Tech Inclusion SF 2017

Ellen Spertus
20 min readOct 25, 2017

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I had been reading about Tech Inclusion SF, weighing whether to attend. What convinced me was when Ellen K. Pao was announced as a speaker. I’ve long been an admirer of hers and never had a chance to see her speak. I found out that Moms Can Code was giving away two tickets. I applied for one and got it! I was so excited to attend that I arrived at the Armory on Wednesday before the doors opened.

The photo was taken by the man behind me in line, who was deaf and told me (by typing on his phone) that he was part of the communications team. The meeting was fortuitous because I’m helping plan a conference for women of color in computing and wanted a recommendation of an ASL interpreter, which he said he would send me. I’m sure I could also ask the Tech Inclusion organizers, since all events were both signed and closed captioned.

Driving Inclusion and Innovation in Workplace Culture

I got a great seat near the main stage. The first session was a panel Driving Inclusion and Innovation in Workplace Culture, which discussed why diversity efforts have been so unsuccessful. While all of the panelists were great, I was especially pleased to see Candice Morgan, Head of Inclusion & Diversity at Pinterest, whom I’d known by email and phone but never in person. Some interesting comments (attributed when I remember who said them) were:

  • Favoritism and affinity toward people like oneself may be more of a factor than direct discrimination.
  • Diversity was better in Silicon Valley when the federal government was a bigger player. — Danny Allen, VP, Silicon Valley D&I Lead, SAP Labs.
  • An important recent report is Illusion of Asian Success. — Danny Allen.
  • Diversity shouldn’t just be moving people around like colors in a Rubik’s Cube (i.e., by competing for the same existing talent). — Candi Castleberry Singleton, VP of Intersectionality, Culture, & Diversity, Twitter.
  • The problem can’t be solved by just diversity professionals. If one diversity professional leaves, employees shouldn’t just do nothing, waiting for instructions from the next one to get hired.
  • You’ll have a high attrition rate when people don’t feel welcome or their managers don’t give them a challenge.
  • Healthy skepticism is good, but there’s a lot of unhealthy skepticism, which leads to people not doing anything. — Candice Morgan.
  • People think chief diversity officers know everything. No, they’re in the role because they have networks and put time into diversity work. — Candi Castleberry Singleton.
  • Until we get to a place where we acknowledge this work is all of our jobs, we’ll have to keep coming back here. — Candi Castleberry Singleton.

Fireside Chat with Jeff Lawson, CEO at Twilio and LaFawn Davis, Global Head of Culture & Inclusion at Twilio

Wayne Sutton began the next session by thanking Jeff Lawson and LaFawn Davis for attending. As he pointed out, not many CEOs do. Sutton mentioned research presented at Grace Hopper on what did and did not work in diversity. Hiring a head of diversity and inclusion (D&I) doesn’t help, since many companies stop there. Lawson said that he initially rejected funder freada kapor klein’s invitation to discuss diversity, thinking it was a luxury when he was struggling to make payroll, but he then realized it should be done as soon as possible, not after they’d hired 1,000 white men. The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago; the second best time is now. He credited Dom DeGuzman for starting the Skittles ERG back when he didn’t know what an ERG was. (It’s an employee resource group, a collection of co-workers who share a common identity or interest.) (I’ve seen Dom speak twice at the San Francisco Lesbians Who Tech Summit. I’m hoping she’ll apply to speak at Tech Intersections.)

Sutton remarked that Davis has worked at Google, Yahoo, PayPal, eBay, and Twilio and asked what she learned. She said: “We’re tribal people. We want to feel like we belong.” One of Lawson’s closing remarks was that being leaders in culture and society is as exciting as creating tech. It also gives companies an advantage in hiring.

Fireside Chat: Moonshot Ideas For an Inclusive Future

Next was a fireside chat between Mary Grove, Director, Google for Entrepreneurs, and Obi Felten, who has the unique title “Head of getting moonshots ready for contact with the real world” at Google’s sister company X. She discussed managing “moonshots”, ambitious projects that could be game-changing but were more likely to fail than succeed:

  1. Work on the hardest part first. X leader Astro Teller likes to talk about a project to get a monkey on a pedestal to recite Shakespeare’s sonnets. It’s tempting to build the pedestal first because we know how to do that, but the pedestal will be useless because we can’t get the monkey to recite the sonnets.
  2. In addition to success criteria for projects, have failure criteria. There was a project to create fuel at market prices by extracting CO2 from sea water. When the price of oil tanked, the team told her the project had failed. They all got spot bonuses; some got promotions for their work on the project. Project success should be separate from professional growth, or people won’t work on risky projects.
  3. At the suggestion of Latina employees, they have a Day of the Dead observation on November 1 to mourn failed projects and other losses.

Felten next discussed problems faced by female founders trying to get venture capital, mentioning an essay she wrote, Yes, Silicon Valley is Still Awful to Women, But We Can Help. She mentioned Janica Alavarez’ difficulty getting funding from male VCs for a better breast pump, even after selling 1,000 breast pumps directly to women, so she’s using Kickstarter. She created an amazing video If Men Breastfed (go watch it now!). After the conference, I found this Bloomberg article describing her conversations with VCs:

Investors wanted to know how she’d be able to run a startup while also raising her children. Another commented on her body and asked how a mother of three stays in such good shape. Others said they were too grossed out to touch her product or pleaded ignorance about how a breast pump works.

On the subject of diversity in the workplace, Felten remarked that we can’t ask white men to give up more; we have to include them. She mentioned a white male employee who spoke about having to work his way through school and not feeling privileged. An Asian female co-worker told about being the only woman in her CS classes. They realized their experiences (as outsiders?) gave them something in common.

Photo credit: Xochiquetzal Parra from Silicon Valley Cleaning Services, LLC. https://twitter.com/xochi22/status/920778933741617152

Fireside Chat with Ellen Pao

The next session was a fireside chat between Melinda Briana Epler, Founder & CEO, Change Catalyst, and Ellen K. Pao, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, Kapor Center for Social Impact, and Venture Partner, Kapor Capital. In my opinion, she’s the tech industry’s Anita Hill. They discussed how to get VCs to fund women. Pao said she’s been approached by interested men, but they said their partners at VC firms would never go for funding women. She believes there’s an opportunity for small funds that can succeed by investing money with founders of color, including women of color. Seeing their success is what’s going to cause change.

At Kapor Capital, people across the whole firm are interested in diversity. Any founder they fund has to make a commitment to diversity. They are provided a place to talk about diversity and inclusion with people who have done it and are interested in helping founders.

Pao said a lot of big companies are intimidated by diversity. Adding more [white or Asian] women to a team feels like a safe step, but expanding the in-group doesn’t create an inclusive culture [for everyone]. That said, if you are going to focus on one group, change if for the people who are worst off, which will lift everybody else up too.

When asked why she wrote her book, she said it was in response to all of the noise and PR effort against her. Despite losing her suit against Kleiner Perkins, she has a whole lot of optimism about tech “and there is so much potential”.

Epler asked what Pao would have done differently or what she’d recommend to other women in VC deciding whether to sue their firms. Pao said there are certain places where you can’t change on your own, and one of her mistakes was staying at Kleiner Perkins too long. “It was clear I wasn’t going to be promoted, but I kept staying and hoping I would be, and I would take the feedback, and it contradicted the last time’s feedback, I would try to change…Often it’s hard to leave and it can be hard to find another job or maybe you have visa issues or something else that keeps you there. If that’s the case, try to find another team or skills you can gain.” The part of staying in bad situations too long resonated with my own experience and what I’ve heard from others. It’s something I warn my students at Mills College about when preparing them for industry or counseling them after they run into trouble.

Epler admitted that non-disparagement agreements have kept her from speaking out and asked what Pao recommends. “It’s so hard. It depends on the individual person. There are people for whom six week’s salary is worth being quiet. It will take a while to get another job, or they have a child or parents they need to support, they cannot just walk away and say screw you, so you build up an f-you fund and give yourself the freedom to do what you want to. It is hard for people to speak up, and I understand that and think about ways you can speak up that are small, like sending an email privately or for somebody else, why are we always asking that person to get the coffee? Maybe we’ll split the role or I’ll do it do.”

Pao had to go to work for 5 months after filing suit, which was difficult, but people would send her notes. Gesche Haas sent her a note saying that we often let the bad things people say stick to us and let the good things slide off, like Teflon. We should do the opposite, hold on to the good things and let go of the bad things.

Epler then asked about Project Include. Pao said: “We started as 8 women in tech with a combined 150 years of experience who wanted to give solutions. We came up with 87 recommendations. Our core theory is inclusion has to be for everyone and not just for women, which is what was going on at the time, and it was comprehensive, not just hiring people and throwing them in there but how do you promote, retain, pay people, give people opportunities, how do you pick panels for your all-hand discussions? And the 3rd part is people have to be held accountable and you have to have metrics for it. So we launched the recommendations and people said we wanted more. We started working in programs with small groups of CEOs to see how much they can change in 6 months, and we took that data and showed people.”

When asked what kind of impact she’s trying to make on an inclusive future, Pao said: “Companies are not so tied to the pedigree of the schools that people have gone to…. How fast is it going to happen? It depends on people speaking up and saying, hey, I think that’s a good candidate…so there are individuals moving the needle, and eventually one of these ripples forms a splash and you get a chance. So part of it is how willing are people to speak up and push for change and how willing are people to listen? You cannot do it in a vacuum. How do we push CEOs and VCs and boards of directors…In the future, 3/4 of the population is not going to be white men, and is my company prepared for that?”

An audience member asked Pao about being an Asian-American activist and how Asian Americans are homogenized. She responded: “For the first part of my career, being Asian-American was helpful. There was assumptions that I was going to be a hard worker, subservient, I wasn’t going to complain, and then you hit the ceiling and it was a different story. I was oblivious for the first part of my career and then I was like: Is it because I’m older, Asian-American, or a combination? It’s hard to tell.”

Pao went on to discuss other groups: “If we have a spot for women on a panel but don’t have room for Black or Latinx, we don’t have a collaborative dynamic…. Some people can’t even get the job. So for Asians, the big problem is getting promoted. For many other people, I can’t get in the door, I can’t even get in the school. So looking at these problems and realizing it’s the same problems. It’s a matter of exclusion, where you think certain people are not equal, and how does everyone get a chance? I would love to see statistics for retention. Why aren’t we looking at retention rates. Why aren’t people looking at where people are falling out and then trying to plug these holes? Instead you try and throw more people in there faster.”

I was impressed that Pao didn’t feel other women had a responsibility to put themselves out in the public like she did and that she was so caring of others. She is really a model.

Tech Apprenticeship: The Solution for Diversity and Talent Gaps

I spoke with Jennifer Carlston at the Apprenti booth and saw part of the panel on apprenticeships. Apprenti is an ambitious Seattle-based program, funded in part by the Department of Labor, to get more people into tech through training and paid on-the-job training experiences. They have expanded into other cities, such as Portland, and plan to expand to California next year. Tammy Thieman, Military Recruiting Program Manager at Amazon Web Services, said what great employees veterans make. Kevin Goldsmith, CTO of Avvo, spoke about the success of providing on-the-job training at Avvo. It surprised me to hear that a company was willing to take on untrained talent and devote so much engineer time to training them. An Avvo trainee whose name I didn’t get spoke positively of his experience. There were other mentions of the apprenticeship model at the conference.

Shmoozing

After lunch, I met up with Irit Selgiman, the other Moms Can Code ticket winner, whom I enjoyed talking with. As you can see from my shirt, Mills College is always front-and-center for me. (Mothers may also recognize the birthstone necklace for my daughter.) I’m proud to teach computer science at a trans-friendly Hispanic-serving women’s college in multicultural Oakland. For 11 years, I also worked as an engineer at Google. When motherhood made working two jobs too much, even with a husband who was a full partner, it was Google that I gave up. I like to say that I make more at Mills. Not more money, of course, which is why I appreciate the free ticket, but I get to work every day helping women of color, first-generation college students, gender-nonconforming people, nontraditional students, etc., discover how much they are capable of and get financially and intellectually rewarding jobs. (Anyone interested in recruiting at Mills should feel free to contact me at spertus@mills.edu. Our graduates have been getting jobs at Apple, Gap, Intuit, Mozilla, Salesforce, Splunk, and other great companies, but I’m always looking to make more connections.)

One of the best things about attending conferences is making and renewing connections. I told people about the conference I’m helping organize, Tech Intersections, which is for underrepresented women of color and will take place at Mills College on Saturday, January 27, 2018. We’ve lined up some great speakers, including EricaJoy Baker and Leah Mcgowen-Hare, and have a call for speakers open through the end of October. Sponsors include Mills, the Association for Computing Machinery, Kapor Center, and Microsoft, with more to be announced soon and more needed.

I had a good chat with Mills alumna Tina Lee, founder of MotherCoders, whom I asked to help me understand why some Asian-Americans (such as Vietnamese and Cambodians) are underrepresented in tech, while others (such as Chinese and Japanese) are well represented (although they too face discrimination). She gave me an overview of the different waves of immigration, before and after the Chinese Exclusion Act, and the different conditions under which immigrants arrived.

I also saw Andrea Delgado-Olson, a Mills alumna who works for AnitaB.org (the renamed Anita Borg Institute) and leads Native American Women in Computing. (Her Twitter banner features work she did in my Computer Architecture class.) Although energetic as always, Andrea was still recovering from the Grace Hopper Celebration of Computing, which took place in Florida two weeks earlier. In addition to managing logistics, she was on multiple panels.

Andrea was a student in Mills’ unique Interdisciplinary Computer Science program for people who have earned a bachelor’s degree in a field other than computer science and later want to learn CS. The program was designed to help women (and men — the program is coed) reenter the pipeline if they discovered their aptitude and interest in CS too late to major in it. Graduates of the program have gone on to work at Apple, Google, Salesforce, Splunk, and other top companies, or to enter PhD programs at CMU, UCSD, University of Virginia, and University of Washington. For more information, see this Geek Feminism post or the Mills website or contact me (spertus@mills.edu).

Beyond Disability 101: Learning from the Perspectives of People with Disabilities in Tech

There were a number of sessions on people with disabilities (PWDs). Emily Beitiks, Associate Director, Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability, gave a fast but rich talk on the results of surveying people with disabilities in tech. Some findings:

  • Team-bonding activities might be inaccessible, even if they just involve going down the stairs together.
  • PWDs should not be ghettoized into working on accessibility.
  • The high cost of living [in the Bay Area] might make PWDs unable to afford support service professionals.
  • There can be “death by 1000 cuts” (microaggressions). There were many examples of completely inappropriate questions PWDs were asked or ways they were made to feel different or not part of the team. (Unfortunately, she did not have time to give any examples.)
  • Work educating employers (such as how to make a new workplace accessible) is often unacknowledged and unpaid.

Beitiks quoted Eboni J.D. Freeman: “I’d love it if we didn’t even start talking about disability, we just talk about accommodation.”

Beitiks gave these suggestions:

  • Employers should share accessibility information with job candidates and on their website so interviewers don’t have to request it.
  • Put in ramps before someone needs them.
  • Make disability training fun. Her organization runs a film festival.
  • Understand that accommodations are not one size fits all.
  • Allow your employees with disabilities to take the conversation past Disability 101 if they are interested in doing so.
  • Understand that giving a PWD a salary increase could cause them to lose needed benefits (such as a support care provider) without enabling them to pay for the benefits.

#Diversityisdisability

Beth Rosenberg, founder of Tech Kids Unlimited, gave a passionate and compelling talk about the organization she founded to teach tech skills to her son and other children with autism spectrum disorder, learning disabilities/differences, or emotional disabilities. She showed a video that one child created, showing abilities beyond what he was able to display elsewhere and described how the children got paid for creating a website. Her goal is for the children to develop skills that enable them to find employment and a place in the world as productive adults, rather than just sitting on their mothers’ couches.

Some memorable quotations:

  • “These kids are so talented. They’re so passionate. They can be involved in the world of technology. They really, really can.”
  • “If you see something that is not there in the world — I never meant to start a not for profit. It’s the last thing I wanted to do. But I had to do it. I had to do it for my son.”

Rosenberg and Tech Kids Unlimited are based in New York. Had there been time for questions, I would have asked about any similar local programs, given the area’s high rates of autism.

Are ERGs and Affinity Groups Really Passe?

I was surprised by the premise of this panel, which refers to Deloitte’s decision earlier this year to end affinity groups for women and minorities and replace them with “inclusion councils that bring together a variety of viewpoints to work on diversity issues”. When I worked at Google, I found the ERGs for women and for expectant and new mothers valuable, and I was pleased to take part in the ERG for LGBT employees and allies.

Sumayyah Emeh-Edu, a Diversity and Inclusion Strategist, said “her initial reaction was oh no. It was pretty scary. Once I looked at the mission that they were trying to accomplish, it resonated with me. I don’t think that getting rid of ERGs is the answer to that , but I really feel there is a huge hole in the inclusion movement in not including people who are in positions of power.”

Patty Dingle, Senior Director of Diversity & Inclusion at Visa, said: “At Visa, ERGs are an integral part of what we do. They’re not going anywhere. They’re very successful…If [Inclusion Councils] work for them, kudos. If it doesn’t work, they can do back to the old model, right? So I’m keeping a very close eye on it. One thing about D&I folks, we share. It doesn’t matter whether or not you’re a competitor or not. We always talk to each other and all know each.”

Silvina Salazar, Consumer Specialty Servicing & Support Quality Executive at Bank of America, said “Affinity groups are very important. They can be for caregivers. They connect employees who would never connect otherwise.”

Bärí A. Williams, Head of Business Operations, North America, at StubHub, raised the question: “ should allies be included in every conversation? Some conversations, I think, are just in and of those communities. And before we come to a consensus within the community, when do you involve allies?”

Emeh-Edu added: “There are such rich stories that go on within these ERG conversations. Every time I go to an event like this, I hear these things and I’m so impacted by them, and I’m like where are the people that need to hear these stories?…Yes, I believe there’s a need to have a safe space…I also believe it’s important to have those with the great power, position, and privilege to hear these conversations so they can impact change where they’re at.”

Salazar pointed out that Deloitte doesn’t want to focus on differences, instead asking how to try to get everybody on a more level playing field.

Williams said: “Everyone can relate to being excluded from something in their life.” Dingle agreed: “If anyone is ever feeling like they are not apart of or cannot be a part of [a discussion], that’s a challenge. If I’m talking ethnicity, I’m not just talking African-American, Latinx, I’m talking [about European ethnicities too].”

Emeh-Edu distinguished between ERGs and affinity groups: “Affinity groups are resource groups are a place to build community. Resource groups tend to be more of a safe place and maybe in some cases adding to the business case or business goal by educating the company. Affinity groups tend to be more like community groups like wellness or parents.”

Breaking Barriers: How Atlassian Is Building a Balanced Team at Scale

I was planning to go to the Reddit panel, but I attended the Atlassian talk instead because Tina Lee told me that Aubrey Blanche was an amazing speaker, which proved correct. (I also have a soft spot for Atlassian, having spent a summer in their San Francisco office, when they gave space to Code.org, whom I was working with.)

Blanche, who is Atlassian’s Global Head of Diversity & Inclusion, began by saying “Diversity raises standards, not lowers them”, which I have often heard and agree with. She described redesigned recruiting to create a balanced group of recent college graduates joining the company. In July 2015, before the program started, women were 11.5% of employees in technical roles at Atlassian. They then made these changes to their university recruiting program:

  • Standardizing interviews.
  • Providing unconscious bias training that gave specific strategies for avoiding bias in the hiring process. (Ordinary nconscious bias training has been criticized as ineffective and normalizing bias.)
  • Getting rid of “culture fit” as a hiring criterion.

Like many people, Blanche views culture fit as license for discrimination. She suggested that, if anyone says a candidate doesn’t fit the culture, you should ask: “Tell me, specifically, what you mean by that?” “Uh, they didn’t row crew.”

A better alternative to culture fit is value fit, looking for people who share the values of empathy and helpfulness.

After making these changes, they were at first unable to test them, since they received 0 female applicants. They realized that their branding was not attracting women. They used Textio, which she recommends, to evaluate the language they were using in recruiting material to make it appeal more to women. “Don’t just talk about happy hour. Talk about 401(k) matching and backup childcare.” They also got rid of degree requirements. (A pet peeve of mine is requiring a B.S. in Computer Science. Most liberal arts colleges offer a B.A. in Computer Science, rather than a B.S., which I doubt is really needed.)

In their first year, 17% of their hires were female. In their second year, 57% were. These weren’t the result of quotas. Hiring committees did not know about recruiting targets. Other positive outcomes were that 1/3 of interns identified as Black or Hispanic and they saw an increase in new employees over 40.

I will encourage all of my students to consider Atlassian. In addition to being predominantly female, 54% of Mills undergraduates and 47% of graduate students are of color (with Latinx as the largest group). I want my students to interview at companies that will value them and treat them well once they are hired. As pointed out by other speakers, it’s no use hiring underrepresented groups if they don’t stay at your company. This is sometimes stated more colorfully as: There’s no point encouraging people to enter the pipeline if it ends with a meat grinder (or sewage treatment plant).

Lessons Silicon Valley Can Learn From Lesbians

I’m a big fan of Leanne Pittsford and Lesbians Who Tech. For the past 3 years, I’ve attend their San Francisco summit with my students. (I live less than a mile from the Castro theater, at which it’s based, and some students camp out at my house.)

Leanne was entertaining and insightful, as always. One of her slides said “Lesbians are women.” She explained that, when asking for funding for Lesbians Who Tech, companies would say that that they only fund women. She would point out: LESBIANS ARE WOMEN. She would also tell them to send conference information not just to the LGBTQ lists but also to women, mothers, vets, etc., since some of them are lesbians too.

As I’d known, the Lesbians Who Tech Summit (LWTS) prioritizes being inclusive of other minorities, with high targets — which they typically exceed — for the percent of speakers who are women of color and/or transgender. Tech Intersections is partially inspired by the Lesbians Who Tech Summit, which demonstrated that the Bay Area has enough awesome women of color for their own conference. We’re also trying to be as inclusive of other groups. Leanne observed: “Quotas don’t lower standards. They change standards.”

She also pointed out that “you can be specific without being exclusive”. Lesbians Who Tech events are open not only to lesbians but to bisexual women and to allies (“lesbians and the people who love us”). She chose to use the word “lesbian” to reclaim it from its association with pornography.

Conclusion

Attending Tech Inclusion was very worthwhile. I’m grateful to the speakers and organizers and to Moms Can Code for the ticket. The conference shows that the tech diversity discussion has moved beyond white women to people of color and to people with disabilities. While there’s discouragement that so little progress has been made in the industry as a whole, there are successful programs that could be emulated and a lot of great people working on diversity and inclusion.

Disclaimer: While I took extensive notes at the conference, I’m sure I made mistakes in my write-up. Do not use this as an authoritative source. Please let me know if I mischaracterized you or a speaker that you heard.

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