Dabbling at Diversity

Vincent Estacio, 29, is an up-and-coming systems administrator at Sun Microsystems Inc. in Mountain View, Calif. In August, he graduated from a community-college-based program that trains minorities with IT potential, and now he's working full-time on Sun's systems migration team.

Sun reached out to local Latinos and found Estacio, and that has made all the difference to his career. Although Silicon Valley tends to see itself as a meritocracy that's bias-free, the Sun example is an exception rather than the rule.

Advocates say the region still includes too many firms whose posture toward workplace diversity is passive at best.

In an area where blacks and Latinos are underrepresented in IT companies by approximately 50%, passivity isn't good enough.

Diversity 101

Simmons Associates Inc.

(www.simmonsassoc.com), a diversity consulting firm, suggests taking the following basic corporate diversity initiatives:

Establish networks with minority colleges.

Offer internships and scholarships.

Sponsor job fairs in minority communities.

Develop partnerships with minority student professional groups or corporate organizations.

Develop partnerships with minority organizations.

Develop community outreach programs.

Tap all known Web sites where resumes of diverse groups of individuals might be found.

Ensure that all interviewing practices are fair and legal.

"There are companies who are talking the talk," says one recruiter who works in the valley, "but when they realize what it takes to walk the walk, they don't have the resources - or the commitment - to do it."

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, African-Americans and Latinos make up 8% and 14% of the region's available workforce, respectively, yet they make up only 4% and 7% of the employees at 33 leading Silicon Valley firms.

But Silicon Valley executives swear they'll hire anyone who can "talk and smile," as one put it. And some point to the same study, which showed Asian-Americans holding 28% of the Silicon Valley jobs despite making up only 21% of the overall workforce.

The overrepresentation of Asians and the increasing visibility of Indians make for rosy statistics that fail to illustrate that African-Americans, Hispanics and others, though often welcome, frequently find themselves across the digital divide without a bridge.

"There's lots of diversity in the IT world," says Ruben Barrales, CEO of Joint Venture Silicon Valley Network, a San Jose nonprofit collaboration of high-tech companies and local government focused on workforce development and education.

"But when you look at traditionally underrepresented groups like Hispanics and African-Americans, the numbers are different."

Knowing the Ropes

At Sun, Byron Gutierrez is a Solaris "gatekeeper" who evaluates new features or patches and integrates them into main code. He says Sun is - and has to be - color-blind.

"It's hard to find people," Gutierrez explains. "If I can find a qualified engineer, [race] just doesn't matter. You just need someone to do the work."

Even so, Gutierrez says many minorities have no one to show them the ropes of the IT world. Using himself as an example, Gutierrez says he discovered a talent for IT while playing around with an Apple II in college.

"But I had no idea you could be paid for this," Gutierrez says. "No one I knew knew anything about computers. To them, an IT career was like a philosophy degree: What are you supposed to do with it?"

When he graduated with a math and computer science degree and got his first job in IT, Gutierrez never questioned whether his salary was fair. "Hispanics don't do a good job of negotiating," he says. "When somebody tells you what the job pays, you assume it's the truth."

When a friend in human resources tipped him off that he was being underpaid by about half, Gutierrez tried to move up. But he found that his perceived value in the company and on the job market was tied to his low salary. Eventually, he got a good offer from Oracle Corp. with a 50% raise, and he later moved to Sun, where he mentors younger Latinos. "I make sure they're educated," he says.

"Everybody supports diversity in hiring, and I think they are absolutely honest," says Barrales. "But the challenge is finding those candidates who may be qualified."

Hispanic and African-American students often get tracked out of science and math as early as elementary school, Barrales says. As a result, "African-American and Hispanic kids are not reaching high academic performance along with their peers in the Asian and white communities, and to get these IT jobs, you need these basic skills," he says.

Finding and boosting minorities with IT potential is the goal of organizations like Joint Venture. With the help of local community colleges, along with the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Labor, Oracle and Sun, the group is supporting an effort to provide IT training to Silicon Valley residents from underrepresented populations that's partially funded by H-1B visa fees.

One such program was this summer's two-month "boot camp" at Evergreen Valley Community College in San Jose. The 16 male and 12 female students represented 15 Latino, three African-American, three Pacific Islander, four Vietnamese and three Caucasian students between the ages of 17 and 45.

The students, who needed to be computer-literate going into the program, went through two months of eight- to 12-hour days, seven days a week. "And every one of them hung in there," says instructor Henry Estrada.

Most are now working as junior Unix or Solaris systems administrators while continuing to expand their skills at Evergreen.

Estacio, a graduate of the Evergreen program, says skills are the key to getting a job in Silicon Valley. "They are after knowledge, and that's it," Estacio says, adding that he doesn't feel his ethnicity was a factor in his hiring or that it will be in his success.

Not So Fast

But absence of bias isn't enough, says John W. Templeton, a co-convener of the Coalition for Fair Employment in Oakland, Calif.

"It's pretty clear that companies have not been engaged in any of the most basic behaviors one would undertake if attempting to recruit African-Americans or Latinos," Templeton says.

Templeton notes that when the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering and the National Black MBA Association held their annual meetings in California this year, the number of Silicon Valley firms that showed up to recruit could be counted on one hand.

William Spriggs, director of research and public policy at the National Urban League Inc. in New York, agrees. "You see lots and lots of companies that use our site to recruit workers, but none from Silicon Valley," he says. "They don't come to our conferences either. There seems to be a total ignorance of how you do diversity."

Raising the H-1B visa cap is also a step backward, Spriggs says. "When 12 [corporate] people are handling H-1B and two people are doing diversity, you get a clear signal about the intent of the company," he says. "You can't always claim they discriminate, but it's clear they show no commitment."

Templeton says that San Francisco-area African-Americans are much more likely to work in IT departments in non-high-tech companies that do reach out.

"When you go to a Black Data Processors Association meeting in the Bay area, it's held at Kaiser," Templeton says, "and the people work for PG&E, Wells Fargo - places like that. We have more black programmers at area banks than in Silicon Valley."

The Coalition for Fair Employment last year filed a class-action civil rights complaint against 1,400 Silicon Valley companies, claiming that as many as 90% of high-tech firms in the valley don't even bother to file required Equal Employment Opportunity forms with the Department of Labor.

The dearth of American Indians in Silicon Valley is more a matter of supply and demand than it is lack of commitment, says Everett Chavez, director of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society in Albuquerque, N.M.

"Companies [including Intel and IBM] have partnered with us to help students with scholarships, internships and co-op type programs, but we just can't crank them out fast enough," Chavez explains.

For example, Applied Materials Inc. in Santa Clara, Calif.; Silicon Graphics Inc. in Mountain View, Calif.; and Sun, the only Silicon Valley-based companies to rank among Fortune's Top 50 for Minorities, claim that American Indians make up a meager .3%, .2% and .4% of their workforces, respectively.

But Sam Sekaquaptewa, a Hopi who started at San Jose-based Cisco Systems Inc. right after graduating from Arizona State University in Tempe, says he has no complaints. Four years and two promotions later, he's an internetwork project engineer.

"It seems like a color-blind place to work," he says. "If you perform well, you'll do well."

Beyond Tolerance

Since the San Francisco area is one of the country's most welcoming to lesbian and gay people, many firms are sensitive to the needs of this community.

Many of the leading IT firms there include sections on sexual orientation in their nondiscrimination policies. More telling, firms such as Hewlett-Packard Co., Intel Corp., Sun, Oracle, Apple Computer Inc. and Seagate Technology Inc. in Scotts Valley, Calif., among others, back up their words with domestic-partner health benefits.

But Charles Lickel, general manager of IBM's Silicon Valley Lab in San Jose, says just tolerating gays and lesbians isn't enough. Real diversity requires building a work environment where differences are discussed openly in a positive light and embraced by leadership, he says.

"We're an environment where the demand for technical skills is more and more and the shortage of those skills is greater and greater," says Lickel, who is gay. "You need to build that environment or you can't draw from the entire pool, and we will fail as a business if we don't."

The situation in the valley may be best illustrated by the words of a vice president at a small start-up who, like most of his peers, says he would fight discrimination if he saw it.

"Technology is largely a meritocracy," says the vice president, who asked to remain anonymous. "If you find someone who can write Java code, you hire him. The farthest thing from your mind is ethnic differences."

But pressed on the specifics of his company, he acknowledged that this laissez-faire approach cuts two ways. The company workforce, he says, is "a bunch of 20-year-old, ethnically alike guys."<.p>


Project Hired (disabilities) Location: Santa Clara, Calif. Phone: (408) 557-0880 Web: www.projecthired.org

California Business Leadership Network Location: Santa Cruz, Calif. Phone: (831) 457-2709 Web: www.cabln.org

Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers Location: Los Angeles Phone: (323) 725-3970 Web: www.shpe.org

National Society of Black Engineers Location: Alexandria, Va. Phone: (703) 549-2207 Web: www.nsbe.org

The IndUS Entrepreneurs/ TIE Silicon Valley Location: Santa Clara, Calif. Phone: (408) 567-0700 Web: www.tie.org

The National Technical Association Inc. Web: www.ntaonline.org

National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering Inc. Location: New York Phone: (212) 279-2626 Web: www.nacme.org

iMinorities Inc. Location: New Orleans Phone: (504) 523-0154 Web: www.iminorities.com

Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science Location: Santa Cruz, Calif. Phone: (831) 459-0170 Web: www.sacnas.org

National Society of Hispanic MBAs Location: Dallas Phone: (877) 467-4622 Web: www.nshmba.org

American Institute for Managing Diversity Location: Atlanta Phone: (404) 302-9226 Web: www.aimd.org

Rainbow/Push Coalition's Silicon Valley Project Location: San Jose Phone: (888) 506-3617 Web: www.rainbowpush.org

BDPA IT Thought Leaders (formerly Black Data Processing Associates) Location: Largo, Md. Phone: (301) 350-0001 Web: www.bdpa.org

PlanetOut Corp. (gay/lesbian) Location: San Francisco Web: www.planetout.com

Compiled by Computerworld research manager Mari Keefe

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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