Diversity-friendly software and strategy at TechInclusion Seattle

Here’s the references and notes for my TechInclusion Seattle talk on Diversity-friendly software and strategy.  After the talk, I’ll update this with the slides.

Techniques for diversity-friendly software

From a software engineering perspective, the most interesting part of the talk is the part that’s not easy to fit into a ten minute talk: the best practices and emerging techniques for building diversity-friendly software.  Fortunately, there are links!

Examples of diversity-friendly software

Logos for Dreamwidth, Blendoor, TapestryMaker, Textio, Heartmob, and O.school

Here’s a bit more about the examples from the talk:

  • Dreamwidth Studios is a home and a community for all kinds of creative folk. Denise Paolucci’s News (and Welcome!) post gives a brief history and an overview.
  • Blendoor is hiring technology that reduces unconscious bias by hiding data that’s not relevant and highlighting data that is.  When I saw Stephanie Lamkin pitch Blendoor at the Women Who Tech Startup Challenge in SF (she won the “Audience Award”), I wrote “Stephanie’s extraordinary presentation helped me understand that this is just what that gets them in the door, and their bigger vision is to reinvent the way recruiting is done.  Talk about music to my ears: diversity as a strategic advantage!”
  • TapestryMaker (created primarily by me with help from some friends) is a diversity-friendly social network platform.  Its claims to fame include a distinctive and customizable visual look-and-feel, tarot readings as built-in functionality, and a (much richer version of ) “reactions” eighteen months before Facebook.
  • Textio is the augmented writing platform for creating highly effective job listings.  Its functionality includes recommendations to job ads that make them more likely to attract women candidates.  Liz Gannes’ Textio Spellchecks for Gender Gias, on Recode, is a good introduction.
  • Heartmob (created by Hollaback) is a movement to end online harassment. Their trust model is an interesting application of Feminist HCI principles. Davey Alba’s HeartMob Volunteers Crack the Trollish Eggs of Twitter, on Wired, is an overview.
  • O.school creates intimate spaces to talk about sex and pleasure on the internet.  Charlene Dubofsky’s This Online Sex School Wants To Help You Unlearn Shame And Stigma from Hello Flo is a good overview.


O.school CEO Andrea Barrica at Lesbians Who Tech

I met Andrea Barrica after the TechInclusion SF panel on Why Accelerators are Supporting Diverse Founders.  I explained the kind of stuff I do to her, and asked whether she thought VCs were willing to invest in expertise in diversity-friendly software for their portfolio companies.  “No,” she said. “Not yet, anyhow.  But let me tell you about what I’m working on!”   After a few months as O.school’s interim CTO, I’m now Tech DIVA (Technical Diversity, Inclusion, and Values Advisor).

O.school‘s tag line is “the pleasure education we all should have had.”   It was indeed a real pleasure to work with an amazing team on the preview release this spring, codenamed “30 days of pleasure”.   Thanks to Andrea, Latishia, Sara, Nicole, Kristina, Kelly, Maya, Kenny, Bitlogica, Kolosek, Michelle, and most of all the O.school Pleasure Professionals for the opportunity!

Here’s some of the key diversity-focused techniques O.school used for 30 Days of Pleasure.

  • Design-led process, listening to our community!!!!!   This is good software engineering in general, of course.   When you have diverse designers and a diverse community and everybody is keeping diversity in mind, it gives even better results.
  • Choice of fonts (relatively-large) and colors.  Along with a preference for rounded edges, this led to a distinctive visual style.
  • Pseudonymity encouraged.  Geek Feminism’s Who is Harmed by a Real Names Policy talks about why this is so important.  Psuedonymity and multiple personas has more.
  • Code of conduct, reflecting O.school’s values.  Designer Nicole Gottwald led us through an interesting process here; a writeup is coming soon.  Setting Intention has a list of examples.
  • Moderation: Andrea lays out the business case for this in Ignoring Online Abuse is Bad for Business. Let’s Build Safer Spaces. Muting, blocking, reporting, and content filtering has links.  The moderation functionality in 30 days of pleasure didn’t break any new ground; what’s significant is having it there from the very beginning.
  • Threat modeling for harassment: this is a relatively-new area without anything written up on it yet.  Shireen Mitchell and I discussed it at SXSW, and there’s a simple example in the TRANSformTech talk.
  • Lots of attention to engineering onboarding: many engineering processs make it challenging for new people to come up to speed; and many engineering cultures turn this into a form of hazing.  O.school’s done a lot of work at a very early stage to try to avoid that.
  • Design-led process, listening to our community!!!!!  So important it’s worth saying twice.

Authenticity, Radical Softness, Safety, Joy, Equity, Collective Innovation, Do Good, Do Well

O.school’s values

Diversity-friendly software as a strategy

If you’re good at something important and your competitors aren’t, a lot of strategic opportunities open up.  For example:

  • Product differentiation.  This is especially useful in a crowded market space.  How to stand out with so many social networks around?  Hey, how about actually thinking building a product that unlike everybody else works better for targets of harassment than for harassers?
  • Sustainable Competitive Technology Advantage: In a relatively-untapped area like this, becoming a technology leader can easily translate to a sustainable lead.  If you can stay better than your competitors at something important, that’s a good thing.
  • Leadership in underserved markets: this can be an effective go-to-market strategy for a startup or new product, market expansion for a mature product, or a flanking maneuver as an entrenched incumbent.  Bear in mind that “underserved” does not necessarily mean small: “women and gender-diverse people”, for example, is well over 50% of the population.
  • Recruiting: even if you have inclusive values and a great culture, and diversity-aware recruiting practices and systems (like blind matching, inclusive language, and interviewer training), recruiting a diverse team is still challenge.  Diversity-friendly software offers several advantages here.
    • An interesting, hard, technical problem to work on!
    • Involvement with a community of people who care about diversity
    • Showing that your company invests in diversity and is willing to bet on it as important to the business


Also published on Medium.

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