Month: September 2019

Writing 03: Diversity, Codes of Conduct

The conversation around diversity is a complicated one and is often charged with emotions and sometimes accusation. While there are some issues that we have yet to fully agree on, I do believe that we can at least acknowledge that there is a problem with the lack of diversity in the Tech industry, particularly in engineering and computer science. Before I delve into potential solutions and where these problems stem from, I will first talk about the necessity of diversity.

Diversity is important in several ways. The biggest is that having “diversity” also means having a variety of different backgrounds, cultures, ideas, and opinions, which in turn sparks healthy debate and a generally more inclusive work culture that is more open to change. Workplaces that lack diversity are in danger of developing an “echo chamber” of ideas, or perhaps developing ideas that would make it difficult for new members to feel comfortable in the culture. Additionally, having diversity also allows better representation from different components of society. Ultimately, for a company, this is a good thing as a company ultimately needs to be in touch with society to be successful. Thus, having a diversity, I believe it can be agreed on, is at least a good thing, and something to be desired.

The question then becomes how necessary is diversity? Is it a moral imperative?  This I think depends on individual opinion and understanding of what is moral. I for one believe that having diversity is a moral issue, as having diversity is inherently “good” in the sense that it allows for better working conditions and helps a company be a responsible component of society. Others though may argue that diversity, while good to have is not absolutely necessary and issues with diversity that we hear about in the media are overblown.

Regardless of how “necessary” diversity is, we can at least agree I hope that it is good to have, and so the next question is how do we achieve and promote diversity? This is tricky, and we shall analyze this issue in terms of the tech and computing industry. It is clear that right now there is a severe gender imbalance in the tech industry and there is a similar issue with minority groups in computing. If we look first at the gender issue, there has been intense debate as to where this divide ultimately starts from. Some will argue, such as the google memo that circulated recently, that there are “inherent biological differences” between men and women that cause men to be more interested in computing and women less so. This idea in particular has sparked intense debate, and I think ultimately we do not have conclusive evidence that there are or are not such relevant differences.

Something we do have strong evidence for, and something that we can do more as a society to change now, is the gender stereotypes, and to a lesser extent the cultural stereotypes, that still persist in our society. These stereotypes have been shown to manifest even in extremely young children and push people to certain roles based on factors completely outside of their control. For example, there is this idea that boys are the ones who take apart computers, who like legos and scifi, while it’s girls who like animals and the color pink and are more emotionally receptive. Thus, it is unsurprising that more males choose to go into engineering and computer science, while more women go into teaching and nursing. This issue also exists in a racial context. For example, there’s the stereotype that “asians” are good at math or just strong academically, and so we (speaking from personal experience) are expected to do well in science and math classes. It is no wonder then that so many asians go into engineering and computer science, so much so that “asian” is no longer considered a “minority” in some contexts.

I believe is the biggest reason for why we have gender imbalances and imbalances as a whole in certain areas of society. If from childhood people are told to follow certain paths, they are less likely to deviate from norms dictated by society. This is an injustice in society, as people are essentially forced into certain roles because of a factor they cannot control. Thus, while we cannot control or yet understand how differences in biology may impact the roles men/women choose, we can at least see that there are inherent societal issues that are causing harm.

This is something, I will add, that does more than “oppress” one group. Men also face such stereotypes, such as the idea of toxic masculinity that has become a topic of conversation recently or that men have to be “providing” in a relationship. At the end of the day, we will have to address all such issues, but there are some issues that should take priority in the current context.

It is based on this idea that I am supportive of efforts to provide certain groups more resources. For example, take the Grace Hopper conference, which is an extremely powerful resources for women seeking to go into the tech industry. There has been some jealousy or discontentment from other groups over how effective this conference is, and this highlights an important point: so long as we distinguish between different groups, there will always be feelings of “injustice” or “unfairness”. In this case however, I view the conference as absolutely necessary and its long-term benefits outweigh any divides it may create in the short-term. After all, putting more women in the tech industry helps to break up male dominated work cultures that currently exist. Women who are entering the tech industry now are warriors who will hopefully become role models for younger generations of women engineers, and who as a result will help encourage more women to enter the industry. While we may not ever reach a perfect gender balance, this is at least a good and necessary step to bring in underrepresented groups and push for change in society.

Writing 02: Employment

First of all, I have to say that it has been very interesting hearing people’s experiences in the tech industry, especially as an “outsider.” At a general level, tech companies seem to expect more technical skills out of their applicants, and in some ways care less about personality or their actual character. Perhaps that’s a bad way of phrasing it. Perhaps you could spin it as “tech companies do not care less about a person’s traits, they simply care MORE about technical skills than in other industries.” At the end of the day though, it becomes more possible in the tech industry to outweigh bad personality traits with sheer technical skills, so it seems.

I’ll talk about insurance and the actuarial world, which is where I am going to find myself in. On the whole, I generally approve of the hiring process, as though actuaries require strong technical skills, they are still “business” people at the end of the day, and thus require strong interpersonal skills. It’s less important what skills you actually have, and more important what mindset you have, as skills can be taught but creating the right mindset takes time (so do interpersonal skills). I believe that this is a good approach to have in hiring, and so I consider hiring in the actuarial field to be efficient, effective, and generally ethical.

It’s interesting though to compare hiring in the actuarial field vs in the computer science field. Let me first highlight some key differences and similarities, and then I will share some thoughts on these. The first: coding interviews are fairly common in CS (which is reasonable given the value placed on technical skills) whereas in the actuarial field they are non-existent. The second: actuarial interviews are almost entirely behavioral, with any more “technical questions” being of a case study nature where there really isn’t a right answer and is more meant to showcase how one thinks, which is in contrast to CS interviews, which seem to require greater knowledge of actual algorithms and data structures (technical knowledge, in other words). The third, a similarity: the gender balance in both fields is skewed towards men, and as such there have been recent pushes to bring greater equality (which has some interesting dilemmas). Before I proceed to my thoughts, I will admit a couple of things. One, that I haven’t really had to interview in the last couple of years, as my last interview was back in sophomore year and I am not planning on entering recruiting this semester, and two, I have not had a CS-related interview, and so this is only based on my understanding given what others have said.

First, the subject of coding interviews. In CS-related fields, coding interviews seem to make sense. After all, employers want the best of the best, and the best must be able to code well. But I don’t think coding interviews are as simple as that, for a couple of reasons. First, skills used in the coding interview are not necessarily used in the job. For example, an algorithm you may need for the interview might never turn up in your actual job, so what’s the point of testing for this algorithm specifically? Second, knowledge is highly teachable, and very googlable. For example, if a person could not recall an algorithm, he/she could simply google and then copy/paste, and any information needed for a specific project can be learned on the job from more experienced people. If coding interviews then test skills that may not be needed, and could easily be learned on the job, what is the point then? It may not be just a knowledge test. What is more likely I think is that these challenges are meant to be a barometer for a person’s traits. For example, knowing a specific algorithm is not important, but a person knowing it means that he/she is more likely to have a better understanding of the algorithm, and other ones as well. He/she is also more likely to be a hard worker, as preparing algorithms for interviews is a time-consuming and difficult task. That’s why I think coding interviews where an interviewer is actually watching (as opposed to a task that is simply timed and done on the interviewee’s own time) are better for all parties, as the interviewer can delve into a person’s mindset, and an interviewee can demonstrate that he/she is a good fit, even if the coding task was not successfully completed. Thus, coding tasks I believe are not simply used as “tests” of knowledge, but rather barometer of a person’s mindset and diligence.

The second difference is very related to the first, but in Actuarial science, interviews are primarily behavioral, conversational, or at “worst” case studies. Actual technical skills are not tested. This is likely due to what is expected of people who are actually working. At tech firms, a person’s ability to code is likely more important than one’s ability to make a presentation or be personable, not to say that it’s not important, just less important compared to other fields. Actuarial science however is very focused on communication and “debating” with statistics, and as such requires a more communicative personality.

The last point is that of gender, which is a problem in both fields due to both being highly technical, which tends to attract more males than females. As such, there has been a push to recruit more females, and as a result in some ways a girl in CS or actuarial science has an advantage over their peers (think Grace Hopper, as an example). The question though is: is that fair? This brings up the issues of equality, justice, and meritocracy and the interactions within. In CS, there is an idea that the “best code” should win, thus perpetuating a meritocracy. A meritocracy though is only fair when all participants start from the same playing field. Thus, if women are actually disadvantaged in their field, they deserve to have some benefit to help them out, which would be “just” and would contribute to proper “equality”, and judging from Silicon Valley’s rumored “bro culture,” I think women are actually disadvantaged, and so the “help” they receive is justified, though ultimately it could be argued both ways.



Writing 01: Identity

Who am I? This is a classic question that is also extremely difficult to answer. After all, people are complex beings, ever changing and constantly growing. There are ways however to break down an identity by recognizing smaller influences, and I shall exemplify this by breaking down my own identity in reference to the following aspects: Computing, Notre Dame, and privilege.

The first aspect, computing, is an obvious influence given my major (Computer Science), and in some ways I exemplify some stereotypical behaviors. Let us first consider a couple of stereotypical examples. The first is the kind of person you see in the media, the “hacker” who sits in his dark room and types furiously to hack into some sort of mainframe. The hacker is usually unkempt, messy, and generally not self-aware, a person who prefers to focus on his work/computer more than other people. The second is the more realistic “hacker”, which embodies a stubborn spirit that allows a person to break down more complex problems into manageable chunks and who learns best by doing. The last, the “engineer” who is held to standards and attempts to build a better future. In a way, I feel I embody aspects of all 3. Of the first, at times I do become a “recluse” of sorts, as once I enter the “flow” of programming, I could easily go 2 or 3 hours without doing anything else. Of the second, I am extremely stubborn when it comes to my work, and I will repeatedly hack away at a problem until I solve it, no matter how difficult. The last, though programmers are in many ways not engineers as there is less certification in such fields, I do still hope to “build” something with my skills, and to sharpen my own abilities to build meaningful and useful projects. That doesn’t mean however that I fully embody any of these three stereotypes, as doing so would be impossible because there seems to be some conflicts in the divisions, but that is how identity is I suppose: a conglomeration of other identities.

The second aspect is Notre Dame, and I believe this idea ties closely with the idea of privilege. In recent years, the idea of “white privilege” has become a very touchy subject, but privilege itself is not inherently tied to one race. Privilege is simply having a better starting point than other people, and that can manifest either in a caring family, wealth, area where you grew up in, or in many other ways. I say privilege is tied to my ND identity, because the majority of people at ND are privileged as well, and being “privileged” definitely helped me get to ND in the first place. Thus, during this time at ND, I think it is important to recognize the privilege that helped bring us here. It is not to say that we didn’t work hard to get where we are now, but simply that we had a better starting point and we have to keep in mind that there are others less fortunate than us that could have been here with us ND if they were born into more fortunate circumstances.

That is why the idea of meritocracy, a concept that I’d like to touch on for a little bit, is problematic. Meritocracy is fair only when everyone competing starts at the same level. If someone has a head start, then the quality of work he/she produces is based partially on luck. Not to say that those who have succeeded with privilege have only done so because of it, but having privilege will certainly make it easier, and it’s something we have to recognize. It’s important too not to fall into the trap of thinking that you have earned everything you have, and thinking that it is a pure meritocracy.

At any rate, having detailed some of my identity, hopefully we can see where some of my views are coming from. I like to see the world as malleable and changeable (to an extent_, and that is probably because of my stubborn mindset (why should I change when I can change the world). Additionally, having privilege likely contributes to that, as I have been put into more situations where I have more control. I also am a fan of the idea of a meritocracy, because at the end of the day it is a competitive world and the best work should win, but on the other hand I am fine when opportunities are given to the less fortunate as I know that I too have relied on luck to an extent to get where I am now. I also believe that where society needs to invest is in the needy areas, and that more aid proportionally should be given to those who really need it.

I’d like to believe that the world would perceive me and my identity in a positive light, but sometimes stereotypes prevail. There’s always the idea that being a programmer makes you an awkward nerd who only stares at computers all day, or that being from Notre Dame might make you a “rich kid” or “elite” who doesn’t understand what other people are going through, and so it is important I feel to make an extra effort in those areas so that I do not fall into those traps.