Encouraging Diversity creating a legacy, Neil Hunt

Interesting interview with Neil Hunt, the former Netflix CPO who has launched a major diversity initiative supporting the next generation of tech leadership at Durham University.

What is your background briefly? Does it seem like a logical background to what you do now?

I studied computer science and electronic engineering, and went on to a PhD in computer science, studying image processing and  computer vision.  This was a great foundation for my career, first in a research lab, then as an engineer and engineering leader, them as an executive, responsible for technology at Netflix.

1 min pitch for what you are doing now?

I am a founder and chief strategy officer at Curai, which has the ambitious mission of bringing the worlds best healthcare to every human being!  We are building a virtual primary healthcare service, delivered through a smartphone app, using AI and machine learning to do healthcare reasoning and natural language processing to support our human doctors in a hybrid system.  I am especially excited to use some of the skills and experience I have learned elsewhere for a mission of such social impact!

Encouraging Diversity and creating a legacy, Neil Hunt, Curai and ex Netflix CPO

Why did you get involved with this current initiative & in particular your desire to be a sponsor, were you inspired by Bill Gates / Warren Buffet etc?

My wife Julie and I have spent a lot of time thinking about what matters to us, and what kind of legacy we would like to leave.  Our priorities are environmental and educational.  I have been involved in the Durham University CS Advisory Board for a few years, and we were excited to have the opportunity to contribute to both the development of CS diversity programs, and also programs for supporting internships for students at Collingwood College, where I spent several great years.

Talk to us about diversity and hiring?  You quote 15% & from our own experience in the Irish software industry, 1 in 7 was a similar ratio for us too, so in this context, how do you manage the challenge, that you want greater diversity BUT often there are simply fewer candidates that fit all the right criteria?

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Recruiting for high tech jobs, particularly at the senior level, is tremendously competitive.  I think it is tragic that careers in STEM disciplines are foreclosed at the university level; only 15% of CS graduates are women, and an even more disproportionate fraction of other minorities – that makes it hard to have a balanced and effective workforce.

The primary goal with recruiting is usually to find the best and most qualified candidate to do the job.  But with implicit bias of the recruiting and interviewing team on the one hand, and on the other hand candidates limited because they have been churned out earlier in their education or careers, it is all to easy to settle for the profile that is familiar, but not optimal.

Why did you choose this project in particular to sponsor? If it all goes well, what would ‘success’ look like in 3 – 5 years time?

3-5 years is too short to measure.  In 3-5 years, there will be several cohorts of diverse students who will have been encouraged and provided the opportunity to study at Durham, and there will be additional students who will have found an opportunity to intern in situations that will enhance their education and help to give it context and meaning.

In 10-20 years, these students will be mid career, and some will be in roles managing and hiring themselves, and will have the opportunity to make their own contribution to diversity in the workforce.

Anything else you’d like to add / we should have asked?

A second part of this program is about encouraging linkages between academic study and industry.  In my career, I was helped by having a gap year and a series of summer roles, all at technology companies, with valuable experience and contacts. I have also been on the hiring side of internships, and seen what helps make internships successful vs. just a summer job.

In my experience, the key to a really valuable internship or summer role is that it is coordinated to add value to the student’s studies while delivering something meaningful to the employer.  Internships are short, and it is important that the student get in and settled and engaged quickly, that there are clear goals, and that it is wrapped up and finished before the student must depart again!  I would like to call out Prof. Tim Spracklen, then at Durham, who helped me with my industry engagements while studying.

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Accordingly, part of the program I have sponsored is to engage internship coordinators from Durham CS and also, separately, from Collingwood College (which I called home at Durham) to engage with possible internship employers, and to plan, coordinate, and engage with intern students before, during, and after their engagement to make sure it is as valuable as possible for both sides.  Especially for students from less typical backgrounds, I hope that the opportunity for students to engage during summers helps steer those who would pursue careers in industry towards success.

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