

When Bottoms proposed the chat, Pando's Paul Carr assured him that he would not be the "only black guy" there. But while there were many people of color who attended our event at various points in time, during the 30-minute bloc set aside for Bottoms his title was regrettably accurate.

Bottoms may be unforgiving in his commentary -- and at times even cruel. But often he approaches our stories with an intellectual rigor that, while remarkably common among Pando commenters, is hardly the norm on the Internet. Dressed in a bowtie and vest, Bottoms was more civil in person than on the web, but just as insightful -- and brutal.

In discussing Silicon Valley's efforts to improve diversity, he said that industry insiders often tell a ludicrously simplistic narrative.

"To get black folks into their companies, it has to be like a very special episode of 'Blossom' or something," Bottoms said. "They have to drive their limousine out to the ghetto and find some poor unfortunate kid, and [say], 'Here’s an Apple II and call us back when you know how to code,' and then he becomes CEO and all that nonsense."

That may be an overstatement, but it reveals some very real flaws in how some in the industry approach diversity. There's a false assumption, implicit or otherwise, that employing non-white men is akin to charity work. On the contrary, as the competition for technical talent is more intense than ever, it's imperative that tech firms expand their recruiting sphere. Kathryn Finney, head of the social enterprise digitalundivided told me last year, "You cannot scale your company with all white men. There are not enough white guys in the world."

In the spirit of our event, Bottoms did more than simply bemoan the lack of diversity at major tech firms -- he provided some real solutions. He praised the efforts of organizations like Black Girls Code, which has become highly visible and influential since its founding in 2011. But he cited a host of older institutions like One Hundred Black Men designed to facilitate professional connections and further the careers of young black Americans -- and yet they don't seem to be on the tech industry's radar. Historically Black Colleges and the military, he argues, are also fertile recruiting grounds that should receive more attention from Big Tech.

He admits, however, that these older organizations share some of the blame and could do more to encourage their members to get involved with the tech industry.

"There are organizations that are almost one hundred years old that are designed to make black men and women successful, but what they turn out mostly are doctors, lawyers, dentists," Bottoms says. "They are going after safe careers. And for a people who are still making a percentage of what the white population makes, statistically, safe is good. But safe won’t save us in the future, as manufacturing continues to go away, as old line jobs continue to go away, as even becoming a doctor becomes less attractive with HMOs and all of those things that drive down the perks you used to get when you got to be a doctor or a lawyer. So look someplace else."

With all the anonymous trolls that attack our work in comment sections and on Twitter, it's enormously refreshing to hear from readers who, while occasionally over-the-top in their criticism, raise very legitimate concerns about how we cover this industry. What's even more impressive is that Bottoms was game to close the laptop and talk things out in person. Everyone flatters their readers by saying they're the coolest on the planet. But for us, we mean it -- and it's thanks to people like Bottoms.

Watch the full chat below: