A worker rides a bike on Google’s campus in Mountain View, Calif. The company is partnering with Howard University to start a “Howard West” campus ultimately aimed at boosting its ranks of black engineers. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)
Four years ago, Google began sending engineers to historically black colleges such as Howard University for its “Google in Residence” program, an attempt to improve its recruiting from these campuses, prepare students for Google’s peculiar hiring practices, and inject their computer science courses with more of the up-to-date skills that Silicon Valley needs.
Now, it is trying the reverse, starting an on-campus outpost known as “Howard West” that brings students from Washington to Mountain View, Calif., for three months of computer science classes, one-on-one mentorships with black Google tech employees, and even the Googleplex’s famous free food and shuttles. Faculty will come with them, spending an “externship” teaching and learning alongside Google engineers.
The new program, announced Thursday, is the search giant’s latest effort to try to boost its stubbornly low numbers of black employees, which account for just 1 percent of its technology employees — the same number as in 2014 — and only 2 percent of its employees overall, according to the company’s most recent diversity report. Besides its Google in Residence program, the company has expanded its recruiting to a broader range of schools, trains its workers on “implicit biases” and re-examines resumes to make sure recruiters don’t overlook diverse talent.
“We’d been focused on narrowing or, really, eliminating the digital divide,” said Bonita Stewart, vice president of partnerships for Google, in an interview. “Now we’re seeing there’s an opportunity to look at the geographical divide. By having this immersive program, we will have the opportunity to focus on the hard technical skills, but more important are some of the softer skills, in terms of working and understanding the Valley culture.”
As part of the new program, rising juniors and seniors will spend three months in classes at a dedicated space on Google’s campus. Tuition will be paid for by Howard and private donors; funding will also cover their housing and a summer stipend. The program is likely to include events such as networking sessions with Howard alumni throughout the Valley, opportunities to shadow Google employees, and formal and informal conversations about their experiences. It launches this summer with 25 students from Howard University, but the aim is to expand it next year to other historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs.
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Howard University President Wayne Frederick said he hopes the program will help retain students in computer science programs who might not have the financial means to remain. “A large number of our students are Pell Grant-eligible, and support is a real concern,” said Frederick in an interview. “This also helps address their ability to matriculate more quickly.”
The idea began after Frederick made some visits to Silicon Valley companies in 2014 and recognized the gulf between the two cultures. “Until you actually walk around and see it in action, I don’t think you really get it,” he said. A medical doctor, he recognized the value of more clinical experience earlier in medical students’ education, something that could be applied to computer science majors, too. At an event, he met Stewart, a Howard alumna who herself had seen the opportunity for HBCUs to get an outpost at the Googleplex after her office in New York provided space for the Cornell Tech program and the nonprofit Black Girls Code.
“We thought by moving it out west and creating this more immersive environment, we could perhaps accelerate our diversity effort in a new and interesting way,” Stewart said.
The new program could also help fix some concerns about the company’s “Google in Residence” program. In a Bloomberg Businessweek cover story early last year, a former Google engineer cited the difficulty of luring Google employees to Howard’s campus in Washington, which took them out of the regular promotion and evaluation cycles back on campus. The new program would allow engineers to remain local as they got involved in the program.
It could also help expose students earlier to the culture shock that awaits some of them when they come to Silicon Valley. One black student said she was startled by how homogeneous the area was on a visit and noted the playground-style perks at tech campuses armed with ping-pong tables didn’t interest her. “Slides are not really appealing,” she told Bloomberg. “There are not a lot of people of color in the Valley — and that, by itself, makes it kind of unwelcoming.”
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Diversity experts briefed on general details about the program said that while the concept is intriguing, there are also important questions to consider about how to prepare students for the experience. “I don’t know how many of the cultural nuances everybody has thought through,” said Freada Kapor Klein, who co-chairs the Kapor Center for Social Impact and founded a summer math and science program for low-income, underrepresented high school students of color. “Students are coming from … a predominantly people-of-color campus and being parachuted into a an overwhelmingly white, Asian and male environment.”
Others agreed that the program’s success will lie in its details — as well as in how well it translates to hires. Data shows there are proportionally more students of color graduating from computer science programs than are being hired by big firms, making the real problem not the pipeline, but a lack of hiring, said Ellie Tumbuan, a principal at Vaya Consulting, which assists clients with diversity issues in the Bay Area. “Everyone is understanding that it’s more important to build long-term relationships,” she said. “The real commitment comes with what are you actually going to do about hiring.”
As of early last year, Bloomberg reported that just two computer science students from Howard had been hired by Google. A spokesperson would not provide updated numbers but said many students began as freshmen, so would not yet have had a chance to be hired.
Hiring more talented black computer science experts is, of course, an outcome both Google and Howard want to see. Asks Frederick: “Can we get more students into this pipeline in a way that would help retain them and ultimately, five to seven years down the road, really impact what the hiring looks like across the industry?” He hopes so.
Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.