I was sitting in my hammock enjoying a lovely sunny summer day by Lake Merritt when I overheard three Bros walking by discussing the merits of Diversity versus Culture fit in the Tech industry. Tech Bro 1 leaned in to his Bromigos and said “despite my companies hiring initiatives we just can’t seem to find qualified candidates that also fit into the company culture”.
“despite my companies hiring initiatives we just can’t seem to find qualified candidates that also fit into the company culture”
I was not surprised since this is what is considered normal in today’s tech landscape but still it took a great deal of strength for me not to leap from my hammock and confront them with my alternative point of view. What stopped me in that moment was the realization that despite anything I could say, they were going to view me as just some random latino girl sitting in a park with no relevance to their lives and no right to disrupt their echo chamber.
Uncoincidentally this topic has been on my mind for some time, and whether by force or by choice it is on the minds of the entire industry as well. Companies have been getting called out and shamed publicly for not keeping up with the ‘trend’ in hiring more diverse candidates. Personally, I dislike using shame as a form of motivation, as researcher Dr. Brene Brown describes, “it’s the most primitive human emotion we all feel — and the one no one wants to talk about. This leaves me to wonder if shaming companies or individuals is actually going to create change in the industry or simply push people further inside of themselves from fear or anger. In a system where those who hold the privilege see proactive moves toward greater diversity as a bug rather than a feature, shame is not the patch that is going to foster positive change, it could instead lead to further isolation and segregation.
Interestingly a research study on “Collective Guilt and Shame as Motivation for White Support of Black Programs” found that white people might react anti-socially to guilt- and shame-inducing situations, and react prosocially only after reaffirming their personal integrity. Which leads me to believe that if we can just encourage white men to dig deep inside themselves to break through their guilt and insecurity to realize that by acknowledging and lifting up women and minorities, it does not make them lesser than but serves to help everyone.
The problem with Homogeneity
I can only imagine our struggle is hard to understand from their vantage, having never been imbued daily with microaggressions from coworkers, friends, or the media industry as does the average minority. So it is no surprise that Silicon Valley gains much of its revenue from producing countless apps daily with the sole purpose of helping people who are already privileged live more comfortably. With the push of a button you can have your groceries delivered to your door, your dog walked, and your kids watched. You can find out where the next big party is and have a car service ready to pick you up for a carefree night within a matter of minutes. With all those great minds working together one would think there would be more emphasis placed on solving real world problems rather than creating platforms for convenience (‘Merica, Am I right?).
Don’t get me wrong, these apps exist because there is a market for them but how long are we going to buy blindly into a system that builds convenience for the haves by exploiting the have nots. The jobs these systems create only serve to provide poverty wages to contract workers without benefits. The average employee of a company like Uber, Lyft, TaskRabbit, and Instacart is required to put in unrealistic hours while only accruing what averages out to minimum wage, less the cost of gas.
Evolution and history has already taught us that the longer any group maintains its homogenous culture the more weakness and group think will be inbred and the less innovative these companies will become eventually leading to their downfall. The 10th man principle states, when nine people agree on something, it’s the tenth man’s responsibility to disagree no matter how improbable the idea. This way there is at least one person who has considered the alternatives and is ready to take action to solve a problem.
At a panel discussion on Mobile App Innovation, comprised of white male venture capitalists who had worked at major companies such as Apple and IBM, one of the panelists compared the success of Silicon Valley to that of the Roman Empire. Looking back, I wonder if he realized how right he might be, in foreshadowing it’s eventual demise without a major shift in mindset.
Shift in mindset is key here, because even if you hire a more diverse population, you have to encourage those employees to be themselves in the workplace and encourage reflection of their cultures and individuality. I noticed this phenomenon recently while reviewing a demo video of a mobile app I helped to develop with a team comprised of four asian guys and myself. Despite none of us being white, all of the images of people we used to demo the app were caucasian. At the time, none of us thought to challenge this or maybe none of us felt comfortable enough to speak up to the others about it. Reflecting on this I think that we are so suffocated by the narrative that whiteness is the default and we are the other that none of us considered having a single picture representing one of our own cultures.
Why an industry which is built upon the idea of rapid change and integration has not yet wholeheartedly embraced a change in its demographic is hypocritical to say the least. Many companies would argue that they are trying, but are they trying hard enough? Recent analysis from Information is Beautiful shows:
In the last 12 months, Facebook, Apple, eBay and Microsoft hired 1% more women. LinkedIn increased their female staff by 3%. Google’s gender ratio stayed the same.
Microsoft gained 3% non-white employees, Facebook 2%; while Google, Apple and eBay increased their non-white staff by 1%. LinkedIn lost 3% of its non-white employees.
Within the companies who expanded their ethnic diversity, Asian staff accounted for the majority of the increase, while the ratio of Hispanic employees remained static. Apple registered the biggest jump: 3% increase in Asian hires.
Not all Tech Bros or Companies are Created Equally
I realize the term Tech Bro is a pejorative, but I use it here to further emphasize the mindset of us versus them that has been created within the industry. Whether that be wealthy vs poor, men vs women, white vs nonwhite, young vs old, or able-bodied vs those with disabilities there seems to be a major disconnect. Even within companies, the engineers are often viewed as a different class of people.
“if a company’s culture doesn’t fit diversity than the culture needs to adapt”
I brought up this topic with my partner recently, who was born a white man from an upper middle class family and currently works at a Tech Company in the city. He passionately stated that “if a company’s culture doesn’t fit diversity than the culture needs to adapt” and he is not the only white man I have heard this from. Hanging out in the Alumni space at Devbootcamp (DBC) which is occupied mostly by white male graduates currently on the hunt for their first gig as engineers, they are happy to hear about my own and fellow graduates who are also women or persons of color getting hired or contacted by recruiters with greater frequency than themselves. This could be reflective of the curriculum on Engineering Empathy DBC includes for it’s students.
More recently, while having drinks with a friend Josh, who is a Front End Developer at Google and a white male, the topic of diversity in the industry was brought up. I couldn’t help but laugh as he exclaimed “I can’t work around any more fucking nerdy white dudes. It’s exhausting!”. All while Google as a company extols its initiatives to strengthen the diversity of its workforce by increasing access and opportunity for everyone.
“I can’t work around any more fucking nerdy white dudes. It’s exhausting!”
There are other more notable companies who claim to be embracing diversity with open arms, according to Fortune 50 Best Workplaces for Diversity. Intuit and Salseforce have almost 50% diversity in their portfolio for 2015, although over 20% of that claim is made up of Asian men. What these numbers aren’t telling us is in what capacity these diverse individuals are working for the company. I would like to see statistics regarding what percentage of women or minorities make up the engineering team or are in other technical positions.
Some may be wondering where this leaves white men also looking to break into the tech industry? Personally I have had my own guilt surrounding this issue, seeing others struggle is hard for me and I even brought it up to the Psychologist on staff at DBC, explaining that I didn’t understand why guys who are as talented and driven as some of the alumni are, they’re still consistently getting rejected from positions they have been applying for, some having graduated over a year ago. Her response to me was very straightforward; “this issue isn’t about you or them as individuals this issue is much greater than all of us. There has been an imbalance for a long time that is slowly being corrected one person at a time”.
“this issue isn’t about you or them as individuals this issue is much greater than all of us. There has been an imbalance for a long time that is slowly being corrected one person at a time”.
Qualifications and Culture Fit
So if companies and employees say they are onboard with diversity initiatives, then what is the problem? Many have said lack of qualified candidates…and there’s the rub. What qualifies someone to be a software engineer or web developer anyway? If you look at most Software Engineering job ads you will see requirements including Bachelors of Computer Science, 2–5+ years of industry experience, firm grasp of CS fundamentals including abstract data structures, algorithms, and object oriented design. Yet many web developers in the industry say that what they learned in a four year Computer Science Degree has only served them in getting passed the interview process and that they rarely utilize those concepts in their daily workflow. Not to mention the Mark Zuckerbergs of the industry who never completed a four year degree and have become incredibly successful based on self education and luck of circumstance. Many CS grads have enrolled in Web Development Bootcamps to learn the practical skills they were not given in their ivory tower educations, and many Tech companies, such as Uber, have developed their own internal accelerated programs to get CS grads up to speed.
“many CS grads have enrolled in Web Development Bootcamps to learn the practical skills they were not given in their ivory tower educations”
If having a four year CS degree doesn’t adequately equip you to be a software engineer and companies are willing to pay for these traditional grads to get that training elsewhere, why are they unwilling to spend the resources necessary to train and develop a more diverse workforce which didn’t have the opportunities provided to them to get that CS degree in the first place? Knowing how to solve complex algorithms and use data structures is important, but experience with those advanced concepts can be gained over time with proper mentoring on the job.
Qualifications aside, culture fit is the other looming issue here. Despite white culture stealing and profiting from other cultures for hundreds of years, there seems to be this belief that integrating the originators or celebrating other cultures would somehow take away from or harm the company culture that these tech companies have cultivated in their short existence.
What these companies should be asking themselves is if the culture they have been cultivating is really the culture they want to uphold and continue to align themselves with going forward. As the industry does shift, I believe it will be difficult for these companies to find diverse qualified candidates, since few will want to work in a place that doesn’t value them as individuals, their abilities, or their experience. As more diverse candidates gain these highly sought after skills, they will start their own companies, hiring candidates from all walks of life and tackling real world problems in new and innovative ways. Those who are not willing to get on board with this shift in reality will be left in the dust.