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How to retain diverse software engineering teams

You've already established your strategy for finding and hiring more diverse software engineering teams. You understand why diversity makes your teams better and how it helps your bottom line. And after implementing some of those strategies, your company may be well on its way to hiring more women and minority candidates.

But that’s just half the battle. How are you going to keep them? If your work environment isn’t inviting and satisfying, you’ll have trouble retaining the diverse team you so carefully built.

The tech industry can be especially challenging for women. Recent research shows that women are more than twice as likely to leave the industry as men. Minorities and engineers over 40 have it rough, too. You can’t just have a diversity improvement plan for recruiters and hiring managers, and expect that to fix a lack of diversity. You need your hires to want to stay.

Here are some of the things successful teams have done to maintain diversity in their organizations. Fortunately, these strategies overlap significantly with overall employee retention techniques.

Continuous testing: A practical guide

Be great at onboarding

This is your company’s first chance to show that you know what you’re doing, and that you don’t just run things without concrete processes. This is crucial for women and minorities because it shows that you provide equal opportunities for all new hires to become successful.

Kate Heddleston, software engineer and founder of Opsolutely, has done a lot of research and speaking about technical onboarding. She says that women and minorities sometimes get left behind, while other employees are promoted, due to the lack of a formal onboarding process. She explains how this happens:

“New employees have to rely on existing social structures to learn about their job, their role, their teammates, and the company—as if by osmosis. If, as a new hire, you have a lot in common with the existing team, from preferred communication methods to hobbies and interests, this will be easier. … A lack of onboarding is bad for pretty much all new employees, but it’s worse for people who are different from the existing group. Without explicit onboarding, new employees have to disproportionately rely on existing social structures to learn about their job.”

Good onboarding practices are important for another reason as well, Heddleston says: team debt. Think of team debt in the same way you would technical debt. Team debt builds up when employees aren’t fully trained, informed, or updated when they need to be. It builds up over time, and if you don’t regularly pay it off, your work can grind to a crawl.

Developers pay off technical debt by going back through the codebase and refactoring small chunks of code so that it's more efficient. In the same vein, you pay off team debt with a comprehensive onboarding process and occasional check-ins to see if everyone has the support and knowledge they need to operate at maximum efficiency.

While onboarding varies significantly across organizations, Heddleston says there are three areas that every organization must cover: 

  • How the company operates: New hires need to understand the company’s organizational structures, and where they should direct specific questions and communications. They’ll also need to learn any internal enterprise tools and security practices.
  • Tools and coding processes: If there are any development tools, languages, or frameworks that the new hire must learn before they start working on the company’s applications, they’ll need mentoring or resources to teach themselves how to use those. (Have your preferred tutorial and documentation links on hand for technologies in your stack.) They’ll also need to know the processes and preferences the team uses when building, committing, and deploying code. Finally, help them understand the architecture of the applications on which they’ll be working.
  • What operating independently looks like: New hires need to know what their first day, week, month, 60- and 90-day goals are, along with the steps along the path to achieving those goals. It’s even better if you have those goals laid out in the job description. In general, they need to understand how other successful engineers at your company research problems, debug issues, and make good decisions.

The sooner you can get a new hire working with a certain level of autonomy—requiring no additional help from coworkers or managers other than the average amount of collaboration—the happier and more accomplished they’ll feel.

Sometimes there's resistance to comprehensive onboarding, due to the strain it puts on other developers. There is a simple solution for this problem, Heddleston says: have the most recently trained junior developers train the next hire. Research shows that recent trainees might be better at teaching the next hire than would be a more experienced developer.

“If you can’t hire any junior engineer, if you cannot hire any beginners into your organization, you have serious problems”
—Kate Heddleston

Provide sponsorship, not just mentorship

Mentorship and apprenticeship of junior developers are both common practices in software companies. The purpose is to teach the new hire the technical and procedural skills they'll need to be successful. Mentorship can continue past the onboarding phase, with continuing feedback and career advice. But mentorship is also an area in the workplace where inequalities can emerge.

A 2008-2010 study of 4,000 male and female MBA graduates found that, with mentorship in place, men still received 15% more promotions than women.

The mentors in this study tended to help women with introspection, and gave suggestions on how to change in order to move up the leadership pipeline. Men, by contrast, were given advice on planning for promotions, and received public endorsements from their mentors.

What the men in this study received was not just mentorship, but sponsorship. A sponsor not only gives advice, but uses his or her position and influence to advocate for the person they’re sponsoring. The Athena Factor 2.0 study reveals how powerful the effect of sponsorship is for women in tech. With a sponsor, women are:

  • 70 % more likely to have their ideas endorsed.
  • 119 % more likely to see them developed.
  • 200 % more likely to see them implemented.
  • 37% more likely to ask for a raise.
  • 22% more likely to be satisfied with their rate of promotion.

Having your ideas heard and endorsed can be harder when you’re a woman, as these findings by Harvard, Wharton, and MIT show:

“Investors prefer pitches presented by male entrepreneurs compared with pitches made by female entrepreneurs, even when the content of the pitch is the same.”

Women and minority hires need the support of sponsors to combat inherent biases within tech organizations. Intel’s leadership development program shows that sponsorship techniques benefit minorities as well as women. Rachel Thomas, a featured writer in Tech Diversity Files, recommends that a sponsor’s duties to their mentee include:

  • Advocating for their good ideas and repeating unacknowledged ones in meetings, giving credit to the mentee.
  • Recommending them for high-impact projects.
  • Making sure they get fair and actionable performance reviews.
  • Preparing them for promotions or leadership positions.
  • Nominating them for promotions and raises.

Develop a promotion schema

When there are no formal processes and criteria for deciding who gets promoted, you open yourself up to the same biases seen in hiring. In both hiring and promotion, people are more likely to refer others who share the same race, gender, or background.

Getting promotion criteria right is a big deal. For women in particular, a concern for the lack of advancement opportunity is the most common reason they leave positions. Dan Pink, the author of “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” boils people’s sources of job satisfaction down to three things: purpose, mastery, and autonomy. Advancement falls under the category of mastery.

When unintentional biases prevent women and minorities from getting fair, comprehensive onboarding (which gives them the ability to have autonomy) or from being nominated for advancement (which gives them a feeling of mastery), job satisfaction suffers, and so do retention rates.

A common path to promotion in many organizations is through performance reviews, but these are often rife with bias. African-American employees are three times more likely to cite unfairness as a reason for quitting, so making performance reviews more fair should be a top priority when building your promotion schema.

Sometimes the problems stem from poor feedback. Women, for example, tend to receive vague feedback, rather than the more concrete evaluations that men tend to receive, according to a Stanford study, and research by Kieran Snyder, CEO of Textio. In other cases, there isn’t enough diversity among performance reviewers.

The solution to all of these problems is to make performance reviews as transparent as possible. Employees should know the standard against which they're being measured, and they should know that the feedback they’re getting is as concrete as that given to all other employees. To that end, the review panel should compare notes and feedback at the end of the process to see if they treated everyone fairly.

It’s bad to have just one person conduct a performance review. Reviews should include a panel of people who know the employee's work, and can check and balance each other. This is often called a 360-degree review, and it can also make the process more fair, especially if women and minority engineers have women or minorities on the panel. Many companies, however, have decided that performance reviews are too problematic.

Here are a few other things you can do to help women and minority candidates make progress toward receiving recognition and promotions:

  • Provide clear promotion paths and criteria that help employees make measurable progress toward their goals.
  • Assign high-impact, challenging projects
  • Show appreciation for their contributions

You can also try a strategy that Intuit used to eliminate a large promotion readiness gap between men and women: create a talent pipeline for senior roles that provides sponsorship (and the associated strategies I listed in that section), as well as more interaction with the leadership team in meetings and informal settings.

Give managers proper training

Untrained or undertrained managers can be a significant barrier to a fair and harmonious workplace for women and minorities. Deidre Diamond, founder and CEO of CyberSN, points to research from LinkedIn which says that management issues aren't just a diversity retention issue, they're a universal retention issue. "44% of women and 39% of men left jobs because they were unsatisfied with management," report states.

Rachel Thomas points out why untrained managers are more common in tech: "In the tech industry, many managers receive little or no training, and people are frequently promoted to manager because of their technical skills, not their people or leadership skills. Don’t underestimate the damage that an unskilled manager can cause."

Thomas references a study of 21 tech companies to make the point that technical women have the least satisfaction with management out of any group in the study. "Technical women were less likely to agree that management decisions were fair, that management trusted their judgment, that performance evaluations were fair, or that it was safe to speak up, compared to every other subgroup," says Thomas, citing the study.

Some basic training and learning materials around communication, psychology, bias, and diversity can keep your organization on its path to retaining a diverse workforce. Bias training won’t fix the problem, but it will put managers in a position to start addressing it. These videos from Facebook’s bias training program are a good place to start.

To continually educate your leadership teams about diversity strategies, have them read some of these email newsletters:

Pay fairly

Equal pay for equal work. It sounds easy, but since salaries are so flexible and open to negotiation at most companies, they are another area that’s ripe for abuse and unfairness. You probably don’t need research to convince yourself that employees are more likely to leave if they feel that they’re being paid unfairly. What organizations do need to know is that there is clear evidence of a female and minority wage gap in tech.

Employers will sometimes discourage employees from discussing their wages to prevent disputes and perceptions of unfairness (or to prevent employees from realizing that they’re underpaying some people). This effort is bolstered by the social discomfort surrounding salary conversations in many cultures, which is driven by fears that these discussions might invoke jealousy.

However, this strategy usually ends up creating more suspicions of unfairness. Instead, you should consider having salaries be completely transparent and justified with an objective system. Buffer has put a lot of effort into making an open salary system that works for them. A good first action might be to examine Buffer’s strategy and see how it might work in your own organization.

An open salary system is a great way to push your organization toward fairer salaries, but if you’re not ready for that step yet, gathering and reviewing data on salaries and everything related to them is the one thing that you absolutely need to do. It’s not just salary inequalities that you need to look for, says Thomas, but promotion inequalities.

If women and minorities aren’t being promoted at the same speed as everyone else (this should occur most of the time if there are ample sponsorship and promotion processes in your organization), then there still may be wage inequality under the guise of different positions, even though the experience levels of the employees are the same. If there are disproportionate positive performance reviews, promotion rates, or salaries between two or more groups of employees, figure out why that is.

Additional advice

Finally, here are a few more bits of advice that will help you to retain women and minority engineers:

Diversity needs to be an executive-level initiative

This one is pretty obvious. If you don’t have the leadership of a company setting public diversity goals and implementing diversity hiring and retention strategies, there’s no requirement for anyone to implement any of these strategies and make sure that managers follow through with them. Treat diversity like any other top-priority business goal.

Stop hiding behind meritocracy

Many diversity advocates say that the meritocratic reputation of the software industry is undeserved when you look at diversity numbers. Organizations that highlight their meritocratic practices are actually more likely to be biased against women and minorities when it comes to hiring, promotions, and bonuses.

Don’t hide behind diversity branding either

Like meritocracy branding, paying lip-service to diversity or funding women in tech groups and panels can also make a company feel immune to bias. It’s important that you have a code of conduct, a harassment policy, accessibility plan, and a diversity statement, but those things don’t mean that you’re no longer capable of unfair treatment. Focus on actions and results, not just talk.

Foster an empathetic work environment

No one likes to be subjected to offensive jokes or unfair stereotypes based on race, gender, or anything else. If one employee is offended by the actions of another, the response should be to foster a better understanding between them and create empathy, instead of suggesting that someone is “wrong” to feel offended.

Focus on creating a collaborative workplace, not a competitive one

Many industries have a problem with creating harmfully competitive workplaces. The stress created by heavy competition between software companies should not cause heavy competition in the workplace, and neither should salaries or promotions. A simple strategy is to only celebrate and reward team successes.

Don’t force homogeneity

In some situations, women and minorities feel like they have to blend in with the masculine, white culture that commonly exists in many software engineering groups. While you should definitely foster informal gatherings among employees to help team members develop good relationships, you should only sponsor gatherings that all employees enjoy, not just the majority. Otherwise, women and minorities in software engineering groups will feel pressure to become more like the majority and sacrifice their individual tastes.

Seek out diverse leadership and “more than one”

Diverse leadership will help assure women and minorities that they are being judged fairly by leaders who also understand their challenges. It also shows diverse employees that they have the potential to climb high within the organization.

Every manager should attempt to have more than one minority or woman on software engineering teams. Etsy found that when there was only one female engineer, teams were less successful than were teams with two or more women (or none at all).

Do you know any other strategies for retaining diversity in software engineering teams? Share them below.

Continuous testing: A practical guide
Topics: App DevDevOps