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This White Tech Guy Has an Idea to Make Tech Less White

March 21, 2018, 4:05 PM UTC

Bjorn Freeman-Benson is a little embarrassed by his 200-person engineering team: It’s overwhelmingly white, and it’s overwhelmingly male. He says he wants a more diverse staff for his digital product design company, InVision, but doesn’t get the applicants. “If I just have a bunch of young white men from Stanford, I’m not going to get a good result for my customers.”

Next month, two Latina engineers from Portland, Oregon, will join his team as full-time apprentices making $15 an hour, plus benefits. After three months, if all goes well, they’ll be hired full-time at full pay, as junior engineers.

InVision is one of three employers, along with Nike Inc. and MailChimp, trying to foster and hire a more diverse tech workforce through TalentPath, a new initiative from the coding school Treehouse and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, whose local chapters provide after-school programs to young people in diverse communities across the country. With the involvement of the clubs, its founders hope it can make more of a dent, albeit a small one, in tech’s diversity problem than their earlier efforts did.

Ryan Carson started Treehouse in 2011 believing, like many coding-school founders, that people don’t have to go to college to land high-paying tech jobs and that his school, by lowering the barrier to entry, could foster a meritocracy and bring diversity to tech. Seven years in, he realized he’d failed. Treehouse alone has trained over 80,000 people, but the tech world—including Treehouse itself, whose engineers are mostly white men—has remained stubbornly homogenous. “I had to admit that although we were helping tens of thousands of people get jobs, we weren’t helping change the equation for people that were black, Latinx or women,” Carson said.

TalentPath aims to bridge that gap by partnering with local Boys & Girls Clubs, which recruit members or alumni who might want tech jobs and also help them navigate the working world via financial literacy classes and weekly mentoring. A participating employer sponsors students to take nine-month, part-time, online coding courses—enabling people in school or working full time to participate—and guarantees those who graduate a three-month, full-time apprenticeship on its engineering team. It can then offer them jobs.

(Carson would not tell Bloomberg what companies pay per student, but he said it’s more than the $200 per month Treehouse charges for other boot camps. InVision said the program is about a third cheaper than using a recruiting firm.)

The first class of graduates started apprenticeships this month at InVision, Nike and Treehouse itself, which participated to diversify its own workforce. Mailchimp is sponsoring a class of 10 students in the program now.

“I didn’t think, because I was Hispanic, I could have a career in tech.”

Coding schools have made a number of prior efforts to get more people of color and women into tech, although it’s difficult to gauge their success. Many coding schools, including Treehouse, offer scholarships, some aimed at promoting diversity and some created in partnership with tech companies or sponsored by the likes of Aphabet Inc.’s Google. There are also a host of coding programs for women and people of color.

Yet diversity at tech companies hasn’t budged.

Employers bear much of the responsibility. Not all of them make the effort. Bias can cloud their hiring processes. Workplace discrimination can discourage applicants and push out qualified employees.

Tech executives often blame their companies’ overwhelming whiteness on what they call the pipeline problem—a lack of qualified engineers who aren’t white men. But they often overstate it. Black and Hispanic graduates with computer and mathematical science degrees, for instance, are much more likely than their white peers to be unemployed or working in unrelated jobs, according to 2013 data from the National Science Foundation.

Even the coding schools often touted as potential solutions haven’t generally managed to recruit or retain underrepresented talent effectively. They don’t always reach people who don’t know much about tech jobs; even when they do, they might not hold much appeal, said Colleen Showalter, the liaison between Treehouse and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Portland and previously the chapter’s director of development.

“It’s really difficult for the minority communities we serve to have trust with organizations that just come in and say, ‘You should do this,’” she said. “They don’t look like them, and they don’t have any affinity for them.” Better boot camps won’t suffice to get young black and Latino people into tech jobs, she added. “They need support, because the barriers in their lives are real.” Some don’t have computers at home; many don’t know anyone who works in tech.

“We weren’t helping change the equation for people that were black, Latinx or women.”

Coding boot camps still aren’t substitutes for college degrees, despite the ambitions of people such as Carson. Some coding schools have over-promised on jobs and skills; a number of graduates and employers alike told Bloomberg in 2016 that their training hadn’t sufficiently prepared them for the work they were seeking. Many companies, for all their talk of pipeline problems, remain reluctant to hire people without degrees or prior experience.

TalentPath aims at least to give this experience to young people of color via its apprenticeships. But its program is hard to stick with, and even that faces challenges when it comes to retention; only a third of the students who enrolled in the inaugural class completed the program. And ultimately, its success depends on employers—and whom they decide to hire.

When Carlos Salgado, 18, first heard about TalentPath from the Boys & Girls Club in Portland last year, he was skeptical. “I was a bit sketched out, because it seemed too good to be true. My parents were telling me it was fake,” he said. “I didn’t think, because I was Hispanic, I could have a career in tech.”

He graduated from the Javascript bootcamp this year, and he started an apprenticeship at Treehouse this month. Next he hopes to land a full-time job in tech.