Six years ago, Silicon Valley decided to own up to its diversity problem. Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft all began releasing annual diversity reports, providing public transparency into the stark underrepresentation of Black and Latinx workers at their companies, promising to do better. The move would help hold the industry accountable, so they claimed, in meeting their latest round of diversity goals.
It didn’t work. The share of technical workers who are Black at Facebook, Google, and Microsoft has inched up less than one percentage point since 2014 and still sits below 4% at each company.
Today, the industry is experiencing a moment similar to what it saw in 2014: Large companies are lining up to announce new diversity pledges, and it genuinely seems like many leaders want to change. The last few months have forced systemic racism into the sightline of business leaders, and companies are also finding that diversity is good for their bottom line. Here’s the problem: They also know that they’re probably going to come up short again.
The root cause is not just the low number of Black students who are trained in software engineering, which makes up about 6% of all computer science graduates. The problem comes down to our whole system for training, finding, and retaining underrepresented engineers.
In college, faculty shortages have led to enrollment restrictions for computer science majors, while dated curricula fail to cover many of the industry’s most in-demand specialties, such as app development or cybersecurity. Black and Latinx students find that introductory courses were designed to weed out students without prior coding experience, and they’re about one third less likely to stick with the major. Many who do graduate have trouble getting in front of companies who largely recruit applicants from a few elite colleges or are stonewalled by the daunting technical interview, which tests esoteric concepts rarely covered in class.
Finally, the few Black engineers who make it past those barriers feel isolated in an industry that relies so heavily on personal connections. The sense of cutthroat competitiveness makes those who did not have access to social capital or computer science education feel that they cannot seek support. When they do, it is often painted as a weakness.
The problem isn’t failing to identify the hidden gems with untapped potential. The problem is that the system was not built for us.
One of the problems with the way we look at Black success within white-dominated fields is how we paint the few who break through as somehow exceptional; as if they have stumbled upon something other Black folks haven’t figured out yet. But I’m a Black man who made it from poverty to Silicon Valley, and I can confirm this: The problem is not that Black kids aren’t smart or determined enough. And the problem isn’t failing to identify the hidden gems with untapped potential. The problem is that the system was not built for us.
When I was growing up in rural Maine, I didn’t have access to computer science education or even to a computer. My underfunded school and overworked teachers certainly could not make up for my lack of resources. And yet, I made it to college, began working on startups, and became a successful entrepreneur.
People always want to find a reason that the rare few make it through a system that was not designed for them, and here it is: Systems are not precise, and sometimes people will bring the right personality to the right place at the right time. I had mentors who guided me through the industry and supporters who opened up doors for me. I got lucky.
All this means that, for the latest round of diversity initiatives to have any hope of succeeding, tech companies have to rebuild the pipeline. They should start early, channeling their massive lobbying and funding power to ensure that every student has access to quality computer science courses before graduating high school.
Then, companies should help to compensate for the college computer science faculty shortage by offering industry-relevant curricula for professors, funding initiatives that expand teaching capacity in key disciplines, and dedicating capacity within their own employees to teach and mentor aspiring software engineers. They should also create ongoing workplace training programs, so that promising applicants with knowledge gaps can take time to fill in missing skills instead of just being turned away.
Some of this work is already happening. For instance, the City University of New York’s Tech-in-Residence Corps invites professional engineers to teach industry-based courses, and the IBM Q Network is bringing together a consortium of companies, education institutions, and research labs to develop a quantum computing curriculum. Community colleges have been partnering with local employers to align courses with job openings for years. But industry-informed, engaging computer science courses are still too few and far between.
It’s not enough to just send recruiters to historically black colleges or build a special onboarding program for underrepresented talent. The United States computer science education system was designed 50 years ago to teach a few students how to become researchers or professors, and it’s now being used to cultivate a workforce for one of the country’s fastest-growing professions. That’s always going to mean that students without early exposure to tech pathways, mentors, and resources to learn outside of the classroom will be the last ones in and the first ones out.
For years, Silicon Valley has talked about “diversity” as the end goal. But diversity is just a snapshot. Diversity efforts that examine how many people of different colors are funneled through the hiring process are set up to fail because they neglect to consider what kinds of inequities applicants have to overcome just to get in the door.
It’s time we stop asking for diverse companies and start asking for an equitable pipeline, recognizing that diversity will follow. It’s time that companies stop looking for ways to compete over a few hundred industry-ready Black software engineers graduating each year and start figuring out how to train the next million Black software engineers.
Michael Ellison is the CEO and cofounder of CodePath, a nonprofit focused on increasing diversity in tech through computer science education for underrepresented minorities.