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.

Thoughts on effective communication

Early in my career I worked with an incredible network engineer. This was back when networking was a bigger part of my job, and I learned a lot from him[1]. But he was not an effective communicator. Any time we were in a meeting and he was presenting a topic I cared about, I needed to stand up, get closer to the front of the room, and focus exclusively on what he was saying, forcing myself to pay attention.

Because he just shared facts.

Page after page, slide after slide, minute after agonizing hour of facts.

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This was before I knew about the value of asking questions, so I took the burden on myself, because I cared. Most people who could have gotten value from his expertise simply tuned out, or fell asleep[2].

Although this colleague of days gone by will always stand out as the exemplar of ineffective communication, I still see people every day who communicate by sharing facts without context, and without taking their audience into consideration.

Here are a bunch of things that I know and now you know them too!

Yeah, nah. When communication is simply a dump of facts, an opportunity is lost.

If you find yourself falling into this pattern of communication, please pause and ask yourself these questions:

  1. Who is my audience?
  2. What is my goal for communicating with this audience?
  3. What does my audience care about in general – what motivates them?
  4. Why will my audience care about what I am telling them?
  5. How will my communication motivate my audience to take action to meet my goal?

Or, as a colleague summed it up nicely in a chat:

“Target audience and value proposition. FFS.”[3]

You may be looking at these questions and thinking “that sounds like a lot of work.” I’d like to respond to that excellent-but-false thought in two ways.

First, asking yourself these questions is simply a habit to develop. It will take a little time at the beginning, but over time it becomes second nature.[4]

Second, choosing to not ask yourself these questions is like choosing the low bidder when picking a home improvement contractor. You save a little up-front, but you end up needing to re-do the work more quickly, and no one is ever happy with the results.

These questions apply to any form of communication – email, presentations and conference talks, personal  conversations, you name it.

For lower-risk, lower-value communication like a chat with a coworker you might ask yourself these questions during a conversation, as a safety check to help you keep on track. For a high-risk, high-value communication like a business review or product pitch or large presentation, you might ask yourself these questions many times over weeks or months as you define and refine the narrative you want to drive.

For the past year or so, my great-grandboss was an amazing leader named Lorraine. One of the things I loved about working with Lorraine was how she structured large-audience emails. Any time she sent out a newsletter or other message that would reach hundreds of people, she consistently included these sections at the top of the mail:

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  1. Big bold header so you know instantly what you’re looking at
  2. tl;dr section so you can read in 2 or 3 sentences the most important things in the mail
  3. Read this if section so you know if you’re the target audience for the mail

Every time I see one of these emails I am impressed. Lorraine is a communication wizard, guru, ninja, and I am in awe of her effortless-seeming skills.[5]

But… these effortless results probably come from years of mindful practice. As with any skill, you only get the results if you put in the effort. Why not start today?

P.S. While this post was written and waiting to be published, someone mentioned to me the Minto Pyramid Principle. I’d heard of it before, but I never actually knew what it was called, and now that I do know I’ve done some additional reading on it. The Minto Pyramid Principle is a communication tool that take a similar approach to the “know your audience” approach I’ve presented above. Unlike my random blog post, the Minto Pyramid Principle has stood the test of time – it’s been around since the 70s, and there are lots of different resources including books and articles out there to support it with training and information. You should check it out too.


[1] 20+ years later I am still reminded regularly that 90% of communication failures are caused by problems in the physical layer. Please do not throw sausage pizza away.

[2] Yes, literally fell asleep in work meetings. It was a running joke.

[3] Full disclosure: I added the FFS, not him. But it fits.

[4] Think back to when you were first learning the Farfalla di Ferro, and how you needed to think about every cut, every step, and every transition – and how today you could do it with your eyes closed.

[5] Lorraine is no longer in my reporting chain after a recent re-org, and you can be certain that I sent her a “thank you” message during the transition period. Some things are too awesome to not acknowledge explicitly.

Data Culture: The Importance of Community

The last two videos  in our series on building a data culture covered different aspects of  how business and IT stakeholders can partner and collaborate to achieve the goals of the data culture. One video focused on the roles and responsibilities of each group, and one focused on the fact that you can’t treat all data as equal. Each of these videos builds on the series introduction, where we presented core concepts about cultures in general, and data culture in particular.

Today’s video takes a closer look at where much of that business/IT collaboration takes place – in a community.

Having a common community space – virtual, physical, or both – where your data culture can thrive is an important factor in determining success. In my work with global enterprise Power BI customers, when I hear about increasing usage and business value, I invariably hear about a vibrant, active community. When I hear about a central BI team or a business group that is struggling, and I ask about a community, I usually hear that this is something they want to do, but never seem to get around to prioritizing.

Community is important.[1]

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A successful data culture lets IT do what IT does well, and enables business to focus on solving their problems themselves… but sometimes folks on both sides of this partnership need help. Where do they find it, and who provides that help?

This is where the community comes in. A successful community brings together people with questions and people with the answer to these questions. A successful community recognizes and motivates people who share their knowledge, and encourages people to increase their own knowledge and to share it as well.

Unfortunately, many organizations overlook this vital aspect of the data culture. It’s not really something IT traditionally owns, and it’s not really something business can run on their own, and sometimes it falls through the cracks[2] because it’s not part of how organizations think about solving problems.

If you’re part of your organization’s journey to build and grow a data culture and you’re not making the progress you want, look more closely at how you’re running your community. If you look online you’ll find lots of resources that can give you inspiration and ideas, anything from community-building ideas for educators[3] to tips for creating a corporate community of practice.


[1] Really important. Really really.

[2] This is a pattern you will likely notice in other complex problem spaces as well: the most interesting challenges come not within a problem domain, but at the overlap or intersection of related problem domains. If you haven’t noticed it already, I suspect you’ll start to notice it now. That’s the value (or curse) of reading the footnotes.

[3] You may be surprised at how many of these tips are applicable to the workplace as well. Or you may not be surprised, since some workplaces feel a lot like middle school sometimes…