Plato Mentors: Building an Inclusive Engineering Culture

1 April, 2020

This past month, 100+ technical leaders in the Plato community braved torrential downpour to come out for our ""Building an Inclusive Engineering Culture” event! There were so many incredible takeaways from Plato mentors like Pooja Brown, Stitch Fix’s VP of Engineering; Jack Danger Canty, Head of Infrastructure Engineering at Gusto; Shivani Sharma, Engineering Leader at Slack; as well as the event’s Moderator, Shannon Hogue Brown, Karat’s Global Head of Solutions Engineering.

Each speaker began the discussion around why they are all committed to this work from their unique perspectives and experiences. From first generation immigrants, to being a white male, to navigating barriers to access within the industry, alongside socioeconomics, gender, race, power, age and more, the discussion was an incredible microcosm of how DEI strategizing should go. Attending guests left with actionable insights on how to surface and support talent and make their professional culture more inclusive. The Plato team was honored to have our Mentors discussing this important topic. Check out the discussion, below.

What does inclusion mean to you?

I fundamentally believe that if you create a workforce that represents your customers, you will create a better product. No questions asked. If a company has rooted themselves on a business model that includes diversity and inclusion then they will create superior products. That’s why I’m proud to work for Stitch Fix. They understand that the way to understand the customer is to create a diverse and inclusive culture within the company. -Pooja Brown

Inclusion and diversity are indicators. They should indicate and reflect the composition of the outside world but they should also indicate behavior inside company doors. How are you protecting people from the ambient bias outside of your doors? Do you have in place policies, structures, and conduct that encourage fair and equal behavior? Over time, you should reach equilibrium to the society outside, diversity should match inside and outside your company.
-Jack Danger Canty

Inclusion is belonging. It’s psychological safety for people to feel open to where they can share and express their ideas. This feeling of belonging turns into innovation therefore innovation comes from having a diverse group of people who feel included. Ultimately, it leads your team to create an amazing product. -Shivani Sharma

Meetup on inclusive engineering cultures

What are the tell-tale signs of an inclusive environment?

As a leader I look at the indicators of inclusivity. For example, when you have diversity of backgrounds and experiences, those come together to create different perspectives. So when I am running a meeting or a brainstorm, is everyone voicing their opinions and feeling safe to do so, especially underrepresented folks? And that’s not to say that they raise their hand and agree on a matter, but instead say something different and bring a new perspective to the table. Although, if someone did have the same idea as another we collect and post those in the same section, validating what has been said and adding more weight to a particular idea. -Shivani Sharma

For me it goes back to psychological safety. At Stitch Fix we have a cultural value that says ‘Be Yourself’. Be your authentic self. Show up to work every day and be you. An inclusive environment is an environment that accepts me as a whole- my culture, my beliefs, and my traditions. An environment that embraces that idea will create a more productive and innovative space because you automatically feel safe in it. -Pooja Brown

A quick test is to ask, does everyone know what everybody else on the team thinks about any possible contentious items? If only the people with the most seniority know then you do not have an inclusive culture. This has to do with the power structure of your culture. You have to make sure that it is safe for everyone to initiate any conflict that is going to happen. Another indicator deals with the size of your organization. How much do you know about the people you work with? If it’s simply that they come to work everyday then perhaps any kind of person could do that work but not much of that person is included in the actual work. If you want people to really show up, bring their full creativity, and work, then be sure that individuals can arrive and be contained in the space that you created. -Jack Danger Canty

Meetup on inclusive engineering cultures

What are some tips for new managers who want to foster creativity through an inclusive environment?

Begin by understanding the makeup of your team. Build one-on-one trust with each engineer. Is someone an introvert or extrovert? Can you anticipate impostor syndrome? These things come first. Then in group settings you can facilitate this understanding so that people feel safe. As a new manager, get to know the team and build trust so that people’s ideas are not only heard but encouraged. It’s positive reinforcement, that will gradually build into a habit. Little changes create cultural norms on your team and that’s basically what culture is. It’s a bunch of social norms among a group of people that happens unspoken and consistently.
-Shivani Sharma

I recommend putting in place processes and frameworks that take away any bias that comes along with things like hiring, onboarding, job descriptions, and promotions. For example, have an engineering rubric - and I hope that everyone has one. Without it you will innately create a toxic culture because people won’t know how they are doing, why others are getting promoted, or what you fundamentally want from them. An engineering rubric embodies the culture of a company. It is a simple systemic way to remove bias from the system. Another great idea is to create onboarding documents. When I started at Stitch Fix there was a big document written explicitly for me on how to immerse myself into the company’s culture. Just think about how much time you spend onboarding a new hire. That onboarding experience is really important to creating an inclusive environment for every new person that comes in.
-Pooja Brown

I don’t know exactly how to make an inclusive team culture, but I know a lot of ways how not to do it. Power dynamics of course exist, so I'd say lack of predictability for the ICs on the team is one way to not be inclusive. ICs don’t have access to the same information as leadership. The power differential between management and non-management is only really visible to the people outside of management. So any kind of predictability that can be added to the system will benefit people without inherent power. Examples include being transparent about plans, sharing the roadmap, explaining how they will be evaluated, detailing when promotions will take place, and setting up times to check-in with ICs. Lower their anxiety level so that they can show up and get the work done. -Jack Danger Canty

Meetup on inclusive engineering cultures

What are ways to be welcoming and inclusive of demographics that have zero representation currently within your company?

You need to keep inclusivity in mind not only through top-down mandates but also by creating it organically. You need to bring both to the table. For top-down mandates, at Stitch Fix not only do we have quarterly OKRs but we also have people OKRs which represent diversity and inclusion numbers. We have the best minds to solve technical problems so why not have them also solve inclusivity. But then organically holding the team accountable for actually moving those numbers. -Pooja Brown

The person who is responsible for inclusion in an organization is the leader of that organization. The CEO is the one person responsible for DNI goals. They should make it a part of their own priorities list, promotion or reward system. I also believe that the moment someone new joins the team or when someone leaves the team, that team is forever changed. The old team is gone and a new team replaces it. That is the only way to make space and create room for new people. -Jack Danger Canty

At Slack, to help new engineers become a part of the team, we pair them with a mentor. Mentoring and onboarding new folks is incentivized through our career path. To go from a junior engineer to a senior engineer, we give direct weight to how an individual is leveling up the rest of the team including teaching skills so that others know the tips and tricks of engineering as well as they do. So inclusivity is not all on the manager, it’s up to the team members as well. -Shivani Sharma

How do you get leadership to buy into the value of promoting inclusive teams?

Explain that inclusivity is a force multiplier. If you teach someone to architect complex features and product sets then that actually frees up time for you to think about higher level problems that are worth solving. The same goes for inclusivity. If at every level individuals are including and empowering those around them, helping individuals learn and grow, then that frees up time for ICs to begin thinking at the next level. People are continually moving and growing up the chain, being more productive, and adding more value to the company.
-Shivani Sharma

Focus on facts and data. As a default, people look at things differently. One way to get your idea clear across to them is to bring data to the table. Focus on the fact that creating diverse and inclusive teams will ultimately lead to building better products. The data speaks for itself. -Pooja Brown

Building an Inclusive Engineering Culture

Do you have suggestions on how to support and encourage a new hire, especially if from a coding bootcamp?

First and foremost: hire bootcamp grads!! But do it correctly. I’ve hired bootcamp grads into teams without a specific support system and charter and I believe I did a disservice to each one of them. Why? Because they encountered a team that had implicit patterns and fit into the org chart implicitly. They weren’t set up for success. It wasn’t until we found a way to recharter the team, to create enough structure so that everybody could see each other’s work and how it fit into the whole, that everybody got the respect and support they deserved. -Jack Danger Canty

How do you measure success for programs aimed at increasing inclusiveness?

Inclusion means different things to different companies. So I think you have to decide how inclusivity fits into your company’s culture. Once you have an idea in mind then you should set yourself a goal and meet it. Get into a pattern of meeting that goal. You are building a muscle that inclusivity is an important value of your system so you need to be explicit and set a goal. For example, say that you are an EM and you have a head count. You can make the decision to hire a diverse headcount and move the company’s diversity numbers. Create a pipeline, hire for diversity, and influence the larger system. -Pooja Brown

How do you discourage anti-patterns while building inclusive teams?

Anytime that you allow a quick, implicit process to become ratified then you have given yourself a disservice. You need to decide how decisions are made, write them down, and get buy-in from everybody. Every time you do, you are building up an inverted form against any kind of ableism, sexism, heightism, or racism from sneaking in the front door. So write your policies down and then activate them. -Jack Danger Canty

Do you have any insight on DEI for building and managing remote teams?

You need to understand different cultural norms. I was once working with a team in Japan. I had to learn and practice the cultural norms of my Japanese team. For instance, because I didn’t know the Japanese individuals very well, I could only address them by their last names. Not until they gave me permission, was I allowed to call them by their first name, even though I was their manager and they were reporting me. Understanding this and other cultural norms prevented me from offending my team members and made them feel more comfortable.
-Shivani Sharma

Along with remote teams, I would like to include distributed teams as well. In both cases, teams aren’t usually only in different countries but also in different time zones. An issue arises when disseminating information. In my current role what I have been trying to do is conduct my all-hands entirely distributed. This means that those who are located at HQ will have no greater advantage over someone else. It has forced me to think about cultural norms, write a lot more, and change timings so that they work globally. -Pooja Brown

Your compositional goals should be relative to the place where your people are. It’s not about hitting some atomic demographic ideal but about being inclusive with each individual team. So if you’re starting an office in Nairobi, expect not to have many Caucasian people but do expect to have 50% women. Understand where you are, who is coming in the doors, and the society that’s outside of those doors. -Jack Danger Canty

We’d love to hear from you! What does inclusivity mean to you? Do you have other ideas on how to create a diverse and inclusive culture? What actions have you taken to make your work environment inclusive? Share your thoughts and experiences with us and head on over to Plato to access these and thousands of other mentors directly.

Written by Ashley R. Bentley

You're a great engineer.
Become a great engineering leader.

Plato (platohq.com) is the world's biggest mentorship platform for engineering managers & product managers. We've curated a community of mentors who are the tech industry's best engineering & product leaders from companies like Facebook, Lyft, Slack, Airbnb, Gusto, and more.