Observations from TechInclusion 16

What action will you take to build an incusive tech ecosystem?

Last month’s Tech Inclusion conference in San Francisco was everything I look for in a conference experience: excellent content, outstanding networking, and a great mix of attendees – entrepreneurs, diversity and inclusion  experts, policy people, executives, designers, engineers, marketers, investors, and hard-to-categorize people.  The vibe was wonderful as well, positive with a sense of excitement, with the aid of remarkably good food and coffee.

In short, I really enjoyed it, learned a lot, met some interesting people, and came away feeling like it was a very good use of my time.

There are already several other good posts on the conference (see the list at the end), so I’m not going provide a detailed play-by-play.  Instead, after reflecting on the conference for several days, I’m going to highlight a few themes that struck me as particularly important.   Read on for more about

  • A roadmap for building a diverse and inclusive companies
  • Diversity as a strategy
  • Embedding diversity in the software
  • Final thoughts

Want a diverse and inclusive company?  Here’s how to make progress.

“You need intention. And you need to prioritize.”

Sonja Gittens,
Diversity and Inclusion Lead at Asana

One thing that really struck me at the conference was how much agreement there is on approaches that can have a significant impact on diversity and inclusion (D&I).   Quite a few recommendations came up repeatedly in various sessions; here’s a list from my notes.  For companies that want to make progress, there’s a good roadmap.

Yes, it’s a long list.  It takes investment, and some require changes that may make people uncomfortable.  Diversity is hard!   Still, it won’t get any easier if you wait.  Diversity’s like security; it’s a lot better to build it in up front than to try to patch it in after the fact.

“A lot of tech companies’ hearts are in the right place. I’m not sure about their wallets”

Leslie Miley
Director of Engineering, Slack

Making real progress on diversity requires serious investment and a lot of changes to processes that can make people uncomfortable.  Slack, who began working with a diversity consultant when they had 75 employees, is a great example.  And it’s paid off.  By consistently prioritizing diversity (while creating an amazing, wildly-succesful product), they now have a big advantage in recruiting – which in turn means they’ll be able to keep their team diverse and high-quality as they grow.  Leslie’s discussion in his TechInclusion about why they put a remote office in Toronto is just a great example of how a divesity focus leads to “out-of-the-box” solutions.

A lot of companies say the right things about diversity and invest to some extent but don’t go anywhere near that far – it’s not a priority.  So their progress is limited.  Their loss: they’ll fall further and further behind the companies that do invest.  If you believe the research showing that diverse teams are more creative better at problem solving, that’s a big competitive advantage for the companies who do prioritize.

Diversity as a strategy

“It’s so critical to tie diversity to business results”

Diversity Program Specialist, Pinterest

Pinterest’s a company where the strategic importance of diversity obvious, thanks to their strong position with women.   The TechInclusion panel with Abby Maldonado and founder/COO Evan Sharp had an excellent discussion of what’s working for them – along with some candid insights on what hasn’t worked as well).  By consistently communicating the clear relationship to their business, and celebrating successes in terms of business impact, the senior leadership can get everybody in the company on board – and justify significant investment.

Quite a few other people I talked with at the conference are at companies that also see diversity as a key part of their strategy.  If you’re already committed to and investing in diversity because it’s the right thing to do for social justice reasons, might as well leverage it to build better products, hire better people, get to positions of market leadership, and find new partners and opportunities.  A diverse team is likely to better understand how more different kinds of people want to use their software, so they’re likely to create products that are better for more people.   When diversity can give you a sustainable competitive advantage, you can afford to invest a lot more.

There are a lot of self-reinforcing cycles here.  Companies with diverse teams in inclusive environments will better at leveraging their innate advantages in collective intelligence and problem solving, work through the up-front costs of learning to operate in more inclusive ways, gain reputations as good places to work for people who care about diversity, and so on.   What’s particularly exciting is that more and more companies are paying attention to this from very early on – it’s so much easier to get it right up front.  So over the next few years, we’re likely to see more and more separation between the companies who see diversity as a strategy … and those that don’t.


Most companies aren’t yet thinking about embedding diversity in the software

embedding-diversity-in-softwareThere’s also another way of using diversity to create better products.  I think of it as the intersection of diversity and software engineering.  The tools and processes we use to create software today (and the platforms and frameworks we build the software from) were designed with virtually no attention to diversity and for the most part created by relatively homogeneous (overwhelmingly-male, predominantly white and Asian, etc.) teams.  How to get beyond the biases they embed, and create more diversity-friendly software?

As a strategist, something that makes this an intriguing area to focus on is that most companies haven’t yet focused on it.  It makes sense to focus on building a diverse and inclusive company, and aligning things strategically, before the technology.  Still, what that means is that there are some techniques out there which are not yet widely adopted that have a big impact.  Gender HCI and accessibility, for example, use structured walkthroughs to quickly identify major opportunities to make products better for everybody.

Of course the specific leadership opportunities – and benefits – depend a lot on the specific compamy.  Startups working on early versions of their products and looking for a”secret sauce” are in a different situation than companies with shipping products looking for innovation, a better user experience, or a new audiences (and the change management challenges are very different).  Investors might well have a role here as well, similar to how talent and community are treated by some firms today: a shared competency (and competitive advantage) to develop with their portfolio companies – and a distinctive strength that makes them more attractive to diverse entrepreneurs.

If you want to know more about this area, the Open Source Bridge session Tammarrian Rogers and I led on Supporting Diversity with a New Approach to Software has a good overview of the state of the art; Shireen Mitchell and I will be delving into this more in a SXSW session on Diversity-friendly software.  And this is a topic I’m planning on blogging a lot about here, so stay tuned for more 🙂

Some final thoughts

“#techinclusion16 = the crystal ball of tech; a glimpse of what #tech will look like in the future: diverse, inclusive & differently abled!”

Mandela Schumacher-Hodge
Portfolio Services Director at Kapor Capital

Yeah really.  If you haven’t ever been to a heavily diverse tech conference, you’re missing out.  If you have, you already know what a pleasure it is to spend a couple of days hanging out in an environment where people get it and you don’t have to start conversations by convincing people of the value of diversity and inclusion (because they’re already bought in) or debunking the “meritocracy” of Silicon Valley (because they already see it as a myth).

There’s a lot more to discuss about TechInclusion, so perhaps I’ll blog more about it in the future.  For now, kudos and thanks to conference organizers Melinda Briana Epler, Wayne Sutton, and the rest of the team at Change Catalyst; all the volunteers who kept things going smoothly; the excellent speakers and interesting attendees; and the long list of sponsors including Google for Entrepreneurs, Salesforce, Thoughtworks, Automattic, and so many more.

Like I said earlier, there are several other articles about the conference (the Tech Inclusion Facebook group and Twitter account are the best places to follow for updates). Here’s the list of what I’ve seen so far – all very worth reading!

Also published on Medium.

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