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Sunday 21 September 2014

Who's hiring who? How to get that dream tech job

Published 17/08/2014 | 02:30

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Apple CEO Tim Cook
Apple CEO Tim Cook

Is the lack of diversity in tech companies a growing problem? If so, how much of it can be put down to tech firms' increasingly scientific methods of hiring people?

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Last week, Apple chief executive Tim Cook said he was "not happy" with the mostly white, male makeup of the company's 98,000 employees. His company's experience is similar to most other large tech firms: a preponderance of upper-middle-class men. But there are some indications that the means of arriving at this elite are very different from discriminatory methods in other industries.

For finance, law, construction and many other 'old' businesses, there's still a perception that a school tie or a respected name can ensure a senior role without possessing much talent. The same goes, many charge, for gender bias. The tech industry appears not to suffer from this type of old-boy network to the same degree. But that doesn't mean that there's any less of a problem.

Indeed, the absence of easily identifiable underlying biases - such as nepotism - makes tackling inclusion issues all the more difficult.

This is because the imbalances in tech firms may be due as much to anal hiring processes -that increasingly stress "culture" as a defining point - as anything else.

"We're looking for people who we think will fit in with the culture here," one Facebook boss told me recently. "There are a lot of aspects to that."

Many roles emphasise "aptitude" and 'fitting in with the team' as much as qualifications or previous experience. That's shorthand for different things in different companies.

Certainly, several big multinational tech firms located in Ireland now look well beyond a CV when recruiting new people. This can extend to social media feeds, online activity and other evidence of extracurricular hobbies.

Not only is this not unusual in tech circles, it is celebrated. The noted Silicon Valley investor Bill Tai, who has backed A-list digital companies such as Tango, Tweetdeck and Voxer, recently expounded on why he 
backs people who are willing to try his favourite sport, kitesurfing.

"What I found is that it [kitesurfing and its lifestyle] becomes a magnet for super interesting younger tech folks that are differentiated by an interest in extreme sports and who have often been successful their whole lives," said Tai. "For me, it has become a good filter and a flywheel for attracting people who achieve great results."

All of this could be defined as the simple pursuit of zero defects, in the best engineering tradition.

And companies are surely entitled to maximise the qualities they look for in candidates.

But where does "the right culture" start to interfere with the notion of diversity? Can a company's "culture" extend to avoiding the hiring of overweight people? Or people with mental illnesses? Or people from ethnic backgrounds that aren't properly represented in a company's reference datasets?

Unfortunately, hard data on diversity in Irish companies is hard to come across. Take ethnic origin. The 2011 Census recorded 13,698 "non Irish" people working in "information and communications" industries here (compared to 52,983 Irish people). Of the "non-Irish", 2,776 were from the UK, 1,081 were German and 580 were Indian. That only 176 were Nigerian and 162 were Romanian seems to raise a flag, until the same table reveals that just 361 were from the US and 128 were Australian.

Official figures, then, aren't that much help in sniffing out diversity red flags here.

"It's something we don't have great figures on," says Kara McGann, senior policy officer in Ibec, who has been working with companies on diversity initiatives. "This is a shame, as it does come up regularly."

McGann says that some big firms do take diversity programmes seriously, particularly on gender issues. She references Dell, IBM and Google among the companies that take part in regular school visits to talk about opportunities for women in technology.

Other initiatives fraying at the edges of tech stereotypes include an all-girls chapter of the kids' computer coding club, Coderdojo, in north Dublin's DCU.

There are many reasons to think that diversity in tech firms will represent a tougher challenge than glass ceilings in other industries, where attitudes seem to change for the better as time rolls by. Tech presents its workforce as bright, young teams getting things done. It is hardening its hiring practices on what type of person makes a good worker. It will be hard to fight.

Sunday Indo Business

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