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Data-Driven Equality (with Kate Heddleston)


Kate Heddleston
Founder & Advocate of Diversity in Tech - Opsolutely

A conversation with Kate Heddleston, founder of Opsolutely and an outspoken advocate of diversity in tech, on a topic that is both timely and close to our hearts. There has been a recent resurgence of the conversation about diversity and equality within organizations. As this topic rises into the public consciousness, we find that there are some very real business implications to this topic. 

[00:01] Welcome to It’s Worth Doing Right: The Bonus Episode. I’m your host, Olivia Hayes, passionate pragmatist and the Head of Product Strategy at Accomplice. Today’s bonus episode is both timely and close to our hearts. Recently, there’s been a resurgence in the conversation around the idea of diversity and equality within organizations. As this topic rises into the public consciousness, we find that there are some very real business implications to this topic. We wanted to try and come at this loaded conversation with a clear business perspective, one that offers actionable steps to those trying to navigate a tough emotional subject. To do that, we spoke to someone who has become a vocal leader on the topic of workplace equality and how to make it a reality – not just a talking point.

[00:43] My name is Kate Heddleston. I’m the founder and CEO of a startup called Opsolutely. Our goal is to build the GitHub of deployments, and to make the software release cycle accessible to every member of an engineering team. I’ve also been a software engineer and an engineering manager, and I write a lot about how to build productive and inclusive teams.

[01:06] The word “diversity” gets thrown around quite a bit in today’s conversations, especially when we talk about technology companies in Silicon Valley. But not many people take the time to define what that word means to them. So what’s your definition of diversity?

[01:16] The word diversity has started to bother me in the last year because it doesn’t clearly eliminate the problem or the end goal. The way I’m thinking about it is not diversity and inclusivity, but equality and inclusivity. When we talk about diversity, one of my pet peeves is that the goal is equality. But in a system that treats people equally, you will see people represented at the rates that they are in society in that system.

[01:46] So diversity is the long tail of creating systems and creating engineering team is that treat people equally, and recognize that the world that we live in is unequal. Creating equal systems will take into account sexism, and racism, and all of the other different biases that exist. So people talk about diversity and they think of it just as, “oh, we need to get more women, we need to get more people of color.” But the way I think about it now is we need to create systems that treat people equally, then will have more women and people of color because part of the reason we don’t have them is we don’t treat them equally.

[02:22] So diversity is more of a characteristic of like a healthy system founded on equality, rather than the objective.

[02:30] Right. And it’s a great goal. It just doesn’t eliminate the problem.

[02:36] Why is diversity important to tech companies? And more specifically, how does having diverse teams really affect a company’s bottom line?

[02:44] When people talk about creating diverse teams, they know there’s a couple of different angles that they come at it from. So there is the business imperative, which is that a ton of research has shown that diverse teams are more effective than non-diverse teams. There’s another business imperative which is that we don’t actually have enough software developers to fill the jobs that are being created in the industry, so we need to look for talent everywhere. Then there’s a major third component, which is a moral imperative that we live in a modern age, and we live in a country that was founded on the idea that equality is important.

[03:22] You can argue the semantics of whether or not our founding fathers really wanted women and people of color to be truly involved equally, but equality is one of the major foundations of this country. And so creating equal systems in the workplace is an imperative unto itself.

[03:39] Absolutely. And I think that’s probably the one that people feel most obligated to respond to. Like “oh, of course we want equality”, you know what I mean? But they fail to kind of think about sort of even the business outcomes of diversity and equality in a meaningful way.

[03:56] Yeah. Having a diverse team and a diverse pool of talent will increase your company’s bottom line hugely. The side effect of creating a system that is more transparent and more fair is that you will retain all of your employees more. So all people are happier working in a system that is equal and transparent. That will include men, and that will include white people. And the gap between equality for people who are more privileged is obviously smaller, but everyone is happier and those environments. So not only will you have a larger pool of talent that you’re pulling from, not only will you have more diverse teams that will be more productive, but you will also retain all of your employees longer because they will be happier in an environment like that. There are so many business reasons why creating egalitarian work environments is great for your company.

[04:47] Do you feel like there’s a connection between diversity in organization and empathy? And how does that affect an organization’s product offerings, in your opinion?

[04:58] I do think that there is a connection between diversity and empathy. I think empathy is a bit of an overloaded term in the sense that people often seem to use the word as though it’s a solution to the problems. I think having empathy for people helps you believe what they’re saying and understand the problems that they’re bringing forward. I actually don’t think that everyone who is solving these problems needs to have incredibly high levels of empathy – which I realize is a strange thing to say in this day and age where empathy seems to be this golden term.

[05:29] The thing people really need to have in order to solve these problems is a belief that these problems are real. And from there, it can be fairly analytical. So if you believe that there is a salary wage gap between men and women, the solution is actually relatively analytical. You would collect data, check across different job functions, find what people are being paid, and you would try to come up with a system in which payments are transparent and based on people’s work output.

[05:57] Then, you would try to come up with a system that objectively and fairly assesses people’s work output in isn’t biased – and all of that work is actually highly analytical. So I think empathy is important, but I don’t necessarily think that empathy is the solution. I think empathy is what helps people understand the experiences other people are having, and helps them believe that these things are problems. But if someone wants to just believe what people say, that would actually be fantastic. Because helping to solve the problems is really what I think is most important for everyone to contribute to.

[06:31] My next big kick is, what I’m going to call it, data driven equality – advocating for many of these more rigorous data-driven processes. And there are a lot of other voices who have also been talking about this for a while, but companies can collect data, look at these things, and can actually see what their problems look like in numbers – and there are not enough companies that are doing that right now.

[06:54] So in your experience, what are some of the tenants and behaviors of a company that is truly diverse and founded on tenants of equality?

[07:03] Once you start to think about creating environments where people have equal access to opportunity and equal recognition for their work, you realize that a lot of this is process driven. It’s about creating a very transparent culture in which you have clear, well-defined processes for how things happen. And I know tech companies hate process. I actually wrote an entire blog post on this once because I’ve heard so many startups say “we don’t have process because process is this bad, cumbersome thing that big companies have.” I won’t go into too much depth here, but I wrote a blog post called “The Null Process” that’s basically about how you can’t have no process. Everything has process.

[07:43] What you want at your company is good process. Good process is clear, it’s transparent, it’s lightweight. You can clearly see the objective that it’s trying to solve. And it’s usually iterative. For example, if you have a system for an engineering team that is creating a pull request and reviewing code, that is a process. And every single engineering team has a process around this. It’s inescapable. So bad process in this case is one that’s undocumented. It’s one that not everyone can learn easily, or it’s one that even if it is documented, it’s perhaps too cumbersome. So if there’s too many steps, and it’s too hard to do when people can’t remember them all? Those are examples of how process can be bad – but on the flip side, you can have a really good process around doing code reviews, which is very simple and lightweight. Everyone agrees that this is how you work together. And people are ultimately very happy with the process. The goal is good process, and egalitarian teams and environments are companies that really work to create good process around things like pay structure, promotion structures, personal development, and how people build skills at the company. They have clearly defined roles. So really understanding what it means to be an engineer, what it means to be an engineering manager, what it means to be a technical lead – all so that you know that not only the work that you’re expected to do, but also the work that people in different roles are expected to do, and you can assess their success. All those things are really important in creating a workplace environment where people really clearly understand the work they do, the work others do, and how they can develop their career to move into a different role.

[09:21] Having a transparent pay structure, so people know how much they’re paid as compared to their peers, is really important. It’s really terrifying. But every company that has a transparent pay structure says that it’s incredibly good for the team’s health. And same thing with a promotion process: if people really clearly know how others are promoted, it’s much more egalitarian in terms of people having access to being promoted.

[09:46] Absolutely. And that’s a radical thing. I was trying to think back to organizations where I’ve worked and how difficult it is to understand the process. It always seems a little bit like a black box. So that’s a pretty radical thing that any organization could potentially do. They could be transparent about their pay structures. It’s something any organization could do.

[10:08] I want to be constructively critical right now because you are a founder yourself, so you’ve done this work, you know the obstacles. What do you feel like some of the biggest cop-out excuses that get thrown around for why companies “can’t do diversity or equality”? And what are some of your suggestions for overcoming those?

[10:28] For startups, I get that it’s hard. As a founder, I know that you go in with a certain set of skills that you’ve developed, and then you have to learn everything else in a crash course. But learning how to build egalitarian teams is probably not going to be something that you’re going to learn in a crash course – just to be totally frank. And that will be fine if people recognize that as a skill set, but they don’t. And so the industry thinks that somehow, magically great teams just happen because you had good intentions. Or that caring about having women is enough. And so they don’t hire someone with an expertise in that and put them in a leadership role. What they do is they kind of hire people that they’re comfortable with. So they need to hire their executive team, their CTO, their CEO, their VPs of engineering, but they’ll hire people who are the status quo.

[11:15] Just to get into some of the more tactical bits, you wrote a blog post called “How to Build Diverse Teams”, where you talked about how companies are only thinking about the hiring part of the pipeline. So, I wanted to ask you: what are some of the business and culture benefits to looking at the other end of the pipeline – the retention part of the pipeline – more closely?

[11:33] Gosh, the way companies approach this is just so head-in-the-sand. They’re like, “we’re going to look at hiring, we’re gonna invest in girls’ education!” And they completely missed this really, really important fact, which is that there used to be significantly more women in computing. When you think about it across the last generation or two, the number of women and the percentage of women has declined. The number of people in computing is so much larger now that I don’t know if the actual number has declined, but if all of the women in computing a generation or two ago had been really happy with their jobs, they would have told all of their sisters and their daughters to go into this field. That is actually largely how a lot of people get into the jobs that they get into. They have a role model who looks like them at some point or someone who says “hey, you should do this, this is a really amazing job.”

[12:19] That didn’t happen. In fact, if you read all of the research reports, women have been leaving this field for generations because of the way that they’re treated. And the shift actually happened in the 1950s or 60s. So computing used to be a woman’s thing. They thought it was going to be something for secretaries, so women did all the typing and they managed computers. And then at some point, it became a research thing – and research institutions were still largely male spaces. So academia was and still is this prestigious realm that was very male-dominated, and when that shift happened, it became very male-dominated. Then the gaming industry in the 80s also was another male-dominated push, I think, largely through advertising. So anyway, when people focus on hiring and education, they miss the fact that women have been going into this field for generations. The problem is not that they aren’t going into the field, it’s that we’re losing them. And every time we lose a woman, we actually lose the next generation’s women with her. If a happy woman in a field would have told their sisters and their daughters to go into this field, an unhappy woman is going to tell her sisters and daughters the exact opposite, which is “do not go into this field.” One of the reasons I am not a doctor is because my parents are both medical and they told me not to go into medicine. They’re like, “it’s a hard lifestyle and it can be pretty miserable,” and I was like, okay, well that doesn’t sound like a great lifestyle. So if we have women leaving this field, telling their sisters and telling their daughters that it’s not worth it, and that it’s a really hard life to be a woman in computer science, then we’re not just losing women from companies. We’re losing women and the next generation of women from the field, so they’re not even going to think about studying computer science.

[13:59] Even if we add more money to education, if all the women around them are like, “yeah, I don’t know,” it’s kind of a miserable field. So looking at retention is all about looking at how we keep the women that we have here. People know this when it comes to startup revenue, so growth for SAS companies is all about retention. If you are losing customers out the other end, you don’t have a great business model, and investors look at that. So start-up founders will know this. They know that growth is about retention. And the same thing is true for diversity. If we’re not retaining women and we are not retaining people of color, then we’re not just losing them – we’re losing the next generation along with them, which is a crazy consequence to think about.

[14:41] It’s also costly to not retain employees. Just in the short term, that’s very costly for organizations.

[14:46] It’s honestly expensive. To replace a skilled worker, it’s about two to four times their salary, depending on how specialized their skill set is. And a lot of programmers have pretty specialized skill sets.

[14:57] Right. So we’re talking about short-term and very long-term effects here that are incredibly costly. When I was reading that blog post, I was sort of taken aback because I was thinking, you don’t ever really hear about organizations thinking about the retention aspect. What’s one piece of actionable advice on this topic that you would give organizations that they can put to use right away?

[15:20] I’m coming up with something that I’m calling the PASS Score. This data driven equality kick that I’m on, I would like to do it myself. The actionable thing that companies can start doing right away is start tracking data in in four key categories: promotions, attrition, salaries, and safety. So promotions, attrition, and salaries are all very, very data driven. So just tracking data on what people are paid, what levels they’re at, when they’re promoted, and when they leave. Then trying to get really honest exit interviews from people. As a company, you can be willing to really hear what people have to say, and give people who are leaving the company a way to give feedback, even if it’s through some sort of third party interviewer going out to people who leave your company and doing interviews with them. The final category, safety, is a little bit more subjective, but I’m trying to come up with a system of surveys to assess physical safety as well as emotional and intellectual safety for any employee.

[16:23] So physical safety is “how much is my space respected at a company, physically?”, and then the other, kind of safety is “how comfortable do I feel speaking up in meetings? How welcome do I feel to share my opinion? How scared am I of being attacked by a teammate for being wrong?”; those types of things. Companies can start to come up with a score on these four major categories to score themselves, and to get a really good look at how equally they’re treating people, and how safe people feel across the company.

[16:55] That’s really rad. That’s like what you were talking about, about adding some rigor and some structure to this idea of what could be a very ideological conversation.

[17:07] What’s the line? “You are what you measure”? I can’t remember that comes from, but people say that all the time and I’m like, yep. And if you aren’t measuring anything that has to do with equality, then how could you possibly build an equal workplace?

[17:20] What’s something that you’re working on, either personally or professionally right now, that you’re excited about?

[17:25] I do a lot of reading and a lot of research on how to build more equal teams, because it’s largely my passion project in life. I’m in the middle of a blog post series that’s working through the pipeline backwards. So I have two posts out: an introduction to how to build diverse teams, and a blog post on retention. The next one coming up is about promotions, safety, and then finally hiring: the idea that if you have a workplace that tracks equality, is safe, and works to treat people equally, hiring women and people of color will be a lot easier, because you can just show them the numbers and say, “hey, we’re not just saying that we care about hiring women and people of color – we’re actually doing as much as we can to make sure that we treat people equally, regardless of what they look like on the outside.” Which, as a woman, I think will be really refreshing to hear. Where it’s like, “oh, if there is no promotion gap at this company, this means that if I come in and do good work, I’m more likely here to get recognized for that work than at some place that isn’t looking at how they promote people.” So that’s what I’m in the middle of writing – my blog is kateheddleston.com/blog.

[18:35] The idea of diversity within organizations is really about creating environments where products and companies can be more successful. As we’ve heard, diverse teams have better outcomes; and as Kate points out, equality is good for everyone. It also makes sense that when employees feel safe and heard, they do better work and feel more empowered to innovate. By leaving the conversation of diversity within business at a purely cultural level, we fail to recognize the profound impact diversity plays on an organization’s bottom line, employee costs, and product quality. Becoming an organization that values equality can be a systematic and data-driven pursuit, analytical and objective in nature, empowering organizations to make real strides in producing outcomes. Companies can begin simply by being transparent and using their internal data to identify areas for improvement. By putting structure around the way we measure quality, we can start to advance toward solutions that do the right thing for both your people and your products.

[19:34] Thanks again for joining us for today’s conversation. To see more content from the Accomplice team or leave us feedback, visit us at itsworthdoingright.com, or drop us an email at podcast@itsworthdoingright.com. And remember: if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.


Meet Your Host

Kenzie Haynes

As a daughter of a teacher and a technologist, Kenzie was encouraged to ask questions and build answers. Now, as an Experience Designer focused on digital products, she uses that same inquisitive skill to drive outcomes across industries. When she’s not podcasting, Kenzie helps businesses ask the most critical questions and build market-leading answers using design and technology.

Understanding new perspectives is her passion and probing topical conversations is her forté, she brings both to the mic at It’s Worth Doing Right.


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