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Diversity in tech a ‘people problem’ in need of a management solution

Hint: It starts with getting uncomfortable.

By Meredith Somers  |  February 26, 2018

black in technology

From left: Roderic Morris of Drift, Amal Hussein, Nana Essilfie-Conduah, and Adam Taylor. Photo: Mimi Phan

Why It Matters

Managers can have a direct hand in solving diversity problems, but only if they’re willing to leave their comfort zones.

Tech companies make products to improve lives and connect users, but when it comes to promoting diversity, that's where their innovation wanes.

During the Feb. 22 Black in Tech and Entrepreneurship panel, hosted by the MIT Sloan Coders Club, five engineers and entrepreneurs shared experiences and offered suggestions on what tech companies can do to diversify their workforces and diminish bias.

"It is a people problem," said Adam Taylor, founder of news app Black. "When you think about the people that are on your teams professionally, how would you hire someone to work with you every day for however long they're with your company? You tend to hire people you're comfortable with."

The problem, Taylor continued, is that the people who have hiring authority don't have good experiences with people of color, don't know people of color, or don't realize they could have a lot in common with someone of color.

"I think it's all about having more managers in these organizations with experience with people of color, whether it is indeed a person of color that is a manager, or some training or something, that allows people to feel more comfortable with people that don't look like you or may have different experiences," Taylor said.

It doesn't help that technology isn't broadening those experiences or opinions, said Chidubem Ezeaka, MEng '19, co-founder and chief product engineer for bar management software company BevSpot. As platforms like Facebook and Twitter improve their algorithms, they're able to get news more easily to users, and also news that users would like or want to read.

"If I scroll through my Facebook feed, all I see are articles that show me what I already agree with," Ezeaka said. "So then I start to get this perception that's the only thing out there, and over time people become more entrenched in their own opinions and believe their own stuff more."

The panel agreed that bias comes down to managers' backgrounds and experience with people of color, and the way to fight it is being willing to get out of your comfort zone.

"That's how I think you know you're being inclusive," said Nana Essilfie-Conduah, SDM '19, a software engineer at Microsoft. "Ask the questions. Find out what's important to that person, be aware of their surroundings."

It's OK for someone to admit they don't fully understand what another person is going through, Essilfie-Conduah said. What it comes down to is human nature and being willing to have uncomfortable conversations, and telling someone you believe their story and want to hear it.

The same goes for protecting everyone in your office and promoting an environment that's safe from aggression and racism. Amal Hussein, senior open web engineer at consulting firm Bocoup, said the diversity problem is tricky to solve because it's a perpetual issue: The people who would make an office more diverse (whether through their skin color, gender, disability, or lifestyle) don't stick around in what can be an "abrasive" environment in tech development. Hussein said for managers it's about setting a code of conduct for their team.

"As a manager you are there to create an inclusive, safe environment for your team, and if there is not a zero-tolerance policy, that's on you," Hussein said. "The main thing is you yourself have to become a beacon of inclusivity and openness. You be that person on the team and everyone else will follow suit."