5-year plan for improving diversity in tech

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Why is it that tech companies can't seem to find talented people who aren't white males?

It's the biggest question being asked by those interested in seeing more under-represented people find work in the tech industry. There doesn't seem to be an agreement, but I have an hypothesis that I want to share with you.

It's all about reputation and connections. It's a "social graph" problem, and I think it can be solved in the recruiting stage by actively helping people build their technical reputation and relationships.

Many recruiters have a tendency to look for the known and familiar when a position opens up, and that means they tend to hire people who look and act like people already in the company. It's natural for recruiters to ask current employees for recommendations or dig into their trusted pool of candidates, and that's where the problem stems from. Recruiters now face a dilemma: having to take the "risk" that is inherent to unfamiliarity or lacking diversity in their talent pools.

It's also a problem that has to do with individual insecurities. Sometimes people are told that they are not good enough to get a job at a big, well-known companies. They refrain from applying because all their lives they've been told that kind of nonsense, and the environment, biased as it is, only seems to reinforce that notion.

So, how do we help people build their technical reputation and make it easier for recruiters to find them?

The answer lies somewhere in open source software development, but it's not what you might think. Let me explain.

Is open source the answer?

I think we can all agree that open source is a good way to spread knowledge and empower people in many different ways, but it's also true that competition, natural in a meritocracy, can and often does privilege those who can invest in the competition itself; minorities are being outspent and thus left aside by those who can afford to work, basically, for free.

The unpaid jobs that people often have to take to be someone in an open source community are coding and researching (often in a highly specialized field) or performing other equally important tasks for the community like bug triaging, tech support, community management, etc. To say that not everyone can afford to work for free is true, but viewing the problem as "only those who are privileged are capable of affording it" is lazy and an understatement.

The kind of open source development I am talking about has, besides the other liberties that make it open, two characteristics:

  1. It is paid
  2. It solves actual problems faced by organizations that are also lacking technical skills: NGOs, newspapers, and government.

To achieve this, there needs to exist an entity that actively promotes and reaches out to under-represented people in tech, makes their talents grow, and also acts as a liaison between them and recruiters. This makes the recruiters' jobs easier, as this entity would be the trusted third party that I think is lacking for under-represented people. In other cases, that third party is the open source community itself.

By reaching out to under-represented people, we help them grow their technical reputation by enabling them to contribute to OSS projects and collaborate with organizations that need tech skills in their workflow. This establishes a trusted channel between them and recruiters so it becomes easier for them to find the candidates they are looking for and follow through with the process from start to finish. Thus, I think it's possible to solve this problem in the next five years.

Previous efforts of this kind do exist, but they focus on the individual's capacity-building side of things. While they definitely make a very much appreciated effort, there still exists the need to reach out to the tech industry in a more active and engaging way and to include new key players and employers (NGOs, newspapers, and government entities).

The timing is perfect for this kind of organizations to develop, and hopefully when we solve this problem in tech it will become easier for other industries to follow.

Diversity
in Open Source

This article is part of the Diversity in Open Source series to help foster an inclusive and welcoming environment by publishing a diverse range of voices on a variety of international open source topics.

Paola Villarreal is a self taught systems programmer with 15 years of experience that has worked with governments, NGOs and companies promoting openness as a way of doing things. She currently is a Ford-Mozilla Open Web Fellow working with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts on topics related to civil rights and technology. 

4 Comments

Thank you for your great insights. I'm following you on Twitter now and looking forward to hearing more from you.

I love what you write but would love to have you expand as to how this can be achieved in five years. Your headline references a five year plan but I don't see it outlined in the body of your blog. I'm very passionate about this topic and hope to hear back from you.

Why not just say 'more women' rather than diversity?
You are not saying we need more asians, more latinos, more africans... no for you diversity is women.
Which is fine but please say so.

15 years working with free software has shown me how diverse in terms of skin color and languages we are. Ive dealt with europeans from more than half of the continents countries. A group I am working on lately is heavily populated by Indian devs. And when I lived in south america, I also worked with local FLOSSers as well as in Brazil. And presently, in my day job we have a senegalese and nigerian developers working our Linux servers..
But the reality in the US is that while I have many non-white FLOSS collaborators around the world, there is nowhere close to the amount of proportional representation of blacks and latinos which are 30-40% of the US population. But then again, the cost of education in the US means it is out of reach for the minorities. This is a US problem overall, not just a tech one. How many minorities can afford medical school, engineering or such?
Money is a big barrier in the real world.

We also have only one woman in out IT dept.
Out of our 10 hires in the past 3-4yrs, only one other one has been a woman and Ive seen the CVs and its easily 90%+ men that apply. But I also know the application numbers for my university's computer programs. Still barely in the teens but close to the % of our job applications.
If those numbers dont go up, then I think its useless to complain about not having enough women in tech.
Bring those numbers to 30-40% women in universities first and foremost.

So by diversity problems, yes, it would be nice to have more women.
Just like I think its important that there are more women teachers especially in elementary schools where its 99% women and zero male role models. Or a political system run by lawyers and businessmen. Having such extreme segregation isnt good for society.

Good theories and hippy ideals aside, that whole open source angle is pure fiction.
Working on open source projects for gratis and learning/connecting/contributing isnt fair to poor people so the solution is to pay them?
Wow. How idealistically simplistic and in tune with the rest of the article.

But luckily all this can be solved with the creations of some non-profit organization, right?

...nothing to see here.

Thank you, Tim, for your sharing your personal experience. Unfortunately, it is not a common thing to have such levels of diversity in many, many IT companies. Just look at how many black people were hired by Facebook last year which, IMO, is symptomatic of how our industry is behaving.

Also, no, the solution is not to pay them, it is to actively outreach to underrepresented people so they get jobs in organizations that currently do not have tech skills and that would definitely benefit from having them while they create a reputation and connections in the FLOSS community.

So, no, it is not to create "some non-profit organization", they already exist and they have unfulfilled IT needs that OSS and underrepresented people in IT can fulfill.

Thank you for reading and your comments.

In reply to by tim (not verified)

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