Diversity-friendly software and strategy at TechInclusion Seattle

My TechInclusion Seattle talk on Diversity-friendly software and strategy covered a lot of ground. Here’s the slides; I’ll include the video as well, once it’s available.

Thanks to Nicole, Maya, Andrea, Kelly, and Laverne for the feedback on earlier versions of the presentation. Read on for references and notes!

Techniques for diversity-friendly software

From a software engineering perspective, the most interesting part of this presentation is the part that’s not easy to fit into a ten minute talk: best practices and emerging techniques for building diversity-friendly software. Fortunately, there are links!

  • Diversity-friendly software at SXSW, with Shireen Mitchell, is a good starting point. As well as the video, there are links for areas including setting intention, accessibility, flexible optional self-identification, threat modeling for harassment, and algorithmic bias.
  • The techniques for Supporting diversity with a new approach to software wiki pages Tammarrian Rogers and I put together on the Open Source Bridge are a more detailed but less-annotated (and much-less-nicely-formatted) collection of links.
  • Gender HCI, Feminist HCI, and Post-Colonial Computing summarizes research in these specific areas, and includes several videos. The GenderMag resources in particular — structured cognitive walkthroughs and personas for finding gender-linked software issues — are something that almost any software engineering team can apply.
  • Transforming Tech with Diversity-friendly software has an example of threat modeling for harassment. looks at the open-source, decentralized, ad-free, anti-fascist social network Mastodon through a diversity-friendly software lens.

Examples of diversity-friendly software

Logos for Dreamwidth, Blendoor, TapestryMaker, Textio, Heartmob, and O.school

Here’s a bit more about the examples from the talk:

  • Dreamwidth Studios is a home and a community for all kinds of creative folk. Denise Paolucci’s News (and Welcome!) post gives a brief history and an overview. Presentations include classics like Azz and Kat’s Keeping your culture afloat through a tidal wave of interest.
  • Blendoor is hiring technology that reduces unconscious bias by hiding data that’s not relevant and highlighting data that is. When I saw Stephanie Lamkin pitch Blendoor at the Women Who Tech Startup Challenge in SF (Blendoor won the “Audience Award”), I wrote “Stephanie’s extraordinary presentation helped me understand that this is just what that gets them in the door, and their bigger vision is to reinvent the way recruiting is done. Talk about music to my ears: diversity as a strategic advantage!” Blendoor App Breaks Down Computer Bias In Hiring on NPR’s All Things Considered has more.
  • TapestryMaker (created primarily by me with help from some friends) is a diversity-friendly social network platform. Its claims to fame include a distinctive and customizable visual look-and-feel, tarot readings as built-in functionality, a unique and colorful chat/threaded discussion hybrid with streaming audio and shared video, and (a much richer version of ) “reactions” eighteen months before Facebook.
  • Textio is the augmented writing platform for creating highly effective job listings. Its functionality includes recommendations to job ads that make them more likely to attract women candidates. Liz Gannes’ Textio Spellchecks for Gender Gias, on Recode, is a good introduction.
  • Heartmob (created by Hollaback) is a movement to end online harassment. Their trust model is an interesting application of Feminist HCI principles. Davey Alba’s HeartMob Volunteers Crack the Trollish Eggs of Twitter, on Wired, is an overview.
  • O.school creates intimate spaces to talk about sex and pleasure on the internet. Charlene Dubofsky’s This Online Sex School Wants To Help You Unlearn Shame And Stigma from Hello Flo is a good overview. Read on for more.

O.school

O.school CEO Andrea Barrica at Lesbians Who Tech

I met O.school CEO Andrea Barrica after the TechInclusion SF panel on Why Accelerators are Supporting Diverse Founders. I explained the kind of stuff I do to her, and asked whether she thought VCs were willing to invest in expertise in diversity-friendly software for their portfolio companies. “No,” she said. “Not yet, anyhow. But let me tell you about what I’m working on!” After a few months as O.school’s interim CTO, I’m now Tech DIVA (Technical Diversity, Inclusion, and Values Advisor) — talk about the perfect role for me!

O.school’s tag line is “the pleasure education we all should have had.” It was indeed a real pleasure to work with an amazing team on the alpha release this spring, codenamed “30 days of pleasure”. Thanks to Andrea, Latishia, Sara, Nicole, Kristina, Kelly, Maya, Kenny, Bitlogica, Kolosek, Michelle, and most of all the O.school Pleasure Professionals for the opportunity!

Here’s some of the key diversity-focused techniques O.school used for 30 Days of Pleasure:

  • Design-led process, listening to our community!!!!! This is good software engineering in general, of course. When you have diverse designers and a diverse community and everybody is keeping diversity in mind, it gives even better results. O.school was very fortunate to have an amazing community of excellent communicators, with different backgrounds and a mix of experience with online video streaming.
  • Pseudonymity is encouraged. Geek Feminism’s Who is Harmed by a Real Names Policy talks about why this is so important. Pseudonymity and multiple personas has more.
  • A code of conduct, reflecting O.school’s values. Designer Nicole Gottwald led us through an interesting process here; a writeup is coming soon. Setting Intention has a list of examples.
  • Moderation. Andrea lays out the business case for this in Ignoring Online Abuse is Bad for Business. Let’s Build Safer Spaces. Muting, blocking, reporting, and content filtering has links. The moderation functionality in 30 days of pleasure didn’t break any new ground; what’s significant is having it there from the very beginning.
  • Threat modeling for harassment: this is a relatively-new area without anything written up on it yet. Shireen Mitchell and I discussed it at SXSW, and there’s a simple example in the TRANSformTech talk.
  • Choice of fonts (relatively-large) and colors. Along with a preference for rounded edges, this led to a distinctive visual style.
  • Lots of attention to engineering onboarding: many engineering processs make it challenging for new people to come up to speed; and many engineering cultures turn this into a form of hazing. O.school’s done a lot of work at a very early stage to try to avoid that.
  • Design-led process, listening to our community!!!!! So important it’s worth saying twice.
Authenticity, Radical Softness, Safety, Joy, Equity, Collective Innovation, Do Good, Do Well
O.school’s values.

Diversity-friendly software as a strategy

If you’re good at something important and your competitors aren’t, a lot of strategic opportunities open up. For example:

  • Product differentiation. This is especially useful in a crowded market space. How to stand out with so many social networks around? Hey, how about actually thinking building a product that unlike everybody else works better for targets of harassment than for harassers?
  • Sustainable Competitive Technology Advantage: In a relatively-untapped area like this, becoming a technology leader can easily translate to a sustainable lead. If you can stay better than your competitors at something important, that’s a good thing.
  • Leadership in underserved markets: this can be an effective go-to-market strategy for a startup or new product, market expansion for a mature product, or a flanking maneuver as an entrenched incumbent. Bear in mind that “underserved” does not necessarily mean small: “women and gender-diverse people”, for example, is well over 50% of the population.
  • Recruiting: even if you have inclusive values and a great culture, and diversity-aware recruiting practices and systems (like blind matching, inclusive language, and interviewer training), recruiting a diverse team is still challenge.

Diversity-friendly software as a recruiting advantage

  • An interesting, hard, technical problem to work on!
  • Involvement with a community of people who care about diversity
  • Showing that your company invests in diversity and is willing to bet on it as important to the business

Originally published at A Change Is Coming.