Stuff I've learned about Diversity, Equity and Inclusion over the past few years.

June 20, 2020. Filed under management 129 inclusion 4

When I wrote An Elegant Puzzle, I wanted to document some of the structured ways I’d learned to foster inclusion within engineering organizations, and that topic surfaced in a number of sections, including Opportunity & Membership, Selecting project leads, Inclusion in the first shift, and Work the policy, not the exceptions.

Those pieces continue to reflect my values, but they often operated on an aspirational level without acknowledging the grittier, more ambiguous layers beneath the ideals where you spend most of your time attempting to effect change. In these notes I want to focus on what I’ve seen (not) work over time.

Some caveats before I get too far in, the environments I’ve been thinking about and working within are roughly hundreds to low thousands of engineers, and are companies that have adopted at least some aspects of the Silicon Valley playbook. I don’t imagine these notes would apply to large companies or to extremely non-SV companies.

Measure twice, cut once

When folks want to invest into Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, the first reaction is often to push adoption of a handful of common practices like the Rooney Rule, unconscious bias training, and so on. However, it’s important to recognize that many of these approaches require nuanced and skilled application to yield positive results.

For example:

It’s easy to conflate having a strong sense of personal justice with understanding how to create an equitable environment for others, but in practice they’re not very interchangeable. You simply cannot succeed if you privilege conviction over research.

Conversely, while it’s easy to leap past measurement to cutting, you also can’t indefinitely delay cutting. If you get comfortable with the mindset of gathering information until you’re totally confident, you’ll never do anything. Part of progress is accepting you’ll make some mistakes and being prepared to learn from them.

Metrics-first doesn’t work

Many companies take a metrics-first strategy towards DE&I, and one of the advantages to this approach is that many of the metrics you’ll want to measure are fairly clear: retention, representation at senior levels, compensation, promotion rates, performance scores, and organizational composition. For each of these metrics you’d need to cut the data across a number of intersectional slices to understand the full story.

However, the companies I know that seem most successful at building and maintaining inclusive and diverse teams don’t take a metrics-first approach to diversity, equity or inclusion. I’d state this even more strongly: in my experience, metrics-first approaches to DE&I in practice lead to managerial box-checking and tokenization of folks hired rather than genuine improvement.

Why doesn’t the metrics-first approach work?

Because what you need to create an inclusive, equitable and diverse company is a strategy not just a goal, and metrics-first approaches defer the strategy across numerous leaders which typically results in a disorganized bedlam. Some folks will do great work, some will really struggle, but either way it’ll lack the impact of a cohesive approach. Worse yet, distributed strategies created by the metrics-first approach are particularly prone to creating Values Oases throughout the organization that are inadvertently harmful to the very folks they try to support.

If you’re trying to advance DE&I with metrics as your strategy, as opposed to using metrics to measure your strategy, rethink it. Identify your actual strategy. Only then should you use the metrics to evolve your strategy.

As another caveat, emphasizing these sorts of metrics in a small company often leads to obsessing over changes that aren’t statistically significant, a point which Julia Evans has called me on a number of times over the years.

Hiring role models

A frequent criticism of DE&I efforts is that they often increase organizational diversity but do so by increasing representation in early career roles without increasing representation in senior roles. When I noticed this pattern manifesting in a DE&I effort I was involved in, I decided to refocus my personal efforts on hiring staff-plus engineers as the highest leverage contribution I could make.

This approach was grounded on the belief that a more representative staff-plus engineering cohort would:

  1. Improve retention and upwards mobility of our existing team to the extent that every member of the team could identify themselves in a senior role model within our organization.
  2. Bring missing perspective into our decision-making processes.
  3. Reduce the likelihood that folks pattern-matched on race or gender as a signal of seniority.
  4. Bring their referral network to the company to the extent they felt well-supported.

This is, clearly, a critical place to focus, but what I underestimated is the time frame of implementing this approach. I had imagined that BIPOC and women staff-plus engineer candidates approached their job searches somewhat similarly to how I approached my own, which was a flawed assumption.

When I think about a new role, I get to think about the upside and opportunity in that role. Whereas this cohort has to spend at least as much time understanding their exposure to risk in the new role and whether they’ll get the support they’ll need to succeed. I thought hiring role models was an initiative which might take six to twelve months to show results, it later became clear to me that this sort of project requires years of building relationships and establishing yourself as a “safe pair of hands” to support folks’ careers.

To establish yourself as such a safe pair of hands is considerably complex! It requires positive whisper-net feedback, it requires having the right opportunity within your company to offer candidates, and finally it also requires that you are sufficiently successful within (and dedicated to remaining at) your company that you can sponsor the you hire on an ongoing basis.

Doing this well is literally a career’s worth of work. This isn’t just hypothetical, once you start looking you’ll notice that there are a small number of folks out there in the industry who have genuinely made this a cornerstone of their career’s work, which is a bit mind blowing to contemplate.

Predictable is better than ambitious

Last week I got to join a community call hosted by Black Tech for Black Lives, and one of the speakers spoke about the outrage after the police beating of Rodney King in ‘91, and how outrage doesn’t necessarily lead to change (their remarks were not made in public so omitting the speaker’s identity). On that theme, Dr. Erin L Thomas has a great thread on how you can create change in these moments, “As you plan next steps, please resist the temptation to commit to all the things you could do. Now is the time to FOCUS.”

In these moments of intense energy, it’s easy to think about what the company can do today to improve, but it’s important to throttle change to what the company will commit to sustaining later even if their attention wanes as other urgent problems emerge over time. Whiplash of policy and investment harms the folks they’re intended to help, so it’s better to do something more modest but truly do it than to overreach, get folks bought into participating, and then squander their efforts.

You can’t be tired (or entitled)

On the topic of long-term predictability, Marco Rogers had a tweet some time ago which I can’t quite seem to find, but spoke to the idea that leaders and ally’s who are already tired of DE&I work are likely to cause more harm than help. His tweet periodically echoes unsummoned in my head since I read it, because it invited me to be more honest with myself about my motivations for participating in this work.

In particular, it helped me recognize that most of my early work on I&D was motivated by the desire to hit targets as a high-performer, and then later by a desire to be appreciated as an ally. My efforts were not motivated by a genuine desire to improve things, which greatly limited their impact.

After seeing this behavior in myself, I became better attuned to seeing it in others, and in particular seeing folks with a self-image as an advocate or martyr for the cause but who ensure work only succeeds to the extent it recognizes their efforts. This is a complex phenomenon to think about, because their specific work is typically positive on the margin, but comes with strings attached.

First, the “good deeds” come bundled with an ongoing emotional maintenance cost for the recipient. In some cases, this emotional maintenance cost will quickly surpass the benefit from the initial deed.

Second, the recipients of this kind of work are tokenized by it both in the eyes of the helper (“I got this person the role they deserve”) and in the bystanding eyes surrounding them (“so and so got the role because that person got it for them”). Their success becomes viewed as the accomplishment of their sponsor rather than their own.

Third, this kind of work often saturates the space for others who might do less ego-driven work to improve things, causing them to disengage.

Having seen those challenges over the past few years, I can summarize my current thinking on what it takes to make genuine progress on this sort of work:

  1. Don’t tokenize others. Be careful you’re really setting the person you’re helping up for success, not a step forward into a target, a tarpit or a glass cliff. If you aren’t careful, it’s easy for an intended act of sponsorship to corrode into an act of tokenization.
  2. Don’t center yourself. You have to do it in ways that don’t single out instances or individuals, for example the approach described in Work the policy, not the exceptions. It’s an interesting balance, to be vocal about the broader problem, and then invisible on the specific instances and individuals. You still need to do that work, but recognize that if folks notice you doing the particulars of the work that you’re probably undermining your own efforts.
  3. Don’t be comfortable. You have to be focused on what actually works, not what you feel like should work – results over repetition. You can’t keep doing what you’re comfortable with if it doesn’t show results, and you can’t do nothing because you’re uncomfortable with everything that does show results.

There are a bunch of other approaches and learnings to think about, but these are the ones that have been most important to me recently.

Level playing fields

A lot of my early views on equity and inclusion were rooted in my experience growing up, where I often felt my social and academic struggles were due to what I perceived as disadvantages relative to my peers. Starting from that perspective, it was obvious to me that the defining characteristic of an effective system was one that made me equally advantaged as my most advantaged peers. I looked at any system where I wasn’t structurally equivalent to the most advantaged person as an unjust system.

There is the popular concept of a “level playing field”, which is one where only skill differentiates participants from one another, but as you dig into this concept I find it’s mostly a construct to help folks ignore their own privilege. In reality, there are no level playing fields.

As a personal example, writing has advanced my career tremendously over the past decade. Anyone can write! It just takes a few minutes and a free website. Truly a level playing field! That said, it takes a lot of time to write. If I’d had children earlier and wanted to be an active coparent with my spouse, I would have been less able to write. If I had less economic stability, I would have instead prioritized income over leisurely writing. If I had elderly or sick parents, I would have instead prioritized their care. Anyone can write, yeah, but it’s hard to call the field level unless you’re trying to convince yourself of something.

Similarly, I’ve had a number of folks ask for my story of becoming “successful” in technology, and my advice for how they can recreate it. Some of these folks are supporting their families driving Uber and working to learn software development on the side. These folks are doing something extraordinarily hard, and I stare at those emails and ask myself what advice can I possibly give them? There is some tactical advice I can give which might be useful (resume tips, etc), but the best advice I’ve found so far is that they shouldn’t ask people like me for career advice because anything I tell them is more likely to be harmful than helpful.

With all that in mind, I think we have to be more comfortable with recognizing that when we design interview, calibration or promotion systems to be “level playing fields”, it’s most likely that we’re only leveling them for ourselves by virtue of the areas where our eyes are naturally drawn. The field’s gradients in our peripheral vision will remain askew until we look there just as deliberately as we look at the sections that impact us.

I haven’t come up with a generalized recommendation for this beyond deliberately looking, and getting comfortable engaging with what you find. Part of this is certainly a shift from “fair by means of consistency” to “fair by means of accommodation.” Thinking about the interviewing example, try to shift from evaluating everyone in an identical process (“everyone takes the same five interviews”) to evaluating folks at their best (“you can do a take home if you prefer, or in person interviews if you prefer, or…”), and let candidates make their own informed decision on how they want to be evaluated.

Ok, this is far from everything, but it’s a good summary of some of what’s been top of mind for me over the past couple weeks in this area. I also don’t mean to imply that any of this is innovative or new to other folks, just documenting my learnings along the way.