These words from Kara Swisher have resonated with me for a while now: ‘Tech has thought itself a meritocracy, but it has too often actually been a mirrortocracy instead.’
Mirrortocracy describes the pattern matching that is prevalent in the Silicon Valley-centered tech industry. That pattern is almost always White, male, and privileged. It’s no secret that the venture capital community has leaned on pattern matching to drive their investments which is why so few founders of color get funded at the same levels as their White counterparts.
The system is broken. It’s not surprising that many feel discouraged and are either leaving the industry or not bothering to join. That’s why, as engineering leaders, we should be focused on hiring qualified underrepresented people every chance we get.
If you’re a manager or tech lead involved in your company’s recruitment process, there are a few things you can do to foster inclusion, bring more folks in from underrepresented groups, and help to make tech the meritocracy it should be:
- Build your pipeline by networking with underrepresented groups
Too often, leaders misinterpret the pipeline problem (that there aren’t enough underrepresented folks at the top of the hiring funnel). They assume these people are aware of the positions that are posted and simply aren’t applying. This reflects the damaging ‘post it and they will come' mentality that many organizations have. But the pipeline problem is actually a networking problem, reflecting a lack of connectivity between the overrepresented and the underrepresented. Translated into recruiting terms, this means we need to fix how we source candidates and extend our reach into more networks of underrepresented people.
Start by following people from underrepresented people on social networks like Twitter. Follow, don’t stalk! At first, just read the conversations and focus on understanding. Jumping into conversations before you’ve demonstrated understanding of the issues is guaranteed to generate negative feedback. Over time, start asking respectful questions and building trust with people. If you are genuine, people will engage. As you build relationships you can explore other avenues to provide more direct support through organizations like Dev/Color or Black Girls Code.
- Build observability into the recruitment process
Sourcing is an important issue to focus on but it’s only the first step. To be effective, we must build observability into each stage of our pipelines. There should be a regular cadence for inspecting the pipeline and identifying where things are becoming lossy. For example, is there a drop-off in applicants after they’ve been given a take-home exercise? Experience shows that there can be multiple reasons for this. Most tech companies view the take-home exercise as an important, early indicator of a candidate’s fitness for the job. However, if that candidate has a full-time job and is interviewing with multiple companies they’ll have limited bandwidth to complete multiple challenging technical exercises. And if you haven’t adequately sold candidates on your company and culture, they may not decide to invest their time.
One solution is to move the technical exercise to the end of your process and focus the early stages on getting to know your candidates and ensuring both sides are aligned on values and goals. Once you’re both invested in working together, the chances are much higher they’ll want to complete your technical exercise and do well on it.
- Vet your interview panel
Another often-overlooked component of the process is how you assemble your interview panel. Specifically, vetting both the conscious and unconscious bias that each member of the panel may possess. While many companies have invested in unconscious bias training, they often neglect to check for conscious bias as well. Bias in either form will affect your efforts so it’s imperative to minimize it where you can.
One predominant form of bias in tech is the concept of ‘the bar’, which is often used in the context of companies not wanting to ‘lower the bar’ for candidates from underrepresented backgrounds. But unless someone can define what the bar is and demonstrate that it has been applied consistently for every other candidate (they probably can’t), this phrase is redundant and loaded with bias. In the short term, keep an eye out for phrases like this and select interviewers based on their ability to be sensitive and inclusive. In the longer term, make sure that your organization has committed to inclusivity as a core value; educate all your teams about why these phrases are damaging; and take corrective action against folks who continue to violate the company value.
- Check your company culture
Recruiting is a two-way street. As much as you’re trying to determine if the candidate is the right fit for you, they’re trying to do the same.
One way they do this is by examining what you claim are the benefits of your company’s culture. Is your ‘work hard, play hard’ culture the strong selling point you think it is? Or is it a signal that people are regularly overworked and not expected to push back on it? How are regular happy hours perceived by people who don’t drink or have children and family commitments? What message is your foosball table sending? Will folks feel compelled to participate in activities that don’t appeal to them or take away from their personal lives in order to be perceived as a team player?
The cultural aspects you promote have a direct impact on whether or not people will feel included at your company. Activities that seem optional but feel mandatory can actively work against your goals of inclusion. (For more practical advice on creating an inclusive culture, check out this post.)
If you’re an engineering leader, I urge you to foster inclusion in everything that you do, starting with your hiring process. It’s not always easy but it’s the most impactful and important work we can do. Inclusive teams are incredibly productive teams. When people feel accepted and don’t feel singled out as ‘the other’ or ‘the only’ they can put positive energy into collaborating and producing great work. Producing great work and getting positive feedback, in turn, helps people to remain engaged and motivated. This is the definition of a win-win situation.