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Twitter's (supposedly) last black manager unloads accusations against his former employer; numbers seem to corroborate his account

Leslie Miley has quit microblogging and social media powerhouse Twitter, Inc. (TWTR).  Well, "quit" might be a bit of an understatement.  Let's just say Miley went out with a bang.

On a guest blog post, published by the rabble-rousing social media news site Medium, he makes an incendiary claim that he was "the only African-American in [engineering] leadership".  He writes:

Twitter no longer has any managers, directors, or VP’s of color in engineering or product management.

It's a criticism that draws headlines (see: Gawker) in part because its a familiar claim.

Most sources probably won't bother to dig much deeper.  But as someone with a background in data science, I feel the need to contextualize.  After all, without the facts we're left with pure emotion -- hard feelings between an employee and his employer.

Leslie Miley
Leslie Miley was Twitter's only black engineering manager, by his own accounting.  He quit over the company's supposed intolerance. [Image Source: Leslie Miley via Gawker]

So what are the facts?

First let's examine Twitter's employee demographics from publicly available data:

Twitter:
  • Overview:
    • 35+ offices [source]
    • 50% of Twitter employees are engineers [source]
    • Global headcount
      • Feb. 2015: 3,900 employees [source] (cached)
      • Nov. 2015: 4,300 employees [source]
      • ~1 in 10 employees added since Feb. 2015!
  • Headcounts by Job Title [Glassdoor; public visible]
    • ~435 engineers (entry level categories up to "senior" engineers)
    • ~25 managers ("product manager" or "engineering manager")
      • Estimate: 17-18 employees per product/engineering manager
  • Napkin math on # of Engineering/Product Managers:
    • Engineers: ~2,150
    • Product or Engineering Managers: ~120
  • Black engineers at Twitter
    • On management team 0 out of 10
      • Side note: the only minority is Twitter's general counsel, Vijaya Gadde, who is of Indian descent.
      • Side note pt. II: There's also just two women on the team of ten, including the general counsel.
    • Are there really no black engineering or product managers at Twitter?
      • It's not clear.  Cavel Khan (@cavel/LinkedIn), though, is a black New York area marketing manager at Twitter.
    • What about the BlackBirds (@Blackbirds)?  How many black engineers and product folks are there?
      • It appears like Twitter employs a couple dozen black engineers, although its unclear if any are in management roles.
Now let's look at the demographics of black engineers, both in Silicon Valley management and at large:
  • Engineers w/ a bachelor's [source: 2011, ASEE (PDF)]
    • Nearly 75k graduates per year
    • More than 4-to-1 male
    • People reporting "white" as their ethnicity made up roughly...
      • 1 in every 2 female engineers
      • 2 out of every 3 males
  • Black engineers
    • ~3,200 bachelor's grads
    • Less that 1 in 20 engineering bachelor's grads is black
    • Similarly according to 1993 numbers (granted, somewhat old data) numbers from the National Science Foundation (NSF), blacks represented...
    • 2 percent of doctoral engineers and scientists, or roughly 1 in 50
    • "roughly" 3 percent of the total engineering and science workforce, or roughly 1 in 30
  • Outlook
    • Black engineers are graduating at ~50% higher rates than two decades ago
    • There is still a BIG gap in the number of black engineering graduates (the same could be said for women and most other minority grads, for that matter).
Black engineers

So at Twitter it appears that black engineers may make up as few as 1 in 100 engineers.  While the percentage of black engineers is slow, there is some truth in what Miley is saying (it appears).  If the numbers above hold up, Twitter may employ roughly 50 percent less blacks than the average engineering business.

That makes what Miley writes somewhat more damning.  He recalls:

Personally, a particularly low moment was having my question about what specific steps Twitter engineering was taking to increase diversity answered by the Sr. VP of Eng at the quarterly Engineering Leadership meeting. When he responded with "diversity is important, but we can’t lower the bar." I then realized I was the only African-American in Eng leadership.

Whoa.

That certainly sounds bad.

Also Twitter's hiring process sounds pretty suspect, in terms of diversity:

There were also the Hiring Committee meetings that became contentious when I advocated for diverse candidates. Candidates who were dinged for not being fast enough to solve problems, not having internships at ‘strong’ companies and who took too long to finish their degree. Only after hours of lobbying would they be hired. Needless to say, the majority of them performed well.
...
As we continued the discussion, he suggested I create a tool to analyze candidates last names to classify their ethnicity. His rationale was to track candidates thru the pipeline to understand where they were falling out. He made the argument that the last name Nguyen, for example, has an extremely high likelihood of being Vietnamese. As an engineer, I understand this suggestion and why it may seem logical. However, classifying ethnicity’s by name is problematic as evidenced by my name (Leslie Miley) What I also found disconcerting is this otherwise highly sophisticated thinker could posit that an issue this complex could be addressed by name analysis.

To play devil's advocate (not to suggest Twitter is the devil... but well, ya know), the tweeps aren't alone in their diversity dilemma.  Across Silicon Valley and across the entire West Coast engineering circuit, African American engineers are poorly represented.  Top tech firms like Apple, Inc. (AAPL) [source], Facebook, Inc. (FB) [source], and Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) [source] all have nary an African American face on their leadership teams (Microsoft does have a black chairman of its board, read on for more on that).

Granted, some of Miley's complaints sound a bit reaching, e.g.:

Twitter sponsored an event celebrating the work of Freada Kapor Klein and the Level Playing Field Institute. The former Head of the NAACP, Ben Jealous was a featured speaker. This event was attended by many a variety of leaders in tech representing a broad cross section of races, genders, and backgrounds. However, the employee resource group representing Twitter’s black employees (@blackbirds) did not receive an invitation.

And in June of 2015, Jesse Jackson was allowed to present at the Twitter shareholder meeting. Again, there was no communication to Twitter’s black employee resource group. In comparison, when Hillary Clinton and Mellody Hobson visited, the Twitter Women Engineering resource group was notified and given an opportunity to meet privately.

And then there's the obvious irony of Twitter's self-proclaimed only black manager quitting over lack of diversity.  Obviously, to some extent Miley is self-fulfilling his own accusation as his departure makes for an even less diverse Twitter.

Then again, for every weaker argument in his post there's plenty of red meat.  And it's not hard to see where Twitter's sunshine and rainbows could come off as a bit glib amidst the frustrations Miley encountered.  Twitter is fond of spewing slogans like "hashtag (#) TellYourStoriesHere" and "#LoveWhereYouWork".  

Twitter love where you work

For some African American employees the slogans hold true.  But clearly experiences like Miley's will make Twitter a lot harder workplace to love.

Twitter tell your stories here

When it comes down it, the statistics are the most damning part here.  Twitter says it's trying not to lower the bar.  But that comes off as a weak justification for what appears to be a deliberate effort not hire black employees.

And what makes that more glaring is the fact that black engineers aren't as scarce as they were two decades ago.  Graduation rates have risen.  And even in Silicon Valley, the presence of minority engineers and lawyers is being felt.  Google Inc. (GOOG) has a black general counsel, David Drummond.  So too does Symantec Corp. (SYMC) (Scott Taylor).

In fact, Symantec's former CEO John Wendell Thompson is an African American.  Now he's CEO of another firm -- Virtual Instruments (privately held).  And he is also the Chairman of Microsoft's board.  Streaming site Justin.tv's -- a precursor to the Google-acquired Twitch -- was cofound by Michael Seibel, a prominent black silicon valley venture capitalist.  Dropbox's first employee, Aston Motes, was black.  The list goes on and on.

Thus while in the past Twitter's demographics might have looked par for the course in Silicon Valley, today they do stand out a bit more.  While Twitter's Blackbirds have tried to put an optimistic spin on the growing diversity gap at Twitter versus its peers, seeing one of its leaders depart in such bitter fashion is a sad and disappoint note -- one that reflects negatively on Twitter in general.

Sources: Medium [guest column], Gawker





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