S1: This past summer, right around the time there were protests in the streets after George Floyds death and the country was talking fervently about race, Nitasha Tiku was calling up computer science professors at historically black colleges and universities.
S2: Howard Morehouse, Spelman, the schools that everybody knows were getting a lot of attention from tech companies.
S1: Natasha is a reporter at The Washington Post and she covers big tech. She’s the kind of deeply sourced journalist who can tell you about the culture inside a company. One company she’s covered a lot is Google. And for years, Google has been saying it’s working on increasing its diversity. And that’s meant a bunch of outreach programs to those historically black colleges and universities.
S2: Yeah, it was really intriguing. I mean, a lot of the professors did give Google credit for being early in their engagement efforts compared to other institutions.
S1: But they also told her something else about their students and their experiences at tech companies.
S2: Despite all that outreach, very often they were already finding themselves still maybe the only black person on their team, maybe facing a hiring committee where there were no other black people when they went to Silicon Valley for internships or job interviews, things were tough. I heard about one female student who raised issues about bias from one of the people she was working with during her internship, and she was told to work from home rather than deal with the student who was perpetuating the bias. And, you know, I imagine that’s incredibly unsettling. Like here you are reading the headlines about how Tech wants to be more welcoming to black engineers.
S3: And, you know, you have the guts to raise a concern in your internship and and you are punished for it.
S4: Today on the show, Natasha tells the story of Google’s attempts to partner with bcuz and how those attempts help explain why there are still so few black engineers in Silicon Valley. I’m Lizzie O’Leary, and you’re listening to What Next, TBD, a show about technology, power and how the future will be determined. Stick with us.
S1: The way Google goes about hiring people is the stuff of Silicon Valley legend, there are entire Web sites dedicated to helping applicants ace a Google job interview. The company used to do its own rankings of undergraduate schools. And the whole process, which was built around hiring a certain kind of engineering talent, reverberated throughout the industry.
S2: You really cannot overstate Google’s influence in these categories because the way that the technical interviews are set up at tech companies, that really stems from Google, the whiteboarding process where you have to go in and code on a whiteboard, those like puzzle questions. How many tennis balls can you fit in a year?
S1: These questions are legendary.
S2: Like you can look like there’s a cottage industry of how you know, and a lot of it’s on YouTube of how to pass these interviews. And, you know, Google was so influential in getting the top tech talent that others have really copied that approach.
S1: I want to take a moment here and have you describe the difference between engineering and everyone else, because it can be hard to understand why the sort of technical team is treated one way and everyone else is different. What’s the what’s the crux of that difference?
S2: You know, not to overstate Google’s influence, but the crux of that difference very much started with Google in a way. I mean, they are the ones who built a whole ethos around this framework of an outspoken engineer who is a first principles thinker. It’s very flattering. So if you go inside a tech company hierarchy, you know, whether or not that company’s secret sauce is really their marketing or their product design, engineers are just paid better. They are catered to, their opinions are valued. And the fact that we have seen a particular lack of racial diversity in technical workforces is is really alarming because you know, that that means that when there’s a discussion in the room, the people who hold the power are generally going to be white, Asian and male.
S1: This all brings me to the year 2014. It’s this really important year in the tech industry because it’s the first time that these big companies, including Google, put out a breakdown of their workforces by race and gender. What was that moment like when that finally happened?
S2: You know, it followed years of pressure on these tech companies to disclose this data. Companies like Google had argued that even though they’re government contractors and they have to share some of this data through the EEOC, that it was it constituted a trade secret. And so 2014 was this reversal. All of a sudden, they went from fighting this information to like we are being candid about it. We are talking about it. We’re disclosing this data. And the results were, for a lot of people, incredibly shocking.
S1: Google’s data said its workforce was largely white and Asian and it was only one point nine percent black, two point nine percent Latin. Next, for technical roles, those numbers were even lower, one point one percent and two point two. Most of the other big tech companies had similar numbers that year, and pretty much all of them said, OK, from here on out, we promise to do better.
S2: And that is also the start of tech companies framing the lack of racial diversity and gender diversity as a quote unquote, pipeline problem. So their argument was that they are trying their best. There’s nothing discriminatory here. It’s just simply a lack of qualified talent. They don’t want to lower the bar. They were very successful also in framing it like 2014 was the start date, you know, so all of their efforts should be judged by then kind of obscuring the fact that Google was a 16 year old company at that point, you know, they had an entire generation to make a difference in said pipeline, but it kind of reset the clock so that people like Google could be thought of as as, you know, kind of being first in these efforts.
S1: So those numbers come out. And, you know, the technical workforce at Google is one point one percent black in twenty fourteen. How does the company react? What do they do?
S2: Within the explanation that accompanied these figures, they mentioned their partnerships with bcuz it began with Google in residence, which is, you know, you have an engineer who is going out to the HPC campus and teaching intro to computer science for a year or so. And on top of that you have kind of the typical recruiting programming the hackathon is. Texture’s having events, ability to ask questions, ability to do practice interviews, things that are routinely accessible to students at top tier, predominantly white schools, then that expanded to Howard West, which was Google’s name for as it expanded this intro to computer science teaching to have students come out to Mountain View, you know, from Howard University in D.C.. Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Basically, they’re trying to get them in this funnel. Right. So like that they do some kind of internship at Google and that will prepare them better for the for actually getting full time roles.
S1: How important were these partnerships with bcuz to the companies? Both push to fix some of its diversity issues and the way it sold that externally.
S2: I would say it was vital to the way that it sold that externally, I mean, everybody knew about Howard w you know, there were cover stories in BusinessWeek every time they put out another diversity report in USA Today, coverage would talk about their relationship with ABC News. So it was the kind of the crown jewel in their diversity program. It was something that they could point to that reflected the image they wanted to portray.
S1: On the one hand, Google spent money and effort to create these partnerships with ABC News, but on the other, they still approach those schools like they weren’t quite in the same league with, say, Stanford, which can sometimes feel like an undergraduate onramp to a job at Google. In fact, until last year, Google sorted schools into different categories when evaluating applicants.
S2: The top one was elite. And you can imagine, you know, that Stanford University, MIT, Carnegie Mellon, and then they had Tier one or tier two schools where you would see, you know, institutions like Georgia Tech, which graduates thousands of engineers a year, or, you know, state schools that had very promising computer science programs. But there were there was a big category missing from that list, and that was HPC use and also actually Hispanic serving institutions. And both of those schools up until about 2019 were referred to as quote unquote, longtail schools. And that was meant to reference the fact that it could take a long time before these institutions might graduate like a large enough number of computer science students with bachelor’s degrees qualified to work at Google. And, you know, I should say, some of the people that I spoke to thought that that was a totally fair way to categorize these schools, that there hadn’t been these relationships between industry and education established as long as they had at Stanford, say, or at MIT. And you know that this just reflected the truth. There wasn’t a value judgment there by the university recruiters that I spoke to inside Google said that this framework really influenced the way that these schools were thought about.
S1: One of the people Natasha talked to is a former recruiter at Google named April Christina Curlee. She led the company’s outreach to BCUZ for six years and said she was fired in September for raising concerns about bias against BCU students. Curlee said these programs suffered from under-investment with smaller budgets, reliance on staffers volunteering their time and a dismissive attitude toward the schools. She had this tweet that kind of blew my mind, she says. I was hired at Google to fundamentally shift the relationship or lack thereof that Google had with ABC News. And then she goes on to say, Before her role existed, Google had never hired an BCU student into a tech role, you know, and she has documentation to back that up.
S2: There is a report from 2013 called Project Bison, which is the mascot for Howard University. And it says, you know, we have never hired an VCU student into an entry level software graduate role like this is a company well into its second decade.
S1: The refrain that we hear a lot is this is a pipeline problem. But your story notes that ABC was awarded more than 35 percent of the bachelor’s degrees earned by black students in computer sciences in the U.S.. So what is causing this? I mean, if you want to extend the metaphor clog in the pipeline between those students graduating and Google not hiring them.
S2: You know, I spoke to a former Howard professor, Nikki Washington, who is now at Duke University, and she was shocked by April’s tweet storm, as were many of the VCU presidents, because her students were going to Microsoft, they were going to Goldman Sachs, they were going to these top institutions. They were starting their own companies and they were thriving. So what was it about Google, you know, that that made the company think that these people are not prepared to thrive at their company?
S1: When we come back, what Google’s HQ outreach programs were like for the students in them. There’s this ad that I watched on YouTube, sort of clips about a program called Tech Exchange, which is for students and students from each side, and I found it really fascinating. Like on the one hand, it’s got this like kind of ham handed thing where they’re like lots of shots of drum lines. And I don’t know, I was like, oh, man, this is cheesy. But then you also had clips of students talking about what sounded like pretty great experiences.
S2: The people that I’ve met, the experience that I’ve had will live with me forever and I will pass how and pass everything.
S1: And I wonder, did these programs work? Were they were they good for the students who participated in them?
S2: I mean, talking to these kids is just there’s so, you know, there’s they’re so young and inexperienced. So for a lot of them, it’s also just like, oh, when you set up a meeting with an engineer, like, you have to, like, be there early or you have to follow up in such a way. You know, they were getting their headshots taken. There is a ton of emphasis on interview prep. So are they graduating with a better sense of how to go to an engineering job interview? Certainly. And are they graduating with more familiarity with, you know, the way that things run in tech companies? Certainly, there’s a big emphasis on practical learning, you know, learning through project based, you know, rather learning by doing rather than by theory. And, you know, I think that they found that really valuable just to be in that mill. You even if they were also dealing with, you know, micro aggressions in the Google cafeteria or being asked where their badge was, those kinds of things that we’ve heard so many times from from black and brown employees at tech companies, there were costs, too, and not just the emotional ones. In most cases, the students are still having to pay their tuition. They do get money from the schools for stipends and they are getting their their food paid for. But I spoke to one student, Mike Nichols, at Howard. She found herself with the ten thousand dollar bill for housing because she stayed two semesters. Wow. In Mountain View and the cost of housing in Mountain View is so high. And, you know, she was incredibly grateful for her experience at Google. But to me, obviously, these money concerns are a distraction.
S1: I mean, Google, I should note, has a market cap of one point four trillion dollars.
S2: Yes. And, you know, they would say that they are investing more than other companies, that, you know, the costs of recruiting and some of the budget concerns that April raised do not reflect their total investment in these areas. But I mean, when you hear that a kid has a ten thousand dollar bill for this experience, like, I think everyone can agree that that’s not an ideal outcome totaling all of this up the the money for different programs, sort of commitments toward racial equity, they feel in some ways at least like good faith efforts.
S1: And yet, from your reporting, they also sound like they’re not working.
S2: Well, in the case of some of the programs that Google has announced recently for racial equity and even that they announced after the George Foy protest last year, you know, those high numbers of donations are actually not going to toward some of the problems that you and I discussed. They are investments in the, quote, unquote, black community. You know, in some cases, black entrepreneurs. You know, they recently announced a digital skills program for black women to try to help black women. And there was instantaneous criticism, I think partly because of these issues that April raised, that people are tired of training, like where’s the job opportunity that follows that?
S1: Even as I listen to you, I go back to the numbers. The twenty twenty diversity numbers, three point three percent of the workforce at Google is black as opposed to one point nine percent from 2014. But in terms of technical roles now, it’s two point four percent versus one point one in 2014. So progress.
S2: No doubt, but small, small, and, you know, if you dig even further into their 20/20 report, it shows that attrition is very high among black women. And, you know, I do give Google credit for starting to share those attrition numbers. That was not a data point that we had early on, you know, back in twenty fourteen. But that is extremely alarming. And we’re looking at this ratio and percentage when Google’s workforce has increased by by tens of thousands, if not more than 100000 since twenty fourteen.
S1: So the denominator has has varied widely.
S2: Yeah, exactly. But it’s still I mean, you know, this is not reflective of the percentage of. Of computer science engineers being graduated every year who are black. So, yeah, the numbers don’t lie. They’re data oriented company. I’m glad that they’re looking at the data and I hope that they’re listening to the people as well.
S1: There have been a number of stories about Google and race and discrimination in the past few months to meet Kembrew, who we’ve had on the show, who was a black woman leading the ethical team, was fired. Is this an inflection point around race for Google?
S2: I will say I have thought there were going to be inflection points since about twenty seventeen and you know, I talk to a lot of folks who’ve been working on these issues far longer than I’ve been reporting and you know, who do it from inside the companies. And they hope that this is going to be an inflection point. They hope last year was going to be an inflection point. And yet, you know, there they’re still only seeing incremental change. It does seem like there is an accumulative effect that is incredibly hard to ignore attention in these stories is not quieting down. So I’m hopeful, but I’ve also been hopeful before.
S3: Natasha Tikku, thank you very much. Thanks for having me.
S4: Nitasha Tiku reports on tech culture for The Washington Post.
S1: All right, that’s it for us today, TBD is produced by Ethan Brooks and edited by Allison Benedikt and Torie Bosch. Alicia Montgomery is the big boss.
S4: TBD is part of the larger what next family. It’s also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. And I want to recommend you go back and listen to Thursday’s episode of What Next? It’s about the debate over reopening schools, but in a way you’ve never heard before. Mary Harris will be back on Monday when she and the what next time we’ll be looking back on our year of loss, essential work and a pandemic that changed all of our lives.
S1: I’m Lizzie O’Leary. Thanks for listening.