Why Facebook is recruiting parents to help solve tech's diversity problem

Facebook hopes its new TechPrep website will help empower minority students to pursue a career in computers and technology.

Dado Ruvic/Reutes/File
A 3D-printed Facebook logo is seen in front of the logo of the European Union in this file picture illustration made in Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, May 15.

A lack of diversity is something that has bedeviled Silicon Valley for years, fueling a series of lawsuits alleging the industry can be unfairly competitive and even inhospitable for women and people of color.

On Tuesday, Facebook announced a new website that aims to tackle that problem by engaging parents, particularly of students of color.

The site, TechPrep, aims to provide parents with basic information and resources about computer programming and coding so they can encourage their children to pursue those careers.

TechPrep is bilingual, providing information in English and Spanish about career options in the tech industry, the types of study needed, and starting salaries for those careers, reports the Los Angeles Times.

The company was inspired by data showing that parents and guardians often provide key motivation for young people in black and Hispanic communities to pursue particular career options.

But, the research from advisory firm McKinsey and Co., showed, lack of access and information about computer-science often presented a significant barrier to learning more about the tech industry, a Facebook executive told the Times.

“We understood there was great underrepresentation for people like me who come from communities of color, where exposure to computer science was nonexistent and there was no way for me to even make that [career] choice,” Maxine Williams, Facebook’s global director of diversity, told the paper.

With TechPrep, Facebook aims to provide basic information and downloadable lessons aimed at kids ages “8 to 25+” in order to encourage their interest in coding and computer science, which comes on the heels of similar initiatives that aim to get more young people interested in coding from Apple and Google, the Washington Post reports.

But it’s banking particularly on the idea of engaging with parents by including an interactive tool that allows them to select their child’s age and their skill level with programming.

A cursory search of the site reveals a range of tools, including links to software like Scratch, a free programming language aimed at younger children created by the MIT Media Lab, exercises by the education software provider Khan Academy,  and Massive Open Online Courses by providers like Coursera and EdX.

But the idea of tackling the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley by labeling it a “pipeline problem” can sometimes prove controversial. When it comes to employment, some people of color who work in the industry say its not always about access and more about networking.

“It is not a pipeline issue whatsoever,” Laura Gomez, who previously worked at Twitter before founding her own software recruiting company aimed at increasing diversity at tech companies, told National Public Radio (NPR) in July.

She says the impetus for finding diverse candidates should be with companies, and especially recruiters, who sometimes hire people who come from similar backgrounds to their own – even down to the same school.

"One person will refer the person that they went to school with, and that school happens to be Stanford,” Ms. Gomez said. “And then that person happens to refer another person that happens to go to the same school.”

But Ms. Williams of Facebook says TechPrep is less aimed directly at creating a pipeline and more at larger issue of providing people of color with what she calls the “confidence” to pursue an interest in computer science or coding.

“There was great self-confidence about their own potential among Black and Hispanic learners despite their underrepresentation in the industry,” she says in a news release. For example, she adds, the McKinsey survey commissioned by the company showed that 50 percent of blacks and 42 percent of Hispanics say they “would be good at working with computers,” compared to 35 percent of whites and 35 percent of Asians.

“There is so much confidence that they have in themselves – and I come from some of these communities and know where that confidence comes from,” she told the Post. “We want to open that potential up.”

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