An Open Letter to Big Tech: Two Simple Words Can Help You Diversify

Dear Big Tech,

Let’s face it, you have a diversity problem.

To be clear, I’m not writing this (heartfelt) open letter to criticize you. After all, many of you have created impressive, well-funded diversity initiatives aimed at recruiting more Veterans, women, and other underrepresented minorities into your respective ranks. But the glaring lack of diversity remains.

As such, I’m writing to present one solution that can help you diversify your workforce. What’s more, I can sum up this solution in two simple words: community college.

Alex, Shristhy, Yoriko, and Matt earned their bachelor’s degree in software development at Green River, a community college near Seattle, WA. As part of a class project, they built a location-aware app that helps new students navigate their way on campus. (Photo by Steve Sosa)

A s you already know, computing careers are in high-demand, pay great wages, and they frequently lead to high levels of job satisfaction. Additionally, almost every major challenge our world faces today is turning to computing for a solution, from conquering disease and eliminating hunger, to improving education and protecting the environment. There are, in other words, very clear whys around every corner for how computing can make the world a better place, making this a terrific career field to get into.

Yet computing (again, as you already know) is filled with stereotypes about what it is and who is fit to do it, which is part of the reason you’re dealing with a lack of diversity. These negative stereotypes are deeply rooted in popular and academic culture, and oftentimes deter people from pursuing careers in tech, shrinking the talent pipeline.

I won’t spend time rehearsing them here for fear of giving them free advertising. There is, however, one computing stereotype I’d like to call out specifically, and that is: computer science is only something that happens at flagship universities.

Melissa earned her bachelor’s in software development at Green River. While a student, she became a Certified ScrumMaster and also received a National Science Foundation scholarship — twice. (Photo by Steve Sosa)

My read on the situation is that many of you are operating on the assumption that computer science is only a university thing. As a result, you direct much, if not most, of your internship and entry-level recruiting and hiring efforts at large four-year universities without taking into account what’s happening outside of the traditional computer science establishment.

Don’t get me wrong, large universities are a great place to recruit and you should continue your efforts along those lines. The skills gap is real and there are plenty of jobs to go around for everyone. But you should also know about the exciting work that’s taking place in community colleges across the nation.

Case in point. This past week, I had the privilege of attending something called the Lighthouse CC Workshop. A joint partnership between the National Science Foundation, the National Center for Women & Information Technology, and the University of Virginia, the Lighthouse CC Workshop aims to increase computer science diversity through faculty education.

At the workshop, community college educators from Seattle, Washington to Cranford, New Jersey, convened to exchange field-tested best practices for recruiting and retaining diverse students in computing pathways. My biggest takeaway from attending? Community colleges are hotbeds of innovation.

Community college educators from across the nation recently attended this year’s Lighthouse CC Workshop in Herndon, VA, which aims to increase computer science diversity through faculty education.

I met one instructor who landed an enormous grant from the National Science Foundation to create a new cybersecurity degree program at her community college. Another obtained grant funding to build a Raspberry Pi lab at his community college to teach students physical computing. Other instructors I met have developed some pretty amazing inclusive pedagogies that provide interactive learning environments for economically disadvantaged students. Mind-blowingly cool stuff, all happening in the (generally underfunded) community college space.

There’s one particular innovation I’d like to put on your radar. As we’ll see, it’s picking up momentum in community colleges everywhere. I’m talking about bachelor of applied science degrees, which blend general education courses with advanced technical training to produce well-rounded, job-ready graduates. Nearly half of U.S. states now allow community colleges to offer four-year degrees and at the rate we’re going, this may become a nationwide practice in the not too distant future.

Take Washington State, where some of you headquarter your business. A whopping 24 of the state’s 34 community and technical colleges now offer bachelor of applied science degrees targeting high-growth occupations in need of more qualified college grads. The goal? Help meet Washington’s ambitious goal for increasing the overall number of bachelor’s degrees awarded to 42,400 per year.

Brandon earned his bachelor’s in software development at Green River. This two-time National Science Foundation scholarship recipient and Certified Ethical Hacker is now working at BECU.

Small class sizes, as well as flexible day, evening, and online schedules, are key benefits to the community college experience. There’s also the fact that bachelor of applied science degrees are just that — applied — which means students learn by doing, with opportunities to participate in project-based learning.

And of course there’s cost. At Green River College, for example, students who live in the Seattle-Tacoma region can earn a bachelor’s degree in Software Development or Network Administration & Security at roughly half the cost of a traditional university.

It’s no wonder, then, that bachelor’s enrollments are up 61% throughout Washington State’s community and technical college system (last time I checked). And that’s just Washington. 22 other states allow community colleges to award bachelor’s degrees and many administrators believe that number will grow. My home state, California, is ramping up efforts along these lines as we speak. If there is a bleeding edge of innovation in higher education, this, I think, is it.

Why does all of this talk about bachelor of applied science degrees matter to you? Simple: community colleges don’t just offer four-year degrees. They’re also magnets for diversity. (Fun fact: Green River, a community college next door to a top 3 tech city, is TIME’s #1 most diversified college.) It follows, then, that powerful tech titans like you, who are struggling to diversify, may want to consider partnering with local community colleges.

We’re the next leg of the K-12 pipeline, after all, and we serve the very same students your diversity initiatives are aimed at. Maybe — and I say this with the highest level of respect — this is a golden opportunity to put your money where your mouth is.

Kandis completed coursework in web development, data structures, and algorithms at Green River. Now, she’s a software developer at Expeditors.

One of you recently made a sizable donation to help diversify computer science education. Stunning! This is a wildly generous step in the right direction. Also know that a donation one tenth, 1/100th, or even 1/1000th the size would have a dramatic impact on your local community college’s ability to recruit, retain, and support diverse students in computing pathways. We’re talking new computer labs. More scholarships. Emergency funds to support at-risk students. Endowed faculty positions that close the public / private sector pay gap to attract tech teaching talent. The list goes on.

Eager to jump in, but can’t participate in grassroots investment? No problem. You can partner with your local community college in any number of ways. Host an onsite tour for students. Hire more interns from the community college space. Hire more graduates from the community college space. Incentivize your employees to mentor a student or guest lecture in a night class. The possibilities are endless.

To conclude:

  • The community college system is filled with pioneers and innovators who are passionate about creating more diversity in tech.
  • Community colleges are philosophically and pragmatically all about providing affordable access to a college education, and are therefore magnets for diversity.
  • More and more community colleges offering four-year degrees means diverse pipelines of local talent you can tap into without having to hire out of state or overseas.

Two simple words: community college. We’re right in your own back yard and we’re ready to partner. Help us 10x the amazing work we’re already doing to diversify computer science education. We can do this. Together.

As for students like Alex, Shristhy, Yoriko, Matt, Melissa, Brandon, Kandis, and a host of others pursuing applied baccalaureate degrees in Washington State and beyond? If you’re not hiring them, by the time you finish this letter, your competition probably has.


Andy Orr

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// With over a decade of experience in higher education, I currently serve as Program Manager for Green River College’s Bachelor of Applied Science in Software Development. Learn more about our efforts to create a new, more diverse generation of software developers at Green River Web & Mobile Developers.