Can Big Data Boost the Paltry Number of Female and Minority Tech Workers?

A San Francisco start-up is trying to upend traditional tech recruiting methods by using public, online information to find more female and minority workers.

The tech world is still overwhelmingly white and male, like these attendees at the Facebook f8 developers conference on April 30, 2014 in San Francisco, California.
National Journal
Nancy Cook
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Nancy Cook
June 18, 2014, 8:54 a.m.

Say you’re a re­cruit­er at a tech com­pany in Sil­ic­on Val­ley, Bo­ston, or New York City, and you need to hire a new en­gin­eer quickly. You don’t want to hire an­oth­er white dude (your com­pany em­ploys so many of them already!). Yet all of the po­ten­tial re­fer­rals you re­ceive are just that: white, male, gradu­ate of a top-10 com­puter sci­ence or en­gin­eer­ing uni­versity. This makes it ter­ribly hard to break out of the rut of hir­ing the same people who already dom­in­ate the high-tech space.

One San Fran­cisco com­pany is try­ing to solve this prob­lem by help­ing re­cruit­ers and com­pan­ies do a bet­ter job of identi­fy­ing a rich­er, more di­verse pool of can­did­ates. The start-up Ente­lo de­ploys an al­gorithm that sorts in­form­a­tion already avail­able on­line to find ex­per­i­enced tech work­ers for en­gin­eer­ing, sales, and mar­ket­ing po­s­i­tions that pay, on av­er­age, $125,000 a year. The ser­vice costs any­where from $10,000 a year up to $100,000. This spring, Ente­lo rolled out a more de­tailed fea­ture to al­low its cli­ents to search spe­cific­ally for wo­men, mil­it­ary vet­er­ans, His­pan­ics, or Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans. The goal is to help com­pan­ies “cor­rect the im­bal­ances on their teams,” says Jon Bis­ch­ke, Ente­lo’s founder.

The need for more di­versity in the high-tech sec­tor took on re­newed ur­gency re­cently when Google vol­un­tar­ily re­leased the di­versity stats of its work­force. Among the start­ling data points: Just 2 per­cent of the com­pany’s work­ers are Afric­an-Amer­ic­an and just 3 per­cent are His­pan­ic. Whites com­prise 61 per­cent of Google’s em­ploy­ees, and 70 per­cent are men. “Our in­dustry has an is­sue, and the only way to have an hon­est con­ver­sa­tion about this is to start by ac­tu­ally shar­ing the facts,” Laszlo Bock, Google’s seni­or vice pres­id­ent of people op­er­a­tions said on the PBS News­Hour the same day Google re­leased its in­tern­al data.

This lack of di­versity is not news to those already em­bed­ded in Sil­ic­on Val­ley. Amy Scha­piro runs the fel­lows pro­gram at CODE2040, a not-for-profit that places high-per­form­ing Afric­an-Amer­ic­an and Latino soft­ware-en­gin­eer­ing stu­dents in in­tern­ships at top tech com­pan­ies such as Face­book, Linked­In, and Nest. Scha­piro blames the tech in­dustry’s ho­mo­gen­eity on Sil­ic­on Val­ley cul­ture and on the small num­ber of wo­men and minor­it­ies who gradu­ate from high-level com­puter sci­ence pro­grams. “There is a pipeline prob­lem that spans from ele­ment­ary school through the es­tab­lished pro­fes­sion,” she says about the lack of di­versity in STEM edu­ca­tion. “But, in ad­di­tion, com­pan­ies also need to do a bet­ter job of at­tract­ing and re­tain­ing di­verse tal­ent and cre­at­ing in­clus­ive en­vir­on­ments.”

CODE2040 has tried to build up its own pipeline of fu­ture com­puter sci­ence stars by re­cruit­ing at more than 30 col­leges, not just the top 10 en­gin­eer­ing schools. (The Uni­versity of Mary­land (Bal­timore) is a place where CODE2040 has found a strong tech pro­gram and a num­ber of tal­en­ted minor­ity stu­dents.) The group also tries to es­tab­lish re­la­tion­ships with minor­ity stu­dent groups such as the Na­tion­al So­ci­ety for Black En­gin­eers. The hope is to ex­pand the breadth of the en­gin­eer­ing net­work bey­ond the usu­al white, male Sil­ic­on Val­ley sus­pects. Groups like the An­ita Borg In­sti­tute and Wo­men Who Code work on the sim­il­ar goal of ex­pand­ing the num­ber of wo­men in tech.

Us­ing big data to broaden the pool of job can­did­ates is an­oth­er po­ten­tial strategy for cre­at­ing a more di­verse work­force, non­profit lead­ers say. “It helps to identi­fy people who may not be top of mind,” says Alaina Per­civ­al, CEO and board chair of Wo­men Who Code. Sil­ic­on Val­ley’s old-school way of re­cruit­ing is to build re­la­tion­ships, she says, and then identi­fy people for new jobs through re­fer­rals from ex­ist­ing con­tacts. “Wo­men and minor­it­ies can­not make con­nec­tions if they’re not a part of that,” she adds. “It’s easy to be over­looked and not know about the op­por­tun­it­ies out there.”

Chan­ging that status quo is the goal of Ente­lo’s founder Bis­ch­ke, as he shows off the site’s di­versity fea­ture and its cur­rent data­base of roughly 23 mil­lion pro­spect­ive em­ploy­ees. A curs­ory search for java en­gin­eers and vet­er­ans turns up more than 170 new matches: people who may or may not be on the radar screen of Sil­ic­on Val­ley’s re­cruit­ers, re­gard­less of their qual­i­fic­a­tions.

For re­cruit­ers like Lars Schmidt, founder of the Vir­gin­ia-based Amp­li­fy Tal­ent, Ente­lo of­fers a nice com­ple­ment to the tra­di­tion­al re­cruit­ing meth­ods that he says can be time-con­sum­ing, not to men­tion hit-or-miss. “It can help you ef­fi­ciently identi­fy tal­ent, es­pe­cially if you do not have a ded­ic­ated tech re­cruit­er,” says Schmidt, who used Ente­lo in his past job as seni­or dir­ect­or of tal­ent ac­quis­i­tion and in­nov­a­tion at NPR. “Any tool that lever­ages big data and ad­vanced ana­lyt­ics is a good thing, even with all of the kinds of com­plex­it­ies around that.”

Ente­lo, in its cur­rent form, does present two po­ten­tial com­plic­a­tions: First, job can­did­ates don’t sign up to be fea­tured on the site be­cause the in­form­a­tion comes through pub­lic, on­line re­cords. This means that job can­did­ates do not have con­trol over the type of in­form­a­tion presen­ted; Bis­ch­ke says that people are free to opt out at any time and ask Ente­lo to re­move their pro­files.

Second, and per­haps more im­port­ant, any tool that iden­ti­fies a more di­verse pool of job can­did­ates can just as eas­ily be­come a way to dis­crim­in­ate. “It can be used for good or evil,” as Schmidt says. 

Even with its new, big-data ap­proach to di­versity hir­ing, Ente­lo still re­mains in start-up mode. The 21-per­son, San Fran­cisco-based com­pany launched in late 2012 and is not yet prof­it­able; its fund­ing comes from about $4 mil­lion in ven­ture cap­it­al and in money it earns from its roughly 130 cli­ents. By 2015, Bis­ch­ke hopes to in­clude more than 100 mil­lion people in the Ente­lo data­base: men, wo­men, minor­it­ies, and vet­er­ans alike. One day, he thinks Ente­lo may even try to in­cor­por­ate dis­abled work­ers in­to the mix. “Lots of money spent on di­versity re­cruit­ing is just hand-wav­ing,” Bis­ch­ke says. Here’s to hop­ing it be­comes bet­ter spent in the com­ing years, as the tech in­dustry con­tin­ues to be­come a luc­rat­ive, dom­in­ant sec­tor of the eco­nomy.

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