Diversity in tech: Company leaders talk ‘black tax,’ recruiting, retention, and impostor syndrome

Real Talk, a speaker series from technical recruiting startup Karat, hosted an event Thursday in Seattle at Airbnb’s office. From left: Rafael Williams, Salehah Hassan, Anthony Skinner, Kenneth Massada and Rokeya Jones. (GeekWire Photo / James Thorne)

For all of the talk around bringing more diversity to tech, black and Hispanic employees remain vastly underrepresented at some of the world’s largest tech firms.

Tech leaders from Twitter, Google, Microsoft, iSpot.tv and Airbnb took this issue head-on at an event this week at Airbnb’s Seattle office and offered advice to companies and employees. The discussion was part of a speaker series called Real Talk, which aims to foster honest conversations about diversity in tech.

Portia Kibble Smith. (Karat Photo)

The brains behind Real Talk is Portia Kibble Smith, who launched the program out of Seattle-based technical interviewing startup Karat. Smith has worked at tech companies her whole career — she was with IBM when it developed its first personal computer and with Sprint during its first cell phone launch — and knows that years of conversations around diversity haven’t moved the industry toward a solution.

“People have superficial conversations about what it means to be diverse, or what they want their company to be. And they’re not having the real talk about what does that role look like in order for it to be successful,” said Smith. “Everybody has to take part in it. It’s not just one person’s job.”

Connecting to candidates

Several speakers mentioned that employers need to show potential candidates that they are welcome, both through recruiting materials and the recruiters themselves.

“Retention is so important. It really starts at the beginning,” said moderator Rokeya Jones, a senior principal PM at Microsoft.

It’s equally important to make sure that candidates understand and can connect with the mission of the company.

Kenneth Massada, a senior solutions engineer at Google, recalled a time when a recruiter sent him a Baltimore Ravens jersey during the recruitment process. But it wasn’t the jersey of his hometown team that caught his interest — it was an email asking him to work at the company because he could help increase access for disabled people.

“My sister, who is a surgeon, comes to me and she says something along the lines of, ‘I went to work and I saved a life.’ I can’t come back home and tell that story,” said Massada. “The best recruiting is when someone understands the human aspect of what their company provides.”

Rethinking recruitment

To find computer engineers who will succeed at a company, Anthony Skinner said that his company, iSpot.tv, has done away with the high-pressure “whiteboard tests” that are common throughout the tech industry. Instead, he lets candidates pick their own coding tests.

“You get to pick your homework. You bring it into us, and we just review your code and talk to you. So it’s just a hangout,” said Skinner, chief of engineering and product at iSpot.tv. “It’s really not about trying to weed you out and see if you’re a fit. It’s what’s your passion, and how passionate are you.”

Salehah Hassan, a technical recruiting manager at Airbnb, emphasized the importance of building relationships with candidates.

“If you do reach out to a candidate, it’s not about, ‘Hey, I want to talk to you about a position,’”he said. “It could be, ‘Hey, let’s grab a coffee and learn more about what you’re interested in.’”

Overcoming impostor syndrome

Reaching diverse groups often means putting in additional effort, said Rafael Williams, a technical recruiting programs manager at Twitter. Williams said that when he recruited college students, many kids felt like an impostor, and it was often necessary to have “that extra push and that extra level of love and empathy for them to really get them in the door.”

Even people of color who have worked in tech for years can still feel like an impostor, Williams said. To retain talent, companies should be more empathetic to what employees need to do their best work.

“You’ve all heard the quote: diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being invited to dance,” Williams said. “But it goes further than that. It’s being asked to dance how you want to dance. … That’s the retention piece.”

Shouldering the “black tax” and finding support

The speakers also talked about the “black tax,” which is the idea that people of color have to work harder than their peers for the same results. Sometimes, this can come in the form of extra responsibilities like speaking at events or participating in the recruitment of diverse candidates.

Jones said this could sometimes be viewed as a privilege since it can let diverse employees fill important gaps at the company. But the added work is also a tax — requiring employees to spend more time doing extra work outside of their normal responsibilities.

Several speakers echoed the need for employees to find communities and advocates within an organization.

In his first management role, Williams went through a period when he doubted his ability to do the job. “I tapped into every person in my network, and they helped guide me through it,” he said.

Jones talked about how climbing the corporate ladder is easier with a core group who can give support. “I’ve found it strategically important to have a friend in HR, a friend in benefits … and number one, you need a friend on your boss’ staff,” she said.

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