Working on an all-female developer team: the double unicorn

I work for Docker, what’s known as a unicorn startup in software circles.
It’s a great job, I love my company, but this story is not about that.

Why a double-unicorn then? It just happened that I worked on a project where most of the developers were female. A lot has been said about the dearth of female developers, and the overall Silicon Valley diversity problem. And while Docker is doing its best to be diverse, we certainly don’t have all the answers.

So how did it happen that my story is different?

Hiring

A little after I joined Docker I started working on a new project. And we needed developers. It just happened, that the first person that “passed the bar” and all the interviews was a woman, let’s call her Alice. Really smart and great developer.

We were moving along, but we needed more help if we wanted to get our project off the ground. And in red-hot times in Silicon Valley, when money is growing on trees and new unicorns are popping up every month, finding any developer is tough, let alone good ones. So the search was on.

In my previous life, I worked at a company with a number of good developers in my group. One of them, Emily, happened to work around the block from me, we remained friends and occasionally met for coffee. I said that if she ever wanted to switch jobs, I wanted to be her first phone call.

Surprisingly and conveniently for me, the phone call came right as we started to hire. Emily’s company pivoted, not in the direction she was interested in, and she called for advice on where she should look next. Boom! I told her that I’ll gladly connect her to a number of people, but I wanted her to come in and talk to Docker. She did, everyone liked her, she passed the interviews with flying colors, and I had another developer in my group. We were moving forward!

A bit later, I got a similar phone call from another former coworker, somebody that interned for me before, was really smart and could research and figure out problems on her own. She was finishing school mid-year, and was looking for advice on who to talk to about jobs.
Same story — I promised to connect Claire to others, but I wanted her to speak with Docker first. She came in, she passed everything, and she was hired.

Now I had a team — 4 back-end developers (counting me). Three of them were women, did that matter? No. We had a product to build, we had APIs to design, we had a new language to learn (we were writing in Golang, and all of us came from Java backgrounds). No time for second-guessing if the team composition was right.

Back-ends don’t sell themselves and don’t usually delight customers. We needed a front-end, and we were able to convince another Docker employee, Ginny, into working with us. That’s 4/5 female developers, for those keeping count.

Working

At this point it became a lot more noticeable — my team was predominantly female. And not in a traditionally stereotypically female niche in design or marketing, but a “true development team”. And not just ah, it’s only a front-end team — the whole team was mostly female. Starting from back-end through front-end.
Of course, we picked up others along the way — Bob was a grizzled engineering manager, male. The product manager, Doug, was male. At one point, another developer, Frank, pitched in. And me. I was the stereotypical Silicon Valley programmer, went to Stanford, male.

The core of the team, however, was female.

Learnings

What does it all mean? I never considered myself a feminist (Obama is much better at it than me). I never intended to have a predominantly female team — I just wanted developers I could trust, people I could ask questions if I were stuck, and someone that would deliver high-quality code on time.

And that’s exactly what I got. I never saw any of the common excuses the brogrammer culture is afraid of. Was my side of the building overflowing with pink sweaters and estrogen? Really? My coworkers were definitely smart enough and capable enough to do their jobs. They definitely bailed me out more than once when I did something stupid and spent a few hours debugging only to have one of them look at the code on my screen, laugh and point out the problem. Anything else was irrelevant.

None of them were hired because they were women and because we needed to hit some diversity numbers. Every single person was hired because they are good at what they do, because they are good team players. 
Did they chose to work in my team because I’m awesome? As much as I like to believe it I highly doubt it. I think we’ve set up a good environment where everybody felt respected, where we valued everyone’s opinion and we allowed them to grow and take on responsibility. And it probably didn’t hurt that our SVP of Engineering at the time, Marianna, was a woman that not only coded but was an officer in the Israeli Army — a strong role model for women everywhere.

Conclusion
What is the point of this article, you may ask? I am lucky to have a great team, and it didn’t make a difference that it was all female. I went on a 2-week vacation to another side of the globe a few months after we launched our product. We had some issues (hope you didn’t notice), but the bench was deep — I obsessively monitored Slack while I was fighting jet lag — but there was no need. I can make a corny joke how all my lunch conversations at work were about fuzzy sweaters and Ryan Gosling instead of fast cars and whatever, but that’s just stupid. Silicon Valley often portrays itself as a meritocracy, but I was living in that reality.

I didn’t care that my team was all women or not — it only mattered that they were all competent, could be trusted and knew what they were doing. That should be the only metric that matters.

Future

Will I ever have the same setup ever again somewhere else? We all know the stats, and I really doubt it, but I really hope that I can make that happen. I have a daughter, and if she chooses to be an engineer, I want for her to have the same or better opportunities that I had!

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