Don't blame the tech industry for its "lack of diversity"

Tekla S. Perry, who's experienced enough in the technology world to know better, wrote a provocative piece in IEEE Spectrum this week titled "Why Isn't the Tech Industry Doing Better on Diversity? It's Google's and Facebook's Fault". This sprang from a discussion at "Inclusion In Silicon Valley" where Leslie Miley, Slack's director of engineering, excoriated Bay Area tech companies for their alleged lack of inclusion:

You come to Silicon Valley and you don't see people that look like me in positions of power [Miley is black]. If that's not hostile, what is?
You don't see Chinese Americans or Indian Americans in positions of power in the Federal government, despite 8 years of a black president. If that's not hostile to Chinese and Indian Americans, what is?

Leslie Miley is a mendacious asshole. There are many legitimate points to make about the disproportionately small number of black software engineers, and the horrendous educational and societal failings behind that - and let's be clear, prejudice against academically successful black engineers is a real thing from both the black and white communities - but Leslie's point is not one of those. He is jumping from "X is not happening" (observation) to "X must be being blocked by Y" (assumption). You'd think that a competent engineer would be better acquainted with logical reasoning. But looking at Miley's LinkedIn profile he's only spent a series of 2-3 year stints at a list of major tech companies (Google, Apple, Twitter) in engineering management roles; since you spend 3-6 months coming up to speed with a job like that, and assume you draw down effort in the 3 months looking for a replacement job before you leave, his actual engineering experience doesn't seem that great, and you wonder why he kept leaving each firm before his stock options started to vest in quantity... (This is of course the "play the man, not the ball" approach to argument, which is intellectually facile but no less well founded that Miley's approach to argument.)

I've said this before but let's say it again. The main reason that people of Afro-Caribbean descent are under-represented in the software engineering industry is because the dominant education requirement for that industry is a bachelor's degree in a numerical subject (STEM), and such people are correspondingly under-represented in that qualification bucket. Such under-representation is a major issue that needs fixing, but it's happening way before the Silicon Valley and other engineering companies get involved. There's a secondary issue that engineering companies in general should get better at finding bright numerate non-STEM-degree holders who will do well in software engineering with a small investment of training, but that's another blog post entirely - and in any case, Silicon Valley big firms do spend time and money looking in that general area.

It's not just Miley who's making dumb remarks at this diversity love-fest, of course:

The lack of diversity stems from hidden and systemic bias, believes Monique Woodard, a partner in 500 startups. "If you turned off the imported talent, would you look to Oakland and Atlanta? I'm not sure people would," she said.
This is bollocks on stilts, but not just for the reasons you think. Oakland is stuffed full of Bay Area tech workers, especially junior engineers. They live there because it is relatively cheap compared to San Francisco, Palo Alto, San Jose, Milpitas etc. Tech companies recruit people from Oakland all the gosh-darn time. What Monique Woodard means is that she doesn't believe that tech companies will go looking for the black talent in Oakland and Atlanta. Why isn't she saying this explicitly? You be the judge.

"Changing the practices that perpetuate the overwhelmingly white and male character of the Silicon Valley workforce are not going to be easy"
Male: yep. White: nope. In Silicon Valley, Caucasians are actually under-represented per the general population; Chinese and Indians are significantly overrepresented. In my experience, people who openly identify as gay or transgender are also markedly over-represented. By many reasonable measures, Silicon Valley is one of the most diverse environments there is - there is a huge population of people whose national original is not the USA, and they aren't just Indians and Chinese: there are substantial Russian, Korean, Polish, Filipino, Vietnamese and other nationalities.

What Ms. Woodard is actually saying is: "there aren't enough engineers with dark skin - excluding Indians - in Silicon Valley." Well, Ms. Woodard, why is that? Is there a peculiar conspiracy in hiring where the recruiters and hiring deciders are wide open to all sorts of people except those who are of Afro-Caribbean extraction? Is that what you are saying, or is it such a ridiculous notion that you have to resort to camouflaging it behind the umbrella of "diversity"?

Behind Miley's comments, at least, there's a nugget of good sense. The competition for engineers in Silicon Valley and its environs, and to some extent other places like Seattle (Microsoft/Amazon) and New York (Big Finance) is intense. If big firms want to find a cheaper source of good engineers then they should look at other major cities, such as Atlanta, Dallas, Austin. This is something of a risk though: you need to start a new engineering office, which means recruiting many tens of new engineers in addition to migrating some of your existing senior engineers down there to help build and train the teams, reinforce company culture and keep strong communication with the root offices. Up until now, this has been more of a risk than just upping the game in recruiting from the Bay: I suspect soon the numbers will cross a threshold that makes new engineering offices sufficiently financially attractive to be worth a try.

Bringing in new engineers from Republican states such as Texas and Georgia is also excellent for increasing diversity in the heavily Democratic (and worse, Californian) engineering cohorts of Silicon Valley. Yet, why is it that I suspect that Miley, Woodard et al don't regard that kind of diversity as desirable?

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