Practical steps towards a more diverse tech team

We recently hosted a roundtable dinner, bringing together technology leaders from major companies — Emily Knuckey shares her insights from the evening

ow many times have you heard the phrase ‘diverse teams perform better’?

So many that you want to tear your hair out slightly every time someone quotes the McKinsey report?

At Makers, we’ve been to so many events about D&I which, although coming from a good place, labour the same points around how ‘diversity is important’ and ‘diverse teams perform better’. But rarely do they actually leave the participants with many, if any, tangible actions.

It’s common for speakers to talk about how well they’re doing on a high level, without sharing the things which have gone wrong, what they’ve learnt, as well as small and significant changes they’ve made within their teams and organisations that had an impact.

So, hoping to break the mould, last week we hosted a roundtable dinner, bringing together technology leaders from Deloitte, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, RBS, Financial Times, Nationwide, JP Morgan, Bank of America and Ford.

The topic up for discussion was: “Practical steps towards a more diverse tech team”. The key word being practical.

It turned out that an intimate dinner, of 14 people, at Blixen in Spitalfields was the perfect environment for this. We had a super lively discussion, and everyone who attended brought a refreshing candidness and vulnerability.

Participants spoke about their mistakes, challenged one another, shared things they’ve tried which have worked (and which have failed), and we all learnt from each other.

The discussion was framed across three main themes: Attraction, Selection, and Retention, of people from underrepresented groups.

Here are some of the practical steps and actions, from the micro to the macro, that we uncovered as a group. (To maintain the agreed confidentiality, no specific organisations are mentioned in relation to a particular point, unless it refers to a public initiative.)

Attraction

  • Where and how do you advertise jobs? Explore partnerships with coding groups like Codebar, Code First: Girls, Black Techies, and of course, Makers, to increase the reach of your job adverts among specific minority groups. You can also provide your office space for free to coding groups, and host meet-ups for them, to grow positive brand awareness that way.
  • Create visible role models: send your best software engineers from minority groups to conferences, events, and job fairs, to speak publicly about how great it is working for your organisation.
  • Play the long game when you’ve identified engineers, especially senior ones, that you want to hire. Have your hiring manager reach out, take them for coffee, invite them to your office, and generally build a relationship with them. Good seniors are worth the investment.
  • Address a team weighted towards the younger side by retraining your existing non-technical population as software engineers, as Vodafone are doing, through the apprenticeship levy.
  • Attract returners to your tech team with a return-to-work programme, like Deloitte are doing in partnership with Makers.
  • Job descriptions are different from job adverts. You need to be selling the job in the job advert, not excluding people. Some quick hacks include putting your job ads through a decoder to help identify problematic words and phrases, removing lists of ‘essential criteria’ which tend to put women off applying if they feel they don’t meet 100% of the points, and removing the need for a CS degree (which limits you to a very white male demographic) — or a degree at all! Really interrogate whether every point on the job description is essential, and if you’re questioning it, remove it. So many job adverts describe a person, rather than a job: instead describe the job and let people self-select for whether they can do it.
  • Be explicit on job ads about the scope for flexibility: such as flexible working, or the potential for job-share. If it’s not stated, people with other commitments (such as parents or carers) might be inclined to assume that there is no flexibility, and won’t apply.
  • Don’t rely on referral programmes. People know people who are similar to them. This can be fine on a small scale, but beware of creating a monoculture which results in a non-inclusive environment.

Selection

  • Insist on a balanced shortlist from recruiters and your internal recruitment teams. One of the participants tells their recruitment team that he won’t see any CVs unless each CV from a white man is matched with someone who is not — to great success.
  • Be open to hiring people with convictions. It’s much more common than people think — a third of men and 9% of women aged 53+ have been convicted of an offence in the UK. There’s a tonne of misconception and bias about this topic out there — educate yourself. One of our corporate clients in the financial sector works with Code4000 to hire aspiring software engineers who have a conviction. If your application process asks for convictions at any point, make it clear in writing that having a conviction won’t necessarily preclude you from a job, as otherwise people with a conviction might simply not apply.
  • Don’t limit yourself to people experienced in specific technologies, even for senior engineers. A good software engineer is someone who has the right behaviours, approach to building software, and ability to learn new technologies. By limiting applications to those with a minimum amount of experience in particular technologies, you’re more often than not limiting yourself to a very male-biased talent pool.
  • Don’t assume people’s gender: ask applicants what their pronouns are. At Makers, the first thing we do is to let people know that out of inclusion towards the trans and non-binary community, we don’t assume people’s gender. We ask at the start of the process ‘What are your pronouns?’, and we share ours.
  • Standardise your interview process, to reduce the room for decisions based on bias and ‘gut feel’.
  • Avoid using criteria rooted in personal bias. Asking yourself questions like ‘would I go to the pub with this person’ or ‘would I go on holiday with them’ are fully bias-driven and not grounded in whether or not the person would be effective in the role.
  • Involve a variety of interviewers in the process, from a variety of demographics.
  • Make your interview process as reflective of the job as possible. Your technical interview in particular should be as closely aligned to the reality of the day-to-day role as it can. Proxies don’t work.
  • Don’t limit yourself to questions grounded in previous experience. This will result in you hiring a bunch of people who all have the same work history, and reduce your diversity of thought. Ground questions in assessing people’s behaviours — how they react to different situations, how they respond to feedback, how they learn, how they respond to challenges.
  • Particularly for the inclusion of people with Autism Spectrum Disorders, be transparent about what your interview process entails, and don’t make last minute changes. For people with ASD, sending questions to them in advance is one way to help them to excel at interview.
  • As recommended by the Tech Talent Charter, interview at least one woman (and more effectively, two or more) for all technology roles. This rule can be applied for all minority groups, and goes some way to counterbalance CV or application bias. The Rooney Rule follows a similar approach.
  • Do an audit on what your team considers when making a decision to progress CVs to interview. Biasing towards higher education, judging by the number of years in employment, or judging someone on CV gaps (which could be for any number of reasons, including health or disability related) are all ways to exclude people from underrepresented groups who could be an amazing addition to your team.
  • Practice ‘blind’ recruitment, such as through using software like Applied.
  • At interview stage, make sure all interviewers ask the candidate whether they prefer to take the elevator or stairs. Someone may have a disability which isn’t visible.

Retention

  • Don’t leave it to the responsibility of the minority to bring about change. It’s the role of the majority, as the more empowered group, to learn about privilege and create an inclusive environment together. Create proactive allies by engaging the majority.
  • Carry out bias training with your teams. By embedding learning about inclusion into your team’s schedules, you show it to be something you value.
  • Make sure that remote working is an option for your employees. To be properly remote-friendly, for any meetings where there is at least one person dialling in, insist that every participant in the meeting dials in (rather than having 8 people in a room together, and one on Skype). This helps to create an equal footing for conversations and means that the person dialling in from home doesn’t feel excluded.
  • Build a physical workplace which takes into account the needs of different groups. The noise and lighting can have a huge impact on the happiness of neurodivergent employees — strategies like adding soundproof pods or low-light meeting spaces can make a huge difference. Likewise, the spaces you have available, such as a space available for prayers, can lead to people from different groups feeling comfortable and cared for at work.
  • Inclusion is partly about creating a safe space for everyone, regardless of identity or background. Most companies have HR policies about appropriate behaviour in the workplace, which employees sign when starting but never look at again. Instating a Code of Conduct which talks practically about conduct at work and the implications of transgressing, helps to create an inclusive and safe environment for people from minority groups. At Makers, our Code of Conduct is re-posted automatically on Slack every 6 weeks, along with a link to a questionnaire which asks people, confidentially, if they have experienced or witnessed any transgressions, or would generally like to have a chat about anything related. We’ve had great feedback from people within our community about it, and its enabled us to help educate (and in the case of multiple transgressions, remove) people who don’t comply.
  • Language matters. The language you use as a team, the terms you use, the jokes you make, can lead to some people feeling excluded (and even persecuted). Even widely-used terms like ‘guys’, within the context of the very male-dominated technology world, can lead to women feeling excluded. At Makers, we frequently have hiring partners come in and give lunchtime talks to the developers we train. On multiple occasions, after a (male) tech team lead has given a talk and spoken about ‘working with the guys’ on his team, women from the course have got in touch with us to say that they were interested in the company, but won’t be applying because they felt that it wasn’t a friendly environment for them. You can set up Slackbot responses to react to posts where certain terms are mentioned, as gentle, non-intrusive suggestions for alternative terms.
  • How, as a manager, do you deal with complaints by people from minority groups about their experiences in the workplace? Making sure that you empathise with them, and take things seriously, while prioritising their safety over privileged people’s comfort, is a huge factor in whether someone feels safe and supported at work.
  • Are your toilets divided by gender? What toilets should non-binary people use? Make sure you have at least some gender neutral toilets.
  • How do you socialise as a team? If your social culture revolves around alcohol, or meeting at a certain time of day such as the evening, you’ll be excluding people who don’t drink (whether for personal or religious reasons), and those who have home commitments, such as children, and so can’t stay late to socialise.

Thank you to everyone who came along. It was a fantastic conversation, and it was great to see everyone getting stuck in to the discussion, and that every single person came away from the event with practical steps they plan to take to make their tech team more inclusive and diverse.

Keen to learn more about diversity at our next Tech Talent Forum? Register for our employer breakfast event on Thursday 12th September here.

Creating a new generation of tech talent who are ready to build the change in society and thrive in the new world of work.