This Black History Month, I want to start by acknowledging how far the technology industry has to go to achieve anything resembling racial parity. Tech workers are just 3.1% Black nationwide, with Silicon Valley being just 3% Black. And things may actually be getting worse. Around 1% of tech entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley are Black and Black Americans are severely underrepresented in positions of leadership at influential technology companies. In 2017 Fast Company reported there were fewer black women in tech than there were in 2007.
We have a long way to go. At the same time, we must celebrate the people who have succeeded despite persistent systemic racism. I was gearing up to write a listicle of famous Black Software Engineers for Black History Month. But then I came across the story of Edward Lee Smith. He grew up in a public housing development in one of Brooklyn’s toughest neighborhoods and took a path through traffic light testing to go on to become one of the video game industry’s first Black Electronics Engineers.
Journalist Benj Edwards beautifully profiled Smith for Fast Company. Edwards also did a longform interview with Smith for Vintage Computing.
I found Smith’s story moving from the beginning until today. While definitely inspiring, it’s also a first-hand account of the racism Smith encountered throughout his career, and how far we still need to come to make engineering a welcoming place for Black Americans. Here are some highlights.
Smith’s upbringing didn’t necessarily portend the trailblazing he’d end up doing. His father was a truck driver who left the home while Smith was still a child.
When Smith was 13 years old, he woke up one night to the sounds of his siblings screaming at his father to stop. His mother was on the floor with his father straddling her, hitting her. He was a scrawny kid, but he immediately ran up to his father and grabbed him by the neck to pull him off his mother. His father knocked him out. “When I came to, I took, I think it was, a frying pan and ladled him on the head, knocked him out,” Smith said. “I dragged him out of the house and locked the door. That was the last time my father ever came into our home.”
Before his father left, he gave Smith this advice: “Get your chauffeur’s license so you can learn how to drive a truck, because that’s all you’re ever going to do.”
Smith was undeterred by the low expectations his father and his neighbors in the housing project had for him. “When I heard comments like that, to me, that was the challenge,” Smith said. “It wasn’t that they were putting me down, they were challenging me. And I just accepted the challenge.”
He read voraciously, consuming W.E.B. Du Bois, Eldridge Cleaver, Ralph Ellison, and Isaac Asimov. After doing well in school and heading to college, at 21 Smith was a first-time father and needed a job. Marbelite, one of the nation’s largest traffic signal manufacturers, hired Smith to test and fix traffic signals. In 1975 traffic signals were fairly simple and the job didn’t require much training.
That changed when Marbelite started to design traffic signals controlled by Fairchild microprocessors. Smith was such a high performer that the company sent him and another tester to Fairchild to learn how to program in the assembly language. “That was my introduction to the microprocessor world.”
Smith was happy to be learning, but still yearned for more. Sitting at a manufacturing plant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, “There was another world out there that I knew about but was not a part of, and that was the world of Wall Street.”
Within two years, Smith was interviewing at APF, a company that imported and manufactured calculators, video game consoles, and other electronics.
In his interview, Smith assembled an RF modulator with just a schematic diagram and some electronic parts an hour sooner than the hiring manager expected. APF sent him to Pace University in lower Manhattan to study computer science and marketing.
As his first project at APF, Smith co-designed a hybrid video game console and personal computer -- The MP1000, an early cartridge-based video game system, and its plug-in computer expansion module, the Imagination Machine.
One day in Sears, Smith saw the video game system he designed on the shelf. “I said to the sales guys, ‘I’m one of the guys…’ and he goes, ‘Yeah, right,’” Smith said. “Like, ‘Black guy telling me he designed this thing. Right.’”
Smith looked for ways to bring more Black Americans into computing. “For the most part, blacks have tended to shy away from high-technology fields,” Smith said in a 1982 issue of Black Enterprise. “The computer field, which includes videogames, is the industry of the future. Those who stay out of it will be totally lost in the marketplace in years to come.”
At one point AFP had around 300 extra video game systems for demonstrations and additional testing sitting in a closet. “Every other day, I would take one back home to the neighborhood and give it to someone in the projects that I lived in,” Smith said. “It was introducing them to technology. Showing them, ‘Here’s something you may not know about.’ Their parents weren’t going to spend a hundred bucks on a video game.”
Soon AFP wanted Smith to sell his creations to retailers. So Smith traded jeans for a suit and tie, moving one step closer to the Wall Street vision he’d had for himself.
Sales brought Smith back to Sears, this time pitching the PC he helped develop to their executives. Afterward, Smith looked at himself in the glass window of the Sears Tower, and then out into the Chicago skyline. “How far I have come,” he thought.
In the mid-80s Smith moved his mother out of the housing project, eventually buying her a condo near his family. Smith has enjoyed a long, successful career in technology sales. He and his high school sweetheart have been married for more than 40 years, and their kids are grown with families of their own.
In 2018 the author who profiled Smith for Fast Company, Benj Edwards, met up with Smith again to show him one of a handful of Imagination Machine IIs still in existence. It’s from the estate of Sy Lipper, APF’s former CEO. “Oh man! I never thought I’d see Myrtle again,” Smith said (he calls it Myrtle). Together the two played some games and Smith signed Myrtle for Edwards.
There were moments during his career that people made sure Smith didn’t forget his race. At the same time, “When you are head-down doing the work, the last thing you think about is being an African-American,” Smith said. “You’re just another engineer doing his job. Once you have a chance to digest what you’re able to accomplish, time passes by because you are head-down on the next thing.”
But when he stops to reflect, “I can say with certainty that being one of the first to do anything is amazing,” Smith said. “To be a man of color and a leader in the video game industry will be my legacy, and one that I am very proud of.”
We know the problem of systemic racism exists and persists. In my opinion, progress requires active anti-racism. This Black History Month, I encourage you (and myself) to purposefully look for ways to combat racism in tech and elevate Black Americans. To find ways be part of the solution, check out these stories next:
15 Tech Organizations Actively Supporting Black Coders
What Atlanta Can Teach Tech About Cultivating Black Talent
'This is Wakanda': the black tech entrepreneurs taking on Silicon Valley