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“I’m Sure Some People Didn’t Like Working With Me Because Of My Race”: A Conversation With Ken Coleman

We talk to the tech pioneer about his career, racial biases in hiring, and why he’s hopeful for the future.

“I’m Sure Some People Didn’t Like Working With Me Because Of My Race”: A Conversation With Ken Coleman
[Commuting Crowd: Christian Mueller via Shutterstock]

Ken Coleman, 69, has been a tech pioneer in Silicon Valley before “disrupting” was even a cliché. He became an executive at Hewlett-Packard in the ’70s, and a decade later hired a summer intern named Ben Horowitz at Silicon Graphics. Horowitz, of course, went onto investing fame and fortune and has since brought his mentor on board as an advisor to his own firm, Andreessen Horowitz. In the wake of our look at Tristan Walker and the persistent problem of race in tech hiring, we talked to Coleman about his career, what his experience in the field has been, and what he thinks should change. Coleman is still “optimistic,” despite it all. “The great thing about technology,” he says, “is it creates opportunities for everybody.”

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On His Beginnings

I have an MBA, and in graduate school my focus was information systems. In undergrad, it was industrial engineering and statistics, so I was interested in the computer industry [early on] and I did some computer-oriented work in the Air Force.

I was introduced [to Silicon Valley] before it was really called Silicon Valley. I was getting out of the Air Force in Marin County and a friend of mine, who was an Afro-American captain, had gotten out a year before and joined a bank in Palo Alto. I sent my resume to him and he gave it to a gentleman named Roy Clay who used to work for [Hewlett-Packard]. He gave my resume to HP—and the rest is history.

Ken Coleman

On Being A Pioneer

When I moved to the Valley, like today, there were not a lot of black people other than in East Palo Alto. When I was at Ohio State in graduate school of business, there were three [black students], so when you walk this journey you are used to being a minority of one, two, or three. When I was in Hamilton Air Force base, there were three black officers on the base. That’s been my whole professional career.

When I first joined HP in ’72 in Cupertino, the only blacks there were in manufacturing. I was the first black professional in the computer part of HP. There were black professionals in other parts of HP, but not in the computer. We added black professionals over time.

On Changing The Ratio

My very first job at HP was as a recruiter, so obviously I had a great chance to impact that. Then I became a manager, so I was able to hire people or recommend people. As I grew my career, it was important to me to make sure that I was in organizations that were well integrated and that were committed to recruiting blacks, Asians, Hispanics, and females. I’ve always felt accountable and responsible for impacting that because I could. If you can, why not? If I’m not going impact that, who will? You just do what you can by making sure that you hire the best people and have a diverse pool and not use excuses that you can’t find them. That’s such a terrible excuse for anything. [People say that] because it’s hard. It’s different. It feels like it’s risky. I like to hire the people who look like me, who I know. But that doesn’t necessarily lead to greatness.

If you’re trying to achieve greatness and excellence, you want to hire the best people you can find: as diverse a pool of candidates you can grab onto. [You] go to sources. Go to places where you find those people. If you really want to create a diverse workforce, it starts on the college campuses because you can have access. There are schools that are very compatible with the people you’re trying to hire and the kind of diversity you’re trying to achieve. Go to events and meet with organizations that represent Hispanics or women or LGBT. You just have to understand the way the world works and go out and find candidates. That’s what any good organization that’s trying to enhance its talent would do. You go to the source.

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On The Black Experience In Silicon Valley

I grew up in this business, like a lot of my friends. A lot of my friends were white and so we had tremendous shared experiences, from HP to Activision—but obviously the black experience in America or in the Valley is different than the white experience. How is it different? I’m sure that some people didn’t like working with me or for me because of my race. It’s naïve to expect in this Valley, or any company, that people leave their prejudice at the door. Obviously there’s prejudice or discrimination in the country that’s going to exist inside any company, so I’m sure that affected some people’s feelings about me—but it was never “overt.”

I’ll tell you a great conversation I had once that’ll show you how adverse and annoying it could be. I was in a promotion meeting at one company I was working at. I was a senior executive and talking to the guy who ran U.S. sales. We had an office that was underperforming, so we removed the sales executive in that office and were considering who to promote in the job. We had three people—one white woman, one white man, and one black male—who were the best performers in the office and who were under consideration. The two whites had recommended the black guy to management. I’m in this conversation and the executive says to me “Well, I don’t think we should”—I’ll make the guy’s name up—”offer John the job because I’m afraid John might fail.” John’s the black guy. I said, “What are you talking about? He’s our best candidate. If he fails, he fails. John has the right as a black man to fail like any white person.” That was a weird way being used that would’ve kept a black guy from getting an opportunity that he deserved.

That’s why having diverse people in the decision-making process is so important. People can perverse things without knowing what they’re doing. It’s not like this guy was consciously saying “I don’t want to give the job to the black guy,” but somehow in his mind it was more risky for the black guy. He thought [John] was a good guy and [a failure] may screw up his career. I had the advantage to be in the meeting and stood up and said, wait a minute, that’s a weird way to think about it. We’d never think that way about a white person. Let’s get on with it. [John] got the job and succeeded.

If Tristan Walker had come to the Valley 40 years ago, when I came here, could he have achieved what he has achieved? Maybe. I’m not going to say he could not have. Would it probably have been more difficult? Yes. But could he have overcome? Of course he could have overcome.

There are more of us in tech [now], but that’s more driven by the fact that there are more people in tech, rather than percentages going up in any significant way.

On Why He Thinks The Tech Industry Struggles With Diversity

I’m not some expert or all-knowing person, nor have I done any analytical research, so take this as one man’s opinion: I think [this is the case] for a couple of reasons.

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One is unique to technology. We have so many Asians and East Indians that I think people have said, well, that’s diversity, so it’s not an issue. They forgot about Hispanics, blacks, and women and lulled themselves to sleep. Society gave technology a pass on [diversity], so there has been little to no focus, as if there were no issue.

The second thing is this belief that [the tech industry is] a meritocracy—that if you’re smart and work hard you can be successful no matter what. But as anybody knows, half of the valuation of people in the interview process is subjective. That has lulled people to sleep, to not pay attention.

The third thing is it can be especially difficult to recruit black people out here in the Bay Area, because if I’m from Detroit or New York or Atlanta and I don’t see as many people here in Silicon Valley as I’m used to seeing, the environment is not necessarily comforting.

Then there’s this natural issue that’s not unique to technology, which is my belief that when managers are hiring or promoting people they’re more often trying to reduce risk rather than maximize potential. If that’s true and if also you buy into that social systems (and companies are just social systems) naturally want to re-create themselves, then if I have a company with a bunch of Stanford and Ivy league graduates, and white males created this company, if you’re not white male with an Ivy league-oriented education, then you’re more risky. Therefore my risk meter goes off and there’s a higher bar you have to jump over to make me feel comfortable hiring you.

On Smart Hiring

The idea is to have a wider net of the kind of talent that will be useful for your objective. The number one issue for all of the companies in the Valley is the lack of talent. If you believe that and you believe that talent is the most important thing, not to have the widest net possible for talent acquisition would be self-defeating. It is the best interest of any technology company to have the widest net about talent. I’m saying talent, not experience. One of the things that happens is this concept of minimizing the downside and maximizing the upside, so people start hiring resumes and experience rather than talent, creativity, drive, and motivation. These companies get started from all those kinds of personal attributes, but as they get bigger they dumb it down by hiring resumes and experience rather than continue to hire highly talented and highly motivated people. Their selection system needs to remember what got them there.

At anything I’m involved in, I want to hire the most talented person that I can find. Without talent you can’t get from here to there in technology.

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Why He’s Optimistic About The Future Of Diversity In The Tech World

One reason I love the Valley so much is we can solve the world’s hardest problems if we put our mind to it. We are brilliant at it. I’m hopeful now that the spotlight has been raised on this issue of the lack of gender and people of color diversity in technology, that people will focus on it. And if we focus on it, great things happen. The great thing about technology is it creates opportunities for everybody. If you’re in a stagnant economy, it’s very hard to change things. In a growth economy, it’s very easy to change things because things are changing around you all the time. I’m very positive and hopeful that we’ll see great strides and we’ll become the model industry in the U.S. for gender and racial diversity.

This interview has been edited and condensed.