Opinion

OPINION | DAVID DELMAR

Your startup’s diversity policy doesn’t work

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It’s been two years now since Google published the infamous breakdown of its workforce that launched a national conversation around diversity in tech. Two years in the innovation ecosystem. Fifty-two sprints. The entire life span of your roommate’s weird startup. Forty-two thousand LinkedIn requests from recruiters. Two years worth of white guys in jeans, T-shirts, and hoodies pitching their apps to white guys in jeans, T-shirts, and blazers. Two years spent fastidiously crushing minor inconveniences, of redefining work culture for those of us lucky enough to participate in it, of management fads, of bold advances in our never-ending quest toward a utopian future of sparse user-friendliness.

Oh, also, two years of deeply racially segregated Boston neighborhoods and the highest income disparities in the country. You’d be forgiven for wondering whether we’ve advanced at all in opening the doors to the Bostonians most drastically underrepresented in the innovation community. I think about this every time I write a Slack note in Spanish. Less than 1 percent of Slack’s workforce is Hispanic, last time I checked.

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Here’s the thing about the innovation community: We’re all on the same team. Everyone I’ve spoken to wants our community to be more diverse. This isn’t Brown v. Board of Education, there’s no active force of resistance to protest. Resilient Coders, which I founded to spread code literacy to underserved groups, is based at the Cambridge Innovation Center, where there are signs encouraging you to use the restroom that corresponds to the gender with which you identify. We are, by and large, a socially progressive people — who want to help. And in fact, I’ve often been asked the most “Boston startup” question ever: “What do you really need right now?”

I really need you to rethink what it will take to address the diversity crisis, and to be open to the possibility that you and your company might not be doing anything about it right now. Even if you think you are. I need you to think differently about a problem we’ve consistently failed to solve.

Your company’s diversity policy doesn’t work.

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Much chest-pounding has been done in the innovation community around nondiscrimination in hiring, and that’s great if the objective is to raise awareness. But at some point, we’ll need to transition from being aware of the problem to actually fixing it. If your company’s diversity policy is to “make an effort” to overcome our unconscious biases and hire people from underrepresented groups or nontraditional backgrounds, it’s about the same as announcing that you’ve chosen to pay taxes. It’s wonderful news, but it’s also just federal law. Maybe save the confetti.

By the way, can we have a reset on the term “nontraditional background”? It doesn’t mean you got a history degree, rather than an engineering degree, from a private university. That might be the most traditional thing there is. Somewhere out there is a lost Norman Rockwell painting of a white male “Music Theory and Composition” major teaching himself to code. That’s how traditional that is. I say this because I’ve had people tell me that their company hires people from “nontraditional backgrounds” only to realize later that we were talking about very different nontraditions.

So your company is “making an effort” to overcome unconscious biases to hire for diversity, so long as the candidate demonstrates “culture fit,” which, of course, is the legally acceptable term for unconscious biases.

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“Do you see yourself grabbing a drink with this person, hanging out?” Well, we’re ultimately pack mammals, evolved to organize around shared experiences. We like hanging out with people who share our viewpoints, who can relate to our struggles and laugh at our jokes. We like being able to see some of ourselves in the people we spend time with. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se. It’s human. But it’s also not particularly conducive to diversity. The next time somebody at your office throws out the term “culture fit,” give that some serious thought. It could be that “culture fit” is the enemy of actual diversity.

Why? Because when I talk about “diversity,” I’m not talking about a person who’s just like you but happens to have darker skin. I’m asking you to envision a company that enjoys a plurality of perspectives and experiences. Hiring a white Marine might diversify your workplace more than hiring a black graduate from your alma mater.

If your company’s diversity policy is to wait for an idyllically “diverse” candidate who has all of the requisite experience necessary to fill the role on Day One, you’ll likely be waiting a long time. They are disproportionately underrepresented in the talent pool —  that’s the whole problem. Waiting a long time is not something we do in this community. You’ll shrug it off and hire another white guy with a bachelor’s degree in horticultural sustainability who taught himself to code.

Here’s where we get to the nastiest part about the diversity crisis. You are either hiring for level of experience, or you’re hiring for diversity of experience. Stop waiting for those two things to coincide.

Hire for potential,
then train

The startup Fresh Tilled Soil has launched an internal, highly competitive apprenticeship from which it hires. One of our hackers is a member of the current cohort. The Grommet has taken one of our hackers as a summer intern, during which he has been given a suggested path toward full-time employment. Another one of our coders has started at the Globe as an apprentice. Today he’s full time and full stack. Akamai has introduced an “Akamai Tech Academy,” which is an internal boot camp from which it will hire. Wayfair and Intrepid have done much the same.

They do this not just for the warm fuzzies, or to try to break the cultural echo chamber that comprises most tech companies, but also because this guarantees them a customized workforce. The talent pool is shallow enough as it is in our community without adding in considerations for the unique demands of your company, your tech stack, or your vertical. You have to train for them.

One of our students was recently turned down for a job because his experience was thin. And it is. But what doesn’t show up in the resume are the long hours spent after work building a website for his mother’s restaurant in Dorchester  —  or the nerdy coding T-shirt he couldn’t wait to buy to show off the values that have come to define the past year of his life. Nor does he talk much about the time he spent teaching his new skills to ninth-graders in Roxbury, getting a new generation excited about joining our innovation community. This young hacker has the stuff you can’t train. Angular? That’s a month and some coffee. Both of which we can provide.

So to go back to our most “Boston startup” question ever, what do we really need right now? I need you to join thought leaders like Fresh Tilled Soil, The Grommet, the Globe, HubLogix, and others in hiring our alumni. Collaborate with us to ensure that they have the skills necessary to contribute in a meaningful way to your team. What can you do today right now? You can ask your leadership what your diversity policy is and seriously scrutinize that answer. Let’s do what we do best: Get the data. Solve the problem. End the talk.

David Delmar, a professional designer and interface developer, is the founder and executive director of Resilient Coders. A version of this column originally appeared on Medium.
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