Conquering the Tech Frontier

Howard University student taking photograph with tech entrepreneur

Diversity has not been one of Silicon Valley's strong points. But as a new generation of technology professionals prepares to enter the workforce, that may be changing. Howard University is playing a role in creating more opportunities for all.

While African Americans make up 12 percent of the workforce in the United States, in 2015 they accounted for 2.2 percent of the technology workforce in Silicon Valley. Some of the country's biggest tech firms have expressed a desire to reverse those trends. For example, Facebook, in 2016, committed to giving $15 million to Code.org, an organization that promotes access to computer science among minority students.

One reason that may contribute to the disparity is the fact that many technology companies have in the past focused their recruitment efforts on universities like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon rather than Historically Black Colleges and Universities, which produce nearly 30 percent of African-American students with bachelor’s degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fi elds. However, HBCUs are now getting an opportunity to experience Silicon Valley fi rst-hand, thanks to a new Howard initiative with Google called Howard West.

Expanding the Bison Reach

In January, Howard announced that it would expand an academic partnership with Google to allow 100 rising juniors from Howard and partner HBCUs to participate in a yearlong immersive program that would allow students to work side-by-side with Google employees. Beginning in the 2018-19 academic year, students will gain yearlong access to a dedicated workspace on Google’s Mountain View campus, as well as receive a stipend to cover living expenses. The announcement follows a successful three-month pilot program that students in Howard’s computer science program took part in last summer.

In addition to giving students a firsthand look at what it’s like to work in the heart of Silicon Valley at one of the premier technology firms in the world, Howard West gives the University a visible presence on the West Coast.

There are many benefi ts associated with expanding Howard’s geographic presence, said Howard University President Wayne A. I. Frederick (B.S. ’92, M.D. ’94, M.B.A. ’11). For one, students get the opportunity to assimilate in the professional atmospheres of the industries they are interested in. In this case, students won’t be limited by geography, so they will have some of the sameopportunities as students of schools located near Silicon Valley, such as Stanford University or the University of California, Berkeley. As a result, students can “infiltrate the industry with world-class talent from Howard who can provide unique and diverse perspectives,” Frederick said.

Google credits Howard for coming up with the vision and setting the groundwork to make the program happen. When the announcement was made, Bonita Stewart (B.A. ’79), Google’s vice president of global partnerships, said, “Howard West will continue Howard’s tradition of providing unprecedented access to opportunity, only now with a presence in the heart of Silicon Valley.” Howard and other HBCUsare also uniquely positioned to lead diversity efforts in Silicon Valley.

“HBCUs are a critical component in Google’s overall diversity efforts because they proportionally generate the largest number of Black U.S. STEM college graduates and have significantly improved Google’s intern diversity hiring,” said Gozie Nwabuebo, Google’s Team Lead for Howard West.

The Evolution of the Program

Howard West isn’t Howard’s first experience with Silicon Valley. Howard and Google have worked together through a longstanding partnership called the Google in Residence program. Under that initiative, Google engineers are embedded as faculty at Howard and other HBCUs.

“That not only gave Google an idea of the student body and the kinds of students Howard attracts, but more importantly, it allowed our students to glimpse engineers and interact with them,” said Harry Keeling, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science.

Howard West is a natural extension. In 2017, the inaugural summer, Howard sent 27 rising juniors to take four courses over the 12-week period. For the students, the summer kicked off with an opening ceremony, in which they got to meet top Google executives, such as CEO Sundar Pichai. Each student was also paired with a mentor from Google who could offer guidance throughout the summer.

The students had the opportunity to see what a typical day in Silicon Valley might look like, said Christina Robinson, a computer science major who will graduate in 2019. All the classes had one Howard faculty member who would teach along with one designated Google staffer. Lab assignments were developed by Google employees, giving students an opportunity to tackle real-world problems.

“We would get a lecture and a lab on a particular subject and then have to apply what we learned,” Robinson said. Classes started at 9 a.m. and ran until 3 p.m. Then students would spend time in the lab between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. In the evenings, they worked on homework assignments that tested their knowledge of the day’s lessons and often had to turn the assignments in before midnight. While intense, the program showed students that it takes hard work to excel in the industry, yet their confidence increased as they realized how well prepared they were to get the job done.

Students weren’t the only ones to benefit. A faculty in-residence component allowed Howard professors to work side by side with Google engineers to understand some of the biggest problems the industry is currently working to solve. As a result, Howard faculty could then bring that knowledge back to revise and update the computer science curriculum so that it, too, can keep pace with the lightningquick changes in the world of technology.

“This newly developing educational paradigm is holistic in nature,” said Achille Messac, Ph.D., Howard University dean of the College of Engineering and Architecture. “It firmly maintains the theoretical rigors of traditional higher education, while injecting the pragmatic aspects of the corporate world and practical computer science.”

Studying Google’s culture provided some interesting insights, said Gloria Washington, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Howard University Department of Computer Science.

“It’s fail fast and recover quickly. You’re encouraged to try solutions in a fastpaced environment, but even if you fail, you learn from it and you recover quickly by trying something else,” she said.

Getting Howard students comfortable with the prospect of failure and teaching them how to catapult from that failure to a better solution is one of the keys to career success, Washington added.

Measuring the Outcomes

It’s one thing to watch “The Internship,” a movie about two salesmen who land an internship at Google, and another to actually live the experience. Robinson admits that the Howard West residency was nothing like what she imagined it would be. The program “enabled me to see my strengths and weaknesses as a student compared to other people who I’m essentially competing against,” Robinson said.

Another benefit was the real-world experience, said Leland L. Burge III, Ph.D., a professor in the Howard University Department of Computer Science. 

“They’re actually working on a team, and Googlers are on that team,” he said. “So, they have a project leader, they have a project manager, a team lead, and they have other Googlers, and they’re all asking for deliverables.”

In other words, students get a taste of the real-world pressures that come with a technology career.

“Having them immersed in that type of situation better prepares them for what it will be like when they actually leave and go out to become employees,” Burge added.

Google also touted the first year’s accomplishments. “The inaugural summer exceeded our expectations in many ways, and we’re excited to take everything we learned to make the next session even better,” Nwabuebo said. “Students and faculty noted both the rigor and degree of immersion in life at Google as the program’s most compelling aspects— and the Googlers involved said there was a true exchange of knowledge, culture and understanding.”

Howard West is also helping to address the industry’s diversity problem. For example, one of the biggest barriers to getting a job in the tech industry is the hiring process, which involves a

challenging technical assessment called a whiteboard interview, in which applicants must solve coding problems in real-time on a whiteboard. Thanks to insights from the residency, Howard now has a course that will help students prepare for whiteboard interviews.

There is also a benefit to the community at large, said Howard University Provost and Chief Academic Offi cer Anthony K. Wutoh, Ph.D. “Because there is such a reliance on the use of computers and technology that it crosses almost every discipline, we felt that this is a waythat the University could have signifi cant impact.”

The greatest measure of success will take some time to realize, as graduates set out on their career paths.

“The ultimate outcome is for more people of color and diverse backgrounds to be hired in the tech industry,” Frederick said. “Howard University will serve as a catalyst for this change.”

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