Diversity is Good Business. Here is Why

By David Mytton,
CEO & Founder of Server Density.

Published on the 23rd June, 2016.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. The tech industry has a serious and chronic diversity problem. The very industry that’s supposed to spearhead new ideas, innovation and progress, is woefully behind the times where it matters most. The heterogeneity of its people.

Tech workers are predominantly male and white, while non-white workers earn significantly less than their white counterparts. To make matters worse, an overwhelming majority of tech firms do not have gender diverse senior management at the helm. And while there has been some welcome transparency in the last few years (annual diversity reports and so on) it was not followed by any meaningful change in momentum. Minorities continue to be underrepresented and women continue to leave the tech industry in greater rates than their male peers.

What this indicates is that we cannot deal with diversity in the same way we tackle most problems in tech. In other words . . .

This is not a metrics problem

We can’t approach diversity as a hiring quota challenge, hard as that challenge may be. The diversity issue goes deeper than that. It’s a culture problem that starts from schooling and education before it expresses itself everywhere else, including boardrooms, office corridors and water cooler corners.

Within companies, diversity starts at the top.

Leadership is where culture is born and shaped. As a corollary, any investments in hiring can easily go to waste if the company is not driven by culturally diverse values. What good is hiring more people if the workplace cannot integrate and retain their talents?

And while we’re at it: what’s so good about diversity? Why do we want it? Is it because of an upcoming equal opportunity report? Are we paying lip service to diversity because that’s what everyone else is doing?

Behind most of those questions lies an inherent aversion to diversity. As if tech companies have to mitigate diversity, tacitly dismissing it as another cost of doing business. This is not only short-sighted (diversity takes time and effort) but it is also counterproductive since diversity is associated with creativity, innovation, and real economic benefits.

Diversity is Good Business

Ideas generated by people from different backgrounds are informed by different experiences, worldviews, and values. It’s great when ideas get the chance to cross-pollinate like this. As James Altucher says, you combine two ideas to come up with a better idea. A more diverse workplace is therefore a more fertile place for ideas.

Idea evolution works much faster than human evolution.

James Altucher

Now, here is the thing: ideas in diverse environments do not come easy. Why? Because diverse ideas tend to be different. Different (opposing) ideas have to be debated. They have to be weighed, discussed and decided upon. This lack of initial consensus, this creative friction does not come free. The rigour and discipline involved in negotiating and distilling insights and action plans from a broad and varied pool of ideas comes with an upfront cost. But it bears fruits down the line. The result of this requisite complexity translates in a more thought-out and “creatively hardened” product that has more chances of surviving against other ideas in the marketplace.

In short, if you want to create new and better products—products that appeal to a broader audience—you should focus on creating a diverse company culture, starting from the top.

Our diversity journey

We live in an increasingly pluralistic society. The majority of our customers are outside the UK; they come from many different backgrounds. By having a more diverse team, we have a better chance of building something that appeals to our diverse customers.

Server Density launched in 2009, and for much of our first few years it was just a few of us building stuff. Diversity did not become a priority until our team was several engineers strong. Most of them work remotely from various parts of Europe and the UK. Having multilingual folks from different geographies and cultures working in the same team is an incredible creative catalyst for everyone. Our product couldn’t be what it is today if we didn’t have all those different perspectives.

In line with the overall industry, however, the percentage of female engineers in our team is lower than we would like. We took some time to study this challenge and observe what other companies have done. We wanted to address this now, while our company and culture were in their formative years, realising that any change would be exponentially harder to make a few years down the line.

So here is what we did.

Avoid gender-coded job ads

It turns out that power words (driven, logic, outspoken) are more masculine and attract male candidates, while warmer ones (together, interpersonal, yield) encourage more women to apply. We now use online analysis tools to scan all our job ads and suggest changes before we publish them.

Another problem, as illustrated by a Harvard Business Review article, is that women tend to avoid applying for roles they are not 100% qualified for, contrary to men who go ahead and apply anyway. To cater for that behaviour we try and remove as much self selection criteria as possible. We want to be the ones deciding if the candidate is qualified enough, not them. Even if it means more work and delays in filling up open positions.

Avoid unconscious bias

As part of the hiring process, we ask all our candidates to take a writing test followed by a coding exercise. When we review those, the name of the candidate is now hidden, in order to avoid unconscious bias in assessing those tests.

Encourage a diverse culture

The next, and harder, step involves fostering a culture that encourages diverse ideas. We thought long and hard about this. How do you make sure everyone gets a chance to steer the direction of our company and have a voice when it comes to what features we invest in?

While we are still navigating those questions, we’ve already started making targeted adjustments in how we collaborate. We started running planning games, for example. Planning games is a regular forum where we plan our engineering efforts. Everyone has an equal voice in this meeting and we review and vote all ideas based on merit. We stand up and defend whatever it is we think. We support and encourage folks to participate.

We also reviewed our employee handbook including all company policies. We made significant changes to ensure they are as inclusive as they can be. Many of our policies (equal opportunities, hiring/selection, complaints procedure, code of conduct and maternity/paternity leave) used to be informal. What we found was that by just having them written down and being able to point to them during our recruitment efforts has a tangible impact. It shows you’ve at least thought about it.

So we codified our policies in a systematic manner, using pull requests so the proposed format could be discussed by everyone. As an example, if someone feels unable to escalate an issue to their manager, we now have alternative routes in place, including members of the board if needed, and in full confidence.

Going forward

As with most worthwhile things, the hardest step is the first one. Going from zero to one employees in underrepresented demographics is invariably undermined by the assumption that if you don’t have diversity it’s like this for a reason.

In response to that, we rely on referrals quite heavily as a way to proactively reach out for competent candidates in diverse backgrounds. Obviously that is a short-term measure, and ideally we should gain traction with all demographics sooner rather than later. Having a diverse culture allows you to tap into a broader talent pool, internally and externally. As CTO of Busuu, Rob Elkin, put it, “We just want to make sure that the process for showing that someone should be part of the team is as open and fair as possible.”

We have also started to sponsor and participate in various industry events that encourage diversity (e.g. COED Code). On top of that, we are looking to broaden where we place our engineering job ads. So far we’ve been publishing them on stackoverflow but we want to reach further and wider.

In closing

The Canadian cabinet consists of 30 ethnically and religiously diverse ministers, evenly split between women and men who are mostly aged under 50. While we don’t plan to relocate to Canada just yet, it certainly serves as a great example of leadership that is inclusive and representative of as many people as possible.

At Server Density we don’t tackle diversity with a single-minded metrics driven approach. This is not a numbers problem as much as it is a culture problem. It’s not so much about putting a tick in a box as it is about i) understanding the challenge ii) internalising the benefits of diversity and iii) making strategic and nuanced changes in the way we lead our people.

A truly diverse culture is not a compromise. It couldn’t be. It’s a long-term investment into the fundamentals of our team and our future prospects as a company.

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