Holding the door open
Thoughts on building a diverse team at Reddit
I love building teams. I think it’s an art form — bringing the right mix of people together, in the right configuration, with the right motivation takes a certain kind of love and patience that only managers will understand. I don’t just talk about building strong, diverse engineering teams. I’ve done it a few times before and I’m doing my best to build a great one at Reddit.
Now, this is a diversity and inclusion blog post so you might think that I’m about to begin the next paragraph with something like “as a black man, I think it’s important to invest in diversity and inclusiveness…” But that’s not how this post is going to start.
As an experienced leader and technology executive, I believe it’s important to invest in diversity and inclusiveness for better products, for better teams, and because it’s just the right thing to do.
Better Teams, Better Products
I’ll start with the easy stuff. Diverse engineering teams are simply more fun to work in. There’s the opportunity to learn more from your peers either directly or through ERIGs and technology guilds. There’s less fear of speaking your mind. Finally, the empathy that comes with an inclusive mindset leads to fewer interpersonal and inter-team conflicts.
This benefit is particularly important to Reddit because we’re growing fast while shipping fast. Our engineering teams must coordinate with each other heavily to keep the trains running on time. Anything that can reduce the “otherness” of working with dependent product teams makes us more effective as an organization.
If you want the hard numbers, there’s mounting evidence that diverse teams produce better products and business outcomes. Catalyst’s “Why Diversity Matters” is my favorite summary of the subject, and it really covers the topic exhaustively from every angle imaginable. Statistically, diverse teams are more innovative, more collaborative, and have better financial performance. Here are a few other studies:
- McKinsey’s research shows that gender-diverse companies are 15% more likely to outperform their peers and ethnically-diverse companies are 35% more likely to do the same.
- Deloitte Australia’s research shows that inclusive teams outperform their peers by 80% in team-based assessments.
- Research by Cedric Herring at the University of Chicago found that across hundreds of companies, diverse teams drive 6% greater revenue, 15% more customer wins, and create significantly higher market share.
- Bersin High-Impact Talent Management saw these results in a two-year study: among more than 128 different talent practices studied, the highest performing companies are all focused on building an inclusive talent system.
But if you don’t want the quantitative analysis, here’s what Steve Jobs said:
A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.
— Steve Jobs
Which cuts straight to the heart of why diversity is important to Reddit: we believe that everyone in the world should be able to find a home — a community — somewhere on our platform. But we aren’t there yet. If we’re being honest, Reddit is still a place that can feel unwelcoming and intimidating to users, new and old.
So what do we do?
I think the solution is right here within the walls of Reddit HQ, starting with how we build our product development organization. Most managers are familiar with Conway’s Law, which says that companies are destined to ship products that match the the shape of their org chart. It’s been demonstrated time and again since the inception of the software industry.
If you believe Conway, is it so hard to believe that organizations are also destined to ship products that are a reflection of their employees? That the thoughts, beliefs, and culture of an organization are ultimately expressed in the software it produces?
Simply put, to make Reddit a home for everyone in the world, we have to start by making our office a better reflection of the world.
A “Better Place”
I’ve heard the phrase, sometimes ironically but often genuinely, “We’re making the world a better place,” about ten thousand times since I moved to the Bay last year. And you know, I’ll be damned if I don’t still believe it.
Growing up in Largo, Maryland — a predominantly black suburb east of DC — I dreamed of someday making it big in the world. Getting a great job, driving a fancy car, maybe buying a nice house somewhere in Potomac. Most of my friends had that dream too but chose a different path to try and get there, spending their time in sports, family-run businesses, or government jobs. Anywhere but engineering.
Very few of them thought to pursue technology careers because they didn’t know what was possible. There was no engineering role model — no black Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg — to follow. Most of them didn’t have access to modern computers at home or at school. Of the few who chose tech, only a tiny fraction with pioneering and persistent spirits ever made it to Silicon Valley.
If I could go back in time and tell my friends, I would scream at the top of my lungs: Learn to code! Get into engineering! When people talk about “the land of opportunity” this is what they mean!
Even the biggest cynic has to admit that technology is radically transforming our work, our health, our relationships, everything! It’s all changing faster and faster each day and Silicon Valley is at the heart. The Valley is a well-funded magnet for dreamers and risk takers. It celebrates both successes and failures, because of the lessons learned in either outcome can be carried forward to the next venture. And while the Valley may be populated by dreamers, it’s only because they know the opportunity to have vast impact is real. Their heroes are the same tech entrepreneurs who’ve already proven that no dream is too big.
Objectively speaking, Silicon Valley is one of the greatest opportunity-generation engines in history. Which brings me to my point. If there exists a fantastic engine producing world-changing opportunities and leaders with every turn of the crank, and that engine is biased to exclude whole classes of people, then something is wrong. Are we missing good ideas? Are we leaving people behind? Are we perhaps not living up to the full potential of “making the world a better place”?
I’m a practical sort of manager. I don’t think we can handhold people on the path to opportunity regardless of race or gender. I think that everyone has to make their own way, that merit matters, and that not everyone is guaranteed a spot in the winner’s circle. But as I see it, equal access and equal opportunity are just the right thing to do.
Building Our Team
At Reddit, we’re fortunate in that we’re small and growing. We have the flexibility to build the engineering team any way we’d like. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished so far while acknowledging that we’ve still got a long way to go. After 10 months on the job, here’s what I think we’ve done right when it comes to D&I.
Executive level support
D&I efforts have to come from the top to have any hope of success. I’ve seen this go wrong in other companies, where too much emphasis is placed on a bottoms-up approach to D&I. It isn’t the responsibility of your individual contributors to enact fundamental culture changes.
At Reddit, we don’t just talk about D&I and it isn’t just a directive from HR. It is an executive-level conversation with our leaders setting a tone of support throughout every part of the company. We see D&I as a key component to employee engagement and have continuous discussions about how we can positively change the metric. Down the line from exec to director to manager to individual contributor, the entire company understands the culture we’re trying to build.
Hiring into leadership roles for greater impact
Perhaps the long struggle for improvements in D&I has made me cynical, but whenever I see an announcement about a new Chief Diversity Officer being appointed, I wonder how many product engineers and managers they are actually going to place. Typically, these roles are used to raise awareness of D&I or simply show that the company is supportive. I like that to an extent. But at this point in the history of D&I, I don’t think our industry has an awareness problem, it has an action problem. It’s simply harder for someone to have an impact when they aren’t directly responsible for hiring.
Reddit takes the approach of hiring diverse leaders into critical positions across our organization. The exec team itself reflects this ethos, which makes me think we’ve done something right at the top. But the middle still needs work. We want to hire diverse managers and senior engineers deeper within the team. Doing that means overcoming the “pipeline problem.”
If you care about D&I in the Valley it’s easy to complain about “the pipeline,” and I don’t beat people up if they do. Hiring is tough in general, even more so for startups.
I admit was a bit shocked after posting my first Reddit job to LinkedIn back in October. It was for a Director of Engineering position, usually a hot commodity. Out of the roughly 30 applicants there was one woman, and every candidate was either White or Asian.
I’d never seen results like this in my career, but I couldn’t throw my hands up. There may really be a pipeline problem, but if so, it’s our responsibility as leaders to build a better pipe. Here’s what I did.
Setting realistic expectations with hiring managers
First, just setting the tone matters a lot. Early on, I told my staff that my vision for Reddit engineering included diverse teams of extremely talented professionals and promising upstarts. We weren’t going to rush to fill every position. It would take extra time, energy, and discipline to get the results I wanted. Fortunately, my managers were immediately supportive and stayed that way even through the frustration of longer hiring cycles and occasionally losing diverse candidates to another company. We have a long road ahead, but knowing that my team has a shared vision gives me confidence that we’ll stay the course.
Widening the net by overcoming common biases
Second, I had to search in new places for candidates. It required a bit of a mindset shift. Prior to moving to the Bay Area I had very little experience with and a somewhat negative impression of coding bootcamps. I admit, at Microsoft I was one of those hiring managers who scanned for top schools and top companies before taking a deeper look. (If you didn’t know, that’s a huge D&I fail I just admitted to.)
At Reddit, I think maybe the first week on the job, I met with students from Hackbright Academy and was completely blown away by their intensity, drive, and potential. These women wanted to win. Since then, I’ve come to believe that hustle trumps academics. We’ve hired multiple bootcamp grads, some of whom have quickly risen to become strong engineering leaders. I’ve also expanded my own network to include /dev/color, Bay Area Blacks in Tech, and Stealth Mode. I’m also proud that this year Reddit will be a sponsor for the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing and we’re sending more of our employees to attend than ever.
Polishing the Reddit brand
Third, and no surprises, is branding. Reddit is an edgy company with a complex history that some diverse candidates find worrisome. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been quizzed about a negative news article or just asked bluntly, “I thought only white computer geeks used Reddit?”
The reality is that a lot of positive change has happened at the company since the return of our founders, Steve and Alexis, more than two years ago. Internally, Reddit hasn’t been the straight-cis-white-male-nerd bastion it’s portrayed as for a long time. But no candidate would know this if we didn’t start taking control of our external brand.
The real turning point came around April with the launch of r/place. That April Fool’s Day project made headlines for weeks because it was an enormous feat of both culture and engineering hackery: millions of users simultaneously drawing art on a canvas shared by the entire world. It was “uniquely beautiful,” according to Newsweek, “a lesson in diplomacy and democracy, in creation and destruction, in war and peace.” It got the world to think about Reddit and online communities just a little differently.
We blogged about r/place and almost immediately noticed a change in our incoming pipeline. It taught us that we needed to get the word out. So we blogged a bit more. Then I started sending my engineers to conferences and meetups. We’ve even hosted a few events at the HQ. The mix and enthusiasm of candidates in our pipeline today is steadily improving from last year. As we continue to make our platform more welcoming to new users, we expect even more engineers to take notice.
Protecting and nurturing an inclusive culture
Culture is a bit of an overused buzzword in Silicon Valley, but the truth is that culture matters. It influences everything from the motivation of employees, to product design, and even customer perception.
I was fortunate to inherit a great culture at Reddit that already highly valued inclusion. My task has been more about protecting that culture as we grow rapidly, which is one of the toughest challenges for organizational development. I worked with Katelin Holloway (Reddit’s truly brilliant People and Culture executive) to help build a hiring process that I believe is unmatched when it comes to hiring humble, impact-driven engineers.
We aren’t doing anything magical. Our process has just a few extra rounds of non-technical and cross-discipline interviews crafted by Katelin and her team. Simple, but it makes a huge difference in identifying strong team players and filtering out “brilliant jerks” who will stifle inclusion.
Finally, stay committed.
I was at D&I event a few months back at a Valley company I won’t name. The Chief Diversity Officer got on stage and said, “Here we try not to see color. We’ve evolved to focus on diversity of thought versus diversity of race and gender.”
Pro-tip: telling a black person you don’t see color is sort of like saying you don’t see them at all.
I spoke with the CDO later to ask what he meant. He told me that after years of effort, D&I programs hadn’t moved the needle on race. Thought leaders and academics were moving into other areas and taking new approaches. I just walked away.
Since then I’ve read and heard similar sentiments from D&I thought leaders. I’ll simply say that one thing I think we get right about this issue at Reddit is patience and commitment. D&I isn’t a fad and I’m proud to say that Reddit is serious about tackling the issue. I see it every day in our leaders, product decisions, hiring practices, company events, and the way we treat each other.
That said, it certainly isn’t all rainbows and sunshine. Reddit, and the tech industry as a whole, still has a lot of work to do when it comes to improving D&I. Personally, I think it’s time for the industry to move from awareness to action. We can’t go another decade without moving the needle. As a small and fast-growing company, Reddit gets to build D&I into its DNA from the beginning. If your company is already big and established, you have a tougher road to walk. You might need to culture shift, change personnel, or fix your brand. It’s worth it. You will make better products, have more engaged employees, and you might even get to make the world a better place.
We’re making it happen here at Reddit — one hire, one conversation, one changed mind at time. If we can do it, you can too.