5 Ways to Improve Diversity in Tech Now

Continuation of part 1: The State of Diversity in Tech

As we learned in part 1, we know diversity gaps exist in the tech industry, we know they affect our organizations and due to the reach of technology in this era, we know that the gaps affect a broad population. The effects of our cultural biases, from parents, teachers, schools, employers, and society as a whole are a huge reason we are dealing with the diversity issues we currently are. It will take time for these social norms to change, as all societal changes take time. So what can we actually do now to make a change within our organizations? I’ve put together five of the easiest and most effective changes you can make to build more diverse teams today.

I want to note that I am aiming the solutions for these issues at organizations and leadership rather than at the individuals looking to get in and rise up. I believe that if we keep asking only those individuals to adapt, we almost cast blame onto them when it should fall to the organizations and leadership to make changes. If you consider yourself a leader in this industry, I encourage you to use these five recommendations to work on real change within your organization. If you are someone who is underrepresented in this industry and would like to level up your career, consider this an opportunity to see what you have been up against so far.

#1: Start accepting more candidates from non-traditional educational institutions and backgrounds, or better yet start considering candidates who are self-taught.

I’m sure you have all noticed a significant rise in the number of tech employees that come from boot camps. Think what you will, but it has reduced the barrier-to-entry for people looking to get into tech careers. This is an essential part of diversity building as the cost of traditional education has inflated to the point of being unattainable for so many.

For example, the cost of the average coding boot camp is $11,906 whereas the average out-of-state four-year college computer science degree costs $167,968. That is approximately 14x more than the cost of a coding boot camp. I realize that this number is quite high so for further reference, the average total cost of an in-state Bachelor’s is $25,290 in 2019. Even if you are cutting costs by staying in-state, it is still is 2x the cost of a coding boot camp. Let’s not forget that these are thousands of dollars of difference, which can be all of the difference to someone who does not have the privilege of wealth.

Some of us are concerned about the job market becoming saturated with boot camp graduates, but those of us already in this industry don’t actually have much to worry about. We already have more experience and that makes us more desirable hires. We should not seek to make it harder for others to get in this industry for the sake of our own job security. In my opinion, if the market becomes more competitive, good, as this will hold us all to higher standards.

#2: Start hiring more juniors. Invest in training them and the rest of your team.

We are in a competitive hiring market, regardless of the fact that we now have more boot camp graduates than ever. So why do we keep hearing people complain that they can’t find good talent, and good talent complain that they are struggling to get in the door? It is in part because we are keeping people out by requiring unattainable qualifications. Your competitive advantage comes not just from hiring diverse candidates, but by hiring diverse candidates that you are ready to help to level up.

Meme from American Chopper TV show talking about needing experience to get experience in a job.
Meme from American Chopper TV show talking about needing experience to get experience in a job.

I remember graduating from a four-year institution and luckily having two years of experience already. It still took me months to get my first job. Even then, I saw junior positions requiring three or more years of experience. Did you know that women are prone to not applying for a job unless they think they meet 100% of the qualifications? By posting positions that require unreasonable amounts of experience, or have overly restrictive expectations, we have already turned many great diverse candidates away without meaning to. You can argue that we should be telling people to apply regardless, but why? Why is on them to brave enough to challenge that expectation and not on our organizations and leadership set reasonable standards?

I know that not all of us have the ability to communicate with our hiring teams the way we would like, but I ask you to push for this. Make this a priority as it is making your team less diverse. If you are hesitant about a candidate I recommend putting a system in place that allows you to test them on a paid freelance or contract basis. Emphasis on paid. I should note that I don’t recommend testing candidates with hypothetical assignments. Put these candidates right into an actual project so they know what they are getting into, and so you can see how what they are doing is a reflection of their actual work in your environment and not some hypothetical test. If you choose to hire them they’re already half on-boarded and ready to go.

You can also argue that the cost of hiring and training a junior is more expensive. But keep in mind the time you take to hire and train a junior versus the time and resources it takes to hire a mid-level. Hiring a junior also means you spend more time training to your needs from the ground up and less time trying to break down bad habits.

#3: Stop hiring candidates based on who you know or at least ensure candidates interview with multiple leaders of different backgrounds

This is an investment in building products with less bias and in building a culture that is prone to grow well. The desire to make your team grow fast, using people already know and trust, is human nature but it is not sustainable. The people we tend to know well and like are often people like ourselves.

Members of the PayPal Mafia on Fortune magazine dressed in mafia-like attire.
Members of the PayPal Mafia on Fortune magazine dressed in mafia-like attire.
Members of the PayPal Mafia on Fortune magazine dressed in mafia-like attire. From left to right, top to bottom: Jawed Karim, Jeremy Stoppelman, Andrew McCormack, Premal Shah, Luke Nosek, Ken Howery, David Sacks, Peter Thiel, Keith Rabois, Reid Hoffman, Max Levchin, Roelof Botha, Russel Simmons. Source Wikipedia

A perfect example this is PayPal. Among the product development community in Silicon Valley, PayPal is called “The PayPal Mafia.” Back in the late 90s, Max Levchin, Peter Thiel and Luke Nosek founded a company called Confinity. Many of Confinity’s initial recruits were alumni of The Stanford Review, also co-founded by Thiel, and most early engineers hailed from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign recruited by Levchin. Confinity, in an effort to stay viable, merged with X.com, which was founded by Elon Musk and the group adopted the name PayPal.

This is just one of many instances of a group of nerdy white men in tech who, with a bit of luck and hard work did quite well, hired their friends, and became hugely influential. You might say that in a company that needs be quick moving, it’s best to hire people you know and trust, but remember the power that technology has over society and how quickly organizational bias can proliferate. Many of the founders and leadership among Paypal after it was bought by eBay became millionaires and even billionaires who founded and funded: YouTube, LinkedIn, Tesla, SpaceX, Facebook, Yelp and more large scale tech companies. The influence of this small network of very similar people has literally affect billions of lives. I do doubt that any of these men did this with malicious intent or with full awareness of the possible impacts of their success, but this is what happens in an industry that considers itself so quick-paced that it must ignore certain standards.

You may not think you or your company will ever have that type of effect, but you also never know. Besides, this type of hiring generates more bias in the long run, even if it is well-intentioned. Even if your reach is never that large you still affect people’s lives with the products you create and release, and the teams you build. Collectively, we still affect the lives of many, so every step we make is still better than ignoring the problem.

#4: Take equal pay more seriously. Pay attention to your biases, and what you consider worthy of a raise.

This is one issue that is already well documented but we are still struggling with it. According to Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley, Women in STEM-related careers make $16,000 less on average than their male counterparts and if you’re black or Latino, you might be making $14,000 less than your white coworker. Even at companies such as Google, who has a well-documented history of diversity and inclusion initiatives, this problem seems to persist. Why is this still happening, despite years of efforts to make changes?

Let’s be real, I doubt that a bunch of white guys in suits are in a room talking about paying certain people less and laughing maniacally. I think this is happening at a leadership level not with ill intent, but rather with a lack of awareness about how people work to rise, and the ways in which we measure success. In How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back, a book I would highly recommend for those of you who would like more tips on how to excel in your career, the authors explain that women are prone to not ask for what they think they deserve. This means that in general, women assume that their work will speak for them. Women are also more likely to volunteer or be assigned tasks that aren’t considered in terms of accomplishments when it is time for reviews. This can make it more difficult for us to balance our normal tasks on top of additional expectations, making it harder to meet the same standards. On the other hand, men tend to make it clear what they want the moment they are in a door and decline tasks that distract them from that goal.

So when women negotiate for raises and promotions, we commonly think that our managers already know we deserve more. That is not the fault of women, but the fault of leadership not acknowledging that people with different backgrounds inherently work and behave differently than each other. You could say this is a matter of nature or nurture, but regardless of the reason, it is prevalent and problematic. A more likely scenario is that when the time for promotions and raises comes, leadership looks at these candidates and says, “Well, John has been asking for a promotion for nine months and we can only afford to give one. We can’t lose John and Jane, by comparison, seems like she will be happy regardless.”

So leadership opts to give John the raise and the promotion and Jane is often left wondering why. This is part of the reason that women tend leave tech and engineering jobs approximately 2x faster than men. That being said, these are generalizations and there are situations in which these generalizations don’t apply. In reality, this isn’t just about having different expectations for women and men. It’s about being mindful of the ways in which each individual needs a different type of attention in your organization and being empathetic to the ways in which each person grows and works. If you are a leader or manager, I ask you to take the time needed to give each person on your team individual considerations. Be conscious of when you ask a team member to go out of their way to do work that will not help them rise. Not everyone is going to explicitly say they want a raise or know when to say no to a task, but we all can appreciate when we are offered a path to success.

I know that it took some very special mentors to encourage me to pursue opportunities and to believe I deserve them. Sometimes, we all need a little help knowing how to get to where we would like to go, regardless of our background.

#5: Build an inclusive culture

Many of us believe that we already have inclusive cultures, but in most cases, there is a lot of work still to be done. The tech community is regularly teased for being an alcohol-fueled, work hard and play harder, dress code relaxed culture. Silicon Valley may be a TV show, but a lot of it is not far off from reality.

For a couple of references as to the spread of the toxic cultures we are dealing with, 52% of tech employees believe their work environment is toxic and 64% of LGBTQ people in tech said bullying contributed to their decision to leave their company.

An inclusive culture is what helps to bring diverse teams together, keep them together, and help them rise. There are a plethora of action items to build an inclusive culture and that can be it’s very own post or even series. However, I want to highlight that inclusive culture not only enhances retention, saving money in avoiding a revolving door hiring and training process, but also attracts diverse candidates. In a Glassdoor survey, two-thirds of those polled said that diversity was important to them when evaluating companies and job offers. Deloitte found that 72% of employees say that inclusion is an important factor in choosing an employer.

It’s not just about mandatory sensitivity training videos that people seem to continually ignore. This is about broader company culture. However, I will say that I think of all of the action items worth mentioning about building inclusive environments, the most significant is to offer diverse individuals leadership positions so that we can have the ability to make changes. Here is an article from Buffer that I found exceptionally helpful on this subject; I would encourage anyone in a leadership position to take a look at it and start figuring out where you hit the mark and where you fall short.

Finally, be ready to fail.

As I put these posts together, I knew there was no way I could go over all of the things I’d like to, or go as in-depth as I hoped. As I said, there is a lot of nuance to these issues as they are based on our fundamental values and beliefs. So my last piece of advice is one I think we all need in a circumstance that affects so many, in situations that feel high pressure and sensitive.

Be ready to fail. Despite all sincere efforts to fix these diversity and inclusion issues, it will never ultimately be fixed in this lifetime. The tech industry is a reflection of our society and all of its issues pertaining to race, gender, class, ability, age, and sexual orientation. However, failure is not an indicator of hopelessness and where we are at now is still progress compared to where we were. Every effort you make to advocate for diversity and inclusion affects those we build these products for, the people you work with, and future generations. In these circumstances, our efforts are in part aspirational but I encourage you to keep trying because it makes a world of difference to me, to Jane, and others when you do. For those who want to do more, I’d like to say one last thing…

#6: Get involved by volunteering or sponsoring educational initiatives

Woman of color in tech showing TechGirlz student how to do something on her laptop.
Woman of color in tech showing TechGirlz student how to do something on her laptop.
Image source: TechGirlz

“82% of the girls who attend TechGirlz workshops change their minds about working in tech.”

Tracey WelsonRossman, Founder of TechGirlz

I cannot begin to emphasize how much teaching kids tech through TechGirlz has impacted me. As mentioned in part 1, TechGirlz is a non-profit dedicated to reducing the gender gap in STEM-related careers. We offer technology-related courses for free to girls of middle school age when the impact is most significant. TechGirlz is a highly flexible program, with which you can teach what you choose to when you have time, and with so many resources to help you do so. I’ve been amazed at how much my career has been positively impacted by the experience and am so thrilled to see what TechGirlz does in the coming years.

I wrote these posts to speak about my personal experiences as I’ve become empowered in my own technical prowess, but more than anything to advocate for the future leaders in technology. Diversity in tech is an issue that begins long before hiring processes. For us to be truly invested in change, we have to help underrepresented kids feel empowered with technology. We have to invest in education from K-12 to higher education and onwards. Big tech companies have already started to invest in STEM education initiatives, but there is a lot of room for others to help.

Want to learn more? Here is some info on volunteering with TechGirlz. I also presented on this topic for DVLP DNVR, and have shared the slides and resources in their GitHub.

Anna E. Cook (she/her)

Written by

Senior UX Designer in Denver, Colorado building inclusive and accessible products and MS student at ATLAS CU-Boulder.

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