Diversity in Tech Creates Better Tech Products
This week, Google announced the firing of an engineer who wrote and distributed an internal memo criticizing the company’s diversity hiring efforts. The document caused an uproar among Google employees, sparking debate over the value of diversity hiring within the tech industry. The controversy isn’t shocking, as tech companies, especially those based in Silicon Valley, have been widely criticized for their low proportion of female and minority creative tech talent (coders, designers, engineers, developers, etc) in the past. In 2015, Google officially confirmed for the first time that their employees are in fact mostly white and mostly male.
The Value of Diversity in Tech: A Personal Lesson
Technology adoption rates, especially the use of social media, are climbing among nearly every demographic, including race, gender and income level. Gone are the days when a project manager could anticipate their tech product being utilized only by one single demographic group.
Given my past experience working for a mostly white and all-male staffed software company, I argue that diversity in tech is critically important. Why? Because as tech users become more diverse, they will increasingly seek out relatable tech products. As I will explain, projects developed by creatives lacking a personal connection with its content and audience can be a recipe for failure.
Let’s go back in time to 2012. The company I worked for at the time had many Mohawk Native American clients. After building an iPhone app for a local, Native-owned promotions company, we were hired to develop a high-end marketing website for their Canadian parent company. My project managers pitched a website that included a series of Native American-themed interactive online games and tasked me with designing the games and their concept art.
However, I’m not a game developer. I’m also not Native American.
So, there I was. Fresh out of school and initially hired as a web designer, I was now designing video games (which I had never done) based on the Mohawk culture (which I knew nothing about). Of course, I did my research. The concept art included your stereotypical Native objects, artifacts and activities like bows and arrows, snowshoes, longhouses, corn-husk dolls, lacrosse, snow snakes, clans, etc.
I gave it an honest and respectful attempt, but I was totally unqualified and out of my league. A 20-something Polish American with no connections to Mohawk history or culture probably was not the right person for the job. My project managers delivered the concept art to the client. To my quiet relief, the whole idea was passed over in favor of a more traditional marketing website.
Regardless, I learned a valuable lesson about diversity in tech years before it became a controversy in the industry. Tech products, like websites, mobile apps and online content, are highly targeted towards specific demographics, which are becoming more and more diverse. Since tech users engage with content they can relate to, not including more diverse populations in the creative process will increasingly become a risky and irresponsible business model within the tech industry. As a designer and developer, I’m a strong advocate for the tech user. If you’re designing a product for women, female creatives should be involved in its development. If you’re developing a product that depicts the stories of a minority group, members of that group should be represented in the creative team.
Not far from Silicon Valley, Hollywood is experiencing its own diversity-related controversy. Unlike Silicon Valley, however, Hollywood is learning a quite obvious lesson that’s slowly changing the industry, while creating new opportunities for both diverse creative talent and audiences alike.
How HBO and Hollywood are Addressing Creative Diversity
HBO recently announced a new alternative-history drama called Confederate. The series takes place in an alternate timeline in which slavery in the United States was never abolished and still exists as a modern institution. Backlash against Confederate was swift. Much of the criticism was aimed at the show’s (white and male) creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, showrunners for the HBO hit drama Game of Thrones.
Some critics omit or disregard the fact that Benioff and Weiss aren’t the show’s only writers and producers. Well before the series was announced, both men approached Malcolm Spellman and Nichelle Tramble Spellman, two critically-acclaimed African American television writers/executive producers, to lend their talent to the series.
In an interview with Vulture.com, Malcolm says…
[Benioff and Weiss] “knew they needed black voices on it… For me and Nichelle, it’s deeply personal because we are the offspring of this history. We deal with it directly and have for our entire lives. We deal with it in Hollywood, we deal with it in the real world when we’re dealing with friends and family members. And I think Nichelle and I both felt a sense of urgency in trying to find a way to support a discussion that is percolating but isn’t happening enough. As people of color and minorities in general are starting to get a voice, I think there’s a duty to force this discussion.”
When asked her thoughts on the negative press the announcement received and if she believed their intentions were being misread, Nichelle answered…
“I think that the four of us are very thoughtful, very serious, and not flip about what we are getting into in any way. What I’ve done in the past, what Malcolm has done in the past, what the D.B.’s have done in the past, proves that.”
The Spellmans bring their own unique voices, experience and perspective to Confederate. Despite the controversy, they see value in the conversations their art will force. Will the Spellman’s creative involvement silence the controversy around Confederate? Absolutely not. April Reign, activist and creator of 2016’s #OscarsSoWhite social media campaign, is pressuring HBO is cancel the series.
But the addition of the accomplished husband and wife duo, whose credits include network TV hits like The Good Wife and Empire, is just one example of how Hollywood is at last trying to fix its diversity problem.
“Patrons are starting to notice who is writing, directing and starring in movies, and they are using whatever avenue they have to be vocal about it,” says Melissa Silverstein, the founder and publisher of Women and Hollywood.
One of those avenues is spending power, and agencies are taking note: All three of Hollywood’s top talent agencies have initiatives to either encourage diverse talent both in front of and behind camera or at the agencies, themselves.
“People want to see their world reflected back to them, and the creative community will be enriched by meeting that demand,” says David Kramer, the managing director of UTA. “It’s also correlated to a business mandate. We believe we’re stronger creatively and economically for making the most of these expanding opportunities.”
Defining Diversity in My Business
Like the Spellmans, I believe diversity is reflected in experience, not always technical or academic, but real-world experience. I haven’t lived the life of a Native American, so it’s no wonder I failed at designing games based on the Mohawk culture. That’s why I believe those at the top of tech organizations need to start thinking more creatively when it comes to hiring and managing their creative tech talent. My project managers could have hired a Native American consultant to work with me on the concept art. Without the resources to hire another full-time designer, they also could have contract-hired a Native American designer to develop artwork while I wrote the code.
I realize hindsight is 20/20 and we all learn from our own mistakes. I’ll never forget the stress brought on by that project, knowing I was trying to tell a story I wasn’t equipped to tell. I still think of ways I could have spoken up but I was young and naive. So, I stayed silent.
Five years later and running my own business, I approach diversity differently. Earlier this year, I took a meeting with a potential client with an idea for a lifestyle website and mobile app for college-age women. I explained it was critical that he, as a college-age man, receive creative input from those in his target audience before proceeding. Without it, he was acting on assumptions and stereotypes, placing the entire success of his product in jeopardy.
Could Giving Credit to Creative Tech Talent Provide a Solution?
Critics of diverse hiring in tech frequently argue that “there aren’t enough women or people of color studying computer science.” That certainly was true at one time, but computer classes are now diversifying.
Ten years ago only 18 percent of computer science exam takers were women. This year that figure rose to 27…It’s the same for young people of color: for nearly a decade, the proportion of young POCs who took the AP Computer Science exam stalled at 12 to 13 percent. But in 2016, 15 percent of exam takers were young people of color — then that went up to 20 percent in 2017.
The #OscarsSoWhite campaign exposed many ugly truths in Hollywood and how its industry represents the voices of female and minority populations within its products. Most importantly, it exposed a point that should (finally) start to resonate in the tech industry: women, people of color and the LGBT community consume media, lots of it, and they want their stories told. Thanks in part to the tech industry, there is now both a hungry market and a pipeline to distribute products aimed at these audiences.
Naturally, diverse representation is more transparent in Hollywood than in tech. The on-screen talent, writers, producers, directors and crew are all credited publicly for their work. The tech industry, by comparison, doesn’t offer it’s users such transparency.
(Quick, name an employee at Facebook not named Mark Zuckerberg or Sheryl Sandberg. I’ll wait…)
Imagine how different the tech industry workforce would be if, for example, each home page or login/logout screen included a link to an easily accessible “Hollywood-style credit roll”. Each creative person (designer, engineer, developer etc.) that worked on the current version of the product would get public credit for their work. Website or app users could get to know the brains behind the software they use everyday and it might even encourage younger users of all demographics to enter the tech industry as adults. Bringing creative tech talent out of the shadows could drastically change Silicon Valley’s by-default secretive nature and somewhat monolithic hiring practices.
While I don’t think new legislation requiring this level of transparency is the answer, I believe this could be a small, yet positive step forward for an industry that, despite it’s repeated boasting about being able to changing the world, can’t solve an issue that’s plagued it’s HR departments for years.
The importance of diversity hiring in the tech industry will continue to be debated. One point will always remain true – the tech industry develops products for highly targeted audiences to promote frequent engagement. As tech users diversify and grow in numbers, they will increasingly seek out diverse tech products they can relate to.
It’s 2017. Opposition to diverse hiring practices can be called many things, but I see it very simply as bad business. Hollywood learned this lesson the hard way and is slowly but surely adapting its content strategies to satisfy new audiences. The tech industry should take notice and respond with action because, now more then ever with the recent events at Google, their employees and customers are starting to paying attention.