How to Build a Better Tech Workforce

Earlier this year, a tech awards show grabbed headlines after Slack, a messaging app, won the award for Fastest Rising Startup. But it wasn’t the award itself that made national news — it was the Slack engineers who accepted it on behalf of the company: four Black women.  

This might not seem remarkable in a country that is increasingly diverse, yet this act immediately conveyed a powerful message to an industry that has long-struggled to diversify its workforce.

That tech has a diversity problem is hardly a secret. Indeed, a Google search for the term “hacking diversity” reveals more than 1,200 results. New diversity reports from Google and Facebook — which show that neither company has improved upon their already deficient diversity numbers — have not helped the industry shake this image.

Facebook, for its part, chose to bemoan a poor educational pipeline that fails to equip young people of color with the skills necessary to fill the company’s open positions. But these reports demonstrate that the industry faces a real challenge that demands action, not excuses.  

Although women held nearly 60 percent of all professional jobs in 2014, only a quarter of jobs in the computing workforce were held by women. Among women of color, the numbers are striking: Hispanic and Black women make up just 1 and 3 percent of the computing workforce in the United States, respectively. Asian women account for just 5 percent. Black and Hispanic men don’t fare much better, on average making up 4 to 5 percent of the workforce at large tech firms. Asian men, while over-indexed in tech, are less likely to hold leadership positions than their white colleagues.

It’s true that the United States is not graduating enough Black and Hispanic students in Computer Science and Engineering. Indeed, Black and Hispanic students are underrepresented in these majors. But the data show that this is more than a pipeline problem. According to the Computing Research Association, Black and Hispanic students earned 4.1 and 7.7 percent of computer science, computer engineering, and information degrees in 2014. Yet just 1 percent of Facebook’s tech workforce is Black, and just 3 percent of Google’s overall workforce is Hispanic.

In recent years, it’s become near-tradition that each time a large tech firm releases its diversity numbers, what follows is a deluge of articles, blog posts, and tweets from current, former, and potential employees of color, revealing that poor hiring and promotion practices and an unfortunate corporate culture are at least partially to blame. 

In fairness, poor management isn’t the only problem. Technology may be a culprit as well. Screening software has become more ubiquitous (and, to an extent, practical for companies that receive high volumes of resumes), but may create another barrier for qualified workers trying to break through.

Tech companies should be concerned about their poor diversity records because studies show that a lack of diversity is bad for business. A recent McKinsey study found that companies that are gender and ethnically diverse perform better financially than those that are not. There’s also evidence that companies that are ethnically diverse are better at problem solving. In addition, tech companies lacking diversity risk missing out on the unique perspectives of these absent workers, and, perhaps, the next big idea

As tech companies vie for the best talent, they should be as open to finding innovative and effective solutions to building a diverse workforce as they are to building the next generation of technology.

So what can the industry do? The answer is, plenty.

First, companies can take a hard look at their internal recruitment and hiring practices to ensure that the applicant pool is sufficiently broad and that high-potential applicants are not shut out of the process. That means recruiting from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), minority-serving institutions (MSIs), and other four-year institutions that have not historically been targets for recruitment. It means making sure that the company’s leadership reflects its commitment to racial and gender diversity and building better technology to make the hiring process more inclusive. It also means looking beyond elite computer science or engineering degree programs and instead evaluating candidates based on their ability to get the job done. 

That might include taking advantage of “coding boot camps,” which teach programming skills over the course of about 10 weeks and have seemingly exploded overnight. A recent study estimated that boot camps would graduate more than 16,000 workers in 2015. A growing number of these programs are focused explicitly on building a more diverse tech workforce.

Boot camps like Hack Bright, Sabio.la, Black Girls Code, Telegraph Academy, and Code 2040 are also working to create tech pathways or provide job exposure for women and people of color. Though still relatively new, these programs show promise.

Companies can also work with trusted providers to onboard workers. For example, LaunchCode in St. Louis offers workers who typically wouldn’t have an opportunity to work in tech — perhaps because of their educational or employment histories — the chance to learn core programming skills on the job. LaunchCode places students in apprenticeship programs with local employers, during which students are paid for their time on the job. 

Small and medium-sized tech companies should also work together to identify, support, and replicate quality programs, and ensure that they’re utilizing those programs in their hiring processes. That could mean working through industry associations or other employer-led partnerships to establish or grow apprenticeships or other training programs, or partnering with educational institutions to help build and fortify the pipeline, beginning when young people are still in school.

Tech companies rely on their people to innovate, create, and compete for the next big idea. Assembling the best possible team is not just the right thing to do, it also makes good business sense.

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