Colored Pencils

I recently spoke at AlterConf’s Seattle edition. My talk, Breaking Down Diversity in Tech One Company at a Time, was a distillation of a variety of ideas, with the intent of leaving everyone in the audience empowered to do something to encourage diversity in their own organizations. One of the main things I wanted to do was to ensure that this went beyond those in leadership/management positions to people at all levels. Here’s the summary of what I shared.

1) State Your Intention

The first thing you need to do is be clear about what it is you’re trying to accomplish. This doesn’t mean you need perfect foresight, but you do need to have an idea of your goal. That will help to define your plan of attack. I announced Spectrum, Substantial’s own diversity initiative, at the beginning of the year at our annual company meeting. Its goals at the highest levels were very simple: to support and create a workplace accommodating of a wider swath of humanity within Substantial, to share our learnings with the world at large, and to solidify our support of community initiatives/organizations that support diversity in tech. With those “easy” goals in mind, we could get things moving.

2) Build a Coalition

You’re not going to be able to do everything yourself, and you’re probably not the only one concerned with diversity at your company. In my case, starting the initiative was the first step in team-building, since like-minded people then approached looking to help. You may not have the authority to make such a sweeping proclamation, but working from the ground up can be equally effective. For example, if you and a group of colleagues talk over lunch or break about some of the changes you would like to see, you can take those to your immediate management to try to bring them on board. Then keep going from there.

An aside for some caveats: I know I’m oversimplifying the complexity of organizational politics and assuming that everyone works with rational people that also aren’t jerks and hold compatible values. I know that’s not true, but here are some ways to ease your friction a bit:

  • View the situation from someone else’s perspective. When creating allies, different approaches are going to appeal to various people. For some, an emotional/altruistic play is the way to go (providing a good experience for all employees). For others, legal ramifications (basic compliance can’t even always be taken for granted) or company image (“Yay, we believe in diversity!”). For yet others, the bottom line (the costs of recruiting/low retention). Diversity, like all company culture concerns, touches all areas of an organization, so understand those differing motivations to build support.
  • Squeak as loud as you need to, but no louder. Throwing a tantrum isn’t going to net you the support you want. Neither is surprising someone with an expensive, time- and effort-intensive opus. If this is a truly new concern/effort, the best approach may be to minimize disruption and work within the system that exists. Managers have to think about costs/utilization, so be cognizant of that in your efforts. Make this something they can’t disagree with. This may require some sacrifice (doing things over lunch/breaks), but if that’s the best way to get the ball rolling, take it. You can ramp things up once you’ve got some (small) wins under your belt.
  • Realize most people don’t want to be jerks or the villain. Most people will choose to do the right thing when presented with the option and don’t want to be perceived as a naysayer or curmudgeon. So frame this as the right thing to do (through whatever lens you need to use), and use that to motivate people.
  • Most people don’t want to be left out. Let the snowball effect work for you. As your coalition grows, more people will want to be involved. This is just what you want, and it means this will get easier over time.
  • Know you’re not going to win everyone over. As hard as this may be to accept, not everyone is going to care about diversity. That’s fine. You might not need them to care, you may just need them to not block you. Recognize which one you really need and use your effort accordingly.

3) Listen

So far I haven’t spoken about specific areas of concern like implicit bias, recruiting, parental policies, codes of conduct, accessibility, etc.. It’s not that those aren’t all worthy of posts on their own, it’s more that the right things to address within your organization are unique to your organization. You know more about what your group needs than I do, so rather than pretend to have “the perfect order” of operations, once you’ve got your coalition, get together and ask what you should work on. Take a poll. You’ll know where to start. The point isn’t to create an avenue for complaints or whining, but you do need to be open to learning about problems that go beyond the specific ones you have in mind.

4) Discomfort Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Stop

This point may matter more to those in leadership positions, but it’s worth noting for everyone. In keeping with the above, you’re going to be interacting with people on topics that may make them feel uncomfortable. People don’t enjoy when their shortcomings are pointed out, and that extends to the organizational level. That may make people defensive or guarded, or otherwise want to opt out. It may do that for yourself. Sometimes backing away is going to be the right approach. Other times working through that discomfort is where the magic is going to happen. Use your intentions to guide you and maintain your resolve. The feedback may be harsh at times, but you need to hear about your possible mistakes before you can work on them.

5) Start Small

As the old adage goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day. You aren’t going to be able to solve every problem right away and you’ll only frustrate yourself if you try. Focus your attention on one area at a time and look for the small wins. For example, we recently spent some time focusing on our recruiting materials and process. There was no shortage of potential change, but it’s going to take time to implement them all with more people involved. Some can be done right away (extending pairing to all segments of the interview to reduce potential for bias), and so we’re doing that now. So we have longer-term plans, but short-term fixes now. Get better now & get better later. Those small wins will help to keep you energized through the parts that are more of a slog.

6) Think Holistically

Most processes don’t operate in a silo. If you make the world’s most welcoming job ad, that doesn’t do you much good if you then have a toxic work environment. Diversity isn’t just about getting more types of people into tech, it’s about keeping them there. It’s about having them be welcomed into the tech community and having their differences respected. This means that for any aspect you’re looking into there are going to be layers and interactions with other areas. Don’t let that deter you, but don’t let it distract you either. Think big, work small.

7) Make Everyone Winners

All of this work isn’t meant to pit various aspects of diversity against one another. It’s also not about creating animosity between managers and their reports. The reason I’ve stressed empathy and understanding various perspectives is because in the end everyone can be reap the benefits of this body of work. From inclusive recruiting to improved retention to improved productivity, diversity should be everyone’s concern because it affects everyone. Not everyone recognizes that but this isn’t a zero-sum game. Your efforts can help individuals, teams, the company, and your community (and society at large). Give praise to those that are allies. Acknowledge those that simply needed to get out of the way. Hopefully the results will speak for themselves.

8) Be Realistic

No one company or one person is going to make everything they way it “should” be. You’re going to hit roadblocks, you’re going to have resistance, things are going to move slowly, and some of the changes you enact simply aren’t going to work. And that’s going to be OK. Tip number one was about stating your intentions. Let those define your “north.” Keep moving towards those goals, working around what you can. A rising tide lifts all boats, so let all of those incremental shifts add up.

Closing Thoughts

In all, tackling diversity is a lot of work. You’re not going to be able to do it alone, and building a team to work with is going to require compromise and patience. That said, this is work worth doing, and by empathizing with those around you, listening to their various concerns, and creating a program where everyone gets a steady stream of wins, you can help to create more diversity in your community one day and one issue at a time.

For those of you interested in seeing the slides from this talk, they can be found here.

Main image from Flickr user Helen Taylor.