/Google’s program for Black college students suffered disorganization and culture clashes, former participants say

Google’s program for Black college students suffered disorganization and culture clashes, former participants say

The Google campus in Mountain View includes over 20 dining options that encourage a communal experience with group tables.
Brooks Kraft LLC | Corbis | Getty Images

In 2017, Lauren Clayton joined the inaugural class of Howard West, Google‘s on-campus immersion program for Black college students. She became a star scholar whose big smile would grace marketing materials and news coverage.  

As the only Black woman in that inaugural class to score a coveted internship offer from Google, she now says the program’s leaders didn’t deliver on the promises that inspired her to accept the offer in the first place.

“I had nothing but positive things to say during that time, but that was before the promises were broken.”

She says a Howard West program leader promised to match an offer from Apple, which would pay for her senior year, but she found herself instead with unpaid bills and a sour experience. While she said she enjoyed the program in general, she and other participants often felt that Google’s ambitions for the program took precedent over the needs of participants.

The program is one of many initiatives the tech industry has undertaken to improve diversity in its workforce. Today, only 3.7% of Google’s US workforce is Black, a small rise from 2.4% in 2014, when the company first announced its diversity numbers. Attrition rates for Google’s Black U.S. employees are higher than for other demographic groups, with Black females seeing a particular spike in attrition from last year, up 18%, according to the company’s 2020 diversity report.

This lack of diversity is reflected throughout the tech industry, which has touted the need and desire to hire more diverse talent for several years now. Black people make up roughly 15% of the American population, but rarely more than 6% at big tech companies, which have historically recruited from the same, predominately white institutions — even though there are more than 60 historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) that graduate computer science students.

Google, like many in the tech industry, has sometimes blamed the “pipeline” problem for the disparity, meaning that there aren’t enough qualified minority candidates to fill tech roles.

To help address the problem, Google launched Howard West (since renamed Tech Exchange) in 2017. Program leaders said within five years, the program would give more than 700 students the experience to learn from both Howard instructors and Google employees at Google’s main headquarters in Silicon Valley.

“For us, it is an opportunity to ensure that we are building a pipeline and, more importantly, stimulating the right partnerships to drive change,” Bonita Stewart, Google’s vice president of global partnerships, said at the time.

Four years later, more than a dozen people who participated in the program between 2017 and 2020 describe a mixed record, with good intentions marred by mediocre execution and shifting priorities. So far, the company has hosted less than 200 students through the program — far fewer than the original plan suggested. Students also describe a hastily organized program with unclear expectations around work and job preparedness, as well as culture clashes that often left Howard faculty to do triage.

On the plus side, nearly all the students told CNBC they came away from the program knowing more than they did before, and were grateful for having a real-world work experience and meeting accomplished Google employees.

“I was challenged, academically, so I appreciated that challenge and we were on Google’s headquarters so we really were getting that exposure,” Clayton said.

“Hearing these buzzwords like proto buffers and requests and responses — I knew them in theory from the classroom but hearing people talk about it an everyday way was very cool,” said 2018-19 scholar Daniel Erhabor, an international student from Nigeria.

After the George Floyd protests of summer 2020, companies are placing new emphasis on issues of diversity and inclusion. Google’s experience with the Howard West and Tech Exchange program are a lesson that diversity programs require careful thought and planning, or they could end up creating new problems without solving the underlying issues that continue to stall diversity in the workplace.

Howard alumni, family and friends gather after the game to celebrate Howard’s 93rd annual Homecoming.
NurPhoto via Getty Images

In an emailed statement, a Google spokesperson defended the program while saying there’s more work to do on it.

95% of students in our most recent class rated their overall Tech Exchange experience as positive. We’re pleased that students recognize the value of this first-of-its-kind initiative, and we know there’s always more work to be done.” She added, “We met with HBCUs last month to discuss more ways to collaborate and deepen our partnership, including a continued focus on initiatives like this. It’s so important to get this right.”

In an emailed statement, Howard University said Google has hired more than 100 interns and new grads since the program began.

“Since 2017, Howard University has worked with Google to build a mutually beneficial pipeline where students from diverse backgrounds can experience the industry first-hand while pursuing their education in computer science. Our existing partnership, Tech Exchange, creates pathways and opportunities for increased diverse representation in the STEM industry. We remain committed to improving the program and we will work with Google to ensure it continues to be a success.”

Google and Howard University both declined to address any of the specific points raised by CNBC’s reporting.

Shifting priorities and disorganization

In its pilot year in 2017, Howard West began as a rigorous twelve-week program with challenging courses that were applied to students’ school credit. Students flew from Howard University, which is based in Washington D.C., to Mountain View, California, where Google built out a floor and hired a designer known for creating spaces for STEM and social justice.

At first, the program leaders said it hoped to graduate 100 students in its first cohort and 740 students within five years. It ended up graduating 26 students in the first twelve-week program, which ended in August 2017.

While some students and faculty members said they expected the program to be experimental, it was even less organized than many imagined. Participants noted frequent restructurings and staff turnover as well as miscommunication around logistics and finances.

“It seemed to grow way too fast, which led to a lot of disorganization early on,” said Dr. Curtis Cain, an early Howard West faculty member who taught from Google’s campus during the first iteration and was in discussions for subsequent iterations.

“I feel like there are so many folks who are like me who had very good intentions and wanted to do right by Brown and Black students, and think that Google would be the place to do that because it is a billion-dollar company,” said April Curley, a former Google employee and early Howard West advisor who later worked in Google’s diversity group, where she was the liaison for HBCUs. “But it just hadn’t been that at all.”

“For the most part, people had positive intent but it felt like the program transitioned into Google being more interested in pumping out software engineers without taking into account many other aspects,” added Cain.

In 2018, Google changed the name of the program to Tech Exchange, maintaining a contractual partnership with Howard University while adding students from other historically black colleges, as well as from Hispanic-serving institutions, and extended it to a nine-month long program. Some students and faculty said they felt the program detoured from its original mission when it decided to include Hispanic-serving institutions, because Black students face more extreme hurdles to entering the tech workforce than any other race. Some said they felt disrespected because they were not consulted or notified of that change before arriving in Mountain View.

During the first year of the revised program, which ran from fall 2018 to spring 2019, 38 students participated in the whole program while another 27 participated in one semester only, according to a research paper by Google.

Wary of expanding too quickly, the company kept roughly the same headcount during its third instance of the program, which was slated to run for a single semester starting in Spring 2020. (In March, Google sent all its employees home from work as the Covid-19 pandemic took off around the world, and the program continued virtually.)

The research paper, which was published in mid-2020, described another shift in strategy back to a spring-only semester going forward. It also described requiring technical interviews before admitting students to the program, said it would offer fewer courses, and vowed that prerequisites would be “better clarified.”

Beyond these changes in scope and priorities, some basic problems seemed to stem from lack of organization.

During the 2018-19 program, many students said they were never able to access the learning management system, Black Board, according to Google’s research paper. Some students told CNBC they couldn’t get access to campus maps or information on which buildings they could or could not enter. Logistics about housing, financial costs and transportation also weren’t clearly communicated, students said.

Students from multiple programs said they experienced unexpected housing charges and delays of up to two months in stipends provided by their respective schools, which financed the participants’ travel and stay in Mountain View, they said. Students were not allowed to have a part-time job, so they relied on these stipends to cover costs while there, they said.

Several participants said because of the stipend delays, they’d hoard toiletries from bathrooms and food from Google’s cafeteria. Faculty and students recalled trying to store less perishable items like fruit and snack bars to eat in their backpacks to eat after hours. 

Unclear expectations

One big problem came down to misunderstandings about what students would be expected to do and what they could expect from Google in return.

Students recalled 12- to 15-hour days and little time away from the classroom. They said they often needed additional help that kept them at Howard professors’ office hours into later hours of the evening. Then, they’d often go back to their apartments and work till after 10pm. They took classes in subjects like algorithms, mobile application development and machine learning, but some said they felt the material itself wasn’t properly planned out and Google teachers weren’t equipped to teach students.

“They’d assume you already knew the material,” 2018-19 student Garrett Tolbert said, echoing others’ experiences. “I think they should make sure the students know the pre-requirements of what they’re teaching.”

There were also differences in expectations around employment prospects following the program. Thirty-two of the 65 students in the 2018-19 program obtained technical internships or jobs in the tech industry, according to Google’s research paper, and 15 of those landed roles at Google.

The company’s chief diversity officer, Melonie Parker, describes the program as a “unique immersion and learning experience to both students and faculty of HBCUs” rather than a job entry program, but many students had other expectations. Some told CNBC they were surprised they didn’t land jobs or internships at the company at the end of the program, despite going through weekly interview practice, resume screenings and briefings on opportunities at the company. (Some graduates have been hired by other tech giants, including Microsoft and Apple).

“Students were coming to me worried and asking what opportunities exist because they didn’t have an internship or weren’t hired by Google,” said Dr. Gloria Washington, a Howard and Tech Exchange professor in 2017 and program advisor and mentor in the subsequent cohorts.

“I was hoping to get a job in tech and I wish the practice interviews were more on par with the actual job interviews, because it wouldn’t have given me that false sense of hope that I was actually doing okay,” said Erhabor from the 2018-19 class.

Erhabor said he tried to get jobs at a few other companies after failing Google’s first interview, but without a full-time offer by the end of the semester, he ended up having to return to Nigeria.

Tolbert from the 2018-19 class received a semester-long internship, but was surprised when he didn’t get a return invitation. He said Parker, the chief diversity officer, mentioned his name in a company event, in which he claims she called him a model Google employee. Tolbert said that when he asked about why he didn’t receive a return offer, they said they couldn’t share feedback due to a company policy.

Clayton said she received internship offers from both Google and Apple, but was leaning toward accepting Apple’s because it included a scholarship that would pay her tuition for her senior school year. To sway her, she says, the Howard West program lead at the time made promises, including that Google would match Apple’s offer and pay for that school year by establishing a scholarship in her name.

“When I was trying to decide between the offers, he set up calls with the chief diversity officer from Google, Howard University’s president, and other folks from Google to convince me to accept the Google offer,” Clayton said. “And then he made me that promise that my senior-year tuition would be taken care of.”

After she accepted the offer, a separate Howard West staff member asked her to participate in a USA Today article, and to share her story with Howard University to help the school fundraise.

But as the school year approached, Clayton said the program lead eventually told her he couldn’t make the scholarship happen because she hadn’t met certain terms. Other participants said this particular program leader made similar promises to them which he later did not fulfill. Google declined to comment specifically on these actions.

Eventually, Clayton wrote a letter to Howard’s president and got some financial aid, but it wasn’t enough to cover her balance, she says.

“It left a bad taste in my mouth because the person who was overlooking the program was making promises, and when it’s financial and you’re in school, you don’t know how you’re going to graduate.”

Overall, Clayton and others said the Howard West program leads at the time were consumed by increasing numbers and optics of the program.

Culture clashes

Most students said Google instructors were willing to help students if needed, but cultural clashes often led students to seek out Howard faculty for assistance and — at times — therapy.

“There are often these assumptions by Googlers that they know how to best instruct students without taking into account the demographics or the HBCU teachers,” said Dr. Nicki Washington, a computer science professor at Duke University who helped form the Google In Residence program, which became the breeding ground for Howard West.

Participants gave examples of Google instructors using obscure terminology and handing out candy for correct answers.

Google instructors at times taught using slides from lectures taught at Carnegie Mellon — a top private institution — with little to no context, two students recalled. Some students recalled Google bringing in engineers to share their success stories and journeys without recognizing that they come from a top-tier tech school like MIT or Stanford. Those stories ended up having the opposite effect as intended, lowering students’ confidence instead of boosting it, a few said.

Nearly all students said they experienced microaggressions while at Google’s campus. Several described Google employees staring and checking badges more frequently than they did for other people on campus. Some said they were asked if they belonged there. Two program participants said they recalled instances in which a Google employee mistook a program participant as a member of kitchen staff.

“It was like nobody had seen an African American person before,” said 2018-19 student Saraah Cooper, describing her everyday experience on Google’s campus.

“A regular Google employee came into the game room and asked us for all of our IDs and we were kind of confused because he wasn’t security or anything,” said 2018 scholar Afeeni Phillips.

“There was this lady in front of me in line for a food truck and she turned around, looked me in my eyes and said ‘this line is only for Google employees — you can’t eat here,'” Tolbert recalled, adding that he considered the incident a symptom of broader issues not exclusive to Google’s campus. “So I grabbed my badge and lifted it up to my face because apparently that’s the only place she was looking.”

Cain said just a few days after the program launch during the first cohort, security members stopped students who were riding Google’s bikes after someone reported they were stealing them. “I had to go over and asked what was going on and they were sitting on the curb like they were criminals,” he said. “I was telling security, your CEO and VPs just came to the launch with these kids just a few days ago!”

Google maintains a fleet of over 1300 bikes that are used regularly to shuttle between the dozens of buildings located on the Google campus, which is nearly two miles long.
Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images

While some students said the incidents caused only momentary distraction, they still triggered meetings and distress. “We’d have to stop what we were doing and have a discussion because their minds aren’t on learning the next set of software instructions after something that,” Cain said. One faculty member said they talked one student out of blasting her concerns on social media.

Faculty members also described culture clashes between academics from HBCUs and Google employees, and said at times it felt as if company staffers co-opted elements of the program.

Google instructors sometimes interrupted Howard faculty members while teaching, creating moments of tension, according to a few participants. Faculty members said they were sometimes sidelined from meetings and planning for events, speakers and some curriculum planning — mostly in the first year, which they said was a crucial time period.

“Feedback hasn’t always been requested or utilized,” said Dr. Gloria Washington.

Cain, who brought up some of these concerns but felt they were generally ignored, eventually decided to drop out of the program.

“There were things that happened in the background between how Google wanted that program to run and how people in academia who dealt with students often wanted it to run,” said Cain. (Others agreed with his assessment). “It was never malicious intent, but I think sometimes they got so used to being a company dominating in a space they forget other things, like when these parents leave their students to come to Howard, they’re trusting us, and if something goes wrong, they’re not going to call the CEO of Google.” 

Howard faculty members felt tension when trying to measure the program’s progress too, they said.

For a research conference in the summer of 2019, several Howard faculty members published a research proposal that aimed to study the effects of immersing HBCU students in the program. The paper also referenced Google’s low percentage of Black employees, the fact that few HBCU students pass technical interviews and that tech companies are contributing to the growing wealth gap in the U.S.

When Google officials found out about it, they confronted Howard staff. Although the paper was already published, they said Google employees reprimanded them for not consulting the company first and threatened legal action if they didn’t make minor changes, such as adding “Howard West” to each mention of “Tech Exchange” and “LLC” to each “Google” reference.

A few faculty members said they took it as a show of force by the tech giant. “It felt like it was a strategy to keep us from writing about it,” Cain said.

Despite these cultural clashes, most students say they are grateful for the experience and got value from the program, as they were challenged academically and got to meet interesting Google employees.

“My mentor worked for Google Daydream so he connected me with the Daydream team and I got to learn from them, which was really cool,” said Tolbert, who said he enjoyed the program overall.

“I got to meet amazing people who gave up their time for us and genuinely wanted to see us succeed,” said Cooper, who said she learned skills that helped her in her jobs after graduation.

“I was able to meet people and go more into depth for roles I didn’t necessarily think were options for me like UX researchers or product managers,” said Phillips.

For many, the experience was valuable outside the classwork as well, as students leaned heavily on each other to find solutions to academic problems and for emotional support, which created a bonding experience, and sometimes on Google’s Black employee resource group, the Black Googler Network.

Former Google employee and BGN member Madison Jacobs recalls how she stopped by the Howard West building and spoke with a student who she noticed was struggling emotionally. “I asked her how she was doing, and one of the things she said was she wished there were more people like me to talk to,” Jacobs said.

“She explained how isolated she felt living in the area and noticing a stark lack of Black people. I’ll never forget that.”

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