Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Think Different

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers.  The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo.  You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They invent. They imagine. They heal. They explore. They create. They inspire. They push the human race forward…while some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

It was my first year at Accenture and I was in one of our typical all day all night war room tech/org design sessions. One of the senior managers in the room looked my way and asked, “Why do you wear a purple shirt like that? You know we’re not in Mexico right? Is it because you are going clubbing tonight?” I heard comments like this at Accenture throughout my six years there. As a Latino, the blue button-down, khaki pants, penny loafers look wasn’t for me. Don’t get me wrong, I really wished it were! I bought the corporate uniform and tried it for a while.  I wanted to fit in. As the only Latino in the room 99% of the time, I wanted to blend in with the people I was working with. I just wasn’t very comfortable in my own skin when I dressed like they did. I decided I would just do me and hope for the best. This led to many comments about how I dressed or what I looked like. I had nicknames like “Jose” and “Pedro.” Almost every request from a manager ended with, “Mucha gracias,” when clearly this was their entire Spanish language library. It’s been like this for 20 years. Just a couple of months ago I was presenting at an event in Chicago answering a question about the future of schools. When I was done with my answer, the panelist next to me said, “wow, you are so articulate and well spoken.” I know he meant it as a compliment but what was he expecting? I am the Global Education Evangelist for Google. I am the face and voice for Google education. What could have been the level of expectation he had for me?

Although I don’t code, I've been involved in the tech space since 1995. At Accenture I was part of the organizational development team in the electronics and high tech industry group. I worked for organizations like American Express, Motorola, Seagate, Sun Microsystems, and so on. I spent two years at Charles Schwab, helping the leadership team reengineer their human resources operation. I believe over the last 20 years, I have spent more time in Silicon Valley/San Francisco than I’ve spent at home in Phoenix! Almost everyone in my professional network is in the tech space. I’m used to always being the only Latino in the room. I've spent the last nine years at Google, so it didn’t surprise me when I saw our diversity numbers – 3% Latino, 2% Black. I was proud of the team for releasing the information. Laszlo Bock and his team stood up and said, we have an issue and need to do many many things to solve it.  

Google of course is not alone. Only one in 14 technology folks in Silicon Valley is Black or Latino. In all, less than 5% of the teams at Google, Facebook, and Yahoo are Black or Latino. This extends into the management and future direction of these organizations. For example, I read a NY Times article highlighting that 11 of the 20 companies examined, including Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter, and eBay, had no people of color on their Board of Directors. Out of the 189 board members across those 20 companies, only three were Black and one was Latino. I should say here if any of these companies would like to put me on their Board of Directors, I’m open to discussing it!  It’s also critical to point out that this isn’t just an issue with “old” tech companies (you know, Google is 16 years old and therefore a dinosaur.) Less than 2% of startup founders are Black or Latino.

These figures are a reflection of a larger issue when it comes to STEM fields – only 13% of science, technology, mathematics, and engineering degrees are held by Black or Latino workers (Cameron White, "Equity, Diversity & Edtech," July 21, 2014.) This is a somber statistic impacting us today and in the future. By 2020, the United States will have 1.4 million computer science jobs according to estimates by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, with only 400,000 computer scientists to fill them. That leaves a gaping hole in our economy! At the same time, by the year 2043, the United States will be a majority-minority country. My six-month-old daughter is in the generation that will be that majority-minority. In 2013, there was a higher percentage of Latino high school graduates enrolled in college than non-Latino whites.

We have a perfect storm of concerns heading our way. The need for diversity in technology is not an altruistic matter. We are talking real commerce here.  This is especially true in the Edtech space. Racial and ethnic minorities now make up the majority of students in K12. The need for intellectual and social diversity is critical. Not just in terms of ethnic diversity either. We need to increase the opportunities for those people of color near the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. Their voice is critical in the Edtech space when it comes to solutions for their community.

The companies that will have endurance are the ones who understand how diversity helps them stay relevant. Organizations that ignore diversity, or do not see the business value of it, are in danger of becoming irrelevant and out-of-touch. It also makes very good organizational sense. Many studies show organizations with both gender and ethnic diversity tend to be more creative and profitable. The key element is how multiple perspectives help these organizations design products and services that appeal to a cultural diverse audience.

While there are some very authentic concerns we need to tackle in the tech space, this is not a tech industry issue alone. The problem starts long before the tech job posting goes live. The problem spans the entire pipeline.

As reported in many publications last year (Liana Heitin, No Girls, Blacks, or Hispanics Take AP Computer Science Exam in Some States, Eleanor Barkhorn, Tech's Gender and Race Gap Starts in High School,) there were three states where not a single female student took the Advanced Placement exam in computer science. In eight states, no Latino students took it. And in 11 states, no Black students took the test. In 2013, 30,000 students took the AP exam for computer science and less than 20% of those students were female, about 8% were Latino, and 3% were Black. Even if we had an opportunity to increase the number of minorities in AP computer science classes, I don’t think we would be able to staff those AP classes with qualified CS teachers. I get it. If you are a struggling school, how much are you going to invest in computer science when you are dealing with bringing students up to level in math and reading? When you are using a shot glass to bail out the water from your underfunded school system that is quickly sinking, how much bandwidth do you have for computer science?

Besides, the problem doesn’t even start in high school. We know there is an 18-month academic gap between rich kids and poor kids by the time they get to kindergarten. Most of the poor kids happen to be minorities. These students, who make up 40% of the K12 population, are not only less likely to be prepared for kindergarten, they are less likely to graduate from high school, or attend a great college. They are less likely to graduate from college and when they are in college, they are less likely to study computer science or any STEM field for that matter (Cameron White, "Equity, Diversity & Edtech," July 21, 2014.) The statistic, which I wake up with every morning, is this:

If you are a high potential low-income minority in the US, you have a 9% chance of graduating from college. 45 years ago it was 6%. At this rate we will be at 15% by the year 2105.

- White House Report, Increasing College Opportunity for Low-Income Students 

With these baffling facts, how would we ever manage to get high potential minorities into Google, Twitter, Yahoo, or any of the hundreds of tech start-ups?

We need to think differently about the whole pipeline, from what we do to make sure students of all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds start their education on the right foot, to recruiting strategies at tech companies, to ensuring we create bias free cultures in all our organizations. Just increasing the number of Black and Latinos who get interviews at tech companies and startups isn’t enough, especially if nothing has been done to change organizational culture and bias.

Tech companies must demand an unbiased and inclusive workplace.  This can be done with professional development for individuals and teams. At the same time, tech companies can increase the diversity of the hiring pool by searching for real talent in various places and not just sticking to the same patterns they currently use. Tech companies can also make sure they are hiring more diverse workers in non-tech positions as well. In the long run, all of us in technology must invest in fixing the pipeline by getting involved early in the education effort.

In the Edtech space, start-ups can prioritize the recruitment of culturally and socioeconomically diverse folks to join the team. At the same time, these teams must be engaged with teachers and students, especially low-income minority students, to get their perspective and point of view on the problem they are trying to solve with their products or services (Cameron White, "Equity, Diversity & Edtech," July 21, 2014.)

At the education level, much needs to be done!

First, we need to teach our students real tech skills, building digital and technology leaders, not just consumers of technology. I’m not even talking about coding classes. I’m talking about teaching students to search, to vet, to make sense of information. You can start here with some great material from us!

Second, we need to build programing concepts (i.e., programing, design thinking, conceptual modeling) into our curriculum and in our options for after school activities. There are a growing group of organizations that are trying to address these issues through community based, technology enabled education programs (Cameron White, "Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Education," July 21, 2014.)

  • CS First provides free, easy-to-use computer science (CS) enrichment materials that target and engage a diverse student population.
  • Black Girls Code teaches young girls and pre-teens of color in-demand skills in technology and computer programming.
  • Science Genius leverages hip hop pedagogy to engage urban youth and educators in STEM exploration.
  • Hack the Hood connects youth to real-world consulting projects building websites for local businesses and nonprofits.
  • Qeyno Labs harnesses the interests of high potential youth from low-opportunity settings through radically inclusive hackathons.
  • Made with Code is an initiative designed to inspire millions of girls to experience the power of code.

Third, we need to provide as many opportunities as possible to students of all socioeconomic backgrounds to engage with computer science and other STEM fields. This area will require some outside the class thinking.

Finally, we cannot forget the most important stakeholder group - parents.  Parents play a critical role in creating the demands and expectations for our students. During the industrial revolution, it was easy for workers to move from the farm to the factory. This is not the case with the knowledge-based economy. A displaced manufacturing worker cannot move from that role to a system architect at a tech company. The knowledge, skills, and abilities required for this economy require a lifelong learning mentality. Parents need to understand this and demand that their children are learning what they need to learn to thrive in their future (and in my case, make sure my kids have a house I can move into when I am older.) Parents must drive the demand for building computer science/STEM skills and capabilities for their children. This is especially true in our poor communities. I think my mother still believes the only way I will ever be successful when I grow up is to be a lawyer. I want to see parents in these communities talk about how their kid is going to grow up and be a biomedical engineer, an architectural engineering manager, an information research scientist, or a information security analyst. When someone asks me if I want my kids to speak a second language (because you know, I speak Spanish,) I respond with, “yes, Python.” Now, I just need to figure out how to get every Latino parent in the country to answer the same way!

I am working on a project I'm really excited about. I am part of a team that is designing and building a new district high school in Phoenix focused on inquiry based learning, where students use coding as the language they speak and use in the pursuit of learning. I will talk more about this project when we get to the next stage! We are really trying to think different.

My kid William showing me his lines of code...

Post Note

I published a public draft outline of this blog post before I ran a session on the need for diversity in technology at SXSWedu. I got some great information, statistics, and feedback that I included in this post.

If you want to learn more about this topic there are some great resources out there, including these well thought out posts: