Many of us (speaking from the tech sector where I work) think the sector’s workplace diversity isn’t very good. Specifically, there aren’t enough women. Large companies — all the ones I’ve worked for, anyhow — have goals, and generally work hard at meeting them. Many companies now say they care about diversity, and have goals around improving it. But improvement is painfully slow; why? Maybe part of it is that those aren’t the same kind of “goals”.

How business goals work · When I say “large companies have goals”, I mean that in a very specific way. Each planning cycle, company groups and their managers take on a set of explicitly written-down goals for that planning cycle. Goals are tracked in a simple database and at the end of the year, each group/manager gets a pass/fail on each. The way that goals are defined and refined and agreed to and recorded and structured differs from place to place; at Google and several other big high-techs, they’re called OKRs.

The percentage of goal completion that’s regarded as “good” also varies, but it’s never 100%. The idea is that your reach should exceed your grasp, and if you score 100 you might have been sandbagging, choosing insufficiently ambitious goals to make yourself look good.

Goal completion is deadly serious business among most management types I’ve known, and the number has a real effect on career trajectory and thus compensation. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that in business, those things matter a whole lot.

Goals are sorted into “output goals” (example: $100M in sales for a product) and “input goals” (example: five customer visits per week by every salesperson). They can be technical too, around things like uptime, latency, and trouble tickets.

Input and output are not mutually exclusive. Input goals are at some level more “reasonable” because they are things that an organization controls directly. Output goals are more aggressive, but also liberating because they turn teams loose to figure out what the best path is to getting that sales number or uptime or whatever.

Generally, I like this management practice: Setting goals and measuring performance against them. It drives clarity about what you’re trying to achieve and how well you’re doing.

Diversity goal questions · Here’s a question: For any given company, do its diversity goals work like regular company goals? That is to say, do they go into the percentage completion number? The number that managers get judged on and rewarded for meeting?

I actually don’t know what the answers would be for most high-techs, but I suspect it’s “Not often enough.” I suspect that because the diversity numbers across the high-tech landscape are universally pretty bad, and because the people in management are generally, you know, pretty smart, and will come up with remarkably clever ways to meet the goals they’re getting judged on.

I’ve also observed that while the numbers are unsatisfying in the large, there are teams who consistently manage to do better than others at hiring and retaining women. And by the way, anecdotally, those are good teams (with good managers); the kind who get things done and have low attrition rates and happy customers.

Here’s another question: For diversity, should we be talking input or output goals? I say: Why not both? I’m not expert on the state of the art in building diversity, but wherever we know what the equivalent of “five customer visits per week” is, let’s sign teams up for a few of those. And yeah, output goals. Let’s ask managers to double the proportion of women engineers, measure whether they do it or not, and leave the details to them. The good ones will figure out a way to get there.

It’s like this: If you claim you have diversity goals, but your managers’ careers don’t depend on their performance against those goals, you don’t really.


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From: Nik P (Aug 18 2018, at 02:30)

I feel like it's also important to preempt the constant backlash of these discussions by always referencing diversity goals with an explicit postscript of "Without changing the hiring technical bar".

This is unambiguous from the inside looking out, but I've gotten feedback that it's not clear from the outside looking in. I hear it all the time from non-allies: "If you succeed in increasing diversity, you will make non-diversity employees wonder if the new diverse employees around them are actually not as good, and were hired for non-technical reasons. And that will harm everyone, especially those women/minorities who already managed to get hired before any diversity initiatives."

The thing is, I think it's a legitimate concern. Companies like Google and Amazon have VERY difficult and structured hiring processes, aimed at making decisions as data-driven as possible. And we would not and could not compromise them.

But that's not the case in the rest of our industry. Plenty of companies still hire based on nepotism or culture fit (where "culture" is liking IPAs and DOTA). Yet they are just as actively engaged and interested in "diversity" because for a lot of companies it's not about fixing what they see as a problem, or trying to improve their productivity, or diversifying their thought; it's only about virtue-signaling to the community that they care. But they are cargo-culting, and don't really understand why they SHOULD care.


From: Marc (Aug 18 2018, at 21:17)

I'm African American, and have been working as a software developer and manager since the early 80s in the SF Bay Area, currently working as a researcher at one of the major universities here. My wife also works as a software developer at the other major university, and has worked for PC software companies in past years, including the one where we met. Perhaps more interestingly, our daughter (who is what they call "mixed-race" these days) is entering her senior year majoring in CS at the university where I now work. We're hardly a "typical" family in this regard, but the thing about diversity is that it's never "typical".

I'm not very impressed with this concept of "diversity goals", they don't solve the problem, only quantify it. I am also amused by Nik P's comment about "VERY difficult and structured hiring processes, aimed at making decisions as data-driven as possible" used by Google and Amazon, yet if you look at their diversity numbers, they are actually worse than many other companies. The technical aspects of these processes were developed by the existing software managers to recruit new programmers out of college, most of whom, oddly enough, end up looking a lot like younger versions of the managers who came up with the process.

The thing is, the solution has always been obvious, I question whether any of these companies really want it solved. But, for example, when I first arrived in the Bay Area, there were exactly three companies that were considered "minority"-friendly (minority then including Asians, who were then almost as invisible as Blacks), HP, Xerox, and Silicon Graphics. HP and Xerox had corporate mandates for equal opportunity, and took them quite seriously, plus they both hired extensively from the military. Silicon Graphics was an outlier, having worked at both SGI and Sun, the difference was striking. Walk in the front door, the receptionist was often a Black woman, walking through the halls you'd see Black faces all of the time. The reason was simply that the CTO was Black, and well, there wasn't any risk associated with hiring Blacks and other minorities for technical positions. Sun, uh, when I was there in the late 80s, there were exactly 4 Black technical employees in a company of over 10,000. Nobody, was openly hostile, but, there wasn't much encouragement either.

Companies now like to talk about "diversity", they do a great job of hiring consultants, running training sessions, etc. They hire a few women and "underrepresented minorities" each year, have a hard time holding on to them, and assume the problem is that there just aren't enough of "them" out there, or that the ones they find aren't skilled enough. The real problem is cultural, the managers in these companies look for candidates with familiar backgrounds, experiences, and problem solving approaches. Many are confused by and automatically dismissive of those who do not fit their model. The solution is to change the culture, not impose hiring quotas on managers. The way to change the culture is to hire executives and managers who come from non-traditional backgrounds, not hiring a few gifted non-traditional recent college grads from elite colleges.


From: Rob Bray (Aug 19 2018, at 12:36)

What Marc said.

For a number of years, I made a fair amount of beer money on the side as an Employment Equity consultant, and as an "Outcomes & Logic Model" consultant too. (Outcomes and Logic models is what Tim is referring to in terms of outputs, inputs, etc.. It is a VERY highly developed art in the human services area.)

But Employment Equity consulting, well. I eventually had to quit, because the work, while insanely lucrative, was essentially the organizational equivalent of bottom tier prostitution, and it became impossible to live with myself any more (oceans of beer notwithstanding). Essentially, nobody actually wanted to change anything, they just wanted to virtue signal.

The problem, in the end, is essentially that of the Peter Principle. I have yet to meet a manager that did not firmly believe that he (usually he of course) had above average skills in recruiting and hiring talent (the Lake Woebegon effect). But in actual fact, nothing about being a superior technical worker indicates that you will have any capacity for leadership, staff selection and motivation, or any kind of strategic thinking. If you do, it is just random chance. (And as Dr Peter pointed out, if you luckily do, you will eventually get promoted into a job you actually do not have any aptitude for.)

How this usually cashes out, is that our technically skilled but likely management skills challenged executive, confronted with the task of hiring talent, concludes in effect that 'I am a superior coder/carpenter/accountant/salesman/ditch-digger/nurse, as evidenced by my promotion to this exalted position, therefore if I hire someone like me, I am ipso facto hiring a superior candidate.' It seems like a plausible quick and dirty hack, and we all know where you end up if you base your entire system on plausible-sounding quick and dirty hacks.

It would be great if there actually data-driven testing protocols that actually work, but there simply aren't. You can use all the Stanford-Binets, Myers-Briggs, Google/Amazon/Walmart etc testing you want, but the simple fact is that the whole field of psychometrics is, and always has been, a complete and utter bust at best, and a cruel pernicious racist/sexist/classist fraud at worst (cf eugenics, history of), with only the vaguest correlations with real world outcomes.

Now logic model, outcomes driven evaluation systems have their place, when correctly applied (I am something of an evangelist), but I am sorry, the only real world, proven (time and again) method of achieving organizational diversity is to make the biases work for you-- as Marc says, you gotta put some female/African/First Nations/LGBTQetc people in positions to make hiring decisions. So they too will hire "people like me." Not in virtue signalling positions in HR or PR, but in real actual responsible line management positions, making final hiring decisions they are going to have to personally live with.

And not worry so much about finding super skilled "qualified" ones-- the people most organizations are already promoting into management positions actually probably don't have a ton of management capacity anyway; it literally would be hard to do worse. (This is kinda how the military does things-- being a great NCO does NOT guarantee entry into officer school, even though there are a lot of terrible junior officers. The military at least recognizes its a whole different skill set.)


From: len (Aug 25 2018, at 09:32)

Diversity as a goal in conflict with profits as a must is too obvious to mention but it is as always the elephant in the canary cage.

Virtue signalling isn't. More often than not, virtue signalling is much like being a serving officer of her Majesty's Royal Guard: a sound practice for officers but a career-ender for staff and below. The word applied there is "weasel".

Success is all about your mates. See Major John Andre.


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