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Q&A with Wahab Owolabi, URx founder, and Facebook Diversity Business Partner
As part of our commitment to the Black community, Karat formally launched a practice interview initiative this month, partnering with organizations like URx to help underrepresented minority students better prepare for careers in technology. This week, Wahab Owolabi, URx founder, and Facebook Diversity Business Partner, joined Karat’s Portia Kibble Smith to talk about misconceptions about recruiting software engineers from underrepresented backgrounds, and what companies entering University Recruiting season should keep in mind.
Portia: Wahab, thank you for joining us today! Can you start by sharing what you’re working on?
Wahab: Our mission at OneReq [URx’s parent company] is to build a diverse and inclusive workforce for everyone. We do this by building a community of passionate recruiters, employer marketers, and companies aligned with our mission to drive change at the entry points of the workforce. The URx ecosystem focuses on University Recruiting.
Our mission took on even more importance this year, as COVID-19 hit and took away a lot of the engineering internship opportunities that companies would normally offer/have available. This had a disproportionate impact on underrepresented students. So, in response, we launched the InternHacks program to get the aspiring engineers the experience that they were missing through our partnerships and mentorships.
It’s been really powerful to watch these students blossom and expand their professional networks in a meaningful way. We’ll be launching some additional programs under the OneReq brand in the near future to continue helping them along their professional journey.
Portia: There are so many lucky students in the program! That is actually the first thing that struck me, just how many young Black and Brown software engineers there are that are looking for careers in tech.
That leads me to a myth about diversity that always gets under my skin: that there aren’t enough talented Black or Brown software engineers for companies to hire. There is a huge population of students interested in becoming a software engineer. Yet the tech industry seems to only interview and hire a small number of them. How do you explain this gap?
Wahab: There’s no doubt that we see bias in the tech industry. But from what I see, a lot of it is based on pedigree. It’s company founders and successful engineering leaders who have an unconscious bias towards the backgrounds and profiles that they’re familiar and comfortable with. If you’re a grad of a top-10 computer science (CS) program, and you’ve only worked with other top-10 CS grads, there are cultural norms, shared experiences, and communication styles that you inherently look for when hiring.
So you’re right, it’s not a pipeline problem. Recruiters are all looking at the same pools of talent. Sure, there may not be a large pipeline of underrepresented minority students from the top-10 CS schools, but there are thousands of talent pools out there. Great schools, community colleges, and bootcamps that are all producing highly motivated technical talent.
Portia: So if diversity in tech is not a pipeline problem, where should companies be looking?
Wahab: Depends on what you’re looking for! When I was at Rubrik we were looking for talent strong in backend, distributed systems, and cloud data infrastructure. Nobody knew about Rubrik at the time and we needed to get on the map as an employer brand. We had a strategy to go to Stanford and all the usual schools, but I started looking at other places based on who had the best distributed systems labs.
I found a phenomenal one at Rochester Institute of Technology. It’s a great school, but not where most Bay Area startups were going for their tech recruiting. For our team, the talent they were producing was perfect, and at the time it was more diverse than your average top-10 CS school. But if I was just looking at the brands and the rankings like everyone else we never would have gone there and opened up that pipeline.
AWS is one company that is great at this. They have a partnership with Foothill College and a number of other CCs on their AWS certification program. That’s what this looks like at an enterprise scale, but it’s also something that smaller startups can do to create a competitive hiring advantage. I worked with Teresa Ong Associate Vice President, Workforce & CTE at Foothill to explore partnerships for our talent team.
At some point, more leaders are going to realize that fighting over the same pools of talent won’t cut it. You have to be a first mover. The same way tech companies see opportunity in venture to build new businesses and explore new markets, I don’t understand why more companies aren’t doing that same thing in talent.
Portia: What are some other ways that companies can get more creative with their recruiting?
Wahab: I like to think about it at the industry level. What we try to do at URx is to remove silos. Before URx and before our community scaled, we saw a lot of companies that would work with partner organizations. There were all these one-off events, and one-off opportunities and it was hard for students to track.
What I preach to the community is that it’s not mutually exclusive to compete for the best talent, and to collaborate to increase the amount of that talent in the market. It’s like when I think about the competing ridesharing apps, they will compete for our rides and money as fiercely as anybody, but they’ll also go to congress and collaborate to push for policies that increase the total market for their shared industry. They understand that increasing the pie is a win-win.
Why don’t we do the same in tech? I want to bring companies together to grow the talent pool.
Companies also need to stop talking about how they hire Black and Brown software engineers like it’s a different process from how they hire majority groups. Focus on putting the same effort, care, and strategy that you use for cultivating relationships with professors at top schools, and curate those same experiences where you want to build a pipeline.
Portia: That’s a great point about building relationships and networking. Connecting with people and developing relationships is something I’m passionate about, but it also has limitations. A lot of companies recruit by referral, which leads to the opportunities going to more of the same people inside existing professional networks. How do you approach referrals?
Wahab: First, if you show me a recruiter who doesn’t leverage referrals, I’ll show you a bad recruiter!
It’s just important to understand the limitations of your network. If you hire more people from different backgrounds, your referral base will diversify. If you’re already not diverse, you can’t over-index on referrals because that network won’t be diverse. You just need to be intentional about it, so as you start making progress and have a diverse base for the referrals you can lean into it more.
Portia: Retention can also be a challenge for Black and Brown software engineers, especially if companies are just starting to prioritize diversity. How do you hang on to more of the great engineers that you discover from non-traditional backgrounds?
Wahab: Just like URx is starting to shift the mindset of folks in the University Recruiting space, OneReq is shifting the mindset of companies and the tech recruiting ecosystem at large. Part of that means creating partnerships that help successfully onboard talent and help new hires find belonging. That leads to better retention, and it also eases the concerns of managers who may not want to take on entry-level talent from unfamiliar backgrounds (which gets back to the issue of pedigree bias).
Back at Rubrik my team and I built the University Recruiting program from the ground up. I remember one of our first hires, a student from The University of Illinois. I always check in on our new grads, and when I stopped by his desk, he was reading a book on Go, the language. He said things were going great, and he was excited to tackle his first project out of bootcamp. He was learning Go so he could work on it.
That’s incredible for multiple reasons.
First–wow. THAT is the kind of independently motivated learner that everyone should want on their team.
Second–he was trusted to learn the technology he needed to get the job done.
For early-career, you’re not necessarily hiring based on skill. You’re hiring based on the ability to learn. You need to be able to nurture and cultivate that. It’s less of a problem at bigger companies, but it’s a big challenge for startups that don’t have a programmatic approach to onboarding. How do you take a new grad to an entry-level software engineer? There’s a lot of work that gets put on the hiring manager and teammates and if it’s not done right, it creates barriers that lead to bias.
Portia: That’s a great point about onboarding. We always like to say that “retention starts at the interview,” and at Karat, we’re always looking at ways to improve the interview process. Are there any interview questions or steps in the hiring process that you see as being especially problematic from a diversity standpoint?
Wahab: One thing we changed at Rubrik is how we reviewed cumulative interview results. A lot of companies have a 1+1+1 interview format. You pass one, then unlock the next. But it strikes me as odd that I can get to a debrief for someone who had a good first interview, good second interview, but struggled a bit on the third. They might end up with an offer because the totality was good. But if that third interview was the first, we never would have made the offer.
We started reviewing those first-round results. If someone was borderline or the feedback was vague, we provided them an opportunity to give us another data point. That’s really all interviews are–collecting data to create an informed (and expensive) decision.
Don’t be too quick to reject based on one data point. If you have a 3-4 interview process where one or more interviews are contingent, you’re gatekeeping the opportunity off of one data point.
Portia: That’s right. At Karat, we offer our candidates the chance to redo their interviews if they’re not happy with the first showing. It’s great because it puts people at ease, and it gives companies another chance to collect data based on their precious talent pipeline.
Wahab: I love that!
I would advocate for most companies to rethink their process. You can have guidelines and frameworks, but it’s hard to be inclusive if you’re rigid. It’s hard to be inclusive if you’re not collecting as many data points as you can at scale. That’s going to create more opportunities and get more diversity into tech!
Portia: That’s the goal! Thanks again for joining us, Wahab, and looking forward to continuing our partnership with OneReq and the URx Community!
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