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Tech companies say they value diversity, but reports show little change in last six years

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Apple CEO Tim Cook (l) and Mark Zuckerberg, CEO and founder of Facebook.

Getty Images (L) | Reuters (R)

Prominent tech companies have made little progress in their stated goal of hiring more minorities. 

Six years after their first diversity reports, Alphabet, Apple, FacebookMicrosoft and Twitter have seen low single-digit increases in their percentage of Black employees, according to a CNBC analysis of the annual disclosures. Amazon shows a higher increase, but those numbers include warehouse and delivery workers. 

“Every year they put out the same diversity report, check the box, then send out the same report the next year,” said Freada Kapor Klein, founding partner at Kapor Capital. “We’re at a crucial crossroads — I don’t think what tech companies have done to date is anywhere near enough.”

In 2014, tech companies acknowledged the gap and made it a public goal to increase diversity in their workforces. In recent weeks, major tech CEOs renewed vows to tackle inequality after public outrage over the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nine minutes. Protests have erupted in cities across the U.S. in the weeks since. 

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a post that the company “needs to do more to support equality and safety for the Black community through our platforms,” pledging to donate $10 million. Twitter’s Jack Dorsey pledged $3 million to former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s Know Your Rights Camp, and Amazon promised $10 million to support social justice and Black communities. Google pledged $12 million to civil rights groups, Apple CEO Tim Cook promised the company would make donations to several groups such as the Equal Justice Initiative and match employee donations, while Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella pledged $1.5 million to several social justice organizations, adding the company will be using its platform to “amplify” the voices of its Black workers. 

Kapor Klein, also a founding team member at Project Include, pointed to prior levels of spending at tech companies for diversity and inclusion, and statements by executives. Those “ring hollow,” she said, until bigger changes show up in the diversity data. 

‘Metrics, but no consequences’

In the past six years, these companies have made improvements but are nowhere near parity.

Women have moved up as a higher fraction of the workforce. Facebook’s technical workforce, for example, jumped from 15% female when the report began in 2014 to 23% at the beginning of 2019. Google has made similar progress.

But for Black employees, Facebook showed the smallest increase — going from 3% to 3.8% of workers in the past five years. Twitter moved from roughly 2% Black employees in its workforce in 2014to 6% as of the start of 2019. Amazon reported an 11 percentage point jump, with a workforce that was 26.5% Black as of the start of 2019. However, the majority of its employees work in Amazon distribution centers, making it difficult to compare with its tech peers. 

Bari Williams, head of legal at start-up Human Interest and former lead senior counsel at Facebook, said the annual reports are a key step in transparency. But tech giants’ data-centric approach and competitiveness haven’t been effective when it comes to diversity.

“These companies are data-driven, but if people are not hitting their diversity metrics, where’s the downside?” Williams said. “You have metrics, but no consequences.”

Among leadership and technical roles like coders and engineers, the diversity numbers are even lower. Apple’s workforce is 9% Black — but that drops to 3% when looking at leadership roles. Its share of Black technical workers remained flat at 6% from the end of 2013 through the end of 2017, the last year Apple published diversity data. 

“One flaw is not thinking about it from the outset of the company formation, that’s having ripple effects that are now being seen several years later,” said Richard Kerby, general partner at Equal Ventures. “You’re not seeing movement because it’s not being tracked or monitored — there’s no incentive alignment for someone to improve on the numbers.”

Employee retention 

While hiring remains an area of focus for inclusion, Margaret Neale, Stanford University professor emerita in organizational behavior, said it’s just as often an issue of retention. Finding a mentor or a sponsor within a company can be difficult. Without one, it can be nearly impossible to ascend to a leadership role. 

“We see the same kind of diversity reports from a variety of different tech companies, what you see very clearly is that there’s very little change,” she said. “There continues to be hiring, but there’s not stickiness to those hires. There’s a substantial shedding of folks of color at much higher proportions given the total numbers that exist.”

In response to CNBC’s requests for comment, the tech companies pointed to incremental progress. Last year, Google showed its largest increase recorded in hiring Black tech employees in the U.S. At Apple, 53% of new hires in the U.S. are from historically underrepresented groups in tech.

Despite the single-digit improvements, critics still applaud effort to publish these reports out, pointing to industries like Wall Street that don’t publish diversity data on an annual basis.

Kapor Klein said it continues to be an uphill battle to “retrofit diversity into a big company.” Thanks to their growth in the past two decades, tech giants now have what she called a “denominator problem” of changing a 118,000 person workforce in the case of Alphabet.

“Moving the needle by 10% is a lot, that means a lot of employees have to be hired or a lot have to leave, and it still doesn’t change the culture,” she said. “Companies have a much harder task and it requires an absolute fundamental commitment to change.”

WATCH: Former Time Warner CEO Dick Parsons on fighting injustice and inequality in corporate America.

Source: https://www.cnbc.com/2020/06/12/six-years-into-diversity-reports-big-tech-has-made-little-progress.html

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Pinterest is reportedly in talks to acquire VSCO

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So what can Pinterest do to jump higher up the list of social networking sites? According to a report by the New York Times, one possibility is acquiring the owner of VSCO, the app for editing / sharing photos and videos that has brought in-depth tools to mobile users for years. Neither side directly confirmed the negotiations, and there’s no word on a possible price, but maybe combining forces can bring some Instagram-like glow. 

As it is, Pinterest is still mostly known for planning and organizing, and as the NYT article points out, other than some recent acquisitions, VSCO is currently best known for the “VSCO girls” meme.

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Source: https://www.engadget.com/vsco-pinterest-014258107.html

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A sealed copy of ‘Super Mario Bros.’ just sold for $660,000

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A nearly perfect copy of Super Mario Bros. for the NES has sold for $660,000 at auction. In what turned out to be a 13-bidder contest, $550,000 went to the game’s original owner. The copy was one of the earliest shrink-wrapped versions of the games you could buy in the US (Super Mario Bros. eventually had 11 different box variants, according to WATA Games).

Heritage Auctions, the firm that oversaw the sale, told Ars Technica it dates back to late 1986. It was reportedly bought as a Christmas gift and sat unopened in a desk drawer for the better part of four decades. “I never thought anything about it,” the seller, who asked to remain anonymous, told the auction house.

The $660,000 this copy of Super Mario Bros. sold for is crazy when you consider the Nintendo PlayStation, a one-of-a-kind prototype representing a unique piece of gaming history, sold for $360,000 at auction last year. More recently, someone paid $156,000 to buy a pristine copy of Super Mario Bros. 3. It makes you wonder how much the owner would have walked away with had they simultaneously tried to cash in on the NFT craze somehow.

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Source: https://www.engadget.com/super-mario-bros-auction-000001095.html

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‘Lost Tapes of the 27 Club’ used Google AI to ‘write’ a new Nirvana song

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Were he still alive today, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain would be 52 years old. Every February 20th, on the day of his birthday, fans wonder what songs he would write if he hadn’t died of suicide nearly 30 years ago. While we’ll never know the answer to that question, an AI is attempting to fill the gap.

A mental health organization called Over the Bridge used Google’s Magenta AI and a generic neural network to examine more than two dozen songs by Nirvana to create a ‘new’ track from the band. “Drowned in the Sun” opens with reverb-soaked plucking before turning into an assault of distorted power chords. “I don’t care/I feel as one, drowned in the sun,” Nirvana tribute band frontman Eric Hogan sings in the chorus. In execution, it sounds not all that dissimilar from “You Know You’re Right,” one of the last songs Nirvana recorded before Cobain’s death in 1994.

Other than the voice of Hogan, everything you hear in the song was generated by the two AI programs Over the Bridge used. The organization first fed Magenta songs as MIDI files so that the software could learn the specific notes and harmonies that made the band’s tunes so iconic. Humorously, Cobain’s loose and aggressive guitar playing style gave Magenta some trouble, with the AI mostly outputting a wall of distortion instead of something akin to his signature melodies. “It was a lot of trial and error,” Over the Bridge board member Sean O’Connor told Rolling Stone. Once they had some musical and lyrical samples, the creative team picked the best bits to record. Most of the instrumentation you hear are MIDI tracks with different effects layered on top.

One thing neither AI gave direction on is how exactly Cobain would have sung the song. Outside of cadence and tone, Hogan had to interpret how the grunge star, who famously suffered from crippling stomach pain, would have channeled his anguish into the lyrics.

Over the Bridge isn’t the first group to use AI to emulate a dead artist. But the intent here is different from similar past projects. “Drowned in the Sun” is part of the organization’s Lost Tapes of the 27 Club initiative. They set out to record AI-generated songs by musicians who died at the age of 27 to raise awareness about mental health resources musicians, and people more generally, can turn to when they feel they need help. The Toronto-based non-profit has a Facebook page where it offers support. It also offers online sessions and workshops.

If you’re experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-harm, you can reach the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or over an online chat.

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Source: https://www.engadget.com/over-the-bridge-lost-tapes-of-the-27-club-223000315.html

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Microsoft’s online-only Build conference starts on May 25th

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Spring is fully upon us, which means the calendar is starting to fill up with high-profile tech events. And the latest addition? Microsoft confirmed today that its online-only Build developer conference will run between May 25th and May 27th, though there’s still no word on when registration will open. (If last year is any indication, our money is on “the end of April.”)

“Microsoft Build is where developers, architects, start-ups, and students learn, connect, and code together, sharing knowledge and expanding their skillset, while exploring new ways of innovating for tomorrow,” the company’s events page explains. 

Unfortunately, Microsoft has yet to update its Build-specific webpage with information about this year’s priorities or schedule, but we’re almost certainly looking at another packed event. Last year, Microsoft went on (among other things) about improved collaboration tools for its suite of Office productivity apps, an AI-focused supercomputer running on its Azure cloud platform, and new cloud tools designed specifically for healthcare practitioners. 

Historically, spring and summer are been jam-packed with large, in-person events where app and software developers get their first glimpse at upcoming platform and strategy updates, attend workshops and code reviews, and generally mingle with their colleagues. Starting last year, though, the worldwide coronavirus pandemic has forced companies that stage these events to rapidly rethink their approaches.

Some, like Microsoft and Apple, quickly pivoted to informative online-only affairs that include full days worth of sessions, demos and fireside chats. (For what it’s worth, Apple announced this week that its own Worldwide Developer Conference will also proceed as an online-only event from June 7-11.) Meanwhile, Google has not yet confirmed whether it plans to stage its Google I/O developer conference at all this year — the company cancelled the show entirely in 2020, but said last month that it does plan to host some version of its annual Google Cloud Next event this October. 

Between a surge in COVID-19 vaccine production and news of relaxed restrictions for vaccinated travelers, Build 2021 may well be the last purely virtual developer conference Microsoft will ever need to put on. With any luck, devs will resume their pilgrimages to Seattle next year, and who knows — maybe those tiny emotional support horses from Build 2018 will show up again too.

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Source: https://www.engadget.com/microsoft-build-2021-may-25-to-27-developer-conference-official-212230206.html

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