Monday, May 20, 2013

Diversity hiding in plain view, or my thoughts from a SXSW 2013 panel

Conversations about diversity in technology are as interesting for who they include as who they leave out. Their goal should be to challenge the stereotype of a programmer as a young white male, unencumbered with anything that would keep him from coding 18 hours a day. The panelists who got together to discuss diversity in the Austin tech community were not in this category. But diversity is more than just being female or a person of color.

Those categories are, however, the most visible, and no wonder that the conversation revolved around them. There are companies who have been setting examples in how to bring under-represented groups into engineering. One of them is Etsy, the online craft marketplace, where one of the panelists, Garann Means, worked as a software engineer. Etsy noticed that while most of its customers were women, most of its engineers were men, and they set out to change that. Instead of poaching women developers from other companies, they started the Hacker School, and gave scholarships for women learning programming. Many of its women graduates found software engineering jobs. Moderator Mark Phillip noted that when Etsy committed to diversity, it also benefited male developers -- they became better team players.

Mark Phillip, Nicole Cofield, Garann Means, and Gerardo Treviño.
Mark Phillip (CEO/Founder Are You Watching This?!), Nicole Cofield (president/CEO of Capital City African American Chamber), Garann Means (software developer), and Gerardo Treviño (founder and CEO of Paybook). More pictures from SXSW 2013 are in my photo gallery.

Garann (who is also the founder of All Girl Hack Night, Austin women developers' group) says that diversity efforts are often criticized as "we shouldn't separate women from men, we want to keep them in the same group". But she says that this kind of separation is never an issue, at least in her own experience. Many white guys talked to her about how things that are "supposed" to offend women and people of color, actually offend them as well. It is sometimes said that a special effort to attract more people from underrepresented groups to software industry would bring a lot of underqualified people. But there are examples showing that that doesn't have to happen. Garannn says her friend Divya put together a conference in San Franscisco, with very diverse speakers, and it was technically excellent -- you didn't have to sacrifice the quality.

People categorize themselves in interesting ways that can be different from the categories we assign them to. I saw this play out in my own life as well, and I was reminded of it by what Natalie Cofield, president/CEO of Capital City African American Chamber, said. Many black engineers in tech are not Americans: they come from African countries. She has heard Nigerian programmers say "African American Chamber is not for me, because I'm not African-American. I'm Nigerian." So she saw a need for AAC to be more internationally inclusive. I can relate to this from my own experience. As an international graduate student in America, I felt I was more of a minority here than the officially recognized minorities. They were at home with this country's ways, and I was not. (I know it's a subjective feeling, and a white foreigner still benefits from the white privilege without realizing it, so I would not put my experience on the same footing as that of truly underprivileged minorities.) But when the Natalie Cofield mentioned a need to include foreign-born engineers in the tech community, it was the first time I felt that somebody was inclusive towards immigrants in this country. It was certainly the first time in my experience that somebody wanted to make them a part of the diversity discourse, as opposed to treating them as a job-stealing, wage-depressing nuisance, which is how high-tech immigrants are usually talked about in this country.

Then there is another dimension to diversity, hidden in plain view. It came to my mind when the fourth participant of the panel brought up something, and his story was considered a success story without anyone noticing the darker undertones. Gerardo Treviño was talking about Paybook, his recently launched startup. It lets people take pictures of their receipts, and Paybook will parse them for you. He and most of his developers are from Mexico. At first he wanted to base his company in Austin, but it was very difficult to get USA work visas for the whole development team. Abandoning that plan, they decided that the company's home will be Monterey, Mexico. They wanted a safe place with landscapes that help creativity. So they got the whole team of a dozen developers to live together in Playa de Carmen, an organic food paradise, in a utopian commune of sorts: for example, the whole team collectively decides what to eat for dinner that night.

Mark Phillip, Gerardo Treviño, Nicole Cofield, and Garann Means.
Mark Phillip (CEO/Founder Are You Watching This?!), Gerardo Treviño (founder and CEO of Paybook), Nicole Cofield (president/CEO of Capital City African American Chamber), and Garann Means (software developer). More pictures from SXSW 2013 are in my photo gallery.

No one in the audience indicated they viewed it as anything but a creative move, and perhaps it was; but such a move would only work for a team of people who have no other responsibilities outside of work. Clearly, someone who has children would hardly be able to leave their family and move somewhere for months at at time. This is especially true about people who have been traditionally responsible for childcare, namely, women. So I wouldn't say that it's really diversity when you pick employees who are free of family obligations. And since they tend to be in their 20s, you are clearly not aiming for age diversity either.

This goes against bringing more women into computing, because women would be the first to quit a company, or entire industry, that makes it hard to combine a job with a family. Even child-free women are less likely to stay in such a company, because they still want to have friends and personal lives. Encouraging your employees to relax on a beach or eat organic food is not a true support of work-life balance; the balance needs to be the kind that lets people fulfill their other responsibilities.

It reminds me of a story I read in our local newspaper, Austin American-Statesman, about tech startups that open offices downtown. They want to be in an attractive location, because their engineers like to to live music clubs or to the lake after work. Clearly, they are trying to attract only a certain kind of engineers, namely, those whose after-work hours are spent on leisure. They are not positioning themselves for another kind of employee who goes home to their family in the evening. It just so happens that the first kind is usually in their 20s, while the other kind is older and more likely to be female. So in the era when sex and age discrimination is illegal, this is a roundabout way to tell the non-20-something-male applicants that they are not particularly wanted here. And I think that as long as companies have implicit preferences for certain kinds of demographics -- expressed by supporting some lifestyles but not others -- I think that all the talk about bringing more diversity into tech won't yield much fruit.