At this year’s AfroTech conference, Black tech workers sang, pitched, and worried about being laid off

  • This year’s AfroTech Conference for Black tech professionals was held in Austin.
  • Employees reported that their companies were not doing much hiring.
  • Employees in the technology industry who have survived layoffs are now concerned about being fired.

This year’s AfroTech Conference, a large gathering of Black tech professionals, featured fewer major tech companies.

“We’ll keep your resume on file for six months” On the expo floor, where 170 companies had recruiting booths, I overheard many things.

While the reality of a tougher tech job market lurked in the background, black joy and celebration were on display.

Several attendees who had been laid off quietly told me they were afraid they would be next — even as they represented their companies at recruiting booths that weren’t doing much recruiting.

‘Virtue signaling’

This year, Microsoft did not have a recruiting booth at the conference. Although it did host four events, one of which was a “AI Networking Dinner for Underrepresented Founders” that was more of a banquet than a pitch opportunity.

“We’re here, but it’s just virtue signaling,” one Microsoft employee explained.

A Microsoft spokesperson, who requested anonymity, stated that while there were recruiting efforts at Afrotech this year, the company hasn’t had a recruiting booth in several years.

Not technical enough

Several tech employees complained that the programming was insufficiently technical to be useful to them. According to a Morgan Stanley employee, some of the programming reflected the stereotype that there aren’t many high-level Black technologists, and that the content catered to less-technical or entry-level job seekers.

The crowd that descended on Austin for AfroTech this year, which drew 35,000 attendees, was easy to spot.

Singing ‘SkeeYee’

The hotel where the event was held was packed with young Black professionals. When I arrived, a group of teenagers walked by singing “SkeeYee” by Sexyy Red. It set the tone for an event where some came to celebrate, while others came to look for work.

A Hinge-sponsored event and a separate $40-per-ticket gathering for singles took place alongside professional networking opportunities, with attendees able to compete for a romantic partner or pitch a startup funder.

The event’s popularity was palpable, as sessions, including one with headliner Issa Rae, quickly sold out and had to turn ticketed attendees away. Bigger music acts like Rick Ross and Jadakiss performed for conference attendees who paid $2,450 for the most expensive tickets.

Scouting for funding

IDEO’s chief information officer, Wes Eugene, spoke on the AfroTech Product & Engineering stage. The panelists were introduced by me. They felt at ease speaking in front of an audience that looked like them, but they also felt compelled to share knowledge that Black tech professionals don’t always have access to.

While many of Afrotech’s Black tech workers were waiting for the other shoe to drop, they were also looking for startup ideas and funding.

One conference attendee approached presenter Jason Lee and asked him to demo an app they’d hastily coded in their bedroom the week before. They received feedback and exchanged contact information. Lee, the CEO of the startup Salt Labs, suggested he might be interested in investing.

“That just really validated the idea for my startup and to keep working on it,” the software developer told me. “So I feel I got something out of coming here.”

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