Improving Diversity Hiring In Tech

I see a lot of articles written by well-intentioned people about how tech companies want to attract more diverse candidates. Usually, I don’t get more than three sentences in before I read about how the organization is making an effort to attract talent from historically black colleges and universities (or HBCUs, as we call them in my line of work). While the sentiment is in the right place, these kinds of diversity initiatives often fail in the execution.

In the San Francisco Bay Area where I live, you can stand on any street corner and watch who’s getting onto the buses that travel to the headquarters of the big-name tech giants. It’s easy to see how minorities in surrounding communities could be left with the message that those buses are not for them.

I started my technical recruiting career at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I was able to hire and work alongside some of the brightest, most accomplished engineers on the planet in a truly diverse work environment. So I know firsthand that there are some very talented pools of minorities in engineering.

Then where’s the disconnect at tech companies? I’ve had a lot of candid conversations with recruiters for these organizations and I can tell you, they’re missing out on a lot of opportunities.

Here are the three biggest mistakes they’re making, and what they can do to course correct.

1. Not thinking like college athletics recruiters

If you give a 6th-grade girl a pile of LEGOs, she’ll engineer the most amazing things. We saw this firsthand at NASA when we got involved in LEGO clubs at area schools. But somewhere between 7th grade and high school, that desire to engineer something can dissipate if it isn’t cultivated. Those girls will get pointed in other directions. That’s why tech recruiters should take a page out of the sports-recruiting playbook.

Tech firms should be doing outreach to schools in minority areas, but it’s got to be more than just making donations and slapping logos on some computers.

Shaquille O’Neal was a 13-year-old kid playing basketball on a military base the first time he met Dale Brown, the head basketball coach for LSU. Brown immediately introduced himself to the 6’6” teenager’s father, and began cultivating a relationship with the family that would last until Shaq graduated high school.  When it was time to choose a college, where did the future NBA superstar go? You bet he chose LSU.

So how can tech firms get in on the game? Early grassroots efforts are key.

Tech firms should be doing outreach to schools in minority areas, but it’s got to be more than just making donations and slapping logos on some computers. There needs to be a human-to-human connection. Giving employees real time to volunteer to be student mentors can be an excellent way to start nurturing talent at an early age.

Tech recruiters should also be reaching out to rising college freshmen. For example, they can invite promising students to intern over the summer and make them responsible for real deliverables. At NASA, we told students that if they came and worked with us for the summer, they’d have the opportunity to make contributions that could literally be shot into space.

After that, it’s critical to build in touchpoints throughout the school year. Students who are accountable for certain goals even while school is in session will be less likely to drift off the radar screen.

2. Not looking past historically black colleges and universities

Sure, HBCUs have talented engineering students and, yes, tech firms should make inroads with them. But that’s not nearly enough.

If you do the math, you’ll see that if you combine the engineering programs at all the HBCUs, you still wouldn’t have even a third of the population of minority engineering students that attend “majority” schools.

The problem is that hiring managers tend to overlook majority schools that don’t carry the big brand recognition of a school like MIT or Caltech. That’s a big mistake. Extremely bright students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds may be more likely to attend state or public schools because it makes financial sense for them to do so.

Majority schools may also allow wider opportunities to recruit women and under-represented minorities such as Native Americans.

One strategy companies should be using whenever possible is sending recruiters who look like the people they’re trying to attract. Let’s face it: An African-American male is often going to feel more comfortable talking to another African-American male.

3. Not thinking enough about retention

It’s not just about hiring diverse candidates; it’s about keeping them. If companies don’t foster a welcoming environment, diverse candidates will be out the door just as quickly as they walked in.

When I worked at NASA, I was invited to join a people-of-color group. The first time I walked in, I was shocked at the number of people I didn’t know. These kinds of groups are useful because they give people a way to find each other, make connections and vent to others who are dealing with similar issues.

It’s demoralizing to be a minority on an engineering team but not see any minorities on the executive team or on the corporate board.

Tech companies can look into starting chapters of affiliate groups like the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers or the Society of Women Engineers. Inviting diverse guest speakers can allow staff members to hear from people in tech that they can more easily relate to. Providing affiliate groups with mentors who have real clout within the company is also a powerful way to send a message that the company welcomes engagement with diverse employees.

It’s also important to keep in mind that it’s demoralizing to be a minority on an engineering team but not see any minorities on the executive team or on the corporate board. Organizations need to make sure their top brass is representative of the company’s stated mission.

There’s no silver bullet that’s going to magically create diversity in tech companies. But if organizations can work to change from within and understand that cultivating relationships is a long-term deal, they’ll be more likely to achieve their diversity goals in a more meaningful way.