Understanding the journey
“It’s fascinating to watch an industry constantly complain about a talent shortage while simultaneously clinging to the very barriers that keep eager people out.”
— April Wensel
We couldn’t agree more.
After seeing April’s tweet, we asked people to describe barriers they’ve seen. And a surprising theme emerged. A lack of economic privilege. Think low-income backgrounds. No disposable income. Non-traditional paths to tech.
We also stumbled across an idea for a conference for “people that work in tech but grew up poor.”
So, we started thinking about the role allies can play to reduce economic barriers. Here are five ideas:
1. Understand the journey
We know a college senior from East Los Angeles, a densely-populated, working class neighborhood. She’s the first in her family to go to college. And, get this, she’s studying computer science at an Ivy League school.
Want to know how she’s spent her summers during college? Working at a summer camp near her home.
When we asked her why she didn’t pursue tech internships during college, she said, “I didn’t think I was qualified. Plus I was too busy working my job at the cafeteria to fit in interviews.” That campus job was her priority, because she needed the income to make ends meet.
When hiring recent college grads, let’s not exclude someone because they didn’t have an internship at a name-brand tech company.
Instead, let’s understand their journey.
2. Be open to non-traditional educational paths
Let’s face it. There’s a certain cache to holding a degree from an elite university.
But, even with financial aid and scholarships, not everyone can afford to attend one. Nor are there enough slots to accommodate all the qualified students who apply.
Of course, some may not even think of applying to a 4-year college (elite or otherwise). Perhaps no one encouraged them, or told them about possible financial aid packages.
There are great computer science programs out there, at universities around the world. Plus 2-year intensive software engineering schools and shorter coding bootcamp programs.
Let’s be open to interviewing people from non-traditional educational paths.
3. Specify the financial support you’re providing for interview trips
We spoke to a female engineer who worked in tech for 20 years. She’d been laid off, and was starting a job search.
She told us about some leads she was pursuing, and that she’d been invited to an interview at a large company. Cool! Except that it was in a different state. Worried about finances, she declined because she didn’t want to pay for a flight and hotel to go to the interview.
We asked, “Did they say they wouldn’t pay for your interview trip?” No. She just assumed she would have to bankroll it herself. You see, she’d never been on a business trip before. And she didn’t have friends or role models who had flown to far-off cities for interviews.
Allies, let’s spell out the financial support we’ll provide for interview trips. For the newbies out there and for anyone who’s watching their pennies.
4. Be mindful of the cost of out-of-office social events
We heard from a woman who recently moved to the Bay Area for her job. Her colleagues invited her to go on a white-water rafting trip one weekend. She was tempted. It sounded like fun, and she wanted to get to know her co-workers better.
But, she said no. She had emptied her savings to move to one of the most expensive places on the planet. And still had a ton of student loan debt. She simply couldn’t afford to go.
As allies, we can suggest less expensive activities for the mix. Recommend a hike or other free event the next time the team is getting together after hours.
5. Realize the importance of job security
In tech, we love bold thinkers, risk takers, entrepreneurs. People who step outside their comfort zone. Who aren’t afraid to speak their mind. Who break the mold.
But here’s the thing. If you’re living paycheck-to-paycheck, or sending money to support your extended family, or mired in debt, you might be afraid to lose your job. Frankly, you might not want to take risks. You don’t raise your hand for a stretch assignment because it could end in a canceled project. You hold back from stating an opinion that differs from your managers. And so on.
Allies, as we mentor or give performance feedback, remember that job security might be at play. And that not everyone has the same tolerance for risk.
One last thing
Want to read more about economic privilege in tech? Check out this thread on Twitter.
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