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The essential guide to hiring diverse development teams

Mitch Pronschinske Senior Editor and Content Manager, HashiCorp
A diverse group of developers

Software developers have given humanity incredible tools, and solved many difficult problems, but the diversity challenge in software engineering and QA, has been a tough nut to crack. Not only is fixing diversity in IT the right thing to do, research shows that it will make your company more innovative and more profitable

What follows is a distilled set of strategies you can use to fix a lack of diversity in developer teams by following the best advice from diversity advocates in the industry. 

How diversity helps the bottom line

While it's not always easy to measure the revenue generated from having a more diverse team, studies show that there's a clear business benefit from increased diversity. Some suggest techniques that you can use in your own organization to start measuring the return on investment from diversity initiatives. Consider these findings:

Why diversity makes teams better

Put simply, diverse teams work better because diversity makes everyone on the team challenge their own thinking more often.

A study published in Scientific American, “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter,” had black and white team members deliver the same dissenting opinion to their respective teams. When black presenters presented to a white team, the team gave more consideration to the opinion and other alternatives, whereas with a white presenter and white team members, the team was more dismissive.

Here’s how the authors sum up the reasoning behind this result:

“Members of a homogeneous group rest somewhat assured that they will agree with one another; that they will understand one another's perspectives and beliefs; that they will be able to easily come to a consensus. But when members of a group notice that they are socially different from one another, they change their expectations. They anticipate differences of opinion and perspective. They assume they will need to work harder to come to a consensus. When disagreement comes from a socially different person, we are prompted to work harder. Diversity jolts us into cognitive action in ways that homogeneity simply does not.”

It’s not hard to imagine instances where different life experiences would come in handy when building a product.  YouTube’s first iOS app for uploading video had a problem that resulted in between 5 and 10 percent of videos uploading upside-down. This bug wasn’t caught early on because the development team was mostly right-handed: Left-handed people were the ones who usually encountered the bug. You can’t cover every life experience with your engineering team, and this is the stuff that beta testing among diverse groups is supposed to catch. The more pitfalls your team recognizes early, the better off you’ll be.

Baron Schwartz, founder at database monitoring startup VividCortex, recently blogged about how hiring a recruiter can help improve diversity. "If it’s just a technical founder and a few engineers (which is not atypical in my experience [with startups]), you’re a monoculture almost by definition—you’ll overlook important things," he says.

Diversity strategies for hiring

Some of these strategies might seem like costly, undue burdens. Remember, however, that many developers said the same things about testing and refactoring.

It’s up to you to decide which strategies are beyond your bandwidth. The important thing is to commit to taking action, even if you start small. From there you can gradually build out a larger program that’s integrated into every facet of the organization.

1. Build your own diverse talent pipeline

One of the most common excuses large software companies make for not having more diverse teams is that the pipeline of diverse applicants coming out of the university system is too small, says Rachel Thomas in her Tech Diversity Files blog. While it’s true that social pressures and biases are early obstacles that reduce the number of women and minorities who successfully complete software engineering education, there’s plenty of evidence that tech companies aren’t even hiring many of the minorities that do overcome those obstacles, and graduate with computer science degrees.

Between 13 and 15 percent of computer science grads are black or Latinx, yet these groups only make up three to five percent of the tech sector employees, according to a 2014 analysis by USA Today. So either the tech sector is making those minorities want to leave quickly, or they’re not hiring a proportional number of available minority candidates.

The solution is to make your own pipeline. You can’t passively expect enough diverse candidates to jump into your resume pile. You have to go out and find them—and entice them.

Schwartz says in his blog that his company has worked to improve the diversity of its hiring pipeline.

“I recently worked with some outside recruiters on a very high-level search, and I told them explicitly to go look outside their 'candidate database.' There was a pause on the line, and they said that this was the first time anyone had asked them to do that. Hiring from in-network to reduce risk and effort is understandable, but you’ve got to have the courage to at least try to reach outside that zone.”

Schwartz hired an internal recruiter (something he wishes he’d done much earlier) with a charter that included “intentional outreach to diverse candidate pools.” That’s a great idea, especially for small startups that don’t have a lot of hours to spend on building their own pipeline.

That's certainly better than companies that say they only hire the best and then only recruit from schools with high name recognition. Although Silicon Valley does love a good dropout, that sentiment often doesn’t apply to women or minorities.

Here are more strategies recruiters and hiring managers suggest for building your own diverse candidate pipeline:

  • Advertise job openings widely. Don’t just recruit.
  • Monitor, sponsor, and participate in women’s and minority geek groups.
  • Recruit from those geek groups as well as coding bootcamps that focus on diverse communities.
  • Don’t just hire referrals from current team members. That is a recipe for a monoculture.
  • Offer referral bonuses for diversity candidates.
  • Hire a diversity consultant or recruiter with diversity expertise.
  • Try starting a program like Etsy Hacker Grants, which provides need-based scholarships to talented women engineers enrolling in Hacker School.
  • Collect stats on how you, or recruiters, conduct your searches. Make sure unintended biases still aren’t showing up.
  • Create your own accountability for this pipeline, and the diversity program in general, by conducting experiments and being vocal about it. Set publicly visible goals like Pinterest and Twitter do. Build a diversity dashboard that tracks the diversity of applicants and employees like Buffer does.
  • Showcase your company’s interest in diversity and diverse applicants. Tout it on your company’s "about" page, in its mission statements, and in job postings. If you have achieved a level of diversity in your company ranks already, publicize that fact. This attracts better candidates in general.
  • If most of these strategies just aren't working, try doing what Gusto Engineering did and interview only female candidates until you hit your target. You can add minority candidates to this strategy, too.

Valuing diversity doesn't just attract women and minorities; it also attracts a different kind of male employee, according to Kellan Elliott-McCrea, former CTO at Etsy:

“The men who come into our organization who are excited about the fact that we have diversity as a goal are generally the people who are better at listening, they’re better at group learning, they’re better at collaboration, they’re better at communication, they’re particularly the people you want to be your engineering managers and your technical leads.”

2. Write job postings that attract diverse talent

The software industry has notoriously buzzword-heavy job postings. Making job ads focus more on skills and exact goals won't just increase your appeal to women and minority candidates, it is also likely to improve the relevancy of your applicants overall because of the greater specificity about the position.

Simply adding a higher level of detail and clarity to your job postings is a great first step toward increasing the diversity of applicants. You might be tempted to just plop down a shopping list of requirements and nice-to-haves, but this method often drives many good candidates away, for two reasons.

  1. If candidates don’t think they meet every requirement, they won’t waste their time applying, because they think it’s a long shot.  People have limited time, and because each application is a significant time investment, they are pragmatic about choosing the positions for which they'll apply.  They also might not apply because of impostor syndrome, where, because they don't fit every "requirement" they feel as if they're unfit for the position.  Many candidates, including those from diverse backgrounds, don’t understand that there’s usually some unspoken leeway on posted job requirements.
  2. The laundry list of requirements in a job posting don’t tell you nearly enough about how the company uses the technologies they require the candidate know or what the team’s development practices are like.

One development shop, Caktus, creates its job posts in detailed bullet points that are structured in 30, 60, and 90-day performance milestones

The word choices and implications in job postings are another major factor in attracting or repelling women and minorities. Here are some of the best tips to remember when drafting a job posting:

  • Advertise educational opportunities. The candidates you want are interested in the opportunity to learn from your staff as well as work with them.
  • Broaden your requirements and emphasize learning ability and transferrable experience over knowing the exact details of a given technology. If you narrow down your candidate pool just to people who use the exact same technologies and have done the exact same job that your developers currently do, you’ll miss out on candidates that can bring fresh ideas and new strengths to your team.
  • Stop using terms like “rockstar,” “ninja,” and “guru.” They aren’t cool anymore. Not only do diversity advocates prefer the term “developer,” but so does the general programming community.
  • Express your desire for candidates who have empathy for colleagues and customers. Having empathy as a core value is important to women and minority candidates.
  • Don’t say “you need to help us,” say “we need your help.” If they’re sharing the workload with a team, don’t make them feel like you're going to dump a burden only on them.
  • Talk about the kinds of collaboration skills and other character traits you want. Many of these are more important than knowing certain technologies, especially in the long term.
  • Use only gender-neutral terms and pronouns.
  • Describe the hiring process in detail. This shows respect for everyone’s time.
  • Your descriptions of positions should be serious, but inviting. If the environment seems overly competitive, you’ll lose a lot of great candidates that prefer a more collaborative environment. Talk about building things together.
  • Show a desire for interpersonal skills in your candidates. These skills are rarely addressed in engineering job postings, and will set you apart.
  • Don’t talk about cultural fit in a way that suggests that the candidate feels that he or she must have a personality like yours. Optimizing for a fit with your existing culture leads to uniformity and irrelevancy. Instead, hire for a potential cultural contribution, where an individual’s unique point of view can shift how you work and what you value in a positive way.
  • Advertise your diversity goals, along with any benefits that are especially valuable to diverse candidates, such as flexible working hours, paid maternity leave, remote working, childcare assistance, accessible facilities, trans-inclusive health care, mental health care, and so on.

This Storify page offers even more detailed insights on the language to use in job postings, as collected from Twitter discussions on the topic.

3. Rethink your interview methods

This is the point where the most bias creeps into the hiring process. A study of Y Combinator founders and their technical interviews with over 300 candidates compared the places where those candidates received offers and rejections. It concluded that founders were more likely to hire people that remind them of themselves, rather than hiring people with the skills the company actually needs. So the first step before you build or rebuild any interview process is to know the types of interviewer bias you have.

After you’ve done your research on that topic, there are several other things you can do to conduct a fair interview process. These practices will help you hire not just more diverse candidates, but better candidates in general.

  • Research the major problems with today’s technical interviews and don’t make the same mistakes that Google and other major companies have been making. For example, algorithm-centric “whiteboard interviews” are bad predictors of real-world development ability.
  • Identify candidates who can add to the team’s overall knowledge, and show the team different ways of thinking about problems.
  • If you’re worried about the candidate’s basic ability to program, try a simple fizz buzz test.
  • Give candidates a take-home, sample work project.
  • Don't ask question after question after question. Have a two-way conversation.
  • Kill the idea of hiring a “rockstar.” Hire someone who can complement your current team and make it stronger, even if they’re “average.” (most people are average, mathematically speaking).
  • Avoid making snap assumptions about long gaps in a candidate's work history. Work gaps shouldn’t matter if they have proof that they can program and can learn technologies quickly.
  • Don’t make published code or open source contribution a requirement. There are plenty of barriers that can stand in the way of candidates publishing their code. Those barriers could include a previous employer’s privacy requirements or bias against open source, and wanting to put their best foot forward.
  • Learn how to improve your technical interviews
  • If there’s not a huge discrepancy in skills or trainability, consider hiring the candidate that improves your company’s overall diversity.

With the current system at play at most established tech companies, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Ev Williams, Jack Dorsey, Travis Kalanick, Shawn Fanning, and Sean Parker would not get past the audition/interview due to not graduating/attending top tier schools.
Leslie Miley, Director of Engineering at Slack

No need to lower your standards

The common reply when people suggest giving heavy hiring preference to women and minorities is that they’re “lowering the bar” or bringing in candidates that will lower the quality of the team’s work for the sake of diversity.

While significantly lowering standards is counter-productive, the differences in skill between candidates with diverse backgrounds and other candidates are often not great, as the studies I mentioned earlier make evident. Rather, by committing to diversity you're actually raising the bar for your company as a whole.

People experience thousands of different subtle advantages and disadvantages throughout their life based on myriad factors. If a new hire can’t do the work, you’ll discover it quickly, and you’ll fall back to another candidate. 

The refrain, “We’re not going to lower the bar” implies that women and minority candidates are not good at engineering by default, and need to be taught how to do their jobs while acting as a weight on your team. That kind of thinking has been poisonous in the software engineering field, and has only reinforced the assumptions and environments that keep women and minorities out of tech jobs. 

Change your perceptions

Executive level support and changes in media portrayal are key, says Deidre Diamond, founder and CEO of Cyber Security Network. Social norms and media personas must change, and organizations must be willing to train and change, she says. "Without these two things being owned by the leaders of tech, those who are in media, and those in education, we will not see change."

In my follow-up article, I’ll provide another helpful list of strategies to keep diverse candidates at your organization. There’s no point if you bring in diverse candidates and can’t keep them, right?

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