Monday, July 21, 2014

Diversity in Tech Hiring: Image is (Far From) Everything

'Round these parts there's been plenty of hubub following the release of hiring data from Facebook, Google, and Yahoo showing abysmal diversity figures.

For companies that make a big splash about "disruption" and innovation, the big companies seem remarkably conservative in their approach to fixing their diversity problems: to the public, at least, they're tackling the image issue without getting serious about changing their hiring practices.

On NPR's All Tech Considered Tuesday, reporter Aarti Shahani covered some of the investments Google has made into the diversity pipeline problem in tech. Leaving aside some of my pet peeves with the reporting,* it looks like The Goog is investing in nonprofits that train black and Latino youth in some basic computer programming skills in the hope that they will be able to use those skills to find work in the new economy. That's great, but whose problem does it solve?

It might help solve Google's image problem, to some extent. But at the most basic level, it means very little if these companies are relying on nonprofits to train or retrain new employees rather than investing in public education. Moreover, without real commitments to hire more people of color and women, these companies not really creating opportunity for youth.

The idea seems to be that anyone can take this training and go into business for themselves--for example, building websites for local companies. First--the big companies know better: there are enough DIY platforms  (SquareSpace, WordPress--even Google's own platforms like Blogger and Plus) out there that this is not really a viable business model on its own for most people. As useful as they are, basic web and programming skills on their own are not enough to build a business or even land most sorts of computer-based jobs now, even outside of tech.

Second, if these companies are expecting young black and Latino youth to go out and become tech entrepreneurs with their new skills gained in nonprofit training, they're missing a few key pieces of information. As others have pointed out, it's not just a skills gap: it's a network gap. You need to know people who can afford your services or refer you to someone who does in order to get clients. Some of that is confidence and chutzpah, but a large part of it is tied to race, gender, and economic circumstances. It's notoriously difficult for anyone to get a job at Google: how is someone from a non-privileged background with a lack of connections supposed to figure it out?

These companies can begin to build bigger networks for people of color by making a serious effort to recruit people of color into their companies instead of trusting that they will work their way up as entrepreneurs.

Without purposeful commitment to hiring diverse employees, investments like Google's are little more than self-serving pomp.

*Is Oakland "next to" Silicon Valley? Or what about this stinker--in the live radio piece, Shahani stated that "hack" was "slang for making money in tech." Since when? Glad to see that edited out of the written article.

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