On Diversity

The need for inclusive spaces: a personal story

Disclaimer: It’s late, I’m tired and I don’t need this. But I’ve been kicking around a post on diversity for a few months now and every time I start, I say “no, let’s not. It’s not worth the hassle.” But then I saw a few tweets that made me decide it was worth speaking up. I’m just typing really hard into the computer, because I really have other stuff to work on and all of the people who normally read my posts for me are wisely asleep or doing useful things like watching Bob’s Burgers episodes.

I read Rand Fishkin’s post tonight about why he supports intentional diversity efforts and after a few folks alluded to the notion that diversity programs smack of tokenism, I felt the need to speak up a bit.

Starting somewhere

I’ve been working in the digital space since the 90s. I built websites while I was still in high school and built two vibrant online communities by the time I was 19 and even had a bit role with a startup that went bust like most during those days. I gave up, joined the Air Force and never assumed that any of my tinkering online would ever yield anything in the way of a career.

Along the way, I kept tinkering and taught myself PHP, and went from HTML/CSS to Movable Type, Textpattern and eventually Wordpress. I’ve hosted my own sites for ages and was always the one solving everyone’s computer problems. I never saw any of this as anything more than a hobby, akin to my childhood rock, foreign coin and baseball card collections.

I never thought any of it would lead to anything.

The False Hope Years

Even after my first startup, I never saw myself as anyone who would do anything. I had no one in my world who could really tell me anything about startup life. It wasn’t until a few chance meetings that I began to embrace this new reality as a startup denizen.

The first thing that happened was being connected with a startup incubator in the city I lived in, just as it was starting. The CEO took a liking to me, started inviting me to events and got me the largest consulting project I’d ever worked on up to that point. It changed my perspective on everything.

Still the whole I maintained a job. I was raised by two parents who stressed the importance of getting a good job somewhere and staying there. The instability of throwing caution to the wind and starting a company sounded completely insane to anyone close to me, even if they sympathized and were supportive.

New Tools. New Platforms.

In 2008, I started blogging again. I was about to take a new job two years after landing my first webmaster job — at a college — and after launching a sitewide migration to a new content management system, I thought I would test some theories with the wider world.

I figured that even if my ideas were wrong, at least I could find out what other people were talking about. I was isolated in a rural area and didn’t have a lot of people to talk to about my day-to-day duties and while startup stuff was fun, it wasn’t really leading to anything sustainable at that point and it never occurred to me to leave the stability of my higher ed job to attempt to join a startup.

Blogging paid dividends. I met some standout people from my small niche of a community and I felt like I actually knew something. It was rewarding. Meanwhile on the new job, I was discovering that I wasn’t just “good for Wyoming,” but I actually had some idea of what I was talking about. I kept learning and landed my first web director job with a university before I turned 30.

The Rude Awakening

In those early years, I thought the few contacts I’d made were going to be all I needed to get where I wanted to be. I left my director job, struck it out on my own and failed pretty bad. The timing was wrong, I had no clue what I was really doing and while I was learning a lot, it was far from what I’d imagined would happen.

Fast forward to today where I launched a conference and lead a digital strategy consultancy. None of this would be possible without the people who empowered me early. This was not an explicit program of diversity, but it did involve a leap of faith by people who could’ve easily said “we want someone who checks the boxes better,” or “who looks the part.”

This goes all the way back to my supervisor for my last high school job, who immediately saw my leadership qualities and groomed me for leadership. My first professional supervisor was a woman who trusted me in rooms with senior leadership early in my career — without her being there — and those senior leaders all trusted my insights and perspective.

Can you imagine what that does for the confidence of someone who is starting out?

Look I have never once forgotten that I’m black.

Without the experience of living in a place where there were few people like me, I don’t believe I would have had the opportunities to sprout a career. One of the cheat codes I tell people who are non-traditionally into tech careers is “move someplace nobody else wants to go and get a lot of experience, before you move someplace you actually want to go,” because experience translates.

The Mythology of Tokenism

In college, I had the opportunity to spend the summer as a copy editing intern at The Boston Globe. For 12 weeks, my colleague and I were just regular copy editors like anyone else working there and the reporting interns did their jobs too. This was the summer of the Jayson Blair incident and I recall thinking in those days, probably out loud “people are going to think we’re not good enough, because of what he did.”

If people are so small-minded that they make presumptions about a particular person’s aptitude or ability based on preconceived ideas formed well before they ever stepped in a room together; whether we’re talking about gender, race, ethnicity, their last name or whatever, that’s a problem for them to deal with.

Those people exist and we’re not going to weed them out through shaming. But the idea that leaders should abandon efforts to reach out to qualified people who just aren’t on their radar, because it might offend someone who has more privilege is completely insane.

Creating a culture of access, inclusiveness & empathy is hard work

One of our current challenges with Aggregate Conference is ensuring a diverse pool of speakers. Part of this is a side effect of my own network, which is reflective of tech as a whole. More than half of our speakers last year were women and that’ll be the case again this year. Ironically and not hilariously, the conference started by a black guy has a real problem finding black speakers. It’s a side effect of the network I’m drawing from, but it’s one that prompted me to write this post, because we will be better on this.

In sports, everyone always lauds the “Rudy” type players. The unheralded, lost gems that go on to have superlative careers. When it comes to corporate culture, too many of us embrace the fallacy that only the “best and brightest” work within our walls. Whether it’s through selection bias, bravado or delusion, we never want to believe that we’re excluding anybody and that our practices are fair and equitable.

While I’m hearing more about diversity hiring, what I don’t hear enough about inclusiveness. I’ve worked in places where people have entire departments allocated to diversity, but inclusiveness is the kind of environment where people actually talk to each other and communicate. Where people feel empowered to speak up and are allowed to be themselves without fearing that it’ll upset the climate. This is a tough thing to achieve, even with the best of intentions, but you have to do the work to support people once they’re part of your organization if you want them to succeed.

Creating a culture of access is admitting that your company does not have the best available talent and needs to take steps to find it. The problem is, many people leading firms — or working within them — don’t believe diversity is a problem that needs solving. It’s not an issue of the talent failing to exist, because it does.

Very few days pass where I am not reminded that my own career would be different if it weren’t for supportive employers, supervisors, mentors and friends who saw my potential and empower me through opportunities. It’s easy at a certain point, to forget when you were truly a nobody and think that other people have an “obligation” to work “just as hard as you did to get where you are, because nobody gave you nothing,” but revisionism is best served with a side order of dreams.

Diversity doesn’t require placards, a position with a title, signs indicating how much you love brown people and women. Most people just want to be valued, treated fairly and honestly. This is easier said than done.

For all of our talk of disruption, diversity is the ultimate power play in the deck of disruption. There are billions of dollars in opportunities waiting to be unlocked, but we’re not tapping them because we lack the right people to help our teams bring those ideas to fruition. Wrapping yourself in the invisible blanket of fairness might help you sleep better at night, but it’s not improving your bottom line.

For me, diversity is perspective. It’s about the recognition that sometimes hearing from someone whose experiences have been different can change the way you see the world irrevocably.