Karat released new research in partnership with faculty from Howard University exploring key factors that can help more Black software engineers enter the tech industry and excel in their careers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Black engineers comprised just 6% of all computer programmers in the U.S. in 2020, and this research shines a light on the challenges and opportunities that exist to improve representation.
Co-authored by Dr. Legand Burge, III, Howard University Professor of Computer Science, Dr. Katherine Picho-Kiroga, Howard University Assistant Professor of Educational Psychology, and Portia Kibble Smith, Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Karat, The Interview Access Gap for Black Engineers identifies a number of socioeconomic and systemic barriers young Black talent face to get jobs in tech.
“The lack of representation of Black engineers in tech is a barrier to entry for the next generation,” said Kibble Smith. “A lot of the HBCU students we interviewed are first-generation college students. They don’t have a clear understanding of what goes on in a technical interview until they’re interviewing for their first engineering internship, and they don’t have anyone in their networks to help them prepare.”
Structural inequities delay exposure to computer science education and make it more difficult for Black software engineers to start careers in tech.
- Respondents who have had software engineering internships had access to their first PC nearly a full year earlier than those who had not secured an internship.
- They also had their first exposure to computer science education an average of two and a half years earlier.
- Proximity and access to people working in the tech sector increase interview confidence, but the under-representation of Black engineers in the sector limits that access for HBCU students.
- Nearly three-quarters of the survey respondents knew fewer than five people working in big tech, and more than 25 percent reported knowing none.
- Professional networking was even more limited in the tech startup space, with 83 percent of respondents knowing fewer than five people working at startups, and 43 percent not having any contacts.
Interview practice helps students overcome the lack of structural exposure and access to the technology industry.
- Just 39 percent of respondents who had never taken a practice interview believed that they were either somewhat or very likely to succeed in a technical interview.
- Confidence levels increased with more practice, with those numbers climbing to 79 percent of people with more than three practice interviews.
- This also translated to career opportunities. 55 percent of survey respondents who have taken more than three practice interviews have had an engineering internship, compared to just 9 percent of those who have never had one.
Closing the access gap
Adding transparency to the hiring process and building ways for candidates to practice technical interviews are two ways that tech companies can close the access gap and reduce interview anxiety for underrepresented engineering candidates. Strategies for accomplishing this include publishing sample interview questions online and giving candidates multiple opportunities to interview. Both of these practices help demystify technical hiring for engineers from nontraditional backgrounds. This not only creates a more equitable talent pipeline but also a more efficient and effective way to hire the best engineers.
“The students in my classes are incredibly resourceful, they’ve had to hustle their entire lives. These are positive traits that hiring managers look for, but they’re hard to demonstrate in a traditional job interview,” noted Dr. Burge. “This research highlights the importance of transparency and making information about interviews readily available for candidates. It also reinforces why practice interview programs like Brilliant Black Minds are so critical for closing the access gap and empowering more Black engineers.”
Karat’s Brilliant Black Minds program provides Black software engineers free practice interviews with live feedback to expose students to the components of a technical interview alongside career development workshops.
“The program has helped participants build confidence, hone their technical interviewing skills, and ultimately get summer internships and full-time jobs,” added Kibble Smith. “Interview scores from the Fall and Spring practice seasons showed promising results, with more than three-quarters of students maintaining or improving their performance.”
The full report includes survey responses and feedback from focus groups conducted in the Spring of 2021. More than 300 Black computer science students and HBCU alumni from schools including Howard University, Morehouse College, and University of North Carolina Charlotte participated.