PODCAST > CULTURE FIT > EPISODE 3

The Pipeline Fallacy

A common excuse tech companies make for their lack of diversity is to blame the “pipeline,” saying there aren’t enough qualified candidates from underrepresented groups in the talent pool. Why do tech companies lean on this argument, and what are they missing?

Show notes

Dairien: [00:00:00] Mo Hampton was an active intelligence officer in the military. When she thought about switching to a career in tech, she knew would be obstacles. 

Mo: [00:00:07] I felt like I already was used to living in a world or a professional world where it was already more difficult for women and being a woman of color for us to break through those fields.

Not only that, but I'm a mom and I was doing it later on in my career. I wasn't like a young. Google startup person that came out. I felt like those kinds of things might be [00:00:30] biases and other people that look at me and let me into their spaces and that I'm not traditional. 

Dairien: [00:00:36] Mo's non-traditional background in the military,

it's an asset. And she's well aware. That experience has equipped her with the tools she needs to meet any challenge, including breaking into tech, which she hit with preparedness and perseverance. 

Mo: [00:00:49] Maybe this is just me from my military background. I'm used to looking at the objective, looking at the possible things that can stop me from getting to the objective, and then looking at my [00:01:00] best three courses of actions, my COAs. I get more into coding exercises, making a very in-depth portfolio. 

Dairien: [00:01:10] She completed coding bootcamp, got the necessary accreditation, and built up the skills to be a qualified front end developer. Her hard work paid off. It landed her a few interviews. 

Mo: [00:01:20] But I felt like I was maybe tested more during the interview process, but I knew of others that were [00:01:30] in positions that were comparable to mine that were not tested.

They were actually hired on the potential of they could grow, or they believed that they could learn these concepts. 

Dairien: [00:01:41] On base, Mo had been a managing officer of a team of 23, but when she landed her first job in tech, that's not what her colleagues saw. 

Mo: [00:01:48] I don't know if you want to call it a microaggression, but it would be that I would come into a room or a meeting, and they would automatically say, Are you such and such's assistant? [00:02:00] I'm like, no, I'm the software engineer. And then, Oh, well, good for you. And I didn't know how to take those kinds of things.

Dairien: [00:02:08] So it seems there are unfair assumptions made about what role you might hold. 

Mo: [00:02:13] I would say that. When I got into the position and I started to actually look at the hurdles and obstacles that I had to go through, I was like, wait, but why did I have different obstacles

than that person who doesn't have as much experience [00:02:30] as me? I just didn't understand why it was more for me. And I tried not to put race and gender into play, but it's hard not to. It's hard not to see that. 

Dairien: [00:02:41] Mo was able to jumpstart her tech career despite not having a path clearly laid out for her. She didn't follow the traditional path of students coming from prestigious universities with elite computer science degrees.

She had to carve her own path. Or quote, unquote pipeline.

You've [00:03:00] probably heard pipeline used figuratively before. In tech circles, pipeline is used to refer to the network that connects the workforce with hiring managers. The pipeline problem is what tech companies blame when they're asked why they failed to hire qualified candidates from underrepresented backgrounds, like women or people with darker skin. Pipelines are an excuse. Tech companies are essentially telling us they're not responsible for their own lack of diversity.

And it must be someone else's fault for not delivering qualified talent to their doorstep. This way of thinking fails to [00:03:30] acknowledge the existing inequalities that divide our communities. Framing the issue as a pipeline problem is ineffective, and it's also harmful.

Here's Mariah Driver. She's the head of diversity, equity and inclusion at Webflow. 

Mariah: [00:03:44] You can't focus too much on, you know, the pipeline problem, um, because again, that puts the onus on these underrepresented groups, not on your company.

Dairien: [00:03:52] When I hear pipeline, it makes my skin crawl. It's really dehumanizing. It's a crude euphemism for human labor and it [00:04:00] reduces people's time, energy and their potential to just a commodity.

So let's talk about who's expected to be in the supposed pipeline. Who are we really talking about? What opportunities are actually available to different people?

This is Culture Fit: Racial Bias in Tech. I'm your host, Dairien Boyd.

[00:04:30] We'll start by looking at the numbers. Research from the Kapor Center for Social Impact determined 21% of computer science grads are Black or Latinx, but they only account for 10% of technical roles at the top 20 tech companies. Mariah Driver has seen just how this plays out. 

Mariah: [00:04:49] What studies have found actually is that the candidate pipeline for, I think 80% of companies is usually more diverse than the company itself. So there's actually a lot of [00:05:00] candidates from underrepresented groups who are applying and for some reason not making it through the process. 

Dairien: [00:05:05] Someone's got to call a plumber. I think there's a clog at the end of the pipeline. Why aren't Black and Latinx professionals being hired at the same rate? One possibility is that tech companies limit recruiting to certain types of universities.

Bloomberg reported that Facebook was analyzing how well their Ivy league pipeline was serving them in 2013. Facebook found zero correlation between Alma mater and job performance. Despite this discovery, employees at [00:05:30] Facebook told Bloomberg that hiring managers were still pulling from the same set of schools, schools where Black students are historically excluded. Here's Kimberley Johnson. She's a professor of social and cultural analysis at NYU. 

Kimberley: [00:05:42] There are lots of tech people, computer science folks that are coming out of HBCUs that are coming out of all sorts of different institutions. There has to be a willingness to go and look. And not only look, but also a willingness and a commitment to actually hire folks and give them a chance and not simply say, [00:06:00] well, you know, they're not in the network of the 10 people that I know. So therefore they must not exist. 

Dairien: [00:06:05] Relying mostly on referrals and recommendations from people already in your network, it's a sure way to prevent diversity. Here's Stephanie Lampkin, CEO of Blendoor. It's an inclusive recruiting and people analytics software company. 

Stephanie: [00:06:18] There's a significant portion of people who work at tech companies who don't have engineering degrees. So one can't use the argument that education alone is the [00:06:30] justification for why individuals aren't qualified. Furthermore, by saying pipeline problem, it to me sort of signals that you think certain people are inherently incapable of acquiring the skills necessary to be successful. And I think that in and of itself is problematic, because we know that they're just simply bigger challenges for people who've grown up in certain [00:07:00] environments or certain socioeconomic backgrounds that prevent them from getting access to the people, knowledge and resources to learn. But it does not mean they're inherently incapable of learning. So I think the pipeline problem fallacy is problematic for many reasons. 

Dairien: [00:07:19] Leaning on referrals has shown to be problematic. It can create a monoculture. Can you talk about some of the other problems that you see companies experience before [00:07:30] adapting a Blendscore system?

Stephanie: [00:07:32] Beyond referrals, a lot of the challenges stem from companies not tapping into broader talent pools and meeting people where they are. I've talked to some companies who don't even know what HBCUs  are, which is historically Black colleges and universities, for those of you who may not know. There's also Hispanic-serving institutions and several professional [00:08:00] organizations like the National Society of Black Engineers and National Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers that have existed for upwards of three decades.

The applicant tracking systems that are often relied upon to surface resumes. They, in many cases, rate resumes, using historical rubrics of success. And the challenge in doing that, as we know with bias in AI, if you are using historical models of [00:08:30] success to predict future success, inevitably, you are biasing your system for identifying diverse candidates, whether it be bias in algorithms, whether it be an inability to broaden your sort of pool of talent, or just the inherent bias in the interview process. 

It takes a lot of work, and it's, it's hard, particularly if you're a scrappy startup or mid-sized company looking to scale to get [00:09:00] to your series C or series D. And we recognize that, that diversity recruiting is really challenging and sometimes it's easy just to rely upon referrals, but again, it really has to be viewed as something that is business critical, much like any other domain within the company. And I think until you sort of look at it through that lens, you'll be limited in your ability to really attract and identify talent that may not look [00:09:30] like your existing workforce.

Dairien: [00:09:38] We're talking about building and maintaining diversity among the workforce. There's really no finish line because it involves continual practice. Right? Like trying new strategies that you've never tried before. Here's Josh Torres, the co-founder of LTX Fest. It's a conference for Latinx in tech. 

Josh: [00:09:58] It's easy to get a result when [00:10:00] you've done something the same way consistently for so long. But when you're trying to do something new, you have to try new things. I also try to counter pipeline all the time. I say there is a fire hose of talent.

Like anytime someone brings up pipelines to me, I'm like, I let me open the fire hose for you because I know so many talented people, and I can connect you with so many other organizations and community organizations where you can find the talent you're looking for. 

Dairien: [00:10:24] When you can go beyond the existing networks, like high profile universities, you're going to reach a group of people [00:10:30] that have less social capital. Here's writer, speaker, and software engineer LeRon Barton.

LeRon: [00:10:36] So social capital is less say you have a fraternity brother and this fraternity brother is in Google. Oh, snap, Darren. You're looking for a job. Let me put a good word in for you. Social capital is your grad school colleague, whatever, being able to recommend you for a job. It's all about who you know, because I mean, there's some smart Black and [00:11:00] Latinx folks, right. But because we don't have that social capital, we're kind of being denied. 

Dairien: [00:11:06] If you don't have social capital, it's going to be pretty difficult to get into the Silicon Valley door, but sometimes windows of opportunity do open up. It's like the story we heard from Olatunde Sobomehin. He's the founder and CEO of StreetCode Academy. StreetCode Academy empowers communities of color with tech and innovation skills.

Olatunde: [00:11:26] My son was offered a chance [00:11:30] to work at a venture capital firm. The reason he was asked to work at a venture capital firm his high school years, was because he went to a private school where he interacted with many people in the VC world. My son is African-American what was given that opportunity because he knew people. There are several other people my son's age who will be great assets to the VC firm, and they were not aware of those people because they did not [00:12:00] know them. And so when I asked, would you take a look at some of these other students? And they did, they were thankful to find other people that were incredible. And that's a big barrier. 

There are willing good hearted folks in Silicon Valley who want to give opportunities to people of color who wants to find the right people of color.

But we have the wrong [00:12:30] gatekeepers. We have the wrong doors of opportunity. And our people are shut out and are not able to see them. When they do, we thrive. And do well, but those opportunities are too limited. 

Dairien: [00:12:42] When we hear from Olatunde about how hard it can be for certain people to get past tech's gatekeepers, especially if you look a certain way or maybe sound a certain way, we start to poke holes in the core belief of the tech industry: that tech is a true meritocracy. 

Sinduja: [00:12:55] You know, when we talk about something in quote unquote, meritocracy, [00:13:00] I feel like privilege is such a huge part of it. 

Dairien: [00:13:04] That's Sinduja Rangarajan. She's written about tech diversity issues for outlets like Reveal.

Sinduja: [00:13:10] You know, who gets access to the best schools, who goes to the big Ivy league colleges. When companies hire from those colleges, there's a shared language, ethos, alumni network. So I think that when you don't have that route at all, it's very hard for someone to come out of nowhere and [00:13:30] break into tech. So I think meritocracy or whatever it is, is a complete myth because you don't have roads for people who don't come from certain schools and certain backgrounds to get into tech, for the most part. 

Dairien: [00:13:46] It's a false narrative that Sydney Sykes has seen firsthand. Sydney's an investor, and she's also the co-founder of Blck VC, a group dedicated to advancing black venture investors. 

Sydney: [00:13:56] The U.S. has this culture [00:14:00] where we really believe in the idea that anyone can succeed. And that furthermore, the people who are most successful are the people who should be successful.

And this mentality really ignores decades of institutional racism. It ignores the idea that there are people who are successful right now, who started out in life with a huge advantage because of class or money or circumstance or education. And [00:14:30] venture is really no different. If you have a lot of family money, and nothing against that, you can start your own VC fund.

If you want to be an investor, you know, you're a first-generation college student whose parents both worked minimum wage jobs, it's going to be really hard, even 10 years down the line, for you to find friends and family dollars to support your first venture fund. 

So that mentality [00:15:00] really needs to change if we're going to support companies and investors and ideas that look different from how they've looked in the past. 

Dairien: [00:15:12] As Sydney said, VCs believe if you work hard, you'll succeed. But this belief ignores the privileges that give certain groups of head start. It's a sentiment echoed by Jacqueline Gibson, software engineer and digital equity advocate.

Jacqueline: [00:15:25] If you're talking just solely from a socioeconomic status, and you consider the [00:15:30] fact that white people tend to have, on average, what is it, 10 times more wealth than Black families now. Wealth plays a key role in where you fall in the digital divide. Because more often than not, the people who are the quote unquote "digital haves" are people who have money, disposable income, to be able to give them some of the newest gadgets, access to coding tutors, or sending them to camps. 

Dairien: [00:15:56] In the U.S. where white families have a net worth of [00:16:00] $170,000, Black families only have a tenth of that at $17,000. So access to digital means can be limited.

In the last episode of culture fit, we touched on the issue of housing. It's a major barrier to digital access and technological literacy. Even though we're seeing a rise in work from home policies during the pandemic, not every job can accommodate working from home. And where you can afford to live has a direct impact on the [00:16:30] types of jobs available to you. If we're going to talk about human pipelines, housing has to be a part of the conversation. 

Catherine: [00:16:39] I think it's a pretty well-known thing, even for people who don't live in California, that we are experiencing a, uh, extreme housing crisis here. 

Dairien: [00:16:47] This is Catherine Bracy, she's the co-founder and executive director of TechEquity Collaborative. It's a group that mobilizes tech workers for equitable change. 

Catherine: [00:16:56] A lot of people have blamed the [00:17:00] rising in affordability of housing on this influx of tech workers to California. They're moving here for a job and they've got to find a place to live and they're getting paid at a pretty decent salary. And so landlords see that and they increase rent to attract those workers. And that pushes people out who maybe can't afford to pay those rents. And a lot of those folks are in lower income or working class communities of color. 

Dairien: [00:17:27] Here in California, there have been continual [00:17:30] attempts to build affordable housing. Even as recently as 2019, governor Gavin Newsome signed bills into law to prevent communities from delaying housing construction. But those efforts go up against powerful lobbyists like the California Apartment Association who spend big money every year to ensure affordable housing remains scarce.

Catherine: [00:17:46] The reason why it's so expensive to build housing is not because, you know, materials are expensive or land is expensive. It's because we've made the process so difficult and there's a vested interest for some [00:18:00] people to not build housing. And they're very politically powerful. And so it's not just a money issue. We're not going to buy our way out of this. We really need land use reform, political reform. 

Dairien: [00:18:11] Without substantial political reform in the Bay Area, we're going to continue to see these communities pushed out. And that means we'll continue to limit who has access to Silicon Valley.

Even if someone with disadvantages like a lack of affordable housing or limited social capital are [00:18:30] able to overcome those barriers, they still face workplaces that are often unwelcoming. Here's what LeRon Barton said back in episode 1. 

LeRon: [00:18:37] You know, it's, it's one thing to hire people, you guys, but it's another thing to retain. Retention. That's the real key, and no one's addressing it. 

Dairien: [00:18:46] In the first episode of the series, we talked about the current state of the tech industry and why tech's monoculture is problematic. Additionally, there's a phenomenon known as the Black tax. 

Think of it as time spent. It's the additional time [00:19:00] black employees spend furthering diversity and inclusion efforts, things like representing the company on panels or consulting on diversity-related issues. It makes me wonder why some of their non-Black coworkers don't step up. This is extra work and it goes unpaid. It's on top of the exhausting work schedule already prevalent within tech companies. 

It's not just time. It's also an emotional spent. These same challenges can make it difficult to retain Latinx employees in the tech sector as well. But as Josh Torres, co-founder of LTX Fest points out, we should strive for more than just [00:19:30] retention. 

Josh: [00:19:31] To me, retention is the floor. Like that's, you're doing the bare minimum to retain your employees. That's cool. But I want to know like how you're advancing employees, because if you're investing in your workforce, they are definitely staying. And I think that's a little bit of a shift in terms of like, how we think about it. Just because like you mentioned, it is such an issue. So people are like, how do we fix this issue? And it's actually, if we strive for more, that's my hypothesis is that we can actually kind of fix it. 

Dairien: [00:19:57] Retaining and promoting Latinx employees is no [00:20:00] different than uplifting any other underrepresented group. It starts with changing company culture. I'm talking about including faces in leadership that don't really fit the norm and providing balanced decision-making power.

Otherwise the pipeline loses out on people who, they make it through the door, but then they head straight to the exit. Now's a great time to reintroduce someone whose work uplifts, talented communities. The tech often 

Olatunde: [00:20:28] overlooked. [00:20:30] My heart hurts. When I hear a pipeline problem, it speaks to an unwillingness to reframe how they see our community. 

Dairien: [00:20:41] That's Olatunde again from StreetCode Academy. His community, it's East Palo Alto. And if you check out Olatunde on LinkedIn, you might notice something unusual about his title.  

Your LinkedIn says your role is CEO lead servant. What does lead servant mean? 

Olatunde: [00:20:55] Thanks for that question. Um, it was a reminder to myself [00:21:00] that I didn't want to take the title CEO. It was a board member that asked me to take that title, uh, given the structure of our organization. And I didn't want myself to forget that the top role that I have is to be a servant of the community. So it was a reminder to myself, more than anything else that the greatest responsibility of a leader is to serve. 

Dairien: [00:21:25] That's the mark of honorable leadership. Tech prides itself on solving humans' most [00:21:30] important problems, but really how are tech entrepreneurs serving all humans equally?

East Palo Alto is a city that, as its name implies, is just East of Palo Alto. But these two cities could not be more distinct. And you guessed it, the difference is about money. But Olatunde, he's tired of the tech industry speaking ill about his community. 

Olatunde: [00:21:48] Oftentimes our narratives lose the nuance, and it loses the complexity and the reality.

And so there are a lot of challenges in East Palo Alto. Most of them [00:22:00] we're aware of. It's a community where the school district struggles to maintain the funding for basic K-8 education. It's been a community that has struggled with economic opportunity. The average family household income, less than $50,000.

There are challenges. Those are real challenges. But that's not the only narrative. And the resiliency that's come out of that, the community that's [00:22:30] built as a result of that, the generosity, those are real elements. 

Dairien: [00:22:36] We're talking about two separate worlds. The typical colleague you'll bump into in Silicon Valley and then the rising youth fighting all odds in East Palo Alto. They couldn't be further apart. Yet they're literal neighbors. And there's a massive cultural blind spot.

Olatunde: [00:22:50] The industry hasn't yet figured out what to do with the talent. The cultural structures inside of companies oftentimes are [00:23:00] culturally illiterate to our communities. They don't understand our perspective.

There are some real skills and understanding empathy that needs to happen inside of companies to fully bring our companies in and integrate with our communities. 

Dairien: [00:23:13] The welcoming spaces that have retained Black, Latinx, and Indigenous professionals provide not only genuine kindness, but also a clear path for growth. People want to thrive in their roles. There are a few tech gatekeepers making a positive impact. 

Olatunde: [00:23:26] There's a senior executive inside of one of the top [00:23:30] companies in here that has been really transformational. His name is Chris Cox. He's a chief product officer of Facebook, and he has been incredible to a number of our students in terms of bringing them into the fold and having those community members thrive inside of his company.

And the reason is because Chris has built community inside of East Palo Alto. He plays in a reggae band, [00:24:00] and that has allowed him to see people as friends, to see people as doing life together. And that community has allowed him to also now see, Oh man, you have a talent in this. You have a skill in this, we have that need at Facebook now that's built community. 

Dairien: [00:24:15] Okay. So you're telling me I could go catch a reggae show, starring the chief product officer Facebook?

All right. That sounds funny. Chris Cox, this corporate suit slappin' the base, but really think about it. He found a way to bridge two worlds and build meaningful [00:24:30] relationships. That's true community. When we take the time to build meaningful relationships, the rewards are often beyond measure. And it's not a bad way to address the leaky pipeline. Instead of falling back on corporate philanthropy, tech leaders can join hands in areas like East Palo Alto to create real systemic change. Here's Professor Kimberley Johnson. 

Kimberley: [00:24:51] A variety of tech companies have sponsored tech programs for youth in East Palo Alto and other areas in the Silicon Valley area. [00:25:00] And yet, there is this kind of, well, that's not considered career training or a pipeline. It's kind of considered, I dunno, something else, social welfare.

And so I think there's a real disconnect between what the stated aims of this philanthropy is doing versus what they're actually sort of owning in terms of actually hiring people who are literally in their backyard. 

Dairien: [00:25:25] Can organizations like StreetCode increase opportunities for people that don't typically have [00:25:30] access? Here's Olatunde.

Olatunde: [00:25:32] Our mission is to provide communities of color the mindset, skills and the network to be able to thrive in the area of technology. So there were several needs we were trying to address. The first need was that we had incredible amount of talent in East Palo Alto. This is a community of color that's rich in diversity. It's rich in dreams. It's rich in ambition, is rich and creativity, is rich in innovation. [00:26:00] And there weren't the proper outlets for these types of abilities and talents. How do we reframe the talents of East Palo Alto? I'll give you an example. We were creating nationally recognized hip-hop curriculum around science standards, and there were young people there who had such incredible communication skills.

They could take curriculum, science curriculum, understand it, put it in rap form, in video form, and teach things like the digestive [00:26:30] system in a way that fifth graders memorize the information, understood it, and had fun learning it. And those same students that had the ability to do that were not seen by Silicon Valley as innovators, right under the nose of the Facebooks and the Salesforce and the Apples and the, I mean, these are Googles, these are the giants of innovation. And still weren't able to recognize the talent that was right in their backyard. 

Dairien: [00:26:55] While Olatunde leads StreetCode programs in East Palo Alto, Catherine Bracy leads the [00:27:00] policy side of equity in Silicon Valley with her team at TechEquity Collaborative. 

Catherine: [00:27:03] It's built to answer the question of how we can create a tech driven economy that is creating value for everybody, that is, you know, uh, creating growth that lifts all boats.

And the answer to that question for us is really that we have to engage with the structural issues in our economy that create inequality. And we mobilize tech workers who are relatively privileged set of people and have a lot of civic power to advocate for an inclusive growth policy agenda. We [00:27:30] co-sponsored a bill last year in California that passed, was signed into law in October, that became the widest expansion of tenant protections in American history. And we continue to work on legislation and advocacy that will create the protections that renters need to make sure that everybody can afford to live here.  

Dairien: [00:27:49] Olatunde, Catherine, and many of the other voices we featured in this episode are doing monumental work to shift the paradigm of the pipeline. These visionaries have reframed the pipeline to a [00:28:00] movement that uplifts people often left out by tech. But as Olatunde says, if the industry continues to neglect black people: 

Olatunde: [00:28:07] I know that our talent will find its way to blossom. And if it doesn't blossom in tech companies that fail to see the talent, it will blossom in other ways. We are looking at StreetCode Academy of now funding 50 entrepreneurs in East Palo Alto. And these entrepreneurs are ones that could be assets to surrounding [00:28:30] companies. But if they're not going to be assets to surrounding companies, they'll create their own. We thought about a saying when we first started StreetCode of Motown-ing the industry. Motown was the black community's answer to saying, if you don't want us in music, we'll create our own. And Motown ended up being a historical contribution to American music history. Well, that I believe can also happen in tech, where if, if the tech industry does not see [00:29:00] the talent and the value in our communities, we will create our own.

Dairien: [00:29:05] Hard to imagine what we lose if the tech industry continues to exclude Black, Latinx and Indigenous craters. Correcting course will require that Silicon Valley abandons the pipeline fallacy, and instead adopts a practice that continually evaluates why the industry looks the way it does. Only then will we start to see sustainable progress.

[00:29:30] Thank you. Really. Thank you for listening to episode three of Culture Fit. We'd also like to thank our guests who recorded the interviews for this episode: Mo Hampton, Mariah Driver, Stephanie  Lampkin, Kimberely Johnson, Josh Torres, LeRon Barton, Olatunde Sobomehin, Sinduja Rangarajan, Sydney Sykes, Jacqueline Gibson, and Catherine Bracy.

[00:30:00] If you want to find links to the work of our guests, you can visit our website. It's all-turtles.com/podcast. If you could just take a moment, it'll mean the world to us if you share Culture Fit with your friends and colleagues or someone that could really benefit to hear from these stories. When you recommend the show to other people, it allows the voices of our guests to reach a larger audience. And we really appreciate that. Thank you to Marie McCoy-Thompson for producing, editing, and [00:30:30] co-writing the show. Thanks to Jim Metzendorf for mixing, and thank you to Dorian Love for the amazing music. I'm Darien Boyd, and I'll catch you in episode four, where we'll be talking about why technology is everything but neutral.