Saturday, June 01, 2013

How To Overcome Silicon Valley

There seems to be an endless stream of articles these days on two closely related topics. The shortage of people in technology who are not white or Asian males and the overall shortage of people in technology. It seems clear that if we had anything like the percentage of women and non-Asian males learning computer science and looking for jobs in the field we wouldn’t have any shortage at all. The big tech companies wouldn’t be asking for more H-1B visas and we’d have a greater diversity of people and thoughts in the field.

So I have a theory that the geographic area that first gets a good handle on training these demographics will have the best chance of becoming the new center of the tech universe. Here’s my logic. The businesses go where there is the right combination of talent and money. Sometimes the money moves to find that talent and sometimes the talent moves to where the money is. But money moves more easily than talent. People move where they are comfortable. Microsoft is in the Seattle area because that is where Bill Gates and Paul Allen felt most comfortable.

Suppose you created an area where really smart creative women and other groups not well represented in technology felt comfortable what do you suppose would happen? I think you’d get something new and exciting. The best way to do that is to grow the talent in place. Personally I think this could happen in New York City. Yeah, I know tech pundits like to put NYC down as a place for technology but hear me out.

New York is home to a large creative population. The arts. The theatre. Fashion. Advertising and much more. As for education, New York City has more college students than Boston has people! It is also incredibly diverse demographically. The current mayor has been a big promoter of bring more tech to the City as well (and this is key) adding it to the school system. There is the Academy for Software Engineering (AFSE)  that is now finishing up its first year. A similar school as well as special new programs in 20 other high schools and middle schools will be starting in the fall. Imagine if all 400+ high schools in the city had a real computer science program? It could happen.

Let’s look at something else. The tech companies that are in the city including local offices of big companies like Google, Facebook and Microsoft and a good many startups are embracing the idea of supporting more CS education locally. This includes in schools with many of these companies supplying mentors to AFSE. Some are starting to send engineers to the classroom though the Microsoft sponsored TEALS program. Outside of schools many of these same companies are looking to help programs like Girls Who Code which ran its first program in NYC last summer. Where may this lead to in a few years? Anyone’s guess but I think it has huge potential for the city.

Could this happen in other places? Sure. And I really hope it does.

To supplant Silicon Valley a geography needs more than just talent and money though. They need a lot of creativity. That is the edge that I think a more diverse set of talent can bring to the table. We have seen research that shows that mixed gender teams are more creative and productive than all male teams. We know that companies of all type benefit from gender and racial diversity. Silicon Valley has a huge male dominated culture that is not going to be easily changed. Companies can work hard (and some are) to recruit more women into the field but it is going to be an uphill battle. The culture that exists and to some extent defines Silicon Valley is not female friendly. Actually its not all that friendly to people who want a life outside of work!

My personal opinion is that the field desperately needs more diversity of people. I think it is critical for the future of technology growth. While things look fine I think a kick provided by a big jump in diversity could really rocket things along. I hope it happens.


Jabba T. Spud said...

The thing that will be hard to replicate for Silicon Valley is the massive amount of personal networking that happens here for free. Because the density of tech workers is so high and the proclivity of them to jump someplace new, you literally go to a new place for lunch and run into someone you know.

Alfred Thompson said...

As a native New Yorker what always struck me about Silicon Valley is how spread out everything is. :-)