Dr. Hui Lei is a Director of Engineering at Meta and a Fellow of the IEEE. With a Ph.D. in Computer Science from Columbia University, his expertise spans cloud computing, data, AI engineering, and IoT. As we celebrate Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Lei and get a view into his insights on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) within computer science and engineering.
Dr. Lei reflects on the meaning of equity, diversity, and inclusion, drawing inspiration from a historical anecdote. He sheds light on the challenges and barriers to inclusion that Asian American professionals face, discussing issues such as stereotypes and limited opportunities for advancement.
Dr. Lei also highlights the importance of DEI in the workplace and the development of products that cater to all members of society, using a great example from the digital camera industry.
We hope this interview with Dr. Hui Lei will inspire and motivate you to actively contribute to the ongoing efforts of creating a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable field of computer science and engineering.
What is your definition and meaning of equity, diversity, and inclusion in the context of computer science and engineering?
When discussing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), I often refer to a study conducted by Francis Galton in 1906. At a livestock fair, Galton observed a contest in which villagers were invited to guess the weight of an ox. Hundreds of villagers participated, but nobody got the exact weight. When Galton collected and averaged the guesses after the competition ended, he arrived at a near-perfect estimate.
This anecdote serves as a powerful metaphor for DEI. Diversity is reflected in the varied opinions of the villagers regarding the weight of the ox. Equity is achieved through the opportunity provided to all villagers to participate in the contest. Inclusion comes from the consideration and utilization of everyone’s input to determine the average weight. When we prioritize all aspects of DEI, we can achieve exceptional outcomes.
In practice, DEI is much more complicated and presents many challenges. For instance, adequate representation is not sufficient to ensure true inclusion. Asian American employees make up a significant portion of the workforce in the field of computer science and engineering, and have made great strides. However, many individuals within this community still face issues such as being stereotyped or undervalued in the workplace, and encountering limited opportunities for advancement or promotion. These issues often arise from the underlying cultural gaps and systemic inertia that perpetuate biases and exclusionary practices in the industry.
DEI plays a vital role not just in supporting the success of all employees in the workplace, but also in creating computer products that cater to all members of society. Ensuring accessibility is a key aspect of this, as well as ensuring fairness in AI-driven applications. With the growing use of machine learning for decision-making in high-stake applications such as hiring, lending, and legal systems, it is imperative that ML models are unbiased and protect the interests of minority or disadvantaged groups.
The computer industry has also leveraged DEI for its own benefit, with great success. One notable example is the open source community, which brings together people from vastly different backgrounds, nationalities, orientations, and identities to collaborate on creating software, hardware, and standards. The open source community has been able to tap into the unique perspectives, experiences, and skills of its contributors, resulting in increased creativity and innovation, as well as improved quality and reliability of the products developed. Moreover, the diversity of the open source community has helped to expand its user base by ensuring that products are broadly accessible.
What barriers to inclusion have you experienced throughout your career?
I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to pursue my studies and career in the United States. I am grateful for the guidance and support my colleagues and mentors have provided me throughout my professional journey. However, despite being a U.S. citizen and having lived in this country for the majority of my life, I have still experienced subtle indications that I am viewed as a foreigner. I have, at times, felt the need to downplay some of my Asian values in order to fit in with what is considered mainstream in a corporate environment. Also, as a mentor to many Asian American professionals, I have frequently discussed the “bamboo ceiling,” which refers to the tendency for Asian Americans to be overlooked for leadership positions despite their qualifications and contributions.
What are 1-2 ways the computing community can work together to prevent these experiences from occurring to future professionals?
It is essential to continue to raise awareness among the computing community about persistent barriers to inclusion for all minority groups. Specifically for Asian Americans, while they are well represented in the tech workplace today, they still encounter unconscious biases and exclusion. These are rooted in factors such as accents, cultural differences, perceived foreignness, and racial stereotypes that don’t align with “executive presence.” A crucial step in combating these challenges is to acknowledge and discuss them openly within the community.
Another way to prevent bias and exclusion is to be open to new perspectives and experiences, question assumptions, and be willing to learn and adapt. In particular, breaking the “bamboo ceiling” involves recognizing that there is more than one way of effective leadership in a multicultural environment, and valuing the contributions of individuals who may approach problem-solving or decision-making differently than the dominant cultural norm.
A lack of understanding of others’ experiences may sometimes lead to unintended consequences. What recommendations can you make to the community to help them increase their understanding of your culture and/or background that would help individuals feel more welcomed?
It is key to motivate members of the community to develop a deeper understanding of each other’s cultures. This understanding can lead to more welcoming environments for those from diverse backgrounds. Moreover, gaining knowledge of other cultures offers many personal benefits, including a fulfilling experience that broadens one’s horizons and deepens their knowledge and understanding of the world. This can lead to personal growth and development, helping individuals become more well-rounded and culturally competent.
Understanding different cultures requires an ongoing, intentional effort and an open mind. For community members looking to increase their understanding of Asian cultures, here are some recommended actions. First, try building relationships with Asian American colleagues and engage in conversations about their traditions, experiences, and perspectives. Second, seek out opportunities to attend or volunteer at Asian cultural events to gain a deeper appreciation for the richness and diversity of Asian cultures. Third, learn about Asian history, traditions, customs, and beliefs by reading books and watching documentaries. Lastly, consider joining Asian American employee resource groups to help create a more culturally sensitive and inclusive workplace.
Can you share an example from your education or career experiences where diverse voices had, or could have had, a significant impact on a project?
Several years ago, a digital camera manufacturer introduced a new camera feature that was designed to automatically focus on a person’s eyes when taking a portrait. However, the feature struggled to detect Asian faces and could misinterpret them as having closed or blinking eyes. This issue was widely reported and led to criticism from users and photographers, particularly those of Asian descent, who felt that the camera was not inclusive of different racial features. The root cause of the problem was most likely that the AI model for the eye detection feature had not been trained on a comprehensive enough data set that included all ethnic groups. The flawed feature could have also been discovered before release had it been tested with a more diverse set of users. The incident underscores the importance of having diverse representation in all phases of digital product development.
Given the importance of computer science and engineering becoming and being a more diverse and inclusive community, we strive to hear the perspectives of persons from equity-seeking populations. What are 1 or 2 ways such diverse perspectives and experiences can be solicited and heard without making the persons who share them feel tokenized or otherwise uncomfortable?
The most important thing is to invest time in building relationships with individuals from equity-seeking groups. This can help create a foundation of trust and respect, paving the way for meaningful and productive conversations. Conversations should take place continuously. It is important to be transparent and authentic about the intentions of each conversation and focus on listening during the conversation. It is equally important to advocate for these underrepresented voices and make sure their perspectives are amplified and acted on.
More About Dr. Hui Lei
Dr. Hui Lei is a Director of Engineering at Meta and a Fellow of the IEEE. Previously, he was the Director and CTO of IBM Watson Health Cloud and an IBM Distinguished Engineer. He holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science from Columbia University. His technical interests span cloud computing, data and AI engineering, and the Internet of Things. He is a past Editor-in-Chief of the IEEE Transactions on Cloud Computing. An active member of the IEEE Computer Society, he has served on the Board of Governors, as Chair of the Transactions Operations Committee, and as Chair of the Technical Committee on Business Informatics and Systems. He has been recognized with an IEEE CS Technical Achievement Award and an IEEE TCCLD Outstanding Leadership Award.