Building a Diverse, but Cohesive Team
30 December, 2020
I was tasked with building a mobile engineering team at my previous company. I was looking to build a team that would provide growth opportunities and help me balance the workload across the team. Not only was I a big believer in diversity, but I was also a pragmatic who was aware of the tangible benefits diversity provides to the business.
One of the main challenges with building a team is that we tend to hire people similar to us and as we scale we end up with what we started with. I wanted to build a diverse team -- in all possible ways -- and make it cohesive and collaborative in spite of all the differences. I wanted to have people of different mindsets, backgrounds, seniorities, tenures, skills, and skill levels and was much more interested in what people could add to the team than if they would merely fit.
I looked into my network and being from an underrepresented group myself, many people I reached out to also had the same background. This is often the problem, but given that I was the only black engineer in my company at that time, it was in fact empowering for different underrepresented groups. For example, the first person I hired was of Mexican ethnicity and that sent an encouraging signal to other people as well.
What helped me secure diversity of all sorts was the widely casted net and intentional sourcing. I started my sourcing by plucking people directly and filling the funnel with under-resourced candidates.
I also connected with several boot camps from the area and signed up as a mentor and several engineers going through the boot camp had me as their contact. For example, one of my early hires was completing a boot camp when I managed to slot them in our apprenticeship program. I also went to meetups and local engineering events to make people aware that it was a part of our culture to be inclusive.
I introduced two new, in-house programs:
a. Though we already had an internship program I was more interested in training applicants who were not coming from traditional pipelines. To do so, I developed an apprenticeship program, pitched the idea to leadership and managed to secure funding. The apprenticeship program would last for six months during which our apprentices would have to acquire twelve core competencies.
b. I encouraged and offered support to engineers transitioning from one type of engineering to another. The apprenticeship program already established the list of competencies needed for different engineering roles that we could use to help with the transition. For example, we hired a QA engineer who wanted to switch to mobile engineering and we used the list of competencies to develop a plan that would help them make that transition to our team.
Most companies have levels -- if you are level 3 or 4 you should be able to do this and that. But oftentimes these descriptions are ambiguous and imprecise. Therefore, we decided to plot out the concrete skills needed for different roles that included competencies relating to database technologies, languages, or design patterns. One of the reasons companies are reluctant to hire junior engineers is because they are uncertain how to guide them along their career path. I was intentionally hiring at various levels -- from level 3 to 7 -- ensuring diversity of seniority and skills.
- People add more than they fit. On that team back then, I had one person who started out as a designer and became an engineer but I also had people with physics or neuroscience majors who all became engineers. Also, the age gap was around 15 years, some people were very outdoorsy and gregarious and others quiet and contemplative, etc. I would have one-on-ones that would regularly last one hour and those that would hardly last 15 minutes every two weeks. Because of all these differences, they complemented each other well without me having a mould to measure if people would fit.
- Every kind of diversity brings a unique perspective and adds to unique team culture. We were hiring people from ethnic and gender diverse backgrounds, people from a university pipeline and career switchers, and people who went through a traditional route.
- Intentional culture building takes time. As I was building the team I knew I wanted one very senior engineer and went after the ideal candidate who was very experienced and social impact-minded. We put a hard sell on this person and they didn’t accept our offer. They went to another company, but a year later they reached out to us telling us that they would like to be part of our team. Also, it took a lot of time and effort to develop people from the apprenticeship program and make them competent and skillful engineers.
- Non-traditional backgrounds add value and creativity. People coming from different backgrounds would have their own distinct way of solving problems or bouncing off ideas.
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