Three ways to really increase the number of African Americans in tech

African Americans face road blocks to achieving success in tech
African Americans face road blocks to achieving success in tech
Image: Reuters/Stephen Lam
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This story is part of a series addressing a central question: “How Can We Accelerate Social Mobility in America?” The author participated in the 2016 meeting of Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) America (June 12-14 in Atlanta), where leaders in business, philanthropy, government, and nonprofits are turning ideas into actions that help strengthen the US economy.

“I’ve seen more black people today than I have in a typical week in San Francisco.” This realization came to me as I sat on a panel at the 2016 meeting of Clinton Global Initiative America in Atlanta—an event whose diversity dwarfs the professional and social spaces of Silicon Valley and San Francisco.

It’s bad enough that most tech events and panels in the Bay Area are so devoid of people who look like me. But what’s most alarming is the extent to which people of color are missing from the most lucrative and stable job-generating machine of the past 15 years. Blacks and Hispanics comprise just 1% of engineering leadership at Twitter, 2% at Google, and 2% at Facebook. Without participation and representation in leadership, many people of color never get the mentorship, sponsorship, and guidance required to advance their careers.

Early in my career, I constantly received feedback that I was intimidating, aggressive, and aloof. As I moved from individual contributor to manager, the feedback intensified. I was told that I was not representing the company properly, and my professionalism was called into question anytime I showed a hint of difference. In one particular instance I was handed the book Not a Genuine Black Man by the director of my group, with the suggestion it would help me get along better at Google.

The feeling of being an outsider, reinforced in verbal and written feedback, led me to question myself on a daily basis. Here I was, a self-taught engineer, leading teams at companies where over 98.9% of candidates fail the interview process–and I was still constantly degrading myself and my contributions due to imposter syndrome.

Having mentors and sponsors of color provides individuals access to those who understand their experiences, can empathize and can act as an advocate for high-profile projects and promotions. This is why it’s imperative for tech companies to begin making changes internally. Many companies have partnered with diversity consulting firms, such as Code2040 and Paradigm Consulting, to help them increase diversity. But to truly change these alarming statistics, it will take a company-wide commitment to diversity at every level.

What are three things tech can do to improve diversity?

Change the interview process

The interview process employed by the largest tech companies, and countless others, is broken. Typically, a candidate is placed in a room and instructed to solve a technical problem on a white board while fielding questions and critiques from the interviewer. This serves as a barrier to people of color who may not have the requisite information and experience to solve the kinds of problems most commonly taught by the top schools that tech companies prefer to recruit from. Such schools are often outside the economic means for the majority of minorities.

Slack has developed a process that attempts to remove bias in tech interviews. This involves a real world skills test that rewards code that is clean, readable, and maintainable. We developed criteria to ensure that, regardless of who grades the exercise, the score is an accurate reflection of the quality of the work—and we did away with the white board interview. Companies seeking to increase diversity would do well to start here.

Prioritize the promotion of diverse candidates

Minorities and women have not had the same access to opportunities in tech–there is a significant gender and race gap when it comes to who gets promoted and who stays at companies.

Companies can begin to address this by offering mentoring programs developed with diversity in mind. They can also work on expanding accountability by tracking and publishing attrition and promotion rates sorted demographically. Finally, just as sexual harassment training has become mandatory, so should implicit bias training for all employees.

Invest in communities where underrepresented people of color live

Areas like Detroit, Richmond, and Cincinnati offer compelling, cost-effective opportunities for businesses. Investing in these areas—by creating offices for engineering teams and associated staff—would improve company diversity, give communities role models in STEM, and have a transformative impact on cities. For example, New Orleans has become a leader in tech due to PowerMoves Nola and a vibrant startup scene.

Tech companies need tangible ways to turn ideas and good intentions into action. This week I saw how tangible steps could be taken at CGI America, where companies of all sizes showed they were willing to do more than talk. The world needs more platforms that encourage industry leaders to go beyond platitudes and actually make specific, measurable plans. For too long, progress in diversity and inclusion has been stymied by a lack of measurable goals relating to hiring, promotion, and retention of minorities and women.

Organizations can use these recommendations and many others to improve their ability to attract and retain people of color. Study after study after study confirms that diverse teams bring competitive advantages. It’s not only the right thing to do for society–it’s the right thing to do for business.