First in a three-part series on how to implement diversity in software engineering teams, by leaders at successful companies.
Sonja Gittens Ottley is Diversity & Inclusion Lead at Asana, where she’s responsible for crafting the company’s strategies for recruiting employees from underrepresented groups and creating an inclusive environment that allows them to thrive. Prior to her roles in diversity & inclusion at Asana and at Facebook, she was global policy counsel for Yahoo’s Business & Human Rights Program. She is a native of Trinidad & Tobago.
Sonja, an attorney by training from Trinidad and Tobago, joined Asana a year ago, after over a year as Facebook’s global diversity program manager, and nearly ten years at Yahoo before that. Follow her on Twitter at @SonjaOttley.
Diversity in the workplace. For some people, it’s enough to say it’s the right thing to do. But there are studies that show that teams that are inclusive — meaning people don’t have to be different on the outside from the inside to fit in — make a difference that results in more innovation and more money.
If you’re not seeing qualified candidates for your positions, look at yourselves instead.
At Asana, we wouldn’t say we are successful yet, but we believe we’re on the right track. This is a mission for us, and we are still making progress. It’s really easy to talk loftily about what you’re trying to achieve, but it’s not useful unless you are comfortable doing it. So we are trying to ground our efforts in data to determine what really works. Our product makes it easier for teams to track their work with greater clarity, accountability, and efficiency, so tracking and measuring our diversity tactics is second nature to us.
Company culture starts with you
From the start, your company needs to ensure that its culture is absolutely encouraging for any underrepresented group — women, minorities, anyone who is qualified to do the job. If you’re not seeing qualified candidates for your positions, look at yourselves instead. Before a software engineer applies for a position anywhere, they look closely at the job description and the company. But they also look at the company culture, both online and in the real world. Every employee is a walking ad for your company. What message are they sending?
The companies that leading candidates want to connect with are those where they feel they can not only do the work and ship products, but find a space in which to thrive and grow. Are there management opportunities? Is there active mentoring to turn today’s coder into tomorrow’s VP of Engineering or CTO? And whether or not they plan to start a family, your family leave policy will tell them something about how much the company values long-term employees. Most of all, if they’re not seeing anyone from an underrepresented group in a place they would like to be at the company, they may not even apply.
Diversity policies can’t just be bold statements on your About Us page. The need to be actively encouraged. At Asana, we offer mentoring and coaching to staff at all levels, so as we grow, our experienced staff will grow with us.
What works — and what doesn’t
We encourage interviewers not to focus on resumes.
We encourage interviewers not to focus on resumes.
We don’t remove names from resumes to hide gender or possible ethnic backgrounds. We do reach beyond the standard A-list of schools. A name-brand university like Harvard or MIT might have a diverse student body, but focusing on the big names overlooks schools like Harvey Mudd, which has an excellent computer science department, and an unusually high percentage of women coming out of that curriculum. We look at what they actually learned and built.
Software engineers can largely be evaluated on the basis of their code, something less true or not true for other roles in a company. We take advantage of that opportunity: As a first step, we do blind, anonymous code evaluations without any identifiable candidate data on them.
We encourage gender-neutral pronouns, a potential source of bias even among people who think they have none, from our internal feedback on candidates. Everyone is referred to as “they” or “them.”
We use interviewing.io to remove gender and ethnic clues even from phone screens. Interviewers can’t make out the candidate’s true vocal tone, or hear regional accents that might bias them. After all, don’t we all have accents?
One company can’t do it alone
At the big-picture level, we work with organizations like Project Include and Founder’s Commitment to develop and share best practices with other companies. Far from being a distraction, diversity recruitment, and retention practices have the potential to make our industry even more gravity-defying, more disruptive to outdated ways, more mind-bogglingly profitable than it already is.
We’re proud of the culture we’ve created at Asana, and the people we’ve attracted to work here when they have so many other options. But no one firm is going to figure it out by themselves. As engineers, we focus on data and metrics to determine what works and what doesn’t, and we document and share our best practices as proof to others that our success — or at least, our progress — offers reproducible results.
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