On a December Friday in 2018, a group of 16 fellows from Uber’s Career Prep Program, a collaboration with The Hidden Genius Project, spend the day at our offices in San Francisco. This diverse group comes from universities all over the country, but they have a few things in common: they are all pursuing computer science degrees, and they are all young, black men, a demographic that is severely underrepresented in the technology sector.
As technology moves from classic Internet-based companies of the past to every sector of the economy, including transportation, finance, agriculture, and manufacturing, job opportunities abound. At the same time, companies have a growing thirst for software developers. The Hidden Genius Project’s goal involves giving people from historically underrepresented demographics in technology jobs the tools to take advantage of these opportunities. It initially focused on high school students. Uber’s partnership, through the Career Prep Program, is designed to help college-level students make the transition to a career in technology.
Launched in 2018, the Career Prep Program is the product of a collaboration between The Hidden Genius Project and Uber, where the program and its curriculum were designed by Uber Privacy Product Manager Zach Singleton, and sponsored by Uber Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion Bernard Coleman and Uber Chief Information Security Officer John Flynn. The program mentors college students, familiarizing them with office workflows and teaching them skills such as succeeding in a technical job interview and negotiating a salary. Every other month, participants met at Uber for workshops, lessons, and discussion around these topics, with the goal of emerging as competitive job applicants when they enter the technology workforce.
On this Friday afternoon, the program’s fellows convene at Uber for this year’s final session. They will interview for internship and full-time opportunities with Uber, complete unfinished projects, and spend time with friends made over the course of the program.
The virtue most amplified by the fellows from the six-month Career Prep Program was the community it created, which was part of its design.
“The participants are encouraged to collaborate during their time out of program to share resources and complete assignments,” said The Hidden Genius Project Executive Co-Founder Brandon Nicholson. “This concept of ubuntu, or ‘I am because we are,’ is central to The Hidden Genius Project’s programmatic philosophy. The network these participants form is ultimately their greatest asset.”
Networking for a black man can be difficult in college computer science classes where the majority of students are Caucasian or Asian, suggests Ahmed Moalim, a fellow of the Career Prep Program and a senior at the University of Washington.
“When I was a freshman at the University of Washington, I don’t think there was a single black person, male or female, in the computer science program,” noted Ahmed. “It is extremely hard to have motivation and desire when you’re the only person that looks like you in an entire class. You start doubting yourself, wondering, if this is how it’s going to be, should I even pursue a degree in computer science or any type of engineering field?”
“It is extremely hard to have motivation and desire when you’re the only person that looks like you in an entire class.”
The curriculum of the Career Prep Program fostered a sense of community and teamwork among the fellows, reinforcing the idea that there can be diversity in the technology sector. The sessions included peer code reviews, a common practice in the industry. Jelani Hutchins-Belgrave, a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania who aspires to make Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list, appreciated the code review exercises.
“That was valuable because maybe you didn’t think of a test case and then someone points out a different way to look at it,” said Jelani. “It’s cool to have other people that you can rely on and communicate with.”
Beyond forming an internal community, the fellows found great value in their interactions with the 230-plus Uber employees who volunteered to help out by conducting mock technical interviews and offering advice on school and program projects.
“From the beginning, we’ve treated this like a product that we’ve built for the community and our employees,” said Zach. “Our employees have absolutely loved being involved.”
Even black men who get a computer science degree and find employment at a top technology company sometimes leave due to a sense that they don’t fit in with the existing culture. That feeling of rejection can also come from the city and social community, which might be across the country from where they grew up, further damaging diversity and inclusion. The Career Prep Program helps its participants by introducing them to the office floor and its community in a welcoming manner, while also giving Uber employees a vision of a more diverse workplace.
“I feel like we definitely got a sense of community here at Uber, and not just with us as a group, but within the company. We were able to get a good grasp of the daily experience of people who work here,” said Justin Robinson, a junior at the University of Virginia. “Being in a professional environment where you interact with so many different people every day is definitely a good experience and helped develop my communication skills.”
Mentoring the mentors
Uber’s Chief Diversity Officer, Bo Young Lee, has a strong interest in the Career Prep Program and sees its value not just in how it readies the fellows to interview and work in the technology sector, but how it also gives Uber’s own employees valuable experience.
“We need the fellows to see themselves here at Uber, just like we need our staff to see the fellows represented on site,” said Bo. “The beautiful thing about mentorship is that it’s a two-way street. The Uber staff who volunteer as mentors are getting as much out of the program as the fellows.”
Uber employees mentored the fellows, conducted practice technical interviews, and helped with code reviews. Ezana Habtegiorgiss, a junior at San Jose State University, found the mentoring sessions essential to his career development.
“Having somebody in the workforce that was guiding me in terms of my career and giving me genuine insight was a tremendous help,” said Ezana. “My mentor helped me decide what internships I should apply for and even gave me advice about small decisions for a personal project I was working on.”
Although some of the fellows had previously completed internships at technology companies, others found their time at the Uber offices a new experience. For Jelani, the only freshman among the fellows, the design of the workspace was an eye-opener. “I liked the open-desk workspace, which encouraged a fluidity between the engineers,” said Jelani. “It’s not like a closed-off area where you feel isolated”
Unlike a university classroom or lecture hall, at Uber the fellows experienced how teams of engineers working every day to solve real-world problems. “In college, you learn theory, you learn how the math works and why. But the application, the practicality of it is not there,” said Ayalew Lidete, a senior at St. Mary’s College of California. “This program teaches you how to become a great software engineer, how to be a good leader, how to negotiate a salary.” Ayalew transitioned to The Career Prep Program upon completing The Hidden Genius Project’s Immersion Program for High School Students, a path that Brandon, Zach, and other program leaders will look to continue in the future with additional partners.
Ezana was impressed from the first day of the program, when Uber CTO Thuan Pham came in to speak to the group, welcoming them to Uber and explaining our commitment to diversity.
“That was a big boost in seeing that somebody at that level came in and really talked to us, showed us that he cares,” he said. Rather than a remote, ivory tower executive, Thuan’s welcome to the group showed Ezana and the other fellows that people in leadership positions can not only be accessible but share their passion for engineering.
For his part, Thuan sees the value of boosting diversity in the workplace.
“The Hidden Genius Project is a spectacular program that is just one step towards giving Uber Engineering the ability to nurture talent from non-traditional sources by uplifting talent across various communities,” he said.
The program has given Uber a boost in filling its needs for talented engineers. Of the 16 fellows in the initial cohort, seven have already secured offers, five internships at Uber, one internship at Facebook, and one full-time offer at Uber.
While the fellows had a great learning opportunity from this first year of the Career Prep Program, so did the leadership of The Hidden Genius Project. Brandon sees the Career Prep Program as a model for how his organization can work with other companies.
“This partnership establishes a dynamic precedent for our collaboration with companies looking to demonstrate real leadership and innovation in talent acquisition and development,” he said. “We spent a great deal of time in conversation about how to design this program in a way that places the holistic benefits to the young participants at the center, and subsequently creates mutual wins for our respective organizations as a byproduct.”
While mentoring black male computer science students served a very important demographic during the program’s first year, the initiative is set to widen its scope.
“Moving forward, the program will be open to all demographics, as long as they demonstrate a commitment to the program’s mission to increase representation in engineering,” said Zach.
The program has also gained executive sponsorship from Thuan, Bo, Uber VP of Ridesharing and Eats Engineering Jörg Heilig, and Uber Chief Product Officer Manik Gupta. Zach looks forward to expanding the program from Uber’s San Francisco headquarters to its New York office and eventually taking it international, an attainable goal considering Uber’s global engineering offices.
In a parallel effort to promote diversity and inclusion at Uber, the company will launch the Summer Technology cAreer Readiness Program (STAR), a 10-week paid internship for undergraduate freshmen and rising sophomores interested in working in technology and full-time opportunities with Uber. Open to all eligible students, UberSTAR is especially committed to exposing historically underrepresented students in this field to career opportunities in the industry.
College students who are majoring in computer science and committed to increasing representation in engineering should Apply Now to be in the 2019 Career Prep Program. And if you’re interested in The Hidden Genius Project you can learn more on their website. Black male high school students interested in a technology career can apply to The Hidden Genius Project’s 15-month Intensive Immersion program.