Lest you think that diversity hiring in the tech industry — the idea that there should be a so-called “pipeline” of capable, diverse candidates to fill jobs — is a new concept, Colette Pierce Burnette is here to tell you differently.
“I graduated college in 1980 and we were talking about it then,” said Burnette, who is president and CEO of Huston-Tillotson University in Austin.
In tech, there’s an ongoing refrain: There aren’t enough viable job candidates of color, or who happen to be women, or who are not in a youthful age demographic, to fill the gap in jobs. Companies such as Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft have released diversity reports showing that the employees in their companies are still not close to representing the makeup of the communities and customers they serve.
Burnette has dealt with the pipeline problem at many different points in her career. After she graduated with a degree in Industrial and Systems Engineering from Ohio State University, she applied for an engineering job in Georgia. Affirmative action secured the appointment, but in the actual interview, she was questioned on whether her alma mater was even accredited. “If I hadn’t had confidence, I would have tucked my tail. Mr. Engineer at this level was a good-old boy from Georgia who really had no interest in hiring me.”
She got the job in 1982, becoming “The only black and the only woman in a sea of about 30 white guys. That started my career.”
Now she faces an enormous challenge: How does Burnette, a former techie-turned-educator, prepare the 1,006 students at private, minority-serving Huston-Tillotson for careers that are likely to have a large technological component? Or for jobs in the tech industry itself?
Burnette has chosen to take on the pipeline issue directly.
In mid August, at the Google Fiber Space in downtown Austin, Burnette was one of six speakers on an Austin Free-Net-hosted panel called, “Solving The Emerging Technology Skills Gap.”
Moderated by South by Southwest Interactive director Hugh Forrest and featuring representatives from IBM, Google and the Texas Association of Business, it was a talk addressing ways to promote more diversity in the tech industry by offering new solutions to the old pipeline problem.
Though there is complexity in the ways she’s addressing the skills gap with students at the university, Burnette’s pitch at the speed round of panelist presentations was pretty simple: “To be innovative, we need to dig deeper,” she said. “We’re missing something by only focusing on tech.”
Her point was one that is both complementary and counter to what’s been the gospel: That in order to fill tech jobs, a greater emphasis needs to be placed on promoting STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) in classrooms and to get more women and people of color on track toward computer science and engineering degrees.
But what if, Burnette suggested, all those waiting jobs in the tech industry didn’t need to be filled by people with those degrees? What if, instead, universities like Huston-Tillotson could produce well-rounded liberal arts graduates who could adapt to these jobs, offer excellent communication skills and bring other values to the table?
“We have a unique approach to how we’re putting together this whole person. Our students have integrity, they embrace and respect diversity. They’re accountable and they have a lens of leadership,” Burnette said. “As a technical person, I have come to value relationship skills and smartness and brilliance; it goes farther when (employees) have people skills also.”
Hacking Diversity, 512tech's series exploring issues of diversity and inclusion in the Austin technology sector, can be found online at www.512tech.com/tech-diversity.
To that end, Burnette’s tenure at HT, which began in July of 2015, has been in part focused on initiatives such as “#IAmThePipeline,” a hackathon focused on solving problems in business, entertainment, education and health. About 75 students are expected to participate in the third annual event in March. The 2016 edition of the event drew Leslie Miley, a former Twitter engineer who now works as Slack’s director of engineering, Whitney O’Banner of Dev Bootcamp and techies from Google Play and Google Fiber.
The university recently received a $10,000 Federal Department of Education Title III grant, which is being used to create the Huston-Tillotson University Center for Entrepreneurship. Falling under the university’s School of Business Technology, the center will be open to students studying any major.
Burnette has been pushing internships as a way to get students in the door at tech companies to demonstrate their value and get hired. And increasingly, she’s asking teachers to connect more directly with Austin tech companies and to join her in making the community aware of what’s happening at Huston-Tillotson.
“It’s getting students exposed to tech and getting faculty in the community to have conversations about our graduates, to be very intentional about encouraging people to diversify across the region,” Burnette said. “The university has a unique role to play in Austin.”
Though it’s too early to tell how successful Huston-Tillotson efforts will be, they could be part of a larger set of solutions to address the skills gap. STEM education, both in K-12 schools and in after-school programs such as Girlstart, are efforts to develop the next generation of tech workers. Coding boot camps and meetup groups are spreading the skills that can help more people get into tech careers. And training programs, support and funding for would-be entrepreneurs, especially for women and people of color, are starting to gain traction in Austin. That’s in addition to the traditional route of tech workers coming from university degree programs and occupational training programs.
But the immediate needs and economic realities at some tech companies can outstrip the desire to take steps to create the kind of diverse workforce Burnette is hoping to provide.
“Internships are still one of the best solutions for employees and companies, but many early stage growth companies don’t seem to have the time or patience to take on longer-term solutions to talent development; they need people who can contribute at a high level right away,” said Brian Kelsey, principal and founder at Austin-based Civic Analytics, which last year put together a tech talent study assessing the Austin tech workforce pipeline for the Austin Technology Council.
According to that study, Austin’s tech workforce is expected to grow from about 67,546 core tech talent jobs in 2014 to 75,436 jobs in 2020, a 12 percent growth rate. “The talent pipeline will need to fill somewhere in the range of approximately 2,500 to 6,000 core technical positions on average every year between 2014 and 2024,” according to the study.
Overall, the region had about 108,310 tech jobs across 49 industries in 2014, contributing $22.3 billion to Austin’s gross domestic product, Kelsey says in the report.
“There are a lot of jobs that can be filled by smart, motivated workers without CS (computer science) degrees, but there have to be reasonable pathways in place that work for both employees and employers — and not everybody can afford $10K+ intensive training programs that can be problematic for non-traditional students,” Kelsey said.
The effort to create a diverse workforce and to fill jobs in tech could also be complicated by the issue of immigration. There are concerns in the tech industry that a Donald Trump presidency could create changes in the H-1B visa program for skilled foreign workers, though at the moment it’s unclear what changes, if any, could take place.
Burnette said she worries that despite evidence that a diverse workforce can benefit a tech company’s bottom line, many in education are not sincere about diversifying the pipeline. But she said she’s encouraged by her experiences in Austin. “I haven’t run into any closed doors,” she said. “And that’s what I’ve come to appreciate about this city.”
She plans to lead by example: In hiring for a chief information officer at the university, she’s looking for someone who’s tech savvy, but also “very smart and a really good communicator. The person has to have very high ethics and understand that technology is just a tool in achieving the mission, just one small part.”
And she plans to listen and adapt in order to prepare her students.
“We look to the industry to tell us what they want and the industry looks to us to give them what they need,” Burnette said. “In my mind, it’s not separated.”