How my company is lowering the bar to increase diversity

Back in November, Twitter VP of Engineering Alex Roetter got into some hot water by allegedly saying, “diversity is important, but we won’t lower the bar.” As someone who works in a similar situation at a large social network in San Francisco, I understand where Alex is coming from.

My company has recently formed a committee to improve how we hire. At first I was optimistic that we could improve our hiring process to ensure that we are hiring the best people for the job. Unfortunately my optimism was misplaced as the committee seems to be a place for diversity advocates to push hard to codify changes to lower the bar for members of certain favored groups.

Here is a list of all the bar lowering changes I’ve seen people push for at my company:

1. Give people of a certain race a numerical boost on their interview feedback scores.

At my company, after you interview someone you write up a summary of the interview and record a feedback score on a scale of 0.0–4.0 for use in a hiring decision. I recently talked to someone about the interviews we had done. He casually mentioned that due to the candidates race he gave him a better feedback score than he normally would have.

He isn’t the only one to talk like this. I’ve heard other people talk about giving candidates who are a “diversity add” a better score (a.k.a lowering the bar.) This seems to be tolerated by the company since I’ve heard no one speak up against these practices when they are discussed, other than myself.

At other companies I’ve worked at, HR has made it very clear: “Do not ask about race. Do not ask about religion. Do not ask about pregnancy. Do not ask about age… Above all, do not ever use any of these characteristics for hiring decisions.”

My company recently instituted “unconscious bias training” to eliminate bias from our company. I can’t imagine a more biased system than the one we currently have where interviewers feel free to unilaterally decide which races deserve a boost or penatly on their score.

2. Stop preferring to hire people with a college degree in CS (or related fields) over people without a college degree because that’s sexist

My company brought in an diversity activist to speak about improving diversity at our company. She told us that it is sexist to prefer to hire people with a college degree because more men than women graduate with degrees in CS. Instead we are told to assume that all people are equally qualified regardless of their education.

3. Stop considering some colleges as better than other colleges because that’s racist

The activist said that blacks and Hispanics make up disproportionately low percentage of graduates from top colleges. Thus I’m told that considering average graduates of top colleges as better skilled than graduates of other schools is racist.

4. Start recruiting at certain schools with worse computer science programs explicitly because of race

My company has started interviewing at HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities). Is there any reason to believe their graduates are among the most qualified like the other schools we recruit at?

There are many problems with college rankings, but we can look at them to get a rough estimate of the quality of a schools academics. As far as I can tell, the best ranked HBCU in CS is Temple University ranked #112 which is the lowest ranked school the US News still publishes a ranking for.

5. Stop looking for people with relevant industry experience because it is sexist

I’m told that since less than 50% of people working in the software industry are women, looking for experienced developers is sexist and we should stop.

6. Stop considering some companies such as Google better than other companies since it is racist/sexist

According to these people, top companies such as Google do not have demographics which match the population. Thus to be fair we should consider working at all companies equally impressive.

7. Stop looking for highly experienced people with 15 years of experience since it is sexist because women tend to leave the industry before 10 years of experience.

8. Stop asking for a link to a portfolio of work on on the job application because it is sexist

This one blew my mind. A self proclaimed expert on diversity says that women spend more time caring for children so we can’t expect them to have a portfolio of work or hold them to the same standards.

Doing this could have unintended consequences: Open source software is one of the few places that can be 100% color-blind since participants can choose any name to represent themselves online.

9. Stop having employees refer good people they have worked with since it is sexist/racist

Since white people in tech are unlikely to work with many black people before, no one is allowed to refer previous coworkers.

Common Objections

“Being from a top school doesn’t mean you are the best coder, the best coder I know never even went to college.”

I completely agree. I’ve interviewed people from MIT who weren’t familiar with a hash table and the best software developer I’ve worked with never went to college. The CEO of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, didn’t go to a top CS school. However, it’s still the case that college and experience is an imperfect signal of ability.

I’m familiar with an internal study a large tech company did to see what characteristics of a candidate’s resume predicted passing a phone screen. They found that graduates of top tier schools significantly outperformed graduates of low tier schools.

“It doesn’t matter if we ignore all relevant job qualifications when deciding who to interview. The interview will filter them out”

This is only true if our interviews have no false positives. As we interview a higher percent of unqualified people, we will end up with more bad developers squeaking past our interviews and getting hired (Bayes’ theorem). We already have many engineers who are barely competent at their job.

“You are missing the point. It is important to have employees who match the demographics of our user base to understand how they use the product.”

This seems like it could be a reasonable idea. However here it is just being used as a pretext. Japan is one of my companies biggest markets. Significantly more Japanese people use our product compared to African Americans (the group that the idea is typically applied to). The company has had numerous issues due to the poor way we handle the Japanese writing systems of kanji, hiragana, and katakana compared to Roman characters.

At the company I have never heard the idea of “hiring to match the demographics of our userbase” been applied to hire Japanese developers. I don’t know a single Japanese developer at the company. In fact the company made a reprehensible public goal to decrease the number of Asian employees because they are over represented.

Conclusion

Let’s say I want to hire an experienced distributed systems engineer to lead a crucial project.

We have two applicants:

  1. Went to the mediocre local college and has one year of experience at a mom and pop shop.
  2. A developer with 15 years of experience, 6 at Google where she worked on their distributed infrastructure. Additionally she comes highly recommended from two senior engineers who have worked with her before. She is the maintainer of a popular open source project that is known to be well designed.

According to people at my company, the only way to hire diverse people is to lower the bar, by excluding any relevant experience or education, and by increasing the score given to blacks, Hispanics, and women candidates. In this case they say we should consider applicant #1 to be equal to applicant #2.

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