How a decision to 'open source' DEI is streamlining GitHub’s diversity efforts

GitHub asked its DEI head to “open source” diversity. But first she had to figure out what that meant.

Demetris Cheatham

Demetris Cheatham leads DEI strategy at GitHub.

Photo: Kea Taylor/Imagine Photography

When Demetris Cheatham joined GitHub just under two years ago as its senior director of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging Strategy, she had one goal: to open source DEI. The challenge? She still had to figure out what that meant.

Cheatham has a background in computer science, so she understood how open-source software development succeeds when large groups of people work together to create solutions to thorny problems. The challenges she saw in promoting inclusion among open-source software developers were the same issues she’d worked on in her years spent leading diversity and belonging across the social sector and finance industry.

Diversity work often suffers when best practices are siloed, duplicated unnecessarily and when it lacks industry collaboration. The findings inspired GitHub’s pilot program, All In, an initiative aimed at partnering with corporations, philanthropists and underrepresented universities to create a more diverse and inclusive community of developers. Recently, the first cohort of 30 students completed the program; all its members were successfully placed into internship programs.

Now, Cheatham is sharing the blueprint for other companies to join in on the efforts. In the true spirit of open source, she spoke with Protocol about how the company launched All In, its greatest learnings and what other leaders can do to emulate the program and increase equity in recruiting.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

What brought you to the role at GitHub?

What really, really attracted me to GitHub was the holistic approach that they were taking to diversity, inclusion and belonging. Most companies you see focus just on diversity, inclusion and belonging from the HR perspective, but GitHub had a holistic strategy focusing on it from their people, including their 83 million developers.

When you're focusing on [DEI] internally for one company, it looks different than when you're focusing on it for a platform of millions and millions of developers. That's when you really start to make systemic changes, lasting changes, generational changes, and that's what really attracted me to GitHub.

So what does open sourcing diversity look like?

I remember when I was interviewing and I told them, “I want to open source diversity, inclusion and belonging.” And when I got there, they were like, “Demetris, go open source diversity, inclusion and belonging!” So I had to figure out what that meant. So after hundreds of conversations with stakeholders in tech across open source, one of the things I realized was that there was a lot of duplication of efforts, a lot of programs, a lot of people trying to solve the diversity, equity and inclusion problem — which I hate calling it a problem — in tech. So I said, “Instead of us all working on it in silos, what would it look like if we came together like we do in open source, like we do in software development? If we came together to approach it collectively? All the different stakeholders, where there’s corporations, philanthropists, foundations, government agencies, the social sector.” And that's how All In and the open-source community was created.

Can you tell us a little more about where the idea for All In came from?

Once I started having those conversations, I said: “Who are the people that are really responsible for advancing diversity, inclusion, creating a culture of inclusion?” And everyone said, “maintainers.” You can think of [maintainers] as parallel to managers of a team. You can have all these corporate programs, but it's really those day-to-day interactions within your teams, and your manager really sets it. So that's what a maintainer is, kind of the manager of an open-source project or an open-source community. So, focusing on them, we wanted to do a pilot understanding what their needs were, what training, what tools that they need.

But I had an interesting conversation that actually changed things a little bit and changed our priority. We had a meeting with some philanthropists in Silicon Valley, who had probably over a billion dollars in net worth, and they had created a fund where they wanted to find Black founders in open source. They reached out to GitHub because they weren't able to find a lot of Black founders. They said since they're not there, let's go and find maintainers that we can upskill, support and turn them into founders of companies … and [then] they realized there weren't a lot of people of color at the maintainers level as well. They reached out to GitHub because we were doing a lot with GitHub education and some of our other programs. That's when I said, “We have to start even earlier.” What would it look like if we started at the undergraduate level? Really introducing them to open source, upskilling them, giving them a pathway so that we can hopefully grow them into maintainers and ultimately founders, and creating more of that long-tail program. So that's how All In for students was created.

How did you all go about creating the program and selecting schools and students to partner with?

As someone that graduated from North Carolina A&T, I know that most companies, when they want to go focus on student intake — particularly Black students in tech — they always go to a handful of schools: North Carolina A&T, Howard, Spelman, Morehouse, FAMU. They might throw in Hampton. Everyone is focused there. But I know from growing up in the South, there's so many other minority-serving institutions that have amazing talent that nobody focused on for a variety of different reasons. So I said, “What would it look like if we intentionally focused on those schools?” Shaw University, St. Augustine, Winston-Salem State, UNC Pembroke, which is founded for the education of Native Americans in Lumberton, North Carolina. Those were the schools that we selected to start the program.

But here's another thing that I knew: I knew that at those schools, if you graduate within the top 10% of your class, companies will still find you. But if you look at our cohort of students that we have in this pilot, you have students that commute two hours to school every day each way because they can't afford to stay on campus. They're full-time caregivers, especially during the pandemic; some of them are full-time parents, military, active duty military, they have athletic scholarships — that's how they're paying for school. So they couldn't do summer internships, right? Because they're training during the summer. So we wanted those hard-working, dedicated students, those that are just showing up trying day in and day out.

[And] who better to select? It's not an application process. It's not us putting something up on a website and asking them to submit an essay. We went to their professors, we went to the chairs of their computer science departments and said, “Look out into your classrooms; you tell us the students that just deserve that opportunity.” So we didn't have an application process, the schools selected them, and what that did was also gave us buy-in from the schools as well.

We had students where we would pick up the phone and call the professors and they'd say, “You know what, they're in my class in an hour, I'll call you back and let you know what's going on.” These students probably did not know they were going to get hit with this amount of wraparound support. We tell the students: “Once you're in, you're in — we're all in, and we're not letting you go.”

What's the biggest learning from this first cohort that went through?

I think one thing that I knew, but the depth of it surprised me, is not all computer science programs are created equal. When you have someone that graduates with a computer science degree I think on the back end, as corporations, we're assuming that they have [this] basic level of [skills], but because of lack of infrastructure, lack of professors, lack of funding and a whole host of other things, there's just a really wide gap. So most companies are hiring for those that are at the top of that spectrum and just assuming that those that are not at the top of the spectrum will get it from somewhere, and no one's solving for that “from somewhere.”

For instance, we only selected sophomores and juniors for this cohort because we wanted them back for at least another year. There were some that junior year, fall semester, they were just taking their first programming 101 course, and I remember at A&T by junior year, we were in electives. There were, I think, out of the 30 students, 28 of them had never even heard of open source. Whereas I know that many companies now, if you don't have your code on GitHub or some type of platform somewhere, they're not even considering you. And that's why I say not all computer science programs are created equal, and we need to do a deep dive and focus on that.

I think the easy work is focusing in at the top of the funnel, the certifications and the internships. But the equity work, that's the hard work. That's the work that quite honestly isn't sustainable a lot of times. That's where you don't get the easy ROI, [and] oftentimes you don't get the media headlines.

For companies that might not be at the place in which they have partnerships with underrepresented universities, what's some equity work that they can start with?

Not all contributions to a university need to be financial. One of the things that I saw in some of the schools is that their career services were greatly under-resourced. What a lot of companies I’ve seen do is say, “Hey, we're going to have a resume writing workshop.” And they assume that the students are going to be able to find them, get registered and show up, and then they're upset when no one shows up. You have to go and meet them where they are. So one of the things that I did here at GitHub is I asked our talent acquisition team, “Can one of you take one [student’s] resume and do a 30-minute resume writing session with all the students?” Some of these programs only have 45 students in their whole program for all four years. A talent acquisition team at a larger company can be in the hundreds.

One of the things that I always focus on with companies is: Do those things that make sense to you and your mission. Don't try and do things outside of what you do. So talent acquisitions focus on the resumes and mock interviews. Someone in engineering, you might come in and focus on doing a technical interview with them or help them with code or something like that. Your employee resource groups focus on those things that help them understand the career development aspects of it, the mentoring and the professional development … What are those things that all of us wish we had known when we were first starting?


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