On The Nature of Talent

By Deon Nicholas

Deon Nicholas is a Village Global portfolio CEO and the founder of Forethought, an answer engine for the enterprise. He recently wrote this piece on the diversification and distribution of top talent, sharing his thoughts with us and our Villagers.

On the Nature of Talent

I write code. Having grown up in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Toronto, my passion for computer science and problem-solving eventually gave me access to opportunity and brought me to Silicon Valley. Today, I identify as a creator, an engineer, and have worked at top tech companies including Facebook, Palantir and Dropbox. I now have my own AI company, Forethought. I am also a black male, and part of only 1% of black founders to lead startups that have raised outside venture capital. I am an outlier. So naturally, I think about how to generate more outliers.

Anecdote: The International Collegiate Programming Competition

The International Collegiate Programming Competition or ICPC is often hailed as “The Olympics of Programming.” Over 3,000 universities from over 100 countries on six continents compete in a contest that fosters “creativity, teamwork, and innovation” in building new software programs, enabling students to test their ability to perform under pressure. Quite simply, it is described as “the oldest, largest, and most prestigious programming contest in the world.”

I myself am a 2X world finalist at ICPC and this year was asked to judge the tens of thousands of competitors who participated across the globe. I was astonished by the results.

A common thread in Silicon Valley and the tech ecosystem is that Stanford, MIT, and the Ivy Leagues are responsible for the selection, curation and production of the world’s top engineers. Now, I understand that this categorization and rote ranking may be a valid litmus, but I assure you the data proves otherwise. My belief is that top talent can come from anywhere and having been exposed to organizations like the ICPC, I know that the data supports my claim.

In 2018, the United States #1 ranking competitive engineering team was not from Stanford, MIT or CalTech, but rather the University of Central Florida. Out of the 2018 global top ten ranking, only one school from the U.S. made the cut, and it’s clearly not the one you would expect. The UCF students’ raw talent shocked the judges and quickly realigned our naive preconceptions on the nature and location of engineering ability. Other global top performers came from locations that were equally unexpected — schools from Wales, Lithuania, Poland and Vietnam all made the top 15.

The University of Central Florida, much like the inner city of Toronto, isn’t the first place you would expect to produce dynamic young coders of this caliber. But as you open your eyes, you will realize, it’s there, and it’s everywhere else you can possibly imagine. Talent lives in places seen and unseen, known and unknown.

The best engineers, founders, creators and thinkers are outliers, just like me, and just like the students of UCF, and it’s time we recognize and help catalyze their access and ability.

The Fallacy of Unnecessary Filters

The problem with Silicon Valley, and the wider tech ecosystem, is that we have created unnecessary filters, which by virtue of their exclusion, become barriers to access and opportunity. If we adapt the mental model that only great companies can come from Silicon Valley or only great engineers can come from MIT, or only great managers can come from Google, then we’ve missed the point. As a society and culture, we need to focus on the truth, not the story we tell ourselves about talent, but the story that utilizes the best data to assist our decisions. I often think to myself: how many students, way smarter than myself, will never get access to the best opportunities because they are from non-“traditional” backgrounds?

Barriers to Global Talent

A friend of mine once tweeted the following:


In addition to breaking down conventional filters, we need to attract more outliers from around the world, from places outside the US and from geographies all together disparate from Silicon Valley. As controversial as it is, immigration regulation is making it harder for the best and brightest to get in, only hindering our capacity for progress and innovation. This system is wrong, and only perpetuates issues of access and diversity, continuing inequality, and strengthening societal nepotism.

Towards a Solution

In Silicon Valley, we have all seen the abysmal diversity statistics in tech. The first step in solving this problem is recognizing its sources.

First is that we have fallen into a fallacy of unnecessary filters. The next time you are making a hire, question yourself on the filters you applied. Does the data support your decision? Was the process open and inclusive? How many candidates of diverse backgrounds applied? How many did you accept? And why?

Second, but perhaps far more important, is that government policies as a whole have the effect of actively preventing top talent from simply getting in. How can we find the next Ramanujan or Einstein or Jobs if, for example, immigrant families are being torn apart?

We have a lot of work to do in finding solutions to these problems if we want to find the outliers who will radically change the world, bring about new inventions, and provides millions of jobs. Finding and bringing in diverse talent is important for society and, as the evidence shows, it’s just good business.

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