Women and diversity in tech

Monday, July 13, 2020 by Louie Bacaj

I would like to caveat this post that these are my thoughts and opinions and my own only, not related to any current or previous employer.

It is no secret that software engineering is now dominated by men, giants like Google and Facebook all have big issues with diversity especially when it comes to gender. It is not just those giants though, if we are honest with ourselves all of us in tech have this issue.

The gender diversity numbers are skewed far further when looking at our industries' engineering departments. I believe we as an industry can do far more to encourage women to come into this field and when we do get them to come to the door we could do even more to retain them long term. This is why I would like to focus this post on the controllable factors such as our hidden most times unconscious biases that may be keeping women out of tech and other practices we can improve upon so the situation gets better.

I rarely write about social issues because I never felt I had a lot of ground to stand on given all of the many advantages I believe I am blessed with. However, I have put a good deal of thought into fairness and into making sure my teams have trust. Trust is one of our core values and principles, in every team I have run.

Lately that pressure to not just do these things quietly but actually start talking about all of it has been mounting on me, as a father with one daughter and another one on the way and given what is happening in our society today it is deeply important that everyone speaks up not just the loudest group. I would also like to add that I firmly believe that being conscious of the below points will lead to a more diverse workforce and that is not limited to gender diversity but apply s to racial diversity as well.

Hidden or Unconscious Biases

We all have hidden unconscious biases that we may not even realize are putting others at a disadvantage. This is human nature the human mind generalizes so it can move fast. It is those generalizations that can get us in trouble, especially if we don’t put some deliberate thought into them. From the very beginning of getting a career going in tech, the interview, all the way up to retaining people for long-term tenure there is a minefield of hidden biases that have to be navigated and we may never even realize they are there unless we put some deliberate thought into them.

I recently finished reading Fran Houser’s book the Myth of the Nice Girl, the book was fantastic and a great read. Although the title wouldn’t suggest it, the book has great tips for men looking to move their careers forward as well as women. The book really shined a light for me to some hidden biases that exist, especially when viewed through the lens of the engineering industry, and how we can start to address them.

1. The whiteboard interview

A good example of where the hidden bias can creep up is the infamous whiteboard interviews, we are putting women at a higher disadvantage compared to men by having all of our interviews conducted via whiteboards. There are many articles on this and the reasons why. While there are plenty of men, myself included in the past, who get overly nervous when asked to write out an algorithm or data structure on a whiteboard and on the fly, the effects of this are far worse for women.

The whiteboard coding process tells us very little about the candidate being able to do the job or not and yet we treat is the primary and at times only way we vet a candidate. I have personally conducted close to a thousand interviews and in the process interviewed many folks that did great on a whiteboard and did terribly after they were hired. On the flip side, I have had just as many people who were mediocre and nervous on the whiteboard and turned out to be incredible individuals, good hires with great work ethics. Ultimately, though, this is still the prevailing way to run engineering interviews because frankly, it is just the easiest way for us to conduct them.

We are all a bit lazy and want to go down the easy path we should be aware of the costs and the potential hidden biases they can introduce to our hiring process. Not to mention the cost we pay in the diversity of thought on our teams.

Give people a choice on whiteboard interviews or take-home tests.

We can be empathetic to people in these situations while still accomplishing our goals of teasing out if folks are qualified for a given role. If someone is given a choice of solving a quick problem in front of you on a whiteboard or potentially solving a tougher problem at home, before the interview, and bringing it in to speak about it in front of the interview panel, suddenly we can make the pressure a lot lighter. This step alone I believe will go a long way toward helping women have a fairer shot at getting into tech.

I’ve done the take-home test in the past with candidates I personally hired who opted into this and can confirm first hand that it more than does the job of helping identify the best people. I can also speak from experience, in my more junior years, having landed these roles far more than the roles that forced me into a white-boarding session. This is because in a white-board session a large portion of the brainpower of certain folks is going to the fact that they are feeling judged rather than the problem at hand. At the end of the day, we are trying to identify the best person for the job, not stress people out in an interview.

2. The Negotiation

The hidden biases don’t stop at the interview because after the interview is over the negotiations begin. There are even more studies on this part of the process that point out the disadvantages women have with negotiations, this is discussed in great detail in Fran’s book. The wage gap between women and men in professional settings is such that women make 80 cents to every dollar a man makes and much of that is due to the negotiation phase of the hiring process.

This unfairness at entry is doing nothing good to help retain people for the long term. I argue that it is a big reason that even after we are able to hire women in tech we cannot retain them long term. Think about it, who would want to stick around in a place after they find out their colleagues that do the same thing as they do are getting paid far more, for no other reason other than that they fought harder when joining. We accept this as the norm but it does not have to be this way.

I can personally say, from experience, that I have had to negotiate vigorously with men coming into roles in the past, ultimately because of our system I’ve had to explain that the levels at our previous company were immutable and set in stone, there is no way for me to give more money. However, that never deterred them from trying. On the flip side, none of the women I’ve hired have even attempted to negotiate. I’ve seen the imbalance this stage of the process can bring first hand at other companies too. I firmly believe that the practice of negotiations at entry helps no one and leads to distrust and to people exiting due to unfairness. People do not live and work in a vacuum, they will find out what their colleagues make, and when they do there will be no way to fix that broken trust.

When deciding on levels have rules of thumb and principles you can fall back on.

Rules and principles you regularly follow can help you keep hiring fair and can build trust with your team long term.

For example, we have had rules on my teams that we will hire anyone who passes the interview out of school at the Engineering 2 level, Engineering 1 being reserved for people without a degree and relevant experience. We will hire anyone with related bachelor's and master's degrees, that passes the interview, at the Engineering 3 level. We will also opt to give someone an Engineering 3 with a bachelor's degree and enough years of experience in lieu of the master's degree. I stole these “rules of thumb” from a former EVP of engineering, and mentor of mine and they have saved me and my managers many times. This helps keep our junior levels fair and consistent.

Folks won’t come into the team and suddenly find out that they got hired at an Engineering 1, which pays less than an Engineering 2 or Engineering 3, simply because they didn’t have a great interview or because they didn’t negotiate well enough, the salaries were fixed at the levels. The fairness, and doing the right thing at the junior levels, leads to longer retention and even more fairness as folks get to more senior levels.

Of course, I recognize that when we get to the more senior levels this gets far harder to do and at that point, it is much more about the proficiency and skill the individual brings to the table then it is about rules and principles on the organizational side. There is absolutely no reason why we can’t have these rules at the more junior to mid levels. Additionally, even at the senior level, it is good to have reference points and “rules of thumb” from previous hires so that the process remains fair.

3. On Promotions

Promotions should also obviously be fair, and most organizations try their best to make them fair, but given that most promotions in tech entail an increase in scope, women tend to volunteer far less than men for increased responsibilities. This is not because they are less qualified on the contrary there are studies on this as well; men only need to know that they can do about 60% of a job before they are confident enough to volunteer or apply to do it. Women need to have done 100% of the requirements and must possess 100% of the skills before they volunteer to take it on. This does not guarantee that men will get the job but they aren’t afraid to put their name in the running for that next role or promotion, this alone has outsized effects longer term.

Fixed financials, as much as possible, on the corporate ladder.

In the early days of jet.com we had fixed levels, financially speaking, and they were totally transparent to the whole company. You knew what everyone made in the company based on the level they were at, Netflix has a similar level of transparency, this prevents crazy things like someone negotiating a fantastic salary upon entry and that being a hidden time bomb within a given team.

It also had the amazing effect of allowing us to focus on doing our jobs the best we could and not worry about the politics of salary. Marc Lore talks about this a little bit on his LinkedIn blog post and additionally the New York Times goes into depth about the culture Marc setup in early Jet and how this contributed to our early success.

I believe these fixed salaries on the levels also helped women joining Jet considerably because they didn’t have to worry about negotiating. Additionally, after some time within the company, everyone knew what was expected at certain levels and it put pressure on management to make sure individuals were not put on levels they clearly didn’t deserve or promoted to levels they hadn’t earned because it would be very obvious very quickly to everyone that the individual does not deserve to be where they are.

There is another really amazing attribute about these fixed levels in a tech world that makes the whole company retain both women and men for a very long time. That attribute is around the fact that as the markets shift, especially in technology where salaries have gone up considerably, the leadership team is forced to do something about the problem collectively rather than on an individual by individual basis.

For the people that are heads down, working hard, and not paying attention to the markets but some of their colleagues are out interviewing, they will inevitably secure offers and counter-offers which will move their salaries far above what one would expect at the current market rate or higher. Fran Houser discusses this in her book extensively. This is another huge cause for inequity in the workplace between men and women and another big contributor to the wage gap that is rarely talked about.

In a world where bands are fixed financially, leadership cannot ignore this problem, if salary bands fall too far behind the market they are forced to act or risk losing large swaths of engineers and even worse risk not being competitive at hiring. It holds everyone accountable and leads to a much better culture.

I give huge credit to the Jet technology leadership team, along with Marc, because they decided to do exactly this twice, where we found we were no longer competitive on the engineering side and instead of raising salaries for new hires or just for folks that were thinking of leaving we raised them for everyone in the levels that were not competitive. This may sound counterintuitive, or like it hurts the firm because it forces the company to be fair and pay everyone more but this is incredibly fair and ultimately leads to amazing retention of both men and women. As you would imagine this has a big impact on Women who suddenly don’t have to worry about falling behind because they were heads down doing a great job while their male colleagues were out interviewing.

On Transparency

The final point I will make, that I have personally seen make an incredible impact on eliminating any subconscious, unconscious, or hidden biases, is having transparency in the workplace. It is important to note that transparency is not the same as having honesty, one could be honest mention just the good things and sweep the bad things under the rug. Transparency means you lay it all out there, good and bad. This is absolutely empowering.

Transparency, especially when applied to the pay and the company financials, which again as an example in practice is documented by the New York Times, about Jet led to women having the same fair shot that men have. I believe it led to a place where women rose up the ranks at the same rate as men and were encouraged to take on more when everything is laid out there and fair and no one group or party has asymmetric information.

In conclusion

This is a big problem for our industry, I would be lying if I said I had all the answers. I don't. The more we talk through this the more likely, I believe, we are to come to reasonable answers so that our industry can be more inclusive.

As an engineering manager, I wrestle with the problem of finding the best folks for my teams all of the time, especially in this competitive market. In my experience, the best people are always men and women and never limited to one group as these skewed industry numbers imply. If we do not check ourselves on these hidden, unconscious, biases we will not find the best people, we will, in fact, put our teams and organizations at huge disadvantages. We will also put society at a disadvantage.

With technology impacting every part of society, now more than ever, the thoughtfulness and diversity have never been more important to have than it is today. As we build technology that changes the world we have to build it with men and women or we risk missing edge cases that will have profound negative impacts on our future.

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