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How to overcome tech’s diversity barriers

How to overcome tech’s diversity barriers

Diversity remains a problem in IT. But If you’re a person of color and/or female, the situation is far from hopeless, particularly if you arm yourself with the latest information and advice from your peers.

Credit: Michael Rivera

The year is 2017 and diversity is still a problem in tech. Despite educational programs like Girls Who Code and Black Girls Code, not to mention the growing prominence of women-led conferences such as Grace Hopper, tech remains overwhelmingly the province of young Caucasian males.

Women currently make up just 17 percent of the total tech workforce. Hispanics and African Americans make up 6 percent and 3 percent of employees in the top 75 Silicon Valley tech companies, respectively, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Very likely you’ve heard depressing stats like these before. But If you’re a person of color and/or female, the situation is far from hopeless, particularly if arm yourself with the latest information and advice.

Let’s start with the good news. After years of largely symbolic initiatives, the industry finally appears to be making more concerted efforts to attract female and underrepresented candidates. In particular, Google's 2014 decision to voluntarily release diversity reports signaled an awareness that lack of diversity hampers growth. Part of this is simply a practical desire to meet tech’s perennial talent shortage by broadening the applicant pool. But on a more basic level, a significant number of tech companies seem to be embracing the idea that diverse teams create better products, solve problems more creatively, and enjoy better performance than homogenized ones.

How should women and other underrepresented candidates respond to this new accessibility? With numerous programs and initiatives dedicated to increase diversity in tech, it’s tempting to say these candidates have an edge, and it’s just a matter of applying and picking from the buffet of opportunities. Yet based on the experiences of dozens of people interviewed for this story and drawing upon my past experiences as a South Asian woman (a double minority!) in IT, things aren’t that simple.

While conditions have improved since the years I spent in the IT trenches, I still hear stories of casual misogyny and racism, along with reports of the obstacles non-traditional candidates face when trying to land that coveted promotion or interview. One thing is certain: Regardless of the current hiring climate, the responsibility to pry the door open always falls on the candidate. Here are some tips for those who seek to turn their non-white, non-male experience into an asset as they seek jobs or career advancement.

Don’t sell yourself short

Tech is a come-one, come-all industry. Plenty of people find good jobs without a computer science degree — or without spending an adolescence coding award-winning apps.

Nonetheless, it can be intimidating to craft a resume when you know you may be competing with Ivy League graduates carrying computer science degrees. Perhaps a four-year college wasn’t an option — or being one of the three women in a CS class of 150 men was just too much harassment to deal with. Or maybe you’re switching careers and your academic and professional background is in a completely different field.

Don’t focus on what you don’t have. Instead, translate the experiences you do have into tangible, business-specific skills, says Aubrey Blanche, global head of diversity and inclusion at Atlassian. If you grew up in a bilingual household, highlight your language skills because you have experience in cross-cultural communications. If you spent your formative years helping to raise your siblings, that’s a business skill, too — you are able to balance the needs of multiple stakeholders and collaborate under strict budget and time constraints.

“Putting on the resume only the things they got paid to do,” Blanche says, “is the single biggest mistake non-traditional candidates make.”

This sounds like a minor change, but instead of using the subheading “Professional Skills” on a resume, it would be better to use “Relevant Skills,” because it provides the flexibility to highlight experiences gained from volunteer work or jobs you held to pay your way through school. Everyone should maintain an accurate work history on LinkedIn, but use your resume to highlight skills. It lets recruiters digest a lot more information in a better way.

“Be accurate on what you’ve done — but demonstrate how your diversity of thought and skills sets you apart from other candidates,” says Shamla Naidoo, IBM’s global chief information security officer. “Demonstrate a curiosity to learn and build on the skills you already have, while developing new skills as well.”

Put yourself out there

There is a tendency — especially among women — to look at job postings or hear about new openings on teams or senior roles, and not even consider applying due to an intimidating list of requirements. Don’t do that. If you don’t try, you’ll never know how it might have worked out.

Shamla Naidoo, global chief information security officer, IBM IBM

Shamla Naidoo, global chief information security officer, IBM

“Perhaps you don't meet all the requirements. Try anyway!” Blanche says. “If you don't get a call, how are you worse off than you were before you applied?”

There’s an art to writing job descriptions and most people are really, really bad at it. That job posting is usually a wish list and not intended to describe a real person. And if the company’s recruiters stick to that wish list religiously, then that company probably ranks among those that moan about how hard it is to find qualified candidates. Look elsewhere and consider that a bullet dodged.

“Sometimes it looks like organizations are looking for a unicorn — or in some cases, a three-legged unicorn,” Naidoo says.

Treat job descriptions as a guide and emphasize the elements in your background that match the list of requirements and desired skills — and don’t worry about the rest.

Self-confidence goes a long way

Research has shown that people aren’t very good at recognizing the difference between competence and confidence. A popular t-shirt reads: “Lord, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man.”

Interviewing for jobs or telling a manager you’re interested in a senior position on a different team is hard enough without the self-doubts holding you back. The fake-it-till-you-make-it mentality is real, so practice sounding confident about your skills and qualifications (including skills derived from life experiences that you can position as business skills).

Aubrey Blanche, global head of diversity and inclusion, Atlassian Atlassian

Aubrey Blanche, global head of diversity and inclusion, Atlassian

“There is a lot to be said for thinking you are awesome, but you also need to actually act that way,” Blanche says.

Focus on a concrete list of accomplishments and know that list well. Update the list frequently, so when you’re asked what you’ve accomplished lately, you can rattle off a relevant response. Imagine that you are in the elevator with a senior manager who asks what you do. Be able to provide an answer during that elevator ride. Assess your qualifications and performance against the formal job description for the role you currently hold. Someone at the beginning of his or her career can look at what the company expects of an entry-level hire. Ask trusted colleagues to help you identify your accomplishments if you’re struggling.

“Are you doing the job? What does the audience see?” says Shimrit Tzur-David, CTO of Israeli cybersecurity startup Secret Double Octopus.

Be upfront and accurate

There’s a balance between competence and confidence — the last thing you want to do is veer into dishonesty. No one wants to admit not knowing something, especially in an interview situation, but sometimes that’s exactly what needs to be said.

"Don't lie," says Jeannie Warner, a security manager at WhiteHat Security. She laughs when she gives this piece of advice, but she is also in earnest. It’s easy to fall into the trap of embellishing a little too much in order to sound impressive.

Shimrit Tzur-David, CTO, Secret Double Octopus Secret Double Octopus

Shimrit Tzur-David, CTO, Secret Double Octopus

If you are asked about a technology you don’t know, say, “No, I don’t, but…” and bring up a relevant skill. “No, but,” is a very important phrase to have, since it lets you draw connections to life experiences the interviewer might not otherwise consider. Warner started with Dell tech support, moved onto the Unix help desk, and joined the network operations team. Each time, when she was asked if she knew the relevant technology, she said no, but emphasized that she could learn.

Companies know they can teach technology skills. Smart interviewers focus on such attributes as the ability to communicate, a willingness to work hard, and flexibility. Earlier in her career, Warner got a job at an IBM security operations center because the interviewer sensed she was being upfront about what she knew and didn’t know, indicating she could be trusted on a team and could communicate clearly.

Focus on ‘fit,’ not ‘best’

Atlassian focuses on building teams in which people work together optimally, versus teams featuring a rock star and a supporting cast. Hiring managers think about the right person for a team rather than the “best,” most skilled person, Blanche says. For example, a team may seek someone who thinks visually to balance out an abundance of linear thinkers.

Jeannie Warner, security manager, WhiteHat Security WhiteHat Security

Jeannie Warner, security manager, WhiteHat Security

Candidates should also think about the “fit” — that is, joining the “right team” instead of the “best team.” Consider Warner’s example: A team where everyone is technically top-notch, but no one really works together or trusts each other, will be unlikely to succeed. A variety of skill sets and experience levels often works better.

Research shows that individuals on diverse teams tend to have better ideas, better products, and happier customers, Blanche says. As a candidate, focus on what makes you different from the other team members and emphasize why those characteristics are assets.

Curiosity, the ability to work on teams, the confidence to ask questions, and the willingness to research and find alternate solutions are all skills that can’t be easily taught, but are critical in tech teams.

Past experiences — academic, professional, and even social — have given you some idea of which environments you do well in and which you find toxic. Keep that in mind as you evaluate how you believe you’ll fit in. You want to find an environment where you’ll thrive and get the support you need to achieve your goals, says Jamesha Fisher, a security operations engineer at GitHub.

Even those who suffer from imposter syndrome may find that a harmonious group can help them work through it. “Even when I do still have those doubts, that I am not good enough, my company is there to be like, ‘No, you are!’” Fisher says.

Investigate the company

Part of looking for the right fit means investigating whether the company is right for you. With all the pressure to impress potential employers, it can be hard to keep that simple notion in mind. The company has to impress you, too, and if you see red flags, don’t ignore them. Dig deeper.

Find out if the company is actually investing in diversity or if it’s just lip-service. Check for an equal opportunity statement on the job application or the careers page on the corporate website. A company that doesn’t have one isn’t even trying to pretend it cares about diversity.

If the company has released a diversity report in the last few years, that’s a good sign of accountability. Don’t jump to the conclusion that a lack of change means the company is faking its commitment. Changing a hiring culture doesn’t happen overnight.

Take Google as an example. According to its 2016 numbers, the company is 71 percent male and 57 percent white — and the majority of tech roles and leadership positions are held by men. Asian Googlers comprise one-third of the workforce; 5.2 percent identify themselves as Latino and 2.4 percent as black. But that represents a significant upswing from 2012, when Latinos made up only 3 percent and Blacks were just over 1 percent. Google still has work to do, but the company’s public statements show that it’s aggressively pushing to improve the diversity of its workforce.

Thomson Reuters introduced a new Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) Index last year, which ranks the top 100 publicly traded companies globally. The D&I index measures companies against 24 metrics across four key categories: diversity, inclusion, people development, and news controversies. Cisco and Microsoft make the top 25 list.

Even the pictures on the company website and other marketing collateral can reflect company culture. If a diverse workforce appears only the careers page, that could be a bad sign.

Look for descriptions of what the company offers employees. If it’s all about beer and pizza, that indicates a certain kind of culture, but also a certain age segment and mindset. Companies don’t always think about the messages their perks send, but a company talking about comprehensive benefits, flex time, and backup child care sends a broader message that the company is aware of different life stages and ages. A company interested in attracting candidates with different experiences will show that it has resources to support them as employees.

Another good indicator that the company is committed to diversity is the type of organization it partners with as part of its recruitment efforts. For example, Atlassian created a high-touch scholarship program specifically for black, Latina, and Indigenous women with the professional development group Galvanize. Companies that work with these organizations are reaching out beyond their own circles to expand its recruitment pool — another positive sign.

“Companies will rarely get everything correct all the time,” Blanche says. Diversity is a mindset and culture, not a one-time checklist. “Look for a pattern of intention and behavior.”

Ask the right questions

In the quest for fit, remember that the organization has to impress you, too. So ask the hard questions.

“Don’t ask whether the organization cares about diversity,” Blanche says. “It’s easy to say yes.” Instead, ask about how people work on a day-to-day basis, how work is assigned, and what the decision-making structure looks like. Ask about team bonding experiences. Are they just keggers or are they a mix of activities to accommodate different interests and schedules?

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