Building a more diverse Pinterest through apprenticeship

In July of 2015, we made a public commitment to make Pinterest a more diverse company and outlined specific steps to start making progress. In that time we’ve increased the percentage of underrepresented ethnicities from 3 to 7% and women in tech from 21 to 26%. We firmly believe our creative potential is directly tied to the diversity of our workforce, which is why last year we launched an apprenticeship program to focus on hiring engineers from non-traditional backgrounds.

“Non-traditional” can have many meanings, but we chose to define it as any candidate without formal computer science education. This includes coding bootcamp grads, self-taught coders, those looking to re-enter the tech workforce, and others. We knew that this significant talent pool is too often overlooked and is one that would bring unique benefits to our teams. We’re proud to share today that our first group of three apprentices are now all in full-time engineering roles, working across our Product Engineering, Mobile Release, and Web teams.

Why Apprenticeship?

Varying backgrounds and perspectives strengthen our company and our collective impact. We’re building a product to help people around the world discover and do what they love, by being a discovery engine for all interests. We’ll only be successful and build a lasting and meaningful service if the company reflects our community.

Engineers from non-traditional backgrounds have often worked in a different field or studied something unlike anyone else on the team they are joining, and as a result, they bring a unique perspective to our work. For example, Android engineer Madelyn leveraged her economics background to help the team be more thoughtful about making tradeoffs and optimizing for cost/benefit in their decisions. Joe was an apprentice on our Build and Release team and brought attention to detail from his previous job in finance that was a critical asset in building the iOS testing platform. Web engineer Mason studied architecture in college and brought with him a unique eye for design, which is a critical component of how we write code here at Pinterest.

We also know that this pool of talent tends to be more demographically diverse than the traditional pipelines from which tech companies often recruit. We recognized this as an opportunity to be intentional about diversity from the get-go by sourcing from bootcamps we knew explicitly valued diversity. We put a lot of consideration into designing this program, and now that we have our first three success stories, we want to share what we’ve learned.

Driving Success

To ensure a positive experience and a sustainable program, we spent a lot of time up front considering how to set the apprentices up for success, with the following three strategies as our guide.

1) Choosing the right team, mentor, and manager

Apprenticeships are about learning, teaching, and doing. Selecting the proper team, mentor, and manager was essential to setting each apprentice up for success. We decided early on that mentors and managers should each play different, but equally important roles. Mentors would meet most frequently with the apprentice and guide their day-to-day work and learning, whereas managers would oversee both the mentor and the apprentice to provide high level insight.

When we were deciding on teams, mentors, and managers for our first cohort, we were intentional about selecting teams that were aligned with the mission of the program, to expand the pool of talent from which we traditionally recruit to include a broader set of perspectives and backgrounds, and mentors who were passionate about developing engineers from non-traditional backgrounds. We did this by presenting the program mission and objectives to our engineering leadership team, and then putting together a task force to help identify those who fit the criteria. Specifically, we decided that finding mentors who were passionate and teams who were supportive and had bandwidth to invest in developing an apprentice was essential. Mentoring an apprentice is also a great way for an aspiring manager to build management skills, so long as companies provide proper training.

2) Providing proper training & onboarding for everyone

We knew that in order to be effective, managers and mentors would benefit from training on some of the unique barriers apprentices from non-traditional backgrounds might face in the program. We also knew that apprentices would benefit from strategies to help them adjust to and succeed in the program. We worked closely with our partners at Paradigm through our Inclusion Labs collaboration to develop onboarding tools and program-specific training.

In our mentor and manager training, one topic we emphasized was stereotype threat, the fear of confirming a negative stereotype about your group. This fear can be distracting, using up valuable cognitive resources, and leading people to underperform relative to their true potential. Because our apprenticeship program is focused on those who come from non-traditional education backgrounds and underrepresented demographic backgrounds, we were concerned about stereotype threat inhibiting their ability to show their true capabilities. We introduced the following three specific strategies to mitigate the risk of stereotype threat:

  • Foster a sense of belonging. We trained managers and mentors to pay attention to subtle cues, like ensuring their apprentice met the team and others they may be working with, and had folks to eat lunch with. We encouraged them to talk about their own experience of being new to normalize the feeling.
  • Improve feedback. We educated managers and mentors about strategies for reducing stereotype threat when delivering feedback. Research has shown that emphasizing high standards, and assuring the person receiving feedback that you know they’re capable of meeting those standards, can mitigate these risks and help people better learn and grow from feedback.
  • Promote a growth mindset. We incorporated research on growth mindset, the belief that talents and abilities are malleable qualities rather than fixed traits. Research shows that when companies foster a belief that abilities are fixed, people from underrepresented groups are more likely to fear they’ll be viewed through the lens of a stereotype, which exacerbates stereotype threat. We gave managers tools for fostering a growth mindset culture, including designing the program to focus on learning goals.

3) Regular check-ins to track progress and ensure steady growth

Finally, we knew that consistent check-ins and growth conversations would be key. We planned for mentors and apprentices to meet weekly for one-on-ones, but we also set up monthly check-ins for the apprentice, mentor and manager to specifically talk about how they were progressing on their learning goals. Learning goals guide the apprentice and align them with specific expectations we have of engineers at Pinterest. They provide shared ownership for the apprentice, mentor and manager to advance the knowledge and growth of the apprentice.

As the program manager, I also met separately with both the mentor and apprentice to make sure there was a clear understanding of progression and to address any misalignments. Here are some things I learned to look out for:

  • Was the apprentice being assigned work at the level that would be expected of a full time engineer? If they were only assigned bug fixes, for example, it would’ve been difficult to demonstrate an ability to own and build features from start to finish.
  • Was the apprentice receiving actionable feedback? In monthly check-ins, I asked the apprentice and mentor what actionable feedback was being given that would help the apprentice make progress. Here’s the structure we used:
What have you been working on over the past month?
How does this align with the engineering expectations we have here at Pinterest?
Does the apprentice know what they need to do over the next month to make progress toward the goal of conversion?
Is there anything the mentor can do to help remove any roadblocks that might be hindering the apprentice’s progress?

Results & Looking Ahead

Less than a year into our first cohort, all three of our apprentices were hired as full time engineers at Pinterest. We look forward to continuing to build a sustainable program that brings people from a range of different backgrounds into the tech community. By sharing what we learned in the process, we hope to encourage other companies to create similar programs as one step towards building a more diverse tech ecosystem.