How to overcome tech’s diversity barriers

How to overcome tech’s diversity barriers

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?

Find out if managers prefer facetime or if they have ways to support flex time. Asking about remote work without going into detail about your specific circumstances (being a single parent, having a disability, etc.) is perfectly legitimate during the interview process. Remember, you’re vetting the company to ensure it meets your needs.

Ask how people communicate and what levels of collaboration exist. Look for descriptions of how people work — by consensus or through top-down decision making — and how meetings are run. Look for a leadership style that solicits opinions and brings in new ideas, not one that emphasizes a command-control style where all decisions are made and handed down by a cadre of trusted lieutenants.

“It is easier to get answers to these kinds of questions because they are specific to the day-to-day life in the company,” Blanche says.

Seek a culture that goes the extra step to get people involved rather than one that responds only to the loudest and most powerful voices. Not everyone thinks or acts the same. Brainstorming is important, but how is credit shared? Too often, quieter voices are overlooked when it’s time to attribute credit for a new idea, a pitfall experienced managers know to avoid.

“It’s also more about how the company answers the question, and less about the specific answer,” Blanche says. If they don’t have a policy but express a willingness to investigate and get a better answer, that’s a good sign.

Ask to talk to different people in various roles within the hierarchy to get a feel for the culture.  Ask about employee groups and affinity organizations that may exist and how those groups are run. These questions also matter when moving to a different team within the same organization, because different teams and leaders have different styles.

As recent revelations about sexual harassment in Silicon Valley show, people talk. There are open secrets, cryptic hints on who to avoid, and quiet offers of help. Being able to speak up against harassment is a form of privilege; for many, it can be career-ending. Finding the right channels to lodge a complaint is not always an option. But keeping your ears open and regularly talking with peers will let you know about people and companies that you may be better off avoiding.

“What the teams say matters more than what the CEO says,” Blanche says.

Networking matters

While the idea of the self-made American who earned the spot purely on merit is an inspiring image, the reality in tech is that who you know can help open doors. Going to a top-tier four-year college gives candidates immediate access to an alumni network that can help pull strings, make introductions, and give you ideas on who to talk to. Being able to tap into a network of contacts in the industry is a form of privilege that not everyone has.

Women of color are less likely to have close friends or family who have worked in technology. They tend to have smaller professional networks and encounter more difficulty landing their first jobs in the field of their choice, Blanche says. Joining a professional development organization such as Galvanize, Muse, or Code 420 (to name just a few) can help tap into those networks.

Those who lack a network — because they don’t have a strong alumni pool, are geographically isolated, or simply don’t know anyone in the industry — start out with a massive disadvantage. But modern technology and the Internet can help make some of those connections. Work that LinkedIn profile and look for people who can make introductions. Join LinkedIn groups relevant to your interests, career goals, and geographic location, and ask for help. Look for open networking events, often sponsored by companies themselves. Check out Meetup.com groups in your area.

Joining groups that meet in person may be a challenge for some candidates for a number of reasons. If so, consider online events. WhiteHat Security offers online networking webinars, for example. Look at job boards, think about products you use, and reach out on Twitter to brands you like. Look for thought leaders in your industry — there are plenty of information technology professionals pontificating on Twitter on any given day — and join a conversation if you think you have something to share. Or just ask questions.

“Don't underestimate the power of networking and putting yourself forward,” Blanche says.

Remember, relationships matter. It’s not just a matter of attending once and introducing yourself to as many people as you can. True, fostering relationships with people you’ve just met is no easy task, but it’s worth the effort. “Continue building to the point where you start getting invited to more high-level and exclusive type engagements,” Naidoo says.

Build mentoring relationships

Part of networking is looking for mentors. Many of the women I spoke with while working on this piece emphasized how their mentors have helped them in their careers. These mentors acted as advocates for them within the organization, speaking up on their behalf in meetings they weren’t invited to and increasing their visibility within the organization to open up more senior roles. The key isn’t looking for “someone who looks like you” in a senior role to be your mentor, but someone who “cares about helping you move ahead in your career,” says Alex Kassirer, a security analyst at Flashpoint.

Alex Kassirer, security analyst, Flashpoint Flashpoint

Alex Kassirer, security analyst, Flashpoint

It helps to have more than one mentor: one within your organization to advocate for you internally, and one outside to help you manage your overall career trajectory. You may wind up adding new mentors and retiring old relationships as you grow and develop on your career path. That doesn’t mean dumping a mentor and cutting all ties (don’t forget, who you know always matters), but rather changing the nature of the relationship to reflect changing needs.

Acknowledge biases exist

You can do everything right and still face barriers. Recent research has shown that unconscious bias still presents roadblocks. For example, researchers have found that a job candidate with an “ethnic” or female name will have a harder time landing an interview than a male candidate with a more “typical” name with an equal (or inferior) resume. Conferences and professional journals found that simply removing names from submissions improved the acceptance rate for underrepresented voices.

Flashpoint’s Kassirer says that at the beginning of her career, she published her research as “Alex” instead of using her given name “Alexandra” to avoid gender discrimination. Others describe using initials or even pseudonyms. The latter is not recommended in any area except information security, where hacker handles are part of the industry’s roots.

Statistics have shown that women and people of color are more likely to obtain conference speaking slots or publish research in peer-reviewed journals when their names and identifying information are removed from their applications. A recent study examining pull request acceptance rates on GitHub projects found that while nearly three-quarters of pull requests by female contributors were accepted, programmers who could easily be identified as women based on their names or profile pictures had lower pull request acceptance rates than male programmers. Female programmers with gender-neutral profiles had higher acceptance rates than any other group, including men with gender-neutral profiles. Not everyone can shorten their names like Kassirer did — but downplaying elements that can work against you does seem to work.

It's easy to say that deemphasizing your gender or ethnicity is a cop-out. But the truth is, bias was at the table long before you got there. Each person needs to make up her or his own mind — and weigh the effect clearly identifying gender or ethnicity may have on getting that first interview.

The burden is on you

I encountered a lot of pushback while working on this piece from people who resented that we were “still talking about diversity in 2017.” Some felt that diversity has held the spotlight for too long and was incurring chip-on-the-shoulder defensiveness. “I think it's important to not focus on that [diversity]," Kassirer says, "Because sometimes it's not even in the interviewer or some other colleague's mind."

That strikes me as idealistic and perhaps a bit naïve. Plenty of biased decisions, some unconscious and some not, occur before you get the chance to tout your skills and experience. Even diversity programs go awry; many that focus on women tend to lean toward white women by default. Women of color are less likely to have access to the kind of professional networks white women do and may have different cultural and socio-economic expectations to deal with. Other diversity classes languish as well.

In my past life as a network administrator, I didn’t have the luxury of ignoring that I was a dark-skinned woman among a team of white men. I was aware of it all the time and felt the pressure to work harder and try to fit in. When I got stressed, I deliberately slowed down how I speak to give myself time to think before saying something.

As a help desk technician, my accent led some people to assume I didn’t know English well and created the perception that I was not as technical or competent as my peers. Being a programmer was much easier, since my team had many Asians, but there was a definite sense of having to fight harder to get my share of challenging coding projects. I am not alone. Many women I spoke with talked about how they joined technical projects in hope of beefing up their skills — and found themselves assigned to training or writing documentation instead.

The biggest complaint about diversity efforts is the idea that hiring should be based on skills and qualifications alone. But that ignores the reality that the diversity gap isn’t a qualifications gap. The 2017 Women in Cybersecurity Report found that women in the field tend to have more advanced academic degrees than male applicants, with 51 percent of women holding a master’s degree or higher, compared to 45 percent of men. Women also tend to have more varied educational backgrounds, which means they tend to bring a more diverse set of skills to the security industry.

Even if you aren’t thinking about what makes you different, you need to realize that the process is stacked against you. Trying to ignore that fact won’t do you any favors. Everyone needs to beef up their skills and experience, but you’ll need to draw on more resources than that to overcome bias, much of it unconscious and unacknowledged.

Make the system work for you by positioning yourself effectively. Establish your own network, discover where the best opportunities lie, and learn who might help you gain access to them. Prepare yourself for setbacks and try not to take them personally. And remember: The right employer will value your capabilities at least as much as you value them yourself.

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