Stereotypes tell me tech conferences don’t look like the hundreds of aspiring tech workers queuing up to get into the Armory on Tuesday: I could count the number of white men on my crowded patch of sidewalk on one hand.
Tech Inclusion, which held a career fair and then a day of talks with another series of speakers lined up for today, had clearly done a good job of attracting the diverse candidates that critics say the industry so sorely needs.
Inside, it was also apparent planners had taken care to try to take concerns of every underrepresented group into account. People walked around with their pronouns — “she,” “he” or “they” — pinned to their shirts on pre-made buttons. The dozens of bathroom stalls were, signs announced, to be used by all genders.
I walked past one conversation in which an ostensibly hearing-impaired person introduced himself to a company representative through an interpreter — the company rep didn’t skip a beat. Accents from around the world mingled in the packed spaces between company booths.
It felt comfortingly progressive. But, in some ways, oddly old-school.
“Do you have a resume for me?” could be heard at every turn on the floor where companies had set up their tables. They meant a paper resume.
One woman who attended said she was nearly dismissed outright when she couldn’t produce one.
Not, she said, what she expected at a technology job fair.
Another woman was surprised and dismayed to find that there was no wi-fi. If she needed to get online, she was told, she could go to a nearby cafe.
What? No internet? I checked later. Yep. Wi-fi only for company representatives.
On the tech job hunt at large, the bigger barrier is the insistence on a degree, job seekers told me.
“I feel it’s kind of a challenge to break into tech, a challenge from the base level, because even for internships they’re looking for someone who just finished a computer science degree,” said Spencer Dezart-Smith.
He and Patrick Porche attend a coding boot camp and are switching industries, hoping to break into tech. Both have found it to be an industry that, despite its reputation for disruptions, sticks to rigid traditional hiring practices — most notably, that everyone wants to see a computer science degree from a traditional four-year university.
“People have gotten two or three rounds of interviews, even meeting the CTO, and then getting turned down in the last [round] for someone with a computer science degree,” said Porche, who has a background in rehabilitation science and physical wellness.
“It’s just not giving them the chance,” added Dezart-Smith, formerly a social worker in Australia and more recently a restaurant worker in San Francisco.
“Taking out more debt for another master’s or bachelor’s wasn’t in the cards,” said Porche.
“What you get is a white male workforce,” if you insist on such pre-requisites, added Dezart-Smith.
Some there worried about being the odd person out.
“You don’t want to be the token woman,” said one applicant who is trying to break into the industry.
She, too, noticed the emphasis on tradition while on the online job hunt. When it came to asking about education, she said, the only possible answers on one application were three elite schools.
It helped to have people from different backgrounds manning the company stations — which included small companies, educational institutions and tech giants like Google and Airbnb. Three people I talked to said they were encouraged by the fact that they’d spoken to employees who had themselves come from a boot camp or other nontraditional route.
Despite the diversity of the fair and the open vibe of the day, there was still an awareness that it would not be easy to snag a job.
“The bias is always there,” said Surabhi Lodha, who recently received her master’s degree in computer science from the University of Southern California. She actually studied diversity in venture capital, finding that the ratio of men to women founders whose projects were funded was a depressing 10:1. That number improved, she said, when there were more women venture capitalists.
Lodha, in line for the Google booth, already has two job offers on the table but was casting around for opportunities that will offer her the best salary and work-life balance.
Once hired, the environment needs to be one where women and other underrepresented groups feel welcome, said Beena Agrawal. She’s been an engineer for 15 years or so, and spent a good deal of time working in the gaming industry. The booths and swag at conferences and the ping pong tables and foosball in offices cater to the young and unattached, often male, workers who are willing to spend all of their time at the office.
Agrawal has seen the VC phenomenon firsthand — she was at the career fair looking at the sorts of work that’s available because her startup, an education technology company aimed at encouraging girls to pursue tech, has had difficulty getting funding.
Among the kids, too, stereotypes persist.
“I find even at that age, tech is not a cool thing to do. You’ll have a smart 12-year-old who might be really good, but doesn’t consider it popular or cool,” she said.
Chris Nguyen, who just finished his first year studying computer science at San Jose City College, was also surprised by the size and diversity of the crowd.
He said few women are in his program, but looking around at Tech Inclusion, you wouldn’t know that there were fewer women engineers.
Diana Fajardo, a chemical engineer originally from Colombia, was at the career fair to get to know people. “I’m not here to network, I’m here to make friends,” she said.
She learned the local cultural ropes through two nonprofits that specialize in getting international professionals on their feet. She pointed out the career counselors ready to advise a line of candidates in one section of the drill court.
“We all need that. Nobody is born with knowing how to communicate with people, how to sell yourself,” she said, though she grimaced at the idea of selling. “If you want to have diversity, you need to teach those skills.”
Ultimately, this was clearly the place to be for all kinds of people interested in tech — and, for employers, the fair made it clear: The diverse candidates are here if you are willing to look.
“When you move to California, you just see opportunity,” Fajardo said. “You feel like everyone is a dreamer and wants to change the world.”