Kate Heddleston - How our engineering environments are killing diversity (and how we can fix it).

Kate Heddleston - How our engineering environments are killing diversity (and how we can fix it).

This talk focuses on how engineering team environments can impact employee behavior, and how environmental factors can prohibit diversity at tech companies. I will talk about some of the key problems that exist in current engineering environments and how they can be fixed.



PyCon 2015

April 18, 2015


  1. Canaries were once regularly used in coal mining as an

    early warning system.[9] Toxic gases such as carbon monoxide, methane or carbon dioxide in the mine would kill the bird before affecting the miners. I like to think of women in tech are the canary in the coal mine. Normally when the canary in the coal mine starts dying you know the environment is toxic and you should get the hell out. Instead, the tech industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can't breathe, saying “Lean in, canary. Lean in!” When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries. When women are leaving an industry at the rates they are leaving software engineering [1], that indicates an unhealthy and potentially dangerous situation. These anaerobic engineering environments are killing more than gender and race diversity, however; those two things just happen to be the salient symptoms of a larger set of problems with our engineering culture. Bad environments hurt a lot of people from a lot of different demographics and kill creativity, problem-solving, and productivity.
  2. How our engineering environments are killing diversity…

  3. …and how we can fix them.

  4. Kate Heddleston kateheddleston.com @heddle317

  5. 'There are these two young fish swimming along, and they

    happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how's the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
  6. Environments are the things that make up your surroundings, both

    tangible and intangible. Environmental factors can be physical, like the layout of an office or the layout of a theater. They can also be intangible, like power structures or social norms. A theater layout tells us where to sit and where to look, and social norms tell us what to wear and how to behave during a performance. For example, anyone in this audience could theoretically go stand in the back corner facing the wall, but you probably won’t because there are some pretty powerful social norms around not doing that.
  7. Clothing stores have understood the impact on behavior for quite

    a while. They learned through extensive research that people buy more when they’re excited. So if you’ve ever gone into an Abercrombie or a Hollister in the mall, you’re immediately assaulted with loud house music. untz untz. This loud music gets people excited, and most people have no idea that the the unto untying has any affect whatsoever on their decision to buy that pair of distressed jeans and deep v-neck sweater. But it does. Giving our environments so much credit for our behavior can seem fatalistic, especially in a society that is so focused on individual accountability. But it’s important to realize the power of environments because it can take a darker turn. -in the 70s social psychologists were really interested in how Nazi Germany got a lot of decent, normal people to do atrocious things -They researched the impact of authority figures on behavior. -What they found is that an authority figure in a white lab coat wielded enough power to push people’s behavior beyond their moral bounds. -Participants would shock a learner when the learner answered something incorrectly; at the urging of the authority figure in the white lab coat.
  8. Criticism Argument Cultures Onboarding and Team Debt The Null Process

  9. Criticism Argument Cultures Onboarding and Team Debt The Null Process

  10. In the book The Man Who Lied to his Laptop,

    Clifford Nass outlines a study that he did with a Japanese car company. This car company had created a sophisticated system that used sensors and artificial intelligence to determine when someone was driving poorly and let the driver know. They asked Professor Nass to help them evaluate the effects of this system on driver performance in simulations before putting it live in cars. It's a good thing too because what they found is somewhat counter-intuitive. The system gave well-intentioned feedback when people drove too fast or took corners too sharply. It would say things like, "You are not driving very well. Please be more careful." If you think that people were delighted to hear when they weren't driving well, you are mistaken. People were frustrated and angry when the system told them their driving wasn't very good. People's damaged egos would not have mattered if the system actually improved their driving. What they found through the simulations was that the feedback actually worsened people's driving. People got annoyed and, rather than slowing down or taking corners more cautiously, they sped up, oversteered, and generally drove worse the more critical feedback they received. Professor Nass sums up it up by saying that "even stunningly accurate criticism may not be constructive" [4].
  11. Criticism is ineffective as a form of feedback because it

    rarely makes the receiver change their behavior in any positive or constructive way. When people receive criticism, they perceive it as an attack and their gut reaction is to defend themselves. If criticism were applied equally to all employees in the workplace, then there wouldn't be a diversity issue with critical feedback. Unfortunately, women are given more criticism in employee feedback and performance reviews than men.
  12. Critical Feedback in Reviews 88% Women 59% Men In a

    recent study by Kieran Snyder, she gathered reviews from over 180 people. What she found was that 87.9% of women's employee reviews had critical feedback compared to 58.9% of men's reviews—a statistically significant difference.
  13. % Criticism that was Personal 76% Women 2% Men Additionally,

    76% of criticism towards women included personal criticism, e.g. things like "you can come across as abrasive sometimes". By contrast, less than 2% of criticism targeting men was personal in nature [5]. Giving more critical feedback to a particular group can have dire consequences. If criticism causes resentment and can worsen a person's performance on the criticized task, then it's no longer just an issue of coworkers and managers being "not as nice" to particular subsets of people. The fact that women receive more critical feedback than men could materially damage their performance as a group. At the very least, it could make it look like women resent feedback more than men when they simply resent criticism, which men equally resent. If critical feedback is targeted towards certain groups more than others, it has the potential to cause systematic changes in behavior in that group by engendering resentment and potentially worsening the criticized behavior. Removing the uneven distribution of criticism in employee feedback is critical to creating an environment that fosters diversity.
  14. So how do we even the playing field when it

    comes critical feedback? Given that everyone has a negative response to criticism, the most logical solution would be to remove all criticism from performance reviews and feedback. If you want to see a certain type of behavior from a coworker or employee, then tell them or ask them in direct terms. A good way to achieve this is by removing the words "no" and "don't" from your feedback.
  15. Criticism Argument Cultures Onboarding and Team Debt The Null Process

  16. An argument culture is the use of aggressive opposition to

    weed out weak ideas and logic. We use them in several prominent arenas: courtrooms and debates, and the metaphor for argument in our culture is war. We think of people we argue with as opponents, we attack their position and defend our own, we can gain or lose ground, and ultimately we can win or lose arguments—just like battles [1]. However, unregulated argument cultures can have unintended and adverse effects on company cultures. When the goal for an individual is winning, that can be at odds with the team’s goal of finding the best solution to a problem.
  17. If we have learned anything from sports it's that people

    will do anything to win. They will dope, cheat, break people’s legs, deflate footballs, and any number of other stupid, harmful, or ridiculous things to be declared the victor. This is why sports have refs, debates have moderators, and courtrooms have judges. When winning is the goal people might start to cross ethical boundaries. Crossing boundaries and using aggression to win an argument includes making personal remarks, interrupting, speaking much more loudly than an opponent, or entering someone's personal space. Size and loudness are also ways to make another person back off in a disagreement, leaving the louder, larger person the winner regardless of the content of their argument [6].
  18. These types of tactics are especially harmful to women and

    minorities for several reasons. For women, there is often a size disadvantage in the workplace, so anything that favors size and loudness will inherently disadvantage women. Second, personal remarks and attacks are much more commonly used against women to make them seem crazy or emotional.
  19. There are a few things you can do in your

    company to promote the kind of communication that’s healthy and productive for different situations. Understand when your goal is to expand ideas and when your goal is to narrow ideas down. During idea expansion, every idea and thought should be welcome. When you’re paring ideas down, make sure everyone stays on the topic of which solution is best. Have rules about how decisions are made, and if you want to include arguments in your culture have a third party referee to reduce bad behavior like aggression, loudness, and intimidation.
  20. Criticism Argument Cultures Onboarding and Team Debt The Null Process

  21. We talk a lot in engineering about technical debt, but

    few people talk about what I call "team debt". Technical debt refers to the "eventual consequences of poor system design" [1]. The idea is that when a feature is built it requires a certain amount of work to be thoroughly completed, and, if it is shipped before all the work is finished, anything leftover accrues as debt. If left unaddressed, a team's technical debt can reach a point where forward production must be halted in order to fix the technical issues and overall system design. Team debt is similar. It's the idea that when employees aren't properly trained, integrated, or managed, they are operating at less than optimal efficiency and "team debt" is accrued. Each new employee that is added without being sufficiently trained and integrated increases that debt. If unchecked, team debt can reach a point where expansion must be halted in order to address the deficiencies of the existing system, similar to what happened in the above story about the growing tech company that had to freeze hiring. An important part of reducing "team debt" at a company is structured onboarding and training for new employees.
  22. At a very high-level, onboarding is the process of taking

    someone from outside the company and making them an independent, productive, and confident member of the team. Onboarding involves training new employees on the technologies, organizational processes, and team dynamics they need to know to complete their job. Good onboarding will help new employees get up to speed in these areas quickly and efficiently.
  23. So what happens at companies that don't have structured onboarding?

    When a company has no structured onboarding, it is replaced by haphazard, ad-hoc, social onboarding. New employees have to rely on existing social structures to learn about their job, their role, their teammates, and the company. If, as a new hire, you have a lot in common with the existing team, from preferred communication methods to hobbies and interests, this will be easier. By not investing in onboarding, companies are tacitly perpetuating an environment that is systematically better for people from the existing group. Explicit onboarding should remove reliance on social norms for training new employees, and systematize job training so that people who are different from the existing team have a fair shot at being socially connected and successful at their job.
  24. Criticism Argument Cultures Onboarding and Team Debt The Null Process

  25. The Null Process is what happens when no process is

    put in place. It's named after null pointers. A pointer in computer programming is an object that points to a location in computer memory that means something. A pointer could point to a number or a letter. A null pointer doesn't point to anything; if you look at the location it points to in memory, it's just garbage. But it's an apt analogy because a null pointer is not nothing. The same is true with null processes. Process is simply a "series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular end." Even if you don't have a formalized process for completing certain goals, people still have to take steps to complete tasks. Without formalized process everyone does things their own way. A lot of companies end up with null processes because they're afraid of bad process. There's this myth that no process is liberating and frees people up to solve problems the best way possible. While that might be true on a very small, flexible, early-stage team, as a team grows the null process quickly becomes a hindrance. People assume that new people know how to do something, like respond to a support ticket or merge code. The null process has transformed into an unspoken expectation that things are done a certain way.
  26. [story about twitter lawsuit] You can’t challenge the null process

    or inspect it for problems. You’re pretending there’s nothing there. The null process also hurts morale. Because people are assuming that process is bad, when someone tries to solve a problem they run into while working, they are rebuked in and unnecessarily callous manner. It’s one giant, unstated expectation that things are done a certain way and no one knows what that ‘certain way’ is.
  27. Checklists Checklist manifesto stories Start making checklists. How to become

    a people manager. How to become a senior engineer. Let people add to them so they adapt over time to include things that you didn’t initially think of. Like a code base that’s patched up by many people over the years to cover all the different edge cases. Automation As much as possible, automate process. Build tools that force the behavior that you want to see. Automating process removes a lot of ambiguity and makes it clear to people what the steps are to complete a task. Examples of how we automate process in engineering include having tests kick off whenever a pull request is opened. If a pull request for a code change includes information about whether tests pass for that code, it makes it easier to enforce having all tests pass before code is shipped. Managers no longer have to run around asking if tests pass, reminding people to fix them.
  28. Conclusion Criticism - criticism leads to resentment and worsens people’s

    performance, which is bad for everyone but disproportionately levied on women and minorities, making it seem like women resent feedback and potentially damaging their performance Argument cultures - they promote a goal of winning which can lead to aggressive and potentially unethical behavior between coworkers. This is bad for creative problem solving and diversity since women are more often silenced in these types of environments. A lack of Onboarding - again, bad for everyone but worse for people who are different from the existing group, so if the original team is white, male, and young then people are female, racially diverse, or parents could have a harder time integrating Null processes are, again, bad for everyone but make it especially hard to inspect the role of bias in things like promotions and put in place process to change things.
  29. Questions Kate Heddleston kateheddleston.com/blog @heddle317

  30. Criticism Argument Cultures Onboarding and Team Debt The Null Process

    Unconscious Biases and Gendered Expectations
  31. Several years ago there was a study at Stanford University

    where participants were taught a subject by a male or female voice on a computer. The two subjects taught were “love and relationships” and “physics.” Participants were randomly assigned to one of the four combinations of voice+topic to learn the material. At the end of the session, they completed a computer-based questionnaire where they were asked how effective each voice was at teaching the given topic. Even though the material was identical between the voices, participants rated the male voice better at teaching “physics” and the female voice better at teaching “love and relationships.” When asked if gender played a role in their assessment of their tutor, participants uniformly said that would be ludicrous. This was a voice on a computer, after all. Every participant denied harboring any gender stereotypes, yet the evidence of gendered expectations was undeniable when looking at the data [1].
  32. These expectations about how people behave have snuck into the

    workplace. Historically, Silicon Valley has been a hub of success for white men. This has established a pattern of successful white men; a pattern our brain has recognized and ingrained. Given that we have these expectations about how people behave, what happens when someone violates our expectations? Violating social norms elicits varying degrees of responses. If someone steps into your personal space you might step backward to correct the violation. If someone older acts too "young," they might be mocked for their behavior in an attempt to let them know it is unacceptable. And if someone were to crowd you in an elevator or stand facing you directly, you might give them an angry look or make a remark about their behavior. In some performance reviews and emails shown during the trial, Kleiner partners complained that Ms. Pao did not speak up during board meetings and was “passive, reticent, waiting for orders in her relationships with C.E.O's” [7]. In others, she was criticized for speaking up, demanding credit and “always positioning,” as one male partner wrote [8]. She was even given coaching and training on how to better interrupt people in meetings [9]. This section is not a commentary on the guilt of either Kleiner-Perkins or Ellen Pao. The feedback she received simply illustrates the competing biases between masculine and feminine behavior in the workplace. People are almost entirely unaware that they have these subconscious biases, regardless of their own gender. In the introductory study of gendered voices and topics, all of the participants denied harboring gender biases while the data unequivocally showed that they did. The same thing can happen in the workplace, where people honestly don't realize that they harbor unconscious expectations about how women or other groups should behave. Because of the way that work environments are structured to reward male- centric behavior, these subconscious biases can systematically punish women more than men.
  33. Solutions: Tracking Data Changing the Pattern Removing personal feedback

  34. Criticism Argument Cultures Onboarding and Team Debt The Null Process

    Unconscious Biases and Gendered Expectations Agile Management
  35. Our current management structure is ruled by fear; fear of

    process, fear of failure, fear of change. If we programmed the way we manage, we would never ship any code. Our management needs to be as agile as our programming practices. One of the core tenets of agile development is “inspect and adapt.” This requires enough feedback and visibility into system status that you can assess problems and ways that the product needs to evolve. It also requires tools that making shipping code easy, reliable, and fast so that you can make changes quickly and safely. We should encourage agile management, where we have a lot of feedback and visibility into the the daily life of employees. Not having feedback and information about your employees is like having software without bug tracking. It would be considered patently insane in this day and age. When there’s a problem with the human processes at an organization, we should have the ability to be flexible and change them. The best thing to do when there is an organizational problem is the same thing you do when there is a bug; fix it as fast as possible. This kind of organizational adaptability is necessary for growth, productivity and diversity.
  36. You’ll often hear that the number one thing you can

    do to help with diversity is to listen. Having agile management is the organizational equivalent of having a system in place where you listen. And not only listen, but are able to absorb feedback and act on it to create incremental improvements in your company process. This is critical for diversity. Diversity problems are a subset of management problems. Currently companies are doing a poor job solving a lot of people problems within their organizations. Improving the ability to respond to all problems will also improve the ability to respond to diversity problems.