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Duolingo CEO has message for 'idiots' mad about hiring equal number of women

Aaron Aupperlee
| Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018, 11:33 a.m.
Duolingo CEO Luis von Ahn, left, speaks on a panel with Audrey Russo, CEO of the Pittsburgh Technology Council, and Tuomas Sandholm, professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018, at Duolingo's headquarters in East Liberty. (Photo by Jeff Tousignant for Duolingo)
Duolingo CEO Luis von Ahn, left, speaks on a panel with Audrey Russo, CEO of the Pittsburgh Technology Council, and Tuomas Sandholm, professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018, at Duolingo's headquarters in East Liberty. (Photo by Jeff Tousignant for Duolingo)

Duolingo's incoming class of software engineers will look different than any other class before it.

For the first time in the company's nearly seven-year history, there will be just as many women as men in Duolingo 's latest batch of employees, CEO Luis von Ahn said Tuesday during a panel discussion at the company's headquarters in East Liberty.

Von Ahn said achieving the 50/50 split came out of hard work by Duolingo's recruiters and a focus on diversity at the company.

"We were very deliberate about it," von Ahn said.

Part of Duolingo's strategy was to recruit software engineers from universities that had a high concentration of women in their computer science programs. Those universities included Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Duke, Cornell, Harvard, Stanford and Carnegie Mellon, where women made up 48 percent of incoming first-year computer science students in 2016.

Duolingo didn't recruit at universities with lopsided enrollments.

"The ones where we didn't go, we spent time telling them, 'We aren't going to recruit at your place because you guys haven't done your job on diversity, so when you do your job on diversity, we'll come recruit there,'" Von Ahn said.

Von Ahn announced the 50/50 split with pride Tuesday and said detractors on Facebook made him angry. Duolingo posted to Facebook about its incoming class and commenters, all men, von Ahn said, accused the company of lowering its standards for women to attract and hire more. Von Ahn said the company did nothing of the sort and he grew frustrated on stage at the thought that his company would.

Von Ahn responded with a Facebook post of his own, saying in part, "I am disappointed that the top comments to our post were all from men angrily arguing discrimination, and that we should hire the best people instead of worrying about hiring women. To these dudes, I say: go back to the 1970s and stay there. Idiots."

To find and recruit more women, Duolingo also sought out women's groups at universities and sponsored the 2017 Grace Hopper Conference. Duolingo sent all its female engineers to the conference in Orlando and met more than 250 women, Jeesoo Sohn, a recruiter for the company wrote in a blog .

Sohn wrote that Duolingo's 2017 class was all men.

"We made a number of offers to female candidates, but none accepted," Sohn wrote. "The result? An all-male hiring class that didn't reflect Duolingo's values around a diverse workforce. With this in mind, we began thinking about how to improve going forward."

Duolingo wouldn't say how many engineers are in the new class, which will start this summer.

Von Ahn said the company still has a lot of work to do to increase diversity. Duolingo is used in nearly every country, von Ahn said, and he'd like the company's workforce to reflect that. Von Ahn would also like to hire more people from Pittsburgh.

Von Ahn appeared on a panel Tuesday with Audrey Russo, CEO of the Pittsburgh Technology Council, and Tuomas Sandholm, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon who is perhaps most famous for designing Libratus, the artificial intelligence-powered poker-playing computer that beat some of the best poker players in the world last year.

The panel was moderated by Taylor Soper, a reporter from GeekWire. GeekWire is a Seattle-based technology news website that set up GeekWire HQ2 in Pittsburgh for February to report on the city's tech scene.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at aaupperlee@tribweb.com, 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.

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