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“We Don’t Have To Explain That Tech Is Not Diverse”: Lessons From A Two-Decade Battle

GitHub’s VP of inclusion shares what she’s seen change in tech and what progress still needs to be made.

“We Don’t Have To Explain That Tech Is Not Diverse”: Lessons From A Two-Decade Battle
[Photo: Flickr user WOCinTech Chat]

GitHub’s Nicole Sanchez has been busy for the last two decades working in the diversity space, more often than not explaining to seemingly deaf ears why it’s important for the technology industry to become more equitable.

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For the last two years she has been at GitHub as an outspoken proponent for diversity in tech. I chatted with her late last year about her multifaceted career and why roles like hers are so important. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.

Let’s start from the beginning. How did you find yourself in the intersection of tech and diversity?

So my first job in diversity was right after I graduated from college in 1994, long before this was a conversation that a lot of people were paying attention to. [Then in 1999] I was working at a small startup [which she declined to name]. My job was to build the most diverse team, the most diverse company anybody had seen. And the founder came to me because he specifically knew the work that I had been doing in the community.

The [experience] was very eye-opening, because as idealistic as everything was, as soon as real investor dollars came into play, all the idealism got blown out the window. By 2000, the position was gone. I ended up leaving tech with quite honestly a very bad taste in my mouth at that point, and went back to community work. Not until 2010 did I come back to diversity and tech, when I worked at a place called the Kapor Center for Social Impact [an organization that pushes for greater diversity and social consciousness in the tech space]. I worked with them for four years.

What was the diversity conversation like in 1999 compared to what it is now? What were they asking for and what was the nomenclature around your role?

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Nicole Sanchez[Photo: via Github]

I had been working for an Americorp program in Boston called City Year. I was recruited to come to Boston and work on this project that put diverse teams of young people together in order to do community service in and around Boston. I learned a lot about building and managing diverse teams very quickly, and also got to witness firsthand the power of what happens when you have a diverse team that’s run really well. And how much more impactful that is compared to a more homogenous team.

The way that the founder [of the startup] pitched it to me was, “I want you to do what you’re doing in the community but inside my company.” And I said to him “What are you? What do you want that to look like? What does that mean to you?” And he kind of described to me a United Colors of Benetton ad.

What I quickly learned is that he was less compelled by the challenges and the extra work that goes into building an inclusive culture. Think of Barbie dolls, where they’re all they’re all shaped the same and they just paint them with a different brush. I think what he really thought we could do was bring lots of people who truly were the same on the inside together. But they would look different on the outside and that that was going to be enough.

Anybody who works in this knows that’s not how any kind of diversity works. You can put any five people in a room together that can all be from the same town and you’re going to get wildly divergent opinions. One of the biggest wins we had early on was that the core of our engineering team was entirely Native American. We hired several parents onto the team right away. We had one mom who is a lawyer by training, and she would bring her toddler in, and her toddler was part of the ecosystem of our company. And it was really interesting how it shaped the company.

When they took their first round of funding, one of the first things that the investors said is something like, “What are you doing with all these random people?” And the founder started to get pressure from investors. And it went sideways to the point where it was untenable.

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When you joined GitHub and started full time [in May 2015], what were the programs that you wanted to implement?

Well, one is that diversity and inclusion questions are vetted in every interview process. So irrespective of what job you’re looking for–if you’re interviewing to be an executive assistant, or on our marketing team, or on the engineering team–you get a set of diversity and inclusion questions that don’t necessarily have a right answer.

What we’d like to do is know how you think about diversity and inclusion in tech. Why do you think tech isn’t more diverse? And their answers are extremely thoughtful. All we’re looking for, in that case, is people who are interested in engaging on this topic as opposed to saying, “I think it’s perfectly fine.” We’re looking for people who are questioning the status quo, and we don’t have to explain that tech is not diverse. That’s not the conversation we’re going to have anymore, we’re past that.

What is the business case you make for diversity?

For us, the business case is that we want every developer in the world on our platform. And when we say every developer, we don’t mean people who just know they’re developers today. We also need people who never had the opportunity to even understand what it means to be a developer, haven’t gotten their hands on education or the equipment necessary to learn these skills. And that’s across ages, races, countries, neighborhoods, you name it. And so the business case for us is, if we want every developer in the world on our platform, we want to be heavily involved in developing the developers.

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If companies cannot make that clear case between what they are ultimately trying to do and making sure that the group of people who are doing that thing are from a wide range of backgrounds, then the connection between the two concepts is easy to disconnect. When put under pressure or when times are tight–when you are in a recession–when you end up having to lay off a bunch of people, the things that feel ancillary are those that have to do with diversification. Because that’s not “a hard business goal.”

Any company that has not explicitly articulated the connection between the thing they’re trying to produce or the thing they’re trying to do and the need for a diverse group of people, will just miss every single time. And the hard part for me in doing this work is watching companies that have an amazingly diverse audience or user base, and just insult them over and over again. Insult their intelligence, the power that they have on their platform, their level of participation because it’s outside the realm of what leadership understands. And those are companies that are going to be eclipsed by something that is better for underrepresented people.

How do you make sure people feel supported?

One of the first things my team did when we came here was we established the norm that we will be talking openly about race and gender and socioeconomic backgrounds and physical abilities. What I see most HR departments do is say, “We’re not going to talk about any of that.” And God forbid somebody says the word black. Like, “Can we even describe that person as black?” And the answer is yes. [Laughs] Yes.

We have to get fluent in describing each other, being respectful, understanding where the other person sits, so that when there is a transgression–let’s say somebody’s feelings were hurt or they were literally discriminated against–the company holds a very strong line on that. Also, some educational moment has to come from that. The difference between what I have seen at every other company and what we’re doing here is that the onus of the education is not on the person who is the recipient of the transgression.

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For example, if I am the 43-year-old Latina that I am, and somebody says, “You’re just an old Mexican lady, what do you know?” I can be offended by that. Our HR team doesn’t put the burden on me to explain why that was hurtful. The team will pick it up so that I am released from the emotional labor that is always placed on people who are from underrepresented backgrounds. It’s always on us to educate. In [GitHub’s] model, that’s not the case, nor is that the expectation.

Diversity in tech is often under a microscope. How does that inform your position, and how do you look at the work that you do?

The good news for me is that I’ve been doing this for so long. It’s one of those things where the only bad press is no press. I spent so many years trying to get people to think about this that being criticized is way better than being ignored.

My favorite quote is a Gandhi quote; I use it in a lot of my trainings. “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” And where we are is somewhere between laughing and fighting. The ignoring was a really long slog. And the laughing was kind of like, “Ehh, what good is that going to do anyway?” Now the pushback, I welcome it, because it means there’s something legit about it . . . I don’t want to make people worry. But sometimes the right people are worried. They are worried for the reasons you want them to, which is that the demographics of this workforce are changing dramatically.

Millennials are the largest, most diverse generation this world has ever seen. And if you haven’t been getting ready for them for the last 20 years, you’re in for a rude awakening. And so people who criticize often come from fear and misunderstanding. And while I don’t welcome it–it’s not fun getting trolled–I’d much rather be where we are in 2016 than where we were in 1999. So that’s how I look at it.

But I’ll take the really thoughtful criticism because I always want to get better at what I do.

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About the author

Cale is a Brooklyn-based reporter. He writes about business, technology, leadership, and anything else that piques his interest.

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