It was envisioned as a bridge to connect Historically Black Colleges and Universities with the Big Tech enclave of Silicon Valley.
When Google executives announced Howard West in 2017, it was advertised as a collaboration with Howard University to recruit Black computer science majors from the Washington, D.C., campus. The initiative quickly expanded to include other HBCUs across the nation.
The plan was to steep the students in a rigorous training regimen at the Googleplex, the company’s corporate headquarters in Mountain View, California. The aim was to cultivate a strong pool of qualified Black candidates from which Google could hire diverse talent.
But hiccups in the program’s first three years stifled some of those aspirations.
More than a dozen of the program’s participants described their experiences to CNBC. The reviews were mixed. While some credited Google for its well-intended ambitions, many said Howard West lacked a firm direction. That resulted in ever-shifting priorities, disorganization and culture clashes between Google employees and the Black students in the program, according to CNBC’s report.
So far, the outcome has been a diversity initiative that’s fallen well short of Google’s original goals. When Howard West was announced, executives pledged to bring 740 Black students to the Googleplex within five years to usher them through the program. To date, there have been less than 200 graduates.
Diversity is a challenge facing the tech industry as a whole. Black employees make up no more than 6 percent of the workforce at most tech and software companies. At Google, that number is at 3.7 percent in the U.S. That’s an improvement over the company’s minority numbers in 2014, when only 2.4 percent of employees were Black, CNBC reported.
Students and Howard University faculty members who participated between 2017 and 2020 claimed Google’s program leaders were more focused on metrics and optics. They said students’ needs too often took a back seat to corporate ambitions.
Compounding those unmet expectations were the unfulfilled hopes students had beyond the program. Many envisioned Howard West as a “pipeline” to internships and software engineering jobs with Google after graduation. But those opportunities have not materialized as hoped for.
Daniel Erhabor, an international student, said he had to move back to Nigeria when he was unable to secure a full-time job after graduating from the program in 2019.
“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 OK,” he told CNBC.
Despite the obstacles, there was strong consensus among students that the program expanded their real-world knowledge base in the field and offered them unique exposure. Participants took courses in algorithms, mobile application development and machine learning. Nearly all of them agreed that they gleaned a lot from the program, which challenged them academically.
“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,” Erhabor said.
Both Howard University and Google responded to CNBC via email with boilerplate statements touting the program while vowing to do a better job of executing the program’s objectives in the future. A Howard spokesperson said Google has hired over 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,” the university’s statement said. “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 sought to create a diversity farm system that the company deemed a “first-of-its-kind initiative.” A spokesperson for the tech titan said 95% of students in the most recent class rated their experience as positive.
“We know there’s always more work to be done,” the emailed statement indicated. “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.”
Google launched Howard West as a partnership with Howard University. It originated as a 12-week program with 26 students who flew to Google’s California campus for a semester.
But a year into the effort, Google rebranded the program as “Tech Exchange” and added students from other HBCUs. They also began accepting students from predominantly Hispanic institutions, a moved some questioned because they felt it diverted resources from Black hopefuls who have traditionally been more underserved and unrepresented in the tech industry.
The program also expanded to a nine-month curriculum in 2018. Students who’ve criticized Howard West say such shifts in scope were part of a frequent pattern of fluctuations they saw. Some reported high staff turnover, other students experienced unexpected housing charges and delays in the stipends they received from their respective schools to cover living expenses.
Several participants in one semester said they were unable to log into Black Board, the virtual learning system teachers and students used for coursework.
The program was demanding. Many said the course load required them to work up to 15 hours a day, oftentimes well into the night. Yet students recalled communication gaps, saying some program instructors seemed unequipped to teach them.
“They’d assume you already knew the material,” said Garrett Tolbert, who participated in course’s the 2018-19 iteration. “I think they should make sure the students know the pre-requirements of what they’re teaching.”
The snags weren’t limited to the classroom. Many felt like they were left hanging after they graduated, stunned to find out they didn’t have job opportunities or internship offers waiting for them at the end of the program.
Of the 65 who participated in the 2018-19 class, 32 students landed tech industry jobs or internships. Some were at other tech giants like Apple and Microsoft.
Tolbert interned at Google for a semester after he graduated, but said he was surprised when he wasn’t invited back at the end of the internship.
Nearly all of the students who talked about their time on the Google campus said they experienced racially tinged “microaggressions” from other Google team members. Many reported that employees seemed to check their work badges more regularly to make sure they belonged on the campus.
During the pilot semester, security stopped a group of students riding Google bikes on the grounds after someone reported them stolen.
“It was like nobody had seen an African-American person before,” said Saraah Cooper, who was a student in the second year.