Editor’s note: Omotayo Olukoya is an electrical engineering and computer science student at UC Berkeley.
Recently, there have been a flurry of articles discussing the lack of diversity in tech. Many reference “pipeline” issues as justification for the low numbers. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, blacks and Hispanics collectively make up approximately 18 percent of U.S. computer science graduates, yet Facebook, Yahoo and LinkedIn are between 8 to 11 percent non-white, non-Asian, and Google’s American workforce is only 2 percent black. Clearly, there’s more than just a pipeline issue at play.
Here’s what I see from my perspective as a black computer science student, and here’s what I think companies wanting to hire more people like me can be doing differently.
First some background on me: I grew up in Nigeria, moved to the U.S. after high school, and attended community college. I worked really, really hard and was able to transfer to UC Berkeley. I fell in love with computer science and decided to pursue a major in electrical engineering and computer science (EECS).
Having never programmed nor taken a CS course before I came to the United States, it was just a reminder of how different I was.
My first year at Berkeley was rough. Amid the sea of white and Asian students and professors, I felt very, very different. In my 1,000-plus person intro classes, I’d struggle to find another student that looked like me. I remember a professor joking that we’d all been coding on our game devices since childhood. For most of my peers, this was true. But for me, having never programmed nor taken a CS course before I came to the United States, it was just a reminder of how different I was.
Initially, I found it tough to forge connections with peers in my major because, understandably, people tend to befriend people like themselves. For minorities, this causes academic challenges: you get left out of homework groups, and every partner-based project is a stress-inducing experience.
A really helpful resource was Piazza, used in almost every EECS class, which is an online tool that allows you to ask and answer questions of your professors and other students in the class. No one sees the color of your skin when you communicate online, so it was one of the few places I felt comfortable sharing my ideas and questions. That definitely helped.
Still, though, that professor was right: Many of my peers had been coding for a decade, and they were friends with other people who had been coding just as long. So, my peers had these great networks of recent alums that had worked at top firms and could coach them on how to score similar jobs. My classmates knew which classes to take, when and how to apply for internships, what to expect from on-campus and on-site recruiting processes and, most importantly, how to prepare for coding interviews. It’s a powerful coaching network — for those who gain access to it.
I saw so many students with mediocre grades score amazing internships because they knew how to play the game. I remember preparing for my first coding interviews. I studied lecture notes and other class materials. During the interviews, I answered questions academically. I was so naive! That’s not what the interviewers wanted — they wanted me to solve the problems, not deconstruct them. After bombing a few interviews, I searched for interview prep resources. I found Stack Overflow and read Cracking the Coding Interview. Finally, I was prepared, but I wouldn’t wish my experience on anyone.
I saw so many students with mediocre grades score amazing internships because they knew how to play the game.
I know that the majority of companies truly want to create a more diverse workforce, but I don’t think they know how to ensure that minority candidates like me have a fighting chance to pass their interview process. Here’s some advice:
Reach out to students of color when they’re freshmen and sophomores. Don’t assume these minority students know which classes to take or how to score internships. In my first two years, I mainly focused on the electrical engineering portion of my major, because I had no mentor or network to tell me to build my core coding skills, as my classmates did. By junior year, I was significantly behind my classmates in terms of coding experience, which required a lot more catch-up during my junior and senior years. Provide coaching and connections early on so students have the potential to become the candidates you seek.
Don’t assume candidates know how coding interviews work. People only know how coding interviews work if they have a strong social network in place to tell them. Run workshops or send potential candidates information on how to prepare for coding interviews, and you may find more women, minorities and candidates from non-core schools suddenly pass your technical bar.
Include diverse employees in the recruiting and interview process. I spent last summer interning at Goldman Sachs. I met them at the NSBE conference, and one of my interviewers was African-American. This was the first time I was interviewed by an African-American engineer at any company to which I had applied. It really helped me feel comfortable. I had a wonderful experience with Goldman, from my interview through the entire internship process, and I appreciate how serious they are about hiring and nurturing top-notch diverse talent.
If you have a diversity team, include them in the interviewing process, too. At one large tech company, I was the only person of color among 20 students attending on-site interviews. I immediately got intimidated, lost my confidence and failed my interview. Had someone from the diversity team — or anyone who looked like me — greeted me when I arrived, that would have helped so much to make me feel comfortable and welcome there.
Silicon Valley is the world’s center of innovation. Now that so many tech companies are starting to take diversity seriously, I hope they’ll apply their innovative energies to their recruiting processes. In most cases, they’re ripe for disruption.