That jobs in technology services are in vogue is hard to dispute. In 2009, of the 56 million people over the age of 25 who earned bachelors degrees, nearly 20 million of them were in STEM fields. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the amount of employed software developers alone is expected to grow by about 72 percent between 2010 and 2020. The salary associated with these jobs makes them hard to resist: in 2011, the median income for a software developer was around $95,000. But with all of this growth and interest in computer systems related jobs, the greatest barrier to entering these industries may be the businesses themselves.
From the get-go, breaking into a tech startup is an esoteric nightmare. In lieu of traditional interview processes, these tech-startups, primarily endowed to young white and asian men, have replaced the suit and tie and hand shaking with a “hang-out” style interview that displays a clear disconnect between companies and their applicants. A blog entry by Jason Freedman of San Francisco startup 42floors (where according to their website he is employed as “The Director of Vibes”) perhaps illustrates this best:
I asked her how she was doing in the interview process and she said, “I’m actually still trying to get an interview.”
“That’s weird.” I told her. “I thought you had already met with them a few times.”
“Well, I grabbed coffee with the founder, and I had dinner with the team last night, and then we went to a bar together.”
I chuckled. She was clearly confused with the whole matter. I told her, “Look, you just made it to the third round”.
It’s clear that employers don’t believe the onus is on them to change their interview process even if it’s mired in complicated practices exclusive to their bubble. This isn’t to say that being able to hang out with your fellow employees is a bad thing, but with an interview process like this imagine who falls through the cracks; what if the applicant doesn’t drink? What if the applicant commutes or takes the bus and can’t make time to get coffee on a whim? What if the applicant were a single mother who has to be home to feed her children and can’t spend her night getting dinner and drinks with a bunch of 20-somethings?
This interview process exemplifies what has been called the “Mirror-tocracy” of tech startups. Hiring Managers and Investors alike have employed these tactics to weed out non-desirable business opportunities because they can’t see the personal value in the people or things they are evaluating. The inevitable fallout has been a highly racialized and gendered field of tech startups that does not accurately represent the populations who hold these degrees. The problem was exemplified by a 2011 incident in which TechCrunch founder and self-proclaimed serial entrepreneur Michael Arrington said “I don’t know any black entrepreneurs”, a quote that incited serious backlash from black startups that felt that Silicon Valley was purposefully not funding black-led projects for not fitting the bill. Technology Consultant Anjuan Simmons retorted Arrington’s statement, saying “Since the industry has historically been composed of white males, this is the demographic that has reached the upper echelons of the industry, and they tend to hire, fund, and mentor the people they know: other white males.”
The Mirror-tocracy is perhaps best explained using Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of Cultural Capital. Cultural capital, as Bourdieu described it, are non-financial assets that promote social mobility beyond economic means. Cultural capital can assume many forms; style of speech, how one dresses, or physical appearance can all be forms of cultural capital. Cultural Capital is evaluated on what Bourdieu describes as “fields”, an arena in which different forms of cultural capital are pitted against one another to determine which forms of capital are considered viable or valuable to the field. For example, certain assets like formal dress and professional demeanor may be deemed valuable in a traditional office setting, however in a tech startup these forms of capital are not seen as valuable. Cultural capital how you let other people on the “field” know that you can walk the walk and talk the talk, and before you can even prove yourself in the work environment. Think of it this way: you could be the best soccer player in the world, but if you go on the field in ice skates, they won’t even let you play.
“The notion that diversity in an early team is important or good is completely wrong. You should try to make the early team as non-diverse as possible.” This quote by Paypal founder Max Levchin encompasses the ethos of the Silicon Valley hiring process. In the same speech, Max Levchin describes a case in which his company turned down a stunningly qualified applicant because he said in his free time he liked to play “hoops”. It was this choice of language, Levchin says, that let him know that this applicant wouldn’t be able to “hang” — in his own words, “No PayPal people would ever have used the world ‘hoops.'” Tech startups want employees that look, speak, and act like they do above all else, and as such have created a pseudo-meritocracy not based on knowledge of the job or the field, but knowledge of the culture.
This desire or homogeneous work environments, though perhaps convenient in the short-term, fly in the face of research suggesting that diversity is a good indicator of technological growth. If tech startups plan to capitalize on the large growth of computer service industries in the next 4 years, employers and investors are going to need a serious reality check about who they employ and how they employ them, lest they find themselves on the outside looking in.