Exclusive: Google expands Howard West to train more black coders
Google is opening up the Howard West program to 100 students from Howard and other historically black universities and colleges for a full academic year starting this fall.
Source: Jessica Guynn
Embedding these students in the Googleplex to soak up the ways of Silicon Valley is the latest effort from the company to reverse years of hiring patterns that have resulted in a homogeneous workforce.
Tech companies blame a small pool of job applicants for the strikingly low numbers of African Americans and Hispanics working in Silicon Valley. But USA TODAY research shows that top universities turn out African-American and Hispanic computer science and computer engineering graduates at twice the rate leading tech companies hire them.
Why the disconnect? An endless loop of new hires, boasting of childhood coding classes and programming competitions, coming from the social networks of people already working in Silicon Valley or from an elite club of universities such as Stanford and MIT.
By contrast, many Howard students get their first serious exposure to computer science in college, and few have spent much time in Silicon Valley, the tech industry's hotbed of innovation and home to many of its biggest players, from Apple to Facebook.
The Howard West program, one of many being deployed by Google to increase the diversity of its mostly white- and Asian-male workforce, is trying to interrupt that cycle and already has yielded results. Four of 14 participants who applied for software engineering internships are returning to Google this summer, and Google says it's hopeful it will hire others.
The details of how the expanded program will operate in the fall — which schools will take part and even what it will be called — are still being ironed out. The more complicated question is whether Howard West can change demographics and attitudes,    particularly at a tense moment for the Internet giant, which is in the grips of a culture war over its diversity initiatives.
Last week, Google employees who work on initiatives to bring greater diversity to the company's 78,000-plus staff complained publicly the company is not doing enough to shield them from a harassment campaign orchestrated by a small group of their co-workers. On the one hand, Google is being sued by a former engineer, James Damore, who says the company discriminates against whites, men and conservatives. On the other, it's being investigated by the Labor Department and sued by female employees for allegedly underpaying women.
A year ago, when Howard West was announced, Brian Brackeen, the African-American CEO of facial recognition firm Kairos, expressed skepticism that it would boost the employment of African Americans at Google, saying the program offered "micro bridges to major gaps."
"Minorities have seen this before. Big companies looking for ‘diversity’ publicity making a token donation to the cause, so that people can praise them for their commitment and consider them proponents of inclusion," he wrote in a Medium post.
Bonita Stewart, Google's vice president of global partnerships, has worked with Howard University President Wayne Frederick to develop the framework for Howard West.
Wayne Frederick, president of Howard University, one of the largest of the 102 historically black universities and colleges in the U.S., debriefed students in groups of four and five after their summer at Google.
He says Howard West already is paying dividends — and not just for the students who spent the summer drilling deep into software engineering and computer algorithms. Faculty members, energized after teaching at Howard West alongside Google engineers, revamped their courses to cover more ground at a faster clip.
Howard West was one of the factors contributing to a more than 40% year-over-year increase in computer science enrollment at the university. Over time it could expose hundreds, possibly thousands, of students from diverse backgrounds to Silicon Valley, opening up the possibility that more African Americans will find jobs in the tech industry, Frederick says.