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Howard University Aims To Build Silicon Valley Pipeline Of Black Software Engineers

Mar 25, 2017
Originally published on March 27, 2017 11:36 am
Copyright 2017 KQED Public Media. To see more, visit KQED Public Media.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Here's another story, a very different one about young people seeking opportunity. Howard University in Washington, D.C., one of the best known and most prestigious of the country's historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, is opening Howard West in California. Computer science students from the college will train at the Google campus in Mountain View starting this summer. Queena Kim of member station KQED says it's one effort to address ongoing complaints about the tech industry's lack of diversity.

QUEENA KIM, BYLINE: Last fall, Google released its latest diversity report. It detailed the race, gender and ethnicity of everyone Google hired in 2015. And while the number of black employees went up, they still represented only 2 percent of Google's workforce. At the time, Google said it fell short of its diversity goal. With Howard West, Google believes it can meet that goal faster. Bonita Stewart is the vice president of global partnerships at Google.

BONITA STEWART: We have the opportunity to be able to build a qualified pipeline of talent across the black community.

KIM: The pipeline problem is an idea commonly held in Silicon Valley that there just aren't enough blacks, Latinos and women with computer programming skills to fill jobs. To build that pipeline, Howard West will bring 25 of its students to Google headquarters this summer. They'll be mentored by Google engineers and get regular classroom instruction from Howard professors. Howard and Google plan to train 750 students in five years and will eventually open the program to students from all historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs. Wayne Frederick is president of Howard University. He says the instruction is important.

WAYNE FREDERICK: But I think just as important will include the exposure to the culture here.

KIM: Frederick heard from alums in the industry who said Howard prepared them technically but not culturally to work in Silicon Valley. There's the Silicon Valley management style, which values collaboration over hierarchy, the importance of networking and how to dress.

FREDERICK: For instance, obviously your listeners can't see me, but I'm dressed in a suit and a tie. And I haven't seen anybody else in a suit and a tie. So that's one example of just being exposed to that culture.

KIM: Christian Simamora is with Code2040, a nonprofit in San Francisco that's dedicated to increasing the number of blacks and Latinos in the tech sector. He applauds the opening of Howard West, but...

CHRISTIAN SIMAMORA: A caution that I have is that the narrative is framed as a pipeline problem. We would hire more black engineers if we could find them. The fact of the matter is the talent is there.

KIM: Simamora says around 18 percent of computer science majors in the U.S. identify as black or Latino, but they represent only 5 percent of the technology workforce. He says the problem is with recruitment.

SIMAMORA: Many of the top tech companies are not even recruiting at the HBCUs like Howard, Spelman. All of these schools have CS programs.

KIM: Why aren't they recruiting there?

SIMAMORA: I can't speak for companies. What's fascinating to me is that tech disrupts. Tech hiring does not disrupt. It does not question what has come before it.

KIM: Simamora says many tech companies continue to focus their recruitment at a handful of schools - Stanford, Harvard, MIT. And in that way, he says the opening of Howard West at Google is disruptive and might force the tech industry to start thinking differently. For NPR News, I'm Queena Kim. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.