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In 2020, Black engineers made up just six percent of all computer programmers in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Recently, researchers from Howard University and Karat, a technical interviewing firm, released research exploring key factors that can help more Black software engineers enter the tech industry and excel in their careers.

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The report includes responses and feedback from a survey conducted in the Spring of 2021. More than 300 Black computer science students and alumni from other universities, including Howard University, Morehouse College, and the University of North Carolina – Charlotte participated. The research shines a light on the challenges and opportunities that exist to improve representation.

The study, The Interview Access Gap for Black Engineers,  was co-authored by Dr. Legand Burge, III, professor of computer science at Howard University, Dr. Katherine Picho-Kiroga, assistant professor of educational psychology at Howard University, and Portia Kibble Smith, head of diversity and inclusion at Karat

“This research highlights the importance of transparency and making information about interviews readily available for candidates,” Burge said in a statement. “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.”

Researchers say the study also reinforces why practice interview programs like Brilliant Black Minds are so critical for closing the access gap and empowering more Black engineers.

“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.”

Key findings

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 personal computer nearly a full year earlier than those who have not had an internship.

Access to people working in the tech sector increases interview confidence, but just six percent of software engineers are Black.

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. Fifty-five percent of survey respondents who have taken more than three practice interviews have had an engineering internship, compared to just nine percent of those who have never had a practice interview

Closing the access gap

Adding transparency to the hiring process and building methods for underrepresented software engineering candidates to practice technical interviews are two ways that tech companies can close the access gap and reduce interview anxiety. 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 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.”

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