The immense and increasing value of diverse engineering and product teams
As companies hustle to meet their technology talent needs, they’re also tasked with the imperative to diversify these teams. This imperative has started attracting board and C-suite attention due to its increasing relevance to workforce strategy, digital transformation, and social responsibility.
“There is now more evidence and data than ever that these things matter,” Lisa Lewin, CEO of General Assembly, a technical training provider, told Fortune, explaining how she’s seen senior management at client companies grow more involved in talent strategy and diversity. “Not only do they matter from an esoteric or moral standpoint, but they matter from a strategic standpoint.”
When product and engineering teams are made up of people with a variety of backgrounds, with a diverse range of socioeconomic status, ethnicity, religion, or educational attainment, it helps make sure a company’s products and services are relatable to a wide range of customers.
For example, for a mass-market consumer technology such as a music app or social media site, women presumably represent approximately half of the intended audience. Companies that aren’t gender balanced on product and engineering teams are likely at a disadvantage in reaching that half of their potential customer base.
Tech workers, especially the younger ones, are also increasingly showing preference for belonging to diverse teams. So there are labor-market benefits to diversifying, in addition to the consumer-market benefits.
There is also a moral imperative. Jobs in technology offer a high level of pay and stability that few other career paths offer. The fact that people have historically needed prestigious degrees or access to expensive equipment to enter this field has contributed to the homogeneous state of Silicon Valley and technology leadership today. Leading companies bear a responsibility to be on the forefront of progress for developing new pathways into the field.
In recent conversations with Fortune, companies with diverse product and engineering teams shared their advice for fostering equity and diversity in tech roles.
Start at the top
As the founder and CEO of digital design consultancy YML, Ashish Toshniwal admitted that he didn’t think much about diversity when he started his company in 2009. But within a few years, the combination of market and employee pressure got him to start making the effort to change at his company.
“I was getting called out in all hands,” he told Fortune, for the company’s lack of diversity at the time.
As the company sought to grow, it was also missing out on diverse talent.
“We used to have much higher conversion [in recruiting] with men than women,” Toshniwal shared. He said that this changed for the better with the addition of women to company leadership.
YML now employs over 500 people, and its workforce, of which 60% are engineers, is 46% female, according to the company website. It started with a mindset shift from the founder-CEO.
Toshniwal credits the success of the company’s initial push for gender diversity to its focus on bringing in women leaders. He also said he learned over the years that it was important to be transparent about company demographics and hold all managers accountable for the diversity of their teams.
“If you’re not asking this question, over and over again, it is not going to get done,” was his advice to fellow CEOs and technical leaders. “Treat this the same way you treat your growth and quality and engineering and design. It’s the same thing.”
Get with the times on remote work
At this point, it is simply good recruiting strategy to be open to remote work, to hire from a wide range of locations, and to keep salaries the same for people doing the same work regardless of location. These are all especially true after COVID-19 drove a quantum leap in the acceptance of remote work and made this labor market even more competitive.
“There is a new expectation of flexibility, a new expectation of remote work,” Lewin said. “If you’re finding that people are leaving, because that’s the kind of flexibility they want, [the] antidote to that is providing that flexibility to your workforce.”
This can be especially true for diverse or underrepresented talent. For a variety of reasons, working from home can allow individuals to focus on their job instead of on the barriers they experience to success in a traditional office setting. Whether it is due to social anxiety, visual or hearing impairment, or the presence of toxic managers, there are a lot of reasons working from home can allow for a more peaceful existence for many employees.
Don’t ‘trust the process’
One of the best steps a company can take involves looking at the different stages of its recruiting process and tracking candidates’ success through those stages based on their demographics. If this analysis finds that Black candidates or female candidates, for example, are disproportionately being eliminated at a certain stage of the process, that stage is likely to be due for a revision.
Beyond just HR or recruiting, every people leader needs to buy in on the importance of diverse teams.
“It is not just the recruiting team’s job,” Toshniwal said. “This is the job of every manager…if you don’t have a diverse team, you’re doing something wrong.”
If you are not receiving any applications from diverse candidates, this can require additional attention. Arquay Harris, vice president of engineering at Webflow, a “no-code” platform for online web and app building, told Fortune that she attends an outside event at least once a month that is related to building a diverse recruiting pipeline.
“What a lot of companies do is they wait until they need to fill a role” to start actively looking for diverse candidates, Harris said. “And then it’s too late.”
Harris also advocated for widening job requirements, especially when it comes to location and education. Having previously worked at Slack, Google, and CBS Interactive, she’s seen how some of the leading companies in the industry pursue their talent goals.
“[The industry has] a tendency to overfish the same ponds,” Harris said, referring to the focus on people with high-profile companies and degrees on their resume. “We’ve hired people from everywhere…It really opens up that talent pool.”
She joked that her team has earned a reputation for having the “traditional non-traditional backgrounds” in tech.
“I’ve worked with people who were chemists or biologists, and then they just decided they wanted to be mobile developers. On my Webflow team today are people who were psych majors or they did politics…it is much more common for people to come into tech from non-traditional means.”
Create the right environment
This last piece of advice is the most complex one, for sure, because it can hold different meanings for different companies. But given workers’ increasing desire to find purpose and meaning at work, in addition to personal-development opportunities, all companies should consider refining the employee value proposition for working on their tech teams.
This push brings new attention to the strategic value of company culture, and how that culture is developed with an eye for attracting and empowering diverse talent.
“If you are a CHRO right now, your entire job has been turned upside down,” Lewin said, adding that heads of HR are “on the front lines of the most watershed moment and dramatic transformation in labor flow that you and I will ever see in our lifetimes.”
For some companies such as clothing or food manufacturers for whom technology was not part of their core business a decade ago, it may take a lot of effort to create a work environment that is attractive to the tech labor market.
“When you are an engineer or designer, you aspire to do cool things, build cool stuff. [At certain companies], they don’t see that the team they’re working with is tech first, or design first,” Toshniwal said. Those companies “need to do a better job in communicating to engineers and designers and product people why they should join that company.”
This is where a company’s mission and the way leaders demonstrate commitment to it can make such a strong difference.
“Our mission is to empower everyone to create for the web,” Jiaona Zhang, vice president of product at Webflow, told Fortune. Zhang’s team is 43% women and 25% from a minority background, according to company representatives. She joined Webflow from WeWork and also previously worked at Airbnb and DropBox.
“That mission is very very ambitious, but it’s one that fundamentally is about inclusivity,” Zhang said. “It’s something that is very important to create diverse teams for, and it’s something that I think a lot about because being female, being someone who’s actually not technical, I had a lot of imposter syndrome. When I first came into tech, I was a [product manager] for a gaming company. It was all about ‘How fast can you move?’.”
For the company’s mission of democratizing tech creation, diverse product teams help make the product more usable for people who do not have technical backgrounds.
“Building teams that are demographically diverse is really really important because you actually get people who have that perspective of feeling like, potentially, an imposter,” Zhang said. “That team is able to really internalize that learning curve, build something, and then connect with our users.”
“By being able to connect with [our users], by they themselves feeling a certain way, they can build much better products.”
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