“Our intellectual community values diversity, interdisciplinary teamwork, entrepreneurial thinking and inventiveness,” or so says the University of Michigan’s Electrical Engineering & Computer Science website.
The University prides itself on training leaders that leave their fields a better place. If the University proposes that diversity, interdisciplinary teamwork, entrepreneurial thinking and innovation are values comprising a leader, then a closed admissions process is a disappointing step in the wrong direction.
Software engineering is a homogeneous field. Current leaders in software are quick to divert responsibility for this homogeneity to educational institutions. I remember asking Tesla’s diversity and inclusion team what steps they take to address bias in machine learning, a subset of software engineering that has codified prejudice to devastating results. “We look to hire conscious people and every engineer goes through mandatory bias training,” they said.
It’s not enough. Bias training doesn’t make a team of programmers realize that they must test motion detection on different skin tones.
Diversity is not a checkbox to be ticked. Bias thrives in thoughtlessness.
“The academic excellence of our university is built on a foundation of diverse people and their experience … anything less is not Michigan,” wrote former University President Mary Sue Coleman. When did this commitment stop at an inconvenience?
The University is not wholly responsible for STEM’s lack of diversity, but it does play a part. The people least likely to have exposure to software development before college are the same people we claim to welcome with open arms. I’m a discoverer student. My father was a salesman and my mother was a sculptor. The closest thing to tech I encountered was playing Spider Solitaire on my grandma’s PC when we visited twice a year. I wanted to be an animator. And then I tried a programming class, and I fell in love.
Does the fact I learned about code after high school make me any less of an asset to the field? No.
In upper-level software engineering classes, we learn that 80% of a programmer’s time is spent reading code and that the lines we read will have been written by people far gone. We learn that documentation is key. A writer makes clearer documentation. A writer tells a story. When a prosthetic arm turns on and sends signals up nerve endings into the brain of a patient, letting her feel the warmth of a hug for the first time in decades, that code tells a story.
I’d hate to think of a world of software with no writers. With no actors. With no brewers, and construction workers, nurses and philosophers. All we can bring to a team are our own lives and our own experiences. And when my first team meeting comes around, I hope there will be people to fill the many gaps in my knowledge.
This change, though temporary, is a damn shame. If the mission statement stops at the website, then we need to ask if it belongs there.
Alex Bismuth is a senior in the College of LSA.