The Virtuous Cycle of Diversity in Tech

We’re praised for being decisive, ingenious and disruptive. And yet many of us are stuck in a rut that is centuries out of date.

You and I are small business owners — and even though it doesn’t always feel like it, that means we have a lot of power. Collectively, we employ almost half of all workers in the United States.

We’re praised for being decisive, ingenious, and disruptive. We pride ourselves on being quick thinkers and taking daring, unconventional leaps of faith.

You’d never catch us with an out-of-date iPhone, and we’re always testing the latest productivity hack or working on a lifestyle redesign. And yet, when it comes to diversity and equity in hiring, many of us are stuck in a rut that is centuries out of date.

You’ve probably read a lot about dearth of diversity in technology — it’s true for Silicon Valley behemoths and for the vast majority of smaller creative and technology companies, too. Here’s an excerpt from a report in Wired from 2019:

This is a complex problem, so I want to focus on what we can do today, as small business owners, to help the tech workplace better reflect the population at large. The first step is expanding our pipelines to include a broader range of candidates, which means changing our “default” behavior.

“You want to be diverse because you want different experiences and mindsets, and you want people to bring themselves to the table because that creates better access to your product for all of these other groups. That’s good because you genuinely care. You don’t want anyone to be left behind or left out.

That builds better retention numbers. People want to work for companies like that, because they feel that they’re contributing because it actually matters. It really matters that they’re there, for all the right reasons.”

– Pariss Chandler, Software Engineer and Founder of Black Tech Pipeline

“If what you are doing does not recalibrate power dynamics, then it is theater. Your Black Lives Matter graphic, theater. Your tweeting, theater.

You making a job available to somebody and allowing someone to launch a career at your company — that’s what matters. Taking economic parity into your hands, making sure that people have an opportunity to rise and advance in a way that is equitable — that’s what matters.”

– David Delmar, Founder and Executive Director of Resilient Coders

When we design and build software, the “default” option is neutral — the natural choice that you don’t have to change unless you have a really good reason. But when we’re hiring a team, our defaults are the opposite of neutral. Unless we go out of our way to change, we’ll end up looking in the mirror, seeing a team of 50 people that look just like we do, and wondering what went wrong.

If you went to college and graduated with a bachelor’s degree at age 21, your default may be to look for candidates with the same educational background or to network with fellow alumni.

If you grew up in an affluent suburb, your default may be to look for people who speak, dress, and act a lot like you and your neighbors — everything else might seem a little unprofessional.

If you’ve immersed yourself in the culture of Silicon Valley, close your eyes and envision a “brilliant coder” or a “start-up founder.” By default, you might see a young, white man with a slim build and a meticulously trimmed beard.

I know, because I’ve done all these things and held all these default beliefs myself. Changing them wasn’t particularly comfortable, fast, or easy. But it’s allowed me to make progress toward one of my core goals for Howard Development & Consulting — building a technology company that properly represents the diversity of the community we serve.

“It baffles me when I’m just not even given the chance to show what I can do, based on just how I grew up or my accent. I have the education, but there’s a race and trust issue. How can you rack up five years’ experience when you don’t even have a chance to do a three-month project with a big company?

I worked on a project for a major airport, and when I went in for the presentation to train the staff on how to use the app, I realized I was the only person of color in this huge conference hall. Things like that happen all the time.

It’s not like that group has a problem with you, or they don’t understand what you’re saying — but it’s the energy and the atmosphere. When you have diversity and inclusion, that type of energy is not present anymore.”

– Gabriel Alao, Software Developer

“If I go to a company page, and I see everyone there is white, and there’s no black people at all, I don’t want to work there. I don’t want to be the only one like me. I already know the experience I’m being set up for, and I don’t want to do it, so I say, ‘Let me close out of this window and check somewhere else.’

At a previous job, we played a company-wide game where you bring in baby pictures, and you guess who’s who. No one stopped to think, ‘Is this game inclusive of everyone?’ Not for me. I was the only black person in the entire company.

I experienced tons of horrible things at that company — that’s just a minor example of, ‘You weren’t ready. You weren’t thinking about it. It wasn’t on your mind.’ That’s why diversity and inclusion are so important. You want people to feel welcome and part of the team.”

– Pariss Chandler, Software Engineer and Founder of Black Tech Pipeline

The stories Gabriel and Pariss told me were jarring — but even more jarring was the fact that they were so clearly the tip of the iceberg, the examples that came to mind in an instant when we started talking about diversity in tech.

Their stories also illuminate the fact that the diversity of a technology team quickly evolves into one of two things — a negative and vicious cycle, or a positive and virtuous one.

There are two forces that change your team’s trajectory at the same time, often before you even realize they exist. The first is the power of default behaviors. If you hire your first five employees from traditional university pipelines, and they all have similar backgrounds and look pretty much the same, chances are that when those early employees start hiring their own teams, they’ll repeat that same process. Soon, you’ve grown from five to 50, and the default behaviors that didn’t seem to matter when you were small have become exponentially more powerful.

The second force acting on your team is the fact that many candidates will look at your existing staff, see that your early hires lack diversity, and simply opt-out of ever getting in touch. Even if you become more serious about building a diverse team as you grow, it will become harder to attract great candidates, because your company will be less attractive to them due to its current lack of diversity.

To turn this vicious cycle into a virtuous cycle instead, make it a deliberate practice to expand your network and cultivate a more diverse pipeline of candidates. Speak openly about diversity and equity, even if it feels risky at first. And most importantly, show your current team and your future candidates that you put your money where your mouth is, by investing time and resources to break out of your defaults and lay the groundwork for a diverse and growing team.

“We’ve got to talk about humility, and then resiliency. Having the humility to listen. Don’t fight people when they tell you that they’re offended. Assume that you are going to be wrong sometimes. Assume that you’re going to say the wrong thing sometimes. And then have the resiliency to keep at it.

Because I think it’s also really sad when somebody, who might’ve been an ally, says the wrong thing and then they get shut down, maybe rightfully so, and then they’re like, ‘Well, I’m never going to open my mouth about it ever again.’ Then what happens is that you’ve lost an ally.”

– David Delmar, Founder and Executive Director of Resilient Coders

Rob Howard is the founder and CEO of Howard Development & Consulting, the web development firm that creative agencies trust when every pixel matters. His startups have been featured in Entertainment Weekly and Newsweek, and his clients have included The World Bank, Harvard and MIT.

Originally published at https://howarddc.com on September 18, 2020.

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