Google Launches ‘Howard West’ in Diversity Move

Google Campus
Google campus

This summer, Google is initiating a program in coordination with Howard University to encourage more diversity in the Silicon Valley tech community.

Howard West’ is a three-month residency program on Google’s campus, aimed at juniors and seniors at Howard, a historically black school, who are “rising” in its Computer Science program. “Senior Google engineers and Howard faculty will serve as instructors,” wrote Howard alumnus and (current Google VP of Global Partnerships) Bonita Stewart.

“Howard West will produce hundreds of industry-ready Black computer science graduates, future leaders with the power to transform the global technology space into a stronger, more accurate reflection of the world around us. We envisioned this program with bold outcomes in mind—to advance a strategy that leverages Howard’s high quality faculty and Google’s expertise, while also rallying the tech industry and other thought leaders around the importance of diversity in business and the communities they serve,” added Dr. Wayne Frederick, President of Howard University.

“The lack of exposure, access to mentors and role models are critical gaps that Howard West will solve,” Stewart continued, noting “systematic barriers lead to low engagement and enrollment in CS, low retention in CS programs and a lack of proximity and strong relationships between Silicon Valley, HBCUs [Historically Black Colleges and Universities] and the larger African American Community.”

Diversity at Silicon Valley tech giants is a problem, and Howard West may help to solve it. An offshoot of an existing Google initiative, Googler-in-Residence (GIR), it began at Howard University in 2013 with the goal of “revamping CS curriculum and improving coding skills at HBCUs.” A Googler moves to Washington D.C. (where Howard is located) for two semesters, volunteering their time to teach Howard’s Intro to Computer Science course. From Howard, the GIR program has expanded to seven HBCUs.

And it may be because of the GIR program that Howard West exists, though not as we might think. In a Medium post, Hallie Lomax discussed her experience with the GIR program while a student at Howard. In her view, it wasn’t easy for Googlers at Howard:

Despite the fact that they’re being shipped to the other side of the country, with the expectation of becoming full-time professors — writing their own curriculum, making their own tests and homework assignments, and teaching 2–3 courses a semester — they are still expected to do all of their work as full-time engineers, and get no internal recognition for their efforts. In fact, it actually hurts their careers to volunteer. Most of the GIRs barely make it through their first semester (often switching to commuting back and forth between the school and their office during the second one, rather than staying full-time for the whole year).

Furthermore, she noted, GIRs would pick top performers in Howard’s CS track and give them a crash course on Cracking the Coding Interview. Lomax suggested that was to “justify the program’s existence,” with the chosen few then presented to Google for evaluation on their readiness for a position at the company (or elsewhere).

In Lomax’s view, Google is using Howard West as its own intern incubator. The program is held on Google’s campus, and doesn’t seem to strike a different tone from the GIR program, save for the change in venue. Howard students are still learning, still regarded as students, and the curriculum is telegraphed by Google.

There’s no arguing its success. Lomax said, “Of the students who went through the program the year I did it, four of them have left Howard (3 graduated, and I dropped out). Two of the four are full-time Google employees now, and the remaining one who isn’t me is starting a PhD program at Carnegie Mellon.”

To curb diversity issues in Silicon Valley and beyond, HBCUs must be part of the discussion. It will take time for the results to become apparent to many onlookers; whether or not you agree with the methodology, Google and Howard University are paving a path in the right direction. If Dr. Frederick’s “bold outcomes” hopes are to be realized, there’s no better place than the moonshot factory.