Home Sci/Tech Diversity in Tech Remains Embarrassingly Stagnant — These Nonprofits Could Help

Diversity in Tech Remains Embarrassingly Stagnant — These Nonprofits Could Help

15 min read

Bootcamps like Techtonica, which train underrepresented groups for tech jobs, could be a real solution

Between sexist manifestos out of Google splashed across the internet and everything about Uber’s executive team in 2017, recent public scandals have drawn a tight lens on Silicon Valley’s longtime problem: employing way too many white men and far too few of basically everyone else.

During the past few years, there’s been a lot of talk about diversity and inclusion in the tech industry — a lot of committees, panel discussions and sparkling new internal “initiatives.” But the reality is that there has been little (real) action and far fewer results.

From 2005 to 2015, the industry saw no growth in the number of women or black technology workers nationwide, according to a Government Accountability Office study. The 78 percent male to 22 percent female ratio stayed the same the entire decade, and black technology workers stayed consistent at a minuscule 6–7 percent.

“The tech industry has a huge problem with saying they support diversity and inclusion but not backing up their words with their resources.”

And people are tired of it. There’s a sense of fatigue around internal diversity initiatives not actually accomplishing anything despite both the need and the want for change — 57 percent of people surveyed by the Kapor Center in 2017 who had left a job in the tech sector said they would’ve stayed if anything had been done to improve company culture.

Unfortunately, to make headway with this issue, the solution is simple — but it’s not easy. Companies have to take bigger, more actionable steps in tandem with their claims.

Despite a lack of progress internally, outside nonprofit groups have been cropping up to fill the need and jump-start where tech has been stalling by making training programs accessible to underrepresented groups. Bootcamp initiatives and groups such as Hackbright Academy, Techtonica and MotherCoders specifically focus on getting women and minorities into tech in the Bay Area.

“The tech industry has a huge problem with saying they support diversity and inclusion but not backing up their words with their resources,” said Michelle Glauser, founder of Techtonica, a full-stack-developer bootcamp for women and nonbinary-identifying people that eventually places them at a company. “Just saying you’re dedicated to the cause and throwing fun events for underrepresented people isn’t the same as investing in people long term and making diversity initiatives everyone’s job.”

Glauser graduated from fellow bootcamp program Hackbright in 2012 and has since worked in development at tech companies in both San Francisco and Shanghai. She created Techtonica in 2016 with the goal of helping the industry do better.

“As soon as I got into tech, I saw there was hardly any diversity — not just gender, but any kind, really,” said Glauser. “For so long the idea of a programmer has been this totally white dorky guy in the basement coding in the dark. It’s not like that anymore. It’s very collaborative. It has to be.”

“If we can get more people with more perspectives in tech, not only will tech be more productive and successful financially…but the people inside tech will be able to have more of that perspective.”

Techtonica works to recruit Bay Area women and nonbinary people through community outreach and short-term coding workshops. The initial criteria are simply that the person is 18 years old or older, makes less than $50,000 annually, and wants to learn. Techtonica then partners with tech companies like Mixpanel and Redfin to sponsor the apprentice’s training as a full stack developer — someone with the coding knowledge and the skill set to be comfortable working in a variety of capacities within a development team. These companies agree to hire an apprentice for a minimum three-month placement at the end of the course.

One of the specific obstacles that Techtonica addresses is financial. Where most similar bootcamps often charge a steep admission, Techtonica does not cost apprentices anything. In addition, the program pays them a living stipend, gives them a laptop and helps with the cost of childcare if needed.

In a place like the Bay Area, where making less than $100,000 a year puts you in the “low income” bracket, first addressing financial barriers is necessary to bring diverse people into the tech sphere.

“If we can get more people with more perspectives in tech, not only will tech be more productive and successful financially — because they’ll be able to build products that are for more people — but the people inside tech will be able to have more of that perspective, ” she added.

The companies that have chosen to sign on with Techtonica are putting their money where their mouth is. For example, Mixpanel, a business analytics company, realizes the importance of diversity since their product centers on making data and knowledge accessible to people all over the world.

“Our workforce needs to be representative of the diversity of the world and our customers, and we must have a company culture that encourages us to see the world through the lens of someone else in order to build a better product,” says Ulysses Smith, head of diversity, inclusion and equity at Mixpanel.

Techtonica hosted its first class of eight women this past January. At the halfway mark, each apprentice was paired with a mentor who will help with any questions they may have about programming or anything else.

One of those first graduates includes Vivian San, who was recently placed at Redfin. San grew up in the Tenderloin in a Vietnamese family and only recently came out as gay, placing her in a cross section of identities not always found in the city’s tech scene.

San originally completed her bachelor’s in chemistry from UC Davis and was considering that field. However, after trying a coding workshop with Glauser, she felt compelled to dig deeper into the tech world.

Vivian San, second from right, working alongside Techtonica classmates / Image courtesy of Techtonica

“They created a community that felt safe for us to learn in and to engage with each other,” said San. “They really emphasized that we’re women, and we’re underrepresented individuals, and there’s a stigma associated with us being in the tech industry.” San notes that in conjunction with discussing stigma with her classmates, she also felt Techtonica made her feel like she could be a leader and make change happen.

Women are 41 percent more likely to leave a tech job due to a hostile work environment, so frank conversations like those had at Techtonica are crucial to new placements’ success.

“I’m never going to forget where I came from or where my values are.”

“Honestly, once the apprentices are in those companies, it’s hard to know what’s going to happen,” said Glauser. “I just hope they don’t run away screaming…I hope I’ve armed them with enough tools.”

The adjustment to Redfin hasn’t been without challenges, but overall, San has felt prepared.

“People don’t have the same background as you, and they don’t know what you’ve gone through. It feels like two different worlds that I’m living in,” said San, who continues to live with her family in the home she grew up in. “I’m never going to forget where I came from or where my values are.”

Despite her worries, however, San has found her new coworkers to be “welcoming” and “kind.” And if she has questions she doesn’t feel comfortable asking at work, she can still reach out to either Glauser or her program mentor.

Going forward, Glauser hopes to expand Techtonica while still maintaining intimate class sizes. The next apprentice program begins in January 2019, depending on fundraising initiatives this fall, including a brunch benefit this Saturday.

It’s impossible to say if people like Glauser and programs like Techtonica can “fix” tech’s diversity problem, but she at least hopes to bring real action to all the industry’s talk.

But it takes all sides for real change. Tech needs to be willing to prioritize strategies that bridge the gap. And if the major players can’t move the needle themselves, there are those outside the co-working walls and open-floor plans who will at least try.

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