Diversity in Tech: A Student's Perspective

By Alex Triana, 2014 Fellow

I’m currently a third-year student at The University of California, Berkeley where I am majoring in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. I also happen to be a third generation Mexican-American, and am proud to identify ethnically as Latino.
Over the last few months, there’s been a lot of publicity about diversity in Silicon Valley. Several tech companies including LinkedIn, Google, and Pinterest have made their employee demographic data public which has really started a conversation about the lack of diversity in America’s most innovative economy.
While I’m excited that people have begun to understand how serious of a problem our homogeneous technical workforce is, I’m really interested in the next phase of this diversity movement. It’s great that as a tech community we have admitted diversity is something Silicon Valley struggles with but I came to terms with that issue a long time ago. As a student of color who is underrepresented in both the classroom and the workforce, I’m already acutely aware of how few Latinos and African Americans there are around me. I’m also aware of the problems that disproportionate representation creates.
For example, I’ve been in situations where people have used my race to justify my success. The phrase “It’s because your Mexican, right?” is often used by my peers and gives me the impression that my race overshadows my achievements and accomplishments. That sucks, and at times I’m almost embarrassed to identify as Latino because I am afraid people will take for granted how I’ve gotten to where I am.
I also know what if feels like to have to carry the weight of an entire race on your shoulders. Significant underrepresentation means that my individual actions serve as the only representation of my race in certain environments. As the only Hispanic in the classroom if I am late to lecture technically every Hispanic person in the class is late to lecture, if I don’t get a concept technically every Hispanic person in the class doesn’t get the concept, and if I do well on an exam technically every Hispanic in the class did well. Even small decisions are governed by significant amounts of pressure. Don’t forget about things like imposter syndrome, stereotype threat, and the idea of being a token – those are all real things that I deal with on a daily basis. 
The point I’m trying to get across is that I, like so many other underrepresented students, am not satisfied with just admitting there is a diversity problem in Silicon Valley. I know there is a problem because I live in it. My primary concern is how we fix that problem.  Most people justify the lack of diversity as a “pipelining issue”. The lack of representation of Blacks and Latinos/as in computer science is just the manifestation of a much bigger opportunity gap found in secondary and high school education. That may be true, but to me “it’s a pipelining issue” serves as an inappropriate response to the question “how do we fix this diversity problem?” It’s an answer that allocates about 95% of people’s thoughts, energy and resources towards either fixing the pipeline or future generations, but does very little to help students who are currently underrepresented – students like myself.
CODE2040 is a nonprofit focused on having an immediate impact on the issue of diversity in Silicon Valley. What can be done today to increase diversity? How can we help students who are already victims of underrepresentation, not just students who will be in the future? The CODE2040 team is focused on these questions.
The 2014 Fellows program allowed me to supplement my technical internship with exposure not only to resources and opportunities that have really catalyzed my career as a young professional, but also introduced me to a wonderful network of people who were passionate about diversity. CODE2040 has embraced diversity as a business advantage and for that I am incredibly grateful. After participating in the program I feel empowered to succeed as an entrepreneur and engineer in Silicon Valley. I also feel more qualified to serve as a role model and support group for students who identify as underrepresented, just as CODE2040 did for me. That is part of what made the CODE2040 Fellows program so engaging. I loved collaborating and identifying with students who have struggled with similar issues, and I can testify to the statement that CODE2040 isn’t just an organization – it’s a family. I have nothing but wonderful things to say about the staff and the program experience they provided. It’s truly remarkable how much they have been able to accomplish since they were founded three years ago.  I’m excited for CODE2040’s future, specifically the role they will play in the diversity debate that currently puzzles Silicon Valley.