In today’s SPMB Spotlight, we continue our conversation with CTO Jessica Popp, who leads the technology strategy and execution for Ada’s product roadmap. As a former SPMB client, I’ve had the pleasure of working with Jessica and I’m thrilled to share a window into her experience and, importantly, her opinions and values around Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI).
If you missed Part One of this interview, you can access it here.
In part two of this conversation, we cover:
- How to update your interview process
- How to keep DEI top of mind in hyper growth mode
- Key qualities for a great leader
What diversity challenges do you face within the engineering world?
Pipeline is a challenge we consistently face within engineering orgs. Questions that we are always asking when it comes to a hiring strategy: “Where is the pipeline?”; “Where are the STEM programs?”; and “Are underrepresented minorities going to school for computer science (CS) or Computer Information Systems (CIS) degrees?”. All of these questions typically result in the same unfortunate answer — we are not seeing a sustained increase in minority graduates. As a society we need to increase interest and support in getting through STEM programs, but we also need to look at non-traditional education paths.
How do you approach thinking outside of the box when it comes to a person’s education?
Many engineers working today never went to college. And there’s an even greater number of people in the world that could be engineers who never went to college — or who went to college studying something outside of CS. The question here is how do we get those people into engineering and product roles?
One of the best DEI initiatives I’ve ever seen was the Hatch Program at Twilio. They developed a program that helped people close the gap between a bootcamp program or non-traditional education path into becoming a full-time career engineer. If you bring someone from a bootcamp program and put them into an apprenticeship to close that gap of traditional education, that provides much needed support in closing the gap to a full-time career in engineering. The apprenticeship program embedded interns into a team and provided them with a clear set of expectations as well as mentorship to support the transition. Interns that were able to successfully complete the internship period transitioned into a FT role.
Where something like this will typically fail is when you have an apprenticeship where the expectations are not properly set, for either the intern or for the rest of the team, and if they are not given the time to provide mentorship as the intern comes up to speed. The key is to get the entire team on the same page around the program and, in the best case, volunteer to have an intern. As the leader you must adjust the team’s remit for a few months to allow for the learning and coaching that needs to take place. I find that with this adjustment teams rally to provide support; people want to coach and support others. The outcome is often an even more cohesive and productive team that has learned and grown together.
And when the mentorship is structured effectively, the more senior engineers have the opportunity to provide mentorship and direct influence in helping someone in their career move from apprentice to FT engineer. All of this is without mentioning that you have added a new full-time engineer to the team that brings additional diversity to the organization and makes a difference in the life and career trajectory of that intern.
In every org there is going to be ego. How do you deal with engineers who think that they are better than someone who has a bootcamp education versus a CS or other specialized degree?
That toxicity thought process should not enter your org in the first place. You need to be upfront by setting a culture that doesn’t tolerate ‘brilliant jerks’ — anyone in this group is equal to you no matter their background. As a team leader, it’s your prerogative and responsibility to ensure that the environment is an accepting one.
I truly believe that if you love your career, you want other people to have access to that same level of career satisfaction and happiness. If you look at most engineering job descriptions today they have evolved to stop listing a college degree as a core requirement, which is a great step forward. In engineering the motto I see and echo is, “who cares where you got your training. If you excelled at working on computers in your garage in high school…good for you, come on let’s play ball and build great products together.”
What are steps in the interview process that get overlooked?
Managers need to keep reqs open long enough to have a good number of URM candidates. You might not get the number you aimed for, but did you allow the space and time to get that number? Did you distribute the req through enough channels? Once you have diverse candidates to interview, what will their experience be like? Do you have diversity interviewers on your slate? Will your candidate be talking to other diverse team members or just five white guys?
One of the biggest areas that needs attention is the skills assessment phase of the interview. This typically happens during the coding interview phase. You normally have coding interviews and white board exercises. Research shows that a coding interview will lead to a large percentage of women dropping out of the interview process. Personally, I think we need to be much more inclusive in our approach to the assessment phase. Not everyone is comfortable or achieves well in the same way. The point is you are trying to assess the person’s ability to do the job, not whether they excel at test taking.
Instead, I recommend doing a whiteboard exercise. Asking questions like: Tell me about a system you designed? Or, give them a problem statement in advance that they can think about ahead of the interview and know that everyone is going to have a technical discussion about it. This brings the variety of different methodologies that someone uses to get to their answer. Managers should not be afraid of giving someone a head start. We want to analyze how they come to their answer and have a discussion to understand the breadth and depth of knowledge.
I don’t do this yet but in an ideal world you give candidates all three of the options to choose from for their interview. Like we discussed earlier (in part one), you have a rubric that determines if they are successful, and in return, the candidate is empowered to select the best way to showcase their skill.
What gets in the way of executives fully embracing DEI initiatives?
There are two types of executives — ones that deeply believe in DEI initiatives and ones that do not.
It really comes down to the pace of business. It takes more time to build a diverse team. Sometimes there are pressures in business to move at an accelerated pace that causes you to cut corners and hire as fast as you can. The question is how to balance pace of hiring and growth with the value that diversity brings to the organization. Historically, we all try to solve this with numbers – prove to me this is worthwhile. I don’t think we make real and permanent traction until we just truly understand in our beings that diversity is better for outcomes and better for our society and stop trying to solve this via metrics alone. This belief has to exist with the CEO and ELT to set a company culture that expects diversity as a core tenet.
How do you keep DEI top of mind when a company is in hyper growth mode?
It is much harder to work backwards. The ELT and CEO need to decide from the beginning what is most important to them. Is scaling fast and not caring so much about a diverse culture your priority? If so, express that clearly and own the viewpoint. I think every leader should ask themselves, what frameworks will I use during this growth phase? Do I want to take 20% longer to hire a diverse team and then accept the 15% project risk for doing this? Present this as your plan. It’s much easier to get buy-in around a plan that demonstrates the tradeoffs. The tradeoffs often become more palatable, or at the very least are clearly understood for the purpose of making the tradeoff.
There is absolutely a tipping point. If you are early stage VC-backed you may not have the time luxury to take the risks. But know that it will be very hard to claw back from this in the future. You will need to be prepared to fight for both business and team culture as one, which will require some short- and mid-term tradeoffs to be made.
What are some of the key leadership qualities that you think matter most?
- Leading in the service of others, rather than in pursuit of accruing power or taking control.
- Humility allows you to admit mistakes, take ownership, embrace differences, allow ideas to emerge, and have an open mind. The opposite — arrogance, which allows you to assume you’re right, close your mind to new ideas and stop learning, and this is exactly what your teams will do in response.
- A clear vision & operating principles. Setting a vision gives your team direction. Equally as important is clarifying how to successfully operate within the organization to achieve the vision. Confusion in any form decreases effectiveness of teams.
At SPMB, we are committed to fostering and stimulating a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive leadership ecosystem across the industries, growth stages, and geographies in which we work to better serve our clients and their organizations.