Sunday, October 25, 2015

Diversity in Tech via profits, political activism, new technologies, and philanthropy -- Part 1 of 4

Last update: Saturday 10/25/15
A recurring theme among Twitter's most articulate advocates of #DiversityInTech is their assertion that diverse corporations are more productive. Maybe so. But this reminds me of comparable assertions by advocates of desegregated business operations during the early Sixties.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

A productive "New South" could not emerge as long as that region was handicapped by the self-inflicted inefficiencies of an American apartheid, a system that required wasteful duplication of black/white facilities and denied employers full access to the talents of the South's Black residents. So what happened? Nothing ... until Dr. King's boycotts and other political initiatives spearheaded the Civil Rights Revolution. By itself, logical argument based on credible data provided insufficient energy to fuel the massive legal and social changes required to produce desegregated workplaces. 

A. Old South vs. Old Silicon Valley
Of course history doesn't repeat itself ... or does it? Is it a really a coincidence that Google, Yahoo, Facebook, etc, failed to produce the demographic staff reports that documented their woeful lack of diversity until they encountered relentless pressure from Reverend Jesse Jackson's political activism? Unlike Dr. King, Rev. Jackson was not confronting in-your-face racists who would go to their graves convinced that Black people were inherently inferior to White people. Nevertheless, Rev. Jackson had to confront the "de facto" segregationists in Silicon Valley's corporate elites year after a year for over a decade before they finally produced the data required to frame the problem. 

How much more pressure from Rev. Jackson and from new cohorts of younger activists will be required to yield substantial progress? My best guess??? A lot. Indeed, my pessimism was reinforced by the Valley's 2015 diversity reports. After all of their mea culpas and promises to do better in their 2014 reports, the 2015 reports showed insignificant gains over last year.

B. Framework for a "Big Picture"
In my opinion, logical arguments about bigger profits through greater diversity won't be sufficient. Nor will logical arguments coupled with political activism get us where we need to be. We will also need new technologies to correct deficiencies in our traditional job markets and in our traditional face-to-face education & training programs. So we will need support from enlightened philanthropists who will fund the high-risk initiatives that will develop and implement the required new technologies. 

Let me explain, but be warned: this is going to be one of those "Big Picture" presentations, so please be patient until I've laid it all out. I promise to do so as quickly as possible.
  • Jobs in tech
    Given the likelihood that accelerating developments in Internet technology will continue to be the primary forces driving the global economy during the next few decades, political activists must continue to give high priority to providing opportunities for Black Americans to obtain jobs and entrepreneurial options in Silicon Valley and in all of the other major U.S. centers of information technology.
  • Tech job markets
    Unfortunately, job markets in tech, like job markets in general, have been imperfect distributors of information about new job opportunities. To be sure, well meaning employers might advertise a substantial portion of their vacancies in particular media. But until recently there has never been a Lord of the Rings, i.e., "one media to rule them all", one media that could reach all qualified applicants. More often than not, the applicants who got the jobs have been the applicants "who knew somebody who knew somebody" on the inside. Of course, the bad news is that most Black Americans, even those with appropriate qualifications, didn't know and still don't know anybody inside most of the de facto segregated tech sectors.
  • Education and training
    Unfortunately, not enough Black Americans have received the education and training that would qualify them for tech-related careers. 

    Mind you, I'm not talking about the so-called "pipeline problem" -- the fabled fig leaves that the Silicon Valley elites use to try to cover the obscene nakedness of the unacceptably low percentages of Blacks on their technical staffs. Silicon Valley (SV) is a small place whose diversity requirements could easily be satisfied by intensive recruitment from the same top 100 colleges and universities from which the SV elites themselves graduated (or dropped out of) because that's where the vast majority of Black America's Talented Tenth are enrolled nowadays. And the Valley could also meet its requirements by recruiting from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).  

    I'm talking about the other 80 percent of Black students who attend colleges and universities wherein low Black enrollments in STEM and substantial Black-White gaps in retention and graduation rates indicate that they are not receiving adequate opportunities to develop the coding and computational thinking skills that are the non-negotiable prerequisites for tech-related careers. 

C. New technologies and philanthropy
That's the framework of the "Big Picture"; now for the content. 

Imperfections in the job market
Fortunately, there's good news with regards to imperfections in the job market. Facebook recently boasted that on Monday, August 24, 2015 one out of every seven people on the planet logged onto Facebook. This event confirmed the emergence of social media as the world's first universal media, i.e., the first mode of human communications that can actually reach everybody. And given the evolving capacities of statistical learning, machine learning, and other powerful pattern mapping analytics, it's becoming increasingly possible for advertisers to use data from social media to direct their messages to the precise audiences they seek to reach. In this case, it's becoming possible for employers to advertise their job openings to every qualified potential applicant. We may soon be able to say goodby to Old-(White)-Boy networks ... :-)

And here's more good news: LinkedIn and GitHub already provide widely used platforms wherein Black professionals and Black students looking for employment opportunities can describe their work experience and provide samples of their code, reports, and other work-related products. Beyond this, a few startup operations have already recognized the potential application of tech to solve tech's recruitment problems. (See "Tinder, But For Diversity: Can Code Help Silicon Valley Find And Retain Minority Engineers?") The bad news, of course, is that most startups fail. That's why we need "patient capital" provided by enlightened philanthropists who will make the long-term investments that will enable enough of these startups to succeed in their efforts to mobilize the resources of social media, efforts that will enable employers to reach all of the qualified potential applicants for their job openings. 

D. Deficiencies in our education and training programs
Unfortunately, the current deficiencies in our education and training programs pose far greater challenges. Nevertheless there is still good reason for hope.  

Let's begin with the bad news. When it comes to the accelerating Internet technologies that are producing the software that's eating every other sector of our economy, most colleges and universities still don't get it, and neither do their peers in our K-12 systems. To be sure, there's far more technology in our classrooms at all levels than in past decades. Indeed, EdTech is advancing today at two or three times the rate that it was moving just a few years ago. Unfortunately that's not fast enough. The world's increasingly cloud-based economy demands that innovations accelerate to ten times pre-Internet speeds or even faster. So this is what the Digital Divide looks like today -- the vast majority of Black students attend schools that are advancing too slowly and are thereby providing them with inadequate preparation for participation in a rapidly changing global economy.

Now for the good news. In the long run, thirty or forty years from now, our education and training systems will probably catch up with the rest of our economy because, to gently paraphrase the great economist John Maynard Keynes, in the long run all of the professors, teachers, administrators, and support staff who currently resist new educational technologies will be replaced by younger cohorts. These younger cohorts will introduce tech-based reforms into our systems across the board and at all levels at speeds that are currently unimaginable.

But what's to be done in the short run? I see two choices: Blacks could drop out of the non-progressive components of our traditional systems and enroll themselves and/or their children in elite private programs ... or ... supplement the non-progressive traditional components. It's useful to consider college before K-12 in these regards, but the implications will be the same for both levels: dropping out is neither an accessible nor an affordable option for most Blacks; whereas new technology can provide effective supplements that could compensate for most of the deficiencies in our traditional systems.

Discussion continued in Part 2

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