4 keys to promoting diversity in tech, according to America's CTO

Andreas Rekdal
May 3, 2016

After moving into the White House in 2009, President Barack Obama became the first American president to appoint a national CTO. This key hire would go on to aid the administration in leveraging the nation’s data and technological capabilities, writing policies to help maintain the country’s position as a global hub for innovation.

Since assuming that role in 2014, former Google VP Megan Smith has been working with the administration to make better use of one of the country’s most underutilized resources — its population. In her view, unconscious biases have served to deter many Americans from pursuing technology jobs, to the detriment of the country’s rate of innovation.

Yesterday, Smith sat down with entrepreneurs and nonprofit leaders in a roundtable at the 

 for a discussion on what can be done to make computer science and technology more inclusive. Her research suggests four key strategies for drawing a broader range of young people to the field:

1. Expose young people to technology

Many would-be engineers and entrepreneurs miss out on careers in tech because they never get a chance to discover their passion in the first place. “Practice makes permanent,” said Smith. “If you get to experience tech, you can create the confidence you need to realize it’s fun and that you can do it.”

2. Encourage young people to get involved with technology

In 2014, President Obama introduced the “My Brother’s Keeper” challenge, spurring a range of programs intended to create opportunities for young men of color. To Smith’s dismay, hardly any of the programs were centered around coding and entrepreneurship. Beyond reflecting an inherent bias about what these young men might be interested in, this represented a huge missed opportunity to encourage them to see themselves as engineers or entrepreneurs, she said.

3. Give young people role models who look like them

When searching for role models, we tend to seek out people who look like ourselves. If we want to promote greater diversity in technology, we need to show young people a more complete picture of what technologists look like. “There’s plenty of examples,” said Smith. “We just have to work on that and show them to people.”

4. Provide opportunities to work with technology for a greater purpose

Some young people are drawn to technology for its own sake and will spend hours building pointless apps for fun. But others are more likely to be drawn to technology if they see it as a tool for exploring and addressing issues they care about. To this end, Smith said projects like police statistics trackers or web design projects centered around gender disparity in entertainment can help show students that technology can help them make a difference in the world. 

Photos via Built In Chicago. 

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