The Google campus in Mountain View includes over 20 restaurants that encourage a shared group table experience.
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In 2017, Lauren Clayton attended Howard West’s opening class, Google’s on-campus immersion program for black college students. She became a celebrity scholar whose big smile would grace marketing materials and news coverage.
As the only black woman in this opening class to have received a coveted internship offer from Google, she now says the program directors failed to keep the promises that inspired them to accept the offer in the first place.
“I only had positive things to say during that time, but that was before the promises were broken.”
She says a Howard West program director promised to honor an offer from Apple that would get paid for her senior year, but instead found herself with unpaid bills and a sour experience. While she said she generally enjoyed the program, she and other participants often felt that Google’s ambitions for the program took precedence over the needs of the participants.
The program is one of many initiatives by the technology industry to improve the diversity of its workforce. Today, just 3.7% of Google’s U.S. workforce is black, a small increase from 2.4% in 2014 when the company first announced its diversity numbers. Wear rates for Google’s US black employees are higher than for other demographics, with black women seeing a particular year-over-year increase in wear and tear, which is up 18%. according to the company Diversity report 2020.
This lack of diversity is reflected across the technology industry, which for several years has heralded the need and desire to hire more diverse talent. Blacks make up about 15% of the American population, but rarely more than 6% for large tech companies historically recruited from the same predominantly white institutions – though there are more than 60 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) that have computer science graduates .
Google, like many in the tech industry, has sometimes blamed inequality on the “pipeline” problem, which means there aren’t enough qualified minority candidates to fill technical roles.
To solve the problem, Google launched Howard West (since then renamed Tech Exchange) in 2017. The program directors said the program would run within five years more than 700 Students learn the experience of learning from both Howard teachers and Google employees at Google’s Silicon Valley headquarters.
“It is an opportunity for us to make sure we are building a pipeline, and most importantly, nurturing the right partnerships to drive change.” Bonita StewartSaid Google’s vice president of global partnerships.
Four years later, more than a dozen people took part in the program between 2017 and 2020 Describe a mixed record with good intentions marred by mediocre execution and shifting priorities. So far, the company has accepted fewer than 200 students under the program – far fewer than suggested in the original plan. Students also describe a hastily organized program with unclear expectations about work and work preparation, as well as cultural clashes that have often left Howard faculty to do triage.
On the positive side, almost all of the students told CNBC that they have left the program and know more than they did before. They were grateful for hands-on work experience and meeting experienced Google employees.
“I was challenged academically so I really appreciated the challenge and we went to Google headquarters so we really got that notoriety,” said Clayton.
“Hearing those buzzwords like protopuffer and inquiries and answers – theoretically I knew them from the classroom, but it was very cool to hear people talking about them every day,” said Daniel Erhabor, an international student from Nigeria (2018-19) .
After the protests by George Floyd in summer 2020, companies are placing renewed emphasis on issues of diversity and inclusion. Google’s experience with the Howard West and Tech Exchange programs shows that diversity programs require careful thought and planning, or can create new problems without addressing the underlying issues that continue to hamper diversity in the workplace.
Howard alumni, family and friends gather after the game to celebrate Howard’s 93rd annual homecoming.
NurPhoto via Getty Images
In a statement emailed, a Google spokesperson defended the program, saying that more work was to be done on it.
“”95% of students in our final grade rated their Tech Exchange experience overall as positive. We are pleased that students are seeing the value of this unique initiative, and we know there is always more work to be done. She added, “We met with HBCUs last month to discuss more ways to work together and deepen our partnership, including an ongoing focus on initiatives like this one. It’s so important to get this right. “
In a statement sent via email, Howard University said that Google has hired more than 100 interns and new graduates since the program began.
“Since 2017, Howard University has worked with Google to build a mutually beneficial pipeline where students from different backgrounds can experience the industry firsthand as they pursue their computer science education. Our existing partnership, Tech Exchange, creates Ways and Opportunities for Diversity Representation in the STEM Industry. We continue to be committed to improving the program and will work with Google to ensure it continues to be successful. “
Google and Howard University declined to delve into the specific issues raised in CNBC coverage.
In its pilot year 2017, Howard West began as a rigorous twelve-week program of challenging courses applied to students’ school grades. The students flew from Howard University, based in Washington DC, to Mountain View, California, where Google added a floor and hired a designer known for creating spaces for STEM and social justice.
Initially, the program directors hoped to graduate 100 students in their first cohort and 740 students within five years. The first twelve-week program, which ended in August 2017, completed 26 students.
While some students and faculty members said they expected the program to be experimental, it was even less organized than many thought. Participants noted frequent restructuring and turnover as well as misunderstandings regarding logistics and finance.
“It seemed to be growing way too fast, which led to major disorganization early on,” said Dr. Curtis Cain, an early Howard West faculty member who taught from the Google campus during the first iteration and participated in discussions for subsequent iterations.
“I feel like there are so many people like me who had very good intentions and wanted to please the Brown and Black students, and I think Google would be the right place to do that because it’s a billion dollar business. Company is. ” said April Curley, a former Google employee and early advisor to Howard West who later worked in Google’s diversity group, where she was the liaison officer for HBCUs. “But it wasn’t at all.”
“For the most part, people had positive intentions, but it seemed like the program moved into Google and is more interested in pumping software engineers without considering many other aspects,” added Cain.
In 2018, Google changed the name of the program to Tech Exchange, partnered with Howard University, adding students from other historically black colleges and institutions operating in Spain, and expanded it to a nine-month program. Some students and faculty said they felt the program was deviating from its original mission when it chose to include Spanish-speaking institutions, as black students face more extreme barriers to entering the tech workforce than any other race. Some said they felt disrespected for not having been consulted or notified of this change prior to arriving at Mountain View.
During the first year of the revised program, which ran from Fall 2018 to Spring 2019, 38 students took part in the entire program, while another 27 attended only one semester, so a research paper from Google.
The company was cautious about expanding too quickly and kept roughly the same headcount during its third instance of the program, which was scheduled to run for a single semester from Spring 2020. (In March, Google sent all employees home from work as Covid -19 The pandemic was increasing worldwide and the program continued virtually.)
The research paper, published in mid-2020, described another strategy shift back to a future spring semester. It was also described that technical interviews are required before students are admitted to the program, that fewer courses are offered, and that the requirements are “better clarified”.
Aside from these changes in scope and priorities, some fundamental problems appeared to be due to poor organization.
During the 2018-19 program, many students stated that they never had access to the Black Board learning management system, according to Google’s research report. Some students told CNBC they could not get access to campus maps or information about which buildings they could or could not enter. The logistics about housing, financial costs and transport are also not clearly communicated, said the students.
Students from multiple programs reported experiencing unexpected housing costs and delays of up to two months in their respective schools ‘scholarships that funded participants’ travel and stay at Mountain View. The students were not allowed to have part-time jobs, so they relied on these scholarships to cover costs there, they said.
Several attendees said they were hoarding toiletries from bathrooms and groceries from Google’s cafeteria because of the delays in scholarships. Faculty and students recalled trying to keep less perishable items like fruit and snack bars in their backpacks to eat after hours.
A big problem was the misunderstanding of what is expected of the students and what to expect from Google in return.
Students remembered 12 to 15 hour days and little time outside of the classroom. They said they often needed extra help that kept them in the Howard Professors’ office hours until late at night. Then they often went back to their homes and worked until after 10 p.m. They took courses in subjects such as algorithms, mobile application development, and machine learning, but some said the material itself wasn’t properly planned and the Google teachers were unable to teach students.
“You’d assume you already knew the material,” said 2018-19 student Garrett Tolbert, echoing others’ experiences. “I think they should make sure that students know the requirements for what they are teaching.”
There were also differences in expectations regarding post-program employment prospects. Thirty-two of the 65 students in the 2018-19 program got technical internships or jobs in the tech industry, and 15 of them ended up on Google, according to Google’s research report.
The company’s chief diversity officer, Melonie Parker, describes the program as a “unique immersion and learning experience for HBCU students and faculty” rather than an entry-level program, but many students had different expectations. Some told CNBC they were surprised they didn’t get any jobs or internships with the company at the end of the program, despite having weekly interview practice, resumed screenings, and learning about opportunities at the company. (Some graduates have been hired by other tech giants, including Microsoft and Apple).
“The students came up to me worried and asked what options there were because they didn’t have an internship or were not hired by Google,” said Dr. Gloria Washington, Professor for Howard and Tech Exchange in 2017 and program advisor and mentor in the following cohorts.
“I was hoping to get a job in technology, and I wish the field interviews were more on par with the actual interviews because it didn’t give me the false sense of hoping that I was actually fine,” said Erhabor of the class 2018-19.
Erhabor said he tried to get jobs at a few other companies after failing Google’s first interview, but eventually had to return to Nigeria without a full-time offer by the end of the semester.
Tolbert from the 2018-19 class received a semester-long internship, but was surprised when he did not receive an invitation to return. He said Parker, the chief diversity officer, mentioned his name at a company event where he claims she referred to him as a model Google employee. Tolbert said when he asked why he didn’t get a return offer, they couldn’t provide feedback due to a company policy.
Clayton said she received internship offers from Google and Google Apple, but tended to accept Apple’s because it included a scholarship that would pay their tuition for their school year. To sway them, Howard West’s then program director promised that Google would match Apple’s offer and pay for the school year by setting up a scholarship on their behalf.
“When I was trying to decide between the offers, he phoned Google’s chief diversity officer, president of Howard University, and other Google employees to persuade me to accept Google’s offer,” said Clayton. “And then he promised me that my tuition fees would be taken care of for the last year.”
After she accepted the offer, a separate Howard West employee asked her to attend a USA Today itemsand share her story with Howard University to help the school raise funds.
But as the school year approached, Clayton said the program director finally told her he couldn’t award the scholarship because she didn’t meet certain conditions. Other attendees said this particular program director made similar promises to them that he later failed to deliver. Google declined to specifically comment on these actions.
Eventually, Clayton wrote a letter to Howard’s president and received financial aid, but it wasn’t enough to keep her balance, she says.
“It left a bad taste in my mouth because the person who overlooked the program made promises and when it’s financial and you’re in school you don’t know how you’re going to graduate.”
Overall, Clayton and others said that Howard West’s then program directors were consumed by the increasing number and look of the program.
Most students said Google teachers were ready to help students if needed, but cultural clashes often led students to seek support and – sometimes – therapy from Howard faculty.
“There are often these assumptions made by Googlers that they know how to best teach students without considering demographics or HBCU teachers,” said Dr. Nicki Washington, a Duke University computer science professor who helped set up the Google In Residence program. that became the breeding ground for Howard West.
Participants gave examples of Google teachers using unclear terminology and handing out candy for correct answers.
At times, Google teachers used slides from lectures given at Carnegie Mellon – a leading private institution – with little to no context, recalled two students. Some students recalled that Google brought in engineers to share their success stories and travels without realizing they were from a top tech school like MIT or Stanford. These stories ultimately had the opposite effect as intended, lowering student confidence rather than increasing it, some said.
Almost all students said they experienced micro-aggressions on the Google campus. Several described Google employees staring at and checking ID cards more often than other people on campus. Some said they were asked if they belong there. Two program participants recalled cases where a Google employee mistook a program participant for being a member of the kitchen staff.
“It was like no one had seen an African-American person before,” said Saraah Cooper, a student from 2018-19, describing her everyday experience on the Google campus.
“A regular Google employee came into the game room and asked us for all of our IDs. We were a little confused because it wasn’t security or anything,” said 2018 scholar Afeeni Phillips.
“There was this lady standing in front of me in line for a food truck and she turned, looked me in the eye and said, ‘This line is only for Google employees – you can’t eat here,” Tolbert recalled and added He viewed the incident as a symptom of wider problems not unique to Google campus, “So I took my badge and raised it to my face because it seemed like the only place she was looking for.”
Cain said just days after the program started during the first cohort, security members stopped students riding Google’s motorcycles after someone reported they stole them. “I had to go over and ask what was going on and they were sitting on the side of the road like they were criminals,” he said. “I told you to be sure, your CEO and Vice Presidents only got started with these kids a few days ago!”
Google maintains a fleet of over 1,300 bicycles that are used to switch between the dozen of buildings on the nearly three-kilometer-long Google campus.
Brooks Kraft LLC / Corbis via Getty Images
While some students said the incidents were only a temporary distraction, they nonetheless sparked discussion and distress. “We’d have to stop what we’re doing and have a discussion because they’re not interested in learning the next software instruction after something,” said Cain. A faculty member said they had stopped a student from raising her concerns on social media.
Faculty members also described cultural conflicts between scientists from HBCUs and Google employees, saying it was at times as if employees of the company had co-opted elements of the program.
According to some attendees, Google instructors sometimes interrupted Howard faculty members during class, creating moments of tension. Faculty members reported that they were sometimes excluded from meetings and planning events, speakers, and some curriculum plans – mostly during the first year, which they believed was a crucial period.
“Feedback was not always requested or used,” said Dr. Gloria Washington.
Cain, who raised some of these concerns but felt generally ignored, finally decided to abandon the program.
“There was something in the background between the way Google wanted to run this program and how people in science who dealt with students often wanted to run it,” Cain said. (Others agreed with his assessment). “It’s never been malicious, but I think sometimes they’ve gotten so used to being a company that dominates a room where they forget other things. When these parents leave their students to come to Howard “Trust us and if something goes wrong, you won’t call the CEO of Google.”
Howard faculty members felt tension as they tried to gauge the progress of the program as well.
For a research conference in the summer of 2019, several Howard faculty members released a research proposal aimed at examining the effects of immersing HBCU students in the program. The paper also referred to Google’s low percentage of black employees, the fact that few HBCU students pass technical interviews, and that tech companies are contributing to the growing wealth gap in the US.
When Google employees found out about this, they confronted Howard’s employees. Although the paper has already been released, they said Google employees reprimanded them for not consulting the company first and threatened legal action if they didn’t make minor changes, such as adding “Howard West” to it every mention of “Tech Exchange” and “LLC” “to every” Google “reference.
Some faculty members said they viewed it as a show of force from the tech giant. “It seemed like a strategy that was keeping us from writing about it,” said Cain.
Despite these cultural clashes, most students say they are grateful for the experience and get value from the program as they have been academically challenged and got to meet interesting Google employees.
“My mentor worked for Google Daydream so he connected me to the Daydream team and I learned from them, which was really cool,” said Tolbert, who said he enjoyed the program overall.
“I met great people who gave up their time with us and really wanted us to be successful,” said Cooper, who said she learned skills that helped her with her jobs after graduation.
“I’ve been able to meet people and dig deeper into roles that I didn’t necessarily think were options for me, like UX researchers or product managers,” said Phillips.
For many, the experience was valuable outside of class as well, as students leaned heavily on each other to find solutions to academic problems and receive emotional support, resulting in a bonding experience, and sometimes in Google’s Black staff resource group , the Black Googler Network.
Former Google employee and BGN member Madison Jacobs remembers stopping by the Howard West building and speaking to a student who she noticed was struggling emotionally. “I asked her how she was doing and one of the things she said was that she wished there were more people like me to talk to,” Jacobs said.
“She explained how isolated she felt in the area and noticed a severe shortage of blacks. I will never forget that.”