Thoughts On Diversity Part 1.

My career in tech has been very rewarding. It has involved engineering leadership positions at some of the most notable companies in technology. It’s been humbling and inspiring to work at the most admired, most innovative, and the best places throughout my career. IPO’s and acquisitions aside, I have been very fortunate and lucky. And until recently I have had very few regrets. But I do have a few.

The recent comments from Microsoft CEO @satyanadella, “It’s not really about asking for the raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along.” was as striking as it was telling. The system I believe he is referring to is the meritocracy that most of the companies I have worked at pitch to their current and potential employees. And for people like Satya Nadella, the meritocracy exists. However it does not exists for traditional U.S. minorities such as African Americans and Hispanics. And to a lesser degree it does not exist for those that did not attend the Stanfords, Cals, MITs, or Carnigie Mellons of the world. To be clear, I am not convinced that this is racism or discrimination based on gender or ethnicity, but a not so subtle and very strong bias towards those who have a similar pedigree.

This shows up in recruiting organizations targeting specific schools, employee referrals, and promotions of like minded individuals. Yahoo > Google > LinkedIn > FaceBook > Twitter. After Yahoo each of these companies’ diversity numbers have been worse than the company that followed them. I believe this is because Google recruited from Yahoo, LinkedIn from Google, and so on. Each subsequent company becomes less diverse due to the sub-conscious amplification of educational, cultural and work history biases.

Which brings me back to Nadella’s comments at the Grace Hopper Conference. Nadella asked that women, and by extension all minorities trust the system that routinely pays minorities and women less. Even though the data shows that Hispanics earn $16,353 a year less, Asians, $8,146 less, and people of African descent $3,656 less on average than their white colleagues, according to the report from the American Institute for Economic Research. Asking those of us who are paid less, promoted at a rate below our white peers to trust the system seems a lot like Separate but Equal. We get to take advantage of the free food and shuttles, get the same health benefits and share the same working environments. However we have no real representation in hiring, recruiting, or setting the ubiquitous hiring bar, mainly due to the low number of minorities in individual contributors and leadership positions at most tech companies.

This is what I regret, failing to speak up sooner about the educational biases, not taking a more active role in recruiting and hiring and buying into the meritocracy. I put stock grants, high salaries, and the seductive tag line of “having an impact” above engaging in dialogue about the lack of people who look like me. I never really challenged the ubiquitous bar that seem to exclude all but the smartest, luckiest, and economically advantaged people of Hispanic or African Descent, and lastly, By way of silence, I condoned many of the practices mentioned earlier.

Yet I do have several observations and recommendations that could begin to reverse the tide of homogenization at many companies.

I would recommend that CEO’s take a public stand for increased diversity. Being held accountable by the board in making the necessary changes to how their respective companies recruit, promote and retain employees by working to understand, surface and begin to mitigate the conscious and sub-conscious biases in their organizations.

Another suggestion is to remove where candidates attended university from the resume. This could have the same effect as putting a screen up during symphony auditions. It could result in immediate gains in diversity much like it increased the number of women in major symphonies. With the current system at play at most established tech companies, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Ev Williams, Jack Dorsey, Travis Kalanick, Shawn Fanning, and Sean Parker’s would not get past the audition/interview due to not graduating/attending top tier schools.

And lastly, perhaps we should not give preference or bonuses for employee referrals. This is another contributor to the sub-conscious bias amplification. The incentive of working with people you refer almost ensures a lack of diversity, most people want to work with people much like themselves. If you ask a bunch of MIT grads that work at your company for referrals, you will get more MIT grads. Joel Splosky touched on this 8+ years ago.

In the midst of the debate on diversity in tech, I have found it odd and dispiriting that even with the release of diversity reports and the statements by executives at many of companies, no one has called for a change in where they recruit, how they pay or promote, or as this USA Today article points out that the meritocracy and hiring practices at many tech companies continue to be biased in favor of where you went to school and where you have worked.

And for those of you still reading: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QnJFhuOWgXg

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