To Break Diversity 'Pipeline Problem,' Howard University Sets Up Shop at Google

Students at Howard University in Washington, D.C. The historically black university is opening Howard West at Google's headquarters in Mountain View. (Howard University)

Howard University is opening Howard West at Google, an effort to pave the way to tech careers  for more African-American computer science students.

This summer, 25 students from the historically black university, which is based in Washington, D.C., will train at the tech giant’s headquarters in Mountain View.

Google, like the tech industry overall, is making slow progress toward hiring black engineers. Last fall, Google released its latest employee diversity report, detailing the gender and ethnicity of everyone it hired in 2015. While the number of black employees went up, they still represent only 2 percent of Google’s workforce.

At the time, Google said it fell short of its diversity goal. With Howard West, Google believes it can meet that goal faster, said Bonita Stewart, the company's vice president of global partnerships.

“We have the opportunity to be able to build a qualified pipeline of talent across the black community,” she said.

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The pipeline, or the pipeline problem, is an idea commonly held in Silicon Valley that there just aren’t enough blacks, Latinos and women with computer programming skills to fill jobs.

To build that pipeline, Howard West will bring 25 of its students to Google’s headquarters this summer. They’ll be mentored by Google engineers and get regular classroom instruction from Howard professors.

Howard and Google plan to train 750 students over five years and will open the program to students from all historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs. Wayne Frederick, Howard's president, said the instruction is important.

“But I think just as important will be exposure to the culture here,” he said.

Frederick heard from alums working in the industry, who said they felt Howard prepared them technically but not culturally to work in Silicon Valley. There’s the management style, which values collaboration over hierarchy, the importance of networking and how to dress.

So, for instance, I’m dressed in a suit and tie, and I haven’t seen anybody else in a suit and a tie,” he joked. “So that’s one example to just being exposed to that culture.”

Bonita Stewart (L) is the Vice President of Global partnerships at Google. Wayne Frederick (R) is the president of Howard University.
Bonita Stewart (L) is the vice president of global partnerships at Google. Wayne Frederick (R) is the president of Howard University. (Google)

Christian Simamora, of Code2040, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing the number of blacks and Latinos in the tech sector, applauds the opening of Howard West, but he’s concerned that the narrative will become “there’s a pipeline problem.”

“We would hire more black engineers if we could find them,” Simamora said, mimicking a common refrain from tech companies. “The fact of the matter is the talent is there.”

Simamora said about 18 percent of computer science majors in the U.S. identify as black or Latino, but they represent only 5 percent of the technology workforce. He said the problem is with recruitment.

Many of the top tech companies aren’t even recruiting at the HBCUs — Howard, Spelman. All these schools have CS programs,” he said.

So why aren’t big tech companies recruiting at HBCUs?

“I can’t speak for those companies,” he said. “But what I find interesting is that tech disrupts; tech hiring does not disrupt. It does not question what came before it.”

Simamora said many tech companies continue to focus their recruitment efforts at a few schools, like Stanford, Harvard and MIT. Considering that, Simamora said the opening of Howard West at Google is disruptive and might force the tech industry to start acting differently.

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