How to Expand and Diversify the Tech Industry

I had the pleasure of speaking at the Atlassian Women in Tech Series. Here are some of my thoughts from that talk.

I didn’t set out to be in the technology industry, but I’m certainly glad that I am here. I’ve spent more than twenty years in this vibrant, fast-paced industry. And while I wouldn’t trade this industry for any other, it is not without its problems. One major problem facing our industry today is a shortage of qualified talent. In many ways, our industry is a victim of its own success. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there will be over one million unfilled jobs for computer scientists by 20201.

The problem is complex and so is the solution, but one thing is remarkably clear – we need to inspire a broader population of students to pursue computer science – and this inspirational outreach must include both women and men. It’s a fundamental supply and demand problem. Done successfully, technology companies will not only have an expanded talent pool, they will also have a more diverse one – and that’s a business benefit.

How can we begin to address this problem?

 

Educate: Expand access to computer science courses

Today we are turning out a lot of high school graduates who have taken biology, chemistry and physics courses. Many take these classes not because of high interest but because they are the prescribed path for graduation and college admission. While these courses will likely serve these students well, might some be better served by choosing to take a computer science course instead? Knowing what we know about the growth in our industry and the skilled labor shortage, shouldn't we give students a choice? As of now, according to Code.org, only 28 states allow students to count computer science towards high school graduation requirements2.

 

Inspire: Improve marketing  

tech

The present-day image of “Computer Science” is less than inspiring. In my informal survey of college bound young women, I was surprised by the image they held of computer science as a profession. They thought jobs would be “boring,” they would work in “dark cubicles” with  “limited human interaction”.  That’s not the world that I see.

Computer scientists are changing our world. They are connecting our world, designing wearable devices that save lives, and so much more. We need to do a better job of explaining what one can do with computer programming experience and/or a computer science degree.

To start, we could change the way we describe the profession.

Ashley Gavin, an engineer, educator and curriculum developer defines computer science as: “a medium for problem solving and self-expression”.3

Two high school students from Texas describe computer programming this way: “Code powers our digital world. Every website, smartphone app, computer program, calculator, and even microwave relies on it to operate. This makes coders the architects and builders of the digital age.”4

I like both of those descriptions far better than this one:

"Computer science is the systematic study of the feasibility, structure, expression, and mechanization of the methodical processes (or algorithms) that underlie the acquisition, representation, processing, storage…" (This is from a leading University's website describing what computer science is.)

It’s not that we should minimize the complexity or dumb down the requirements or the curriculum descriptions, but we should hold the profession in high regard and describe what one does when they become a computer scientist/programmer.  

 

Recruit: A diverse population, when feasible

I used to subscribe to the notion that hiring the best candidate for a job was all that mattered. I still think companies should hire the best person for the job, but companies should strive to attract a diverse candidate pool because diversity also matters.

Much has been written about the micro and macro economic case for diversity, but one study in particular caught my attention. MIT’s Center for Collective Intelligence found that teams that are best at problem solving are distinguished not by the team’s collective IQ but by the social sensitivity of its members, the equality in distribution of conversation, and the proportion of females in the group. In other words, what makes the most difference to team and company performance isn’t about solo excellence but about the connections between excellent people5

Diversity as a business goal is just that – a business goal.

  • It’s not about charity.
  • It’s not giving a hand out.
  • And it is certainly not to patronize.

Special care needs to be taken to avoid the “cultural fit” trap. Many companies list “cultural fit” as a top priority for hiring. To me, this means companies should hire individuals that are passionate about the company’s mission and values. To encourage diversity, “cultural fit” should not be defined as like-minded individuals that are similar in personality, background and thinking.  

In tech, despite great intentions and effort, it’s not always possible to attract a diverse candidate pool. If that occurs, tech companies should take action. In our case, to take action we have supported causes such as Women Who Code, Girls Who Code, and Rails Girls.

 

Retain: Create a culture of inclusion

Finally, it’s no secret that tech cultures have been blamed for a lack of retention – particularly for women. Special care needs to be made to ensure that all employees feel comfortable and are able to be themselves and to thrive.  

For the benefit of our industry, it’s important to note that technology companies need women more than women need technology companies. All efforts to fill the pipeline with more women won’t help if women continue to leave.

For more thoughts and ideas on the topic of computer science education, jobs, recruitment, and retention of employees – watch the presentation here:


 

1 "Occupational Employment Projections to 2022." Bureau of Labor Statistics. December 1, 2013. Accessed January 2, 2016.

2 "Promote Computer Science." CODE. 2015. Accessed January 2, 2016. https://code.org/promote.

3 Computer Science Education: Why Does It Suck so Much and What If It Didn’t? Performed by Ashley Gavin. USA: TEDxNYU, 2015. Film.

4 Murphy, Emilia. "Student-Led Projects Inspire." Donors Choose. October 15, 2015. Accessed January 2, 2016.

5 Heffernan, Margaret. "How Empathy Leads to Excellence Great Teams Aren't about Soloists but the Glue between Them." Inc.com. June 11, 2014. Accessed January 2, 2016.

 

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