My week at re:Invent 2022 started with a welcome breakfast for the All Builders Welcome Grant Program Winners. The program provides underrepresented technologists within the first five years of their careers a complimentary trip to re:Invent. It was created to offer an opportunity to learn, network and find sponsors and mentors, all by removing the financial barriers to attending the conference. The program has been steadily growing and has tripled in size, with around 500 participants from 42 countries this year. For someone like myself, who has been attending tech events for the better part of twenty years and who has been advocating for diversity, the experience was both exciting and frustrating. It was exciting because, in case there are still doubts, diverse talent is aplenty if tech is willing to look for it and provide an opportunity. It was also frustrating because, by and large, tech is still using the same antiquated and now properly debunked pipeline excuse for the lack of diversity.
Within the AWS leadership, there is a strong belief that technology should be built in a way that's inclusive, diverse, and equitable and the company has a responsibility to make that happen. All Builders Welcome serves as a bridge between the current status quo and the future of tech. During the week, the grant winners had the opportunity to:
· dive deeper into the importance of inclusion, diversity and equity (ID&E) in the cloud
· explore ways to give back to underserved communities alongside the AWS Global Social Impact and Nonprofits teams
· dissect what it means to practice allyship at AWS
· get into the world of startups to learn how graduates of the AWS Impact Accelerator are using AWS to transform their businesses.
Across the event, the push for inclusion was apparent. From providing 19 inclusion pins so attendees could straight away see each other's pronouns, languages, comfort for networking, etc., to accessibility services offered at no cost to attendees, including Translations offered for 8 different languages, American Sign Language, Communication Access Real-Time Translation (CART) and Illustrative Visual Guides. Sensory rooms and bags were available for neurodiverse attendees or those with sensory needs and service animals were welcome throughout the event. Kosher and halal meals were made available upon request and lactation and prayer and reflection rooms were available along with all-gender restrooms.
During an interview, LaDavia Drane, the Global Head of ID&E at AWS, explained: "At AWS, we start with inclusion because it’s important that everyone feels included. It’s important that folks know that this work begins and ends with you, no matter your race, your gender, your sexual orientation, your religion, where you’re from, or where you grew up. You have a place, and it takes all of us together to work through these issues and these challenges to come out on the other side. We can hire as many people so the diversity part is addressed, but I’m going to go out the back door if I don’t feel absolutely right. Then we work on equity because for us to continue to get at the equity work. So I think without inclusion, the rest of it falls."
Addressing The Educators' Gap
We all know that tech lacks diversity. But when it comes to some of the hottest areas in tech, like cloud, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), the race and gender disparity has reached a crisis point. AWS wants to try and remedy this by making AI and ML education more accessible for underrepresented groups. Adding to the $10 million ML education and scholarship program launched in 2021 and to the no-cost access to dozens of hours of free machine learning model training and educational materials, AWS Machine Learning University is now launching a free program helping community colleges, minority-serving institutions (MSIs), and historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) teach database, AI and ML concepts. The program combines an educator-enablement boot camp with a rich curriculum to help institutions get course content and increase their teaching capacity to deliver courses on next-generation technology.
According to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce , Black and LatinX students only represent 4% and 13%, respectively, of all engineering degrees. 'What we realized is that the average elite four-year institution spends between two and five times more per student than some of the smaller two-year community colleges where most of the underrepresented students are concentrated. By proactively targeting this educator-enablement curriculum and providing the free student-based curriculum, we can remove cost as a barrier and the educators' knowledge gap as a barrier and really help these smaller colleges and universities accelerate the tech skills that they can deliver to their students," said during an interview Mike Miller, General Manager of AWS Thought Leadership in AI and ML.
In 2023, AWS plans to run six educator-enablement cohorts. These programs will build on AWS’s original Machine Learning University, which is designed to train Amazon employees and will provide educators with continuing education credits and an AWS stipend. As part of the program, AWS will also provide free compute power to help students apply AI and ML concepts and experiment with AWS services in a cloud-based sandbox. This will give students hands-on experience with popular data, analytics, and ML tools.
Providing more opportunities for underrepresented groups to see AI and ML as viable career paths will help drive diversity in the industry and, more importantly, in the products coming from it. There were many sessions throughout the conference that focused on ethical AI and how to limit bias in ML models. AWS is also increasing the number of tools made available to ensure that ethics is as much of a focus as any other aspect of the AI architecture. Yet, nothing can be as effective as a more diverse group of voices in the decision-making process.
Elevating Inclusion to Be as Important as Sustainability
During a Q&A with industry analysts, CEO Adam Selipsky said that sustainability had been brought up by customers in at least 75% of the meetings he has had over this past year.
Amazon, AWS included, has been doing a lot of work in sustainability, conscious of the impact the company itself has on the environment.
At re:Invent, AWS announced the commitment to be water positive (water+) by 2030, a goal that its 2021 global water use efficiency (WUE) metric of 0.25 liters of water per kilowatt-hour shows to be very achievable. The path to being water+ entails making its operations more water efficient and increasing the reliance on sustainable water sources such as recycled water and rainwater harvesting. The water used in the data centers can also be returned to the communities to be reused for irrigation in farming. Finally, water must be replenished by expanding water access, availability and quality. The announcement adds to Amazon's commitment of $10 million to Water.org to support the launch of the Water & Climate Fund , which will deliver climate-resilient water and sanitation solutions to 100 million people across Asia, Africa, and Latin America. This donation will directly empower 1 million people with water access by 2025, providing 3 billion liters of water each year to people in water-scarce areas.
The positive impact that AWS can have on the environment is not limited to what it can do within its organization. The tools the company provides to its customers to drive their own sustainability goals will scale and accelerate that impact.
The same can be said about inclusion, diversity and equity. Unfortunately, this aspect of the ESG practice has yet to be seen as much of a priority as sustainability, mostly, and wrongly so, because many leaders are unable to see the business opportunity it represents. Furthermore, for many leaders, inclusion, or lack of it, is a US-only issue, which lowers its priority in large and often international organizations. Drane, however, warns that the need is universal and so the work must be done globally. "Everyone wants to be seen," she said, explaining that some of the limitations that privacy laws outside of the US put on employee data gathering do not prevent organizations from surveying their talent directly and gaining the knowledge. So while AWS does that work internally, it also provides tools for customers to build better company cultures, like the work with ADP on accessing and addressing the pay gap.
Internal change, education, empowering tools. A formula that works as well for sustainability as it does for ID&E. The sooner we start thinking about these issues as highly interconnected, the broader the impact we will be able to make.
Disclosure: The Heart of Tech is a research and consultancy firm that engages or has engaged in research, analysis, and advisory services with many technology companies, including those mentioned in this column. The author does not hold any equity positions with any company mentioned in this column.
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