The next generation of brilliant Black engineers are here, and they want to change the world by creating and innovating at inclusive companies.
There is a deep legacy of genius found throughout the history of Black people in America. Yet for so many young Black people, it can feel like our rich heritage of brilliance is drowned out by voices and media that dishonor our culture. For every Katherine Johnson who gets a well-deserved spotlight in a story like Hidden Figures, there are scores of pioneers like Skip Ellis whose contributions are whitewashed over.
I joined Howard University, one of the most historic and necessary Black institutions in the country, as a professor of computer science because I wanted to expose young Black engineering students to the same traditions of innovation and groundbreaking science that I was lucky enough to grow up seeing in my own home. I have no doubt that the brilliant students my colleagues and I work with will bring tremendous value to the world’s leading tech companies.
And yet, representation of Black employees at the largest tech brands remains woefully low. Over the past seven years, Alphabet, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, and Twitter have all posted low single-digit increases in their percentage of Black employees and less than six percent of all software engineers are Black. There’s real concern when the people making the code do not represent all the people using the code.
Furthermore, the problem is getting worse. Many HBCU students – especially first-generation ones – don’t have friends and family who work in tech. They don’t have people to ask about the interview process. They don’t walk into the room with a heads up about what questions are being asked.
We need more transparency and more opportunities to level the playing field because the interview process itself is a barrier, and not just for Black engineers. Do a Google search for ’technical interview’ and you won’t have to scroll very far to find ‘horror stories’ as a suggested search term. For many, the hiring process is intimidating. But for those without a network in the industry, there is an added layer of mystery and confusion. And the tech industry is currently fraught with pedigree bias where companies hire from schools that they consider elite or have a large alumni base.
But this is a fixable problem.
Last year, we partnered with the team at Karat to launch a practice interview program called Brilliant Black Minds. The program leverages Karat’s Interviewing Cloud to deliver practice technical interviews with live feedback along with career development workshops.
As one of my sophomore students put it, ‘being able to work with the people who directly make the first round interview questions and get feedback and know that it’s not people who are judging you, but here to help has been so beneficial.’
More than 75 percent of our computer science students participated in the program last fall, giving them the necessary exposure, feedback, and transparency around how the tech industry hires.
And they’re succeeding. According to our latest research, students who have had more than three practice interviews are six times more likely to secure a software engineering internship than those with no practice. They’re also twice as likely to say they are somewhat or very likely to succeed in a technical interview compared to engineers who haven’t had any interview practice.
But there’s still work to be done, and organizations themselves must do more to move the dial. Here are a few practical steps you can take right away to make your hiring processes more inclusive:
- Take steps to reduce interview anxiety, which can be especially detrimental for people who are already under pressure to conform to cultural norms and present themselves a certain way. If it’s a virtual interview, provide advanced access to the developer environment. If it's an in-person interview, allow candidates to schedule a preview tour to get a sense for the security and sign-in process. Include interviewers who have worked with Black students. Even if the team doesn’t have other Black software engineers, demonstrate a culture of inclusion by presenting a diverse slate of interviewers.
- Give candidates opportunities to practice and prepare. Practice helps close the systemic access gaps that Black engineers face. Publish your interview process online. Tell our students exactly what’s expected, what kinds of questions you’ll ask, and what competencies you’re looking for them to demonstrate. Offer multiple interviews or give candidates the chance to opt into a redo if they did not perform to their best abilities.
- Consider additional interview formats that mirror the way the team works. Paired programming is a fantastic way to understand the behavioral aspects of how candidates respond to constructive feedback in a team setting. Not only will this make the hiring more equitable, but it will create a more effective and efficient hiring process that ensures engineering teams aren’t missing out on great talent.
This is how real change in tech happens. Cutting-edge companies bring their people and resources to the table in ways that truly open doors for others. And as a Black engineer and educator, I believe it's this sort of commitment that can have a transformational impact for my students, thousands more, and the industry as a whole.
The next generation of brilliant Black engineers are here, and they want to change the world by creating and innovating at inclusive companies. They just need companies to pull back the curtain and open the doors so they can bring their talents to the world of tech. Society will be better for it.