Leslie Miley, the director of engineering at Slack, challenged an audience that historically has benefited from white privilege (including yours truly) to extend it to others, like women and minorities.
“Extending is not making room at the table—it’s giving up your place at the table,” he said, speaking at the taping of the fifth episode of Ars Technica Live, held on August 17 at Longitude in downtown Oakland.
The veteran engineer encouraged those in a position of power in Silicon Valley to try to be “intentional” about how hiring is done and how work assignments are distributed. He also suggested that employers look to new sources when they’re hiring.
As an example of this, Miley noted, Slack makes a point of trying to hire engineering talent from universities that aren’t traditionally known as powerhouses: like University of Texas at El Paso, or San Jose State, rather than Stanford University or Carnegie Mellon University.
Miley regaled the crowd with a quick bio—he grew up in San Jose (about 40 miles south of Oakland) and frequented a computer store, whose employees encouraged him to learn to program.
“Technology was never something I was intimidated by because I watched Star Trek,” he said. “And it was incredible because watching Star Trek, all the cool people knew how to use technology, so I wanted to be that cool, so I took it upon myself to do that.”
Over time, the San Jose-native engineer worked at a slew of companies across the Valley, first beginning at a storied company at 1 Infinite Loop in Cupertino, California.
“I got a job at Apple as a security guard, and I met people who were encouraging me to learn how to program,” he said.
Eventually, he bounced between Inktomi, then Walmart, Yahoo, Google, back to Apple, and then Twitter.
“Then after three-and-a-half years of Twitter and watching what I call the cognitive dissonance that epitomizes that place, I left and took some time off and joined Slack,” he said.
He described his time at Twitter, where he was one of just 25 black employees—and yet somehow, an invitation was not extended to him when the company hosted a talk by Ben Jealous, the former head of the NAACP.
“How is the former head of the premier civil rights organization speaking and I don’t know? So I ask around and no one can give me a straight answer,” he said.
Eventually, the answer he was told was: “’We didn’t think we’d have enough room to invite all the black people at Twitter,’—all 25 of us. It boggles my mind that a company would think that was ok.”
Miley said that while Slack isn’t perfect, it is “being intentional” and is trying to recruit engineers from schools that aren’t traditionally expected to produce top-notch talent.
Still, when an audience member asked what advice Miley would give to black entrepreneurs in the Bay Area, he was blunt: “Leave.”
“Seriously, Silicon Valley is hostile to diversity,” he continued. “Jesse Jackson came to Silicon Valley in 1998. Here were are in 2016 still talking about it.”
So why has he stayed after all these years?
“It’s home,” he admitted.
Ars Live will reconvene 7pm on September 21 at Longitude (347 14th St, Oakland), with regular host Annalee Newitz and Ars Tech Policy Editor Joe Mullin, in conversation with Lee Cheng, counsel for Newegg, who successfully beat multiple patent trolls.
Listing image by Chris Schodt