How to be a more diverse company

Seriously y’all, this is way easier than you think

So watching the spasms of so many companies trying to “fix” the “diversity problem”, there’s a few things that have occured to me from my 30 or so years of professional life that may be of help. Or not, it’s up to you, I’m not running your company.

Diversity is the end goal, Inclusivity is the way you get there. “Diversity” has become a magic word of late, about as abused as other magic words like “Disruption” and “Agile”. But if you’re trying to increase diversity by becoming more diverse, it’s…well, it’s a tautology. It won’t really do much for you. Diversity is…well, think of it as a noun. This is convenient, because the word “diversity” is in fact, a noun. Literally:

diversity |dəˈvərsədēdīˈvərsədē| noun (pl. diversities) the state of being diverse; variety: there was considerable diversity in the style of the reports.• [ usu. in sing. ] a range of different things: newspapers were obliged to allow a diversity of views to be printed.

Inclusivity is how you get there. That is the guiding principle. Again, this is literally what the word means:

inclusivity |ˌinklo͞oˈsivədē| noun an intention or policy of including people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized, such as those who are handicapped or learning-disabled, or racial and sexual minorities: you will need a thorough understanding of inclusivity and the needs of special education pupils.

So the very words themselves are the guides. Being inclusive in how you hire, promote, and conduct your business will almost guarantee you’re diverse in terms of population. There are a variety of ways to be inclusive, and I’ll touch on some of them here. But you have to approach the issue correctly or you’re going to have a very hard time at best, and you’ll probably fail. You become diverse by being inclusive. Got it? Good.

Stop coming up with reasons as to why it’s hard, so hard that you can’t do it “right now”. Note I say “reasons” not “excuses”. An excuse would imply that there’s a reason that actually lets you off the hook here. That doesn’t exist. You have no reason, no justification that excuses you from being inclusive and falling back to hiring your generic Bay Area Honkie (BAH). You’re hiring BAHs because you’re lazy, not because you have no choice, and no, you’re not “too busy” to be inclusive. As I said in “It is indeed a Thorny Issue”:

And I think we have to stop accepting the startup excuse. The “we need to hit the ground moving” excuse or its variants. Because when do you not need to be moving? When do you not need people who can get up to speed in a hurry? A year later? Two? Five? Tomorrow never comes, it’s always…well…tomorrow. At some point, you have to do it today. Because you can only do anything today. You can’t do it tomorrow, and you’ve already done everything you possibly could yesterday.
You have to do it today, because today is the only time you can do it.

The same thing goes for the rest of the justifications. “We don’t have time” Bullshit. You have time to install a fucking foosball table and arrange for inverted yoga classes, you have time to expand where you hire from. “We need people who already have startup experience.” Bullshit. You just don’t want to risk a different point of view. On and on, all the reasons are bullshit folks.

If you want different people, you have to look in different places. I’m astounded that startups in the valley and in the bullshit factories…i’m sorry, startup factories like Y Combinator et al are still using the “It’s hard to find people who aren’t (BAHs)” line, and even more astounded that people buy it. As I write this, I am sitting about five miles from Florida A&M University, a uni with a predominantly black student body. They have a CompSci program, and they have an IT program. What they unfortunately have along with those is distance. From the valley.

You see, I am in Tallahassee FL., which while a rather nice town, one with affordable housing prices, (my house payment wouldn’t cover a week’s rent in a S.F. apartment), is also on the other side of the country from Startupville. Along with that unimaginable distance, (if only there were a way to travel rapidly across country, perhaps through the skies in some form of magical aero-machine that might whisk one from here to there in a matter of hours instead of the months it now takes. CRAZY TALK, RIGHT?) there’s also the “problem” that schools that aren’t Stanford/CMU/MIT/<some other startup/bullshit factory-approved institution> aren’t teaching the “right” things. Aka not churning out pre-trained drones that drink IPAs and love kazoo music.

O Noes, a company might have to spend some time training an employee. They might have to…invest in their people beyond bullshit like on-site drycleaning and tickets to the Cake reunion tour. I mean, it gets you loyalty and people who feel like you care about them and have a stronger attachment than just a paycheck and some stock options, but what kind of schmuck values that?

Of course, you’ll hear the “But those schools, (the factories) are where all the top companies are hiring from, if we don’t too, we won’t be competitive!” line. Again, bullshit. Look, I know things that aren’t lines of python or some fucking JSON vomit on Github are unimaginably bizarre, but have you ever noticed that people who all have the same educational and experiential backgrounds tend to be kind of homogenous? Like very homogenous? (No, disagreeing on which IPA is “the tits” doesn’t count.)

If you dip into the same well as all your competition, exactly how will you do anything truly different, much less actually better than them? I mean, literally, how? You have the same people! They all learned the same things in the same places! At best, at best that gets you different labels on the same things. I mean, look at the shit that the best-known bullshit factory, Y Combinator has on its homepage. Nothing but BAHfests. Oh, and at least one company that’s now dead, Homejoy. Good job O Content Manager at Y Combinator.

But seriously, out of the 30 companies on the Y combinator homepage, there’s one that isn’t solely by nerds, for nerds and that’s teespring. And yes, I’m being generous there. OMG, YOU MIGHT NOT CREATE THE SAME FUCKING THING THEY ALREADY HAVE! Well, I mean, there’s an opening left by Homejoy, RUN, RUN! FOLLOW THE PACK! BE DIFFERENT AS LONG AS YOU’RE JUST LIKE EVERYONE ELSE! OR BE LIKE THERANOS, AND JUST BE COMPLETELY FULL OF SHIT!

Is that what you really want? To be just like every other Y Combinator nerdgasm, or worse, bullshit like Theranos?

Well, if you only hire from the same pool as those folks, and you only talk to the same backers as those folks, guess what you’ll be: that’s right, a clone.

There are over two thousand universities and community colleges in the United States alone, and you’re going to seriously tell me that if you look outside the standard bullshit factory feeders, you’ll be unable to be competitive? If you really believe that, I don’t think you know what competition really means, and you sure as shit don’t want to “make a dent in the world”, another Steve Jobs quote that BAHs love to regurgitate without the slightest clue, or even interest in what it really means or requires.

Look outside everyone else’s comfort zone. Hell, don’t be based in the valley. Right now, I can tell you that Tallahassee, for example, would slit its fucking wrists to get some tech companies in, and given the cost differential, if they didn’t give a company a cent of tax breaks, that company would still save so much money based on the cost of living alone. (And, we do have Waffle Houses. Which California does not, and that is why Cali is unacceptable as a place to live. Also, we have at least one good Cuban restaurant. S.F. does not.)

So what happens when you hire outside of the BAHbox, and spend some time showing loyalty towards these folks, really listen to them, and really be inclusive? Well first, you don’t have to have an endless series of Diversity Training Lectures, because SCORE! YOU’RE ALREADY THERE. Just by not only dipping in the same overcrowded pool, you’re ahead of that game.

But even more important, you have something the BAHfests can’t have: different points of view, different backgrounds, and information on population groups (a fancier way of saying “customers”) that the tananrosannadana yoga lot in the Valley can’t have, because to them, these are people that only exist in facile press releases and diversity reports. You have them on your team. All you have to do is listen to them. Which is actually easy, assuming that’s what you want to do.

Oh, on the name thing: really? Really? It’s 20-fucking-16, and there are still assclowns judging someone’s ability to do a job by their goddamned name? Gimme a break. But also, stay in the valley, I sure don’t want you near me.

Look, no one wants to admit they’re sometimes racist or sexist or whatever. But that’s the first thing you have to do: admit the problem exists, admit the problem exists for you. Only then can you fix it. Or to wax all Star Trek for the nerd contingent:

“Here is the first part of the secret,” Surak would write, much later, when people started to pay attention to him. “Cast out fear. There is no room for anything else until you cast out fear…. Now, do not mistake me when I speak of ‘casting out.’ Some people will immediately think this means rejection of fear, by pretending not to be afraid. They are not the same thing. Pretending there is not a lematya in your house will not make it go away if there is one. You must first admit to yourself the fact that there is a lematya — you must first accept its presence. Then you can call the animal control people and have them come and take it away. But until you first admit that it is there, you are going to have a lematya in your bed every night. It may save your pride not to admit it is there, but your bed will be increasingly crowded.
“So it is with fear as well. To cast it out, you must first accept it; you must admit it is there.”
“Spock’s World”, Diane Duane

Racism, sexism, ageism, all of these are real problems, and they are things we are all prone to at times. The trick is admitting it. What’s the line from Avenue Q?

“Everyone’s a little bit racist, sometimes. 
Doesn’t mean we go around committing hate crimes!”

So don’t pretend that somehow, especially, especially if you’re a friggin’ honkie, that you’re not sometimes racist, or whatever -ist applies. Because if you pretend you aren’t, then you can’t catch yourself doing that and stop it. After all, if you aren’t racist, then there’s no problem, right? You don’t have to change a thing, you’re not racist/sexist/whatever. There’s no problem to fix. Except there is.

Also, don’t go too far the other way. Yes, you had a bad thought. You said something stupid or offensive, and even though you didn’t mean to, it happened. That doesn’t mean you need to go on a hair shirt tour or flog yourself until your spine is showing. Admit you screwed up, apologize (NOT for offending, don’t be a schmuck. Apologize for what you did, period. Be a grownup for once) and try to not do it again.

Acknowledgement, Apology, Action. But if you can’t do the first part, then the next two can’t happen, or if they do, won’t be worth beans in terms of real results.

Other than that, just stop being stupid. When hiring, don’t ask people if they plan to have a family, that’s neither important or your business. Don’t ask people bullshit personal questions and then disguise them as having a higher purpose. “But I have to ask them if they’re planning on having kids, we have to work a lot of long hours, we need to know if they’ll be here!” First, sounds like you have some deep-seated process problems, maybe you should fix those. Second, if you need someone with high availability, maybe try, I don’t know, asking them directly about that.

“Hey, so we currently in a “work all the time” stage, so hundred-hour weeks aren’t as unusual as they should be. That’s one of the reasons we’re hiring, so we can get that down to sane levels, but for now, that’s how it is. Would that be a problem for you?”

Look! You can ask the question you actually need answered without asking bullshit questions that just serve to ensure you don’t accidentally hire someone not exactly like you. This is where having an actual HR professional who knows how things should work helps. They can help you have a productive interview and not be a tool.

Speaking of interviews, can we agree that the Google-style bullshit needs to be put on an ice flow? And I’d consider giving the random technical questions the old-yeller treatment too. Right now, everyone going up for an interview is going to be cramming for the kinds of questions you’ll ask, and if you’ve interviewed more than a handful of people, your questions are out there. I’m not saying don’t assess people’s knowledge, but don’t play random whiteboard games.

Talk to them. Get a feel for the person. Draw them out. Yes, I know, this requires people skills and being social. If that’s a real problem, consider getting someone else to do the interview. (Also, reconsider being in charge. Being sociable is a requirement to be a good leader. You have to be able to talk to other humans. If that’s something you cannot do, don’t take leadership positions.) Have a conversation about technical issues. Two reasons:

  1. you get to see how they respond when they’re not in a “set”. It’s like martial arts training: if the only way you learn how to do something is in a static setup, or “set”, then you’ll screw it up when you have to improvise, but by god, in that set, you’ll be awesome. Same thing in interviews. It’s easy, or easier to look better in a testing situation. It’s much harder to do when the answer isn’t obvious. If you have to do some kind of technical testing, make it about the process not the goal. For example, when I worked for Pinellas Park, my boss, Jack, would set up a dead computer. I mean, this fucker was dead, we’d make sure, and ask a candidate to troubleshoot it. We knew they couldn’t fix it, we’d made sure of that. Which was fine, because that’s not what we were looking at. We were looking at the way the person thought, how they approached a problem. Did they proceed methodically, in a logical fashion, looking at symptoms, or did they just throw random solutions at it until they got lucky. Someone doing the former would always be graded higher over someone doing the latter, even if they had less experience and knowledge. Actually, especially then. You can always teach someone technical details. But teaching someone how to approach a problem correctly? That’s much harder. Someone who was already approaching problems right was a much better option. If you have to do the “white board programming challenge, then pay more attention to how they work through the problem. Even if they don’t solve it, did they logic it out, or had they just happened to have memorized this kind of thing? The difference is obvious, esp. if you have them talk about what they’re doing while they do it.
  2. You learn more about the person, and you are in fact, hiring a person. Now, this can be tricky, especially if you’ve bought into the “culture” bullshit. You can talk yourself into a lot of stupidity here. But, if you value difference, if you want to hire people who aren’t just like you, this is the best way to see that.

But honestly, I’d consider, especially for junior/entry positions, tanking the test anyway. For a lot of folks, especially those who only discovered programming in high school or college, they’re not going to have the “I’ve been coding since I could poop” experience, and they’re going to do worse on that kind of thing. If you’re hiring for a junior/entry position, consider not having the whiteboard test at all.

Stop assuming leadership is management. It is not. You manage things, you lead people. Also, stop assuming either are secondary/unimportant skills. You hear all the time about how dangerous it is to have a non-technical manager in charge of technical people. Well, that’s kind of bullshit. What is dangerous is to have someone in a leadership position who has no clue how to lead.

When I was in the Air Force, we had, about once a year or so, a new maintenance officer. They were usually 1LTs on their way to Capt., and it is safe to say that pretty much none of them knew fuck-anything about fixing B-1Bs. That was fine, we didn’t need them to do that, we had that covered. But what would cause us the most problems was a Maint. Officer that was a shitty leader, who didn’t understand how people worked. We had one issue an edict that profanity was not professional, so he did not want to hear, or hear of any profanity on or near the flightline.

Yeah, that went about how you’d expect. The good Main. Officers took care of their stuff. Making sure we knew what had to be done that shift. Making sure there were no logjams on the logistics side, and if there were, figuring out how to work around it ASAP. Also, making sure that no one messed with us more than necessary. I watched one of the best ones we have, all 5'2" and only a 1LT not only get up in a Capt.’s face, but walk his ass back about twenty yards until he clearly understood that we were her people and under no circumstances did he even think about fucking with us.

Especially given the reason he was upset. We were TDY in Panama City, and he’d discovered that given the local women a “Personal tour” of a B-1B was a great way to get them out of their pants. Sex in a high-performance plane was evidently a thing. We didn’t care about that, but the asshole left…detritus afterwards. Like seriously man, clean your used condoms up. So we told him that if we had to clean up after him again like that, it would not be fun for him. He laughed at us because he’s a capt. and we’re enlisted, what can we do? Well, wait until he’s on the plane, slowly crank up and lock the ladder and disconnect the batteries so he can’t get out. Did you know a B-1B gets really fucking hot in Florida in the summer? Yeah. By the time we let him out, he was a bit disheveled and the young lady he was with was expressing her displeasure in some very creative ways. We gave her a ride back to her car, she wasn’t feeling up to riding with his ass for some reason. Funny that. He tried to get all uppity with us. Our maint. officer shut him down, and then asked us what had happened. She was even more displeased about his behavior than we were. We found out later the squadron commander had ended up having a little chat with him about how the Central Equipment Bay of a B-1B was not in fact his personal trysting place. Oops.

After that? We’d have taken a bullet for her. The rest of her time there, as far as we were concerned, she could do no wrong. We were genuinely upset when she got reassigned. The next guy was okay, but not half the leader she was.

And you know what? She still couldn’t have done our jobs for shit. She didn’t know a tenth of how to fix an airplane that we did. But she knew the shit out of being a good leader. The same holds true in civilian life. A good boss doesn’t have to be a sysadmin or coder, or an expert mechanic. What they have to be is a good leader. A good leader will know they aren’t able to do the jobs of the people they’re in charge of. But they’ll learn what they need to learn, and take care of their people. That’s all they have to do. A bad leader, even one that is a technical genius will shortly be required to use those skills because they’ll be cycling people in and out of their group so fast they’ll be no one there long enough to do the work.

Management is about spreadsheets, leadership is about people. If you fail at that, you’ll fail at everything else.

None of these are magic solutions. There are no “magic” tab A/slot B solutions. But if you want a more diverse company, you have to stop doing the same thing that every other company having so many “problems” does and expecting to get lucky. Inclusivity does require a bit more work than answering recruiter phone calls, but it’s well worth the effort.

Besides, if you’re actually thinking different, then how can the BAHdrone collectives even begin to keep up with you?