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Karla Monterroso says we are in the middle of a "total system failure" when it comes to the treatment and inclusion of Black and Latinx people in tech.
Monterroso is the CEO of Code2040, a nonprofit aimed at eradicating the structural barriers keeping marginalized people out of the tech industry. She says she has watched countless tech companies turn away, discriminate against and oust the Black and brown technologists that she has helped train and coach.
Ultimately, Monterroso said she believes tech companies will have to entirely redesign themselves in order to keep up with a rapidly diversifying population, moving away from a top-down control model to something more equitable."We are in the middle of a shift," she said. "The companies that can acknowledge that the pain we're in is not a flash in the pan but a 'canary in the coal mine' situation will get ahead."
Protocol spoke with Monterroso about how companies can prepare for the next generation of technologists, how a premium on Ivy League degrees is holding the industry back, and what the top tech CEOs could do tomorrow to improve diversity among their ranks. Monterroso outlined several actionable solutions that any CEO serious about building a more diverse workplace should consider.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Has the reignited Black Lives Matter movement changed your thinking at Code2040? Have you seen a surge in interest in your work?
Most definitely. We've had at least 50 companies reach out to us over the last several weeks. But a study that came out [last week] showed 60% of D&I [diversity and inclusion] roles had gone away during the COVID crisis, and now are coming back. I think that is a really spot-on indicator about the problem that we have around this work. In the face of a global pandemic that was disproportionately impacting Black and Latinx people, what companies saw as expendable was the D&I role. And now, it is not expendable but the mindset that makes it expandable in the middle of something like that has not disappeared.
It's been about two months since the killing of George Floyd. Do you feel that the momentum of the Black Lives Matter protests has already started to wane? A few weeks removed from the height of the protests, have any companies taken concrete steps to fix their systemic issues?
There's no way in a few weeks that someone could have made concrete steps to fix those systemic issues. "Concrete steps" would take orders of magnitude longer, and much deeper commitment than that. I will say that it's hard to tell right now. I think there is a lot more energy.
In the height of the 2014 wave around this, post-Erica Baker's salary spreadsheet, post-Julie Ann Horvath's Github sexual harassment accountability, post-Tracy Chou's "where are all the people of color and women," and the Rainbow PUSH coalition's picket of Google: Those things all were a part of creating that wave. After, there was a period of time where folks were like, "We've got to do something. What do we do?" And here we are again. We are definitely in the reeducation period.
I think that people are more likely right now to be asking themselves and others tough questions than I think I saw in that round of work. Folks really wanted a PR prescription for it in the last round of work, as much as humanly possible.
Facebook just released its diversity report, which shows it hasn't been able to increase its Black technical talent by even 1% since 2014. What are the hurdles here, and what are they doing wrong?
In 2016, the head of D&I at Facebook said that this was a "pipeline problem" and they got a ton of backlash for it. While the words have changed, I don't think that mindset has changed at Facebook.
Often what I hear from either Facebook people or people surrounding it is they have a "hacker culture" and they respect "hackers." And that's already narrowing the scope of the technical talent that you have; you are asking for people to come from a culture of people participating in a very particular subset of tech, and often, that is coming along with a certain amount of university pedigree, it's coming along with certain GPAs.
Then, there is a group interview [in the hiring process], and if one person in the group says the person can't come in, then the person can't be hired. That group interview lends itself to bias. If you have even one person in that group interview operating from a place of conscious or unconscious bias, that is going to take your diverse recruiting pool out completely.
It was also not that long ago that Mark Luckie wrote the Facebook post about being Black at Facebook and what that was like. There is nothing that I have heard that has countered that experience. And Facebook has been the chief promoter of "diversity here means conservatives, too," and they make this a left-right issue, and I think a lot of people, a lot of activists, have been really talking about how this has been turned into a partisan issue. But it's a civil rights issue, and civil rights are not partisan. They may be treated partisanly, but they are not partisan.
If you had an hour with one of the FAAMG CEOs, what would you tell him? And what's the one thing Big Tech CEOs could do tomorrow that would have the biggest impact?
I would tell him to go get a coach for their own long-term improvement, that they need to understand the issues of race and its intersections with gender and class in a much more fundamental way than they do in order to be able to manage it.
I've heard you say we are in a "total system failure" when it comes to Black and Latinx representation in tech. What does that mean?
Both for-profit and nonprofit leaders have talked to me about the difficulty of managing their workforces right now and how there is a lot of tension in the ranks. There's a lot of distrust. The reason for that is all of the management models, all of the success models we have, are from companies run with a command-and-control model, a top-down structure that used to work in a homogenous workplace. But even when you have incredible failures at inclusion and recruiting, you are no longer running a homogenous workplace. In the very least, you are managing four different generations, and a much more gender equitable situation. And a command-and-control model is not going to work for that.
What model do you think will work for diverse companies?
I think we are in design of that. I don't think we know yet. People always ask me, "Who's really good at this?" No one is good at this, absolutely not a single person. Not a single company! You have pioneers, you have people taking risks to try and do things a different way, but that's going to take risk, failure and learning. We are in the middle of a shift. We are in the pain we are in. I think that companies who can acknowledge the pain we're in is not a flash in the pan but a canary in the coal mine situation will get ahead and start to learn and operate with different models.
Code2040's mission is to "dismantle structural barriers that prevent the full participation and leadership of Black and Latinx people in tech." What's one barrier that people don't typically think about or talk enough about?
This is a high-wage work problem, and high-wage work has the barrier of university pedigree attached to it. And until we stop talking about our companies having the "best-in-class" employees as if best-in-class only means incredibly expensive, elite pedigreed university, there's very little that's going to move.
Often for Black and Latinx people, it's not so much the education you're getting at a university, it's the credentialing that lets people know you're a safe Black or Latinx person. The notion of those credentials, in tech, was let go of for white men but it was not let go of for people of color, especially for Black and Latinx people. Often it's like, "Tech has college dropouts, and anyone can be a hacker!" That has its limits when it comes to nonconnected Black and Latinx people. If you don't have those connections within a company, that lack of credentialing, it doesn't matter how brilliant you are.
I think the notion of competency and what are the entry-level competencies for high-wage work has to have a major evaluation. We need to have a viewpoint on what kind of competency people have when they come into the workforce and then find ways to do interviews that measure for those competencies as much as possible. We need more imagination for that kind of testing than timed tests that require speed as a default versus actually emphasizing critical thinking.
We model those things off of things like the SAT and standardized tests instead of really thinking imaginatively about how we're going to find our people.
I've heard from several people over the past few weeks that performance improvement plans are often doled out to marginalized employees more often than white men and women. Are you concerned that PIPs are wielded unfairly against employees of color? Have you seen that play out with any Code 2040 alums?
I think this is a complete design failure. The way that PIPs are designed generally give people anxiety. I think by the time someone gets on a PIP, they are clear that the road to exit is coming soon. At that point , there have been a lot of broken promises on both sides of an equation.
The thing that I have seen with Code 2040 alums and volunteers is that Black and Latinx people do not get actionable feedback at the intervals they need to be successful. Telling someone that they are coming off as aggressive is not actionable feedback; telling someone that they are too quiet is not actionable feedback. I'm sure there can be real feedback about management of a project and incentivizing a team and all of that, but it gets swallowed up in a bunch of stereotypes.
I also think that when you have a person who is underrepresented in your group, you are essentially integrating the team, you have to be hyper-aware of the things that people are going to say about them and try to police them that they would not with another employee. Because of the bias that people carry, folks want to police the activities of Black folks as much as humanly possible because the benefit of the doubt is just not given to Black people in the workplace. Because of that, the same kinds of feedback that someone is getting to help develop them is not coming to Black and Latinx people. Feedback is often punitive versus growth-accelerating. And it often ignores the social situations and contexts that they are in the middle of.
What are some of the steps companies can proactively take to protect marginalized employees before there is an incident of racism or discrimination?
I think the choice to have a diverse and inclusive workplace is not taken as seriously as it needs to be. Before a CEO says "we support Black lives," they need to have asked themselves a lot of different questions. What are they willing to risk in order to have a diverse workplace?
If you do this work later in your lifecycle rather than in the beginning, you will have a set of people who feel threatened by it and try to disintegrate those efforts in whatever ways they can within their scope of power. You will have some folks who are actively adversarial about it and will push you to your brink, who are genuinely white supremacists within your company. You have to be willing to say, "If you are not up for a diverse and inclusive workplace, we've got to figure out a transition plan for you. This is a strategic imperative for the company and if you're not there for that strategic imperative, there are plenty of companies to which you can go that do not require that of you." And the unwillingness to do that, but still mention publicly that you're trying to do D&I efforts is actually endangering the livelihood of your Black and Latinx employees.
The folks who are adversarial, especially, are going to push you to your absolute limit. They are going to dare you to take action over and over again, and every time you don't, you harm Black and Latinx people. If you've made that choice, then the first thing you need to do is prep for the pushback. You have to have a plan for how you coach people into this. And at that point, then you can make your announcement.
I was at a dinner with tech CEOs and one of the CEOs said to me, "I'm terrified that what you're telling me is that I have white supremacists in my company." I said to him, "You will not know until the day you start to do this work — then it will become very clear."
I think we can look at the crisis that COVID has created, and the way that Black Lives Matter has created momentum, as an opportunity to reshape labor in the United States. Forty million people are out of work, and a lot of those jobs will not exist again. We're at a critical juncture where the inequity in all of our systems is very clear, and we can look at that as an opportunity to create justice where injustice has existed.
Correction (July 20): This story was updated to correct a mis-transcription. Monterroso said, "The companies that can acknowledge that the pain we're in is not a flash in the pan," not "slash in the hand."
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Emily Birnbaum ( @birnbaum_e) is a tech policy reporter with Protocol. Her coverage focuses on the U.S. government's attempts to regulate one of the most powerful industries in the world, with a focus on antitrust, privacy and politics. Previously, she worked as a tech policy reporter with The Hill after spending several months as a breaking news reporter. She is a Bethesda, Maryland native and proud Kenyon College alumna.