Megan Smith Wants to ‘Debug’ Tech’s Diversity Problem

United States CTO Megan Smith

United States CTO Megan Smith Flickr user Internet Education Foundation

The U.S. chief technology officer said she remains hopeful about the prospects for change -- especially in Silicon Valley.

As an executive with Google’s secretive research arm, Megan Smith spearheaded the company’s “Solve for X,” an in-house think tank, which focused on using technology to come up with radical solutions to big problem.

Now, as the Obama administration’s third chief technology officer -- and the first woman to hold the position -- Smith has another of these so-called “moonshot” ideas: dismantling the digital ceiling that has limited the participation of women and minorities in the nation’s technology workforce and stifled diversity in some of the country’s most innovative companies.

"It's the moonshot of this time, right? And we're in the middle of it,” Smith said last week at a New America Foundation event on the lack of diversity in the tech sphere. “We're going to debug this. I believe we'll get there.”

It’s a problem that’s garnered heaps of negative headlines for Silicon Valley companies.

Women at Apple, Facebook, Google and Twitter make up barely 30 percent of those tech giants’ workforce, according to a Bloomberg analysis last summer. At Google, black and Hispanic employees make up barely more than 10 percent of the workforce, respectively, and fewer than 5 percent at the others.

Still, Smith said she remains hopeful about the prospects for change -- especially in Silicon Valley.

“Of all the industries, it's an industry that is data driven and it is innovative -- and it moves fast once it sees what the problem is,” she said. “And I think there's a waking up going on."

Cracking the code on creating diverse workforces is about doing the right thing, but it isn’t only about altruism, Smith suggested.

“All of the math shows that products are better, companies are better, financial performance -- everything's better with a diverse team,” she said. “I think especially for our most pressing problems, whether it's poverty or cybersecurity, the more diverse the team, the better we are going to be to kind of protect ourselves and advance society in the ways that we need to do by getting this figured out."

The statistics are clear, though -- it’s not a problem confined to Silicon Valley.

For example,  women make up about 44 percent of the federal workforce, but only about 30 percent of IT jobs governmentwide, according to federal data. At NASA nearly 80 percent of aerospace engineers are men and at the Federal Communications Commission, nearly 90 percent of the agency’s electronics engineers are men.

The role of government in tackling the problem should be that of “convener,” Smith said, “sort of like the angels investors of venture capital -- find the person with a great idea and get them scaled."

There’s no shortage of great ideas. Over the past few years, a plethora of funds, firms and companies -- not to mention workshops, boot camps and hack-a-thons -- have sprung up, focused on building a better and more diverse pipeline to the tech industry.

But here’s where some policy setting might come in handy.

"We actually don't have a standardized competency -- not certification -- but competency that essentially handles risk mitigation both for the jobseeker and the employer,” said Aliya Rahman, program director for Code for Progress. Her organization works to recruit women and people of color from community organizing and social-activism circles, provide them the proper training and send them off to tech fields.

“Employers [say], 'I want to hire a junior developer who is a Python ninja,'" Rahman said, referring to the programming language. "Actually, that means nothing, to be honest."

Coming up with standardized ways to measure certain skill sets might change that.

"That's also really important because this is an industry that values: Show me what you built, not just your degree,” Rahman said.