In push to diversify, Google goes to college

Last modified: 5/4/2015 12:07:00 AM
Howard University freshman Alanna Walton knew something was different about the professor teaching her introduction to computer science course.

First, there was her name: Professor Sabrina. She was an African-American woman, kept office hours until 2 a.m. if that’s what it took to see everyone, and had an additional title: Google In Residence.

“It was an awesome class,” said Alanna, who has already chosen her major at the Washington D.C.-based university: computer science.

In ongoing efforts to diversify Silicon Valley’s tech sector, Google is embedding engineers at a handful of historically black colleges and universities where they teach, mentor and advise on curriculum.

Today 35 percent of African Americans receiving computer science degrees come from those schools, but they don’t make their way to Silicon Valley’s top tech firms. Google is typical — about 1 percent of its technical staffers are black.

Last year, a push by civil rights advocate Jesse Jackson prompted several dozen tech firms to release workforce diversity data which showed under-representation of African-Americans, Latinos and women in the field.

In response, businesses, universities and community leaders have launched initiatives aimed at diversifying their ranks, both ethnically and by gender. The Anita Borg Institute and the National Center for Women and Information Technology have partnered with many companies to support female engineers.

Facebook offers “Facebook University,” an internship for low income minority college freshmen interested in computer science. Intel has committed $300 million over the next five years toward diversifying its workforce, while Apple has a $50 million partnership with nonprofits to support women and minority computer science majors.

Google decided to go to the source, sending a handful of software engineers to teach at Howard, Hampton University in Hampton, Va., Fisk University in Nashville, and Spelman and Morehouse colleges in Atlanta.

They taught introductory courses, but they also trained students on everything from how to send a professional email to how to make it through a software engineering job interview, which can involve a lot of time solving coding questions at a white board.

This summer, 30 of those students will be Google interns. And Howard University graduating senior Christopher Hocutt, 21, whose friends jokingly call him Mr. Google, will be starting at the company full-time.

Hocutt said the Google In Residence professors convinced him to apply.

“What they discovered was a lot of people weren’t even applying to Google because we didn’t believe we were skilled enough to do it,” he said. “Once we realized we have the skills, we just needed mentorship to make our resume look good, get through the interview, have confidence to try.”

Google software engineer Sabrina Williams, who took a semester away from her Mountain View campus this year to mentor and teach at Howard, is thrilled to see her student becoming a colleague.

“I’m inspired,” she said. “Change is slow, this is going to take time, but I think what’s interesting about this program is that it’s a different way of attacking the problem of lack of diversity in tech.”

Fifteen years ago, Williams was the only female African-American computer science major at Stanford University. “I kind of felt awkward so I kind of hid a lot,” she said. “It was very difficult.”


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