by Robyn Hartung Lundin

The tech world and the ‘D’ word: here’s how your company can do more.

Photo licensed under CC0 license courtesy of StockSnap on Pixabay

Unless you’ve been living under a rock with no access to news outlets or social media, you’re aware that diversity in tech is a huge issue. I’m not going to go deep into why diversity in tech (and all fields) is important, because many others have made this argument quite thoroughly and eloquently. Long story short — hiring diverse teams is not only the right thing to do, but has been linked to better business metrics.

What I do want to address is the issue of words vs. deeds. While a very encouraging number of large and small tech companies are showing great interest in improving the 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 traditional Computer Science degree programs. These internships provide valuable experience as well as a foot in the door to people pursuing a career in engineering. But limiting internship opportunities in this way severely restricts 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. There are many fantastic efforts currently underway to encourage young girls and children from ethnic minority groups to pursue Computer Science degrees. But the results of these efforts will take decades to go into effect. And these kids still may be discouraged from entering the field if they do not 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, a Computer Science degree, or both, 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. Hire those who have taught themselves how to code and created personal projects. Encourage people who have attended coding bootcamps (45% of people who complete coding bootcamps identify as female or gender non-binary) to apply. Give people a chance who learned to code through online courses instead of studying CS in a formal setting.

I researched the software engineering roles posted online by a variety of companies. They all expressed an interest in increasing the diversity of their technical teams by coming to the Tech Inclusion conference and career fair.

Below are specific examples of some of the requirements listed for the most entry level positions I could find at the companies I researched:

Amazon — Software Development Engineer

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

Amplitude

  • B.S., M.S., or Ph.D. in Computer Science or another technical field
  • 1+ years of experience working in a frontend or mobile engineering role

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).

Ellation

  • BS in Computer Science
  • 3+ years working on API’s and/or web technologies

Zillow — Software Development Engineer

  • You hold a Bachelors 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? These limiting requirements compound the problems outlined above regarding internships. Entry level engineering roles are even more out of reach than university internships for non-traditional applicants.

By the time Computer Science majors graduate university, they have had the opportunity to gain on-the-job experience as interns. They have already 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 don’t translate that way. 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.

More than a few companies at Tech Inclusion had only senior level engineering positions open with even more rigid requirements. There are, of course, tech companies that create roles for people from non-traditional backgrounds, but these roles and companies are few and far between.

At this point 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 these apprentice-style roles 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 highlights 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 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, but they’re helping 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. You must understand what characteristics indicate that a candidate has the 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 requires more 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 — they say that there are not enough qualified diverse applicants to fill their technical roles.

This limitation is self-imposed. Each individual company gets to choose who does and does not qualify for an engineering role.

If your company cannot hire engineers from a diverse range of genders and races, your business will perform sub-optimally. Your competitors who are able to broaden their reach will beat you. This is not something that can be easily or immediately solved, and it will require a lot of time and effort. But the long-term results 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 those doors. A diverse engineering team is only out of reach if you choose to make it so.

Interested in hiring more female engineers? I’m on the hunt for a role in software engineering. I also happen to be part of a vast network of other female engineers from schools like Hackbright Academy and Techtonica looking to break into the industry. Let’s talk.

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