Tech has a diversity problem, and that problem is culture

I've heard it before and so have you. We need more women in tech. We need more minority engineers. Everyone from Jesse Jackson and even President Obama has made a call for more inclusive policies in tech companies. But it still hasn't happened. You need only look at the recent numbers released by Google, Facebook and Apple to see that white men still top the charts when it comes to their employee count. It all seems hopeless. Leslie Miley, who was the only black engineer in a leadership position at Twitter up until a couple of weeks ago, must have felt so too. In a blog post on Medium, he explained that he left the company because he felt defeated in his efforts in trying to increase and encourage company diversity. The problem: Culture.

At first, that sounds strange. Twitter had after all pledged to be more diverse, and CEO Jack Dorsey's arrival seemed to herald a bigger push in that direction. But as Miley tells it, the culture within Twitter was just so deeply rooted in old ways of thinking that it was hard to be the only person in the room pushing for more diversity. He said that candidates were sometimes deemed unqualified for taking too long to finish college (which is often the case for minorities from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds) or not going to the right school or not finishing a test fast enough. In particular, he called out a moment where he was told "Diversity is important, but we can't lower the bar," which gave a rather unsettling signal that hiring women or people of color was somehow a concession rather than a goal.

Still, Miley persisted, and eventually created and took on the role of Diversity Engineering Manager, which was specifically tasked to hire more diverse engineers. However, in one key meeting with the SVP of Engineering, he was told to try to sort through potential candidates by ethnicity in order to see which ones fell out of the process early. Which sounds like a good idea, except that he was told to sort them by name. The SVP of Engineering argued that a name like "Nguyen" for example is likely Vietnamese. But, as Miley put it, a name is a highly inaccurate signifier of ethnicity -- consider the names Michael Jordan or Will Smith, for example.

... he was told "Diversity is important, but we can't lower the bar," which gave a rather unsettling signal that hiring women or people of color was somehow a concession rather than a goal.

For Miley, this suggestion highlighted how very blind Twitter's engineering team was to unconscious tendencies to ignore "the complex forces of history, colonization, slavery and identity." He was working for people who were trying to engineer themselves out of a problem, but sometimes there are problems where that approach doesn't work. (Alex Roetter, who was the SVP in question, has since responded in his own blog post stating that he felt some comments were misattributed, but he conceded that he did a poor job communicating his ideas).

Miley's entire experience is emblematic of how difficult it is to enact change toward diversity when the culture is so overwhelmingly homogenous. In a follow-up interview with NPR, he said that Silicon Valley likes to lay all of its trust in meritocracy, but the real world doesn't always work that way. He said:

"Yeah, I'd like to believe that, too, but the fact of the matter is, when you don't give everybody the opportunity to work that hard, when you don't give everybody a fair opportunity to get through the door, it is not a meritocracy. And the moment you say 'diversity,' I think a lot of people think you're calling them racist or a bigot. They automatically go on the defensive, or they just don't want to have the conversation."

"Tech companies must reflect the communities they serve. If not, they risk alienating the users most responsible for their success."

Plus, getting a workplace to be more diverse isn't just about appearances, it's about better serving their users. Twitter, according to a recent Pew research, has a user base that's 27 percent black, 25 percent Hispanic and 21 percent women. Indeed, Twitter is a key factor in important social movements in black America, resulting in hashtags like #Ferguson and #BlackLivesMatter, which are actually adorned on Twitter's walls. Mark S. Luckie, another former Twitter employee, wrote on his blog: "Tech companies must reflect the communities they serve. If not, they risk alienating the users most responsible for their success." Recently, there was a bug where black people were mistakenly tagged as "gorillas" in Google's image search, which might not have happened if black people were involved in the development and quality assurance process. Miley also posits that Twitter's recent struggles in gaining new users could also be attributed to the lack of diversity in opinions and backgrounds.

Yet, there are signs that companies are at least aware that there is a problem and are working to rectify it. Several firms like Google, Facebook, Apple and of course Twitter, have publicly pledged to increase diversity in its ranks. Facebook, for example, has introduced an internship program for underrepresented minority freshmen and sophomores. Google has embedded a few of its minority engineers at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Twitter also pledged additional diversity efforts like inclusion training for all employees and further examining its hiring practices. And it's exciting to hear that both Google and Facebook have pledged to hold seminars on unconscious bias, where employees will learn how their words and actions can sometimes unintentionally hinder diverse opinions.

And it's not as if there isn't minority talent out there. As USA Today reported (data is from the Computer Research Association), 4.5 percent of undergrads who receive degrees in computer science or engineering from prestigious research universities are African-American, while 6.5 percent are Hispanic. There are likely even more black and hispanic engineering graduates from state universities or more affordable institutions. Luckie wrote that part of the problem is that Silicon Valley (and much of corporate America) tends to fall into the trap of "culture fit" where people tend to hire friends or former colleagues, most of whom are from the same schools and the same socioeconomic background.

In a follow-up post, Miley wrapped it up in a more hopeful note:

"The desire in tech is to fail fast and move forward. I don't believe that works in these situations. Here is an opportunity for companies and individuals to listen, learn, and internalize what their employees are communicating and experiencing and become more inclusive and diverse in the process."

[Image credit: Getty Creative]