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The Incorrect Assumptions Surrounding Diversity in Tech August 7, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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There was a time in my life when I believed that the tech industry was a strict meritocracy, that the best would out.  At this stage of my life, I now realize that is a pipe dream.

Can we define the best software engineers?  We can perhaps define good ones, and perhaps also define poor ones, in a general sense.  “I know it when I see it,” said former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, speaking of pornography.  Which may not be that different from speaking of code.

The problem is that those are very subjective and biased measures.  The person who writes fast code may not write the best code.  The person who write the best code may be slow as molasses.  Which is better?  There are certainly people who write the best code fast, but are they writing code that will make the company and product successful?

There are a thousand tech startups born every year.  They think they have a great idea, but all ideas are flawed.  A few are flawed technically, but most are flawed in terms of understanding the need or the market.  Those ideas have blind spots that others outside of that creative process can also certainly readily recognize.

The ultimate question for companies is what do you want to be when you grow up.  Companies build applications that reflect its market focus.  But they also build applications that reflect its teams.  When we build products, we do so for people like us.

In tech companies, we are building a product.  I have built products before.  Software engineers make hundreds of tactical decisions on how to implement product every day.  Product managers make dozens of strategic decisions on what products to build, what it runs on, and what features to include.

I have made those decisions.  I am painfully aware that every single decision I make has an accompanying bias.  I dislike that, because I know that decisions I have made can foil the larger goals of being successful and profitable.

I want a diverse team participating in those decisions.  Because I don’t trust that my own biases will let me make decisions that will build the best product, for widest customer base.  I mean gender, race, economic status, orientation, age, everything I can include.  Many tech companies use the term “cultural fit” to eliminate any diversity from their teams.  Diverse teams may have more tension, because you have different experiences and think differently, but you end up making better decisions in the end.  I’m pretty sure that’s demonstrable in practice.

You may believe that you know everything, and are the best at any endeavor you pursue.  Let me let you in on something: you are not.  We would all be amazed at what everyone around us can contribute.  If we just let them.

On Silicon Valley, Productivity, and Diversity March 11, 2013

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Well, there is a huge and unmanageable topic if I ever heard one.  So I’ll be brief.  The thought started with a blog post by Shanley Kane, a product manager in Silicon Valley, who took issue with others who offered their take on sexism in IT.

Long story short, Shanley is mostly right.  Culture is important.  The older I get, the more I want to be somewhere that shares my values.  We spend an awful lot of time at work (even if I work remotely), and we don’t want to feel like we are alienated during that time.

But one of my values is, well, discomfort.  I want to be exposed to ideas that I haven’t been exposed to before.  I want to think, and re-think, my value proposition, and what I bring to any particular table of effort.  The fact that I was born a white male, in a working class and blue collar community, gives me a particular point of view.  And guess what?  That point of view isn’t shared by the vast majority of people in this world.  And in the grand scheme of things they count; in many cases probably more so than I do at this particular time of my life.

Her point, I think, is that there is a dark underside of the culture story in high tech, and in particular in Silicon Valley.  And it doesn’t boil down to race, or ethnic background, or education, or anything like that.  It means different ideas.  And if we aren’t different, in some fundamental way, we don’t have substantially different ideas.

I was surprised at the negative responses to Shanley’s post, and to subsequent writings on the topic.  Well, maybe not particularly surprised, but certainly disappointed.  If we don’t challenge our thinking, sooner or later we will probably fail, and in a spectacular way.

I think that maybe diversity, at least in high tech companies, isn’t a matter of the color of skin, or race, or anything like that.  The comments that veer off into that realm miss the point in a very real way.  Instead, let me ask this question.  What have you done to make yourself emotionally and intellectually uncomfortable today?  If the answer is nothing, you are almost certainly shortchanging yourself.