Cheetahs in the Serengeti

Wading into the gender diversity discussion

It’s been quite a busy month with a lot of heads down work but if there’s one thing that appears to still be sacrosanct — it’s the team Friday happy hour. I've always looked forward to it because it’s a chance to unwind a little after a long week and just shoot the s*it with the team. It was at one such recent happy hour that I found myself unexpectedly drawn into a conversation with one of the female software engineers around the hot-button topic of gender diversity in tech. I won’t rehash the chatter around the issue as there’s plenty of it already in the mainstream. However, it really hit home for me when she was talking about her old job at Microsoft and how of the 80 engineers on the team, she was one of seven females. By the time she left Microsoft, there were a grand total of two left on the team.

In general I've actually tried to keep my head above the whole gender diversity debate. Primarily because I've always had a pretty simple view when it comes to hiring talent on the team. It’s hard enough finding individuals that are above the bar so as long as you've got the right stuff and write good code — you can be a purple alien from Mars for all I care.

However, I realize this is pretty much a naive view. It’s easy to take the “I don’t care who you are” view and pat ourselves on the shoulder but we’re not really helping the issue in any way. In fact it’s the wrong way to look at it. We should look at it like cheetahs in the Serengeti. I've always had a fondness for cheetahs. Perhaps it’s because unlike lions or tigers, they’re not trying to eat you. Or perhaps it’s an evolutionary appreciation of an animal that has evolved into a single minded specialist. So what the hell does cheetahs in the Serengeti have to do with gender diversity you ask? Well interestingly enough the average survival rate of a cheetah cub is around 10% in the Serengeti. Due to the harsh environment and the relative physical weakness of the cheetah, not many of them live to adulthood. On top of that, due to their specialized nature, when they hunt, they rely purely on their speed and nothing more. The average success rate for a cheetah when it hunts is around 50%. Add it all up and we’re talking about insane odds. So if you’re an adult cheetah that lived up to that point and actually manage to sustain yourself — YOU ARE VERY GOOD.

Female software engineer candidate

Now think about it in that context on hiring female engineers. In the last three months as I was hiring engineers for my team, I can count on my fingers the number of female candidates I saw — just in the pipeline. Reduce that through the regular candidate filtering process and the brutal four and a half hour interview loop process and the odds that an inclined candidate shows up that would be a female are like cheetahs in the Serengti. So if a female candidate makes it to the final round, even though we would evaluate them next to all the other male candidates and pick “the best one”, I can tell you just getting to that point is something that is greatly under-appreciated for a female candidate and we all need to do a much better job of recognizing that.

However, just recognizing it or giving credit can help a little but it isn’t going to solve the underlying issue. To really fix this, we’re going to have to trace back to the point of origin and address it there.

That’s a post for another day but if you’re feeling like making a small difference, here’s a suggestion. Or here.