Sundar Pichai was announced CEO of Google couple days back and India couldn’t be any prouder (Not that he lives in India, nor he is of Indian nationality any more).
For many it reflected the glimpse of hope that Indians have in the tech industry and for many it reflected the hard work and struggles of an entire generation.
Personally, I think it’s a good time to talk about diversity in tech industry as Indians (who hardly had freedom of speech 60 years back) have made it to the top breaking barriers that would rather seem like a dream a decade or two ago.
So, let’s cut to the chase –
Satya Nadella, Sundar Pichai, Indra Nooyi et al, what do they all have in common?
There has been a lot of articles raving about the success stories of Satya Nadella, Sundar Pichai and other CEOs in the past few days, who were born in India, who became the CEOs of some of the biggest corporations in the world in the past decade.
What do they all have in common?
They all came to the US on a non-immigrant visa to get their Master’s degree.
They come from middle class families in India where they hardly had a motorcycle (let alone a car). Their families aren’t any special compared to the families of millions of other Indians in technology (including mine).
Most of our parents were born and raised in villages, who then moved to cities and even did a lot of menial labor. 90% of our parents weren’t Engineers nor knew anything about Engineering and Technology..
How are there so many Indians in tech?
It was 2002 and I was in my 9th grade when my parents bought the first computer. It was a HP machine, that had a black and white monitor and ran Windows 95. We didn’t have a car then. We didn’t have cable TV connection. We had a Solidaire TV which was suffering a slow death. We couldn’t get a dial-up modem because we weren’t able to afford the monthly bill (nor did my parents knew what internet / modem was at that time).
The reason I’m saying this is because, our parents’ generation had this overwhelming desire (you can call it an obsession even) to have their kids become Engineers. Late 90s and early 2Ks were the time when Bill Gates was in Indian newspapers almost everyday some way or the other. Not a single soul at that time would have imagined an Indian to be the CEO of a company like Microsoft (or) Google, let alone working in them.
So, how did Indians move to technology?
Desire to have their kids become engineers is one thing, but to be able to afford an Engineering degree is another. India, as we all know is a country that has caste-system and with over a billion people, affordable college education can be very challenging. But the Reservation System (the affordable system that enhances educational and other opportunities for lower castes) makes it easier for people belonging to lower castes. It makes Engineering and Technology education more affordable and available to communities that are below poverty line and increases diversity in the tech educational institutions and therefore tech workplaces.
About the availability of Engineering education – When I joined college in 2005, there were 190 Engineering colleges in my state (Tamil Nadu) that were affiliated to the State University System. By the time I graduated in 2009, there were over 300. Now there are over 550.
To give you some perspective, Tamil Nadu’s area is only 50,000 sq. miles and there are over 500 Engineering college campuses under the State University system. California is over 160,000 sq. miles and there are only 17 (let’s even say 30) Engineering college campuses that are affiliated to the State University system.
This is the reason why India produces 1.5 million engineers each year, whose surplus get employed in US, Europe etc.
Diversity in tech industry and suggestions to improve diversity
The reason for me to write this post is because, Techcrunch published this article and there has been a debate whether or not advocating diversity at the workplace is right. Even though it is necessary and can be considered right, there has been a lot of debates whether or not advocating workplace diversity (which often seems to be gender and race oriented) is the right way to bring about actual diversity.
Sure, the best person suited for the job is highly important, but the gender, race, religion etc., of the person trying to get employed should in no way influence the chance of them getting the job. If it does, then definitely the employer needs to learn about diversity.
But, this post isn’t targeting that group of people. It targets folks who advocate diversity at workplace and strongly believe that advocating diversity at workplace is best / the only solution. So here goes –
Advocating diversity in workplace (especially in the tech sector) is vital. If the Organization blatantly employs people belonging to a specific race, gender, religion, sexual orientation etc. – advocating diversity would be more than important. In which case, companies like Paradigm would need to be an integral part of the organization. But for a company that isn’t “diverse enough”, say companies like Asana or Google, who acknowledge the need to be more diverse, but aren’t diverse enough according to the standards set by the diversity advocacy groups or the society, advocating diversity isn’t the real solution.
Let’s look at race diversity and compare Indians (who are predominantly temporary visa holders in the US) and African Americans, for example –
According to the US Census Bureau, here is how the population is distributed. For this specific example, let’s look at White, Black and Asian “alone” racial ethnic groups, and classify the rest as others –
Here is the stats for people graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in Science and Engineering (excluding White, as it seems very dominant – more than 60%) provided by the NSF, including Temporary Visa Holders.
Here is the same stats for people graduating with a Master’s degree in Science and Engineering including Temporary Visa Holders.
I understand that mixing Visa holders with race makes the stats a little convoluted. Nevertheless, based on the above stats, for every African-American that graduates with a Master’s degree in Science and Engineering, there are 3 temporary residents (people like Sundar Pichai, Satya Nadella etc. including myself, who came to the US on a non-immigrant visa) graduating with a Master’s degree in the same field.
To give you more perspective, there are about 10 million people who come to the US on a non-immigrant visa each year, out of which 700 thousand people come here on student visas (F, F-1 visas etc.). Assuming the 700 thousand constitute to 20% of those who graduate with Master’s degree in Science and Engineering, there are about 250,000 African Americans graduating with a Master’s degree all over US (which is roughly about 0.6% of the African-American population in the United States).
The reason I think diversity in tech-sector is a more systemic problem (based on the above race example) is because, for every African-American (or any other racial minority group in tech sector) that wants to get employed in the tech sector, there are more temporary visa holders, let alone White Americans that are equally or more qualified to compete with them for that tech-related jobs. Even though, urging the employers to adopt diversity and employ multiple racial ethnic groups is a solution, I don’t think it is the ultimate solution if you’re advocating diversity in the tech sector.
By the way, my point here is not to point out that African-American or any other community as a minority community based on tech education. But, to point out that Engineering & Technology education isn’t the preferred education for many minorities in the tech sector. This is the same reason why you don’t find so many Indians in arts, history, geology or even sports.
Bringing minority racial groups into technology is one thing, but bringing technology to minority racial groups is another.
Here are some of my suggestions, based on the Engineering and Technology scenario in India that I hope will be useful to minority communities / diversity advocators, if they wish to bring more minorities into the tech sector –
- Engineering and Technology as a culture
- There is a saying in India – “Become an engineer and then figure out what to do in life”. Even though a lot of Indians are proud with that saying, it is very unhealthy for the current generation of Indians. The reason being, a lot of non-tech related fields have very few to zero resources. For example, classrooms for literature, history, arts classes are nearly empty these days.
- But the disadvantages of the tech related cultural obsession aside, there are lots of Indians who are excelling in the tech sector thereby contributing significantly to their community and especially to their corresponding middle classes.
- When there is a growing population of Engineers from a certain community, ethnic group etc., the society will automatically adapt itself for that specific community / ethnic group.
- To increase the number of engineers in a community, the first step should be taken by the parents in influencing their kids towards a tech education.
- Making Engineering more available
- Community Colleges are great, but I’ve always hated the fact that there aren’t places like NIIT, Aptech etc., here in the US.
- Even though there are many online schools (Khan Academy, Code School, Pluralsight etc.,), a place like KUMON for example, that offers courses on Web Development, System Administration etc., which would eventually help people get certified by Microsoft, Oracle or Cisco would go a long way and make people who want to move to tech-sector from non-tech fields more employable.
- Making Engineering more affordable
- I never really understood why prestigious institutions like Stanford, Harvard etc., have such an expensive fee structure, but Community Colleges are highly affordable. Sure, Stanford, Harvard etc., provide financial aids. But shouldn’t it be the other way round?
- Atleast that’s the way it is in IITs in India and I personally think that could make education (not only Engineering and Tech) more competitive and affordable to everyone.
As President Obama said, the US needs a “Sputnik moment” when it comes to Engineering and Technology, which I personally think should consider diversity and should be all-inclusive (race, gender, religion, sexual orientation etc.).
Anyways, these are my personal thoughts on improving diversity, specifically in the tech sector (which Indians seem to have a good handle of). I could be wrong. Please feel free to drop a comment below with your thoughts.