Rethinking “Cultural Fit” And What It Means For Diversity

Looking back on my first year as a developer, I realised that by this time last year I was job hunting for the first time. I had a lot of interviews lined up but after a few of them I began noticing a trend in the way companies, more specifically start-ups, were approaching the recruitment process. Technical interviews are draining, you can talk about all the side projects you work on but all they care about is your ability to regurgitate algorithms from second year. But I didn't mind the two to four hours of “which sort function would you use” because I was expecting that.

What I didn't expect however was the “cultural fit” interview. This is when companies try to determine whether everyone at the office will work well with you. One of my favourites was “we like to go to the beach and drink beer while tanning. We also like to go out drinking after work with the guys. Is that something you are into?”. I personally have never felt the need to tan and I don’t drink beer but I did use the right sort function. Does that count?

After interviewing at a couple of companies and being told that I was not a “cultural fit” it became very clear to me that the term “cultural fit” was just the new age “white men only”. I felt defeated, I had done everything right. I had decent marks, experience and side projects. Nothing felt more awful than sitting through hours of technical interviews only to be told that I would not fit in with the people at the company.

One of the experiences that springs to mind is when I was asked if I was a cleaner by a lead developer at my first internship as a Software developer. Of course, to him it was an “innocent mistake”, but to me it was crushing. This was my first experience of being in a workplace, little things like that can ultimately affect your career choices.

I suddenly began to wonder if I belonged in this industry. When I put all these incidents together it made me wonder if I really wanted to be in these spaces from 9 to 5. Was I ready to constantly fight for my place in this industry? Why and how would I inspire other Black women to join the tech industry after what I had been through? I know a lot of women who have left Computer Science, not because Computer Science is hard but because the space can be toxic towards us. When Imposter syndrome kicks in and I am the only woman at the office, all these things could haunt me.

I started programming in high school. We started in a class with more girls than boys but by the end of matric I was the only girl in the class. When I was in university I helped a lot of the girls who were new to programming and a lot of them talked how awful it is that the boys in our class keep reminding them that they had been programming for years. I will never forget how happy I was when I overheard a conversation between two girls in my Computer Science class.

Girl 1: I just checked and we got better marks than him for the test

Girl 2: No way, I thought he “knew more about programming than Michelle (Our professor of Computer Science)”

Girl 1: I can’t believe I nearly let that idiot make me think I couldn’t code.

Fun fact: Professor Michelle Kuttel left Computer Science during her studies because men in her class constantly made her feel inadequate. She later on returned to computer science and proceeded to get a PhD.

My first interview with Praekelt was very different. I was interviewed by women developers which was refreshing. I had never pictured myself in the “tech-for-good” space but I was sold, the atmosphere felt genuine. The interview was based on my experience with different technologies, what I applied them to and what I had learnt from them. One particular question that I really liked was from my now friend and colleague Codie, she asked me which web framework I had the most fun using. It felt like they were trying to get a sense of my technical abilities and problem solving skills.

Color Code CPT

I was pleased to hear that there wasn't a “cultural fit” interview. The idea behind “cultural fit” interviews is to determine if new team members would be able to get along with the people in the organisation. I understand that having internal conflicts or miscommunication in teams can cost the company time and money. However, a lot of tech companies do not base their culture around how they communicate and resolve conflicts but rather what they like to do for fun. In tech “cultural fit” is often used to describe a single type of personality or cultural background which leaves people who come from different backgrounds wondering whether they should be there.

I know that there are people who are just not nice people but there are very few of them. Most people won’t know that the things they are saying are mean. In spaces that are more inclusive, people are more likely to be mindful. Working with people from diverse backgrounds has taught me to be more aware of different people’s experiences. It also breaks down our subconscious stereotypes bias against people who don’t look like us.

It’s through this concerted effort, as female black developers that I have started Indoni Space. I started the group with the intention of creating a safe space for women of color who code to share their experiences and support one another. I was also very happy when Codie and Lisa asked me to be a coach for Code Like Her, an initiative to get more women of color in tech by running full day workshops in which attendees will learn coding principles. A friend of mine also runs Color Code, where they focus on providing a consistent community for people from diverse backgrounds who are learning how to code. These are all amazing initiatives that are helping bring in more diverse developers. The tech landscape is changing and organisations need to make a more concerted effort to adapt.

I love programming and if ever I leave, I want it to be on my own terms. Until then, I’m here to be the “Michelle” for others.