“I haven’t even started my first full-time job yet and I’m already so tired of feeling erased and mistreated by the tech industry… What more must students of color do to make it clear that we are qualified to be in this industry?”
Four years ago, an essay titled “Invisible Talent” circulated online. It was written by Kaya Thomas, a then-computer science student from Dartmouth College. As a Black woman, Kaya was all too familiar with the absence of demographic diversity in Silicon Valley.
Her piece was a reaction to a Facebook report which disclosed the company’s diversity numbers. The Wall Street Journal later summarized this with the headline, “Facebook Blames Lack of Available Talent for Diversity Problem.”
For Kaya, the report was an addition to a string of companies that use the so-called “pipeline problem” as a reductive defense to their inability to increase representation. The pipeline problem goes like this: there simply are not enough qualified women or people of color in the hiring pool.
In the years that followed, numerous articles discussing the pipeline problem have emerged. All point to the same conclusion: the disparity defense does not stand up to scrutiny. In reality, the lack of representation in the industry is neither a consequence of incompetence nor disinterest from members of underrepresented groups. It’s a consequence of access and opportunity, or lack thereof.
Let’s consider the data points. In 2018, the Kapor Center for Social Impact released a report regarding the technology sector in the United States. The demographic data revealed that the workforce was “overwhelmingly male (74%), White (64%), and Asian (21%)”. Women only made up 26% of the population while Black and Latinx representation remained at single-digit numbers (7% and 8%, respectively).
Going down the line, a report last year underscored significant barriers to tech education in California, home to the world’s premier tech hubs. Sixty-one percent of high schools in the state do not offer computer science courses. A majority of these are low-income schools and schools that report high admission of underrepresented minorities.
What’s more, only 27% of the female student population took AP Computer Science A, a college-level introductory course to programming. It’s worth noting however that despite their low numbers, female students demonstrated the same passing rate in the course as their male peers.
The numbers point to a glaring fact. That is, ethnic/racial and gender disparity in tech starts from the bottom up. It begins with a lack of access to fundamental tech literacy, moves on to a recruitment process fraught with bias, and continues to exclusionary practices in the workplace.
To solve this, institutions that seek to create tech pathways for underrepresented talent started to crop up. Among these is Galvanize, a learning community for technology that seeks to tackle the insularity of Silicon Valley.
Inclusion in Action
Galvanize was founded in 2012 to create productive interaction between tech talents and entrepreneurs. Over the years, its vision of cultivating the tech ecosystem became more nuanced.
While its original intent remained intact, Galvanize started offering services with inclusion in mind. It did so by launching initiatives that offer increased support for students who identify as members of minority groups.
The Telegraph Track was launched in late 2016 with the resounding vision statement: “to change the face of Silicon Valley.” The program occurs alongside Galvanize’s Hack Reactor Software Engineering bootcamp. Its defining features? It’s free of charge and specifically caters to underserved talents who aspire to break into the software engineering field.
The admissions process in the Telegraph Track is straightforward. Students who identify as underrepresented automatically qualify for the program, should they indicate interest. These include those who are actively enrolled or completed pre-course work for both full-time and part-time Hack Reactor programs.
During the first few weeks of the Hack Reactor programs, students attend an orientation regarding the Telegraph Track. If interested, they can immediately sign up. Galvanize loosely defines “underrepresented individuals” as those who identify with one or more of the following groups: women or nonbinary people, people of color, LGBTQIA+, people with disabilities, veterans, and students above the age of 40.
We say “loosely” because some flexibility is afforded to students who feel underrepresented yet don’t identify with any of the aforementioned groups. For instance, the Telegraph Track may extend to formerly incarcerated students, who often find themselves at the end of limited education and employment prospects.
The program lasts 13 weeks, after which students receive continuous support from the Galvanize community and its partners. As mentioned, students of the program follow the same curriculum as the Hack Reactor students albeit with an added benefit.
Telegraph provides an extra layer of non-technical support to its students. This is on top of the career services already offered in the Hack Reactor programs. The additional support is premised on the goal of leveling the educational playing field among aspiring coders.
- Brand Building. During the first two months of the program, students get the chance to interact with their cohort. This is when students create their brand via weekly development sprints and workshops. Students are also trained to spot the microaggressions and discrimination faced by underrepresented talents in the tech field.
- Mentor Matching. This is followed by campus tours or visits to Galvanize’s partner companies. During these tours, students are matched with mentors with whom they share a similar identity and career goals. This is perhaps the most crucial aspect of the Telegraph Track. The program’s one-on-one mentorship has a two-fold benefit. One, it helps ease the transition from education to career. This is crucial when we consider the fierce competition in the tech industry. In the face of such pressure, the presence of career mentors who can offer advice on how best to navigate the field becomes imperative. Two, the mentorship program helps mitigate risks of attrition. The tech industry has the highest attrition rate of any business sector, marked by the lack of internal mobility and dissatisfaction with workplace culture. This is most acute among underserved workers with whom such frustrations are severely magnified. To this end, having a support system where they can voice out concerns and seek advice is important.
- Career Development Series. This is another aspect of the Telegraph Track program that bears highlighting. A McKinsey study found that for every 100 men hired and promoted to managerial roles, only 70 women receive the same opportunities. “So even as hiring and promotion rates improve for women at senior levels, women as a whole can never catch up.” To address this, Telegraph Track students meet with software engineers from underrepresented groups, recruiters, and hiring managers. They then provide insider tips on how to optimize the job search experience and rise above unconscious biases in the workplace.
- Ongoing Support. The Telegraph Track does not stop upon graduation from the Hack Reactor bootcamp. Alums become privy to exclusive events and mixers with industry professionals. Here, they get the chance to network themselves to Galvanize’s partner companies. The Telegraph Track also operates under a “pay-it-forward” philosophy. This means that graduates become advocates for diversity and inclusion in the industry. Their activities vary from engaging in mentorship opportunities to contributing a guest spot to Galvanize’s newsletter.
The Galvanize scholarship is awarded to admitted students of the data science immersive (one student for each cohort) and the software engineering immersive (two students for every full-time or part-time cohort). These total to 18 scholarships awarded all-year-round by The Galvanize Foundation, a 501(c)(3).
The eligibility requirements for the scholarship are as follows. Applicants must be US citizens and permanent residents. Of course, they must be accepted to one of the Galvanize Immersives. Chosen recipients win the opportunity of attending their chosen program for free.
The Optimizely scholarship is the fruit of a partnership between Galvanize and Optimizely, a platform that delivers a complete set of digital experience optimization technologies. The program awards four full-ride scholarships for students taking part in the Hack Reactor Software Engineering Immersive bootcamps in San Francisco or Austin.
The sponsorship covers the full cost of attendance. This is in addition to a living monthly stipend of $1,500 during the bootcamp. Like the Telegraph Track, recipients are paired with an Optimizely mentor. They also participate in a three-month paid internship at select Optimizely offices (one in Austin and three at the San Francisco headquarters).
Students who identify as a minority are eligible for sponsorship. These include those who belong in any of the following groups: women, the LGBTQ community, Black or African-American, Hispanic/Latinx, Native American, Middle Eastern/North African, Southeast Asian/Pacific Islander communities, people with disabilities, and military veterans.
Changing the Face of the Silicon Valley
With all of Galvanize’s initiatives, it’s important that we draw a clear picture of how diversity impacts the tech industry. At first blush, closing the diversity gap in tech appears to be a mostly moral imperative. But it actually runs deeper than that. A robust workforce is significant for two reasons.
First, a diverse team has a higher chance of recognizing market opportunities and driving market growth. Put simply, the more varied the talent pool, the likelier it is for the company to meet the needs of various end-users and thereby attract new market segments. As affirmed by a 2013 Harvard Business Review article: “A team with a member who shares a client’s ethnicity is 152% likelier than another team to understand that client.”
Second, a diverse team is smarter. Differences in experience, backgrounds, and perspectives unlock nonlinear thinking. It improves the overall acumen of companies. A good case in point is last year’s forecast by research firm Gartner.
It projected that by 2022, 75% of companies with diverse front-line decision-making teams will have surpassed their financial targets. “… Gender-diverse and inclusive teams [will] outperform gender-homogeneous, less inclusive teams by 50%, on average,” it added.
The message is clear: the push to diversify tech’s ranks is anything but an empty pursuit. “Companies hurt themselves by leaving talent pools under-tapped. People from underrepresented groups are denied the opportunity when locked out of a high-impact, well-compensated career path,” said Katharine Celentano, a Telegraph Track graduate.
Improving the diversity metrics, therefore, is not just a “nice-thing-to-do but a need-to-do from both an ethical and business standpoint.” Put another way, continued submission to a culture of conformity will only lead to costly pitfalls.
The Invisible Talents
Prior to joining Galvanize, Katharine enjoyed a stellar run in politics and policy with a focus on behavioral health and criminal justice reform. She was in this career for over a decade, spearheading cutting-edge overdose prevention initiatives and serving as a gubernatorial appointee on a state board.
“My prior career was, at one time, a perfect fit,” said Katharine. However, she eventually found herself longing for her first passion: computer science. Enter Galvanize. “I sought the advice of a friend who is a tech recruiter and ex-Googler. His advice was singular and to the point: go to the Hack Reactor immersive at Galvanize.”
“In his words, Hack Reactor was ‘the Harvard of bootcamps’… ‘Any recruiter worth their salt knows about Hack Reactor,’ he explained.” It wasn’t until Katharine joined the program that she understood the hype.
“By the end of the program, I had built multiple full-stack applications and reworked the backend of a legacy codebase, complete with optimizing database queries, horizontal scaling, load balancing, and stress-testing under production-level traffic. Additionally, Hack Reactor stimulated a professional work environment, including Agile teams, standups, code reviews, and writing test suites,” she said.
While all of this was going on, Katharine was also receiving non-technical support from the Telegraph Track. “One [female] staff member was especially helpful to me as I navigated my experience as a woman interested in technology,” she said. This, for her, highlighted the value of mentorship, particularly for underrepresented talents who often face unique hurdles.
“Barriers manifest differently for different groups,” said Katharine. “For example, as a white woman, I may experience exclusion related to my gender. But I will not experience exclusion related to my skin color. Similarly, having never served in the military, I will not experience stereotypes veterans may face.”
“That means I, like anyone from an underrepresented group, am both directly impacted and an ally, depending on the context. Diversity and inclusion require that we all remain humble and curious about our blind spots because we all have them,” she said.
To date, Galvanize has produced nearly 400 Telegraph Track alumni and scholars. Beyond the numbers and testimonials, the community has proven its dedication to moving the needle in an industry where metrics for inclusion have hardly budged.
After graduating from the programs, Katharine landed a job at Galvanize as Hack Reactor Immersive Resident and Telegraph Track Manager. Her current role reflects Telegraph Track’s guiding philosophy. That is, to produce a robust pool of competent software engineers and empower them to become advocates for diversity.
Hacking the Diversity Gap
There’s a pool of invisible talents in the tech industry. It’s a pool that needs and deserves acknowledgment. Galvanize taps into this by addressing three points where diversity is most stifled. These are opportunities (1) to enter, (2) to participate, and (3) to advance in the tech industry.
For aspiring coders who come from underserved groups, Katharine had this to say: “You can do this. You can do Hack Reactor, you can do the tech industry, and you can do software engineering.” If you’re one of them, there’s no better time than now than to get onboard.
Forget fitting in with the culture, add to it.