The Manager of Global Services at Hitachi, Wiradjuri man Ben Armstong’s career in technology is about to change dramatically. He's leaving a 20-year-long position in the corporate IT world, to throw himself wholeheartedly into changing the experiences of other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) industries.
Mr Armstrong is a director at Indigitek, a not-for-profit organisation he describes as a community for Indigenous people already in - or looking to get into - STEM.
“There is a lot of opportunity out there. And sometimes it's just connecting the dots. And that's what we can offer,” Mr Armstrong told NITV, in a recent episode of the Take It Blak podcast, “We're really just trying to make some impactful outcomes, give people some financial security and be able to help their careers.”
But it is the community aspect of the organisation that is close to Mr Armstrong’s heart.
“[To] build that community where you can support each other, because we didn't have that. We never had that. And that's one of the most powerful things, when we all support each other.”
The challenges of being a young geek
It was Star Trek: The Next Generation that gave Mr Armstrong his first taste of technology and planted the seed of geeky interests that he’d hold on to for life.
“My mom would let me sit up late at night when I was young and watch Star Trek with her, that's what got me hooked.” he said.
The late ’80s was a peak time for classic cartoons - Transformers, Thundercats - but the potential realism of Star Trek, the technology and the diversity within the show captured Mr Armstrong’s interest.
“You have all these different cultures and experiences ... It was just really, really interesting to me.” he said.
Finding other young geeks, however, was a challenge. He didn’t have any friends that shared this passion - there weren’t many other fifth graders programming in the late 80s.
“I was thankfully good at sport. I would shift between this very sporty world, where I'd be representing at the state and country levels in sport, but then flipping back to programming,” said Mr Armstrong.
“It was hard growing up, being interested in this stuff. It is even harder when you try and have a career in it.”
Pathways into STEM
Spurned on by his early love of Star Trek, technology and programming, by the time Mr Armstrong got to high school, computer science was his best subject.
His others were “not that good.” He had little interest in English, and feared he wouldn’t get the marks needed to get into university. But then, the internet happened.
“Thankfully, that year at UTS, they opened up a number of extra placements in the IT courses right at the start of the dot com boom. And so I got in.” he said.
He was one of only two Indigenous people studying computer science at UTS, describing it as “an extremely lonely experience.”
“I'm thankful to Jumbunna [Institute for Indigenous Education and Research at UTS], the staff and the people, for providing an environment for blackfella young adults to turn up to and hang out. And that was really, really helpful.”
“But I didn't really turn up to a lot of lectures; I didn't turn up to a lot of tutorials. I found the experience of university very hard to engage in,” said Mr Armstrong, “But I got through, and through Jumbunna, I was encouraged to apply for an Indigenous cadetship.”
There were three Indigenous cadetships on offer, and three Indigenous applicants. Mr Armstrong said he just had to not “muck it up.” He didn’t. But he did have a choice in front of him, one that would define his career.
“I had a choice between Hitachi and the Department of Defense. I didn't want to go to the Department of Defense, because Hitachi were giving me a laptop and a phone,” Mr Armstrong laughs, “In the year 2000, that was just like, wow, unbelievable! So I went that way. And that's how I got started.”
Being in a cadetship, gaining real work experience, Mr Armstrong quickly realised there was very little he was taught at university that actually technically helped him at his job.
“There was things like critical thinking that universities always help you with, and working with others in teams and things like that. But for the job that I was doing, it was completely different,” said Mr Armstrong. “So is University the only way? Absolutely not.
“It is certainly a way. But it's not going to meet everyone's requirements. And not everyone's going to learn in that specific way that is structured the way that university is done.”
What Indigitek does to help
Mr Armstrong has been at Indigitek from the beginning, along with co-Founder and Gumbaynggirr man Liam Ridgeway. It started as a way to bring like-minded people together.
“To try and catch up, and share our stories and the issues that we were seeing in these very heavily dominated white men spaces,” said Mr Armstrong, “From there, Liam [Ridgeway] really took that, and drove it into an organisation that's a not-for-profit charity.”
Mr Armstrong said the charity is, when you peel it back, all about equity for Indigenous people and career opportunities - moving into the future.
Today, Gurindji, Pertame Arrernte and Worimi man Keiran Sauter (director) and Birrigubba and South Sea Islander Woman Celeste Carnegie (manager of community engagement programs) help make up the team.
Collectively, this group represents some of the most passionate and experienced minds in digital technology, robotics, innovation, cloud capabilities and STEM-specific education.
“What we do now is a lot of different things,” said Mr Armstrong. “We're very well known for our community engagement, people into Indigitek events.”
While providing great networking opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people working in - or wanting to work in - STEM, these events are also an educational experience for corporations, organisations, and non-indigenous people.
One of Indigitek’s many goals is to raise the visibility of Indigenous people in STEM.
“There’s a lack of role models, a lack of safe spaces,” said Mr Armstrong. “Not lack of, really, they're just not out there and easy to find. They’re not promoted in non-indigenous spaces.”
“[At Indigitek events] people can listen to some of those champions that are out there in the STEM space, who can share their experiences,” said Mr Armstrong. “And non-indigenous people can learn from that. They can listen.”
Indigitek has a scholarship fund, connections with lots of alternate coding and STEM organisations, and they are also setting up a mentoring program. Indigitek is looking long-term.
“We are making sure that work environments are safe for Indigenous people in the STEM area.”
Why Indigitek is needed
The First Nations people of this continent are the world’s first scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians. Based on that alone, it would be safe to assume that the STEM workforce is a natural fit for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The fact is, we don’t know how many Indigenous people are working in STEM.
“It is not a lot. We know that. We know it's definitely not a lot,” said Mr Armstrong.
Statistics recently released by the Chief Scientist of Australia showed only 0.1 per cent of Indigenous students enrolling in STEM-related tertiary education. There are no statistics available for the number of Indigenous people actively working in STEM, or those who got into the industry without formal education.
So we know it’s not a lot. But why? Mr Armstrong said there are so many problems that he can understand why some people, who otherwise love STEM, would question why they would want a career in STEM.
“We start with an education system that doesn't support Indigenous kids in those areas. We have issues with accessibility to technology; we have access issues with access to finance to be able to afford that technology.”
And then, according to Mr Armstrong, the workplaces themselves are “very challenging, especially for Indigenous folks. Even more so for women.”
What it feels like from the other side
Being in the right workplace, says Mr Armstrong, is hard to imagine until you experience it.
“I've been in a corporate IT job for almost 20 years. You go from there and walk over to Indigitek. You walk into a virtual room, or a physical room, full of mob who are super passionate, super geeky, and the conversations just flow. And you feel like you belong.”
Mr Armstrong said when we talk about things like diversity and inclusion, what we’re really talking about is a sense of belonging.
“That's what it feels like—this real sense of belonging. I am where I should be. And it is an amazing experience.” he said.
Indigitek hopes for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people working in STEM to have this experience.
“Reach out to us. We are here to help,” said Mr Armstrong, “We are by mob, for mob - and that means partnering with other Indigenous organisations, even just connecting if we can.” he said.
And for the non-indigenous workplaces wanting to make their workplaces safer:
“Talk to us and then listen. That's probably the most important part is to listen, because it's a shared journey,” said Mr Armstrong. “We learn about what they want to do and what their goals are. And the idea is to learn from us as well,” he said.
“And do it directly, the proper way, or the goodways.”