How to build a more diverse, inclusive technology team
In recent years, corporate diversity and inclusion efforts have gained more traction. Companies increasingly recognize that building more diverse workforces is not only the right thing to do, but also offers considerable strategic advantages. After all, research suggests that diversity may be a crucial ingredient to building more innovative and successful companies.
But within companies, some areas remain less diverse, starting with technology departments. “It’s pretty well documented that there are certain ethnicities and gender profiles that are underrepresented in tech—Black, Latinx, women,” says Mark Mathewson, senior vice president of card technology at Capital One. “And that continues to be a challenge in the industry.”
The lack of diversity in the tech sector is problematic for several reasons. On a global level, the U.S. needs a stronger and more diverse technology workforce if it’s to remain competitive on the world stage. More locally, companies that can’t evolve and build more diverse tech teams may simply lose ground in a highly competitive marketplace. “I don’t see how you can be innovative and forward leaning if you don’t do that,” says Maureen Jules-Perez, Capital One’s vice president of HR technology.
Amid broader diversity-and-inclusion efforts, how can companies specifically confront these issues among tech teams? One way is through the recruitment and hiring process. For many companies, recruiting top tech talent means following a routine playbook: tap leading computer-science programs, stick with résumés that tick certain boxes, or rely on referrals from existing team members or trusted industry contacts. But those processes can yield a self-selected and homogenous group of candidates.
“When you’re searching for new hires, you have to put the investment up front to source candidates from many places and look for those candidates who might have non-traditional backgrounds,” Jules-Perez says.
Beyond sourcing talent, companies also need to be mindful of the steps they take to recruit these candidates. An interview panel made up of all white men, for example, may not give prospective hires a sense that the organization takes diversity seriously. “When you’re saying you’re a forward-leaning company, your interviewers have to reflect that,” Jules-Perez says. “In the corporate world, are we there yet? No, but we’re heading in the right direction.”
AN INCLUSIVE APPROACH
Diversity brings different voices and perspectives that tackle thorny issues or come up with innovative and disruptive ideas. Making sure all of those voices are heard—and that they feel comfortable speaking up—takes work. Jules-Perez joined as head of Capital One’s HR technology team 18 months ago, and among her first moves was to hire a leadership team of 10. She worked closely with that group to ground them in the culture she wanted to see: inclusive and representational of all of the people who would be on the teams. “I wanted everyone who came in to feel like they belong here,” she says. “That lets us have healthy debates and real talk, and removes some of the hesitation and fear. Because when you feel psychologically safe, you feel comfortable unleashing your superpowers.”
Creating that inclusive environment may involve heading off issues that might make some team members feel uneasy among their peers. An exclusive clique of employees or someone’s unconscious bias can result in tension within the group. Leaders must stay attuned to those issues, and to each individual on their team, to identify those who may feel disengaged or excluded. For instance, leaders may want to watch for those who might be struggling to get their voice heard in group conversations, and intentionally call on them to make sure they can share their perspective. “I make sure we have a pretty diverse group sitting around the table, and I continuously ask for their opinions,” Mathewson says. “I ask about where we got it wrong, or where we’re missing out on opportunities to include their perspectives.”
Sometimes, simply soliciting feedback from team members can help bring those teams closer together. Mike Eason, senior vice president of enterprise data and machine learning at Capital One, takes time during reviews of development sprints to not just look at the project’s deliverables, but also how the team operated during the sprint. Some of the most instructive information he learns during this process comes from questionnaires distributed to the team. “I’ve found these surveys to be really powerful,” he says. “You can identify and address hotspots where team members may not feel safe to bring their whole self to work, or find other areas that need attention.”
Creating a diverse and inclusive culture takes work—and it’s work that doesn’t happen overnight, whether at a startup or an established Fortune 500 company. It’s a crucial way for forward-thinking companies to stay relevant, competitive, and innovative. “You have to expect change, because change is a given,” Jules-Perez says. “Living things need to evolve to thrive. There’s no other choice.”