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A blog from Creating IT Futures

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May 26, 2015

If You Want Diverse Ideas, Hire Diverse People

By Charles Eaton

Charles_Eaton Charles Eaton, CEO of Creating IT Futures Foundation
The IT industry has been criticized of late for its lack of ethnic and gender diversity. More specifically, a few well-known, publicly traded tech companies have been knocked for their overwhelmingly white and Asian male workforces, yet those examples are reflective of a general lack of racial and gender diversity across tech occupations.

While a few IT job roles such as computer support have comparatively more African Americans, Hispanics and women of all races than other IT functions, the overall lack of diversity within tech occupations, and in software development in particular, is concerning.

There’s plenty of evidence that diverse companies just plain work better and generate better financial performance as a result. Certainly, companies need to employ a diversity of thought in order to innovate.

If the incentives to diversify are there, then why is it so hard to build diversity in an IT workforce?

I’ve heard some people argue that generating a diversity of ideas doesn’t require diversity of demographics, but I disagree. The experience of growing up in America as a minority and/or a woman instantly brings a different lens to any situation. Similarly, the life journey of someone without a college diploma, which describes most of our IT-Ready students, is a different journey compared to someone who spring-boarded off a four-year degree. A veteran or a person with disabilities will bring a unique sensibility to the workplace informed by their experiences.

If you believe, like I do, that having a blend of backgrounds on your team makes you a stronger organization, you need to be aggressive and hire those most likely to have experienced the world differently from you.

I think most of us strive for diverse workers in our companies, but somewhere along the line, we get stuck. For example, at the hiring level we sometimes make blanket requirements for four-year degrees, even when the skills we need can be obtained in other ways. We also may ask questions in the interview that result in new employees who look a lot like the ones we already have. Hiring for “culture fit” can sometimes reinforce existing demographics; it doesn’t necessarily build a stronger company.

But the biggest challenge in hiring diverse IT talent might be getting past the excuse that there isn’t a diverse enough talent pipeline and applicant pool. Quite simply we as organizational leaders have to make intentional and concentrated efforts to recruit additional applicants. You may not have the resources of a Google or Intel, who are affecting change in new ways, but there are things you can do.

How Can You Recruit Diversity

For starters, you can make sure your recruiters are looking in nontraditional places for candidates. Seek out in your area a non-profit program like IT-Ready, Per Scholas, LaunchCode or The Stride Center. Reach out to members of the community for referrals and make it clear you want to diversify your ranks. Work with your local community college to make sure their curriculum is geared toward the skills you need in your new hires. And connect with learning institutions that are making an effort to recruit diversity, such as the over 150 coding bootcamps which are churning out junior developers across the country and often recruiting from nontraditional sources. A recent initiative from the White House called TechHire, which our Foundation has been involved in, may help cities do a better job of organizing their tech talent pipelines. You can read more about how this initiative should help with diversity.

Or you can take matters into your own hands. Techtonic Group, a software development firm in Boulder, has created an apprenticeship program to bring young people without opportunities and degrees into junior developer roles. Techtonic Group has seen first-hand how beneficial this pipeline has been for their business. By developing their own pipeline, they are ensuring their future.

How Diverse Is Creating IT Futures

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m concerned about my own organization’s diversity shortage. The non-profit space is an attractive profession for women, so on that front, we’re doing pretty well: 13 of our 18 employees are women. But we only have two racial minorities on staff.

For our most recent hires, we asked ourselves how we could improve our reach. We answered by spending much longer in the recruitment process to make sure we had a diverse pool of candidates, and we posted our job in places we hadn’t tried before. Rather than assume we would just get that diversity by posting a job ad, we reached out to our partners and community leaders to recommend the best women and minority candidates for our posted jobs.

In the end, we will always make the hire that is the best for our organization against a long list of color-blind criteria. It won’t always be a “diversity hire,” but the point is that we will have more diversity at our disposal and over time our staff’s demographics will naturally be more diverse.

In addition to changing the make-up of our staff, four years ago we also took the approach that our board of directors should demographically reflect both the makeup of the American public and the groups we are working to help. It was hard to find passionate board members of any stripe, but we challenged ourselves to reach deeper and find avenues to get to know a more diverse set of potential board members.

One way we did that was to get closer to BDPA, a well-respected association of IT thought-leaders focused on bringing greater diversity to IT occupations. From within that group, we were able to identify several African-American volunteers who had the right experience, passion and time to devote to guiding our Foundation. That pipeline continues to serve as a valuable resource for recruiting future board talent.

Building a diverse workforce requires effort, creativity and endurance. In the end, though, it will be about the bottom line. Companies that aren’t tapping into new pipelines or helping to develop them eventually will be left behind. It’s probably past time for your organization to make a commitment to diversity. Only by setting this goal today can you hope one day to achieve it.