Microsoft, the world’s biggest software company, now has an Indian CEO and African-American board chair, points out Joel Dreyfuss in the Root. But that’s no indication that their appointments signal a trend toward greater diversity in Silicon Valley.
It’s hard to believe that race played much of a role in getting these men their jobs. Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s new CEO, is a well-regarded engineer who formerly headed its enterprise business. While there, he oversaw creation of the Cloud OS platform that powers services like SkyDrive, Azure and Office 365. He also grew revenue by several billion dollars. Meantime John Thompson, now the CEO of Virtual Instruments, grew Symantec’s sales from $632 million to $6.2 billion when he was its leader.
The irony in these appointments is that Microsoft, like most second-generation tech companies founded in the 1970s and 1980s, has never been very good at diversity. In 30 years covering tech companies, I rarely interviewed a senior manager at Microsoft who was not white, and when I did come across a nonwhite employee (almost always male), he was usually Asian. And like other tech companies, Microsoft executives explained that they were simply hiring the best, without intending to suggest, of course, that blacks and Hispanics couldn’t make the cut.
By contrast, IBM, one of the first generation of technology giants, has long been a standard setter for finding, hiring and promoting minority talent. Thompson rose to vice president at Big Blue with responsibility for billions of dollars in U.S. sales and services before taking over Symantec. The current IBM management team includes Rod Adkins, the African-American senior VP for corporate strategy who previously headed the $18 billion systems and technology group, and Jacqueline Woods, the global VP for systems software and growth solutions. And IBM has had a white female CEO, Ginny Rometti, since 2012.
Silicon Valley companies have bent over backwards to avoid sharing the demographics of their workforces, rationalizing their resistance by calling the information competitive data. And, they claim their low proportion of black and Hispanic employees is the result of low participation in STEM programs. But, Dreyfuss contends, those businesses haven’t worked very hard to diversify their sales, marketing, logistics, content development or communications staffs, either. “I think the reluctance to reveal the numbers is mostly because they’re embarrassing,” he says.
None of this is to say there’s rampant bigotry at work in technology. Instead, there may be a simple lack of enthusiasm for worrying about something that’s not perceived as having a direct impact on product development, research or business in general. That may be naïve, though. The U.S. population — and thus the U.S. market – is becoming increasingly diverse, and overseas customers are by definition a mix of race and ethnicity. “When top executives at these companies begin to believe that their continued success requires a truly diverse workforce, the numbers will begin to improve,” Dreyfuss believes. “Until then, appointments like Nadella and Thompson will be welcome exceptions.”