Panorama Values: Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging

“Sounds good, Jason. I would be happy to help facilitate a debrief for this year’s employee engagement survey for the Engineering team, but in order for this to be successful, I need to know why. Why are you bringing the whole engineering team together to discuss these topics? What do you want to be different? What outcomes are you seeking?”

This is how my conversation with Doug, one of our strategic advisors on our Teaching and Learning team went four years ago when we were preparing to unpack and debrief for our semi-annual employee engagement survey. I still remember my reply today:

“I want Panorama’s Engineering team to be one of the best engineering teams out there. I want engineers on the team, current and past, to look back and say, ‘I worked on such an amazing team, and I was where I belonged.’”

For Panorama and our technology team, diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEI&B) is deeply ingrained into our values and into our outlook for changing the world of education. Our company value reads:

We believe Panorama is strongest when our team reflects the tremendous diversity of the students, families, and educators we serve. We aim for Panorama to be a place where team members from a wide range of identities and experiences are valued, included, and able to thrive. In our partnership with clients, we work to increase equitable access to education, especially for students from communities that have been historically underserved by America’s schools.

Connecting these sentiments together, we want to build a team that reflects the diversity of the students, families, and educators we serve, and we want those teammates to feel like they belong to a team where they feel included and can thrive.

This is no small feat. Most software development teams are predominantly staffed by teammates who identify as white and male, and many have college degrees in computer science. America is filled with much more diversity than that, so we have worked to build systems and processes that would grow our diversity over time and not keep it homogenous. With systems in place to grow diversity as we hire, we can combine growth in our business with growth in our diversity.

Arthur Chan DEI quote

So what does that look like in practice? A lot of hard work and important choices. We have built out interview structures, guides, and rubrics that focus on assessing the skills and mindsets that someone needs to be successful on the team and avoiding using hiring shortcuts that can introduce bias. For example, our product development work requires our teams to adapt and change quickly, such as continuously learning new technologies, learning from feedback from our users and clients, and sharing those learnings back to the team. This means that we value both learning and teaching in our teammates. So rather than assuming through reading a resume’s credentials that someone can learn and teach, we create interviews designed to demonstrate those skills. Interviewing is only one part of the equation. There’s also a lot of hard work and skill-building going on behind the scenes, from teaching interviewers about the biases present in every interview to finding ways to reach out to candidates from across the United States with varieties of backgrounds and experiences.

Even more important than finding and hiring great teammates is providing each teammate the environment to help them thrive and have the opportunities to be included as part of our team. We have built out processes, norms, and cultures that help foster inclusion in each team. Some of them follow from agile process playbooks, like running retrospectives where all teammates have voices and agency to improve the team. Others were adaptations over time, like making our technical design processes more accessible to every teammate, through norming that any engineer can write up design proposals for major changes and creating expectations that they share those proposals for public review. We encourage engineers to solicit feedback broadly, and give time for teammates to read, digest, and engage with proposals to make them stronger. All of this helps engineering teammates feel like their voices are heard, and that they can make a difference.

Lastly, to loop this back together, we have learned over time that there are many non-technical skills and mindsets that are important to develop and select for in our hiring process as well. Many of these non-technical skills also help reinforce our efforts to create inclusive team environments. For example, we seek teammates that demonstrate empathy and the ability to collaborate, and assess those skills in interviews too. We design interview environments to be conversations and collaborations, where we bring in a variety of interviewers from across the team with a mix of backgrounds and experiences, since that’s what it is like to work on one of our engineering squads here.

To be clear, things aren’t perfect today, and we are constantly working at being a more diverse and more inclusive team. We learn from each other every single day. There are so many things that go into creating a team where DEI&B are an embedded value, but we are still seeking that outcome of an amazing team that reflects the diversity of the students that we serve, and being one where each teammate feels like they belong.

Below are additional perspectives from Lauren Reilly, Jairo Pava, Meriem Saaid, and Tristrum Tuttle, who have found distinct DEI&B paths within our organization.

Lauren Reilly

Software Engineer — Front End Squad

Phot of Lauren Reilly

Being open about how you’re feeling can be hard to do but when you have a space to do just that it becomes a little easier. At Panorama we create these spaces within private Slack channels. We have one channel where we can talk openly about mental health and another where those of us who identify as neurodivergent can feel safe to share our stories. I feel especially supported by my team in these spaces and I get to give that support back.

Getting a mental health diagnosis can be alienating if you don’t have anyone you feel you can share this with, judgment free. In these Slack channels we have normalized sharing our diagnoses if we are comfortable doing so. For me, this has led to having honest discussions about symptoms and treatment and being able to offer and receive support from team members with the same or similar diagnoses. We share resources and are open about what has and hasn’t worked for us personally. Another wonderful thing about these channels is that we feel safe to share when we aren’t doing well. These posts are so relatable and real and result in colorful rows of supportive emojis including a Panorama favorite, green hearts. The threads of these emotional posts are full of care and understanding and, while they may not cure a bad day, they certainly make it a little more bearable.

It’s freeing to have a place to be able to talk about the things that can make you feel different and realize that you all have so much in common. Sometimes these channels are a place to rant about a tough time or an aggravating symptom and other times you can find a laugh in the form of a highly relatable meme. These spaces have helped me feel like I belong because I know I’m not alone in what I’m going through. It’s so powerful to be surrounded by people that understand, especially when it comes to things that can be hard to talk about. I greatly value these spaces and the honesty and acceptance that they bring to Panorama.

Jairo Pava

Software Engineering Manager — Check-ins Squad

Photo of Jairo Pava

Frankly, DEI&B is a growth area for me.

Part of the reason why I have been so limited in understanding the issues surrounding equity and inclusion across our communities is because I didn’t know how to begin.

Bringing up these conversations with my peers felt uncomfortable. I was worried that sharing a personal experience would be received poorly. Or perhaps I would ask a question that, in my own ignorance, could be perceived as insensitive.

Joining Panorama Education has made a big difference in how comfortable I now am beginning to feel in talking and learning about these topics.

The DEI&B core value is embodied by our teams in many ways. From a multitude of Affinity and Resource Groups that support belonging to having DEI&B embedded in our employee performance frameworks. There are also heritage month celebrations, unconscious bias training, and more intentional candidate pipelines. These are just to name a few.

But the initiative that has stood out the most to me is our engineering zone’s bi-weekly DEI&B hour.

Here are the ground rules:

  1. Every other Tuesday we have an optional DEI&B hour on our calendars
  2. We commit to learning together as a team, and to helping one another learn
  3. We accept non-closure, and understand that this work is a marathon and not a sprint
  4. We understand the importance of this work and will push forward thoughtfully but not with unsustainable stress or urgency

Our team members volunteer to facilitate each session. Topics are crowd-sourced via a running list and facilitators have discretion to choose the topic.

Recently, we have been going through the United Way’s 21-Day Equity Challenge. Each day’s message has information, links to articles, videos, and more about a specific topic. The challenge is for us to spend each DEI&B Hour learning and getting a better understanding of the equity issues we face in our communities.

Topics include Allyship, LGBTQ+, Education, Systemic Racism, and many others.

Through these DEI&B hours I am able to learn from my teammates and the stories that they share. We all have a collection of diverse experiences that open our eyes to the issues in a safe space where many of my initial concerns are no longer an obstacle to getting started. And in fact it has encouraged me to proactively play a bigger role as an engineering manager to continue to create the space to have these conversations in places like my 1x1’s so that I can become a better ally to others in our community.

My main take away from this experience has been that if you don’t know where to begin, a good place to start can be by simply creating the space for people to share their own experiences.

The results may surprise you.

And you may end up realizing, like I have, that when you make others feel heard, learning from each other’s experiences becomes easier and can lead us all together to create a community that is much more enjoyable to work in.

Meriem Saaid

Software Engineer — Front End Squad

Photo of Meriem Saaid

Having a diverse workplace does not automatically imply that a company has a culture of inclusion and belonging. However, Panorama has invested a lot of resources so that all employees contribute to creating an inclusive environment to ensure that the DEI&B initiative isn’t just another perfunctory training session.

As a working mom, I faced many challenges during my career and struggled to find the balance between parenting and work. Missing out on some of my child’s special moments impacted my mental health and left me feeling anxious. Thankfully, Panorama has helped me to overcome these challenges by offering me helpful options, such as a flexible schedule.

Panorama has also enabled the creation of a supportive resource group for mothers where they can seek advice, share tips, and get the support they need. Many working moms such as myself hesitate to discuss their personal issues at the company for fear of seeming unprofessional. For me personally, going through the pandemic these past two years has had a negative impact on my mental health and working remotely has made it even worse. Not being able to socialize with other people made me feel isolated and depressed, but being a member of the mom’s space and other spaces has made me feel less lonely. Being able to talk openly about our day-to-day struggles and sharing honest feelings with each other has been very beneficial and helped me to develop a sense of belonging.

It’s very important for employees to have a safe space where they can connect with each other, knowing that we are not going through our issues alone and that we have a strong supportive system helping us stay empowered and motivated. Panorama has made this possible by creating spaces where we can all share our happy and sad moments and stay by each other’s side as one community.

Tristrum Tuttle

Software Engineer — Check-ins Squad

Photo of Tristrum Tuttle

DEI&B initiatives generally focus on two key stakeholders: employees and customers. At Panorama, we have a third key stakeholder that we need to prioritize when we invest in DEI&B: students. Students deserve to be served by a platform that will treat them equitably and inclusively, no matter who they are. This support requires focused, coordinated effort across engineering and other functional teams at Panorama.

The Equitable Assessments working group is one of many cross-functional initiatives to improve inclusivity across Panorama. Our mission is to improve our platform’s support for student data that is often excluded from traditional systems. Our earliest projects focused on adding support for English Language Learner assessments, like ACCESS and Star Spanish assessments, to our student data dashboard application. These assessments give students a chance to demonstrate their Math and Literacy skills without penalizing them for being non-native English speakers. Since then we have also worked on projects to improve support for student’s preferred names, remove non-inclusive language from our platform, and more.

Even as the scope of our group’s mission expands, the support from Panorama’s leadership has been unwavering. It’s easy to make big promises when it comes to DEI&B, but how many companies actually roadmap DEI&B improvements over new feature development? When crunch time hits, how many DEI&B initiatives decrease in scope rather than expand? At Panorama we ask not what DEI&B can do for us, but what we can do for DEI&B.

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Stories and musings from Panorama’s design/engineering/research teams

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Jason Larsen

Jason Larsen

Leading Engineering at Panorama Education. Father. Chronic traveller. Takes weekend-cooking way too seriously.

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