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There's Room: Six Ways to Support a Diverse Work Culture

I didn't know that software engineering could be creative, compelling work -- and I didn’t recognize that there was room for someone like me.

I’m an engineer at Asana, but I wasn’t always interested in this career path. I fought through a lot of myths to recognize that I could enjoy working in an industry filled with stereotypes so different from how I self-identify (female, queer). Not only did I not know that software engineering could be creative, compelling work, but I also didn’t recognize that there was room for someone like me.

There have been a lot of articles written about the lack of diversity in tech, and in our professional circles, it’s something we talk about regularly.

But how can tech actually do better?

To start, we can do a better job conveying that we’ve got room. From conferences like this week’s Lesbians Who Tech Summit (which I’ll be attending), which help increase visibility in and participation from underrepresented communities, to looking inward at internal company dynamics, we need to do more than just say we’re interested in diversity.

We need to point out the range of ways technology jobs are interesting to people who wouldn’t otherwise consider them, and how we think a diverse workplace will actually outperform one that’s not. There’s a place in tech for different ethnicities, for women, for parents, for people of all ages, for those who don’t have a top CS-school degree, and for newcomers to CS.

But we’re going to have to do the work to make tech more accessible to people from a variety of backgrounds — we can’t just talk the talk, we have to walk the walk.

Why seek out diversity now?

Solving our collective lack of diversity is going to be an uphill battle: We have foundational problems ranging from education and our interview processes, all the way through the day-to-day management of our companies. Even more challenging is the fact that there are no perfect role models, companies that have paved the way and really figured out a long-term, effective solution to address all these complex issues. And even if there were models we could emulate, solutions would still be nuanced and tailored to the individual company.

Despite the difficulties we know we’ll face, there are reasons our diversity problem is worth solving now. At a high level, diversity can help a company — your company — thrive. Countless studies show that diverse groups actually perform better together; my current favorite shows that diverse groups are more creative.

Delivering software isn’t an assembly line — long-term success requires solving problems no companies have ever solved before. For that, we need people who are willing to teach, speak, recruit and collaborate with other teams. Employees with alternative backgrounds are more likely to introduce a range of skills and interests to the table, and bring excitement to grow with the company’s needs. Caring about diversity is a humble acknowledgement that, given the right support, many different backgrounds can succeed in tech.

Diversity isn’t only important for internal dynamics, it also allows a company to reflect the rest of the world. An organization’s employees bring all their collective experiences to work. Together, they make up the company’s understanding of the world, and color its vision. Diverse groups of employees can have impact in ways that an insular tech community simply can’t. But to get a diverse group of people to join your company, you have to do the work, too.

Six ways to support a diverse culture

To signal support of diversity, organizations need to listen to and value different voices, and show they’re willing to change in response. Here’s what I think companies can do to support people who might be thinking, “this isn’t for me,” no matter how unconsciously.

Offer mentorship: Companies offering mentorship expand the definition of who can be successful. These companies can hire high-aptitude people without experience in tech, and let them learn on the job. For engineers, technical growth is the most obvious, but mentorship can also give the self-direction and confidence to pick up new organizational responsibilities and change processes. I recognize that I would not be working at Asana without the privilege of great mentorship from my parents, from professors in college and from my Asana team.

Share the spectrum of what your company is excited about while recruiting: Consider sharing your tech stack, the motivation for your product, your company values and the kind of collaborative environment you have. You’ll end up speaking to people with all kinds of personal motivations; they’ll relate personally to your company’s goals and beliefs. I was drawn to Asana’s mission to help humanity thrive before I even realized how strong our engineering team was.

Make processes for feedback and reflection: It’s important to create an environment where you can share decisions and the decision-making processes, and ask for ongoing feedback. Having a diverse group of employees yields a diverse set of opinions; take advantage of this by showing there’s space to disagree, and that feedback can change the company. In the end, you’ll end up with a more open and creative culture.

At Asana, our Roadmap Week meetings are open to all employees, regardless of function. Being invited to high-level planning meetings and reflections on culture, even as a very new employee, made me feel valued right away.

Emphasize quality of life: Trust employees to be thoughtful about how they’re going to do their best work over the long term. Be sure to make room for busy people, like parents whose schedules might need to be treated slightly differently. In fact, make room for anyone outside your (potential) monoculture. Employees with different hobbies and different friend groups are going to love this, too.

Let employees take responsibility for the things they care about: Give employees with talents and interests outside their primary role a chance to express them. At Asana, we use Areas of Responsibility to distribute responsibility modularly. Areas of Responsibility can vary greatly in scope — from product-managing a mobile launch to being responsible for ensuring that every new hire is welcomed with a coffee date.

Offer multiple definitions of success: All teams and positions are important to your company — make sure that people feel valued regardless of their tenure, role or seniority level. At Asana, managers and individual contributors are seen as two different paths to success, neither of which is “better” than the other.

Envisioning the future

There has been a lot of talk in our industry about the need to create a more diverse culture, and we can start today. We need to convey that tech is inclusive, and actually do the work to make it even more so. Changing how our companies operate is some of the most important work we can be doing right now: It’s what is going to allow us to build all the change we want to see in the world.


Rachel Miller is an engineer at Asana.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.