Diversity in Silicon Valley, Series 1/5: Why Celebrating Diversity is Critical to Success in Tech

What is success in tech?

Success is Product-Market fit. It’s when we’ve solved challenging problems that people have. Success is your market buying your product because it’s a painkiller, not a vitamin. When we deliver software that makes life more comfortable, protects our time, saves people money, or enables us to lead a more meaningful life. Success is when we surprise and delight customers with just the right amount of tech, but no more. When we add so much value, users feel guilty about not paying for it.

Achieving success in tech requires the perfect storm of three variables. Success requires a fantastic team, an excellent product, and a great market. Companies only control two nobs: team and product. The third variable, the market, is almost entirely out of our control.

Product-Market fit is a dynamic game because the market is constantly shifting. Success is temporary even when we have 100% spot-on product-market fit. We need a team to continuously nudge and re-align our product to tomorrow’s new market expectations. Teams of engineers, PMs, sales engineers, customer success engineers, security, legal, operations, business development, and align the product with customer expectations (tomorrow’s market expectations).

Whenever we hear the phrase “Extreme Customer Focus,” it’s leadership trying to remind everyone to please concentrate on delivering value to the market.

What is diversity?

A dictionary definition of “diversity” doesn’t cut it. The 1960s are replaying themselves out in modern society with identity politics, racial equality protests, gender equality movements, LGBTQ+ liberation, and more with yet another period of intense social change.

Diversity is not an individual descriptor. Being gay or female or black or handicapable or neurodivergent does not make one diverse. Diversity describes only the relative composition of a group of people.

Specifically, diversity characterizes the variety of experiences of people on a team. It just so happens that being gay or female or black or handicapable or neurodivergent tends to result in different life experiences, different obstacles, and different ways of navigating those challenges and achieving victories over challenges.

Here’s another way to think of it: If our bodies are the hardware, then our experiences are the software that runs on top of our hardware. Our experiences color the lenses through which we see the world. Because of this, the same context likely elicits different emotional, social, or even spiritual responses from a diverse group.

When people with similar experiences surround us, we’ll likely share emotional, social, or spiritual responses. Our evolution tricks us into feeling protected in small groups that share our reactions. As comfortable as this feels, it’s an enormous disservice to creative endeavors.

Why is diversity mission-critical to success in tech?

To tackle dynamic, open-ended challenges with constrained resources (time and money) requires creativity. We not only have to spot the opportunity in the world, but we create something new, something that the world has never seen before. To verbify Peter Thiel’s book, we have to 0 to 1.

We 0 to 1 new product ideas and user experiences. We 0 to 1 new infrastructure to abstract compute or storage. We 0 to 1 new programming languages that offer new memory safety features or concurrency guarantees. We 0 to 1 new ways for IoT devices to communicate with each other without killing the battery instantly. We 0 to 1 new edge-distributed authentication schemes to improve performance and security. We 0 to 1 new SDKs to invite other engineers to understand and use our platforms quickly. We 0 to 1 new sales tools to automatically identify our markets and who might receive the most value from our tech.

All of these new creations come from groups of people working together. From teams of PMs, engineers, customer service engineers, site-reliability engineers, security engineers, and artificial intelligence engineers collaborating. We birth the future of tech from the creativity that these teams foster.

When we share a problem with a homogenous group, we’ll get similar approaches to the problem. It’s like being sucked into an echo chamber or getting lost in a hall of mirrors. The same gaps will blindside everyone in the group. It’s doubtful any passionate disagreements will come from a homogenous group. Not to mention, it’s incredibly suspicious when everyone is in violent agreement.

Share the same problem with a diverse team, and as long as the team members are comfortable sharing, we’ll get plenty of different ways to look at the problem. We’ll get passionate disagreements. Everyone will learn and try each other’s perspectives (lenses that color the world) to see the situation from different values. We’ll get all these out and on the table. Step back, and look at what’s on the table. Put on our business hats, and decide together, “What’s best for the customer?” Do this in a timebox to drive a decision (consensus is unnecessary). And you’ve got a much better shot at success, thanks to a playful, open, and collaboratively diverse team.

Remember, our experiences shape our values, perspectives, and how we see the world. We all face challenges. But we all face different challenges, and we conquer them in different ways.

In tech and all open-ended creative endeavors, this matters a great deal.

All news ideas follow a lifecycle. The top is a funnel that captures initial thoughts. Roughly, this lifecycle looks like this,

The Pipeline of New Ideas

Having a diverse team is the first step in enabling creativity to birth new ideas. But it turns out that it’s not enough.

Diverse teams are necessary but not sufficient. We must also celebrate diversity.

We tend to hide things about ourselves that mark us as an outsider of a group. Sometimes it feels like our experiences that are different are baggage. Something negative. A liability. So we self-censor our contributions to the team’s idea flow.

Nearly all of us want to be part of groups. We’re incredibly social critters, and most of us want to be seen by the group as part of the group. It doesn’t matter if this is learned or is part of our evolutionary biology. Sometimes it becomes so overwhelming that we over-identify with similarities and actively deny our differences. We lie to fit into the group. We often don’t even realize we’re lying. And this is what leads to group-think.

Groupthink is dangerous not only for the team’s creativity but for the individual. Our efforts to fit in can be so extreme that it results in cognitive dissonance. When we don’t recognize ourselves or our behaviors, we think back on our actions and ask ourselves, “what was I thinking? That’s not me.” And when our actions and our words do not align with how we see ourselves, with our core identities, it results in cognitive dissonance, a potentially dangerous mental health stressor.

How Individual Self-Censoring Mechanisms impact a team’s output

So, how do we overcome these natural inclinations towards group-think? We celebrate our differences. Celebrate vulnerable moments of disagreement with compassion and appreciation. Here are three ways to celebrate diversity in engineering teams. Until we celebrate differences as strengths, we will present only the parts of ourselves we believe are welcomed to the group and hide our differences.

Another way is to take a step back and realize that we’re not all that different, even if we look or sound different. Even with our diverse experiences, we often share much more in common than we realize.

An advertisement demonstrates we often have more similarities than differences, after all.

Red flags that we’re squelching diversity.

  • People from underrepresented minorities disproportionately quit or ask to transfer to another team.
  • General disengagement from the group to tack complex problems together.
  • Underrepresented minorities do not get promoted.
  • Disagreements rarely occur.
  • There is a general uncomfortableness around accepting a new or difficult task.
  • Team members are uncomfortable or incapable of articulating the strengths of someone else’s ideas.
  • The same subset of people speak up or dominate a discussion. (Thanks Grace Chi)

Positive rapport-building questions that celebrate our differences as strengths:

  • What’s the most difficult challenge you’ve ever faced in your life, and what did you learn from it?
  • What’s one thing you believe to be true that most people consider false?
  • What professional achievement are you most proud of achieving?
  • Was there ever a time when a timeboxed PoC failed, but something good still came out of the experience for you and the company?
  • When mentoring someone, what’s one difficult lesson you wish you had learned sooner that you could pass forward?
  • What’s one thing you wish someone would build already? Why that thing?
  • Could you please help me see how “X” is the right thing to do for the company? (for any, X)
  • I appreciate the perspective, but is it possible that “X” is the right thing to do for the company given the constraint “Y,” even though it’s not what we want without “Y”? (For any idea X, and constraint Y)

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Ex-Apple, Director of Security Architecture at Robinhood. Lives in San Francisco. Plant-based Health Nut, Podcaster, Motorcycle Rider, Runner, and Biker

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Jon McLachlan

Jon McLachlan

Ex-Apple, Director of Security Architecture at Robinhood. Lives in San Francisco. Plant-based Health Nut, Podcaster, Motorcycle Rider, Runner, and Biker

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