Representation and visibility

tl;dr: We need more representation in tech, in part because career opportunities come from kicking ass where people can see you, and that comes from knowing that you belong, and that knowing comes from seeing people like you already belonging.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Representation is a complex topic. Being a straight, white, cisgender, American man, I don’t have a lot of personal experiences with the lack of representation. But I do have one, and it involves swords.

Back in 2004 a friend of mine sent me a copy of the first edition of The Swordsman’s Companion by Guy Windsor. At this  point I had no idea that people were recreating medieval martial arts and fighting with steel weapons[1], so I read through the book and eventually sold it at a yard sale. I was interesting, and I loved the idea of being able to do what the people in the book were doing, but deep inside I knew that people like me didn’t actually do things like that. I was wrong, of course, but at the time the totality of my life experience told me I was right, and I simply didn’t question this knowledge.[2] Ten years passed before this opportunity presented itself again – ten years in which I could have been studying, practicing, competing, improving.

Now take this almost-trivial example and apply it to your career. What if you had never seen someone like yourself in a job role? How would you know that this was something that you could do, that this was a path that was open for you to travel?

When I look back on my career in IT, I can see tipping points – places where everything changed, and my life was forever improved. All but one of them (we’ll come back to this one) happened because someone saw me kicking ass and said “I want you to come kick ass with me.”

  • In 1996 when Dave saw me excelling as an applications trainer and offered me the opportunity to become a technical trainer and MCT.
  • In 1997 when Jeff saw me teaching Windows NT networking and offered me a job with a much higher salary and responsibilities that included consulting and application development.
  • In 2003 when Carolyn offered me a full-time contract as I was leaving my then-collapsing employer and starting my own consultancy, and when I simply didn’t know how I would pay my mortgage in six months, or pay the hospital bills for my impending second child.
  • In 2005 when Corey saw me teaching a beta SQL Server 2005 course, and said “you need to come work at TechEd this year.”
  • In 2007 when I quoted Ted almost double my then-standard daily rate to get him to quit nagging me about working for him, and he instantly agreed and asked how soon I could start.
  • In 2008 when Ken and Dave told Shakil that I was the only person who could do the job he needed done, and he ended up offering me my first job at Microsoft.
  • In 2011 when Matt learned I was looking for a new role and said “we have an open PM position on the SSIS team – let me introduce you to the hiring manager so you can see if you want to apply.”
  • In 2017 when Kasper kept subtly mentioning how much he loved the team he was on, until I finally figured out he wanted me to join it.

This is my story, and I’m including names both to say “thank you” and to make it real – these are the people who enabled me to be who I am today, where I am today, doing what I love so much today. I’ve heard variations on this story from many of my colleagues and peers, but this one is mine.

Please don’t get me wrong – I don’t believe anyone was giving me any handouts. At every step along the way I was doing the work – I was working hard, pushing, trying, struggling to kick as much ass as I possibly could. I was really good, because I had studied and practiced and put in the long hours to learn and improve – but without these people seeing and recognizing my hard work, the opportunities simply would not have existed for me. At any of these tipping points, if I hadn’t been where these people could see me, the moment would have passed, and the opportunity would have been lost. Each opportunity was dependent on the opportunities that came before it – each one depended on my being where I was, being visible and being seen.

This brings me back to that very first tipping point. In 1996 I saw a classified ad[3] for a job teaching people how to use Microsoft Windows and Office, and I applied for it.

And this brings us back to representation.

I applied for that first job because I could see myself in the role – I knew that I could do it. I had no difficulty picturing my 20-something Christian white male self in that role, and neither did the folks doing the hiring.[4]

But what if I was female, or Black, or transgender? What if I looked at an industry that was overwhelmingly male and overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly cis, and knew that I didn’t belong, because there was no one like me doing things like that? Would I have opened that very first door, on which every later door depended?

I can’t answer that, but looking at the still-white and still-male faces around me every day in tech, I have every reason to believe that many candidates would see this lack of representation and infer from it a lack of opportunity – and never take that first step. And for those who do take the first steps I only need to look around to see the barriers that the tech industry put in place for women and minorities, letting them know every day that they’re not welcome.

Back in July I shared a post that referenced an amazing webcast by UX Designer Jasmine Orange on “Designing for the Ten Percent.” In that post the link was buried in a footnote, so I want to call it out here explicitly – if you made it this far into my post, you really want to watch this webcast. Jasmine’s premise[5] is that by designing for underrepresented users/communities/audiences/people you end up making better products for everyone.

I believe the same is true of tech in general – by building organizations, teams, and cultures that are welcoming to people who have been traditionally excluded, we build organizations, teams, and cultures that are better and more welcoming for people who have never been excluded. Diverse teams are stronger, more resilient, more agile, and more productive. Diverse cultures thrive and grow where monocultures collapse and die.

Why do I care? Does any of this even affect me directly?

Yes, it does.

On one hand, being part of a diverse team means that I will be more likely to be part of a successful team, with the financial rewards that come with success. On the other hand, I feel more welcome and more at home as part of a diverse team.

Still, it’s not about me, is it?

If you’re considering a role in tech and you’re not sure if you should apply for a job, do it. Even if you don’t feel like you’re a perfect fit, or don’t believe you meet every single requirement in the job posting. The white guys are going to apply because they know they below. You belong too, even if you don’t know it yet.

If you’re coming into tech from an underrepresented minority, you not only belong, you’re vitally needed. You bring something that no one else can bring – your background, your experiences, your perspectives – all the lessons you learned the hard way that an all-male, all-white team might pay an expensive consultant to tell them about after they’ve failed enough times.

Not every employer will recognize this value, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there, or that it’s not real. Some employers will judge every candidate against the “tech bro ideal” and will try to make every hire fit into this mold.

If you’re an employer, don’t be this guy. If you’re an employer, recognize the strategic value of having a diverse team. And recognize that this diverse team won’t happen on its own. Support organizations like Black Girls Code, because this is where your hiring pipeline will come from. Value the diverse perspectives that are already represented on your team, and promote them. Give authority and power to people who will hire diverse candidates. Give authority and power to people who look like the people you’re trying to recruit.

And if you’re working in tech today, please be be the person who notices. When you see someone kicking ass – doing an amazing job and demonstrating talent and potential to do more – be the person who says something. Even if you can’t see yourself in that person. Even if they don’t look like you and the rest of your team.

Representation is important, because it helps more people know that they can open that first door. Visibility is important, because it provides the opportunity for change and growth – visibility is what opens the second door, and the third, and….

Ok…

I started off writing a completely different post, but this is the one that wanted to come out today. At some point in the next few weeks[6] I’ll follow up with a post on community and how community is a key technique for increasing your visibility, but this post has gotten long enough, and then some.

Thanks for sticking with me – I’d love to hear what you think.


[1] I learned in 2014 when I first saw this video and fell in love.

[2] Underlying this false knowledge was likely the experience of growing up rural and poor, and not having a lot of opportunities as a child, or many experiences as an adult. It wasn’t until 2005 when I first travelled to Europe for a Manowar concert that my mindset started to change, but that’s probably not relevant to this post.

[3] Classified ads are what we called Craigslist before it was LinkedIn. Something like that.

[4] At this point I feel compelled to mention my friend Kathy, who actually got the job I applied for. I didn’t get the job, so I ended up taking a job as a bank teller. When the training center had another opening a few weeks later they called me back to ask if I was still available, and I said yes. True story. Hi Kathy!

[5] More accurately, this is my interpretation of Jasmine’s premise.

[6] LOL @ me, and LOL @ you if you haven’t learned by now not to trust any predictions of future output on my part. We should both know better by now.

One thought on “Representation and visibility

  1. Pingback: Data Culture: Training for the Community of Practice – BI Polar

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