GorT is back from vacation and ready to take on a few things that took place while he was tanning his 8-foot titanium robot casing. Given that it is a topic I have discussed before and that it is near and dear to me since I’m in the field, let’s tackle the “Google Anti-diversity memo”. There are a variety of aspects to this, so if you think, as a conservative, I’m going to totally back the no-fired author, you’re wrong….read on. Warning, you might want to get your coffee now because I’ve been giving this some thought…I did have a 4-hour plane ride.
First, let’s tackle the authoring of the memo – the software engineer who wrote it is like many early-career developers that I’ve worked with: they don’t have a good sense of how companies run, why certain policies are in place, and how to properly address certain issues. Instead of working with Google’s HR department and his direct management chain, he decided to write a misguided screed that is going to leave him in a tough place professionally. While I don’t ascribe to his beliefs that biological differences hinder women from being good developers, there are aspects to his complaints – specifically around preferential treatment to certain groups of people – that are worth exploring.
GorT has worked with, for, and managed female developers. The memo’s author is wrong, I believe, in stating that biologically, women wouldn’t make good developers. I know plenty of males who aren’t or wouldn’t be good developers. Years ago when I worked for IBM, they were experimenting with hiring creative types – music and art majors out of college and trying to train them to program in the belief that software development is a creative process (it is) and that more creative minds like artists and musicians will be more adept at it (doubtful if not an outright failure). Anyway, two of the best managers GorT has ever had in his career are women. GorT has had top notch women developers and ones who were average. I will state, that in my career, I’ve only had one female developer who was sub-par to the point that I had to address it. And it didn’t go well. I’ve had my share of good and bad male managers and employees. I’ve had to fire some and hire many. I strive to evaluate everyone – from the time I read their resume through 1-on-1 reviews, it is all about what that person has done, how they’ve done it, and the potential they demonstrate. It isn’t about race, religion, gender, sexual-orientation, or whatever category someone wants to throw around. It is how well they can do the job – because that’s what matters.
And this is where the discussion gets difficult. The current focus by the media and others on diversity within certain businesses will likely continue to create situations like this and it will damage individuals and companies while failing to address the real issues. Measuring “diversity” at the employment end of timeline and thinking that the companies are the ones to blame is as misguided as the author who wrote this screed. The issues are complex but let me lay out a few of my thoughts:
- Addressing diversity – gender, race, etc – in technological fields starts in elementary school. Usually, the simple and pedestrian response to this is to “focus on STEM” education. Public and private schools are doing just that – some well and some are just paying lip service to it by having tablets in the classrooms or building web pages as part of history class projects. No, I don’t mean that everyone should be learning to program. That’s just as wrong as thinking everyone should go to college. It does mean that we need to expose these children to what it takes to become a good developer. How, at a high level and one appropriate for their age, a computer works and how applications are built.
- In middle school, basic programming options should be available. Not mandatory, but we need to have options for those children who are interested to explore the possibility.
- In high school, where one does have the ability to begin focusing – hard science, tech, math, liberal arts, arts, etc. – we need to provide solid foundational classes. I visited with my AP Computer Science teacher last year and he bemoaned the “dumbing down” of the AP Computer Science exam. Take or leave the AP exams, it is a data point showing that we’re not maintaining a rigor needed. I’m not saying every developer – or every good developer – needs to take the AP exam or a harder AP exam, but those that are challenging themselves and growing fast need to have that option.
- We need to be careful and cognizant of social pressures, stereotypes, and mocking when it comes to these fields. Think about it for a minute – how many “nerdy” or “geeky” women are portrayed as positive, role-model-esque characters on movies or TV. Even on The Big Bang Theory, there is mocking of nerds and scientists in general, to include the two main, science-educated female characters: Bernadette and Amy. We all know the picture: unstylish hair, glasses, maybe toss in some acne issues and unpopular clothing choices.
Finally, I understand measuring these type of demographic numbers since you can’t manage or affect change on something that isn’t measured. Having said that, the slippery slope is that people focus on the numbers and not the issues and broader pictures. While not a complete barometer, one could argue that the demographics of Engineering and Computer Science graduates should inform us as to the desires of the population seeking those types of jobs. While the numbers vary a little, recent reports put women at about 20-25% of the degree graduates. One will note that in the tech fields at Google, they are self-reporting around 20% women. My division of software developers is slightly higher at 22% – all but one of the women have an Engineering or Computer Science degree – the one remaining, who is largely self-taught and highly motivated and REALLY good, is a history major who taught for a while and used lots of technology in her lesson plans. And we should honestly discuss what the goals are for measuring these numbers – while the US population has slightly more than 50% women, should companies aim to have slightly more than 50% women? Consider that only 47% of the workforce are women. Shouldn’t the measure be against qualified candidates for the job? Guess what happens when you do that? The problem shifts to our education system. And many on the left side of the political spectrum don’t want that area to get focus because it won’t be pretty. It will expose the lack of progress in teaching, the problems that – in a field where, as of the 2011-12 school year, over 75% of the teachers are female, we are failing to prepare enough women to get more than 20-25% degrees in Computer Science.
The other part of this slippery slope is the compensation. Let me be clear: no category (race, gender, etc.) should be a factor in determining compensation – merit, tenure, skills, market demand, etc. are all viable factors. And this is where it gets really hard. Remember that one woman who I spoke of early on who wasn’t a good performer? I had to collect and track performance information, including conversations that were then agreed to between us (me as her manager) in order to make sure that her performance rating and subsequent removal from a program was based on performance and not her gender or minority status. We need to get beyond attacking people for implicit biases when they might not exist and evidence shows otherwise. I have two daughters and I’d be the first to defend saying that they can do anything they put the minds and efforts against and should be compensated just like anyone else.
Imagine, however, that we pick another private industry to examine outside of the likes of the high tech companies of Facebook, Google, Uber, Microsoft. What about professional sports? Should professional leagues match the country’s demographics as far as race, gender, sexual-orientation, etc. ? Many would argue, correctly, that it is based on the best athlete for a position: point-guard, quarterback, goalie, defenseman, second baseman, etc. So isn’t the corollary that in industry, the best skilled person should get the job?
So here is your takeaways:
- Discrimination is wrong and that extends to compensation – but don’t mistake problems in critical employment factors such as initiative, resourcefulness, and skills for prejudice
- While compensation and other problems exist in industry, diversity issues start much younger and largely have issues in our education system
- Don’t do stupid things like writing screeds – instead challenge your management and HR why specific classes are restricted by race, gender, etc. when they seek diversity which should cut across racial, gender, and other lines. Ask them why limit the perspectives those students get?
- Strive to be objective and look at the merits of what your employees and co-workers do. Remove politics, generation, race, gender, sexual-orientation, etc. Are they doing a good job? Can you count on them if they get assigned something critical?