“Death by HR” – High Tech Under Diversity Pressure

Jesse Jackson at Intel - photo Recode/PushTECH2020

Jesse Jackson at Intel – photo Recode/PushTECH2020

[An abridged chapter from Death by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples Organizations,  available now in Kindle and trade paperback.]

The culture difference between HR staff and the rest of the workforce causes problems in many industries, but it’s worst in high tech. While successful companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook started their HR departments with technology-savvy people, even they eventually succumbed to the bureaucratic disease — with newer HR staff more similar to the risk-averse, non-business-oriented sorts seen elsewhere. It takes constant CEO attention to keep HR from drifting toward bureaucratic focus on process and not results.

Bob Cringely has been observing and writing about the PC world since early days, with his “Notes From the Field” column in InfoWorld from 1987 to 1995, and a now-dated but still historically interesting book, Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can’t Get a Date. His article “The Enemy in HR” gets directly to the heart of the problem of HR in Silicon Valley. He starts off wondering why companies claim there’s a shortage of IT workers requiring large numbers of foreign workers to be admitted under H1-B visas to fill the need, while at the same time hundreds of thousands of (mostly male, mostly older, experienced) unemployed IT workers can’t get an interview. What could it be? He states the basic thesis of this book in a few paragraphs:

…we can start by blaming the Human Resources (HR) departments at big and even medium-sized companies. HR does the hiring and firing or at least handles the paperwork for hiring and firing. HR hires headhunters to find IT talent or advertises and finds that talent itself. If you are an IT professional in a company of almost any size that has an HR department, go down there sometime and ask about their professional qualifications. What made them qualified to hire you?

You’ll find the departments are predominantly staffed with women and few, if any, of those women have technical degrees. They are hiring predominantly male candidates for positions whose duties they typically don’t understand. Those HR folks, if put on the spot, will point out that the final decision on all technical hires comes from the IT department, itself. All HR does is facilitate.

Not really. What HR does is filter. They see as an important part of their job finding the very best candidates for every technical position. But how do you qualify candidates if you don’t know what you are talking about? They use heuristics—sorting techniques designed to get good candidates without really knowing good from bad.

Common heuristic techniques for hiring IT professionals include looking for graduates of top university programs and for people currently working in similar positions at comparable companies including competitors. The flip side of these techniques also applies—not looking for graduates of less prestigious universities or the unemployed.[1]

Software and hardware engineering work is as far from liberal arts-communications-psychology as it is possible to be, revolving around hard math, heavy-duty abstract reasoning, and specialized language often impenetrable to outsiders. So typical HR staff don’t understand the work or the distinguishing characteristics of the most productive workers in the field. A software genius may be inattentive to details of personal hygiene — and the HR staffer who interviews him may conclude from his smell that he’s sloppy and undisciplined, and will cause interpersonal issues. Many of the best have Asperger’s Syndrome, which could be summed up as deep focus on order and details of problem domains while lacking abilities to communicate or sense the feeling of others through the normal signalling.[2] These are the people who get into trouble with modern feminists because they are clumsy and will continue to crudely pursue sexual come-ons when a woman has signalled disinterest; they are no more likely than anyone else to sexually assault a woman, but modern feminists believe unwanted attention from a male is tantamount to sexual assault — if it makes someone uncomfortable, it should be a firing offense. Female HR staff are likely to find such men unattractive and screen them out as not fitting in.

Meanwhile, hiring managers are more likely to understand the type, and that careful management — hiding the socially-inept from customers and outsiders, and feeding them the hardest problems to solve — can make these people a key strength for the organization. It may become necessary for executive management to make it clear to HR that Asperger’s (under the current DSM-5 terminology, a form of Autism Spectrum Disorder[3]) is a recognized disability and that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to provide these disabled men with “reasonable accommodations” — special treatment recognizing that they need support to be effective workers with their disability. This puts HR staff on notice that they would be violating the law if they continue to discriminate against the apparently insensitive, overly-focused males the company badly needs to do the most difficult programming jobs!

That warning in place, HR staff will come to see both easily-offended women and socially-obtuse men as victims to be protected. Which would be an improvement over current practice, where a few complaints of bad behavior can get a man fired when no actual malice or assault was intended. Everyone in the workplace should feel safe from sexual pressure and physical assault, but not to the point where perceived rudeness or insensitivity gets you fired, or some of the industry’s best workers will be exiled.

Silicon Valley is a magnet for technologists from around the world, and the resulting engineering workforce is skewed toward men, Asians, Indians, and a scattering of Europeans all attracted by the prospect of working with the world’s best people for some of the world’s highest rewards. Early on, PC and microprocessor companies resembled the defense contractors of the Valley, mostly white male engineering staff and more diverse support staff. As engineers from elsewhere moved to take jobs in the Valley, they brought wives and family, and many of the wives began work in support positions like accounting and HR. Today, despite all their efforts to recruit more women and minorities, an exemplary company like Apple reports their engineering staff is still 77% male[4], and that includes a lot of less focused, more routine positions like release management and QA testing support which usually have more women. Meanwhile, overall diversity numbers have been improved by hiring more women and minorities in support, sales, and HR.

Silicon Valley continues to passively resist pressures to hire based on diversity goals rather than competence. Management understands that engineering excellence can’t be compromised away without destroying their company’s competitive edge, and promotes diversity recruitment efforts to find capable minorities for core engineering work as well as secondary roles like testing and maintenance the best engineers find unexciting. And still the resulting numbers fail to come close to the US population’s minority percentages, with Asians, whites, and males over-represented. So the pressure continues:

Two years ago, the Rev. Jesse Jackson set his sights on Silicon Valley. He promised to push tech companies and venture capital firms to prioritize diversity and inclusion, and to add more employees from historically underrepresented groups like women and people of color.

But the progress he’d hoped for hasn’t happened yet, and Jackson is growing restless. On Friday, as Jackson’s Rainbow Push Coalition held a conference in San Francisco where industry leaders joined local groups and activists to discuss diversity, Silicon Valley and what new initiatives may help close the gap. The Rainbow Push Coalition also introduced several programs of its own. Hire and Invest Oakland, aimed at engaging tech companies based in or moving into the East Bay, would encourage companies like Pandora and Uber to work with local organizations when hiring workers and looking for merchants. Several such Oakland organizations were on hand Friday to make their presence known to tech leaders.

“You would think companies that have been around for a while, since the 1990s, would not be where they are when it comes to diversity because they’ve had time to catch up,” Jackson said. “But the good news is there’s time now to catch up, and it will open up a whole new world of opportunity.”

…Pressure to boost diversity at tech companies and remain publicly accountable by disclosure of companies’ personnel data has grown over the past several years. Several firms—including Airbnb, Dropbox, Pinterest, Twitter and Yelp—even hired individuals to oversee and coordinate diversity efforts. Others have begun offering implicit-bias training to their employees or broadening their corporate definition of diversity to include intersectional identities—how various attributes combine to create unique experiences for certain people. Earlier this year, group-chat company Slack updated its diversity report to include more intersectional data on women of color and LGBT people.

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, who announced last year that the company would improve its diversity to reflect the percentage of women and underrepresented minorities in the United States by 2020, and pledged $300 million to aid in the effort, acknowledged at the Rainbow Push conference Friday that the company has received criticism for its outspoken commitment to diversity, according to reports.

“There’s no reason why there cannot be a change now,” Jackson said. “When I think about this culture of exclusion and how unchallenged it has been for so long—we need to end that. There’s responsibility at every level, and we all need to apply social pressure to change things because this is the future: America cannot improve without fully realizing its assets. Imagine baseball without Jackie Robinson. That’s where we are.”[5]

Or imagine fashion design firms required to recruit straight men, or basketball teams required to include more Asians. There are many excellent female and minority engineers, but for a wide variety of cultural and possibly innate reasons, there are not as many as you would expect if talent and interest in the field was uniformly distributed through the population. Decades of special efforts to promote STEM studies and careers for women and minorities has done about as much as is possible to encourage those who want to succeed in it. Forcing equal representation means forcing less qualified, less accomplished employees on some of our key technology leaders, damaging their ability to stay ahead of overseas competition.

Note in the story quoted above the payoffs made to affiliates of Jesse Jackson’s PUSH and minority nonprofit organizations. Activists have learned to make their daily bread by threatening boycotts and lawsuits, then accepting instead payoffs to keep their paychecks going while they pretend to work on the never-ending problems they claim they want to fix. The extortionate style relies on threats of public shaming and political difficulties if targeted companies don’t meet his demands:

The responses [to Jesse Jackson’s PUSH efforts] by these information technology leaders could have been predicted. Management at eBay had nothing overt to say, which amounts to tacit agreement. More telling was the response by Google. In exchange for Jackson’s demand for the company to release employee demographic data on its U.S. work force, David Drummond, chief legal officer (who, like Jackson, is black), promised that his company would release the numbers. He didn’t take very long to deliver. Yesterday, the company issued a report on workforce diversity showing about 60 percent of Google employees are white and 30 percent are Asian (apparently not all racial minorities arouse Jackson’s sympathies). Laszlo Bock, Google’s senior vice president for public relations, also wrote in a blog: “Put simply, Google is not where we want to be when it comes to diversity, and it’s hard to address these kinds of challenges if you’re not prepared to discuss them openly, and with the facts.” Facebook also gave in, adopting a feckless “we’re really, really trying” line. COO Sheryl Sandberg explained in writing: “We have built a number of great partnerships, groups like the National Society of Black Engineers, the Hispanic Alumni of Georgia Tech, Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, and Management Leadership of Tomorrow. And these partnerships have been great because they are really helping us get great candidates and reach out.”

Jackson’s IT gambit has been all over the map this year. Earlier this year, he wrote a letter to tech companies, including Apple, Facebook, Google, Hewlett-Packard, and Twitter, replete with his familiar hectoring style. On March 19, he showed up at the Hewlett-Packard shareholders meeting at the Santa Clara Convention Center to skewer CEO Meg Whitman and her company’s record on minority hiring. And just two days ago, appearing on CNBC, Jackson denounced information technology firms for their lack of “diversity.”[6]

It is far safer and easier to pay off the diversity blackmailers rather than meeting their hiring demands, and such donations to educational and recruitment efforts for minorities are socially positive and build goodwill. It’s better to pay this “diversity tax” outright than to compromise your core engineering, sales, and marketing teams with deadwood employees. If the pressure increases, managements may place more diverse hires in less critical areas, judging this to be the least harmful way of making their numbers look better. But employees that aren’t the best you can find for the position impose a greater cost than just their salaries—their presence signals to everyone in the company that excellence has been subordinated to political pressure, and that appeasing the diversity activists is more important than customers or markets. And this damages the morale of those who are working hardest and have sacrificed the most to be at the center of the company’s production.

One curmudgeon who openly resisted these kinds of demands, T.J. Rodgers of Cypress Semiconductors, famously wrote a letter to crusading nuns who had pressed for women and minority board members:

The semiconductor business is a tough one with significant competition from the Japanese, Taiwanese, and Koreans. There have been more corporate casualties than survivors. For that reason, our Board of Directors is not a ceremonial watchdog, but a critical management function. The essential criteria for Cypress board membership are as follows:

◆ Experience as a CEO of an important technology company.

◆ Direct expertise in the semiconductor business based on education and management experience.

◆ Direct experience in the management of a company that buys from the semiconductor industry.

A search based on these criteria usually yields a male who is 50-plus years old, has a Masters degree in an engineering science, and has moved up the managerial ladder to the top spot in one or more corporations. Unfortunately, there are currently few minorities and almost no women who chose to be engineering graduate students 30 years ago. (That picture will be dramatically different in 10 years, due to the greater diversification of graduate students in the ’80s.) Bluntly stated, a “woman’s view” on how to run our semiconductor company does not help us, unless that woman has an advanced technical degree and experience as a CEO. I do realize there are other industries in which the last statement does not hold true. We would quickly embrace the opportunity to include any woman or minority person who could help us as a director, because we pursue talent—and we don’t care in what package that talent comes.

I believe that placing arbitrary racial or gender quotas on corporate boards is fundamentally wrong. Therefore, not only does Cypress not meet your requirements for boardroom diversification, but we are unlikely to, because it is very difficult to find qualified directors, let alone directors that also meet investors’ racial and gender preferences.

I infer that your concept of corporate “morality” contains in it the requirement to appoint a Board of Directors with, in your words, “equality of sexes, races, and ethnic groups.” I am unaware of any Christian requirements for corporate boards; your views seem more accurately described as “politically correct,” than “Christian.”

My views aside, your requirements are—in effect—immoral. By “immoral,” I mean “causing harm to people,” a fundamental wrong. Here’s why:

I presume you believe your organization does good work and that the people who spend their careers in its service deserve to retire with the necessities of life assured. If your investment in Cypress is intended for that purpose, I can tell you that each of the retired Sisters of St. Francis would suffer if I were forced to run Cypress on anything but a profit-making basis. The retirement plans of thousands of other people also depend on Cypress stock—$1.2 billion worth of stock—owned directly by investors or through mutual funds, pension funds, 401k programs, and insurance companies…. Any choice I would make to jeopardize retirees and other investors from achieving their lifetime goals would be fundamentally wrong.[7]

Rodgers was expressing the belief shared by essentially all advanced technologists that the “package” workers come in — the skin color, sex, and body type containing the most critical component, the brain — doesn’t matter. Finding the solutions to problems matters. Building a great product matters. Getting that product sold and dominating the market matters. Making a good profit matters, so you can do it all again in our capitalist system and pay your investors back for their foresight in entrusting their hard-earned resources and future wellbeing to you. And anyone who can contribute to the project is accepted and rewarded, and anyone who does not, is not. There are many roles in society, many industries and types of work, and it would be strange if various types of people — races, sexes, and cultures –were equally motivated to work in all of them. And so it is not racism or sexism that holds back women and minorities in STEM fields, but cultural factors and motivation. And this diversity is to be celebrated, not artificially eliminated.

There is some pushback from the newer software companies as well. Leslie Miley, (black) head of engineering at the cloud-based team collaboration tool builder Slack,[8] opposed hiring quotas at a recent tech conference:

“I don’t think they work, in particular in think it’s another way saying we won’t lower the bar,” Miley said on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt SF. “What I’m saying is we want a level playing field, you need to have a level playing field. How you level it is, you don’t [just] go to places like MIT and [University of California—Berkeley] and Stanford and focus on those places. I don’t want to have to talk about this again, I don’t believe in quotas, I think they’re inherently wrong and I think there are realistic solutions that don’t have quotas attached to [them].”…

[Slack] has made a lot of effort to branch out into regions outside of Silicon Valley in order to attract talent in regions that are outside the traditional Silicon Valley mold. And it’s looking outside the traditional places that Silicon Valley giants, startups and venture capitalists may be pattern-matching into the best candidates.

That includes looking in unexpected areas in the United States, too, including cities like Detroit, Richmond or even Nashville, Miley said. Those cities are plenty diverse and also have a large pool of highly diverse and talented candidates, and Slack is doing what it can to expand into those areas. And larger tech companies should be doing the same thing, he said.

“[Large tech companies] don’t need to set up shop at the same scale,” Miley said. “Could you put 200 people, definitely, it’s a drop in the hat for Google or Facebook, it’s actually cost competitive to areas in India and China. I’ve had teams, managed over 100 people in India, I know what the cost structure looks like… [Then] people who want advancement know they have to come to HQ, you have people coming to Cupertino, Mountain View. What happens when you hire diverse people—they talk to their friends, their network looks like them. They’re gonna hire friends, associates, you start to make inroads in this company.”

A big part of the issue is that networks within companies tend to self-select within their own networks, keeping diverse candidates from coming into the company. That leads to a reinforcing cycle where diverse candidates from different regions and backgrounds, which might bring in their own friends to the companies, might not feel welcome in those companies….[9]

Outstanding — a networked company can operate in a distributed fashion in many sites around the world, giving HQ a less central role and encouraging geographic diversity that will increase other kinds of cultural diversity. With the goal being cost-effective excellence by going to where the talent is.


[1] “The Enemy in HR,” by Robert X. Cringely, I, Cringely, September 28th, 2014. http://www.cringely.com/2014/09/28/enemy-hr/
[2] Scott Aaronson, an associate professor of EE&CS at MIT, wrote a famous blog comment about his fear of being perceived as a nerdy heterosexual male found gross by females, which triggered a lot of online discussion. Overview: http://www.chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus/mit-professors-blog-comment-sets-off-debate-over-nerds-and-male-privilege/55461, then read the invaluable Scott Alexander’s commentary on the incident: http://slatestarcodex.com/2015/01/01/untitled/, and then read http://slatestarcodex.com/2014/08/31/radicalizing-the-romanceless/.
[3] http://www.asw4autism.org/pdf/Changes_to_ASD_Criteria_in_the_DSM_5.pdf
[4] See Apple’s EEO-1 Form for 2015: http://images.apple.com/diversity/pdf/2015-EEO-1-Consolidated-Report.pdf
[5] “Rev. Jesse Jackson continues push for diversity in tech industry,” by Marissa Lang, San Francisco Chronicle/SFGate, April 22, 2016. http://www.sfgate.com/business/article/Rev-Jesse-Jackson-continues-push-for-diversity-7304554.php
[6] “Silicon Valley Capitulates to Jesse Jackson Shakedown,” by Carl Horowitz, National Legal and Policy Center, May 30, 2014. http://nlpc.org/2014/05/30/jesse-jackson-takes-shakedown-campaign-silicon-valley-extracts-concessions-timid/
[7] “Cypress CEO Responds to Nun’s Urging a ‘Politically Correct’ Board Make-up,” by Cypress Semiconductor CEO T. J. Rodgers, May 23, 1996. http://www.cypress.com/documentation/ceo-articles/cypress-ceo-responds-nuns-urging-politically-correct-board-make
[8] “Slack Is Our Company of the Year. Here’s Why Everybody’s Talking About It,” by Jeff Bercovici, Inc. Magazine, December 2015. http://www.inc.com/magazine/201512/jeff-bercovici/slack-company-of-the-year-2015.html
[9] “Slack’s director of engineering, Leslie Miley, doesn’t believe in diversity quotas,” by Matthew Lynley, TechCrunch, September 12, 2016. https://techcrunch.com/2016/09/12/slacks-director-of-engineering-leslie-miley-doesnt-believe-in-diversity-quotas/

Death by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples OrganizationsDeath by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples Organizations

[From Death by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples Organizations,  available now in Kindle and trade paperback.]

The first review is in: by Elmer T. Jones, author of The Employment Game. Here’s the condensed version; view the entire review here.

Corporate HR Scrambles to Halt Publication of “Death by HR”

Nobody gets a job through HR. The purpose of HR is to protect their parent organization against lawsuits for running afoul of the government’s diversity extortion bureaus. HR kills companies by blanketing industry with onerous gender and race labor compliance rules and forcing companies to hire useless HR staff to process the associated paperwork… a tour de force… carefully explains to CEOs how HR poisons their companies and what steps they may take to marginalize this threat… It is time to turn the tide against this madness and Death by HR is an important research tool…  to craft counter-revolutionary tactics for dealing with the HR parasites our government has empowered to destroy us. All CEOs should read this book. If you are a mere worker drone but care about your company, you should forward an anonymous copy to him.

More reading on other topics:

The Justice is Too Damn High! – Gawker, the High Cost of Litigation, and the Weapon Shops of Isher
Regulation Strangling Innovation: Planes, Trains, and Hyperloop
Captain America and Progressive Infantilization
FDA Wants More Lung Cancer
Corrupt Feedback Loops: Public Employee Unions
Sons of Liberty vs. National Front

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