We chat with Nicole Sanchez, founder and managing partner at Vaya Consulting, a D&I consulting firm, about living by your company's values and making diversity and inclusion a founding priority.
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[00:00:29] (Music) Welcome to the CodeNewbie Podcast where we talk to people on their coding journey in hopes of helping you on yours. I’m your host, Saron, and today, we’re talking about diversity and inclusion with Nicole Sanchez, Managing Partner of Vaya Consulting.
[00:00:43] NS: As much as we say diversity is everyone’s job, building inclusion is everyone’s job, yes, and we should all know how to do budgets, but it doesn’t mean we’re all the finance team.
[00:00:55] SY: We think a lot about diversity and inclusion at CodeNewbie. We try to present a wide range of perspectives on technical topics from all sorts of people, but thinking about diversity and inclusion or D&I, for short, and being an expert on the topic are two very different things. For a few years, Nicole was VP of Social Impact at GitHub. She’s worked with big companies and small startups to help make their workplaces more diverse and more inclusive, and she’s been doing it for 25 years. She shares all the things she’s learned after this.
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[00:04:14] So let’s start with some terminology. When we say diversity, what are we talking about?
[00:04:19] NS: Well, the definition we use, we developed over several years of having this conversation everywhere we went about “What do you mean? What do you mean? What do you mean?” So we come in when we work with organizations and companies and we say, “This is the definition from which we’d like everything to grow and it goes like this. Diversity is endowed traits that are underrepresented in your sector, but overly predictive of educational and career success. These include, but are not limited to, race, socioeconomic status, gender, age, physical ability,” et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. That’s the definition that we use and we start every engagement by making sure we’re all aligned on that being a definition that we can live with.
[00:05:05] SY: That’s so interesting, one, because that is definitely the most nuanced and thoughtful definition that I’ve heard.
[00:05:12] NS: Thank you.
[00:05:14] SY: That I’ve heard of diversity, but also I’m amazed that it took a couple years to get to that point. That just shows how much thought went into it.
[00:05:22] NS: Oh, yeah. Well, I mean, I’ve been doing this work for 25 years and so that definition has evolved over time, but I would definitely say that when the bulk of my work came to be inside tech, I needed something that was a very precise tool because starting with engineers, they really want to make sure that they understand the logic behind what they’re doing. And so without a grounding and a framework, I saw engineers and others who were trained as such struggle to understand what the sort of humanities side of our brain and activities talk about often and it wasn’t because anybody was dumb or malicious. It was entirely because we saw tech companies get full of people who are trained in very, very different ways.
[00:06:12] And so we approached the definition like writing a mathematical equation. My dad was a mathematician and he trained me very well and kept thinking, “Let’s think about if-then statements. Let’s think about dependencies in this definition,” and we took a really mathematical approach, which was really fun and it’s helped, I think, a lot of our clients.
[00:06:36] SY: Okay, so based on that definition, what is not diversity?
[00:06:41] NS: It’s not that there are characteristics that aren’t diversity. That’s not where the problem lies, sort of ranking demographic characteristics, which we definitely do on purpose. It’s more like folks do it backwards and they say, “Well, we want diversity of thought.”
[00:06:58] SY: Right. Yeah, that’s what I was thinking of.
[00:06:59] NS: So we’re just going to go look for people. Right, and that, to me, is a copout because it doesn’t call out the fact that race and socioeconomic working together, but really race is a clear predictor of the kind of life somebody is going to have in the United States at this point in time. So we cannot say, “Well, gosh, the fact that I’m short and five feet tall is the same as a black woman trying to enter STEM fields.” These are not equal, demographic endowed traits when we’re trying to get at something that looks more like equity and fairness, and representation.
[00:07:38] And so that’s why we are very precise upfront by saying, “Look, if you’ve got to pick one, really, pick race,” and we’re not going to entertain the conversation that folks who are left-handed have struggles just like transgender people do. I’m sorry this sounds like…
[00:07:57] SY: I hope no one’s actually said that.
[00:07:59] NS: You might be surprised. People really want to fish for concepts application to them to their benefit. And so it’s sometimes very hard to educate, let’s say, white women in the space who have been in the past very angry at me for saying not that being a woman is not difficult, but that when you have to put a finer point on it, women of color and specifically black women are the ones who are living with the repercussions of the ills of a culture of a system. So let’s not say women overall when, really, there are gradients of enfranchisement among women. So we get back to that sort of feminism 2.0 problem, which is it’s hard to be a woman. So we’re going to march in the street. Meanwhile, those women left their children with nannies and extended family who are not at the march and their concerns are much different than the women who are on the street. That’s what we’re trying to put a finer point on so that people can have that level of conversation around diversity.
[00:09:09] SY: Okay. So let’s talk about inclusion. What is inclusion?
[00:09:13] NS: Inclusion is a description of a culture.
[00:09:16] SY: Okay.
[00:09:16] NS: What we want actually to achieve is inclusive culture, which is an active word, which means that the culture including the systems, policies, procedures, social norms, et cetera, that that system is constantly adapting to include everybody it decides belongs inside the system. Meaning if you hire somebody, the system, all those policies and procedures, and norms need to comfortably include that person. So the failure isn’t with the person for not conforming to your system. The failure is with the system for not including somebody who showed up with a different set of needs, ideas, experiences, et cetera. That’s inclusion.
[00:09:58] SY: So the result of prioritizing diversity is inclusion?
[00:10:04] NS: Not necessarily. I mean, I think what you want is for them to be working in tandem. One of my favorite engineers, Emily Nakashima, she works at Honeycomb, she said to me one day, it’s like a bicycle. There’s diversity, you got to pedal on one side and inclusion you got to pedal on the other. If you pedal too much on one or too much on the other, you tip over. What we’ve actually seen in this last generation of Silicon Valley is companies that are not diverse, but are very inclusive, meaning of the people they decided to hire, those folks had a great time.
[00:10:40] SY: They were included.
[00:10:40] NS: Right, if they were included. We know, let’s say, a cash-strapped nonprofit may be diverse, but if it’s got poor leadership, it might not be inclusive because people still aren’t thriving in that system so you can have diversity and no inclusion. What you want is both things working in tandem. So diversity is inside the system that is built for inclusion.
[00:11:06] SY: That was beautiful.
[00:11:08] NS: Thank you.
[00:11:09] SY: It’s almost like you’re an expert on this stuff.
[00:11:11] NS: Well, it’s taken a while, but I feel confident in my little area of the world. Thanks.
[00:11:18] SY: Well, it’s interesting because it feels like there are a lot of people who speak about diversity and inclusion and oftentimes those two ideas are lumped into one, just called D&I. A lot of folks who speak from a place of expertise when they’re not actually experts, you know?
[00:11:35] NS: That’s the thing, yeah.
[00:11:37] SY: And they take out their anecdotes and the experiences they’ve had and kind of project that without necessarily having the research and the time really invested in it as its own. Honestly, it’s almost like a field in and of itself.
[00:11:51] NS: It is and I’m hoping it becomes more so. I think that’s what a lot of us are working toward because as much as we say diversity is everyone’s job, building inclusion is everyone’s job, yes, and we should all know how to do budgets, but it doesn’t mean we’re all the finance team.
[00:12:09] SY: Yeah, great way to explain it.
[00:12:10] NS: Thanks. I think about it like there needs to be further professionalization of this field because right now, anybody can hang a shingle outside their door and say “I’m a diversity expert.” There’s no credentialing. There’s no quality control. There’s not even really a convergence on agreements around things like definitions. What I see happening a lot is, of course, I hope everybody hires us, but if they don’t, I really hope they hire one of these other very short, short list of firms that I really admire, like our competitors because there’s so much bad information out there that I fear this is how we’ve ended up where we are with the Facebooks and Googles of the world and their employment challenges as well as their disconnect between their business strategy and their espouse desire to build diverse companies.
[00:13:06] SY: So you talked about misinformation. Tell me a little bit more about that. What is an example of misinformation when it comes to diversity and inclusion?
[00:13:15] NS: There are a couple that we see over and over again. One is that some companies decide that their challenge around diversity and inclusion or their biggest challenge is hiring and that might not necessarily be true because there might be some cultural elements that need to shift before you start bringing people from disparate backgrounds into that culture, which cannot hold them, which doesn’t have a space for them, which is not inclusive. And so what they end up doing is saying, “Great. We want to diversify our workforce. Let’s start an internship program,” or, “Let’s start a junior level or a pre-junior level, the very, very, very bottom of the professional side of the house org chart and that’s where we’re going to get all our diversity.”
[00:13:59] Two things happen in there. Number one, it reinforces a hierarchy that exists outside that company wherein the folks who are already over-represented are in leadership and above, and the underclass in that employee structure becomes predominantly people of color. That’s one of the things that happens and then you have a very top-heavy white part of your org and then a very bottom heavy blacker and browner part of your org, and everyone’s looking at each other going, “Oh, this isn’t what we meant to do.” Now you have a new problem.
[00:14:30] SY: Oops, yeah.
[00:14:32] NS: So that’s one and then the other one, I alluded to it already, for a very long time, this isn’t new in tech or new in DEI, but the notion that somehow gender equity is going to be achieved first and then we’ll do the race stuff, and then we’ll do the trans stuff. It’s not going to work like that. I mean, if Kimberle Crenshaw taught us anything about intersectionality, it’s that you cannot parse identities and decide “First, we do this,” because what you’re really doing is you’re saying, “First, we do what those of us in power say we’re going to do,” which if it’s gender first, it means you’ve got a lot of white women in your executive structure saying, “Yes, we can peel apart gender and race, and we’ll do race second.”
[00:15:19] I talked to a very, very well-known VC in the Valley and he said the same thing to me once. He was asking me why his efforts at helping more girls get into STEM didn’t feel like they were bearing fruit. I said, “Well, tell me what you’ve done.” He said, “Well, I’ve given a lot of money to a computer lab at a very prestigious all-girls private school and we’re not seeing any difference in those girls coming out more interested in computer science.” And for those of us who work on this, I mean, there are so many flaws in that thinking. I said to him, “Well, the girls who attend that school tend to be girls who have a lot of options and so they know that STEM is an option for them because a lot of their parents living in Silicon Valley are people who are already in STEM. That’s not a mystery to them. So they have options to go and be other things as well and follow their passions, and have safety nets and go to very fancy schools. Have you considered putting a computer lab in an all-girls school that is in an incredibly different neighborhood, that is predominantly black or Latin and/or low income? Have you thought about that?
[00:16:33] He said, “What do you mean? Just give it to black and brown girls?” And I was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Do that.” He goes, “Well, I just keep thinking we’ll do the gender thing first and then we’ll get to race.” I went, “Oh my.” I think I kept a good poker face, but then I engaged him in another conversation that tried to illuminate for him the flaw in his thinking. He’s a smart guy. He got it and he has an open invitation to have me do a round table with black women in tech. He hasn’t taken me up on it yet, but I said I would curate an experience for him so that he could talk to specifically black women engineers if you want to get that precise with it so that he can hear directly from them how their experience has been trying to persist in this field.
[00:17:22] SY: That’s an interesting example because when we’re talking about diversity and inclusion, we’re talking about changing systems, right? The ultimate goal is to change a system. How big of an impact can that one person really make when it comes to changing the whole system?
[00:17:40] NS: I don’t like to discourage people from starting that way and saying, “Okay, I know you have a predominantly technical crowd listening,” so let’s say I’m an engineer and I’m a Latina, which I am, but I’m not an engineer in real life. I just pretend, it might be my impulse to start the conversation right about systems change, diversity, equity and inclusion, and that’s great, but I’m at risk of two things with that. Number one, getting labeled as a troublemaker and, of course, the brown girl’s the one who’s going to start talking about these things in which case I could be penalized in future work or, two, I start to get pulled on that work and as a result, my engineering work suffers because there are only so many hours in a day.
[00:18:27] And so it is a fine way to start. It’s not a fine way for a company to try to sustain. And I’ve seen several companies especially in startups who say things like, “Yeah, we’ll build the diversity function later.” And you go, “Okay. It’s going to be too late later not just because it won’t be in your DNA or in your founding story, but because just like scaling any system in your company, you’re thinking about scaling, you’re thinking about scaling your operations and your server capacity.
[00:19:00] SY: Right.
[00:19:00] NS: You’re thinking about scaling everything, but they don’t think about the fact that their culture is also going to need to scale. And as a result, their impulse to want to build a diverse company will not scale and it will get dwarfed by everything else and then that’s where it goes to die.
[00:19:20] Coming up next, Nicole shares her experiences at GitHub and what she worked on as VP of social impact. She also tells us what we can do as individuals to make our own spaces more diverse and more inclusive after this.
[00:19:40] We’ve talked about open source a bunch of times on this podcast, but frankly, open source is so big and complex, and fascinating that it needs its own show, and it has one. It’s called Command Line Heroes. It’s produced by Red Hat and it’s hosted by me. That’s right. I’ve got another tech podcast talking to incredible people about all things open source. We talk about the history of open source, the introduction of DevOps and then DevSecOps, and we even do an interview with the CTO of NASA. And that’s just the beginning. We also dig into cloud and serverless and big data, and all those important tech terms you’ve heard of, and we get to explore. If you’re looking for more tech stories to listen to, check it out at redhat.com/commandlineheroes. Link is in your show notes.
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[00:22:12] So I love the examples because if we talk about building in diversity and inclusion at the beginning versus later on, I don’t think anyone has actually built anything important later on and not be successful.
[00:22:26] NS: Exactly, exactly.
[00:22:27] SY: How many times have we said, “Oh, we’ll worry about scale later. We’ll add tests later.” Like, no, you just won’t ever add tests.
[00:22:35] NS: Always, always. Some big feature that somebody thought really early on and it was going to be the game changer and it just never got built and they tried to bolt it on there. That’s basically the trajectory of DEI in tech, which is, yes, we believe it, we’re going out to race around. We want all kinds of people with us. Oh, my gosh, I’m being crushed under the weight of this startup. It feels like it’s killing me. Diversity what? I said, “What about that?” Yeah, that’s going to have to wait. That’s the honest to goodness true story. And I want to be really clear, that’s not to excuse the people who made that. In fact, just quite the opposite to say, “You didn’t really live your values.” I think about the very, very, very first startup of which I was part. That’s how I was brought in and the CEO said, “I want all kinds of people working in this company and you’re the person to do it.” I was like, “Great, let’s do it.” I said, “Tell me what you see.” We went through the stuff and he’s like, “I want people who are parents. I want people from all backgrounds.” I was like, “Okay, this guy was really like, okay, he’s in.”
[00:23:40] SY: He’s into it. Yeah.
[00:23:41] NS: It was awesome and we went and the first thing we did was build an entire founding engineering team that was 100% Native American.
[00:23:51] SY: Oh, wow!
[00:23:51] NS: Then I went and found some folks who are of different ages and one woman who asked if she could bring her baby into the office occasionally, and we said, “Sure, absolutely. Let’s just make that happen.” Then the CEO demanded to have a really robust benefits package. What happened was the first round of investing landed and the investors looked at the part that I was working on and said, “I don’t recognize that. That looks strange to me. Cut that off and we’ll give you your money.”
[00:24:21] SY: Oh, wow!
[00:24:23] NS: That’s a cost center, not a revenue center. Yeah, and so sometimes I get frustrated with the diversity in tech conversation because every week there’s a new medium piece about how somebody found religion on diversity inclusion in tech and I’m like, 20 years later going, “Really?” It’s not about like salty “Let’s give people credit.” It’s about saying, “Let’s actually build our data-driven solutions because we have data.” We actually do have data. We have a lot of qualitative data. We don’t have a lot of quantitative data, but we sure as heck those of us who’ve been doing this know the narrative of how we got where we are.
[00:25:04] SY: I want to go back to the example of the startup because it sounds like everything was going great. The CEO was on board. The company’s happy. Everything is super diverse. Everything is inclusive. And then these outside people came in and changed everything. So in that situation, what would the CEO, what would you have them do differently?
[00:25:30] NS: You know, I’ve thought about this over 20 years. I wanted him to make good on his word. That’s really it. I wanted him to live the value that he sold me on even when it was hard because that’s the only time you really know if it’s a value, is if you can stick to it and he didn’t and he wasn’t. Part of the downside of doing this work is when you really think you’ve found yourself inside a system that might be the real deal, like they’re really going to do it, this time it’s really going to happen, this company is going to do the right things and then it comes right down to the same set of people making a set of decisions about who’s going to get a billion dollars and who’s not. It doesn’t matter. Then you watch people actually live their values and it’s been very disappointing.
[00:26:17] SY: So this idea that it’s easy or at least easier to do D&I and to embrace it when you’re not under the gun, right? It’s almost like it hasn’t been stress tested. It’s like, yeah, when things are fine, the company’s moving, it’s great. Sure, let’s bring everyone on board, but then when something goes wrong, it sounds like, or some type of new stressor comes about, it sounds like that’s when you’re really put to the test of, okay, are you going to fight for this or are you going to accept the fact that this might be something that you need to let go?
[00:26:50] NS: That’s exactly right. I keep thinking I want to find a person who’s going to choose that over money.
[00:26:56] SY: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
[00:26:57] NS: There’s another VC with whom I have crossed paths in the past and he gave me a really lovely compliment. He said, “You know, you’re one of the best at this.” I said, “Thank you very much.” He goes, “Only problem is I don’t know if you’re a capitalist.” And I said, “Huh.” He said, “Yeah, I just don’t think you’re motivated by money.” And I said, “Oh, yeah, that’s true.” And he said, “Yeah. You’re not a capitalist.” And I was like, “Huh, I guess, you know what? You know what, sir? I don’t know. I don’t know that I have a choice living in the United States in 2019, but if there’s a choice, I’d like to see the menu.” “Okay, maybe.” What else is out there?
[00:27:41] There’s a difference between making this system that we’ve been born into work for you versus believing in the system that you’ve seen treat so many of your people and your family members so badly like wouldn’t it be rational if I wasn’t a capitalist? I’m from a working-class background, from a dad who flipped burgers and a mom who worked in the stockroom of a Ross Department Store. I’m proud of that. They worked really, really hard, but that’s who I’m from. So if a guy who was born a millionaire and lives as a billionaire looks at me and goes, “Hey, I’m sorry. You might not be a capitalist, therefore, I’m not sure I can hire you,” you go, “Wait a minute. Not only do we live in this system, you want me to love it, too? Damn. You might not get that part of me.”
[00:28:32] SY: So it’s interesting. There are different systems, different roles at play to create consistent and sustainable change because there are the individuals, so me as an individual person whether I’m an engineering, a manager, a director, whatever role I have, I can make a difference in terms of the way I talk to people, the way I refer people, the way I behave. There’s like that individual responsibility that we all have then there’s the system of the company, which is generally dictated by the higher-ups, the VPs, the executive team, oftentimes coming from the CEO they often set the standard, the example. They set the tone and the expectations for how everyone else should behave, but then with the startup example, there’s this outside force as well of these people with a paycheck who can say, “Actually, all those things that you’ve been doing inside your organization, we’re going to mess it up.”
[00:29:30] NS: That’s right.
[00:29:31] SY: There are so many things that need to be different so as an expert yourself, where do you focus your energy? There’s so much to do.
[00:29:41] NS: I know. Don’t despair. We’re still going in the right direction. I have spent time in lots of different points of leverage in that whole system, in that tech ecosystem and so first and foremost, I don’t think there’s a single point of leverage. That said, the investment level and the interplay between investors and entrepreneurs, and the power differential, and the value differential between those two groups of people has to be fundamentally different. It’s a lot to go from company to company and train people. That’s a lot of energy and I’m 46 now, and I’m much choosier about where I put my energy. I do love doing trainings still, but it’s not an infinitely scalable solution. Tech is looking for scalable solutions. So I, in my consulting, am trying to do a few different things one of which is literally through the consulting to disrupt parts of people’s processes that they’ve outgrown like they’re hiring process or their promotion process or their internal communications.
[00:30:50] So that’s what we’re doing with the consulting firm, and then we’re working on some experimental stuff that we’re really excited about. We want to get to scalable solutions. The movement that we made in the last 25 years is not fast enough for me and I don’t think anybody in the sector, certainly not any woman of color in this sector is going to say, “Gosh! We’re going too fast. Slow down with all this change. I don’t think we can handle it.” I like, too, with the second half of my life really work on scaling what I learned in the first half of my life.
[00:31:34] SY: And now it’s time for Tales from the Command Line brought to you by Red Hat. Since we’ve been talking all about building company diversity and inclusion, we’ve brought on Koren Townsend, Senior Quality Engineer at Red Hat, to chat about the different ways they’ve been tackling this issue. Hi Koren! Thanks for being on the show.
[00:31:53] KT: Thank you.
[00:31:54] SY: You are also involved in an organization at Red Hat called Build. Tell me about that. What does it stand for?
[00:32:00] KT: blacks United in Leadership and Diversity. We exist to help foster the connected community of black Red Hatters and our allies and to support Red Hat’s efforts to recruit, develop and engage black associates thereby advancing our diverse inclusive meritocracy. One of the biggest reasons why we came to exist is because the diversity numbers for African-Americans and black Americans at Red Hat is about 3% according to the statistics on redhat.com. So that’s not a big number and so we’re just trying to make sure that Red Hat has recently been going through these diversity and inclusion initiatives, and putting a lot of goals towards that. We’re just here to help make sure we can do what we can as associates at Red Hat to make sure that those numbers can increase.
[00:32:48] SY: So we talked about 3% and I feel like that’s unfortunately normal for the tech industry, right? I think the numbers I’ve seen are 1 to 3%. So congratulations, you’re on the high end of that range. Tell me, what number are we trying to get to?
[00:33:04] KT: I think that looking at the population and it really depends on the demographics across the country, but in Raleigh, I don’t know, I can’t even quote a percentage of African-Americans in the city, but I’m thinking that it’s way more than 3% and I’m thinking if Red Hat can represent the community that it’s in, I think that’s a great goal to shoot for.
[00:33:23] SY: So what’s interesting is when we talk about diversity and inclusion, there are many culprits. There is company culture. There’s this idea of the pipeline problem. There’s a different idea of the leaky pipeline problem that says the pipeline is fine, there’s plenty of people getting started, but they don’t make it all the way through. When you think about why that 3% is that 3%, what reasons come to mind? What are some of the issues around why those numbers are so low?
[00:33:52] KT: The one thing that I have seen, especially in the black community that I’m from and that I’m exposed to now is that the exposure to technology in STEM at an early age can be lacking especially for schools that are in a predominantly black neighborhood, low-income areas. I think that people prioritize other things above technology. I think STEM or having a computer lab may not be a high priority. Just like they cut PE programs or they cut art programs. I’ve seen that happen and so if we rely on the school system to be that exposure, sometimes that may fall between cracks. There are lots of, I think, different reasons why that number can be low, but in my personal belief, exposure at an early age is a big one.
[00:34:38] SY: So when it comes to what a company like Red Hat can do, is it about exposing more kids to STEM? Is it more about preparing people for future jobs at Red Hat? Where does Red Hat’s efforts lie?
[00:34:52] KT: I think acknowledging that there’s an issue is a first start. I think that Red Hat has made some strides to increase the diversity numbers amongst its associates. I think putting that number out there, like a lot of companies aren’t putting that number out there like 3% or whatever that percentage is, and I think that’s a first start as to knowing that “Okay, here’s an issue. Here’s a problem. How do we address it?” I think the diversity and inclusion groups, those types of groups supported by the company at an executive level is a great way to express, “Hey, we see there’s a problem.” Having those groups where people can feel connected to the company, I think, is a great way to retain associates. So I think for the most part, we’re doing and we’re headed in the right direction.
[00:35:40] SY: Yeah, tell me about some of the specific problems in the community specifically at Red Hat that you are trying to alleviate.
[00:35:48] KT: Definitely. I think one thing for me that sticks out is the recruitment. We are really trying to get more of a Red Hat presence at university. We have we have two universities. The closest universities to us is St. Augustine University, which is an HBCU, Historically Black College and University, and also Shaw University. Shaw University is literally one block away.
[00:36:11] SY: Oh, wow!
[00:36:12] KT: We’re really trying to recruit from different demographics. Then we have to be present where the students are.
[00:36:20] SY: How is BUILD specifically changing, ideally improving the way that black Red Hatters are doing their jobs? Tell me about that.
[00:36:29] KT: Red Hat just had their first annual MLK Day of Service. It’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service back in January 2019 because MLK Day is not his birthday observance. It’s the third Monday in January and it’s still not an observed holiday. Usually, a lot of people will take MLK Day off and we decided, well, no, let’s make it a date on. You don’t have to take PTO that day. You don’t have to take a vacation day, but you can sign up for a volunteer event. You’re either here at the tower, you find your own volunteer event, you coordinate that with your manager and that was a huge effort. It took us months of planning to pull that off. I think that having Red Hat supported events because they pitched in for the budget to make sure that this happened, was huge. I think it said huge things about Red Hat as a whole and that we, as a Red Hat community, are definitely changing and evolving. I think we’re growing for the better.
[00:37:27] SY: And now back to the interview. So before you got to GitHub, you were doing your own consulting firm. You had employees, you’re doing your thing, and then this opportunity came about. How did you even get involved with GitHub to begin with?
[00:37:41] NS: So it was through a former colleague who had a friend who was in HR at GitHub as contracts usually are. I know we love to think that it’s a lot of fair RFP processes out there, but that’s not how the sales is done.
[00:37:54] NS: So we got connected with GitHub and this is when Vaya Consulting first started in 2014. I was contacted specifically as a result of the departure, very public, very painful departure of a female developer who was sort of one of the first people to leverage social media to call out a company and in a very real and specific way, which was incredibly dangerous and incredibly admirable from where I was sitting. As we do, and I hope this is okay if she listens to this, I won’t name her because every time somebody mentions her, she just gets horribly harassed. It’s so terrible and I’m sounding dodgy it’s just because it’s not worth it. So whenever there’s a situation like that, if we have a direct line to the person who has been aggrieved, our firm reaches out and if we’ve met the company, we reach out to the individual first to see if we can be of help.
[00:38:48] SY: Okay.
[00:38:49] NS: Because we’re really clear that as much as we need to be a consulting firm that’s for hire, to come in and help clean up stuff, we’re clear about what our values are, so we reach out to people and I reach out to her and after a week, I think, I hadn’t heard back from her. And so I pursued the contract with GitHub. First and foremost, nobody has disputed with any validity this woman’s accusations about what happened. So when I got there, I was very relieved to find that nobody was pretending like stuff didn’t happen.
[00:39:24] SY: Okay, that’s good.
[00:39:24] NS: It met condition number one for me and going in and choosing a client which was really, really important. Number two, I had immediate and direct access to the CEO so that I could gauge how seriously he took what was happening and they met that criteria, too. Then criteria three was, were they going to be serious about putting budget behind what was happening as a client? They met that criteria, too, and it’s not just because you want to charge a high price. It’s because the most true thing anybody ever said to me was “Don’t tell me your priorities. Show me your budget and I’ll tell you your priorities.” And that’s just true…
[00:40:02] SY: Yes.
[00:40:03] NS: Isn’t that great? I wish I could take credit for it. I always tell people that I can’t take credit and I don’t remember who told me, which is the worst part. So they met the criteria and we went in. I will tell you, I met some of the most amazing people I’ve ever worked with and I am still working with several of them, which was a really nice surprise, because you forget in all of the press when something goes down, you forget for a minute that there are actual humans who are fretting over staying inside a company, who are feeling like do they do the right thing by staying? Should they have left too? They have kids that they provide for. It’s just like a really complicated thing and so we worked with them specifically on rebuilding internal communications for a year. And then after a year, we were getting some really great traction on the diversity, equity, and inclusion things we were working on and so they brought us all in house and then I was able to build out a team.
[00:41:05] NS: So yeah, that’s what happened. That’s how it happened. I think there was obviously an acquisition and a lot of changes, and I ended up staying for two years beyond the first year and then went back to Vaya Consulting.
[00:41:20] SY: With a company like GitHub and really with big companies in general, I think there’s a lot of stuff that folks do that look really good on the outside, but isn’t really making a difference on the inside, right? There’s like this idea of diversity theater. They’re just kind of putting on a play, putting on a show for folks, but it doesn’t really make a difference, which makes you wonder how big of a difference can companies truly make?
[00:41:43] NS: Well, there’s this very interesting body of research that’s emerging around the idea that workplaces perform the civic function in our lives that places of worship have played in past generations’ lives. Meaning, your work friends are the people who, if you get sick, they check on you, if you’re planning a wedding, these are the people you update and invite, if you’re sad, if you need something, God forbid you had a tragedy in your family, that your coworkers are increasingly the people we look to for community support as opposed to churches, synagogues, temples in the past. If that is the case, and I think it’s a really interesting set of research, if that’s the case then companies need to be prepared to do a lot of changing because not even for the obvious reason like if that’s what workers are going to expect, you’re going to want to recruit and retain top talent by giving them whatever they want.
[00:42:44] NS: It’s not even like that. It’s if it performs this important function in civic society, people are going to start to get choosier about where they go to work because it’s where they’re spending most of their waking hours. They’re going to essentially choose their religions and the religion is the culture of that company and do they align with it? And so the most inclusive cultures are going to get top talent, retain talent, but they’re also going to end up being really strong anchors in communities literally as, in part, civic organizations. I didn’t understand this until I was inside a company and there was a fire drill or people thought it was a fire drill. The fire alarm was pulled and we all ran outside. It was a small fire.
[00:43:34] Everybody was fine, but the neighbors came out too and then neighbors were taking instructions on the street from this company’s captains who were on the street shepherding workers to safety, which is such a fascinating place where your neighbors are looking to you for some sort of like civic leadership in that moment that hasn’t been invested in in terms of our infrastructure. We don’t have crossing guards for elementary school students anymore. That’s infrastructure that’s gone. So you can imagine a company that decides “You know what we’re going to do? We’re going to rotate volunteers from our company to go be the crossing guards for the elementary school across the street. It’s great for morale. Now the school district doesn’t have to pay for it. It’s fun for us. We love seeing the kids.” Increasingly, we’re going to see that being the role of companies.
[00:44:32] This is partially what I mean around what else is on the menu other than the capitalism we’ve grown up with because is there a place where you can actually have thoughtful civic life and tech businesses living side by side myself? Building infrastructure together? I don’t know, but we know that it’s crossed over to housing. It’s crossed over to transportation.
[00:44:55] SY: Yeah, that’s true.
[00:44:56] NS: So I am interested in what else it can do for civic life.
[00:45:01] SY: In the meantime, what can the rest of us do to be a little bit more inclusive, a little bit more thoughtful in our diversity efforts and initiatives? What can the average everyday coder do after hearing all this great information about the work that you do?
[00:45:16] NS: Remember that culture is simply a set of individual choices that people are making all day long that add up to whatever you’re feeling and so it is as simple as the “be the change” kind of idea, but it literally means in a workplace context that if you want the culture to be a certain way, you have to be that way. You have to be that way first. It sounds very whoo-hoo, but if you say things like “I wish people were nicer to each other here,” and you proceed to be a jerk to everybody, you’re definitely not going to get where you want to go. And so with every interaction, every choice, every small decision point that you make that you know impacts other people, be the way you want your company to be.
[00:46:06] SY: Now at the end of every episode, we ask our guests to fill in the blanks of three very important questions. Nicole, are you ready to fill in the blanks?
[00:46:13] NS: I’m ready.
[00:46:15] SY: Number one, worst advice I’ve ever received is?
[00:46:20] NS: Marry rich.
[00:46:21] SY: Oh, interesting. Tell me about that.
[00:46:25] NS: Oh my goodness. This was in the ‘90s. There was this diversity and inclusion leader who is kind of a big deal in the space and to be a big deal in the space didn’t mean anything. We had no social media, but if you were under working in diversity and inclusion like I was, you knew who this guy was and my boss said, “Well, since you’re so excited to meet him, you can drive him to the airport. You can talk to him.” I was like kind of starry-eyed. I was like, “Okay, cool.” So we drove him to the airport and I was telling him about all my aspirations, my ambitions and he was Latino. He’d grown up poor and he understood some of what I was saying about what I saw for myself in terms of economic security and that kind of thing. And then my big world-changing aspirations and then he goes, “Okay. I have one bit of advice for you.” I was like, “Oh, my gosh. Here it is.” He goes, “Marry rich.” Oh, man! “What? That’s terrible.” And I didn’t but we’re fine. We built together.
[00:47:31] SY: Yeah.
[00:47:31] NS: Isn’t that disappointing? It’s the worst.
[00:47:34] SY: That’s pretty disappointing. Yeah, given all that build-up, that’s disappointing. Yeah. I’m sure.
[00:47:40] NS: Terrible.
[00:47:41] SY: Question number two, my first coding project was about?
[00:47:45] NS: It was in Basic. California Public Elementary Schools back in the early ‘80s, all had Apple computer labs and so we got to learn Basic and my very first thing I had to do was make my name scroll infinitely down the screen and I was so pleased when I did it, I think I was in the third grade. That was way back in the day.
[00:48:10] SY: Number three, one thing I wish I knew when I first started to code is?
[00:48:15] NS: I never went with any coding after that and I think what I would tell myself is dabble. Dabble so you can remember the engineering way, that mathematical way of thinking. Don’t lose it. I don’t think it’s something that calls me like writing code, but I see the joy that folks get out of it when they figure it out. And so I would have told myself that I should not get too far away from it.
[00:48:42] SY: Yeah, because you’re with technologists all the time. You’re kind of surrounded by them. Have you ever thought about learning to code or kind of going back to that?
[00:48:49] NS: I have. In fact, some of the engineers at GitHub gave me all of these recommendations because I was like, “Okay, you guys, I’m going to do it. I love open source. I get what open source is and this is awesome, and I can go forks and stuff, and it’s going to be great.”
[00:49:04] SY: Yeah, pull some stuff.
[00:49:04] NS: And I got in there. Yeah, like forks and stuff. And then I got in there and my eyes just glazed over and I started falling asleep. I was very disappointed in myself. I kept going to things like reading the tags, reading the comments of everything because I wanted to see, of course, I wanted to like psychoanalyze everybody, see how I thought this team was performing and you know, what are you going to do?
[00:49:32] SY: That’s all right. That’s all right. Well, thank you, Nicole, so much for spending time with us and sharing all your expertise about D&I and social impacts and all that good stuff.
[00:49:41] NS: Thank you so much. I love being here. Good luck to all the CodeNewbies. Bye!
[00:49:53] SY: This episode was edited and mixed by Levi Sharpe. You can reach out to us on Twitter at CodeNewbies or send me an email, firstname.lastname@example.org. Join us for our weekly Twitter chats. We’ve got our Wednesday chats at 9 P.M. Eastern Time and our weekly coding check-in every Sunday at 2 P.M. Eastern Time. For more info on the podcast, check out www.codenewbie.org/podcast. Thanks for listening. See you next week.
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