Missed Laura Weidman Powers at Platform? Watch her refute the pipeline metaphor and share your comments on social media using #peoplenotpipes.
In March 2011 I found myself waiting in line, outside of a club, texting a friend to come let me in. This is something that would have been pretty typical for me in college, but I hadn’t had that experience for several years, so I was relieved when I saw my friend, Tristan Walker, emerge, nudge the bouncer, and indicate me to be ushered to the front of the line. A few seconds later, I was in the middle of the party.
The party was Foursquare’s South by Southwest blow out bash, and given that they were the year’s breakout startup, this was a big deal. There were celebrities, millionaires, and lots of dudes in t-shirts and hoodies. And Tristan was the man of the hour.
He had sent Foursquare’s founders eight emails before they agreed to even meet him, and now as the fourth employee, it was he who had inked the deals with American Express and Pepsi that were arguably what put Foursquare on the map. My career, on the other hand, was in a pretty different place.
Historically, I had worked in nonprofits, but a friend of a friend who had liked my experience working with college students hired me to help on a go-to-market strategy for a new tech product, so I had also joined a tech startup out of business school.
But there was a key difference. Mine was failing.
I wasn’t actually feeling discouraged though. Standing in the middle of that club in Austin, I remember feeling energized- because working at even a failing tech company had fundamentally changed so much about how I saw myself and my career. Having the opportunity to work in tech made me feel a part of something big, with momentum. But of course the momentum at my particular startup had run out.
So a few months later, I caught up with Tristan again just as I was beginning to think about what was next for me. We had a pretty interesting conversation. “Did you know,” he said at one point “That in the year 2040 people of color will be the majority in this country?” We started to think — what does this mean for tech? You have this growing workforce, this new consumer base growing, and a growing industry that has historically not included people from these backgrounds.
The narrative at the time was that tech was a meritocracy — those who deserve to be here are here, and those who don’t are not. To us, this rang false. If you believe in the even distribution of talent across races and genders, then it’s hard to swallow that a pure meritocracy would lead to such inequity.
So we started asking our friends in the industry questions like “why isn’t your company diverse” and the most common answer we got was — they don’t exist, people of color qualified to work in the industry just don’t exist. There’s this big pipeline problem, there aren’t qualified grads — you really have to go back to university, even high school or middle school to understand it. We would love to hire people of color, we just can’t find them.
There was something that nagged us about this explanation.
We each knew lots of talented people of color who seemed perfectly qualified to work in tech. After all, tech companies have lots of non-technical employees who didn’t need to have started coding in high school or at all. So we started to do some research and realized that actually, even if you just want to consider technologists themselves, 18% of computer science bachelor’s degrees each year go to students who are black or latino. So if that’s the case, why are we seeing industry numbers that hover at about 5%?
We started thinking that maybe the first part of that statement is true, but maybe people are only half right. You can’t find them. But they DO exist.
We decided that there was all this talk of a pipeline problem and we’d spotted a pretty big leak — the transition from education to employment. We created CODE2040 to patch this leak in the pipeline, and we decided to focus in on education to employment for two reasons: One, it was a greenfield. CODE2040 started around the same time as organizations like Black Girls Code, Girls Who Code, and code.org, and joined legacy organizations like SMASH that were doing great work on exposure, education. But the common rhetoric about working with college students was that by the time they’d reached that part of the pipeline it was just “too late.”
But we saw in the data that there was still work to be done — students who were making it to and even through college but not making it into the industry. Which brings me to my second reason — leverage. We figured if we could patch this part of the pipeline, we’d amplify everyone’s work — more of the folks getting the exposure, education & training would make it to industry. In fact, if we COULDN’T patch this last leak, then there would be a lot of wasted effort earlier in the pipeline.
So we created the CODE2040 Fellows Program. We set out to find top performing Black and Latino/a CS students around the country and connected them to the startup and tech company jobs of their dreams. Even when our program was small — 18 students in a summer working at 15 companies, the message was clear — we had proven that they did exist. And that was an important first step to getting people to rethink their assumptions about talent. And it turned out that it also helped us rethink ours.
Close your eyes. Picture a pipe. Water flowing through. In our metaphor, it’s a bit of a rusty pipe, and at certain bends there is the occasional leak, a student dropping out of the system. A slightly smaller stream of talent flows on, same pace, same destination.
We started the Fellows Program to patch one of these leaks in the pipeline. But a couple years in, a couple dozen students later, I had the same nagging feeling I’d gotten when folks said “They don’t exist.” The leaky pipeline metaphor just wasn’t resonating. And I started to think — this idea that talented people of color didn’t exist was making people blind to the talent that was out there. Maybe this idea of a leaky pipeline is holding us back, too. Soon I began to think — It wasn’t just a LEAKY pipeline. The pipeline was actually broken. As a metaphor.
What I mean by this is that the analogy is broken in three ways. The first is that a pipeline is linear. There may be twists and turns, but you’re basically going from point A to point B. For some of us this may be the case — you set your sights on a career goal and took the most direct path possible towards it. On the other hand I’d wager there are folks who are sitting here today at whatever point you are in your career thinking “Man, I did not see this coming.” My original goal was X and now I’m way more excited about Y. This is pretty natural in today’s professional world. So we know that for a lot of us, our careers aren’t really like that.
The second fallacy of the pipeline metaphor is that it makes it seem like people move in lockstep, flowing at the same pace. Careers aren’t like that either. Picture the person you sit next to at the office, someone else in your role. There is a good chance that person had a different last job and will have a different next job, and you might get promoted before or after her. The idea that we’re all progressing together in unison doesn’t make sense.
The third way that the pipeline fails as a metaphor is the most important. It’s really passive. The image of the individual as a droplet of water being carried inevitably along and either making it to the destination or falling helplessly out of a leak along the way doesn’t give agency to that individual.
People have a lot of agency. There are certainly things an individual cannot change, but there are plenty that one can. There are risks we take, choices we make, connections we have that have impact. To deny this agency is to make us victims, and I don’t think that we are victims. We may be marginalized or excluded, but I think we can be active agents of change at the same time.
After all, think about Tristan’s eight emails to the founders of Foursquare. His determination got him to where he is today despite the odds. And me — I had no background in tech but a friend helped me figure out how to pitch my experience recruiting college volunteers for community service projects in a way that could translate to activating college students as early adopters of a social platform.
It’s not just the metaphorical water passing through the pipe that’s passive in this imagery, it’s the pipe itself that is static. This does a real disservice to how we think about the industry, the rules, the guidelines, and structure, because they really aren’t static/inevitable/fixed — those of us within the industry can take action. The people making the rules can change the rules.
This is a really important notion.
Think back to that earlier statement. “It’s a meritocracy.” It’s that same passivity — “it’s not me, it’s the system.” Whenever I heard that I always thought, “Well, say it is — who defines merit? Who chooses the tools we use to measure it?” What would happen if we were explicit about that? Think about the statement “We can’t find them. They don’t exist.” What that statement is really saying is “We can’t find them THEREFORE they don’t exist.” There’s no acknowledgement that maybe there is something about how you are searching that is leading you to miss talent. Something about how you’re evaluating talent that is leading you to draw a conclusion about qualifications that actually has more to do with you, the incumbent, the pipe, than it does with the individual droplet of water.
I had dinner once with the brilliant CEO of a very well respected public tech company and we were talking about diversity. I told a story of one of our Fellows, a talented young black female computer scientist at school in Maryland who said she wasn’t interested in going into tech because she actually wanted to be successful and people like her don’t seem to succeed there. It had never occurred to this CEO that someone who knew about his company and its great reputation and who might be a star there would choose not to even apply.
The pipeline metaphor implies talent is passive, the qualified folks just flow towards you. No need to take an active role in attracting them. And it implies that talent is a commodity, individuals are interchangeable according to their skills. And what is the role of the company? Pick up a glass, see what comes out of the tap, drink or discard according to specifications.
We know that the language we use influences our understanding of what is and what is possible in the world. I think the pipeline metaphor is constraining our thinking about the solution sets available. And as we at CODE2040 started to reshape our thinking, moving away from this idea that is was a pipeline problem and towards this idea that this is an ecosystem issue, we found our programming organically evolved to be more effective, inclusive, and scalable.
When we were originally starting with this goal of fixing this leak in the pipeline we launched the Fellows Program, which is very successful but also very linear — it takes a small number of students each summer — about 35 this year, around 75 next year from point A (college) to point B (an internship). Now that we’re thinking about what the levers are that we can pull in the ecosystem to effect change, we’ve actually grown exponentially.
Now we run 3 programs, we work in 4 cities, we’ve partnered with 35 different tech companies who are all willing to own their agency in fixing the problem. We work with 150 tech industry volunteers every year, many of whom want to leverage their privilege to reshape the system that worked to get them where they are but maybe excluded someone else. And we’ve worked this year with 1000 students and will probably hit 4000 by the end of 2016.
So regardless of what the replacement metaphor ends up being, I believe that in order to solve this problem we need to strive for something that isn’t linear, lockstep, and passive. On the contrary — we need something to help us understand that this is complex, multifaceted, systemic, it’s unconscious and it’s conscious, it’s social, it’s historical and quite timely…and that this is a dynamic system driven by people, not pipes.
So my challenge to you is, you may not have seen yourself as having a place in the metaphor of pipeline, but I can guarantee to you just by the fact that you’re in this room, that you’re in the ecosystem and you’re an active participant in it.
So what can you do to shape it?