Tech Inclusion SF 2017

Recently I was lucky enough to get to attend Tech Inclusion in San Fransisco, a conference focused on Diversity and Inclusion work in tech. The company I am interning with was a sponsor of the conference so I was able to go for free (shoutout to my manager for encouraging me to sign up).

My overall impressions of the conference were positive. The first thing I noticed walking into the conference centre was the diversity of the attendees. Working in tech spaces means that I spend most of my time surrounded by white people, and men. At Tech Inclusion, I saw so many women, people of color and, people with visible disabilities (in attendance and presenting) that I was actually kind of floored. Objectively, it is obviously a very low bar for a conference about diversity and inclusion to have an inclusive and diverse attendee and speaker list. However, tech has disappointed me so consistently for 3 years that this was actually a really powerful experience.

I definitely learned a lot by attending the panels, talks and workshops. A lot of the practical information I gained seemed geared towards managers, so I’m going to try to summarize the important points and then share this post with people who can put it into action.

This blog post runs a little long, so if you want, you can scroll to the bottom “tl;dr” section.

Day One

On the first day of the conference I spent a lot of time attending talks on the “Disability in Tech” track of the conference, as well as some talks about tech apprenticeships.

Opening Panel

The day kicked off with a panel titled Driving Inclusion and Innovation in Workplace Culture. The panel was comprised of the heads of D&I at three major tech companies. Candi Castleberry Singleton, at Twitter, Danny Allen at SAP, and Candice Morgan at Pinterest.

Throughout all the discussions on the panel, a theme that came up a lot was that diversity and inclusion is everyone’s job which I think is said a lot and rarely taken seriously. When the panelists discussed their experiences as heads of D&I, they said the hardest thing was getting managers at all levels to contribute to D&I work. The expectation is very often that hiring a D&I officer gives other executives, and managers at all levels, a free pass to pawn off all work to this person.

This is clearly a ridiculous expectation, because it both makes the job of a D&I officer extremely difficult and ripe for burnout, and causes any change they create to be short-term and ineffective.

The main takeaway for me was that companies need to work much harder on holding management at all levels accountable for Diversity and Inclusion work, so that policies are enforced and effective.

Apprenticeship Talks

I attended one talk and one panel discussing apprenticeships in tech. The talk was given by Vivek Nair, who bootstrapped Twilio’s apprenticeship program. At Twilio, they are running an apprenticeship program that is comprised of a 6 month training program followed by a decision on whether candidates will be hired. The main idea of apprenticeship programs are that tech companies pull in individuals with diverse experiential backgrounds, and train them for a career at tech. These efforts are geared specifically to those who do not have formal computer science/technology degrees. After this general introduction Vivek explained the structure and steps taken in Twilio’s apprenticeship program.

Vivek’s talk was followed by a panel entitled Tech Apprenticeship: The Solution for Diversity and Talent Gaps. The panel turned out to be very specifically about an apprenticeship non-profit called Apprenti. The panelists discussed the success of the Apprenti program at Amazon and Avo. The most important part of these programs, according to the panelists, was the effective mentorship they provided to the apprentices. One prevailing idea in tech is that people should be able to figure things out on their own (see the snarky LMGTFY). The panelists argued against this mindset, explaining that for an apprenticeship program to be successful, we have to accept that people will need assisstance to learn.

Although I think the idea of an apprenticeship program to bring people from outside of the tech world could be effective in diversifying our spaces, I still found myself fairly skeptical.

A narrative being pushed at this panel, and the conference overall, was the idea that the problems that have been exacerbated by the tech industry’s rapid and dangerous growth, including the wage gap, could be solved by “bringing more people in”. I think this is a really dangerous idea. Tech is not going to save the world (at least not alone). I think the fact that apprenticeships can bring in people with more diverse backgrounds is definitely positive. However, I don’t think that this should be presented as a “solution” to the wage gap. As people who work in tech we need to focus on working sustainably and responsibly with governments, non-profits and people. Spoiler: right now we are not.

Another concern that I had was that apprenticeships may not actually bring in the demographic diversity that we hope. People of color are disproportionately punished in the tech industry for not having formal degrees. Without a shift in perceptions and culture, systemic discrimination will affect apprenticeship programs as much as regular hiring processes.

Disability in Tech Track

On this track I attended a talk by Emily Beitiks from the Longmore Institute on Disability. Dr. Beitiks made a lot of really interesting points about the way that people with disabilities have to navigate the world of tech employment, and she gave easy to implement best practices that companies can use to be more inclusive.

The tech industry can actually be a very good fit for many people with disabilities because of the kind of flexibility inherent in the positions. Working from home, project based deadlines and relaxed work environments all lend themselves to inclusivity. However, some aspects of working in tech can be very difficult to deal with if you are a person with a disability. One example I had not considered was that living in a tech hub such as SF is very expensive, and while tech employees can afford it, it’s not easy for people with disabilities to afford aid workers as they usually cannot afford to live in these areas.

Dr. Beitiks also mentioned that tech really needs to hire people with disabilities, because as with all forms of diversity, a more diverse team will lead to a more interesting and generally useful product. A lot of diversity-in-tech discourse leaves out discussing being inclusive for people with disabilities.

Some best practices that can and should be implemented at tech companies to be more inclusive for people with disabilities:

  • Be extremely clear about accommodations during the hiring process and afterwards. Besides the legally-required-copy- paste text, also include langauge specifying what kind of accommodations the company specifically has implemented already.
  • Plan for accommodations ahead of time. If the only option an interviewee has is to whiteboard code on a board that can’t be reached from their wheelchair, you could have planned better.
  • Facilitate education for the workforce in more interesting ways besides regular newhire training. An example that Dr. Beitiks gave was a film festival.
  • Accomodations will not be one-size-fits-all. Have a well advertised and reasonable process for requesting new accommodations, and be prepared to change your policies as new accommodations become necessary.

Something else that was not mentioned explicitly by Dr. Beitiks but that I noticed she was doing, was having descriptive text in her notes for all images used in her slides. She would read these descriptions out loud during her talk, and it is definitely a practice that I plan to implement in any future talks I give.

Often the actual perspectives of people with disabilities are ignored or not considered, and Dr. Beitik has been working to change this. You can visit the Longmore Institute’s website to learn more about her work.

Lightning Talks

At the end of day one I attended two lightning talks. One was by Leanne Pittsford, the founder of Lesbians Who Tech. She described how Lesbians Who Tech started, and what lessons Silicon Valley can learn from their practices. Leanne said a lot of useful things, but the talk was also really entertaining so I didn’t take great notes. One statement that really struck me as useful was that language used in diversity and inclusion spaces can be specific and inclusive without being discriminatory. Lesbians Who Tech is an organization dedicated specifically to increasing the visibility of queer women in technology, and their language around that is specific, but this does not mean that the organization does not work with allies to help achieve their goals.

The second lightning talk I attended was by Blaze Starkey, who is Lakota, living and working at Standing Rock, a part of the Lakota nation. Blaze discussed indigenous rights and digital colonialism in his talk. I thought that Blaze’s talk was extremely important, as it was the only talk on indigenous rights at the conference, and I have basically never heard settler colonialism discussed as part of the conversation about diversity and inclusion in tech. Blaze gave some very concrete examples of the way that settler colonialism manifests itself in the tech industry:

  • There is no keyboard for typing the Lakota language on phones
  • Facebook does not consider many indigenous names to be “real” and does not allow people to use them on their platform
  • Indigenous land on Google Maps shows up as vague gray blobs, difficult to find and not easy to identify separate soveriegn lands

Day Two

On the second day of the conference I attended more talks about disability in tech, as well as two really great opening panels.

Technology and Policy

The first panel of the day was about Technology, Policy and Inclusion. The panel was comprised of Charlotte Burros, Jennifer Anastasoff, Scott Wiener and Kelly Jenkins-Pultz. One of the most interesting discussions that took place with the panel was about tech’s responsibility to the public sector. Jennifer Anastasoff works for the US Digital Service, and gave examples of the ways that the USDS has been able to use tech to make government services more impactful. After a revamp of the interface used by veterans to sign up for health benefits, thousands more veterans were able to get access to healthcare than previously. What I really took away from this panel was that the resources and skills we have in the tech industry can be used to a accomplish really amazing things for such a large portion of the population. As it stands, the majority of the benefits and products created by the tech industry only affect the richest populations of the world. If the skills of the tech industry were brought in to work with governments and the public sector, we would be able to create change for more people in a much more sustainable way.

Latinx in Tech

This panel was comprised of Soledad Toledano, Maica Gil, Carolian Huaranca Mendoza, Lilibeth Gangas, Rocio Medina van Nierop and Joe Vasquez, five latinx leaders in tech. The panel discussed each of their projects, and how they are encouraging growth for other latinx people in tech. It was really great to hear about their experiences, and each of their stories were inspiring.

Disability in Tech Track

On this track I attended two talks. The first was by José Velasco, a co-lead for the Autism at Work program at SAP. The talk discussed the importance of neurodiversity in the workplace, and the success that SAP has had with building a recruitment program specific to hiring people with autism.

At SAP the program has worked out very well, and some of the people hired through the program have become top technical contributors on their team. I think the success of the program points to a need in the industry for more programs like this, focused on hiring for neurodiversity. Like discussions about disability in tech, neurodiversity is often left out of the conversation.

The second talk I attended on this track was about invisible disabilities in the workplace by Liz Travis Allen. Liz’s talk was very personal, and she shared her story of working in tech while also dealing with an invisible disability. Some things that Liz shared that can be helpful for those with invisible disabilities:

  • Give people the benefit of the doubt. Invisible disabilities are just that - invisible. You will often not be able to comprehend the scope at which people may have different needs, and not being believed makes life extremely difficult for them.
  • Try to provide accommodations up front. It is extremely expensive in terms of social capital for people with disabilities to ask for accommodations, so being able to see that systems are already in place for accommodations can make a big difference
  • Check in with your teammates regularly. It is emotionally taxing for people with invisible disabilities to be upfront about when they are going through a difficult time. If others are checking in on them they feel more open to asking for support.

Tl;dr

I spent the majority of the conference focused on talks about disability in tech diversity. I learned a lot of important strategies for building inclusive workspaces, and was able to hear perspectives that I had not yet encountered.

I also got to see people who were underrepresented minorities speak publicly about their experiences and successes in tech which was really empowering and inspiring.

The most important message of the conference for me was that tech suffers from a lack of empathy. This isn’t a particularly revolutionary idea to me, but I think it bears repeating, over and over, loudly. The majority of the industry exists in a bubble, and does not consider the way that tech is having an impact on the world. For an industry growing as rapidly as tech is, empathy is essential. We need to build products and teams that are inclusive and diverse and accessible, and the first step to achieving this is building empathy.