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By Stuart Soffer

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About this blog: Growing up in Brooklyn, NY I lived in high-density housing and experienced transit-oriented services first hand. During high school and college summers I worked in Manhattan drafting tenant floor plans for high-rise office buildi...  (More)

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Leveling the Playing Field in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics)

Uploaded: Oct 31, 2013

Our software company, searching for programmers, once advertised an Open House. Thirty prospective employees came to graze on pizza and make the rounds. Afterward, my staff created a list of people to invite back for formal interviews. As part of the process, interviewees were asked to bring in their own sample source code for us to discuss.

One candidate arrived with the requested sample, a disappointing effort that had required only minimal technical knowledge. I spoke with him and realized that he lacked the technical skills for our development needs, but I was impressed with his unassuming candor. An important consideration for me was that he was a young man of color, and I wanted to increase the diversity of our staff.

I asked our developers whether we had the capacity to include a candidate who would need coaching in the real world of software development but their response was not enthusiastic. I checked with peer VPs of other companies for their feedback, and was discouraged from proceeding. I decided not to make the young man an offer for these and other reasons.

This decision conflicted with my instinctive moral compass, which conflicted with what was ethically and legally right for the company. Which brings me to The Level Playing Field Institute, an organization that attempts to remedy the problems I encountered:

"Level Playing Field Institute is committed to eliminating the barriers faced by underrepresented people of color in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and fostering their untapped talent for the advancement of our nation."

Level Playing Field Institute (LPFI) board member Harry Bims invited me to their Fairness Matters Forum on November 7th at Google, San Francisco. And I invite you to join us. For more information see http://www.lpfi.org.

In hindsight I would have conducted the search differently 22 years ago. This required securing buy-in from the company to fill two types of positions: an internship program of fixed duration in addition to the experienced programmer slots.

Comments

Posted by curious, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Oct 31, 2013 at 8:08 pm

There are some provocative ideas expressed but not developed in this article. From the last paragraph, I infer that the incident with the young programmer occurred over 20 years ago. And that students of color still lack STEM training and expertise. Yet they have the same access to math and tech classes as do all other students. Is there a reason they don\'t sign up for the computer science and physics classes at Menlo-Atherton, for example?

I appreciate that LPFI and other organizations are trying to change the status quo. But I would like to understand why the disparity exists in the first place.


Posted by Level Playing Field Institute, a resident of Atherton: other,
on Nov 1, 2013 at 6:21 pm

Curious, your observation raises a complicated issue.

Imagine that you grew up lacking access to quality teachers - that your school did not even have books - and that you fell behind in Math in the second grade. Imagine this poor start set you further and further behind. How would you ever catch up in order to be prepared for Physics in high school?

Imagine for a second that you are a young African American male and that society expects you to be good at sports and bad at school – imagine having this notion reiterated by your peers, depicted time and time again on TV and propagated by well-meaning adults – even guidance counselors! At this point, would you feel the upper level classes are for you?

Pretend that you are searching for role models that look like you but your parents did not attend college and your network is limited to other families in this same situation. Would it seem that CS and Physics classes are meant for people like you?

Unfortunately this is the reality for students of color, especially given the correlation between under-representation and poverty (and poorer students lack educational access). Even in an extremely wealthy areas such as Atherton, bias – whether implicit or explicit- works against students on a daily basis. Whether the students realize it or not, they are learning in a system built to work against them.

Happily, at LPFI, we have the privilege of working with students of color on a daily basis. They blow us away everyday with how intelligent and motivated they are given the right atmosphere in which to thrive. Just check out our recent hackathon where students of color created a mobile app and pitched it in front of a panel of distinguished judges – all in one weekend! Or our SMASH scholars who come from under-resourced schools and end up going to college and majoring in math or science in the Berkeley\'s and MITs of the world. We see success stories every day and are actively working against the bias and barriers that affect our students' on a daily basis.

For more insight, please check out our website: lpfi.org and our Research Reports: Web Link

--- All our best, Level Playing Field Institute


Posted by Level Playing Field Institute, a resident of Atherton: other,
on Nov 1, 2013 at 6:25 pm

Sorry - meant to say "Unfortunately this is the reality for MANY students of color"... no edit button so forgive the typos!


Posted by Resident, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Nov 1, 2013 at 9:04 pm

Stuart,

I agree with your assessment of the situation for many African-American and Latino students. This affects not only these students, but it has a negative impact on our society. Educational intervention as early as possible makes a big difference. Also, I am just learning about LPFI and it seems like a great organization.

Hiring is always a risk - regardless of the background or ethnicity of the candidate. Internships or other entry level positions are great opportunities to expand the reach to more diverse candidates. Also, for any position - not just entry level - I tend to give a lot of weight to attitude and drive - these qualities can help someone with lesser experience grow much more than other candidates with more initial skills but less attitude and drive. As long as there are enough skills to build on, a candidate with the attitude and drive can make a tremendous contribution and would likely be very appreciative of the opportunity and more willing to put in the extra effort and demonstrate loyalty etc…

Thanks for the blog



Posted by Fred, a resident of Woodside: other,
on Nov 3, 2013 at 4:49 am

With so many older American programmers unable to find work, Silicon Valley nevertheless is always looking for young, foreign labor. It's an industry where illegal discrimination has become an institution.


Posted by Stu Soffer, a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks,
on Nov 7, 2013 at 11:00 am

Stu Soffer is a registered user.

Thanks all for comments and reading this post.

Fred, ironically just before you commented I was speaking with someone about the consequences and outlook such as competing with all the other pools of candidates. This complicated topic is worthy of a separate blog post, I'm not tackling that one today.

Implicit in your comment is perhaps that the jobs that either I was filling at years ago, or that graduates of the LPFI program, would be taking jobs that could be filled by older Americans. These are two problems.

You're right: there is age discrimination in markets but it's in the guise of other reasoning. It is harder for older programmers and engineers to stay in the game. Among the reasons cited are that 'they're not current with new technologies.' I dismiss such reasoning because good programmers should be able to embrace newer technologies without difficulty - and bring their deeper experience to bear on newer problems. There are other factors feeding into the dynamics of employment of older programmers, including whether there is indeed a shortage of skilled labor, or a shortage if lower cost labor, to justify expansion of H1B.

On the other hand I know programmers in their 50's still slogging code.

Another question sometimes posed is whether our policies discourage citizens and permanent residents from pursuing STEM careers in high school and college, exacerbating the problem.

For those interested I suggest the academic work of Professors Norm Matloff (UC Davis), and Vivek Wadhya (Stanford) who present both viewpoints on the milieu of age discrimination, wages and H1B.

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