Beyond 'Brogrammers': Can AI create a meritocracy?
- 9 January 2017
- From the section Business
Silicon Valley is so male-dominated that there's a name for the young, brash men who populate the region's many start-ups and high-tech firms: "brogrammers".
Brogrammers are not your standard, introverted computer programmers. They are a more recent stereotype: the macho, beer swilling players who went to top schools and are often hired by their friends or former fraternity brothers in the technology industry.
"If there's a group of a hundred candidates and they're from multiple different backgrounds, different races, different genders, we noticed across the board there was a certain type of programmer that would still move forward in interviews," says Iba Masood, the 27-year-old chief executive and co-founder of Tara.ai, an artificial intelligence project manager that aims to change the world by combating bias.
"The brogrammer," says Ms Masood when asked what type of candidate she is referring to. "It's a type that's known in the Valley."
Ms Masood's company created Tara, which stands for Talent Acquisition and Recruiting Automation.
'Creating a meritocracy'
Tara analyses and ranks programmers' code, removing biographical information such as age, race, gender or where you have worked in the past or where you went to university. The algorithm means that people are judged on the work they have produced rather than who they are or who they know.
"We're very passionate about creating a meritocracy," says Ms Masood, who along with her co-founder Syed Ahmed, were born and raised in the United Arab Emirates. They wanted to create opportunities for people like themselves: smart and entrepreneurial, but not graduates of brand-name schools.
Tara is a project manager that recruits and manages the best programmers for a variety of projects for businesses, from building simple websites to creating advanced applications.
To create Tara the two used publicly available code and graded programmers on a 1-10 scale. None of the programmers are a perfect 10 and Tara doesn't tell a candidate their rank, though it does set a minimum standard for recommending work.
Their highest-ranking member is a nine - he's a young, US-based programmer who never went to university.
Mr Ahmed, 28, is the chief technology officer behind Tara. He says the system is much more than a recruiter - it is capable of finding the best people for the job and carrying out the entire recruitment process.
He says Tara will increasingly offer opportunities for people working in the freelance economy, and will create more opportunities for women and minorities who have historically had a tough time breaking in to cutting edge start-ups and staying in the tech industry.
In the US, women held just 25% of professional computing occupations in 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And more than 90% of those women were white. Just 5% were Asian, 3% African American and 1% Hispanic.
Women in computing fields in the US have declined since a peak of 36% in 1991. A 2016 report from the National Center for Women in Information Technology says that women quit the tech industry in numbers more than double their male counterparts.
"Evidence suggests that workplace conditions, a lack of access to key creative roles, and a sense of feeling stalled in one's career are some of the most significant factors contributing to female attrition from the tech field," the report says.
Shaherose Charania, a board member and also the co-founder of Women 2.0, which advocates for women in technology, says that companies lacking diversity are more prone to make mistakes that offend their users.
"There are so many mistakes that companies like Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter have made to exclude some of their most engaged user groups," Ms Charania says, referring to Facebook's "poke" which annoyed many women and more recently Snapchat's Bob Marley filter, which was criticised as promoting a racist digital version of blackface.
Lack of female candidates?
While "bro culture" might be blamed for failing to retain the few women who do work in tech fields, the reality is there aren't many trained female computer scientists to recruit in the first place. Although women earn 57% of all undergraduate university degrees in the US, they account for just 18% of computer science degrees.
Using artificial intelligence may level the playing field when it comes to hiring on merit but it won't solve the recruiting "pipeline problem" of having too few women applicants.
Ms Charania says bias in hiring is typically not conscious, but a result of people hiring people they feel comfortable with, often from similar backgrounds and universities. If there are no women candidates or just one token female, their likelihood of getting the job is very slim.
Whether or not AI changes "bro culture" remains to be seen. Some of those "bros" are likely to be very talented programmers. But until more women study computer science, gender parity in technology will remain science fiction.
But Ms Masood predicts more and more women will enter the field in the future.
"I believe the next 20 to 30 years is going to be transformative for women," says Ms Masood. "There's going to be people from multiple different backgrounds, races, perspectives coming into the field of programming. And I think that's why Tara is so important in this field in particular."