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The Tech World and The “D” Word

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Robyn Lundin is a Software Engineer based in Seattle, WA. Prior to graduating Hackbright in August 2017, she was the Co-Founder and CEO of Nöje, a subscription service and online marketplace for food and beverages produced in small-batches by passionate creators. 

Unless you’ve been living under a rock where you have no access to news outlets or social media, you’re aware that diversity in tech is a huge topic of conversation right now. I’m not going to go deep into why diversity in tech (and all fields) is important because many people before me have expressed this sentiment quite thoroughly and eloquently. Long story short — hiring diverse teams is not only the right thing to do, this practice also has been linked to better business metrics.

What I do want to address is that while a very encouraging number of large and small tech companies are showing great interest in improving diversity of their engineering teams, merely talking about hiring more diverse candidates is not enough to change the status quo.

I recently attended the career fair portion of Tech Inclusion 2017, a conference hosted by Google, where “the tech industry comes together to drive solutions to diversity and inclusion”. Fifty tech companies were in attendance to discuss this year’s conference focus — “what will we each do to ensure that we are driving an inclusive future for everyone?” Based on my experience at the career fair and my research on the companies in attendance, I have a few suggestions for where the tech industry should start.

#1 Open up your engineering internships to people who are not currently pursuing Computer Science degrees at a university

Most large and mid sized tech companies offer engineering internships to current university students and recent grads from Computer Science traditional degree programs. These internships provide valuable experience and a foot in the door to people pursuing a career in engineering. However, limiting internship opportunities to people who choose to study Computer Science in a traditional university setting severely limits the ethnic and gender diversity of internship programs.

The demographics of CS graduates are very similar to the demographics for current software developers; 80% are male, 76% are white or Asian. Although there are many fantastic efforts underway trying to encourage young girls and children from ethnic minority groups to pursue Computer Science degrees, the results of these efforts will take decades to go into effect. Furthermore, these kids may still be discouraged from entering the field if they do not currently see their gender or ethnicity well represented in Computer Science.

I checked into the requirements for internships at some of the largest and most well known companies in attendance at tech inclusion; Amazon, Google, Yelp, Microsoft, Zillow, and PayPal. Spoiler alert — they all require applicants to study Computer Science at a traditional university.

These internships exclude people who are self-taught, people who learned programming online, people who attended coding bootcamps, and people who decided to learn to code later in life. If your company’s engineering internships target only current CS students and recent CS grads — your company’s diversity efforts will fail.

If engineering internships are only open to CS students, maybe there’s another way for people from different educational and experiential backgrounds to break into tech roles. This leads me to my next point.

#2 Make sure your company has truly entry level engineering roles

If all of your company’s job openings require prior professional experience in engineering and a Computer Science degree, your company has created a serious barrier to entry for diverse candidates.

Nationally, approximately 80% of software developers are male, and 92% are white or Asian. The best way to change this ratio is to widen the top of your company’s hiring funnel.

Consider hiring people who don’t yet have professional software development experience, but have taught themselves how to code and created personal projects, people who have attended coding bootcamps (45% of people who complete coding bootcamps identify as female or gender non-binary), and people who learned to code through online courses instead of studying CS in a formal setting.

I researched the software engineering roles posted online by the companies I listed in the previous section regarding internships. Here are some qualifications listed for the most entry level Software Engineering positions (limited search to USA) I could find from these companies:

Amazon – Software Development Engineer

  • 3+ years professional experience in software development
  • Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science, related field, or equivalent work experience

Google – Software Engineer

  • BS Degree in Computer Science, similar technical field of study, or equivalent practical experience.
  • Software development experience in one or more general purpose programming languages.
  • Experience working with two or more from the following: web application development, Unix/Linux environments, mobile application development, distributed and parallel systems, machine learning, information retrieval, natural language processing, networking, developing large software systems, and/or security software development.

Yelp – Software Engineer – Full-Stack

  • If you don’t have at least one year of experience in a similar role, please take a look at our College Engineering roles instead! (As noted above, College Engineering roles require the applicant to study Computer Science in a traditional university setting).

Microsoft – Software Engineer – Development

  • 1+ years of industry and/or internship experience as a software engineer, software developer, and/or programmer
  • 1+ years of experience shipping quality software (3+ preferred)
  • 1+ years of software engineering experience (3+ preferred)
  • A Bachelor or Master Degree in Computer Science or a related discipline or the equivalent

Zillow – Software Development Engineer

  • You hold a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science or Computer Engineering
  • 2+ years of software development experience

PayPal – Software Engineer – Entry Level

  • Bachelors in Computer Science degree or related field from an accredited college or university

Starting to notice a trend? Requiring applicants to hold Bachelor’s or Master’s Degrees in CS in order to apply for entry level engineering roles compounds the problems outlined above regarding internships. Entry level engineering roles are even more out of reach to non-traditional applicants than university internships. By the time Computer Science majors graduate university, they have had the opportunity to gain on the job experience as interns, and have made valuable tech industry connections that will open doors for them as they start their engineering careers.

While the jobs listed above may appear to be entry level, their requirements translate as such — these positions are for people who have already spent 5+ years steeped in the tech industry; only people who belong to the “in crowd” need apply.

Now, at this point, a lot of you may be thinking that people without a degree in computer science and without professional engineering experience may require much more training and mentorship to ramp up their skills. This may be true — and also leads me to my last suggestion.

#3 Create apprenticeships for people from non-traditional backgrounds

If your company has enough resources to hire interns, your company has enough resources to hire and train apprentices who know how to code but lack professional programming experience. Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Facebook started offering apprentice style roles for software engineers with non-traditional backgrounds in 2016–2017 and have started releasing the results of their efforts.

Pinterest’s Abby Maldonado offers insight on mentorship, training, and regular check-ins to create a successful apprenticeship program in this blog post. She also highlighted the success of the first cohort of apprentice engineers. All apprentices from Pinterest’s first cohort were hired as full time engineers within one year of starting the program.

LinkedIn’s Shalini Agarwal shared in the LinkedIn blog that 80% of the engineers in the new REACH program were offered full time software engineering positions with LinkedIn at the end of LinkedIn’s first cohort. Their recommendations? Give apprentices time to ramp up, but make sure to still treat them the same as any other engineer on your team. Offer them opportunities to grow and take on responsibilities.

Business Insider covers Facebook’s Rotational Engineering program — an initiative to provide more opportunities to engineers with non-traditional backgrounds. My favorite insight from this article:

Facebook Engineering Director Nimrod Hoofien, the rotational program’s internal sponsor, said that introducing the program to Facebook’s engineering teams was “nerve-wracking.” There was no way to tell how they would react. Within two hours, though, he had 60 Facebook engineering teams willing to participate.

Not only are these apprenticeship programs bringing more diverse hires into the tech industry, they help companies train and test their talent before offering applicants full engineering roles. Apprenticeships can prevent tech companies from hiring permanent employees who turn out to have disastrous work habits.

Creating a successful apprenticeship program takes careful planning and understanding of what characteristics indicate that a given candidate has potential to become a great engineer. If your company is truly dedicated to creating a more inclusive tech industry, offering apprenticeships is a huge step in the right direction.

On hiring for potential

Taking the time to determine a candidate’s aptitude and potential to succeed takes much more time and effort than glancing at the credentials on their resume. Plenty of tech companies like to cite a pipeline problem as the reason for their lack of diverse hires — meaning that there are not enough qualified diverse applicants to fill their technical roles. This limitation is self-imposed. The decision of who does and does not qualify for an engineering role lies with each individual company.

If your company cannot hire and engineers from a diverse array of genders and races, your business will perform sub-optimally and your competitors who are able to broaden their reach will beat you. This is not something easily or immediately solved and will require a lot of time and effort, but will yield long term results that are critical in today’s business environment.

Allocate time and resources to mold the employees you want on your teams. There are plenty of folks out there with huge potential just itching for the opportunity to thrive. We keep trying to kick down doors but progress would come along much more quickly and easily if tech companies would unlock and open their doors. A diverse engineering team is only out of reach if you choose to make it so.

This article was originally posted by Robyn Lundin on LinkedIn and Medium. For more of Robyn’s writing, follow her on Medium.


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