REDMOND, Wash. – May 29, 2008 - Microsoft Director of Diversity Recruiting Kelly Chapman recalls taking six female African American employees on the road earlier this year to talk about their experiences working for the company to a meeting of the North Atlantic chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority for female African American college students. “The exciting thing was that it gave people a very real glimpse into diverse employees’ experiences,” she says.
For many present at the Philadelphia event, it was revelatory, recounts Chapman.
“One woman stood up and said, ‘I thought Microsoft was this big place on the hill. It wasn’t until I saw you six ladies here that I could actually picture myself at Microsoft.’”
Carl Mack (far left), Executive Director of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), talks about the shortage of minority talent currently available in the IT industry during a Web Conference hosted by Microsoft. Mack and (from left to right) Ali Curi, president of the Hispanic Professionals Networking Group (HPNG); Michelle Tortolani, president of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE); and Kelly Chapman, director of Diversity Recruiting at Microsoft. Kim Bondy (far right), founder and president of the Bondy Group, served as moderator. Redmond, Wash., May 29, 2008.
Ali Curi, president of the Hispanic Professionals Networking Group (HPNG), has witnessed a similar effect in the interviews he conducts with Hispanic professionals, including Microsoft employees, at monthly meetings of his organization: “People can finally see Microsoft up close and personal. All of a sudden, they can put a Latino face on people who’ve had success [with the company].”
This is the kind of impact – inspiring minorities to pursue careers at Microsoft and across the information technology industry – which the company is hoping to achieve with its groundbreaking new online diversity recruitment initiative, designed to highlight “The Changing Face of IT,” being launched today.
Real Life Stories
www.youatmicrosoft.com deliberately puts a human face on the issue of diversity in the IT workforce, spotlighting the personal stories of diverse individuals at Microsoft who have beaten the odds to forge successful careers in IT.
“We wanted to feature the authentic voices of real Microsoft employees,” explains Chapman.
“They’re kind of edgy actually.”
It’s an approach that Arif Gursel, a technical evangelist who works with global independent software vendors to help them develop applications on Microsoft’s media and entertainment platform - - found refreshing. Gursel is one of 15 employees who tell their stories on the site.
Arif Gursel, a Microsoft technical evangelist for global Independent Software Vendors (ISVs) is one of the employees featured on the new Microsoft Recruiting Web Site: youatmicrosoft.com
“Anyone can tell when human resources or PR has gone out and done a pre-canned diversity thing. The difference here is that people can read and hear our stories and understand that they’re the true stories of people who have been successful in the company and of the challenges they’ve faced and overcome.”
To further raise awareness of the issue, Microsoft also hosted a webcast today, featuring Chapman in conversation with Carl Mack, executive director of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), HPNG’s Ali Curi, and Michelle Tortolani, president of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), in a roundtable discussion moderated by former CNN producer Kim Bondy.
Diversity represents the wave of the future demographically. By 2050, the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering projects that half of America’s college-age population will be members of an underrepresented minority group. But the IT profession has been slow to reflect this growing diversity in its own ranks.
African Americans and Hispanics comprise 6.2 percent and 5.3 percent, respectively, of the science, technological, engineering and mathematical (STEM) workforce, versus 10.7 percent and 12.9 percent of the US workforce at large, according to the most recent data from the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology. Meanwhile, although women constitute more than half the overall US professional workforce, they hold just 26 percent of “computing-related” positions, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT). Underrepresentation is particularly acute among minority females, NCWIT has found: only 4 percent of computer scientists were African American women in 2003; and Asian and Hispanic females composed just two percent and one percent of their ranks, respectively.
At the same time, the IT industry faces a pressing need to widen its pool of prospective recruits. Network systems and data communications analysts will be the fastest-growing occupational group from 2006 to 2016, according to the US Department of Labor projections, with applications software engineers and systems software engineers representing the third and 25th-fastest-growing occupations, respectively. Between them, these categories are expected to add a total of 465,000 new jobs during this period.
Commitment to Diversity
For Microsoft’s part, today’s initiatives form part of its sweeping Diversity Recruitment Initiative Via Excellence, or DRIVE campaign, under which the company is coordinating efforts on multiple fronts to promote a more diverse, inclusive workforce within Microsoft and across the IT industry and encourage women and minorities to enter the field.
The company has invested more than US$150 million to help prime the pipeline of future diverse IT talent, cultivating promising young minority and women engineers, and recruiting and retaining qualified diverse employees. This includes sponsoring DigiGirlz, a technology camp for high school girls, hosting an annual Minority Student Day, partnerships with community organizations, a software grant to NSBE, and underwriting college scholarships for minority and women students. Within Microsoft, diverse employees can draw upon internal resources that include more than 40 Diversity Advisory Councils, offering mutual support plus mentoring, networking, professional development and community outreach opportunities.
Last year, NSBE members voted Microsoft, the organization’s “number-one employer of choice.”
Companies cannot simply sit back and wait for minorities and women to come to them, points out principal program manager Israel Hilerio, another employee featured on the youatmicrosoft site, who serves as an interface between Microsoft business customers and the company’s developers, “translating real-world problems into technical solutions.”
Hilerio also serves as co-chair of the more-than 800-strong Hispanic affinity group at Microsoft (HOLA), in which capacity he helps spearhead outreach to Hispanic communities and schools serving Latino students.
“If you don’t build that pipeline from grade school, it’s not going to happen; you’re not going to magically get this pool of [new people].”
African American and Hispanic students may disproportionately attend under-resourced schools staffed by less experienced teachers, and stand at greater risk of dropping out before completing their studies. In 2005, 10.4 percent and 22.4 percent of African American and Hispanic 16 to 24 year-olds, respectively, were not in school or had not finished their schooling, compared to six percent of their White peers, according to the US Department of Education’s research arm, the National Center for Education Statistics.
This demands that companies get out into schools to excite student interest in STEM disciplines, ensure kids are exposed to technology early on, and raise awareness about careers in IT in underserved communities that may not necessarily have traditionally considered them, say experts.
Reaching Kids Early
NSBE’s Mack emphasizes the importance of catching kids as young as possible to capture their imagination about STEM subjects and ignite their interest in related careers.
This was the intent behind the three-week Summer Engineering Experience for Kids (SEEK) camp, put on by NSBE last year. The pilot program gave around 250 third to fifth-grade students from Washington, D.C. a hands-on opportunity to test out scientific hypotheses, conduct experiments, get a grounding in fundamental science and engineering principles and methodology, and receive expert instruction from NSBE members.
“At this point, [kids] haven’t yet been stricken with the inferiority complex that says, ‘I can’t do math or science,’” explains Mack. “By exposing them early with positive role models, all of a sudden new possibilities come into their lives.”
Galvanizing female interest in IT, experts say, involves finding more effective ways to reach girls, who, many fear, are being lost to computer science, in part, because of the way the subject is customarily taught in schools.
“Girls tend to use computers to get information and for social networking, [among other things, whereas] young boys may use them for games and programming,” says Tortolani of SWE. “We tend to teach computer science more to the motivators of young boys.”
Tortolani also underscores the critical role played by relevant positive role models that minorities and women can identify with and aspire to emulate; helping to dispel the myth that IT is the preserve of male geeks, for example. “Role models are vital when it comes to building diversity, giving kids someone like themselves that they can relate to and ask questions.”
She adds that the industry itself must do a better job of self-promotion in ways that are appealing and resonant to a broader cross-section of people, beyond the narrow focus - often implicitly skewed toward boys’ interests - of traditional efforts.
Tortolani points to recent research into high school girls’ career aspirations that identified what they were looking for from prospective careers: “They want to work with people, make a difference and do creative, challenging work that offers them flexibility. These are all positive points of careers in science, engineering and IT, but we just don’t talk about them. The messaging should address those indicators.”
Rich Career Possibilities
In his outreach, Hilerio makes a point of trying to expand kids’ horizons about the breadth of career possibilities in IT, stressing that opportunities are not confined to hard-core techies.
“So much of the time, the focus is on geeky computer guys, but one thing I tell kids is, ‘hey, if you’re a great artist, musician, storyteller or like to sell, there are lots of great opportunities at technology companies.’”
Indeed there are few fields that would afford the opportunity to work as part of a team with Oscar-winning Hollywood director Peter Jackson as Kiki Wolfkill is on an upcoming project.
Kiki Wolfkill, a group manager on the Halo Franchise Management team, tells her story about working at Microsoft on the youatmicrosoft.com recruiting Web site. Redmond, Wash., May 29, 2008.
Wolfkill, a Group Manager on the Halo Franchise Management team, is another featured subject on the youatmicrosoft site. She’s currently in the throes of assembling a crack team, comprising an art director, creative director, development lead, audio director and other functions, that will develop a new game for the Xbox 360 console in collaboration with Lord of the Rings director Jackson.
With a BA in Chinese History, including a minor in Fine Art, from the University of Washington, Wolfkill hardly fits the stereotype of the games industry employee.
Embracing Different Perspectives
But Wolfkill and others bring a perspective to the table that offers invaluable input across every facet of the design process and beyond as the game industry, like others, looks to broaden its market.
“From portfolio planning, to how we market our games, to how accessible we make them at the feature-design level, we have the ability to develop games that can appeal to more than just the hard-core market,” she explains.
By her own admission, Wolfkill has enjoyed a career at Microsoft that she could scarcely have imagined on starting out with the company 10 years ago as Art Lead on a PC game. She’s been able to flex her skills across multiple projects and take on myriad responsibilities and roles. Before taking on her current role, she was Director of Art for Microsoft Game Studios.
“I’ve always felt completely supported and empowered,” says Wolfkill, who sits on the board of the Women at Microsoft group in the company’s Entertainment and Devices Division.
Fostering an environment in which everyone feels comfortable expressing themselves is critical, Wolfkill points out.
“Game development is hard,” she explains. “It’s very complicated and [because] it’s become such a competitive market, it’s an intense experience. On top of that, it’s a creative team endeavor. You cannot build something creative without everyone’s personality and values being tied into the process. Everyone has to bring everything they have.”
Incorporating a multiplicity of voices spanning disparate multicultural viewpoints with a grasp of different communities’ cultural nuances, the infrastructural challenges they face, and the context in which they use technology, represents a business imperative in today’s global market, say Wolfkill, Hilerio, Gursel and others.
“If a company is going to push forward and be innovative, they need every perspective, age, gender and ethnicity brought to the table,” Wolfkill says. “The world is just so big now that you cannot create anything in a vacuum anymore and expect it to have success. There are no lines in [today’s] world and to build experiences and software that supports a culture that lives without those lines, you have to have extreme diversity in the thought process.”