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Reinventing tech's pipeline: Inside the effort to boost Black and Latinx talent

A new generation of tech workers forges a path forward as companies grapple with pressure to ensure their products and hiring practices don't undercut diversity.

Students at a ColorStack mentoring event.

ColorStack is a nonprofit designed to help black and Latinx tech students break into a sometimes unwelcoming industry.

Photo: Courtesy of ColorStack

The Sunday before Memorial Day, Jehron Petty was home in Long Island riding out coronavirus when he graduated from Cornell with a degree in computer science. There was no formal procession or even an awkward Zoom alternative, so he turned his attention to another big milestone. The next day, Petty launched ColorStack, a nonprofit designed to help black and Latinx tech students break into a sometimes unwelcoming industry.

But once again, factors out of his control clouded the festivities. It was a few hours after ColorStack's sleek new website and social media campaign went live that news of George Floyd's killing by a Minneapolis police officer touched off a national uprising. "The rest of the week went completely left," said Petty, 21, who, like Floyd, is black. "It was just crazy. I didn't know if I could be happy, if I should be sad all the time."

Only about 1 in 10 employees at large tech companies is black or Latinx. For a new generation of diverse technologists like Petty, the weight of overlapping health and civil rights crises has raised the stakes of their effort to change the industry's talent dynamics. At the same time, tech companies, even as they release strong statements of corporate solidarity against racism, are under more pressure than ever to demonstrate tangible progress — especially after recent cuts to diversity programs at companies including Google.

"Make the hire. Send the wire," wrote Tiffani Ashley Bell, a black alumna of YCombinator and director of water nonprofit HumanUtility, in a recent essay titled, "It's Time We Dealt With White Supremacy in Tech."

Though the job market is reeling after COVID-19 lockdowns, some tech headhunters say companies have an opportunity to rethink the way hiring is done to make sure they don't pass over candidates they need to build products that appeal to a broad customer base. Ideas include anonymizing applications or leveraging remote interviews to build in safeguards against biased hiring. At the national level, black unemployment is still rising, now hovering around 16.8%, even as white joblessness dropped last month to 12.4%.

Complicating matters is the ongoing tech backlash. Well before Facebook employees staged a virtual walkout last week to protest the company's tolerance of President Trump's online threat to shoot looters, activist student groups had criticized the industry's ethics and close relationships with law enforcement. Even companies doing their best to find talent might find themselves rejected by that talent if their products are seen as undercutting social progress.

At Stanford last year, a student group called Liberation of All People and a Latinx activist group called Mijente spearheaded a "#NoTechForICE" campaign against companies including Palantir. Last week, a group of Stanford students spoke out against the university's computer science department when some faculty refused to make academic accommodations for students struggling with the toll of protests and COVID-19.

Taken together, it's clear Silicon Valley faces growing danger that it could lose its vaunted position in recruiting. After the financial crisis, headhunters are quick to point out, tech was the big winner when Wall Street became a pariah.

"There definitely is a major shift that's happening at Stanford and at universities across the country," said Jasmine Sun, a junior studying sociology and data science at Stanford. "And that's how students are thinking about working in tech, as well as tech's role in the broader state of the world."

Fixing a 'leaky pipeline'

Growing up in New York, Petty was a tinkerer. And he admired the business savvy of his grandparents, who had started construction and real estate businesses in the Caribbean. So it seemed natural to start his first company fixing laptops for fellow high schoolers at 16.

At Cornell, Petty joined a traditional college professional development group called Underrepresented Minorities in Computing. An average meeting attracted about 15 people, and he saw an opportunity to expand, bringing in designers and other students looking to break into tech. He used tools like Slack channels to build the community and emphasized hands-on mentoring.

"A lot of companies have these goals, these public goals of diversity by this year," said Petty, who interned at Google last summer and plans to run ColorStack part time after he takes a day job. "I think the main thing a lot of students are thinking about is what happens once they get in the door. Are they still going to be as valued?"

The idea of building frameworks of support within underrepresented communities, rather than relying on tech companies for top-down progress, is mirrored by several fast-growing groups for midcareer tech workers, including /dev/color, a membership group for black engineers, and Latinx tech worker organization Techqueria.

Aston Motes, interim executive director of /dev/color, calls his own experience getting into MIT, finding diverse classmates, and parlaying internships at Microsoft and Google into a stable career "very atypical from the average black computer science student." When his college roommate, Makinde Adeagbo, started /dev/color in 2015, the idea was that "we could help each other to succeed," Motes said.

The group now holds events for its 500 members in four chapter cities, while eight of its own staffers support small peer groups or "squads." Though /dev/color partners with companies including Facebook, Google, Netflix, Uber and Square, it's not a hiring service or educational group for those interested in learning how to code.

"We as an organization are, very intentionally, not a recruitment firm," Motes said. "Every member of /dev/color is already working as a software engineer before they are accepted for participation, and so we can stay focused narrowly on helping them advance in their career and retaining them in the industry."

The problem, as Petty and Motes see it, isn't so much access to coding classes or the number of black young people seeking out tech jobs, but a lack of professional support that can make it harder to get a first big break or stay in the industry long term.

At many of the 90 campuses where black and Latinx computer science students have signed up for ColorStack's new Slack channels and forthcoming mentoring program, "It seems like they're the only one" in their demographic, Petty said. That sense of isolation, he said, intensifies during tumultuous times. "This is a community I wish we already had in place," Petty said. "This is the type of family and camaraderie we need in times like these."

Cornell A ColorStack tech mentoring event at Cornell, where Jehron Petty started the professional group for black and Latinx students.Photo: Courtesy of ColorStack

Petty has turned for advice to Techqueria, which has grown in five years to nearly 10,000 members nationwide. Though black and Latinx tech workers can face varying obstacles, Techqueria Co-Executive Director Frances Coronel said her group draws inspiration from many black organizing efforts, like the "Black Tech for Black Lives" pledge that has attracted signatories from Facebook, Airtable, Box and many other big-name tech companies.

"There are different orgs that focus on the different parts of the leaky tech pipeline," said Coronel, who credits her job as an engineer at Slack to networking on Techqueria. "Our issues do intersect a lot, but we do have more-unique issues," like Latinx workers who may be undocumented or have undocumented family members.

Groups like Techqueria are also thinking about how to best work with internal tech company employee groups, often known as employee resource groups or ERGs. Such groups for Latinx, black and LGBTQ workers, and others, are sometimes viewed as "co-opted" by corporate HR, said Techqueria Co-Executive Director Felipe Ventura. Participation may add stress to already high-pressure jobs.

"A lot of people in these affinity groups or ERGs or whatever they want to be called are essentially doing extra work that is not being compensated and frequently comes at the expense of their career," said Ventura, who identifies as Afro-Latino with his Dominican and Colombian heritage. "I see groups like Techqueria and other external groups supplementing that labor in a way that makes it sustainable."

Built-in bias

Vivek Ravisankar, CEO of engineer hiring site HackerRank, has a direct view into where the hiring process often breaks down, since companies use his platform to recruit and screen technical applicants. Last year, he said, he rolled out new features to redact applicant names and other identifying information in an attempt to change a pattern in which diverse candidates with high technical scores still got filtered out during the interview process.

"You might be surprised how much bias exists after you review the code," he said. "The big shift was anonymizing candidates."

Now, Ravisankar, who grew up in Bangalore and worked as an engineer at Amazon before starting HackerRank, sees an opportunity in the rapid shift to remote work to more dramatically alter the interview process. He wants to invert recruiting by asking candidates to first complete technical assessments, then offer those with good results to recruiters, instead of waiting for recruiters to solicit individual applicants who appeal to them.

Tech recruiters like Adam Ward, who worked at Facebook and Pinterest before co-founding tech talent consultancy Growth By Design, expect a boom in third-party or automated hiring products like HackerRank and Karat. Still, many critics warn that hiring algorithms, too, are vulnerable to bias if the teams who build them aren't diverse.

Prodded by the shift to remote work, Ward sees "broken and archaic" recruiting processes that prioritize "dumb luck" and "random skills" giving way to more systematic approaches — ones that have already evolved in the shift to remote interviews. "Now you might see more of this open marketplace, like free agency," Ward said. "In so many ways, we're not going to go back to the way we were."

Ravisankar is among those who sees college campuses, especially lesser-known tech feeder schools outside the Ivy League, as fertile ground for remote recruiting that reaches more applicants. HackerRank hasn't released its new college product yet, but he's thinking about building a digital cross between mega-recruiting tech conferences known for offering a pool of diverse candidates, like Grace Hopper Celebration, and a hackathon.

"The whole idea of university recruiting hasn't evolved in decades," Ravisankar said. "You have to plan an event, you have to block two or three days to go there and fly there. There's just a lot of effort and a lot of work."

At Stanford, Sun, the sociology and data science student, said more needs to be done to break down institutional barriers. Sun, who is Chinese-American, tweeted out a string of contentious internal emails with Stanford faculty after students in an introductory computer science course petitioned for extensions and other academic accommodations for classmates reeling from the killing of George Floyd and the resulting turmoil — including one student whose friend was shot at a protest.

As the Stanford Daily reported, many other professors had canceled finals or offered other workarounds. "A lot of people are falling through the cracks," Sun said. "This very by-the-book, faux-meritocratic approach that is being used in our C.S. class is the same reason companies like Google have dismal diversity statistics."

Across the country in Long Island, Petty is focused on keeping ColorStack's momentum going after a chaotic launch week. Like everyone else, he doesn't know what comes next. "We're just trying to take it day by day and do what we can, and also stay tapped in," he said. "It's just trying to stay informed. Just trying to stay sane."

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