Designing to be seen

This story starts as many diversity and inclusion stories go when you look like us — being asked to volunteer to remedy a systemic problem.

If there’s one thing I quickly discovered working for a corporation: they love to talk about diversity.

A familiar beckoning call and the subsequent dilemma: To not show up and have your interests completely unaccounted for or commit your time to a potentially fruitless and toothless cause.

It’s a sweaty, pre-autumn day in Austin, TX when a group of predominately black and latinx employees is pulled together to tackle the age old problem of representation in the workplace. As designers, we are uniquely equipped to not only understand the machinery at play, but also to figure out a viable strategy that begins to untangle it.

We hit on many of the usual suspects.

This cause has personal significance to each of us. When you look like we do, you’re no stranger to playing a game where the dice are loaded against you — evident in the relative lack of people that look like you (a phenomenon which gets increasingly more pronounced as you gain access to more senior meetings).

Still, we’re grateful to those who paved the way for us to even make it this far. There’s a tacit understanding that we owe the opportunities we have now in significant part to people who selflessly extended a hand back down after they climbed another rung — often with a boot at their neck. If not for our rogue predecessors, the likelihood of our current existence as we know it is grim. Lift as you climb: it’s a concept that’s been instilled in us by those pioneers.

If not us, then who?

But this responsibility comes at no small cost. Constantly being asked to “pitch in” can get exhausting, especially when you feel like your contributions aren’t actually moving the needle; many of these volunteer efforts are doomed to fail because of circumstances outside of the volunteers’ control, like lack of support and resource allocation from the top. Balancing volunteer work with a demanding day-job also pits career advancement against fighting for an existentially fulfilling cause.

This isn’t foreign to any of us, so when we got the sense that this latest volunteer effort was starting to fizzle out, a coworker and homeboy gave the bat-signal; he pulled a small group of us together and basically said, “let’s refuse to let the flame die this time.”

Our initial goal was to create a foundation that better leverages volunteer efforts in addressing D&I concerns — a system that, when done the right way for the right amount of time, would make volunteers entirely unnecessary.

In corporate-designer-speak: How might we create and scale impact with a small group of part-time volunteers?

False starts

We carried over all relevant artifacts and insights from the workshop and assigned leaders for three of the most promising workstreams. Afterwards, we determined a pattern to convene. Then we asked a bunch of people to help us out.

We split our focus between three areas that we saw as essential.

  1. Data driven diversity (7 person squad) — Cultivate a more data-driven approach to diversity in our hiring processes, with design research as the most obvious lever.
  2. University outreach (9 person squad) — Curate IBM Design’s list of diverse schools to engage, and oversee / drive the strategy behind that engagement alongside the head of the school relationships.
  3. Guerrilla recruiting (14 person squad) — Identify design candidates of color and get them in the hiring pipeline for the summer new hire cohort.

The work streams hobbled forward over the ensuing weeks, achieving some tiny wins. We got the ears of our VP of D&I and the VP of Talent and Acquisition, who expanded our reach with their advocacy and resources; we developed and deepened relationships with historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs); we marginally improved our URM (underrepresented minority) in our subsequent (intern/new hire) design cohort.

While it’s always gratifying to see the fruits of your labor, it came with no shortage of growing pains. We found ourselves focused on shorter term goals (by decree of the Powers That Be) instead of the more foundational long-term goals we’d established upfront. Progress was also stymied by irregular cadences and subsequent lack of accountability to deliver on our goals. Most ironically, we created (yet another) grassroots organization that underutilized its volunteers; we asked for help too soon and didn’t have a clear articulation of our goals once that help arrived.

Somehow we perpetuated the cycle we sought to break, side-effects antithetical to why we started the initiative in the first place.

Something needed to change.

Getting focused

As the saying goes, you can half-ass two things, or you can full ass one thing. What’s worse, we were third-assing three things instead of full-assing it. Our new goal: full-ass as often as possible.

Luckily, design has a tool for that! Also shoutout to Lauryn Hill, Khruangbin, Kendrick Lamar, Solange, Cocteau Twins and many many others for being the perfect backdrop to our meetings.

And that we did. We consolidated down to a single work stream and downsized to just the core team unless necessary. It became evident immediately that we’d taken on too much too quickly. In our retro, there was unanimous consensus that we needed to pivot (ahhh the designer’s favorite word) our attention back to sustainable change and how we could better scale beyond ourselves.

Through several rounds of mapping ideas by impact and feasibility, we were torn between two paths:

  1. Getting the people in the door (Acquisition)
  2. Keeping the people in the building (Culture)
The foundational ethos on our Enterprise Design Thinking website speaks in no uncertain terms about not just the value but the necessity of diverse teams.

This is often portrayed as a chicken-egg problem, but we landed on the former as more impactful. The decision was based on a number of factors, including the harrowing statistics of people of color in tech jobs, IBM’s brand being inextricably tied to these statistics (because of its longstanding positioning as an equality leader), and the story of our own design transformation.

In the early days of design at IBM, our GM and design head honcho, Phil Gilbert, gave the now famous, then insane, directive to hire 2000 designers. The thinking was simple: if you want to make real ripples in Big Blue’s 350,000-employee deep ocean, you’ll need a bit more than a handful of rocks. But he also knew that once here, those people would do what humans have been doing since time immemorial: create and shape a culture that accommodates us.

With that anecdote in mind, the decision to focus on the more upstream problem of creating critical mass was obvious. Our new goal to dive into, foregoing all others, would be to double down on a creating a seamless system for getting candidates of color hired.

🎵This is how we do it🎵

Agreeing to avoid spending resources on anything outside of our scope and pull people in when needed, we set off with renewed vigor.

The thrust of our work was around making the process of evaluating, tracking, and nurturing candidates of color as seamless as possible, the goal being to create a growing a pool of industry-ready candidates to pull from at a moment’s notice. To that end, we took the Talent and Acquisition team’s—the team responsible for all hiring—hiring rubric, and determined a course of action for candidates depending on how they scored on an initial evaluation. Candidates who are deemed immediately hirable by our TA’s standards are encouraged to apply without delay; candidates who are not yet ready are given resources to improve their portfolios and increase their probability of making the cut in the future. This system allowed us to invest the majority of our energy into the candidates who are on the fence.

These are the candidates that appear to be ready from a technical standpoint, but who need help telling their story and presenting their work and experiences in a way that appeals to talent recruiters. As mentioned before, it’s not uncommon for candidates of color to come from non-traditional career paths that make them even more valuable as a prospective hire, yet countless candidates choose not to acknowledge this labor.

Our idea was simple: take these on-the-fence prospects and match them with a current IBMer who could provide some quick, lowtouch coaching and guidance. We figured that with just a few short sessions, our coaches could turn on-the-fence prospects into rock solid, job-ready candidates.

Once we’d created the highway (the system), all that was left was the traffic.

Through a fair amount of trial-and-error and serendipity, we discovered that when it comes to identifying diverse design candidates, coding/UX bootcamps were the ultimate plug. There are three keys reasons for this: 1) their curriculum emphasizes industry readiness over theory; 2) they admit and graduate reliable waves of cohorts on a regular basis throughout the year, and 3) many promise to only charge the full tuition amount once they place the student in a high-paying job — a guarantee that attracts candidates from socioeconomically, racially, and generationally diverse backgrounds.

Going all-in on bootcamps was our next big bet, and we crossed our fingers and hoped that shit would work out.

Early results

As of writing this on the tail-end of October and in the 3 months since we started, we’ve reviewed 40 portfolios, recommended 12 people to TA, and got 9 candidates coached with the help of several volunteers (10 evaluators and 8 coaches). After the dust began to settle, we released a follow-up survey asking candidates about their experience, hoping to use it to improve our program — and to flex a little bit. Luckily, we get to do both.

Of the five people who responded, the reviews were inspiring.

They better understood what was being asked of them and could thus see tangible improvements in their portfolios, the principle artifact determining whether or not they make the cut. As a candidate, you’re often inundated with content that alleges to be the canonical workplace-readiness material, all seemingly important and equally confounding. Having current employees cut through the noise and shoot straight with candidates about what recruiters and evaluators are looking for accelerates their growth, and in turn grows the pool of qualified applicants.

Of equal importance to the tangible results, candidates felt more confident in their own ability. The career services associate (a liaison between companies and candidates) at one of the bootcamps we worked with expressed her gratitude for this tangible and intangible impact:

“I’m really touched by the work that you all are putting in to not only get these students job ready in a landscape that can be so daunting, but also to connect with them on a personal level about this. I’ve checked in with the students on my end and, across the board, this experience and opportunity has been so meaningful for them. I love to see this kind of tangible difference being made.”

And those other 28 candidates, the ones who didn’t quite make the cut? We are still tracking them as they mature into more seasoned designers, and are available as a resource to them in the meantime. As time passes, the pool of candidates will grow in quantity and quality.

The numbers alone are fulfilling to see, but as a wise woman, and supreme badass, once said, “Maybe stories are just data with a soul.” The more personally fulfilling part of this effort has been the human-to-human connections we’re making with people along the way — people who share backgrounds and challenges (but also hopes and dreams) that are similar to our own. We’re well acquainted with getting reduced to a red cell in someone’s spreadsheet, and for both parties to restore the humanity in a historically impersonal transaction was rewarding in both directions. It’s the stories of gratitude that pay dividends on our passion and persistence.

The first comes from a General Assembly UX candidate. He, like many others in the job market, would spend hours submitting resumés into the abyss; the long silence would sometimes be broken with a simple yes or no. He had no clue where he was in the process or what he should improve on. Moreover, he had no one on the inside to help him navigate this stressful and turbulent time. He was untethered and alone.

When asked to reflect on his experience of partnering with one of our coaches for 3 weeks, he said,

“The hardest part about this whole process is just not knowing what people are looking for… the not knowing is really half the battle… This is the first time in a long time that I’ve had to ask for help, and the fact that I’m getting it not just from people of color but from people of quality means a lot to me.

— UX candidate from General Assembly

For another UX candidate from Thinkful, the program was more personal. When you’re trying to enter a field dominated by people who look different than you, it’s easy to feel like an imposter or outsider. For him, getting matched with someone who had penetrated that world and who shared a similar background, discipline, and identity was no small gesture.

“To be honest what was cool to me was speaking to design professionals who are also people of color.

Miles [one of our coaches] was very encouraging and made the time to speak with me, and as the busy professional which he is gave his time and insight into molding me into a better designer.

I will not soon forget that.

UX candidate from Thinkful

In corporate settings, it’s easy to get distracted by the numbers, systems, and milestones at the expense of one’s humanity. This connection has been the differentiator and at the same time the most fulfilling part of our journey.

Speaking personally, within the past couple years I found myself in a predominantly white company and a predominantly white industry. Being a “gifted” student growing up, I’m no stranger to white spaces, effortless code-switching — and the ensuing identity self-interrogation. This was, however, the first time where I had few close non-white friends, and no close black friends. I struggled to see myself growing in my company, and saw few mentors of color, much less people that shared my already rare development and design background. The weight of not feeling seen for my whole self began to tear away at me, so much so that I deliberated leaving the company for several months.

Then, as the universe often does, it sent me consecutive signs, some less ambiguous than others. One of the latter signs was a whisper: a workshop aimed at addressing the needs of designers of color. I tracked down every person I knew affiliated with it and badgered people to put me on the invite. In the time in between, I found a way to combine my passion for design and D&I with people who remind me I’m not alone in my journey.

No one is immune to the laws of humanity. Everyone wants to be seen, appreciated, and acknowledged as an individual. This group provides for me what we provide for the people we coach, and it’s this person-to-person connection that makes our work, and life itself, all the more meaningful.

I want to shout out to the squad that made this all possible and are living proof that meetings, solving a Goliath problem no less, can be productive and entertaining. Big round of applause to Alisha Moore, Brittanni Risher, Miles Anderson, Oen Michael Hammonds, Roosevelt T. Faulkner, and Mbiyimoh Ghogomu for fighting the good fight. 👏🏾👏🏾

Lawrence Humphrey is a designer and developer on IBM Design for AI at IBM based in Austin, Texas. The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

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