This is one of a series of interviews by Bloomberg Opinion columnists on how to solve today’s most pressing policy challenges. This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Romesh Ratnesar: We’re in the midst of a national reckoning over racial injustice and inequality. You are one of Silicon Valley’s most prominent Black founders and the head of an organization, CodePath.org, that aims to prepare more under-represented minorities for careers in the technology industry. What role can the industry play in addressing these issues?
Michael Ellison, founder and CEO, CodePath.org: I look at it through my lens as an education entrepreneur. How do we ensure that these people who feel powerless feel like they have a voice? How do we ensure that they have pathways to power and influence? When you’re thinking about how to create those pathways, the technology industry is front and center. Look at icons like Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates. How do we ensure that the next generation of tech entrepreneurs creating billion-dollar companies that transform our way of life come from backgrounds they typically don’t come from?
We need to go beyond a training or educational programs that’s providing just one foot in the door. We need to create programs that give people a seat at the table. And that means ensuring that we’re creating proficient software engineers, that we’re investing in communities and schools so that there’s the right support for people to have access to those coveted opportunities that will lead them into leadership positions.
RR: Across every sector of corporate America, companies talk about their commitment to hire more people of color. Yet progress has been slow, particularly in the tech industry. Why haven’t these diversity efforts been more successful?
ME: The biggest mistake employers make is thinking that all they have to do is show up by trying to visit a school with higher diversity numbers. That’s not going to solve the problem, because there simply isn’t enough supply on these college campuses. Black students are 10% less likely to take Advanced Placement computer science in high school. When they get to college, they’re already behind, and then introductory computer science programs are “weed out” courses: they’re designed to cater to people who already have proficiency and experience in software engineering. Under-represented minorities are more likely to be at lower-tier computer science programs with fewer resources. They’re more likely to be enrolled in historically black colleges and universities that have been under-invested in for quite some time. And because of the gap between their CS programs and what’s expected in industry, there’s a high likelihood that they’re not going to be able to succeed even if they do get that first technical internship or that first technical job. And so when you’re looking at this entire pipeline, it has multiple leaky broken parts.
RR: Can companies do more to train people who might not have the technical skills coming out of college?
ME: It takes a lot of time. You hear a lot about cybersecurity, you hear about AI, you hear about blockchain, you hear about all these latest technologies. Well, guess what? That’s not just coding or building a website, which you could think of as entry-level type of software engineering. Tech companies are looking for people who can think about optimization, who can think of scale and building systems to a very high level. And because it takes a lot of time, it’s too expensive for a lot of employers to consider training that talent themselves. Most companies don’t have a competency in training and education. From the companies’ perspective, training is expensive, largely because it’s unknown and risky.
RR: Your organization, CodePath, is trying to fill that gap by expanding access to high-quality technical training for under-represented minorities and low-income college students. Why is our current education system failing to produce more software engineers from those backgrounds?
ME: A big problem is that we have a massive shortage of computer science professors. Even great schools will tell you they can’t hire enough computer science professors. And this shortage means that there’s just a lack of support for students, especially those coming from low-income, first-generation or under-represented backgrounds. That’s why we’re seeing huge attrition in these programs. You’re seeing students who aren’t learning what they need to learn in order to succeed in internships or on the job. And you have faculty who in many cases can’t lead them, because many of them haven’t worked in industry. I’m not blaming the schools or the CS professors — I think that we have a system that has incentives for them to do their jobs and serve students in a certain way. But I do think there is a huge opportunity for change.
RR: So how is CodePath tackling this problem?
ME: We’re a non-profit organization with a focus on increasing diversity in tech. We’re also thinking about how to create systemic change. We act as a bridge between tech companies and higher education. We build a CS curriculum for schools we partner with and train professors a semester in advance. We try to save professors time by doing grading and doing student support. By having the same curriculum across every site, we can take a school-by-school approach to fix the gaps in the system, so that students from low-income and under-represented backgrounds feel supported and have a personalized experience. The professor can still have a level of innovation in their classroom but there’s a layer on top of that which we supplement, to make sure that these students are able to access jobs and that they’re not invisible. They get the skills and they’re also able to stand out to employers as well.
RR: How do you know whether your model is succeeding?
ME: We look at the percentage of low-income students, under-represented minorities and first-generation college students who, after taking one or two CodePath courses, are able to get internships and jobs at the most competitive technology companies. For Black computer science students, they’re 43 times more likely than Black CS students that don’t take CodePath courses to get a job at a Google, a Microsoft or a Facebook. And what’s important to us is to make sure that it’s not just a job but, is this a signal that they could lead an engineering team, that they could build a tech company? Because that’s ultimately what we have to do. We need to transition people from low-income to high-income and from positions of being powerless to being in positions of power.
RR: You’ve had a highly successful career as the founder or co-founder of six startups, including one, Segment, that’s valued at more than $1 billion. What obstacles did you face as a Black entrepreneur and how did you overcome them?
ME: I grew up in rural Maine in a single-mother household. At points in time we were homeless. I didn’t have great teachers. And that’s true for lot of students from under-represented communities and low-income backgrounds — you often don’t have the right support leading up to college, if you even get into college. It’s a very common experience to be overwhelmed. Early on, I didn’t have the academic confidence. I wasn’t past feeling “impostor syndrome.” But I just kind of kept going and banging my head against the wall, in very frustrating, very demoralizing environments. That’s the advice that I give a lot of young people who are trying to pursue anything that’s hard: assume it’s going to take a lot of time. Assume that it’s going to be really tough and challenging. Know that there are a lot of people who feel that it’s very challenging as well. You’re not alone. And then you have to keep going. You have to develop that mindset that you’re going to be able to make it through.
RR: When you approach investors today, do you still feel that impostor syndrome?
ME: Yes. In Silicon Valley, it’s different, right? I’m in a lot of rooms where I still have that uneasiness and wonder if I belong. Succeeding in this industry is so much about networks and about being in the right room. But there’s also just the ongoing racism — you get a meeting, there’s an introduction, and then as soon as you get there, you can tell you’re different than what they expected. And you’re not quite sure why they’re trying to end the meeting as fast as possible.
So as a Black entrepreneur there are these multiple areas you have to overcome: How do I get the skills? How do I get in the room? How do I convince people to listen to me? And ultimately, how are you dealing with the sometimes overt racism that’s a day-to-day struggle? My advice to Black entrepreneurs is, You’ve got to find a way to hack the system. I don’t think of it as something negative so much as something where it’s just part of the game, it’s part of the landscape. And there’s a way that you can use it to your advantage because when they’re expecting less of you, you can surprise them with more. There are a lot of people who are going to be racist or hostile, but you need to ignore them and just focus your time and energy on the people who are actually going to be supportive.
RR: Can these problems be solved without more diversity among investors and venture capital firms?
ME: It’s an important piece. We do need more black investors. We also need more black limited partners. There are programs that will try to help operators of color learn how to become angel investors. There are venture capital firms that are more open to partners that haven’t looked like partners in the past. There’s a lot venture capital firms can do, but it’s still going to be a drop in the bucket unless at scale we create more Black technical entrepreneurs.
RR: How do you convince employers it’s in their financial interest to invest in communities of color and build more diverse workforces?
ME: Tech companies are very well aware that they’re only scratching the surface. When you rely on the résumé and on the pedigree in order to filter the hundreds of thousands of applications that you’re getting, then you know that there is a group that you’re going to discount for no reason except that you can’t see them. Diversity is not just generally good business; it’s the way that you can raise the average quality of your engineering. The data shows that if you hire more diverse people from more varied backgrounds, you’re going to raise your talent bar.
RR: So what’s the bottom line? How can the technology industry expand career opportunities for people from diverse and low-income backgrounds?
ME: First, we need to invest in the pipeline and develop the pipeline.
Second, systemic problems require systemic solutions. There were 7,360 Black CS graduates in the U.S. in 2019 but only 8% of those are software engineers. That means there are only 588 career-ready Black software engineers each year. We can’t solve this problem unless we are looking at educational institutions that already have hundreds of thousands of potential black software engineers right now. We have an opportunity to impact the numbers if we change how the system interacts with and treats these students.
Finally, we need more employers and more people from corporate America to lean into understanding that we need to move beyond numbers, and beyond just recruitment today, and to think about how to build the pipeline of tomorrow.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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